Escaping the Dead Ends

Viola Carofalo

A new party formed ahead of this weekend’s Italian election is looking to overcome a decade of failure by the country’s left.

An aerial view of Naples, Italy. Pablo Cabezos / Flickr

Interview by
Stefanie Prezioso

The picture in the build-up to this Sunday’s Italian election seems gloomy. The rise of the racist Lega, part of Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition, has been accompanied by sharpening reactionary rhetoric from the Five Star Movement. The same is also true of the Democrats, a party that moves further toward the center-right even as young and working-class voters abandon it. The traditional center-left has never been weaker.

However, one promising movement that has arisen in the run-up to the election is Potere al popolo (Power to the People; PaP). PaP seeks to offer new hope for the radical left after more than a decade of marginalization. Despite its modest poll numbers, its protagonists hope PaP’s foundation marks the beginning of a new generation of militants leading the way in reorganizing a Left that has too long been absent from society.

PaP was launched in November 2017 by members of the Ex-OPG, a social center in Naples. Since the launch, 150 local assemblies have been organized across Italy to create a new nationwide network. A number of different political or civil society organizations are taking part, from social centers and militant unions to political parties of the radical left.

Stéfanie Prezioso of Switzerland’s solidaritéS discussed its prospects for the March 4 election and after with PaP’s thirty-seven-year-old spokeswoman, Viola Carofalo. Here we present the first half of the interview.

Stefanie Prezioso

What kind of mobilizations within Italian society led to the creation of Potere al Popolo?

Viola Carofalo

If the Left has been in somewhat of a crisis for some years, the extra-parliamentary left has continued to be active. There are the rank-and-file workers’ organizations, for example, the Cobas (Base Committees), which first started to appear in the 1980s as a more radical alternative to the large confederate unions. These “base” unions have grown in membership numbers in recent years, particularly in sectors like logistics where the confederations are weak and where working conditions are particularly exploitative.

While the CGIL confederation has maintained its links with the Democratic Party, as heir to the Communist Party, these autonomous unions have been much more active in their opposition to government policy. We saw this in particular with the “flexibilizing” Jobs Act. But the smaller radical unions established by these workers have no party to serve as a point of reference. Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation Party) did have this role in the early years of its life, but it ceased to be a reference point for the militant labor movement in the 2000s when it joined the governments of the “center-left,” in fact led by the architects of Italian neoliberalism.

There are also support organizations for migrants — a lot of the social centers in particular offer support to migrants, or for people with housing needs, though workers’ struggles, housing struggles, and struggles for migrant rights are of course all very interlinked. You have organizations, including trade unions or renters’ unions, which occupy empty buildings to house homeless families or asylum seekers — this happens in cities across Italy.

The Ex-OPG, for example, was part of a national organization called Clash City Workers, a group of militants who came together with the objective of promoting a politics based on class analysis within the Left. We wrote a book some years ago about classes in Italy which is called Dove sono i nostri, meaning “Who is the Working Class Today,” where we argued that labor organizing needs to radically change its approach in order to adapt to current circumstances where work is predominantly unstable and consolidated groups of militant workers are more difficult to come by.

Although there are these militant left organizations, which have developed skills for working at a local level and at responding to social issues, there is an incapacity to influence national institutions, a disconnect from the realm of formal politics. Since the decline of Rifondazione Comunista, there has been a missing link.

We need to not only reconstitute the Italian left but to open it up to the working classes and the dispossessed that have not felt represented by the Left but rather by the Five Star Movement, or even the Lega. If it is true that these parties are trying to shake off the excesses of right-wing populism to become more mainstream, their rising fortunes in recent years can still be seen as a symptom of a political crisis which shows no sign of resolving itself in the near future.

We are entering a different phase from that of the last three decades, and the Left needs to be prepared. The M5S and even the Right in many ways occupy a space that the Left should have been occupying, but the recent collapse of the PD and the mainstreaming of the M5S and the far right could represent an opening. Until now, a disjuncture between social movements and formal politics has created a kind of deadlock for the Left. We think, however, that Potere al Popolo could be the missing link.

So our decision to form Potere al Popolo owed to our understanding of the current political situation. The political landscape in Italy is particularly grim. The entire mainstream has moved significantly to the right, and we were essentially faced with an absence of any real left alternative. But our approach has always been to say, we will never abandon the field without putting up a fight, we are willing to fight on any terrain and to resist on every front.

