How to kill the demos: the water struggle in Italy

  • January 18, 2016

City & Commons

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.

On November 28, 2015, water activists from the Southern Italian region of Campania staged a massive protest in the city of Naples. Some 5,000 water activists and environmentalists, trade unionists and workers from Naples’ water works protested a recently passed regional law that aims to centralize water management and set the stage for water privatization.

The demonstration was one in several that occurred in the last few years. Previous demonstrations had been organized against an (only nominally) public water company that manages water services in 76 Campanian municipalities and that had made water prices soar and water-shut offs proliferate. What was striking about this protest was not only the presence of Naples’ mayor Luigi de Magistris but of more than thirty mayors walking shoulder to shoulder with protesters. The latter were part of a network of mayors that had been formed in 2013 to protest privatization and to underscore their commitment to the public and participatory management of water.

One by one, the mayors walked, donning their green, white and red mayoral sashes and carrying banners emblazoned with municipal coats of arms. Potent symbols of popular sovereignty and self-determination, these banners were beautifully embroidered with golden crowns — crowns that mimic ancient city walls and thus serve as reminders not only of local sovereignty but of the municipality’s duty to protect and care for its citizens.

Why have protests involving mayors proliferated in Italy in recent years? What do they tell us about law and democracy in an era of intense de-democratization? Protesting mayors are a symptom of radical shifts in the landscape of political action and meaning. They provocatively pose the question of who represents the demos and how politics can still be crafted under conditions where the parameters of political action have radically contracted and where the law itself is an instrument of dispossession.

What protesting mayors posit is a demos opposed to the privatized public proposed from above, thus pitting one more “proximate” part of the state against those parts that many Italians consider to be distant because beholden to the logics of market rule.

The water movement thus offers insight not only into the profound de-democratization of the Italian public sphere, but also into the remaining, sharply circumscribed pathways for political action still available from below. It also reveals, as political philosopher Wendy Brown recently put it, that democracy is not a permanent achievement of the West. It can in fact be lost.


In 2011, Italians rejected the privatization of water through a national referendum initiated by one of the largest social coalitions ever seen in the country. Local water committees, unions, lawyers and the Catholic church protested not only the compulsive competitive tendering and privatization of all publicly controlled local services, including water supply systems, but also the 7 percent return of investment legally guaranteed to private investors. Both had been sealed without public consultation by the Italian parliament’s 2009 Ronchi decree.

In a historically unprecedented move, 27 million Italians — 95 percent percent of Italians who voted that day — rejected the commodification of water and insisted on it being a bene comune (a commons) that ought to be governed democratically and outside of the logic of profit.

Not only did an absolute majority of Italians speak out for water as a commons. The referendum also made visible the will of the demos. Speaking in unison against the empty noise of marketization and commodification, the popular sovereign used the instrument of the referendum to catapult itself onto the national stage.

All of this happened at a moment characterized by a massive government sellout of assets: state-owned companies including electricity, gas, railroads, telecommunications and highways had been sold on the market, liquidated, or partially privatized. By 2008, Italy ranked second worldwide after Great Britain in terms of the value generated through privatized assets. It was from within this national context that the demos, with the help of sorella acqua (“sister water,” a Franciscan term many Italians use to signal our human kinship with water) spoke out to say: enough.


Four years after the referendum, it has become clear that both European and Italian political elites have no intention of honoring its results. This is the case even though Italian law prescribes that abrogative referenda become law once passed. Instead, the revolution from below was met by a counter-revolution from above — one that has sought to kill the demos and the powerful message it conveyed.

Almost immediately, both the European Central Bank and the European Commission urged Italy to fully liberalize local public services (including water) through large-scale privatization. Both ignored the results of the referendum that had shaken Italy only two months before. The Italian government responded by tasking a National Authority for Energy, Gas, and Water Services (AEEG) with the calculation of water prices. Italian water activists in turn protested AEEG’s complex mathematical formula, arguing that it simply reintroduced guaranteed profits for water companies by calculating the water price with an identical method but using new terminology.

The government further passed a slew of emergency law decrees with almost no parliamentary input — as political scientist Adriano Cozzolino has shown, around 51 since 2008, of which around 24 since 2011 — some of which directly impacted the future of water. Framed within the well-known neoliberal trope of efficiency but also, increasingly, of urgency and emergency, these laws and the velocity with which they have been passed show how the overstimulated climate of debt-fueled financial markets can translate into a manic delirium of law-making.

First, the Berlusconi government of the time approved a law (Decree 138/2011) which reintroduced the privatization of local public services, including water — a law immediately ruled constitutionally illegitimate by Italy’s Supreme Court because it ignored the results of the referendum. More recently and more subtly, the Renzi government passed a series of laws that, while not obliging local municipalities to privatize, instead created the fiscal and administrative conditions that achieve water privatization through different means.

