Ciudad Furor: the public, the commons and the democratisation of the city

This is the third in a series of blog posts taken from our talk opening the Ciudad Furor film festival, organised by the Latin American Solidarity Centre in November 2014. In previous posts we examine the neoliberalisation of urban services as a process involving both the acceleration and expansion of the ‘market’ in controlling urban services as well as profound transformation of the state as it is penetrated by the market’s logic. In this post, we examine resistance to these processes, focusing on that resistance reshapes and re-imagines the very notion of ‘the public’.

Defending and reclaiming the ‘public good’ from the state
Perhaps the best known case of resistance to the privatization of water services came in 2000, in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The year before, 1999, the Municipal Water & Sewage Service (SEMAPA) was sold to a consortium of private companies led by the U.S. multi-national Bechtel. This was only the latest in a series of reforms following the ‘structural adjustment’ programs of the W.B. and IMF. After the privatization of SEMAPA, the citizens of Cochabamba faced excessive rate increases for purchasing water, at times up to 200% of the existing rate, and the water committees that formerly managed water distribution at the local level were forced to buy licenses to access water resources they had previously managed themselves. The popular resistance movement that arose in response was led by the Coalition for the Defense of Water & Life.

Closer to home and more recently, the Italian people fought and won a constitutional battle against the proposed privatization of water services. In 2010, President Berlusconi passed laws that opened the door to future privatization of water services, but a mass mobilization of people across Italy first forced the government to have a referendum on whether the laws should be repealed and then an overwhelming turn out and victory of 96% of voters voting to retain collective ownership of water. Water thus became enshrined in the constitution as a ‘common good’ and thus not something that could be bought or sold by any particular government.

Interestingly, a similar process is now underway in Ireland in the protest against Irish Water. The 100,000 who came out on the streets a few weeks ago were not only protesting against another ‘austerity tax’ but against the entity that is Irish Water, an entity that does not resemble a ‘public’ service and thus does not represent the ‘public’ good. In more concrete terms, a campaign has begun to gather signatures for a petition, and possibly demand a referendum, so that the constitution be changed from state ownership of water resources to public ownership of people, thereby vesting control over water in the people rather than any particular government. This campaign is being pursued by the Right2Water Campaign but it is also being supported by the Green Party.

In both Bolivia and Italy, and many other examples, what we can see is people mobilizing to reclaim or defend the ‘common’ or ‘public’ good from their own governments. People were saying that the state had no right to privatize something that belongs to everyone. In other words, the struggle is not just against private actors and privatization but against the state itself that is no longer seen to be protecting the ‘public’ good.

Constructing the commons
As well as organizing to resist processes of privatization, these struggles are also part of a wider movement that is not only defending and reclaiming the ‘public’ or ‘common’ good, but also constructing new forms of collective, self-organized management of essential services, such as healthcare, housing and water.

These initiatives have tended to take place in countries where the imposition of austerity policies has been harshest or where existing state services were inadequate or missing altogether.

Greece is the obvious example, where the disasters of crisis and austerity have forced many people to develop their own networks of social and material support. For example, a network of 40 or more solidarity health clinics run on a volunteer basis by doctors, nurses and other health-workers have developed across Greece. These clinics offer free health care five days a week to anyone who needs it. In Thessaloniki, the solidarity clinic has treated 12,000 patients over the past five years. It does this by raising funds for medicine and equipment through donations and fundraisers, such as hosting children’s music concerts in local schools.

In Spain over half a million households have been evicted. The PAH movement which has emerged in response has been hugely successful – they have even managed to bring legislation before parliament providing for the transfer of housing held by banks to social housing. 80% of the Spanish population support the PAH. And yet the main parties have blocked the legislation, demonstrating their prioritization of the financial system above all else. In response, the PAH have been occupying empty housing owned by banks and transforming it into social housing – but this is not social housing provided and managed by the state. It is provided and managed by the residents themselves. It is an example of direct and democratic self-management of urban services and urban resources.

