Resistance Against Corporate-Driven Globalization

This part explores the role of direct democracy, which provides tools for resistance and transformation, by looking at the use that is and has been made of it. Struggles against privatization of water in different continents show how direct-democratic tools of varying quality operate as means of resistance against corporate power. Looking through the lense of their common features the diverse struggles against privatizations appear as parts of an emerging global movement aiming to prevent and reverse the enclosure of commons in opposition to predatory corporations and their ancillary politicians.

From Uruguay …

Direct Democracy provides people with tools to fight for their rights and interests without resort to violence. Where it exists, it has been used to resist and revert the privatization agenda of the neoliberal state and corporations. Take for example the struggles for water worldwide: in Uruguay, Germany and Italy citizens’ initiatives and citizen-initiated referendums (I&R) have been used successfully against the privatization of water. Whereas in Bolivia, where I&R did not exist, water privatization was stopped by an uprising of the people in Cochabamba. The “Water War” (2000) marked the beginning of a revolution: formerly excluded indigenous groups took power, their leader Evo Morales was elected president (2005) and in 2009 a completely new constitution went into effect. The awakening of indigenous people, their revolt against the enclosures of the commons, has reached global visibility first in Chiapas with the Zapatistas and then in Bolivia and Ecuador, but it began already in the 1980s.

Uruguay is the only Latin American country that has a long tradition of efficiently run direct democracy. This changes the relation between rulers and ruled in a qualitative way: politicians have no monopoly on lawmaking, they share this power with the citizens. In other words, instead of taking to the streets, like in Bolivia, Uruguay’s citizens can fight privatization of public goods and services by means of citizen initiatives and citizen-initiated referendums, i.e. direct democracy. The final decision about privatization is made not by the government, but by the voters at the ballot box.

The privatization of the state telephone company was stopped by means of a citizen-initiated referendum on 13 December 1992. This first successful referendum against a far-reaching privatization law was well noticed worldwide. It was one of the first democratic responses against a free-market economic policy that was perceived as detrimental to the interests of the people. The country’s power establishment had reached an agreement on making the privatization law, but a majority of the voters decided otherwise.

In 2002 the privatization of the state-owned mobile phone operator was prevented by the citizens and in 2003 a referendum prevented the breaking of the monopoly on import, export and refinement of oil of the state-owned ANCAP company. At that time the struggle for water was already under way. This time a citizens’ initiative was used to propose a change of constitution, not a citizen-initiated referendum to repeal a law. One reason for this was the fear, that international trade agreements (ALCA) would override national law in case of conflict. The citizens’ initiative demanded that access to drinking water and sanitation should be enshrined in the constitution as a human right, and that all the resources of water extraction, production and commercialisation should be maintained by the state. In October 2004 a clear majority voted in favour of the initiative. After the vote the transnational corporations eventually left the country. Access to safe water and sanitation should be guaranteed to the whole population, based on sustainability and public participation in the planning, management and control of the water resources.

To Germany …

In Berlin, the decision to privatize water services was taken at the end of the 1990s, approximately at the same time as in Uruguay and Bolivia. In the background there were public debts and the well-known myth that private companies are more efficient than public companies. In addition also personal interests of insiders and lobbying of politicians by the water business played a role. As is usual in privatization projects, decision-making was neither public nor transparent, and all public influence was considered as potentially detrimental. The privatization contract between the city of Berlin and the water companies, like in the case of Cochabamba, guaranteed the private corporations a minimum yearly profit. The contract was not disclosed and only a very restricted number of politicians had access to it.1

In response to the negative consequences of water privatization a citizens’ initiative was born: “No more secret contracts – we want our water back”. This initiative was seen as a first step towards the final aim to transfer not only the ownership of water back into the hands of the citizens, but also the management and operation of water supply. The initiative process started in 2007 and the popular vote took place on 13 February 2011. Those in power had tried everything to stop the initiative: first rejection, then preemption, and finally silence instead of a campaign, hoping that not enough people would go to vote. But this time the quorum trap did not work, the approval quorum was fulfilled and 98.2 percent of the votes were given in favour of the proposed law. Such an overwhelming majority is a clear indication that there exists a considerable gap between people and government/politicians.2

Why did the citizens resort to direct democracy only in 2007 and not earlier? The main reason was probably that before its reform in 2006 the citizens’ initiative in the city state of Berlin (Land Berlin) was exemplary for a tool that could not be used due to high hurdles: a large number of signatures, a short time for signature collection, no free collection allowed, a long list of important issues that could not be the subject of a citizens’ initiative. To crown it, the legal design was garnished with a high turnout quorum (50 percent of the electorate) and a high approval quorum (35 percent of the electorate).

