Infrastructure Wars II: On the Human Right to Water and Sanitation

“Who lived and who died largely came down to two factors:  your race and your income.”

– Jonathan Mahler

In May 2021 I ventured into public debates over the meaning of the word “infrastructure”, suggesting broader and more radical theories .  Particularly around values and visions for our commons, as well as moving beyond the announced Biden infrastructure agenda.  Now I want to talk about water.

Spring turned to summer, under looming imperatives for action to implement “Green New Deal”-style federal policies, for recovery from the pandemic crash, and for general purposes of surviving increasingly grim prospects for democracy.  Crucial months were consumed in patently fruitless negotiations between the Biden administration and the GOP death cult.  Now the idea of broader frames is truly emergent.

The debate over “infrastructure” was rapidly enclosured – reframed by corporate power for their profits – as if it were merely about evaluation of the Biden administration.  To be meaningful, which it really should be – this being our lives, our water and all – the conversation (as I argued in “Infrastructure Wars”) simply has to be broader and deeper than that!  So let’s try again.

The painfully real, basic and dialectical facts are: 1) Timing and context are everything; 2) This past year has changed us all in profound ways; and 3) The biggest thing that has not changed is probably Biden’s anticipated failure becoming actual failure to accomplish much of anything.  Any progressive expectations for the former senator from MBNA and life long organization man were always delusional.  So let’s figure out where we’re really at and act accordingly.

If you think about it for more than a few seconds – please – consider the definite possibility that in historical and generational terms we are experiencing an emerging new mass critical consciousness against structurally violent racial capitalism.  Under many diverse trending signifiers, leaders, labels and memes, intensified massively by crisis since 2020, such deep historical and intergenerational shifts in consciousness don’t simply ‘go away’.  We change with them.

This keys dramatically into the new demographics of the US polity, threatening a People of color majority in the near term, and therefore plagued by constant lies about election integrity abused for the sake of voter suppression. All of this intimately embedded together with the other democracy deficits and crisis-related ‘mental health’ explosions we face, under the structurally corrupt failures of the dominant corporate racial capitalist brands and ideas to fix anything.  Thus debates about the meaning of ‘infrastructure’ as a way to obstruct the necessary changes.

Think about everything that goes into this crazy, violent alt-civil war situation for a little while, and please consider: all this heavy stuff we’re going thru collectively may be much more important in historical and political terms than Biden’s inevitable failure.  No disrespect to the man or the imperial cipher, that’s just true anyway!  This may partly explain how formerly marginalized causes get traction in our times: the Movement for Black Lives, human rights for LGBTQ Folks, the myriad shifts in consciousness that are so often misrepresented and defamed as ‘identity politics’, the bizarre debate over defining ‘infrastructure’ under discussion here, and so many other Gramscian “morbid phenomena”.  To varying degrees folks campaigning for such transformative revolutionary reforms recognize this pending new reality we call our lives in more realistic new terms!  Therefore their messages register.  Historic change flows from this process. Always.

With these thoughts and the future government of our water foremost in mind, a radical proposal: Under these circumstances, our strategic approach to “infrastructure” should articulate and build on the fact that everything we need to reallocate People, resources and our work and vital needs to protect and enrich our commons is our basic infrastructure.  We should decide for ourselves what we want to do, and then do it.

We should deal with the question of defining “infrastructure” like socially determined gender identity, critical race theory, socialist political economy or other frame-breaking concepts.  We will transform our infrastructure, on our terms and for our benefit.  The things we’ve learned about our own lives in this fundamental breakdown of US-centered racial capitalism will help chart the development of our infrastructure of survival.

Recovery and transformation, not uninterrogated ‘normality’, must be our praxis.  “We just know, in a whole new way, how much we need each other.” (Laurie Penny)  We better act like it!  Without that I see no way forward.  With it, in the context of resistance and rebellion that feeds study, understanding and direct action challenging racial capital, in order to ultimately transform it and our commons future, we are in the struggle.  I like to say freedom school is always in session, because it fits so many political fights that will follow for sure.

What ‘power-over’ agency, human and social capacities, life goals, values, visions and options can we collaborate into existence now, for surviving, commoning and democratizing the massive crisis that’s already engulfing us?  Debates about infrastructure in this time and place of the collapse of a modern industrial social system will miss the whole transformative point, unless we start by fighting for our own vital interests here and now.  We must center human rights- and commons-based political economic direct actions aimed at resisting and rebelling against “normal” racial capitalism, as the most viable response to our crisis situation, at least as a transitional step toward the “movement which abolishes the present state of things” in beloved community, which is the only thing that will save our water.  This is a time to be radical.

