How to kill the demos: the water struggle in Italy

By Andrea Muehlebach

January 18, 2016

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. [GLWA/KWA anyone?] The demonstration was one in several that occurred in the last few years….

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. … 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. …

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…”