engagée: Naples, a city where you grew up and returned after years spent in the UK and the US, is often celebrated as one of the global rebel cities. In many of your recent articles, however, you somehow portray a different picture. Can you explain your take on and your involvement with the municipalist movement in Naples?
Paolo Mossetti: Firstly, I’d like to say that by ‘municipalism’ we include a wide array of responses to the narrative of the so-called ‘neoliberal city’: the way this notion is shaping the Left in New York and pro-immigration ‘sanctuary cities’ is very different from, say, the way a city like Barcelona sees itself. As for Naples, this very sparse movement started as a populist alternative to the rhetoric of the neoliberal centre-left, on one hand, and the mafia-ridden centre-right coalition on the other.
When the current Mayor, Luigi de Magistris, first run for elections in 2011, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement was still in its embryo phase, with limited support nationwide and a strong component of green, New Wave and post-workerist ecologism. When I returned to Naples in 2015, de Magistris was at the apex of popularity: the city was bustling with nightlife, the centre was literally flooded by tourists in a once disregarded garbage-covered gangster town; Erasmus students were finally coming to study here and low-income families were discovering Airbnb.
There was something really unique in the relationship between the Mayor and the radical left, too. De Magistris allowed Marxist collectives to occupy huge complexes once run by the government or the Catholic Church, now in decay. These places were occupied and transformed into beautiful labs for mutualism and cultural centres (working much better than the average enterprise run by the local department of Culture, by the way).
De Magistris did try and is still trying to give municipalism a party base, calling it DeMa, echoing the word demos and obviously the initials of the Mayor himself. A sort of hard-left version of Emmanuel Macron’s En March. This party, other than disappointing in local elections, did not do much to offer a solid vision of its future, or about its economic/political theories, and I don’t feel persuaded by its membership, although it includes many trustworthy activists.
Although I consider myself more anarchist and liberal than many of the people there, I was excited to collaborate and establish friendships with some of these social centres supported by the Mayor: especially the Ex-OPG, a former psychiatric hospital in ruins now transformed by a Marxist collective into a place for arts, social services and discussion. I liked the way they were open to the neighbourhood, to non-militant people, way more inclusive than the typical 1990s-social centre.
I liked the sense of easy-going comradeship feeling around. I helped them organize meetings and talks and raised some crowdfunded money for them – another first, for a Communist collective! The lows were a certain rigidity over protocol structures – the never-ending assemblies, the refusal to go beyond voluntarism – and a certain reluctance to criticize the Mayor even when the limits of his populist propaganda were evident – as the degrading quality of life and culture in the city is before everyone’s eyes. I had several arguments with the comrades, some of them see me with suspicion. But I think there is still mutual respect, after all.
é: In one of your articles, you refer to Barcelona and Naples as two cities that were able to market themselves to “rebel tourists”. While I can agree that tourism is potentially destructive, with a scarcity of good examples of how an autonomous left can win, don’t you think that such view can damage the efforts put by the municipalist movement into a new momentum?
PM: We, as materialist, or wannabe ones, should have the guts to ask ourselves one fundamental question: ‘Where are we getting the money from? Do we have the means to fight for a more generous tax regime state-wide? Do we want to re-open state-run steel-making factories, or believe in autarchy?’ The cities we are talking about, just like Naples, are facing a steep economic decline within a globalized world, with a shrinking middle class, pretty much no white-collar jobs, no financial services, there are not many options other than tourism as an easy way to survive.
Yes, tourism is really a cheap kind of business: poorly paid jobs, shitty hours, mostly low-skilled roles and what is worst, new dynamics of exploitation within the city: I really don’t remember seeing waiters literally dragging people inside restaurants back in the 1990s, or people kicking students out for making space to hostels or B&Bs (which is something I did, too – but only because those students were insufferable douchebags). But let’s try not to exaggerate the effects of gentrification.
While many people treat tourists as mere talking wallets, and foreign students bring booze drinking into an otherwise pretty sober cultural nightlife, and the quality of street food is definitely less authentic than before, I can’t say the City is kicking communities out or is getting as nearly as expensive as Milan or Rome. So, I think we can use this opportunity of globalization as a path for some potential, for connecting activist groups and academics around Europe and the World to offer better solutions before it is too late.
I am just not sure if what will come out of this will be actually a radical process or just the middle class getting richer and researcher finding their love in the city. So far tourism has turned the city centre in a much more controlled, clean and boring place. But the opportunities offered by the municipalist momentum have nothing to fear from it: movements should rather worry about the nature of this momentum, its class composition, and the lack of a coherent economic doctrine.
é: You have argued that some of the activities carried out by social centres in Naples are similar to the ones you can see in humanitarian crises. But aren’t social centres better than the state anyway?
PM: It really takes a huge leap to call these centres ‘better anyway’. Or maybe depends on what do we mean by ‘better’. If you ask me if sheltering homeless people in an occupied church instead of letting them die in the dark as the state services do is inherently bad, sure I can’t say that. However, if you think about health services, the hardships posed by the lack of state-sponsored equipment are huge.
You can’t take a proper ultrasound of a pregnant Roma woman just because she feels more comfortable visiting a squatted space rather than a government clinic: you need to have a safe way to process medical waste, you need to print tests in a very precise way. If you follow incorrect procedures or encourage people to do so, just because ‘bad is better than nothing’, you risk creating more problems for the social services than there were. You will mess things up.
