Moving the centre: The Marxist squatters and the populist mayor

What’s the priority for the radical left – getting a Labour government, or fighting austerity now through community campaigns? How do campaigners relate to those in power – and how will that change if the neoliberal consensus breaks down and we have Corbyn as PM or the Labour left running local councils? Joe Hayns interviews the organisers of a ‘House of the People’ who are facing similar questions in Naples.

Directions to the workshop, theatre, gym, kitchen etc. Photo: Consuelo Agrado

Should radical leftists see a Corbyn government as the priority, to the extent of tolerating Labour councils’ austerity? Or should we ‘call time on Corbynmania’, and work to renew an opposition to the austerity of councils, mayors, and parliament, whoever’s in charge?

The why-not-both-ism of ‘Corbynism from Below’ – building unions and tenants’ groups, always with an eye towards a Labour majority – doesn’t resolve the question, with even mundane trade unionism, or renters’ power activities, or anti-cuts organising inevitably involving tensions and indeed contradictions with Labour-led councils and, and the most likely-seeming next government.

Will the promise of Corbynism survive a Corbyn-led government, stalked by the press and antagonised by capital? For leftists now, how close is too close to be useful after the Absolute Boy gets a slim majority?

Up from the Materdei metro station in central Naples, up streets and stairs, you arrive at a huge, iron-doored building, recently renamed ex-OPG, or ex-Ospedale Psichiatrico Giudiziario – it was a ‘judicial psychiatric hospital’, and before that, a police station.

Several two-story buildings surround courtyards, with the windows of the cells above – some maybe five metres square, some much smaller – looking down, now, at classrooms, a legal centre for migrants, a cucina popolare, even a medical bay.

The organisation that effected the ‘ex-’ before ‘OPG’ is Je so’ pazzo – ‘I’m crazy’, in Neapolitan-accented Italian and meaning, I was told, something like ‘I’m mad (to dare to try)’. Je so’ pazzo are a group of Marxists who met first in 2008 and, moving from place to place, squatted the building in 2015 – hundreds of people come through the doors each week.

Je so’ pazzo describe their place not as a ‘social centre’ but as a ‘House of the People’, in memory of the the Italian Communist Party’s (CPI’s) provision of communal areas ‘even in the most remote village’, as I was told. They remain an extra-parliamentary group but, especially since 2015, have worked to push elected politicians left.

It’s worked. The current Mayor of Naples, Luigi de Magistris, began his 2011 campaign as a centrist, but is now among Italy’s most progressive elected officials – how?

In an interview with Jacobin last year, you said that ‘at the beginning, he [Mayor de Magistris] had little support from far left and activist groups’ – now many groups support him, and indeed actively so. What changed?

Mayors’ terms are five years in Italy. De Magistris became mayor of Naples in 2011. Before this, he was a magistrate, a judge.

The government of Monti, a government of technocrats, also assumed power in 2011, and they approved the Severino law, saying that people sentenced to more than two years in jail can’t hold political office.

De Magistris was then sentenced, convicted, of abusing public office in 2014, following a case that began before he became mayor. So, it was declared that he couldn’t be mayor, and he said ‘I will resist – you can get me out of city hall, but I will still be the mayor of the people of Naples’.

After that, he changed his political direction. He started walking through the streets, saying ‘buongiorno’ to people, going through the neighbourhoods – the people went crazy. So, his strategy changed, and he got closer to some social movements. At the beginning, it was usually the more ‘institutional’ groups, including NGOs, and some leftist journalists, and so on.

Then, the law was declared to be against the constitution, and so he became the mayor again. But, after that, he continued with his strategy.

Then, it changed again in 2015, before he stood for election the second time, which was last year, when he got even closer to social movements. He has tried to make his ‘movement’ – he calls it a ‘movement’ rather than political party.

Of course, he saw an opportunity in working with us in 2015, since the people that come to Je so’ pazzo, for example, were already becoming part of his electoral base.

And, I think, because in Italy and Naples, there is no real representation of leftist or even liberal claims. The Partito Democratico, the party of Renzi, is not leftist anymore. The mayor caught this need, in Naples, and in Italy. He used this.

This seems different from Corbyn himself, who is not an opportunist – part of his appeal is that he’s in principal a socialist, against apartheid, a friend of Palestine, and son. But, there are plenty of people at different levels throughout the party who are being forced left by radical, extra-parliamentary groups; Acorn against Marvin Rees, in Bristol, for example.