We called a meeting for November 18, which attracted more than eight hundred people from all over the country. This involved young activists in search of a broader political project, but also those not-so-young who were disillusioned after decades of dead ends and in search of a new inspiration. Out of this national meeting the local assemblies were born, and a wave of mobilization was set in motion. In only a few weeks more than 150 local meetings had been organized, and more and more organizations and people began to get involved.

Stefanie Prezioso

How does the Ex-OPG social center inform PaP’s politics?

Viola Carofalo

The fact that Potere al Popolo was launched by an organization which has a reputation of successful action in a particular locality, is, we hope, significant. We think that the Ex-OPG, along with similar examples across the country, can provide the model for a new kind of political involvement.

The social center was first opened in 2015 by a coalition of political collectives, including the Clash City Workers and a student group called the Collettivo Autorganizzato Universitario. Before we occupied the Ex-OPG we rented a space to hold our political events and fundraising gigs, but we were struggling to make ends meet. Our events were always attended by the same kind of people; we felt like our political activity was having little impact.

We realized we needed to come out from underground, so to speak. We occupied the Ex-OPG (an old psychiatric asylum which had been empty for more than five years, owned by the prison service). And the first thing we did was to speak to the local community, to invite them in and to say, “What do you think we should do with this space, what activities or services are useful for the community?”

We began to rebuild the place and set up activities. We have a gym, a medical clinic, a theater, an after-school club, an Italian school, a library, a legal clinic, and so on. In this way we wanted to depart from a tendency that we see in some parts of the Left in Italy, towards closing itself off from the rest of society, almost a kind of siege mentality. What we have done with the OPG is an experiment which we think could form the basis for a different way of doing politics. Through the activities that are carried out here, we are trying to create a method for political education and formation based on horizontal dialogue; we are creating forms of community self-government.

But if opening the Ex-OPG was our way of coming out from underground, we are not content to stop there. When we think about the major obstacles currently facing the Left, we cannot avoid turning to reflect on the national sphere. At the local level, there is a Left that works at managing social problems left unattended by the state or by the traditional organs of labor.

Rank-and-file unions and tenants’ unions exist nationwide, and in the South there is a long tradition of mutual-aid organizations — much of it connected to the Catholic Church but also initiatives from the Left. Of course, the Communist Party had a rich tradition of mutual-aid organizations, for peasants and agricultural workers in the South, for example, and then there were the Case del Popolo, the “houses of the people,” which were the community spaces where people could eat and socialize together, that functioned as a means of aiding community cohesion.

At the Ex-OPG we prefer to use the term “Casa del Popolo,” rather than the more recent term “social center.” We take inspiration from these examples of mutual-aid initiatives and community organizing, which were perhaps particularly strong in the South because here unemployment and a lack of state infrastructure are perennial problems. With a relative absence of big industries, the Left was less focused on industrial disputes and more on social demands.

In the seventies and eighties, for example, there was the famous free canteen for children here in Naples, set up by Lotta Continua and called the Mensa dei Bambini Proletari (the working-class children’s canteen). It was in the spirit of this tradition that we set up the volunteer-run medical clinic and medicine dispenser at the Ex-OPG — access to health care is a real problem here in Naples.

Stefanie Prezioso

How did you choose the name?

Viola Carofalo

“Potere al Popolo,” or “power to the people,” is simply the literal translation of the real sense of democracy. The word “democracy” has become hollow for many people, many understand it as merely the act of voting every five years for a party that appears to be little different from the others.

The tendency of politics in times of crisis has been to increasingly restrict democracy; to remove more and more decision-making capacities from elected bodies, concentrating power in the executive or putting it into the hands of unelected organs of state and even representatives of private business and finance. The European Union is the perfect example of the neoliberal hatred of democracy in action.

With the phrase “power to the people,” we want to convey the message that the decisions that affect our lives and our communities should be ours to take collectively. It has reached the point where, here in Italy, we do not even have a say in where we make our home, as we are forced to travel in search of a means of survival.

We cannot decide to have a family, because we are at the mercy of our employers, who have ever-greater powers to hire and fire at will, to keep us on precarious contracts, or we have no employment and we lack access to social security because the welfare system has been dismantled. We do not decide how public money is spent, and we cannot stop it from being taken away. In Naples, for example, the local administration’s access to funds has been blocked by the national government since January as a result of unpaid debts dating back to emergency spending for earthquake relief in 1980. Why should we young Neapolitans be made accountable for a debt contracted years before we were born?

