On Possession, Use, and Financialized Infrastructure

From the Series: Temporary Possession

Photo by Rebecca Empson.

Water privatization? No, thank you!

Above is an image created by the activist network Berlin’s Water Table (Berliner Wassertisch) in the lead-up to an unprecedented local referendum in 2011, which forced the city to remunicipalize its water utility after over a decade of partial privatization. Striking here is the depiction of a mundane infrastructure (a tap), an ordinary resource (a drop of water), and a vociferous shark, euro-sign gracing its eye. Let us keep this image in mind as we consider who uses infrastructure and the water flowing through it, as well as who is deemed its possessor in an age of financialized infrastructure.

Water is increasingly presented as the “the petroleum of the next century,” as Goldman Sachs has put it, and “as the single most important physical commodity based asset class [soon dwarfing] oil, copper, agricultural commodities and precious metals.” Such delirious predictions of water’s future value abound and have had banks, pension fund managers, and elite private equity firms—the “new water barons,” as Jo-Shing Yang has called them—buy up shares in public water works, especially in larger urban areas in middle-income countries. This huge global liquidity is intersecting with regimes of austerity that have seen cash-strapped cities and municipalities raise money through debt financing as their infrastructures have crumbled (Bear 2017). As a German engineer allied with Berlin’s Water Table put it to me, this turn to global investors to borrow cheaply on international capital markets has had cities, indeed whole countries, exhibit a kind of “pawnshop mentality” as they partially sell off some of their most valuable goods, like public infrastructures, for a short-term monetary fix. After all, the borrowing from global investors comes with a government-backed guarantee of returns that in the long run ends up increasing, not decreasing, government debt.

But the long run does not matter in a financialized economy orbiting around quick returns. Global investors can rely on states making sure that these payments are furnished by the end users who pay ever increasing sums for this vital resource. If they don’t, it is the water utility that shuts off water supply, the police that represses protesters, and the courts that fine the indigent. The wealth generated through the financialization of water infrastructures is thus generated and guaranteed through its trickling up from the level of the household to already wealthy global investors (Bayliss 2014).

One can conceptualize this global push toward the financialization of infrastructure as a frontier-in-the-making, insofar as individual households have become central extractive points for predatory capital. Frontiers, after all, are never just made at peripheries but also in our midst. As household payments for utilities (energy, water, phone) are increasingly bundled and traded on global markets (Beggs, Bryan, and Rafferty 2014, 982), they have become anchors to which the global financial system is attached (Leyshon and Thrift 2007, 98). Today, it is often at the level of the household where “terra nullius is continuously being declared, as if for the first time” (Cooper and Mitropolous 2009, 5). Here, wealth is extracted, bit by bit, in the form of ever increasing fees and bills. Hence the image above: the shark greedily swallowing the little drop represents the pressure point where predatory finance intersects with household wealth. As ordinary people consume this resource, the sharks lie in wait.

But how does one make such lucrative frontiers? First, public services must be transformed and turned into tradeable assets in the global marketplace. This is achieved through a specific corporate form, the public–private partner­ship, which “institutionalizes the privilege of (often distant) creditors” (Peck and Whiteside 2016, 246) for decades through long-term secret contracts that allow for these ostensibly public infrastructures to be designed, built, operated and/or maintained for private gain.

The concept of usufruct is useful here because it allows for the disaggregation of use from possession. The water activists I met all over Europe have argued that the public–private partnership relies on a severance of proprietorship from use. Although public–private partnerships are constructed in ways that allow for the public sector to continue to own around 51 percent of the shares and to thus appear as possessors, water activists argue that it is distant creditors who are now the real owners of water while they, the everyday users, ultimately pay for shareholders’ profits. For them, the register of partnership obscures not only the question of true ownership but also the predatory forms of accumulation that have been set in motion through the liberal fantasy of contractual equality (qua partnership), as well as the secret private contracts upon which this corporate edifice hinges (Bear 2017).

Yet even as frontiers of accumulation are mechanisms of capture, they are zones of struggle as well. Financialized water infrastructures are particularly volatile fault lines of expropriation that often propel new, resistant collectivities. Plunder, in short, is met with revolt, such that the financialization of water can become a vehicle for the theorization of the limits of this particular market. Or, put differently, it opens up the possibility that water may, at times at least, refuse liquefaction even in these most liquid of markets (Cooper and Mitropolous 2009, 368).

The refusals I have encountered in my exploration of struggles for public water in Europe come in the form of German water activists who have insisted on their infrastructure as “social”—built over many decades by citizens’ labor and taxes and thus owned by them. They have come in the form of Irish water protesters who organized mass protests against the metering and billing of water while insisting that they were already paying for water through taxes. These protesters insisted on the indivisibility of water as a collectively held resource funded and paid for via the collective fisc. They have also come in the form of the Italian water movement, which insisted on water as owned by all and none: a vision of water as commons (bene comune) that ought never be appropriated or possessed but instead only used. The liquid frontier, in short, is one at which dispossession and the question of property, use and the possibility of life beyond property, come to life.


Bayliss, Kate. 2014. “The Financialization of Water.” Review of Radical Political Economy 46, no. 3: 292–307.

Bear, Laura. 2017. “‘Alternatives’ to Austerity: A Critique of Financialized Infrastructure in India and Beyond.” Anthropology Today 33, no. 5: 3–7.

Beggs, Mike, Dick Bryan, and Michael Rafferty.2014. “Shoplifters of the World Unite! Law and Culture in Financialized Times.” Cultural Studies and/of the Law 28, nos. 5–6: 976–96.

Cooper, Melinda, and Angela Mitropolous. 2009. “The Household Frontier.” Ephemera 9, no. 4: 363–68.

Leyshon, Andrew, and Nigel Thrift. 2007. “The Capitalization of Almost Everything: The Future of Finance and Capitalism.”Theory, Culture, and Society 24, nos. 7–8: 97–115.

Peck, Jamie, and Heather Whiteside. 2016. “Financializing Detroit.” Economic Geography 92, no. 3: 235–68.