The incredible chief editor of Counterpunch Jeffrey St. Clair evokes “the fundamentals” driving Biden’s political existence: US-based imperial racial capitalism in action.  Biden told favored donors during the 2019 primary that “nothing would fundamentally change.” St. Clair calls “The fundamentals … something deeper (than the status quo), embedded in the functional structure of the Republic. … those core functions that maintain the inequities of power and money in the US system…”  He strikes an astonishingly rich infrastructural vein:

“The fundamentals didn’t change and won’t change. The ever-expanding military budget will remain sacrosanct, corporate behavior will be deregulated, fossil fuels will power the economy until they’re depleted, health care will remain a for-profit industry, the poor will be mercilessly policed, immigrants will be exploited for cheap labor and detained and deported when they become inconvenient, the nuclear arsenal will be continually and provocatively upgraded, working-class people will be kept buried in debt, wages will be kept as low as possible, the public commons will be turned over to extractive industries at subsidized rates, Israel will be kept stocked with weapons and get out of jail cards and Cuba will be slowly strangled with sanctions until it renounces its revolution and pays reparations for kicking the CIA’s ass at the Bay of Pigs.”  ‘Normal’.  Sick.

Wolfgang Streeck’s “How Will Capitalism End?” concisely theorizes many diverse “ways in which the tension … between demands for social rights and the workings of the market express itself today”. (emphasis added)  The ‘fundamentals’ demand that imperial corporate leaders reproduce class power within racial capitalism by sacrificing People’s social rights for the benefit of ‘the market’, i.e., ‘the 1%’, because that’s what they do.  That’s fundamental.  It has to change.

All of which is by way of introducing frames for transforming our society’s policies, customs and practices around how we treat water.

Water, Money & Racial Capitalism

When she spoke in Detroit in spring of 2014 and advised us to file our formal UN human rights complaint against the city for their mass water shut offs, Maude Barlow expressed a basic truth underlying today’s infrastructure wars: “If we understand what’s really happening with our water and deal with it appropriately, it will help us solve all our other problems.”  That’s how our new, broad understandings of the real roles of infrastructure in our lives should proceed.  Following the lead of the water protectors, we will move from the necessity to make changes for survival, to transformation of our local, regional and world systems.

In Streeckian tension, between demands for social rights and the workings of the market, the governing authorities of southeastern Michigan faced and accomplished regional restructuring challenges around our water in 2013-14.  The tensions between Wall Street’s financial oligarchy and oppressed Detroiters’ human right to water and sanitation were brutally resolved.  500 shut off notices issued per week, attacking thousands of Detroiters to demonstrate the requisite austerity, dedication to bondholders over everyone else, and the other quasi-privatized elements of the Great Lakes Water Authority’s (GLWA) regional takeover of our water.  In essence, the duly constituted government authorities of the  state of Michigan, the city’s leadership under emergency management, and the three suburban counties of Macomb, Oakland and Wayne facilitated long term 50-year-with-option-to-renew leases of the regional water infrastructure. Impressed by (among other opaque swaps and sweetheart financial deals) the mass water shut offs ordered in the spring of 2014, Wall Street bondholders financed this restructuring at relatively advantageous interest rates.  This is hailed as a triumph of regional collaboration.

That’s where it flows today; the deadly consequences of the 2019-21 Covid pandemic proved the advocates like Maude Barlow of the human right to water and sanitation were right all along.  As Jonathan Mahler observes in his timely and insightful June 2021 New York Times Sunday magazine feature, quoted at the beginning of this piece, access to life-sustaining infrastructure under deeply inequitable capitalist social relations is a matter of life or death.  The human right to water and sanitation always was essential.  We may know, in a whole new way, how much we need each other, but that didn’t just become important in the pandemic.  It was always true.  Crucially we must act on it going forward.

Mahler’s perspective on reopening New York City in 2021 tells us a lot about our water challenges.[i]  The Detroit water shut offs are on moratorium until 2022, while GLWA’s Hydra-headed regional Hydro-thority, serving a suburban consortium of member-partners (formerly known as wholesale customer communities), decides how to move forward with their continuing campaign to restructure our water and sewer systems, using as much federal covid recovery money as they can get.  What can we do about it?

First we have to understand how Wall Street debt-financed water infrastructure affects our water commons:  Wolfgang Streeck uses the ironically named supposed virtue of credit – ‘liquidity’ – to explain the basic power dynamic involved, which is both taboo in mainstream discussions and ultimately determinative:

“By providing its customers with liquidity, the financial industry established control over them, as is the very nature of credit.  Financialization turns the private sector into an international private government disciplining national political communities and their public governments, without being in any way democratically accountable.  The power of money … takes the place of the power of votes.” (How Will Capitalism End? P. 24) (emphasis in original)

Mahler locates the proximate cause of giant, rich and sophisticated New York City’s excessive vulnerability to the covid pandemic – the brutal siege of mass death, ambulance sirens and mobile morgues that brought the city to its knees in the winter of 2020-21 – in the perfect place: the city’s restructuring in the face of near-bankruptcy in the mid-1970s.  The quasi-privatized neoliberal-investment-program-cum-class-struggle-dynamic that created the infamous “tale of two cities”, one thriving, white and rich, one oppressed, of color and poor, characteristic of the neoliberal turn.  After exposure of that model’s fatal contradictions by the nightmares of 2020-21 we know in a new way how much we need each other.  Going forward we must start to act like we understand this essential aspect of our communities!