And obviously the big decisions concerning economic and foreign policy are far beyond our reach. A democracy is not a democracy if it is only so in a formal sense. Real democracy must have more substance to it, it must be radical in that it begins at the roots. It means putting power in the hands of the community, of the people. Power thus has a positive connotation, it means the possibility to do and create. For us this is a right of every human being, regardless of race, gender, or ability, a right which cannot be denied.

Stefanie Prezioso

What are the main elements of your political program?

Viola Carofalo

The program’s most fundamental aspect is the call for the restoration of labor protections and the reversal of the destructive reforms of the last twenty-five years. We call for the abolition of the Jobs Act [a package of labor reforms consisting of several rounds of legislation], the reversal of the increase in the pension age, and the end of the so-called “Good School” educational reform introduced by [Matteo] Renzi. The Good School reform has introduced compulsory unpaid work experience of up to four hundred hours for school-age children, in businesses which sign up to the project. Any business can sign up to receive this free labor. McDonald’s, for example, is one of the partners. It has also made the contracts of teachers and other staff more precarious.

We are also calling for far greater investment in public services. We know that the money to do this exists; despite the crisis, some are still managing to become richer, as the wealth we produce as workers ends up in the hands of ever-fewer people (1 percent of Italians own 25 percent of Italy’s wealth). This owes to wage cuts and an unfair tax system, and we would remedy both with radical redistributive measures, starting with an end to tax breaks and aid to big business.

The Renzi and Gentiloni governments have given away over €40 billion to business in the last three years. And yet the mass of the population gets no benefit at all from these investments. Unemployment levels have not moved, and these handouts have simply ended up in the pockets of the already wealthy. And these sums are small compared to the money used to bail out the banks [in 2017, for example, €5.4 billion of public money was handed over to the Monte dei Paschi bank].

These choices are ideological — things can be done differently. That money could be used to invest in jobs and public services, in health care, in securing buildings against earthquakes, in improving the safety of the transport system (three people recently died in a train crash during rush hour just outside Milan, caused by neglected track maintenance).

Our public services here in Italy are in a dire state, especially when you compare them to other European countries. In Naples, access to public health care has become so difficult due to chronic underfunding that the nongovernmental organization Emergency, which runs foreign aid programs usually in the Global South, decided to open up three health care clinics. Privatization is also one of the key instruments that has been used to appropriate public wealth. We propose the re-nationalization of public services and key industries.

If the protection of workers’ rights is the core of our program, the theme that is dominating these elections is immigration. This has been a focus of our political activity here in Naples since the beginning. We believe that a person is a citizen of the place they decide to live in — this is the basic principle we work from. Asserting the idea of universal citizenship means a complete overhaul of the immigration processing system, approving laws on citizenship for children of migrants (the so-called “Jus Soli” law), abolishing immigration laws which make legal residency conditional on employment (the so-called “Bossi-Fini” law), effectively all the laws passed by governments in recent years in regards to immigration.

We are also calling for the abolition of the EU’s Dublin Regulation. We demand the dismantling of the — often criminal — business that has been created by the handing over of the management of immigration to the private sector. The management of the reception centers, designed as temporary “emergency” reception centers, is truly barbaric. It is essentially a reconstruction of the ghettos by private actors. The fact that there are people who are making profits from the appropriation of funds reserved for the reception system should be seen as a scandal.

We set up a system of inspections in the emergency reception centers, a practice which we call “popular control,” where we organize normal people from the community to go to the centers, hold meetings with the people living there in order to find out what the conditions are like, whether their rights are being respected, and whether they have access to basic services. Doing this, we have witnessed some horrific situations, where people are shut off in desolate places, deprived of even basic health care and subjected to forced labor akin to slavery.

Immigration has been dealt with for years as an “emergency,” but the real emergency is created by laws which make people so vulnerable that exploitation on a vast scale becomes the norm, that people are forced underground, into prostitution, to working for next to nothing, into crime and a situation where they are in constant danger of suffering violence. If immigration is the dominant issue of these elections, we believe the attack on migrant rights and the rise of racism is the emergency we must confront. We are also calling for Italy’s withdrawal from NATO, and from all current military missions, as well as for the removal of nuclear weapons from Italian soil.

