A time of reproductive unrest

Water is not only a hydrological challenge, but above all a political one. Sociologist Dr. Madelaine Moore of Bielefeld University has explored how water, capitalism, capital accumulation and social struggles are connected in her recently published book. She introduces the book and her research herself right here.

Growing up in Australia during the Millennium Drought, water – or more specifically its absence – was omnipresent. Now, having lived most of the last decade in northern Europe the growing urgency of discussions on diminishing groundwater, the threat of summer drought, and stagnant rivers feels worryingly familiar. For many Europeans, water has tended to be taken for granted. It is when water is absent, when it stops flowing, or when what flows is so polluted that it is unsafe that we start to take notice of the myriad of ways that we are dependent upon water and the ways that it lubricates the global political economy. Water, its presence and lack, determines not only how and where, but also who, will survive. Which is simply to say, we cannot do without it.

However, this alienated relation to water is far from universal; many Indigenous communities understand water as life, as part of us and thus unable to be commodified. And for the over 2 billion people who live without access to drinkable water, and 25 percent of the world’s population who live in water-stressed environments water is clearly not something that is taken for granted. Water activists around the world have united under the common call “water is life” demanding that water is understood as a common good, and something that must be central to any successful response to the ongoing ecological crisis.

Despite facing a global water crisis, water and its related services continue to be commodified, privatised, commercialised, and increasingly financialised. Problematically, these processes are presented as solutions rather than causes to the crisis. For example, the outcomes of the recent UN Water Conference – the first dedicated UN conference on water in over fifty years – comprised calls to further mobilise the private sector to fill the financing gap. And while transnational corporations, water companies, and finance institutions were encouraged to make voluntary pledges and were included in discussions on how water management could be further integrated with green (now perhaps also blue?) finance and corporate social responsibility, many water activists and NGOs were not given access.

In my recently published book ‘Water Struggles as resistance to neoliberal capitalism: a time of reproductive unrest’ (Manchester University Press) I focus on the global water crisis and the ways that communities have resisted the expansion of the water commodity frontier. I employ a relational comparison where struggles over water are used as a vehicle through which to explore and give coherence to this specific conjuncture; a conjuncture marked by concurrent economic, ecological, and social reproductive crises, of which the global water crisis is one facet.

The book has two central foci, first, the critical role of expropriation (of water, but also nature and social reproduction more broadly) for capitalist reproduction. The second, is the forms of agency that emerge in response to these dynamics. In bringing the Irish water charges protests and resistance to unconventional gas expansion in Australia into dialogue, I explore the tension between life-making and profit-making that defines the new water commodity frontier. I show how each water grab reflects a different, if inter-related, facet of a system that continues to undermine the capacity for life- making. In both cases water as nature, or water as social reproduction, were reimagined as water as commodity to resolve existing accumulation crises that had emerged following the 2008-2010 financial crisis. In Australia, nature was employed as the ‘tap and sink’ underpinning economic growth; in Ireland public water services were targeted for restructuring and working class communities shouldered the consequences. In both cases, the struggle over water transformed latent crisis tendencies – ecological and social – into active ones.

However, in doing so, and a key argument of the book, underlying crisis tendencies were not resolved, but rather shifted to the conditions that make accumulation possible, namely, social reproduction, nature, and, increasingly, the state. Taking up David Harvey’s conception of a spatial fix and reading it through social reproduction theory I develop the notion of a spherical fix to show how crises are moved between these spheres as a form of crisis management. By doing so, the spherical fix also defines these conditions as extra-economic but still intra-capitalist – accumulation could not happen without them. It also demonstrates how these are also key dynamics that underpin the global water crisis.

Yet in this process of crisis management communities were newly politicised. What had appeared natural, or given was politicised through struggle, and the political terrain reconfigured as labour as an emergent class gained agency. In Australia, by redefining the what of water, rural communities re-articulated society and nature as inter-dependent, countering the alienated socio-nature relation underpinning expropriation. Understanding water and communities as co-constitutive also necessitated separating questions of land ownership from private property, raising questions of dispossession and problematising terra nullius. An incoherence with the dominant logics of the state and market emerged, defining a class antagonism drawn on ecological lines. What water is and represents became contested.

In Ireland, the focus on water as social reproduction infrastructure evolved into a broader critique of the state and related institutions, including representational democracy. Water as social reproduction and related infrastructure was understood as common, a collective right, and disarticulated from processes of capital accumulation. However, in this process, the limited capacity of the state to account for this right came into sharper focus: the state was disarticulated from the common good, no longer the provider of social services, but rather an antagonist to the realisation of working-class interests.

In the process of struggle more than temporary alliances emerged; a common relation to expropriation allowed solidarity across and within communities. And communities concretised a key contradiction of neoliberal capitalism: the increasing incompatibility of the conditions necessary for profit-making and life-making. As a result, the emergent class category ‘labour’ captured both people’s relation to the means of production and the process of expropriation, rather than a stratified position in society. And in recasting the processes of capital accumulation from labour’s vantage point, the arena for class struggle was broadened to include the home, nature, and neighbourhood. In Australia and Ireland, what has emerged is a time of reproductive unrest.

As I demonstrate throughout the book, the global water crisis is about more than access or management of a resource. What is at stake are the social relations and institutions that allow water grabs and the crisis to occur.

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