Capital has identified water as an important opportunity for profitable investment. Whether it is the privatisation of public water infrastructure, the expansion of the bottled water industry, the construction of dams for energy generation or the free expropriation of water for mineral extractivism or large-scale agriculture, private capital has poured into water in large quantities. And yet, water is also an area where resistance to capitalist exploitation has been most successful as reflected in a wave of re-municipalisations of water services across the world (Kishimoto, Lobina and Petitjean 2015). How can we make sense of these struggles against water commodification? In our recent article Water Grabbing, Capitalist Accumulation and Resistance in the Global Labour Journal, we develop a conceptual-methodological approach to this question.
The purpose of this article is to reflect on how we can conceptualise the multiple types of struggles over water. Through a historical materialist engagement with social reproduction theorists, post-colonial interventions and eco-socialism, we argue that capitalist reproduction not only depends on the exploitation of wage labour but also the expropriation of natures and people along different forms of oppression. By focussing on historical processes and the intertwined dynamics necessary for capitalist reproduction, we reveal the internal relations of these struggles to each other and global capitalism.
In more detail, we first discuss a theory of capitalism that incorporates ongoing expropriation in addition to exploitation as key to capitalist accumulation. In other words, in order to fully understand capitalist accumulation, we need to conceptualise capitalism as always depending on the exploitation of wage labour and the expropriation of nature and people. Capitalist accumulation is always based on exploitation-cum-expropriation. Hence, in a second step, we conceptualise how the terrain of class struggle (and thus struggling subjects) can be broadened by understanding that capitalist reproduction depends on the exploitation of wage labour as well as gendered and racial forms of oppression and the expropriation of cheap nature.
Third, we then discuss how we can methodologically compare these struggles and what is revealed when these various instances of struggles against water grabbing are related to each other as well as the wider capitalist global political economy. Drawing on the method of incorporated comparison (McMichael 1990), individual struggles over water grabbing are not compared as bounded, separate instances. Rather we compare them in the way that they relate to the overall global political economy, co-constituting each other as well as the global system. While the latter informs individual struggles, the global system too is therefore being constituted and thus in a constant process of change.
Finally, by putting forward a conceptual and methodological guide for how to approach water struggles relationally, we can point to the anti-systemic potential of these struggles. We argue that the diversity of protesters apparent in struggles against water grabbing captures internally related and mediated forms of class struggle, where the terrain of class struggle is inclusive of the whole social factory. In struggles against water privatisation in Europe, for example, one of the key contributions of the Italian water movement was the conception of water as a commons, which is jointly governed, jointly enjoyed and jointly preserved for future generations. It is thus a way of organising water management, which goes beyond the dichotomy of private versus public. Equally, while the resistance by Indigenous people against water grabbing and here especially the construction of oil pipelines endangering their water supply is clearly directed against capitalist accumulation, it also carries the seeds for an alternative beyond capitalism. Indigenous knowledge and post-colonial interventions assert that alternative cosmologies have always and continue to exist, running counter to narratives that there is no alternative.
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Author: Andreas Bieler
Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy in the School of Politics and International Relations and Director of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) at the University of Nottingham, UK. He is author of Global Capitalism, Global War, Global Crisis (together with Adam David Morton) (Cambridge University Press, 2018) and Fighting for Water: Resisting Privatization in Europe (Zed Books/Bloomsbury, 2021).
Author: Madelaine Moore
Dr. Madelaine Moore is a post-doctoral researcher at Bielefeld University, Germany. Her research develops a political economy from below by exploring water governance and the emergence of eco-social policies through Marxist and Feminist theory. Her PhD, which explored struggles over the expropriation of water in Australia and Ireland, won the Jörg Huffschmid Award and she was a Rosa Luxemburg Foundation scholar. Her monograph A Time of Reproductive Unrest will be coming out in early 2023 with Manchester University Press in the Progress in Political Economy book series.