Lastly, it is important to set out our views on the European Union. Though at the beginning it seemed that this would be a key theme of these elections, it has actually turned out not to be the case. Even the previously anti-EU parties like the 5 Star and the Northern League have gone quiet on this, and immigration seems to be taking up the whole of the electoral campaign.

We, however, understand that confronting this highly complex issue is a priority, and we are not going to brush it under the carpet, as all the mainstream parties are doing. If we are being painted by some as part of what gets called the “sovereigntist” anti-EU camp, we refuse this label. We are critical of the EU as an institution and of the eurozone. However, criticizing the form that the European Union currently takes does not necessitate a reification of the nation or the idolizing of state power — this is a false binary. In fact, the inability to separate criticism of the form that the EU takes from an assertion of national sovereignty framed in chauvinist and right-wing terms on the part of some on the Left has led it to cede ground to the Right on this issue.

In our program we do not talk about the need to leave the European Union, because, since we are far from power, we are far from being in a position in which it would be possible for a Left to set the terms of an exit. Instead we speak more specifically about our conviction that it is necessary to revoke the treaties of the European Union that were signed and implemented without the consent of the European people.

This most importantly concerns the Fiscal Compact, which imposes strict rules on eurozone countries on public debt, meaning that public debt is essentially centrally controlled from Brussels. It means socializing debt owed to private banks and privatizing public services; it has locked in, in other words, neoliberal economics into our constitution, with all the social consequences this entails. These measures, and the democratic deficit, must go as a necessary condition for any debate on reform.

Stefanie Prezioso

On February 3, there was a shocking attack as a former Lega candidate drove around the city of Macerata shooting at any black people he could find, before fascist saluting and being captured by police. Politicians, however, immediately inserted this into a narrative of the “migration crisis.” Polls show a cross-party anti-immigration consensus. What role do these questions play in your politics?

Viola Carofalo

Providing material and legal support to people who have migrated to Italy is a big part of what we do at the Ex-OPG. After the fall of the Libyan regime in 2011, immigration from parts of the African continent to Italy increased considerably. The government has reacted to this by treating the situation as an emergency, introducing the emergency reception centers (which go by the acronym CAS), which have become for all intents and purposes a criminal business that makes its money through the exploitation of the material situation migrants in Italy find themselves in.

We have tried to confront this situation by opening two different fronts. Firstly, we opened a free legal advice clinic. Secondly, we began to develop a practice we call “popular control” in the reception centers, which we also mentioned above. This practice consists in going into the reception centers and organizing the people who live there to make collective complaints against the violation of their rights and the absence of services.

In many cases the reception centers do not provide even the most fundamental of services: adequate health care, access to legal advice, assistance with language. This is not an exaggeration — there are cases of people who have died because they did not receive adequate medical treatment. For example, a woman named Sandrine Bakayoko died last year in a center in Cona, near Venice — she died of a blood clot, but the emergency services took more than two hours to arrive. Then here in Naples a man named Ibhrahim Manneh died last summer from peritonitis after medical staff refused to treat him in A and E, where he had been taken.

These practices are not enough, however, to contest the rise of racism and fascism. The rise of racism and fascism is the result not only of the work of openly fascist organizations, but also of the inaction of the political mainstream. All the existing political parties, from the 5 Star Movement to the PD and then the Right, have instrumentalized racism for their own ends.

The PD, having created the conditions in which racist intolerance can thrive, takes no steps to stem its advance, and yet uses the threat of rising fascism to scare voters and bolster their support. After the fascist attack in Macerata, both the PD interior minister (Marco Minniti) and the PD mayor of the city wanted to prohibit antifascist demonstrations planned to show solidarity with the victims (though a fascist picket was allowed to go ahead some days before).

Failing to speak out in this situation is a grave error. In fact, we would say it is tantamount to complicity. We need an antifascism which is not fixated on the past, but confronts our current situation and the real threat of racist and fascist organizations today.

Despite the mayor’s intervention, the demonstration was attended by twenty thousand people. The Right and center will continue to make immigration the dominant theme of these elections, and they will use the attack in Macerata to these ends, because it serves as a distraction from their political failures and from their inability to propose real political solutions.

We must respond to this by increasing antiracist mobilization and solidarity by doing everything we can to draw attention back to the real social issues of poverty, inequality, lack of services, and unemployment that lie beneath the smoke screen of immigration.