Water, accumulation, and the space in-between

By Basile Boulay

Droughts, floods, shrinking water tables and growing competition to access what is becoming the new gold bring water governance at the centre of the global discourse. While evidently crucial, the governance question cannot be disentangled from the broader issue of the neoliberal agenda seeking the commodification of life, including water. Can sound resource management be achieved when states openly support private accumulation at the expense of nature and people? Madelaine Moore’s new book on Water struggles as resistance to neoliberal capitalism comes in handy to help us make sense of these questions by bringing insights from Australia and Ireland.

Looking back matters

A remarkable aspect of the book lies in its engagement with long-term historical developments to characterise the various types of neoliberal regimes co-existing today and why these issues matters to understand water struggles.

Unlike many other territories, Australia was not primarily colonised by the British with the aim to create new markets for exports, but because of its abundance of primary resources. The old argument of Terra nullius justified the base for a type of settler-colonialism: ‘As the land was deemed empty, no treaties or compensation were required so that First Nation peoples (…) were not even accorded the rights of a conquered people’ (p.89). Through brutal expropriation of indigenous populations, Britain created a new space for accumulation, centred on pastoral, agricultural, and mineral commodities rather than on industry. Times have changed but this legacy remains today, and the country’s economic imaginary remains rivetted to the idea of commodity frontiers.

Ireland, on the other hand, was considered to be a profitable market for British exports during colonial times, and Moore explains that it is precisely this idea of a ‘peripheral’ market serving transnational capital which has endured over time. After the second world war, the country adopted a foreign direct investment-friendly environment to attract foreign multinationals, often at the expense of local industry. This created a situation of dependency towards international finance, as foreign capital took an ever-increasing share of the national economy. As a result, Ireland became heavily vulnerable to financial disturbances, as proven by the 2008 global financial crisis (GFC) which forced austerity on the population.

Struggles and class emergence

Following the 2008 crisis, water grabs in Australia and Ireland have taken different shapes in light of these different historical trajectories: ‘In Australia it was nature that was the target of expropriation, in Ireland it was people and their social reproduction capacity’ (p.80).

Until fairly recently, mining and agricultural industries in Australia did not overlap, as land and water were abundant enough for both accumulation strategies to coexist without open conflict. From around 2012 however, while the global mining boom in coal and iron started to end, the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry grew at steady rates with the support of large investments. Neoliberal policies since the 1990s, such as privatisation and weakening of regulations have ensured that the benefits of this accumulation strategy remained predominantly in private hands, depriving the country of both higher fiscal revenues and control over its natural resources. A key issue with the fast development of the LNG industry, which is heavily water intensive, is that ‘the expansion of the gas commodity frontier has reshaped the waterscape by altering water quality and quantity’, which in turn ‘has sharpened tensions between the increasingly overlapping commodity frontiers of agriculture and gas’ (p.60). The restructuring of the water market, overly favourable to large firms and transnational capital, eventually crowded out small farmers and agricultural producers, highlighting contradictions within the Australian economic model: ‘The mining boom created a dual economy, where those industries and geographies connected to mining experienced growth, high wages, and investment for the period of extraction, while others stagnated.’ (p.66).

As a result, and because of lacking political support, Australian farmers started organising themselves outside the formal institutional boundaries. The Lock the Gate movement was a first step in refusing access on their properties to the gas industry. Further resistance developed, such as the Gasfield Free Northern Rivers initiative, a ‘civil defence model based on mutual aid and localised direct democracy that challenged any claim by the industry that they had a social license to operate’ (p.119). This was key, as the struggle ‘moved from a collection of individual acts of defiance to a collective movement that began to question private property and the interrelated basis of Australian state formation, terra nullius.’ (p.126), thereby creating conditions for the emergence of new class boundaries and bringing together the different facets of rural communities, such as ‘service workers, retirees, students, renters, First Nations people, property owners, and agricultural workers’ (p.135).

