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Infrastructural relations: Water, political power and the rise of a new 'despotic regime'

Veronica Strang
Institute of Advanced Study, Durham University, Durham, UK; veronica.strang@durham.ac.uk

ABSTRACT: It is 60 years since Karl Wittfogel highlighted a key relationship between political power and the ownership and control of water. Subsequent studies have suggested, commensurately, that exclusion from the ownership of essential resources represents a fundamental form of disenfranchisement – a loss of democratic involvement in societal direction. Several areas of theoretical development have illuminated these issues. Anthropologists have explored the recursive relationship between political arrangements and cosmological belief systems. Narrow legal definitions of property have been challenged through the consideration of more diverse ways of owning and controlling resources. Analyses of material culture have shown how it extends human agency, as well as having agentive capacities itself; and explorations of infrastructures have highlighted their role in composing socio-technical and political relations. Such approaches are readily applied to water and the material culture through which it is controlled and used. Drawing on historical and ethnographic research on water in Australia and the UK, this paper traces changing relationships between cosmological beliefs, infrastructure and political arrangements over time. It suggests that a current trend towards privatised, transnational water ownership potentially opens the door to the emergence of new 'despotic regimes'.

KEYWORDS: Water ownership, water governance, human-nonhuman relations, UK, Australia