In Berlin, on 3 November 2014 another citizens’ initiative on a commons was decided at the ballot box. The proposal was to de-privatize and democratize Berlin’s power supply, and to make it ecologically more sound. There was a clear majority of 83 per cent YES -votes, but the initiative failed because it narrowly missed the required approval quorum. The reform in 2006 made the citizens’ initiative more feasible than before but not yet user-friendly, and burdened it with a high approval quorum of 25 percent. From experience we know that quorums kill democracy. For example in Italy, where a 50 percent turnout quorum is required, all referendums between 1995 and 2010 fell into the quorum trap and therefore were not valid. The struggle to improve the legal design of direct democracy in Berlin and in Italy and elsewhere continues.

… To Italy and Europe

In Italy, too, there is a broad movement that wants to protect water from marketization and commodification by declaring it a human right. In Uruguay this was achieved directly by means of a citizens’ initiative. In Italy there is only an agenda setting initiative but no citizens’ initiative. Therefore people in Italy resorted to a referendum to abrogate legislation on water privatization, and they used the agenda setting initiative to invite the parliament to make the appropriate legislation for the protection of water.

On June 12-13, 2011 four referendums were held, two of them against water privatization. Their success, it was hoped, would open the door to protect water as a common good and human right (referendum 1). In addition, the supply of water and sewage services should not be provided for profit (referendum 2). The Italian government made every effort to undermine the referendums and to keep the turnout below the required quorum of 50 percent. But this time all attempts to boycott and obstruct the referendum process failed and the referendums were approved by the voters and valid (turnout quorum fulfilled).3

However, winning the vote is not enough, to make victory complete the decision must also be put into practice. After the vote starts the battle for implementation. Italian authorities and governments are known for their propensity to disregard the results of referendums. This time was no exception, only a few months after the referendum vote Silvio Berlusconi’s government presented proposals to privatize water and all the governments that came after the fall of Berlusconi kept doing the same.

Water struggles are fought mainly on the local and state level, but they also have a European and global dimension. For example, in the global arena little FAME plays against big WWF, social movements oppose market-liberal ideas of a green economy. In the European arena team Water Makes Money plays against team Water is a Human Right.4 On the one side, big corporations backed by the European Commissian/ECB/IMF are trying to impose their privatisation agenda, on the other side a group of civil society organisations launched a so-called European Citizens’ Inititive titled “Water and sanitation are a human right! Water is a public good, not a commodity!”.5 Based on my typology of direct democracy the “European Citizens’ Initiative” is neither a citizens’ initiative nor is it direct democracy; all it does is it allows citizens to make a request to the European Commission, but what then will happen to the request is completely at the disgression of the European Commission. A citizens’ initiative worthy of the name is a process whereby a group of citizens proposes a bill to all their fellow citizens, not to representatives, and finally the issue is decided at the ballot box.

Common Features

Water conflicts, like the ones mentioned above and many more, are shaped by local conditions and traditions. In many ways each conflict differs from the others. For example with respect to the political rights that the people have to defend their cause. In most cases there are no direct-democratic instruments available, and where they exist, their legal design, that is, their usability and scope, and the experiences of using them, vary considerably. However, there are also common features and links between these struggles, objective and subjective ones, in the light of which individual conflicts become visible as so many parts in a bigger picture and global movement.

(1) Context: All water struggles take place in the context of global integration that is constituted by corporate-driven and state-supported globalization processes on the one hand and popular counter-movements on the other hand (see the first part of this essay). An important part of the common context is constituted by the monetary system that systematically redistributes wealth in favor of the rich. Money creation is in the heart of a corrupted and predatory financial capitalism that today dominates the real economy. More and more people are becoming aware that money creation and the banking system are a constituent part of the present double crisis.

(2) Main struggle: Water conflicts or, more generally, struggles for the commons are always between people and corporations, and corporations are usually backed by governments as well as international organisations and trade agreements. It is a struggle between outsiders (groups with fewer power resources) and established (groups with more power resources).

(3) Enclosures: Processes of privatization are a further common feature of water struggles. Such processes can be analyzed by using the concept of accumulation by dispossession.6 They can also be examined as storytelling. A story is told that justifies (water) privatization and explains why it is a good and reasonable thing to do (private enterprises are more efficient than public enterprises, competition leads to lower prices for the consumers et cetera). The still dominant market story is challenged by counter-stories, which argue that water should not be treated as a commodity that is subject to market rules but as a common good and basic human right that must be protected. In this view privatization is theft: commons are turned into private property, making people lose what is rightfully theirs.