In Ireland, the water grab was located within the greater austerity regime following the GFC, in line with an accumulation strategy based on squeezing the social reproduction capacity of the general population: ‘Under the Troika MoU, Ireland was required to move towards full-cost recovery for water services, introduce water charges, and set up an autonomous national utility – Irish Water – to manage water provision’ (p.73) The government announced in 2014 a surcharge of 240 euros per household to water bills, further increasing households’ financial precariousness and fears of upcoming privatisation of water. This initially led to various forms of community organisation, such as metering blockades, community meetings and the ‘water fairies’ (activists disconnecting newly installed meters upon demand). The struggle eventually coalesced in the Right2Water platform, which brough together political opposition parties, trade unions and community groups. In the latter, class dynamics also emerged as the struggle unfolded: ‘While the non-payment of bills and the large-scale public protests were critical in asserting wider support and acing as an economic obstacle to accumulation through water services, it was the concrete solidarity and direct resistance of the metering protests that produced that community – a class formation through struggle’ (p.159).

More of what’s wrong

Both these commodification strategies share a common denominator: the state sponsored what Moore calls a ‘spherical-temporal fix’, a type of response that intensified and displaced pre-existing crises rather than solving them, while putting the burden of adjustment on vulnerable groups. In Australia, ‘as waterscapes were made amenable to super-profits industries through new regulations and technologies, the ecological crisis produced was shifted onto rural populations’ (p.177). In Ireland, the effects of the restructuring of the water market during austerity were mostly felt by the most financially vulnerable households, i.e., those already most affected by the GFC. In other words: ‘These crises tendencies (…) were not resolved but rather displaced’ (p.178).

These ‘fixes’ are politically dangerous. By defending so openly the interests of private capital, the neoliberal state reveals its true aim. In its traditional definition, the ‘capitalist state’s primary role is to mediate competing interests of capital’, while providing ‘some concessions to the dominated classes to maintain the material bases of consent and public power’ (p.85-6). Progressively however, and to serve private sector accumulation, the state undermined its own capacity to provide living conditions to dominated classes. This in turn triggered a crisis of legitimacy as large segments of the populations suffer from a decrease in their living standards while witnessing public money being used in various ways, notably subsidies, to support capital. It is this ‘increasingly explicit overlap of economic and political power’ (p.34) that reveals the mechanics of state-sponsored capital accumulation, and its adverse effects on populations.

Moore’s book is also important because it captures well the specific historical moment we live in: a period of decline in the legitimacy of the state and trust in representative democracy, accompanied by a sharp rise in a variety of (increasingly authoritarian) state responses to preserve and expand the interests of capital. In Australia, as increasingly seen elsewhere, funding for environmental civil organisations perceived as overly ‘activist’ was cut, while a consensus emerged in mainstream political parties and media to refer to activists as ‘terrorists’ and to minimise the space for alternative narratives. In Ireland, using classic divide and rule tactics, the mainstream media started referring to protesters as ‘professional protesters’ and ‘raggle-taggle group of dissidents’ (p.161) in an attempt to isolate the movement. At the same time, a heavy-handed police response and intimidation tactics were organised. What we witness is therefore elected governments deliberately attacking the foundations of democracy and rule of law to perpetuate private accumulation trajectories. Whether this partly explains the rise of so-called ‘populist political parties’ is not discussed in the book, but the question deserves a thought at a more global level.

Looking ahead

Recent crises have been crises in neoliberalism rather than crises of neoliberalism. To defend the interests of transnational capital, governments have accentuated and displaced existing crises rather than solved them, thereby fuelling a crisis of legitimacy for the state, with growing discontent and mistrust in representative politics. Where this will leave us is unclear, but what is obvious is that the neoliberal state is playing with fire. There is hope however, as the book also shows: the emergence of class through struggle is a strong lever to fight against private accumulation at the expense of life.  

Basile Boulay is Senior Executive at the EADI secretariat and holds a PhD in Development Economics

Image: Wolfstatze on Pixabay

Note: This book review gives the views of the author, not the position of the EADI Debating Development Blog or the European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes.