Taking Back Naples

Je so' pazzo

Can the reelection of Naples's radical mayor serve as a springboard for revitalizing the Italian left?

Interview by

The Italian left has seen better days.

The country once boasted the West’s largest Communist Party, saw the vibrant social struggles of the 1968 and ’77 generations, and served as a laboratory of Marxist thinking that still informs European labor and feminist movements today. But today, the popular response to the crisis seems more muted in Italy than in countries like Spain, Greece, or Portugal.

The decline of the old Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the rise of the eclectic Five Star Movement (M5S) have together driven anger against Matteo Renzi’s governing Democratic Party (PD) in right-populist and xenophobic directions.

In the absence of mass struggles, the radical left has declined as an electoral force across most of the country, even despite the PD’s abandonment of social democracy in favor of a US-style corporate liberalism.

However, there is another side to the Italian situation. The June 19 elections also offered a sign of hope — the runoff elections in Naples saw radical mayor Luigi de Magistris reelected with a whopping 65 percent mandate in Italy’s third-largest city.

Defeating the right-wing candidate Gianni Lettieri — a businessman backed by both the PD and Silvio Berlusconi — De Magistris secured the Left’s biggest victory nationwide, in a city few would consider a red bastion like Turin or Milan.

Though left-wing forces cohered around a mayoral candidacy, the rise of the Left in Naples is not just an electoral phenomenon.

De Magistris first came to office in 2011 as a representative of a centrist anticorruption party, but the former anti-mafia magistrate has over the last five years increasingly built links with the city’s social movements. At one rally this spring De Magistris told Prime Minister Renzi “You should be afraid — you should be shitting yourself,” and he has spoken of creating an “Italian Podemos.”

The Naples mayor has also taken pioneering decisions at the local level at odds with the direction of national government policy. Not only has De Magistris attempted to tackle corruption within Naples’s administration, but he has also taken measures to address more conventional social issues, from resisting efforts to privatize public space to introducing environmental measures — even giving official recognition of occupied spaces and setting out plans for a €600 monthly minimum income for the unemployed.

Jacobin spoke to activists at Je so’ pazzo (ex-OPG), an occupied social center linked to the Clash City Workers collective about the charismatic mayor and the rise of the Left in Naples.

We discussed the state of social struggles in Naples, the possibility of De Magistris building a different model of city administration, and the prospects for building a left alternative to the PD on the nationwide scale.

De Magistris has links to the old left, but he has also spoken of building a “people’s movement” that includes center-left as well as moderate and right-wing voters. Is his election a victory for the Left, or simply a statement against the PD?

Je so' pazzo

It was a “people’s vote,” if we can put it like that, in the “Maoist” sense of the word.

There was certainly an anti-Renzi element to the vote — at last we saw a left-wing anti-Renzism, not simply the anti-Renzism of Matteo Salvini and the hard-right Northern League — and this acted as a catalyst for a broad range of different class interests.

Many workers, including blue-collar workers, voted for De Magistris, but so too did many segments of the middle classes who are very worried about the effects of the crisis and who feel ill-equipped to compete on a terrain where the stakes are becoming ever higher.

If it were possible to have a sociological analysis of the De Magistris vote, we would probably discover that it has a similar composition to the Oxi vote in the Greek referendum: workers, the precariously employed, the unemployed, students, but also small business owners and the impoverished middle classes.

It’s also important to note that De Magistris was not supported by any political party (except Rifondazione Comunista), either formally or informally. Technically, he put himself forward as the head of a non-party “civic” list, and his mayoral candidacy was then supported by other electoral lists.

All of this suggests that the vote for De Magistris was a left vote. It was heterogeneous in terms of its class makeup, but it expressed clear opposition to the direction in which the country is being taken by the dominant economic forces.

Perhaps, then, that photo of the mayor holding the flag of the old Italian Communist Party is representative of the course that things could take over the coming years.

How would you characterize the relationship between Naples’s social movements, Mayor De Magistris, and the national government?

Je so' pazzo

The relationship between the various social movements in Naples and De Magistris changed rapidly over the course of his first term (2011 to 2016).

At the beginning, he had little support from far left and activist groups, and even those that did support him more or less abandoned the De Magistris administration during its first three years due to its “legalistic” politics.

The turning point came when De Magistris was suspended from office due to technicalities relating to the Severino laws, which ban people from public office if they have a conviction relating to, or are in the process of being tried for, abuse of public office.

De Magistris was convicted of abuse of public office in 2014, a conviction which he then appealed and was absolved of, but attempts were made to remove him from power before he had exhausted his rights to appeal. He argued that this was unconstitutional.

It was in that period that De Magistris finally decided to frontally attack the Renzi government and the power bloc Renzi represents. Most importantly, it was also then that he decided to recognize the activities of the myriad groups involved in political struggle in Naples. The PD became De Magistris’s biggest enemy.

The outcome of this repositioning was an administration that recognizes the housing occupations in the city, which refuses to adhere to the dominant neoliberal ideology, which supports in words and in deeds the different liberation struggles across the world (such as the Palestinians’ and Kurds’ struggles), and finally which proposes itself as an alternative to the dominant power bloc. And so De Magistris went into the recent elections with the explicit or implicit support of almost all of the Neapolitan left and social movements.

However, the relationship between the mayor and the social movements of Naples is still under construction. We need to evaluate our strengths and think about what proposals we can realistically make.

We want to think about how we can construct a mechanism of “popular control” or rather, a people’s power that seeks to keep institutional power in check, but which also has ambitions of becoming a constitutive element of that power.

Popular democratic control means putting the demands of the people to the decision makers, and this is done by means of mass mobilization. It also means, however, learning to manage the city, understanding the mechanisms of decision making, and having the strength to enter into dialogue with the administration.

More than anything, however, it means being able to influence and inspire decisions, if not even defining the political agenda.

De Magistris, it seems, wants to open a space for dialogue, and so this was our main motivation for declaring support for his electoral campaign. Over time the mayor has become more radical in his political tendencies and perspectives — he has gradually opened up channels of discussion with struggles in the city, and in a certain sense been submerged (in a good sense) by them.

If you really begin to listen to the demands of the people and you understand that they are just, you will support their cause. We will see if this radicalization lasts.

But the longevity and the success of this process also depends on us, on how we will act in the future and how the struggles of these coming months and years will be built. If they are built well and built to last, it will be difficult for the administration to ignore them.

What are the most important struggles and social movements in Naples? Are groups like the unemployed, youth, and immigrants heavily involved?

Je so' pazzo

The movement in Naples has been through the same phases as the national movement, although it also has its own particular characteristics.

For instance, the unemployed make up a considerable force in the city, especially given the progressive deindustrialization from the 1970s onwards. Their movements have also displayed some original elements in terms of their forms of organization, which are without precedent in Italy. We can also say that the current situation in some senses seems to represent a break with the past.

The years following the police murder of Carlo Giuliani at the 2001 G8 summit protests were very difficult. Not so much because there was an absence of mass mobilizations, but because it was extremely difficult to make the more radical demands of the G8 mobilization accessible to “normal” people — the very people who were most affected by the neoliberal policies.

The repressive policies were very effective. In 2008 and in 2010 there were sizeable student mobilizations, and this movement gave birth to many of the organizations which are still active today, but the impact of these student mobilizations on wider society was still relatively marginal.

Today, as a result of the crisis and the worsening of living conditions in general — but also thanks to the city’s various social movements — it seems that some issues are gaining traction in Neapolitan society.

Many very important struggles are being fought out in Naples: the fight against the requalification of the area which used to house the steelworks in Bagnoli, for example, but also the struggles around the many housing occupations, the reappropriation of abandoned spaces, the fight against the privatization and mismanagement of the refuse system and its devastating environmental effects … we could give countless examples.

Sometimes these mobilizations dissipate once the objective has been reached, or in more unfortunate cases when they are defeated. In the last few years, however, it would seem that among everyone involved there is an increasing will to move these mobilizations onto a broader or more unified political platform.

For example, if a housing complex is occupied, the objective is not just to protect that single space, but rather to use this as a springboard from which to form a collective movement around local housing policy and access to social housing which has the aim of effecting legislative change. And the same applies to other struggles.

We would say that in Naples things are moving in this direction. Everything that we do here in the ex-OPG occupation is motivated by this same attitude, and it seems to us that this attitude is now widespread.

In general, the subjective forces that we seek to mobilize, and the people “the movement” in general seeks to address, themselves participate in struggles and very often act autonomously.

There have been many migrant-led struggles in Naples (for instance a few years ago there was a movement of logistics workers which was primarily led by migrants who had been hired illegally or who had contracts which were effectively false).

We would add, though, that for reasons relating to the city’s particular social and economic conditions, migrants have remained perhaps more marginalized in terms of being involved in the planning and leading of mobilizations than they are in other contexts, such as in central-north Italy.

Even school-age students seem to be much more willing to listen and participate, compared to some years ago. For some time now in Italy we have been facing a program of particularly damaging reforms, and the school reforms are one of the starkest examples of this. Now we are beginning to see the revolt.

But in order to maximize the potentials of these new political tendencies, to “stabilize” them, we need to be able to present concrete solutions. This is what we, as a political organization, are seeking to do.

What do you think of the project to redevelop the former industrial area at Bagnoli?

Je so' pazzo

The “redevelopment project” for the Bagnoli area is simply an attempt to give a euphemistic name to what is actually a process of real estate speculation; the exploitation and privatization of what could be public space.

It could be turned into parks, a public beach, a space used for activities open to all citizens. The requalification plan for the Bagnoli area is a classic example of the appropriation and fencing-off of space.

We need to make clear that we would like the space to be redeveloped and don’t want it to be left to waste, but what we want is for this development to be transparent. We want it to be a development controlled by citizens, by the people and the workers, and not by the usual speculators granted public contracts at rock-bottom prices because they use dangerously low-quality materials and cut costs by skimping on workers’ contracts and conditions.

One of the reasons why we have supported De Magistris is because he has, up to now, managed to stand up to the government. He has turned the redevelopment of Bagnoli into a point of political contention.

There is still everything to play for, but it is possible that this will become a real thorn in the side of the Renzi government, something that contributes to the weakening of his rule — if so, we will be there to cheer it on.

There is much to be done, but the fight for Bagnoli is alive and kicking and has an important presence in the city.

It seems that tourism is an increasing force in Naples. Does the influx of tourists make life more difficult for locals?

Je so' pazzo

Not particularly, at least for now. Although it can also be said that the city is not immune to the processes which we have witnessed, or are witnessing, in other big cities across Europe.

Tourism is a double-edged sword. Although it can offer opportunities to the city and to its workers, it can also erode it or hollow it out.

This is particularly true in those cases where tourism is more intense and therefore more brutal, something which is sometimes called “the Venice effect.” It can rob citizens and working people of space, which is then used to make profit for others, especially in cases of luxury tourism.

We can say that the same rule applies to tourism as in many other aspects of life: appropriation for profit will always, in general, impact negatively on the living conditions of the working class.

Essentially, the important thing is that tourism does not become the primary foundation of the economy of a city, region, or country. It is when this happens that tourism begins to hollow out towns and cities, and it becomes one of the driving forces of gentrification.

The people must decide when tourism becomes unsustainable, when it ceases to be an opportunity compatible with how they want to live their lives and begins to be a constraint.

When it starts to force people out of their homes and communities, when rents become too high, and the inhabitants begin to feel like foreigners in their own neighborhood, then it is time to take control.

How influential is the question of immigration and xenophobia in Naples’s political life, and what does De Magistris say about it?

Je so' pazzo

This is indeed an important question. Naples is a city with many migrant communities and some of these date back more than thirty years.

In Naples, migrants have led many important struggles — regarding housing, the reception system for refugees, antiwar movements, and so on — and migrants have also played key organizational roles in mobilizations. Furthermore, there have been many revolts against the living conditions in the migrant reception and detention centers.

De Magistris has always asserted the importance of antiracist values, but it is important to have clear practical solutions to the problems faced by migrants in Naples.

The way you can do that is by attempting to force improvements in the short term, while also seeking to make fundamental structural changes to the reception and asylum system. The processes of outsourcing services within the asylum and reception system must be closely monitored, as should the conditions within the buildings where migrants are forced to live, and where change is needed it must be brought about.

It is not a case of improving the functioning of the reception and asylum system, but rather a case of opening it up so that all the contradictions created by the profiteering that lies behind the European management of migration policy can be exposed.

In the last few months, for example, we have opened a legal advice drop-in for migrants, and through the course of this work we have really come to understand the scope of the business which profits off the backs of migrants seeking to regularize their stay.

Many of them — almost all of them in fact — are forced to pay extortionate sums to agencies and other entities to carry out procedures which are actually routine. This is due to difficulties with language and with understanding the incredibly complex bureaucracy (which is often, in fact, a tool of repression).

The more dishonest of these agencies not only fail to resolve their clients’ problems but, as a result of their incompetence or their lust for profit, can even create more problems for them, endangering whole families who risk becoming illegal.

We have also recently begun an initiative in collaboration with some other organizations, deploying citizens to monitor the conditions in the immigration reception centers. So to sum up, there is a lot of work to be done on this front, and we are convinced that this is an area where the local administration may be able to effect radical change.

Returning to De Magistris – could we say that his administration has a certain tendency to invoke “radical” reference points (the Zapatistas, Podemos, and so on) but then in practice carry out a more conventionally social-democratic policy?

Je so' pazzo

We don’t believe that De Magistris is a revolutionary, nor do we believe that a process of that kind is under way in Naples or anywhere else.

Rather, we think that the cities which have elected radical left administrations represent, in some sense, a precedent for the renegotiating of some of the rules, with national governments, and maybe even with the EU authorities.

The fact that De Magistris has radicalized his agenda over time is the fruit of the work of citizens and activists, of a political maturation on our part and on the part of many different groups and movements who have sought to raise the bar, politically speaking.

Through their and our actions, some political forces have been pushed into becoming more radical, because it became impossible to ignore the fact that the city is preparing to fight.

De Magistris’s radicalism could turn out to be a flash in the pan, and his administration certainly displays many similarities to a social-democratic program — perhaps more akin to those of the beginning of the twentieth century than to those from twenty to thirty years ago.

But if it is possible to stabilize those more radical elements — which derive from the fact that the mayor has opened himself up to the demands of the movements of the city — and if it is possible to build a national movement which is not personalized, then we may actually have the possibility of providing concrete alternatives to current conditions.

In this historical moment we have the capacity to fill political life with our own political content, and so succeed in making something really radical out of struggles born from the concrete needs of the population.

For now, it seems that radicalism is taking a lead over social democracy, partly because we are living through a heavily reactionary moment and in part because the work by comrades and organizations engaged in struggles has allowed a series of breakthroughs.

We think that remaining aware of this difference can help us to build a political organization which can really make these experiences flourish, which can bring the old and disillusioned electorate back into the fold.

Despite its strength in Rome and Turin, the Five Star Movement does not seem very strong in Naples. Why is it unable to challenge De Magistris?

Je so' pazzo

Very few people voted for the Five Star Movement in Naples.

De Magistris took a lot of votes away from the Five Star Movement because he essentially occupied their terrain, and yet had an advantage because he also has more to offer — an ideology.

From De Magistris’s discourse we can make out an idea which can become a political project. The Five Star Movement does not have this, and in fact it rejects entirely the value of having a political project.

The De Magistris vote is evidence of the fact that “post-ideological” parties easily wither away when someone is able to insert their claims into a broader and more precisely orientated political framework. It shows the necessity of adhering to a more comprehensive political project.

This, we believe, is not because we “need ideology,” but because ideology is what gives clear direction to our ideas; it is how we recognize ourselves and identify ourselves.

The Naples PD leaders called for a vote for businessman Gianni Lettieri against De Magistris in the runoff. But did the former members and supporters of the Communist Party (most of which flowed into the PD over the 1990s–2000s) also side with Lettieri, i.e., the right-wing candidate?

Je so' pazzo

In answering this question, it is useful to recount what happened during the “popular control” initiative we mentioned earlier, which we ran on the day of the election.

The activists of the ex-OPG Je so’ pazzo occupation — along with other organizations and many ordinary citizens — ran a monitoring program at the polling stations in order to observe and report the electoral irregularities which are unfortunately all too common here in Naples.

For example, the distribution of campaign materials at the polling stations is strictly forbidden, and yet supporters of Lettieri (and the PD’s first-round candidate Valeria Valente) did not heed this rule.

This “popular control” was important because we were able to see with our own eyes the arrogance with which these actors behave. We were threatened more than once, often with physical violence. We received insults and in some cases we were even thrown out of the polling stations.

But we also received thanks from many ordinary citizens, including many older people who declared themselves to be past comrades and supporters of the PCI, saying they saw us as a beacon of hope as we reminded them of mobilizations past.

We have many reasons to disagree with the politics of the old PCI, but we also recognize that they had a capacity to organize and mobilize the people that is far from our current reality, and which we must rebuild. We must involve the sections of the electorate that were part of that experience.

We are inspiring participation among the younger generation, but we must also rebuild a relationship with the older generations. They must be torn away from the cynicism and disillusion that is rife among older people. That generation has a wealth of memories, experiences, and skills which could be of great value to us.

We believe, therefore, that the answer to this question is not a simple yes or no.

We believe that part of this electorate feels represented by the struggles of the past few years in Naples, struggles which have spoken to the entire city.

From the housing crisis to the defense of common spaces, and to the fight for Bagnoli, and then in the myriad different workplace struggles which included some important strategic sectors (Alenia in industry and Almaviva in the service sector, to name but two), these struggles were able to reach out to a broader section of the city, and they found people who were willing to listen.

This electorate feels close (even if only in a passive way) to these experiences of struggle, and they voted for the person who was most seen to defend them.

So the vote for De Magistris will produce something positive only if there is a will to fight among the population, and only if we can find a space in which to organize and where it is possible to break down the boundaries that all too often limit struggle.

De Magistris has spoken (however vaguely) of building an Italian Podemos. Do you think what’s happening in Naples can be compared to other European experiences like Barcelona, and can it spread to a nationwide scale?

Je so' pazzo

We think that this is, in fact, the real challenge of our times.

In autumn, for example, there will be a referendum on the constitutional reforms proposed by Renzi. It is of great importance that these reforms are challenged, not only in order to destabilize the current government as much as possible, but also to open up the debate and make people aware of the damage that the reforms will do to our democracy.

Furthermore, the reforms that have been proposed in key sectors of public life (education, the workplace, immigration, now health and in the future higher education), for us, highlight the importance of extending the Naples experience.

What has happened in Naples is that there has been an attempt to make social struggle the deciding influence on the decisions of the administration. This, however, must be repeated across the country and not confined to a single city.

The mayor’s call for greater autonomy for the city of Naples is instrumental to this, and this is perhaps the difference with the Barcelona experience.

Here in Naples there is an attempt to create a new political model, to show that it is possible to make improvement to the lives of all citizens the central concern of the political agenda.

This model must seek to repeal the recent labor reforms; to create an education system that is effective rather than focusing on unpaid internships which have next to no educational value; and to build a high quality public health system that is free to all.

These processes of reform, however, also involve other European countries, and if connecting with other cities across Europe who are following a similar path is something that can be useful then we welcome it.

It would be useful to be able to make comparisons with the experiences of other local administrations, so that we can take advantage of the commonalities found in the shared political position of opposition to European budget-rigor policies and antisocial austerity. For us it is crucial that these demands are generalized at the national level, and so we see this as one of our most important tasks.

We understand, however, that no single mayor has the capacity to achieve this shift without the backing of a mass popular mobilization, able to embody the experiences of struggle, to cultivate them in order to guarantee them a voice and a constant presence in the everyday life of a country.

This is our political project for the country: to have the people finally speak.

Could you briefly explain the role of the Camorra (Mafia) in Naples’s political and economic life?

Je so' pazzo

No. It is very difficult to give an account of how this phenomenon has developed.

The Neapolitan Mafia operates on many different levels, and it is not the case that the most visible and violent elements represent its worst or most characteristic aspects.

The Camorra which scares us the most is the one operating within the spheres of formal politics and government, managing to push its own agenda by directing political actors and exercising its influence over the parties in power, especially those on the Right.

This relationship with the world of formal politics does not, however, depend on an ideological connection. We are not so naïve as to believe that criminals of this kind are influenced by ideology.

The hard right has always courted these criminal circles, offering them impunity and opportunity. In some cases — for example, the case of Giuseppe Misso, boss of the Sanità district in the 1980s — the relationship has even been solidified and formalized.

The Camorra — inasmuch as it is an organization which seeks to wield power — seeks to infiltrate the political parties which are the most influential, which can cause the most damage, and which can guarantee them the greatest room to maneuver. Failing that, they seek to influence politics by means of threats and corruption.

Rome is a paradigmatic example in this regard. There, organized crime even infiltrated Democratic Party circles.

When we speak of the Camorra we are essentially speaking about this. This is a different matter to speaking about illegal labor and the crime syndicates that exploit workers. This is something which we prefer to view from the good old perspective of class.

Here, we have people from the proletarian or sub-proletarian classes who, in legal, semi-legal, and illegal ways, sell their labor in exchange for a wage, with the difference being, at the level of class consciousness, that the “boss” in this case is connected to a world of violence and criminality.

We are not able to intervene in this issue. However, in the years in which the Left was strong, and in particular the extra-parliamentary left and movements representing the unemployed, it was possible to reach out to some segments of this “world” and involve them in the struggle.

What we have tried to do, indeed not without success, is to denounce the illegal practices that take place outside the polling booths on election day. We named this practice “popular control.” In doing this we were able to see how, even at the most basic level, some criminal elements seek to push the vote in a certain direction.