Anarchism in Interesting Times
Last night as I lay in bed, drifting in and out of consciousness, there was something nudging the back of my mind, some subconscious function that refused to let me drift off to the land of nod. I felt like I had forgotten something really important but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I went over the moments before I went to bed in my head. I’d brushed my teeth, made sure the front and back doors were locked, switched off all electrical appliances and turned off the lights. Then it hit me. I’d forgotten to leave the taps running. I’d have to get up out of my warm comfortable bed to rectify the problem. Drat.
Leaving the taps running all night is almost a way of life for me. Like tens of thousands of other citizens of the Irish state, I wouldn’t feel right going off to sleep without the soothing sound of running water coming from the kitchen and the bathroom. Sometimes I leave them running when I go on holiday, just for the craic. I’ve often thought about taking it to the next level and flooding the entire house so I can paddle around on an airbed. Unfortunately that environmentally minded government of ours has decided to start charging us for water. Damn them and their conservationist outlook. Damn those bureaucrats in the department of the environment and local government. Damn Phil “Captain Planet” Hogan and his crusade to save the world.
All of that is obviously nonsense, yet, that is the picture that is being painted by the propagandists of the ruling coalition and, Irish Water. Yesterday, the Irish Minister for Public Expenditure, Brendan Howlin, said that water charges “will genuinely be a conservation measure.” The Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, chimed in to say that “water is one natural resource that has been very much abused in this country — taps left running needlessly for hours when they might not need to be… So the water metering programme is a conservation measure in itself.” (My emphasis). This morning, on newstalk breakfast, Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton, spoke of people leaving the taps running all night.
The repetition of this idea reminds me of the education strike in the US television series “House of Cards”. With the show’s anti-hero, Frank Underwood on the ropes in his fight against the teachers’ unions, his wife Claire suggests the term “disorganised labour” could be used as a rhetorical meme that would act to subliminally discredit the workers. In clips of news and current affairs programmes, we see government spokespeople repeating the phrase, until it becomes part of the national vocabulary. That is what is going on here with the idea that people are leaving their taps running all the time. We have a government who is clearly on the ropes, repeating a clearly ridiculous idea in the hope of influencing the public discourse on water charges. The alternative is that we are actually governed by people who believe that everyone leaves their taps on all night.
The idea that people are wasteful of things they don’t have to pay for however, is not just useful to the powers that be in terms of winning the battle on water charges. It is an essential part of the ideology of capital, whose aim is to spread the scope of a society where all we can see are things and their prices. A public water supply that is funded by the pooled resources of the population, is a little bit of communism at the heart of our capitalist nation. If people are wasteful when things are free, then a pricing mechanism can be portrayed as a corrective for human nature. If on the other hand, people have the ability to use a free public resource without reckless abandon and without greedily grabbing more than they need, it raises all sorts of implications.
Water is a basic human right. It is a necessity of life. If we agree that it should be free on that basis, and we are responsible enough not to waste it, then other necessities of life could be looked at in the same way. Right up there with water, is food. If food were free it would hurt a lot of corporations, but it would prevent the scenario where billions of people around the world suffer for the lack of it. It would mean there was no profit from marketing high calorie unhealthy foods, and we could produce just enough to feed everyone. As things stand, in this spectacular society where price regulates all desire, one third of the food we produce is wasted. Supermarkets dump tonnes of out of date food every day. In 2012 the UK, Tesco alone, threw away 28,500 tonnes of food, while this year three people faced prosecution for taking discarded food from a bin at an Iceland supermarket.
When government spokespeople tell us that water is being wasted, they are correct. However, as with food, the big waster is not the likes of you or me. Forty percent of our treated water is lost through leakage from our dodgy system of pipes. Despite the fact that we had over two decades of boom, when according to the mainstream media, “we all partied” (no doubt while every tap in the house was running at full blast), nothing was done about our water infrastructure. All the while, the wealth produced by workers here was leaking out of the country to tax havens at the behest of the multinational corporations. At the same time, big business, in industry and agriculture is wasting and polluting the water supply.
Tonight, when you’re lying in bed, it’s unlikely the thought that you forgot to leave the taps turned on will be keeping you awake. It’s more likely to be the thought of how you are going to pay for the water you use, on top of the gas, electricity, food, your rent or mortgage and all those other necessities that others have put a price on. I’m not wasting water, neither are you or your family, your friends or your neighbours. We all know this to be true and it’s high time we challenged the idea that we are the wasters and refuse to buy their propaganda or pay for our water.