(4) Debt: Typically IMF and World Bank loan conditions include privatization of public property like water and energy, among others. In Bolivia and Uruguay in the 1990s Structural Adjustment Programs did what austerity does today in Europe: impose privatization of common wealth. Debt is used, much like military force in the past, to conquer wealth. It is more convenient to use finance as a weapon of dispossession than military force. A tiny minority of the worlds population is enslaving everybody else, and this is justified by making the enslaved feeling “guilty” for having too much debt.

High finance has become the modern mode of warfare. After indebting countries, creditors lobby to privatize natural monopolies and create new monopoly rights for themselves. It aims at what military force did in times past, but at a lower cost. It is cheaper to seize land by foreclosure than by armed occupation, and to obtain rights to mineral wealth and public infrastructure by hooking nations on debt. Subject populations will not fight back as long as they can be persuaded to accept the occupation as natural and even helpful. (Hudson 2012b)

Biblical tradition is the forgiveness of debts, cancellation of debts. So it seems like these people feel like they have to start with this language of debt as morality, but then get rid of it again. Why? It’s because this very idea of shame, of sin, that is associated with debt makes it this incredibly powerful ideological mechanism, so that any time you have violent inequalities of power—and mass inequalities of wealth and power have to always be maintained by violence of some kind or another—the first move is to try to convince the people on the bottom that it’s somehow their fault, and debt is the easiest way to do that. (Graeber 2012)

(5) Water: It goes without saying that water is a common feature of water struggles. Water is essential for all life on planet Earth. It has also spiritual and cultural value and these dimensions are just as important to human life as physical water. Water is a basic need, necessary not only for survival but for life and dignity. Those whithout access to water cannot live, those without access to clean water cannot live a healthy life, those without free access to clean water cannot be free, a society without water justice cannot be free. How we use water is a mirror for how we perceive and treat the world and each other. The issue of water is also an issue of health, and it is connected to food security, land-use, agriculture, energy, oil, mining, fracking. Water is a great connector that links everything.

(6) Democracy: The struggle for the commons and the privatization agenda are about governance and democracy: who decides what to do – corporations, governments, international financial organisations, the people? – and how (procedures) are these decisions made? Transferring control over water from the public to the private sphere, as privatizers wish to do, is tantamount to diminishing democracy and accountability. Those who control water control peoples’ life. How can people live with dignity, if they are denied access to clean and affordable water? Obviously, if corporations control vital resources (water, food, energy, knowledge …) and sell it for profit people cannot be free and society not democratic. Autonomy requires to stop big corporations and the transnational capitalist class from taking over the commons, to transform wage labour into free labour, and to decolonize peoples’ mind by creating a New Story.

(7) Commoning: The struggles against (water) privatization can be seen as so many instances of the emergence of a new global social movement. This commons movement in the making has the potential to become a people-driven alternative to corporate- and state-driven globalization.7 It constitutes a new type of ownership and societal production that is neither public nor private but common. Commons are “things that are functional to the exercise of fundamental rights and to a free development of human beings”.8 The terms ‘commons’ and ‘commoning’ refer to a community that shares a common resource, which is governed, improved, protected and preserved for future generations by the members of this community in an inclusive, autonomous and democratic way. Commoning is antithetic to capitalism: where commoning works well, the market cannot grow and the state is not needed or controlled by the people. The commons movement is serious about real democracy (popular sovereignty); it challenges “representative democracy” that is unable and/or unwilling to protect the people from predatory corporations and instead colludes with them, and it challenges the market by reversing privatizations/enclosures and transferring privatized commons back into the peoples’ own hands, guided by the principles of inclusion and democracy. Commoning arises whenever people decide to manage a resource in a radically democratic manner, thereby creating a community, with special regard to equal access, equitable use and sustainability. I will return to communing in the next part (Transformation).

Market vs Society
1 For more about water privatization in Berlin see Lanz and Eitner 2005. See also: Berliner Wassertisch (
2 Since 2013 Berliner Wasserbetriebe is again a fully public enterprise. But it remains profit-oriented, which means that water is not yet a commons in Berlin. Therefore the Berlin water struggle continues, now with the aim to democratize public water, making it transparent, socially just, sustainable and direct democratic. See: Berliner Wasserrat (
3 For more see: Fattori 2011; Mattei 2013; and also: Forum Italiano dei Movimenti per l’Acqua
4 FAME is the french acronym of the Alternative World Water Forum – Marseille 2012 (, which was organised parallel and in opposition to the 6th World Water Forum (WWF, The WWF is organised every three years by the World Water Council (
5 Tommasi 2013; campaign website (; see also the website of the EC (
6 Harvey 2003, 137-182; Harvey 2007, 159-165
7 Bailey and Mattei 2013
8 Commissione Rodotà: The Bill of the Rodotà Commission proposes a legal definition of the commons and a third category of property rights, beni comuni, in addition to the traditional categories of private and public property.

References (click to open)

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