The National Forum for Water as Commons has argued that a 2015 Stability Law continues a trend begun by the EU Stability Pact of balanced budgets, which was applied to local governments after the referendum and which in effect meant that austerity-starved municipalities would not be able to buy back private shares in water even if they wished to do so. This law further undercuts re-municipalization by obliging municipalities to prioritize private management companies in the allocation of public funds and by incentivizing the selling of whatever municipal water shares still exist.

Municipalities that insist on keeping their water public are obliged to set aside a sum of money that equals that of planned investments every three years — an absurd demand in an age of austerity. The law further forbids that municipalities use profits made from the sale of shares to re-acquire private shares with the goal of re-municipalization.

Neoliberal Authoritarianism

There is more. A 2014 Unblock Italy (Sblocca Italia) law inaugurated a round of administrative re-centralization that differs starkly from the local “freedoms” unleashed by neoliberal reforms 25 years ago under the aegis of decentralization, devolution and subsidiarity. Italy has thus seen the rise of a highly authoritarian neoliberal political culture when it comes to the governance of natural resources, setting the stage for a water grab on the part of the state and its private allies.

A 1994 Law had promoted the decentralized management of water by creating water districts (ATO) governed by assemblies of mayors. These mayors were responsible for the planning and licensing of water concessions, the management of European funds and the appointment of members of the board of directors and the president of the ATO. ATOs therefore had some measure of democratic legitimacy.

Twenty years later, Sblocca Italia seeks to radically constrain the role of mayors. In Campania, the regional president de Luca (officially deemed unfit for public office by Italy’s parliamentary anti-mafia commission), just passed a law that reduces the power of ATOs by grouping them under one single entity (Ente Idrico Campano) that will take control of all springs, all strategic planning and all regional, national and European funds, and determine price as well as concessions. Water activists fear that this neoliberal political authoritarianism (“The region is acting like a little king,” as I heard someone tellingly put it) will be matched by the rise of large water corporations that aim to compete on the global market.

The November demonstration, like those held before, was therefore a moment in which mayors were able to protest their loss of local sovereignty. There, they lamented the impending loss of their capacity to influence water prices, stop water shut-offs, or even decide what kinds of infrastructural work is performed in their territories.

With this new authoritarianism comes the police. The only large city that has re-municipalized and democratized its water works is Napoli ABC (the Naples water company “Napoli, Water as Commons”). But in the last ten months alone, Napoli ABC was systematically harassed from above: multiple visits by the tax police, the Internal Revenue Services, the public prosecutor and the national anti-corruption authority. Yet not a single accusation against Napoli ABC was proven in court and all charges of corruption and financial mismanagement were dropped.

The rise of rebel mayors

One of the most important legacies of the referendum was a legion of water committees that remain all over the Italian territory and that have acquired deep insight into the workings of neoliberalization and the processes of de-democratization that have accompanied it.

In Campania, the water committees of Castellammare di Stabia, Casalnuovo, Nocera Inferiore, Nocera Superiore, Roccapiemonte and many others represent the remnants of the demos that continues to hold politicians accountable, often at the local level through recourse to mayors — the most “proximate” representatives of the state and the most easily held accountable since they come from and live within the communities they represent.

Many mayors have been an important resource for the movement since the referendum. They continue to be so as they have publicly walked with protesting citizens. This is why the rise of protesting mayors is so significant and unusual: their radicalization is a symptom in a body politic where democracy is sick.

Mayors, especially in smaller towns, have of course always been complex mediators between the powers above and pressures from below. But in a context of intense de-democratization, pressures on mayors have built up and their roles have increasingly become fraught with contradiction. Brought to their knees by austerity policies and thus unable to provide for their constituencies — an incapacity exacerbated in the impoverished communities of the Italian South where infrastructures and services exist in growing states of utter disrepair — mayors are both the tail-end of a de-democratized political system and political pressure points of last resort for local citizens.

Make no mistake: many mayors were dragged kicking and screaming into supporting the re-municipalization of water, but that is precisely the point. These are political representatives who can still be held accountable (and forced or cajoled) into honoring the referendum. This is why the side-lining of mayors is such a tragedy. It dispossesses local communities of one of the few powers still available to them: that of holding their mayors accountable.

One way that mayors have sought to assert their sovereignty is through the issuance of ordinances that stop the water shut-offs currently rocking the country (illegal in France and Great Britain, water shut-offs are legal in Italy). But a slew of recent decisions in regional administrative courts in Lazio, home to Italy’s capital, Rome, have ruled that mayors do not have this right — a devastating blow to the little maneuvering space left to mayors in struggles over water. Activists fear that these rulings will have a cascading effect on the capacity of Italy’s mayors to provide even the one most crucial substance that humans need to survive: water.

The politics of water in Italy thus starkly reveals a key crisis of our times – the crisis of legitimacy that is rocking governments and that forces us to pose the question of where political sovereignty and law and lawfulness lie. It compels us to ask how we have come to a point where democracy stands opposed to the economy and how democracy, understood as the rule of the people, can be regained.

Andrea Muehlebach

Andrea Muehlebach is a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, currently conducting research on water struggles in Europe.

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