Public-Commons Partnerships: Re-Municipalization
Above we have seen two forms of resistance to the neoliberalization of urban services. On one hand, the more familiar form of mass mobilization as people reclaim and defend the ‘public’ good against a state that has become trapped in a logic of competition and financial austerity, and on the other, more localized forms of everyday politics as communities build and take over the direct management of their own resources and needs – such as health care, water and housing. What we want to emphasize however is the connection between these two forms and the importance of reclaiming, defending and constructing anew the way we make decisions over and manage vital resources and services.

One form this has taken is in the movement towards the ‘re-municipalization‘ of urban services. What this generally refers to is not only the taking back of urban services that had previously been privatized but taking them back in order to manage them in a more democratic, equitable and sustainable manner.

We have already mentioned the successful water struggle in Cochabamba. One of the results of that struggle was that the water committees in the Southern part of the city became more visible. These water committees, and the water systems they managed, were not part of the Municipal Water System and yet they are responsible for supplying water to about half the urban population. These committees are important for the communities because they create a space in which problems relating to water, but also other issues, can be raised and discussed. They are a form of direct political participation and empowerment that are now working with the Municipal Water Service in order to gain access to resources and expertise to develop their water service. What emerges is a new democratic form and scale that seeks to work with other levels of government.

While there is not really an equivalent to the water committees in Bolivia here in Ireland, or other European countries, it is possible to see similar efforts to democratize the management of urban services from below. In Greece, in response to the proposed privatization of the water service in Thessaloniki a campaign began that sought to bring together citizens in the city to buy the water utility themselves. This was called the 136 Initiative referring to the cost per person required to buy the utility outright according to the asking price given by the Greek government. While this campaign has not been successful, one of the outcomes was the development of community-based water ‘unions’ or assemblies where citizens came together to discuss and learn about their water system, what they could do about it and in the process developed forms of decision-making and self-organization. This has been repeated in other parts of Greece as the movement towards reclaiming the water services from private companies continues.

One of the tactics that has already been mentioned in terms of these grass-roots movements has been the referendum. In Italy the referendum was officially sanctioned and binding, but elsewhere, where the legal systems are different, referendums have been an important way of bringing people together to start talking about the kinds of services they would like, how they might be managed and for whom.

This was the case in Berlin, for example, where the Berliner Energietisch (BE) organized a referendum initiative to remunicipalize the electricity grid and create a public, democratic energy utility in Berlin, Germany. BE’s slogan “ecological-social-democratic” names the three key principles behind the campaign to buy back the city’s electricity grid from the current owner, a subsidiary of Swedish corporatized public energy company Vattenfall. The coalition, whose name can be roughly translated as Berlin Energy Roundtable, started to form in the summer of 2011 and now unites some 40 civil society groups with support from four of five parties in the Berlin state parliament. After successfully completing the first round of signature collection, the coalition has until June 10, 2013 to collect 200,000 signatures in order to get the initiative voted into law at the September parliamentary elections.

The BE campaign is asking city residents to “reclaim” Berlin energy, in parallel with other citizen initiatives such as the successful anti-privatization referendum led by Berliner Wassertisch to re-municipalize the water service and the S-Bahn Roundtable initiative on regional transportation which fought against the privatization of the S-Bahn or tram system in Berlin.


So what have we tried to say in this series of posts? To begin with, we have the context in which global urbanization is taking place in a neoliberal context characterised by the withdrawal and privatization of state services and the marketisation of everything. But, we have stressed that it is more than this. The problem is not just too much market and not enough state. The problem is also that the state has become an enabler of the market, the market has become embedded in the state and, we might even say that today the state itself is not what could be called a ‘public institution’.

This context enables us to understand what is at stake in the urban struggles we’ve touched on today. In different ways they respond to neoliberalism and the ‘crisis of the public’. We have suggested three ways in which this is happening.

1) People are fighting privatization by refusing to recognise the state as the owner of public services and resources, instead claiming that they belong to the people.
2) Where public services are gone, people are organising themselves, locally and democratically, to provide the services they need. This included the provision of healthcare in the Greek example and the provision of housing in the Spanish example, but there are millions of others.
3) But there are also forms which kind of bring together both elements of the first two. These are struggles which both defend or demand the public provision of services while at the same time vesting ownership of services in the people and getting people involved in the democratic control of services.


One comment

  1. […] Republished from the provisional university in Ireland: […]

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