The very same New York 1970s precedent – a reverse-Robin Hood looting operation, based on the same bogus ‘solutions’, was expressly sold to Detroit, Flint and the rest of urban Michigan by Rick Snyder, Jones Day and all the horses they rode in on after the Great Recession crash of 2008.  The cause of New York’s covid debacle was the same suite of policies they are using to regionalize and finance our water.  Truth finally enters the blather of corporate conversation about development, re-newal, -structuring, -surrection, ‘vibrancy’, middle class aspirations and society-without-class-struggle that’s still being pursued by predatory nonprofits like “Detroit Future City”.  Our next step must be to initiate the necessary deep structural changes to address the inequitable ‘tale of two cities’ dynamic, and create “a more equitable city”.  The way to get there flows thru the water.

Mahler provides a perceptive and favorable view of the “neat accounting trick” involved in a Harlem community land trust public investment to preserve affordable housing.  Ironically, the narrative has transformed here in 50 years, from the New York City restructuring-model bill of goods sold to Detroit, to cooperative land tenure innovation of the kind being pursued by visionary organizers like Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi, and the Peoples Platform in Detroit!  Mahler’s key point is valid in Detroit as well as New York: “It feels possible to think very differently about how the city works and for whom; about how it approaches development, education, health care, criminal justice, transportation, even its cultural institutions.”  After 600,000 covid deaths and counting, it’s about time!

Water Affordability Beyond Mere “Assistance”

Like community land trusts, structurally affordable, income-indexed water and sewer rates for the poor, to maintain service and protect public health, social justice and the commons, is a transformational policy whose time has come.

We need a new common sense that fits our time.  Streeck argues persuasively (following Karl Polanyi) that further commodification of capital’s three “fictitious commodities”, labor, land and money (People, Water and Commons?) is unrealistic and counterproductive.  The ability to leverage our essential assets for a better interest rate does not change the urgent human rights and structural survival challenges that are constitutive of our crisis.  After the Hydra-headed abuses of poisoning Flint and the mass shut offs in Detroit, one simply wonders what is disputed or even controversial about the failure of current policy.  The need for new policies is obvious and urgent.

What does it mean to think differently about our water?  Like New York struggling to redefine its legacy as an imperial financial center and immigrant-friendly community where anything is possible, it means Detroit reasserts our incredible legacy as a movement city that changes the world.  Our water justice movement’s decades-long policy demand to protect the human right to water and sanitation, via water rates limited by income for the poor, is being used today as a model in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago and elsewhere.  It has come of age.

Our unique position in the very midst of the planet’s greatest resources of fresh water, in the context of our history of class struggle, racial justice and movement culture, in this moment of urgently necessary transformation of fundamental policy, demands new thinking and new laws.  Authorities’ adoption of the income-based rates approach to the human right to water and sanitation for low income working People will further mass collective recognition that we’re talking about real survival here, not merely political economic theory.  This time there really is ‘no alternative’ to Detroit’s movement for water justice, human liberation and transformation of everything, led by rising youth whose generational ship just came in.

The mainstream is corrupt and bankrupt.  In conformity with the Biden-identified approach of framing every issue as an opportunity for bankers, the federal government is now proposing a new Low Income Water Assistance Program (LIWAP) that would use some of the covid relief money to assist low-income customers with water bills.  That is, the familiar band-aid ‘assistance’ model, in lieu of affordable rates for the poor.  Structurally unaffordable bills get paid by an elite-controlled fund one time, and the unsustainable debt cycle starts all over again.

Here is the failure to think in new ways.  The “short-term emergency relief program designed to help eligible low-income households pay down arrearages and retain water service” they propose in the teeth of ongoing catastrophe totally misconceives the issue.  It proposes a transparently fake “solution”, just so the back water bill gets paid one time.  It’s a sleight-of-hand way to reproduce the mass violation of the human right to water and sanitation that contributed significantly to Detroit’s excessive and adverse vulnerability to the covid pandemic, i.e., to reality.  Anybody who doesn’t understand we need to change that has not been paying attention.  Generally they’ve been paid pretty well for their attention to the debt relations controlling our water.