You need to have really skilled workers who know what they’re doing and be sure that people are informed of all the options offered by State services. Sometimes the problem is communication. Radicals think austerity cut all free health care in Italy, but there are many services you can still get for free, and many prenatal testing clinics are deserted for no reason other than ignorance.
I think movements, while initially they offered a huge range of welfare works, had second thoughts and now they’re focusing more on the quality, on things they can really do well, such as breast screenings, legal counselling for migrants and informal workers, and so on.
é: In a country like Italy, where the nation-state was imposed from above and belonging to a city is important than being Italian, is there a risk that such identities will overlook the non– and peri-urban?
PM: It must be surely recognized that the municipalist movement in Naples has characteristics similar to the xenophobic, localist movements born in the 1980s and 1990s in the North. Sadly, it is also much poorer, more cultural-oriented. In Naples’ municipalism we can find young utopians who look at the Mediterranean as an apt political horizon for the city’s ambitions rather than the European Union; old royalists who romanticize the Bourbon’s period (neoborbonismo); folk lovers; a proud, educated and Napoli-centred aging middle class who can’t leave the city for too long.
It is a soft, porous ideology rooted in the belief that the Italian South was ransacked by the North during the Unification and used as nothing but political reserve after WWII. There’s a lot of victimization, some reasoned post-colonial theory, some Marxist thinking and way more magical thinking. But what is lacking is the industrial élite or a powerful upper class supporting city autonomy, as in the case of Barcelona or, on a whole different level, New York.
é: Naples is famous for the violence of its municipal police, which often can operate unpunished. What is the relationship between municipal police and municipal politics in Naples?
PM: I would say that police brutality in Naples is not greater than in Rome or Milan, but here the police operate in a very different kind of environment: a mix of petty and big crime, from teen gangs to large scale mafia operation. In Naples the police deploy a special division called Falchi (‘Hawks’) who move around the city on motorbikes as a way to deal with hit-and-run offenders.
But the way they operate is very obscure, they often use excessive force on teenagers, as most of the police do against migrants when caught stealing or jumping the metro’s turnstiles. Some of the Falchi are former convicts. There is a lot of informality in the police repression, like in the local economy. Funnily enough, we have very few CCTV in Naples. Perhaps the State has a certain degree of tolerance for petty crimes as a social valve, to avoid excessive social tension.
The striking aspect of the law enforcement bodies is the lack of education and skills to deal with the increasing cultural diversity. Very few officers speak English, let alone other languages such as French or Arabic. The police are mostly white and Italian-born. The ubiquity of military in the city centre reminds a lot that of Mexico City or some other Latin American megalopolis.
It is really disturbing to see armoured vehicles and soldiers holding machine guns next to Renaissance monuments: but when this was implemented by the centre-left government as a demagogic way to deal with terrorism, the Mayor, as usual, was really wary of protesting. He probably thought this could help tourists feeling safe. But de Magistris is always like this: rebellious on Twitter but pretty reassuring for the bourgeoisie status quo in everyday actions.
é: Your observations of Naples as a sensitive insider pose some challenges to any future municipalist movement. How can these criticisms turn into elements of an emancipatory politics?
PM: What I am saying is that a municipalist movement alone, without a strong, growing economy, without a credible political class, can pose serious risks of de-legitimization for the Left. Naples is a bit like Cuba, where great solidarity and a fascinating informal economy stand side to side to the de facto neoliberal politics, a widespread laissez-faire where people are renting their houses without paying any taxes, where bookshops are turning into booze drinking venues, etcetera.
The market is actually the King here, more than in many neoliberal cities where the State is actually strong and present. Having said that, Naples is a city where the rent is still not so unaffordable like elsewhere, the food is great and relatively cheap, the city centre is still a great cradle of arts and humanities and intellectual connections, and there’s space for a certain improvisation, for a certain type of social organizing and solidarity that in Milan or Rome is now a mirage.
It is a great gym for radical politics. And it is worthy to spend a few months here, or even more if you find a good remote job or love. But be careful not to take for emancipatory elements what are, in my opinion, elements of savagery and regression.
é: Is there a place for arts in municipal politics?
PM: Look, I am no fan of private-sponsored art, like in Milan or Rome, so I would say yes. Of course, you cannot expect in Napoli the same type of art market and audience you have in Milan or Rome. We have few galleries and most of them destined to an ageing, aristocratic élite. The biggest contemporary art museum (MADRE) is a decent one but very often empty. People go there mostly for the aperitivi and the DJ sets.
You can say this happens pretty much elsewhere; yet again, you must prepare to face a series of obstacles in the process of being part of Naples’ art world. There is less competition for sure (all big talents dream to fly abroad) but this sometimes means people have no choice but to attend really mediocre, locally-oriented folk music concerts. For any talk that starts two hours late, you will have people filling beautiful streets for average performers that in the city centre of London would be banned or replaced by the depressing after work curfew.
It’s about perspectives. For any lazy, self-absorbed comrade who makes art without any interest in networking or exchanging ideas, you will find social centres hosting great experimental theatre for free. I always recommend emerging artists planning to move to Naples to keep strict schedules, a certain work discipline, and to put a lot of effort in establishing connections with local people, because this is way less spontaneous than they might think (especially if they are over 30 like me).
People here already have their friends, their habits, and they are more close-minded than you can imagine. Also, do not expect any kind of private or state sponsor, that is for sure. But perhaps this is exactly what artists escaping from the Anglophone world hope to find.
The article was first published in engagée #6/7 ‘Radical Cities’.