Italian Water Movement and the Politics of the Commons

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* Article: Carrozza, C. and Fantini, E. 2016. The Italian water movement and the politics of the commons. Water Alternatives 9(1): 99-119



"The article contributes to the debate on the commons as a political strategy to counter the privatisation of water services by focusing on the experience of the Italian water movement. It addresses the question: how has the notion of the commons – popularly associated with the Global South – been understood, adopted and translated into practice by social movements in a European country like Italy? We identify three different understandings of the commons coexisting within the Italian water movement – emphasising universality, locality and participation. We describe the political claims and the initiatives informed by these understandings, and the actors which promoted them. Our analysis underlines that the polysemy of the notion of the commons, its complementarity with the 'human right to water' and its overlapping with the idea of 'public' not only proved to be effective in the Italian case, but also posed challenges when it came to translate the notion of the commons into specific governance and management frameworks. The politics of the commons defines the space where these dynamics unfold: it is more articulated than a mere rhetorical reference to the commons, but less homogeneous and coherent than the idea of a 'commons movement'."


"The relevance and originality of the Italian case lies in three main factors. First, the Italian water movement represents one of the most inclusive and resilient mobilisations in contemporary Italy (Carrozza and Fantini, 2013). It articulated its struggle in terms of water as human right and commons, framing the fight against water privatisation as a paradigmatic battle for democracy. 'You write it water, you read it democracy' was the movement’s motto during the 2011 national referendum. The referendum brought water issues to the attention of the wider public opinion and it main legacy has been a renovated emphasis on the notion of the commons in Italian politics. Second, the reference to the commons seems a peculiarity of the Italian movement compared to other European countries, where anti-privatisation struggles have been mainly framed in terms of re-municipalisation – such as in France or Germany (Kishimoto et al., 2015) and the human right to water, as in the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) for the Right to Water launched in 2013 by the European Federation of Public Service Unions (Bieler, 2015). Third, thanks to the symbolic value of water and to the referendum victory, the notion of the commons has inspired other social movements, standing out as the dominant way to express grievances on a plurality of heterogeneous issues (labour, knowledge, internet, culture, education, soil, occupation of theatres and other public spaces) deemed under attack or enclosure by neoliberal governance. Activists advanced the idea of 'democracy of the commons' (Bersani, 2011) and 'water commons movement' (Fattori, 2013) to promote a broader alliance between these different mobilisations. Scholars have described the emerging 'commons movement in Italy' (Mattei, 2013), and "the constituent" nature of "the Italian struggle for the commons" (Bailey and Mattei, 2013), considering "the commons as an alternative to capitalism" (Ricoveri, 2011)

By referring to these phenomena as 'the politics of the commons' we focus on the political processes behind making water and other resources common. These processes are saturated with broader political ideas, agendas, repertoires of contentions and cultural representations. They are driven by political contingency, shaped by actors' subjectivities and in turn (re)shaping the movement’s identity. Our Italian case study offers theoretical and practical insights relevant to the debate on the appropriateness of opposing privatisation of water services in the name of 'water as human right and commons' (Bakker, 2007; Mirosa and Harris, 2012; Perera, 2015; Sultana and Loftus, 2015).

Our thesis is that, in Italy, the notion of the commons by virtue of its polysemy has proven effective in legitimising and holding together three different political claims. These claims are informed by different understandings of water as a commons, which emphasise the dimensions of universality, locality and participation in water governance. The reference to the commons is not a mere rhetoric or a narrative expedient, since it practically contributed to influencing the trajectory of Italian water policy – in particular with the referendum – and to shaping the movement’s identity. At the same time, these claims are more fluid than coherent political strategies or explicit agendas. They share several key elements – the refusal of water privatisation and commodification, a complementary reference to water as human right and commons, the overlapping and blurring between the commons and the public – but they are also permeated by contradictory meanings. We highlight some of the tensions arising from this polysemy, which also contributed to the difficulties of translating the notion of the commons into an effective public governance framework in the context of capital- and knowledgeintensive industrial water systems. Thus rather than establishing a unitary and wholly coherent 'water commons movement', the reference to the commons informs and legitimises a plurality of political claims, encompassed by a more elusive 'politics of the commons'."

More information

  • see also the article: How to kill the demos: the water struggle in Italy. By Andrea Muehlebach. ROAR Magazine, January 18, 2016: "The politics of water in Italy starkly reveals the crisis of legitimacy that is rocking governments and compels us to ask how democracy can be regained".