Water: It Belongs to All of Us
In 2014 the City of Detroit began shutting off water services at 59,000 addresses where low-income residents lived, whose water and sewer bills were delinquent. A political struggle exploded, rallying around the concept that “water is a human right, no shutoffs!” and “water is life, no water = death.” A civil suit on behalf of delinquent customers sought to stave off the shutoffs and turn the water back on; however, federal judge Steven Rhodes refused the request, coldly stating, “there is no such right or law” that low-income residents have a right to water (Detroit News, September 29, 2014). In setting forth this judgment, Judge Stevens ruled that Detroit’s unemployed and low-wage workers are sub-human, and can be denied basic access to life-supporting services within an economically devastated region that lost 26 percent of its employment since 2000.
The United Nations contends that water is a human right (UN Resolution 62/242), and sent a team of officials to investigate the Detroit water shutoffs. UN Special Rapporteur Catarina de Albuquerque remarked that “we were shocked by the scale of the mass disconnections and by the way it is affecting the weakest, the poorest and the most vulnerable” (Aljazeera, October 20, 2014). There is evidence that afflicted households experienced increased e.coli, salmonella, pneumonia, and blood infections, and one courageous individual, Nicole Cannon, limited by work disability and Sarcoidosis while fighting repeated water service shutoffs, succumbed to death.
While Detroit’s poorest and most vulnerable are being shut off, the city’s delinquent businesses are not. “More than half of the city’s commercial and industrial users…(owe) a sum totaling $30 million,” including two professional sports arenas (The Guardian, June 25, 2014). These businesses are not being shut off because the corporate class that holds political power has respect for businesses, but none for ordinary working people.
The UN is powerless to regulate private property even when it demands payment in exchange for life-giving water. Mass water shutoffs in Detroit continue with the next round of shutoffs that started in May 2015, with a fresh 36,000 new addresses targeted. This draconian practice is being rolled out in cities like Flint, Michigan and in Baltimore, Maryland, already the center of working class unrest. Shutoffs threaten the lives of thousands, and duly express the fascist political culture developing in Michigan in relation to the emergency manager’s regime, signaled further by the unlawful jailing of Benton Harbor, Michigan community leader, Reverend Edward Pinkney.
Water is necessary for all life, and is a means for producing agricultural commodities, and to a greater or lesser extent, all other commodities. The capitalist class is defining water as a property right. The working class cannot survive without safe drinking water and sanitation. These two classes have antagonistic positions within the present transition to a laborless economy. The ruling class is trying to convince workers that the State and the private corporations have the right to commodify water in order to extract payment, and that they further have the authority to divert water toward the most profitable uses. As electronic technology eliminates work and cheapens labor, the working class is losing its ability to pay for water, and is compelled to turn to political means to survive. This struggle will inevitably lead to a class struggle to wrest political power from the State and the corporate owners of the means of life.
Water Should Not be Private Property
Water is the foundation for human life and a healthy planet. This simple statement is in flat contradiction to the logic of private property seeking to commodify water. Capitalism developed by establishing the social conditions where labor power became a commodity, where the worker had no means of survival other than to work for a capitalist. Labor power is the only commodity that creates value when consumed, and is the fundamental basis for profit. Because electronic technology is abolishing the role of labor in production, it is eliminating capitalist profit and setting into motion the conditions for the destruction of capitalism. Capital, refusing to go quietly into the night, is endeavoring to save itself by any means necessary, including merging with the State, massive financial speculation, manufacturing profits with endless wars, and by redefining as private property, those things that used to be publicly provided such as water, education, and city services.
Within the current stage of a new epoch, which marks the end of capital, two significant developments are occurring in relation to the commodification of water: 1) urbanization has reached a stage where the majority of the world population now lives in cities, and 2) climate change is creating instability in global fresh water supplies. These conditions are favorable for commodification because urbanization separates the supply of water from its consumers, and supply instability fuels speculative price swings.
In urban society water consumption depends upon sanitary infrastructure, and in the United States this infrastructure is aging and in need of replacement. Private interests stand ready to profit from this situation. The two largest private water companies worldwide are Veolia Environment and Suez Environment, and have operations on every continent. Their reported annual revenue in 2013 was $24 billion and $16 billion respectively.