It’s the first time a lot of people have heard from a senior politician, seen on the television, that yes, in fact, There Is An Alternative. I suppose you could say Corbyn is a reaction against, is benefiting from, a period of political homogeneity. Is something like that the case with de Magistris?

To give an example fact that liberty of expression is not guaranteed, even on state television, during the referendum last year, over the constitution [1], we have RAI (Radiotelevisione italiana; one of the state media channels). There was only one journalist that is thought to be left, she’s the daughter of an important politician of the 80s, of the CPI.

She was one of the only journalists that was for ‘No’ in the referendum – she’s not a Marxist, but rather generically left. And she was forced to resign due to her position on the referendum, and her position given to another.

A friend of ours works in television sometimes, on one of those stupid talk shows, and he had to sign a contract saying ‘No Propaganda’ about the referendum – they meant no ‘No’ vote propaganda.

One last example. When we tried to do some debate about the referendum, arguing for ‘No’, in a student assembly, the principal of the school asked – ordered – us to, yes, give our opinion, but, to moderate our ‘No’ opinion – we had no moment that was really ours to say what we thought.

There are fortunately some comedians, some cartoonists, but that have their little space, in some newspapers and television shows that can say something a little different. But they’re very few – you can count them, I think, on one hand.

Luigi de Magistris saw this. He started dialoguing with everybody, talking with everybody, all the associations, and was very open to any kind of pressure that you put on the local administration – almost of any kind.

De Magistris chose something like left populism as a last-ditch defence in 2011, and then stuck with it after he saw he could not only save his position, but perhaps increase his vote for 2016.

There’ve been different responses to Corbynism in the UK from the radical left. Some groups have renewed their entryism – kept their structure, but within the Labour party.  Some have near-enough resolved themselves into the Labour party – lost their structure within the LP. Others again have made anti-Corbynism a structuring principal, so to speak.

With respect to all of them, each of these strategies feels like a mistake. But, no sect, in my opinion, has been able to ‘better’ practice Marxism in relation to Corbynism without seeming, well, eccentric. How have you managed your relationship?

We have to be very careful, especially social movements. He’s the mayor of the city, and we’re nobody. If we don’t pay attention, if we’re not careful, we’ll become a weapon in his hands. We always try and have an equal exchange with him, with his entourage, and so on, or else, in a second, we’ll be seen as the same as the city hall’s – that can’t happen.

Je so’ pazzo want to keep our independence from him, from anybody, and to continue to pressue the local admin. We want ot piush him as a left as we can. In some ways, we have, but we need to feel like we’re still there, and tell them, ‘hey, we’re here’.

We need to say ‘you said that Naples would welcome all immigrants, so don’t evict from that street’. When that happened, and the police cleared some migrants’ market stalls, we went to the mayor, we said ‘hey, what’s going on there’; he said ‘no, it was the police, it wasn’t me!’. We said ‘ok, but you’re the mayor, you authorise them to stay in that street again’, and within two days, he gave them the authorisation to re-build their market, in a street near the central station.

Us, and with other social movement, we try to keep this bottom-to-top pressure – we think it’s an opportunity.

You forced his hand over the market. Is there a quid pro quo relationship?

During the elections, of the city of Naples, last year, with the new mayor, he was running and we thought that was a process that we needed to defend because this mayor, compared to the other ones, that was running too, they had connections with the mafia, they’re racists – such bad people – we thought instead, we’d defend this mayor.

We’d defend process, a democratic process, and so this brought us to talk to the people that came in here, and saying ‘we think you should vote for this mayor, for these reasons’ – he’s done this, he’s done that. And, he can do this for us – and we don’t mean ‘us’, as in, ‘in here’, but as in the entire city of Naples.

From that point of view, this process that we’re trying to set-up, talking to the people, giving them social services, giving them free courses and workshops, trying to gain their trust, is kind of working.

For sure we can still improve, but I mean everybody can else still improve. We’re experiencing, we’re experimenting, this thing. I have to be honest, it’s new for us.

[1] Matteo Renzi’s (2014-2016) technocrat government proposed changes to the constitution that were decisively rejected by a 59% ‘No’ vote last December. In the first New Left Review of this year, Cinzia Arruzza’s summaries the rejection of the changes, and of Renzi, as follows:

Ultimately, the ‘No’ vote reflected the convergence of three factors: pent-up social frustration with Renzi’s government, sharpened by the gulf between the Prime Minister’s depiction of the country’s situation and the actual lived experience of the large majority of the population; the mobilization of a heterogeneous array of political forces; and the resistance of a broad layer traditionally hostile to anti-democratic revisions of the Constitution.


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