Like the mass water shut offs for the benefit of bondholder ‘comfort’ that ushered in the  GLWA via bankruptcy court in 2014, the latest LIWAP ‘solution’ of throwing money at water utilities, so they can continue to impose structurally unaffordable rates on poor People, is just another one of the “ways in which the tension in democratic capitalism between demands for social rights and the workings of free markets expresses itself today.” (Streeck, P. 88) “…[B]lind compliance with financial investors is propounded as the only rational and responsible behavior.” (P.93)  The coming generations will not tolerate this.

Policy responses must be grounded in reality rather than outmoded dogma backed by raw class and racial power – or they lack legitimacy.  The initial LIWAP proposal appears on its face to be grounded in exploitation of racial capitalism and a destructive neoliberal “normality” that is so abnormal as to be really perverse.  Instead of flushing the emergency relief money down the big LIWAP toilet of “assistance” without adequate relief from structurally unaffordable water and sewer services for low-income People, these funds must be used as a down payment, to wipe out arrearages, and implement income-based water affordability rates for those who can demonstrate need going forward.  Anything less is not only totally unacceptable; it will pave the way for even greater disasters.

Streeck describes the way we misconceive standard, ‘normal’ mainstream capitalist economic thinking – such as GLWA’s adamant insistence on playing the bond  markets to fund our water and sewer systems, essentially borrowing money for the purpose from the rich and paying them back with interest instead of charging them fairly the full rates – creates and reproduces injustices for our less well-off brethren and sistren:

“…[S]tandard economics is basically the theoretical exaltation of a political economic social order serving those well-endowed with market power, in that it equates their interest with the general interest.  It represents the distributional claims of the owners of productive capital as technical imperatives of good, in the sense of scientifically sound, economic management.” (P. 76)  How convenient that this allegedly neutral, quantifiable and data-driven paradigm of Wall Street power jibes so comfortably with free-riding white privilege and middle-class illusions of suburban dominance over urban bankruptcy.  Let the water shut offs commence – Not!

Streeck summarizes the fundamental results of innovations like GLWA as a powerful form of privatization of democracy and public finance: “Privatization of investment in physical and social infrastructure gives rise to a growing private industry operating in what used to be the public sector. … [in] the shift from a redistributive towards a neoliberal state that abandons to civil society and the market its responsibility to provide for social equity and social cohesion.” (P. 138)

The Trojan Horse LIWAP assistance funding is only an early cut in a major lobbying war – a corporate/state financial free for all – now underway over “pots of money” for pandemic relief funds and our subject of “infrastructure”, how to define, fund, and transform it.  A trillion or more dollars will go to someone for something.  Our margin of error is gone.  The money must go to those who really need it to survive.  It will come from the rich.  In the process we’ll transform racial capitalism into a human rights-based society that protects and enriches our commons, or we’ll die trying.  Water is a key example of what Streeck describes as “political goods”, those “collective goods which are indivisible and must be produced, or at least decided upon, by those who benefit from them, and indeed by their collectivity: social solidarity, distributive justice and the general rights and duties that constitute citizenship.” (P. 107)  GLWA passed on their opportunity to do that in 2014, and now we have the urgent need to get it right.  Therefore, if we solve our water challenges it will teach us how to proceed.

The alternative to our desperately needed transformations is ‘normality’ of our grotesquely unequal and unjust white racial plutocracy, reproduced by an ugly and corrupt lobbying battle for funds that will inevitably kill any decent new policies regarding our precious water.  No way! What’s at stake is the end of racial capitalism, and transformation of our social systems, for the project of pursuing and implementing revolutionary reforms that are needed for our very survival.  All the things we must do to survive our intersectional crises, redefined as resistance and rebellion against this corrupt, evil, self-serving racist system, are our infrastructure for transforming it.  The water will show us the way.


[i] Mahler’s piece brilliantly summarizes the ways the unsustainable, racist and unjust ‘tale of two cities’ dynamic is created (in Detroit as well): “ The roots of today’s divided New York can be traced back to the fiscal crisis of the 1970s. With manufacturing and tourism in decline, the city’s tax base was shrinking, prompting cuts to services like policing and garbage collection. Middle-class New Yorkers began fleeing to the suburbs. Immigration was slowing, further limiting economic growth. New York was going broke. The city’s sprawling network of public institutions, subsidized housing and mass transit were no longer the tent poles of a great working-class city; they were unaffordable emblems of the excesses of big government.

Washington refused to bail the city out. Instead, it was the private sector that came to the rescue. In the 1930s, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia spent his Sundays driving around New York, thinking of things his government could build. Fifty years later, the city’s leaders left it to private actors, offering generous incentives to anyone who would build something, employ someone or help repair some public institution. By the most visible measures, the plan worked. Old single-room-occupancy hotels became luxury co-ops; new glass skyscrapers like Trump Tower rose; neighborhoods were rediscovered and reinvented. Central Park was reborn. People from all over the world again flocked to the city, to visit and to live. But there was a problem. What had been a blueprint for emergency action had become the playbook for managing the city.” (emphasisadded)