The United Nations estimates that globally 783 million people lack access to safe drinking water (11% of total world population), and 2.5 billion do not have access to adequate sanitation (34% of total world population). These numbers will continue to increase due to the electronic revolution in the economy, climate change, and the ability of powerful interests such as Veolia and Suez to conspire with politicians to sustain and extend their hold over water.
Private water suppliers stand on the threshold of gaining U.S. market share as desperately underfunded community water systems deteriorate due to aging pipes and obsolete treatment facilities. Private interests will resolve the cost dilemma by providing services based on the ability to pay and by discontinuing services to those unable to pay. This is already happening in Detroit under the cover and authority of the dictatorship imposed by emergency manager laws.
The urban system in the United States, in particular in the Midwest “rust belt” region, is being made over by the electronic revolution in production. Affluent areas are consolidated to exclude vast impoverished neighborhoods, while financial interests seek the highest rate of return by investing in water and city services for the affluent and denying services to the poor.
Private Interests Control California’s Water Policy
On April 1, 2015 California Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order to ration water statewide. In response to the fourth consecutive year of record drought, the plan is focused on residential and municipal users, even though 80% of the state’s controllable water resources are devoted to private agriculture. Because Governor Brown’s plan protects the interests of private property, his plan can only exacerbate the drought, because these interests are determined to value profit over environmental sustainability.
Half of California’s water runoff flows through the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta that provides water to 70% of California’s 39 million residents as well as to 3 million acres of farmland. Private agricultural interests obtain the lion’s share of this water. For example, the Kern Water Bank, the largest water storage facility in the world, originally built to protect residents from drought cycles, was privatized in 1995, and is now controlled by agricultural interests. These interests have put forward a publicly funded proposal to build “twin tunnels” diverting more water from the Sacramento River toward agricultural interests in the San Joaquin Valley. This proposal, supported by Governor Jerry Brown and Senator Diane Feinstein, threatens to further degrade the delta’s ecosystem, exacerbate the drought cycle, increase pesticide build-up in the soil and water, and intensify salinization of the water table.
The motivation of private agricultural interests is profits from California’s vast agricultural sector, for which water is a strategic resource. However, the benefits of this quest are largely restrained by the small number of owners of private wealth because technological development is reducing and eliminating the role of human labor in production. For example, it takes a shaking machine, on average, five seconds to harvest pistachios from one tree (Bloomberg Business, November 11, 2010). Combined with other technologies such as low volume water delivery, relatively little labor is needed to grow, harvest and process agricultural commodities grown in California.
Make Water a Human Right, Heal the Planet
The development of a new kind of economy based on an electronic technology that eliminates human labor has created the conditions for a revolutionary struggle over private ownership and access to water. As the monetary value of labor-power continues to decline, and is eliminated from production entirely by developments in technology, workers are losing their ability to pay for water and sanitary services. This is creating the conditions for a life and death struggle over access to water. There is no doubt that the capitalist class will endeavor to privatize water for private profit, thus endangering the ecosystem by sacrificing water for the sake of private gain.
Our planet and our class need leadership based upon scientific knowledge and the political will to make water a public trust, and not subject to private ownership. This leadership must be independent from corporate interests that seek to use water for private gain. Such leadership will protect access to low-income populations and won’t allow private access that threatens our planet’s ecosystem, while polluting the lifeblood of our people. Gaining control over public access to water and sanitation is in the interest of Mother Earth, of humanity, and for a sustainable planet. Such a battle cry is both a necessary goal of the revolution, and a necessary activity for keeping our class alive.
In fighting for the revolutionary transformation toward public water ownership, we need to be cognizant of the threat that corporate/State private property poses to humanity and to our planet. Modern technology is replacing the role of labor in production, and is creating the means to unleash the productive power of humanity in a socially responsible and sustainable manner. Such a new world is possible, but only if the private ownership of technology is abolished. Private property in the hands of the corporate class must be ended if humanity is to survive.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011