From Detroit to Dublin: The Capitalist Economy, Inequality and Water

Whilst in a Dublin restaurant at the weekend I found myself chatting with an Irish woman on the next table. She and her friends were in celebratory mood. “We’ve been fighting for our water rights,” she said proudly. “There were fifty-thousand of us marching! …They want to charge us for water that falls from the sky… and we’re not having it.”

The Irish Independent and the Irish Times related the frustration of already-strapped householders at taking another hit to their overdrafts. The Irish economy, of course, is emerging from its own particularly spectacular crash following the 2008 financial crisis, during which unemployment rose to 15%, GDP fell by a fifth and debts soared. Raising money from water charges was a condition imposed on Ireland by the EU-IMF-ECB troika as part of the country’s bailout in 2010. Bills were anticipated to range from €176 (£137) a year for a single-person household to nearly €500 (£389) for a family of four adults.

Addressing the crowd in Dublin, the Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) stressed its objective is to “[change] the structures of inequality in this country, whether it’s class, gender, race, age; we want an end to these structures […] that this government has been entrenching […] for the last 67 years. The privatisation of water is very much part of [their] strategy, for domination, for discipline and for control.” Perhaps unexpectedly, the AAA went on to express solidarity with the people of Detroit in the United States, where “thousands of families […] are having their water cut off”. Emphasising such an alliance serves as both a warning and a call to action, as Detroit goes, so goes Ireland.

At 10,683 m3 annually, Ireland has one of the highest levels of renewable internal freshwater resources per capita in Europe. The UK, by comparison receives less than a quarter of that amount. Detroit is surrounded by the Great Lakes system, which contains 21% of the world’s surface freshwater. Yet in 2014 more than 27,000 Detroit Water customers have had their water shut off following a campaign by the city to get more than 90,000 customers to pay $90.3 million in over-due bills. Calling the shutoffs “an affront to human rights”, UN officials this week began touring Detroit to assess the impacts.

In order to survive, the global capitalist system must continue to appropriate even our most fundamental resources, alienating us from that which keeps us alive and assigning it a value to be exchanged on the market, and selling it back to us. Yet the fundamental contradiction of perpetual accumulation in a finite world means that economic system into which nature has been incorporated operates in cycles of expansion and crisis. Events in both Detroit and Dublin can be viewed as a direct result of capitalist states’ willingness to displace economic crises onto the poorest and most marginalised parts of society. In Detroit this has deprived thousands of the means for basic sustenance. In Dublin there seems to be some way to go before things get so desperate.

Owen King is a PhD researcher at the University of the West of England, investigating the political ecology of water and mining in Arizona.

Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the IWSN or its members.