Italian municipalism: patterns, missed opportunities and the way forward
Over the previous few years, a number of Italian cities have experienced the rise of ‘new municipalist’ platforms. The achievements of these platforms are many and significant, but also substantially similar to those made by other municipalist-based local governments around Europe. Municipalist movements made it possible, among other things, to resist processes of privatisation and strong austerity, and they were key in challenging national policies on (read ‘against’) migration. Exploring these policies would certainly be interesting, but we would not be discussing anything new. Rather, I intend to offer an overview of municipalism in Italy, highlighting some of the structural factors that characterise it, critically discussing some of the things that have gone wrong (with a focus on networking, in particular), concluding with a brief consideration of the current situation and future steps to revitalise the municipalist discourse.
The municipalist platforms
Among the many experiences, by far the most well-known is that of Naples, where the charismatic and power-concentrating leader, Luigi De Magistris, has been governing the city since 2011. Here the specifically municipalist dimension of this experience became more evident in the transition towards his second mandate (2016-2021). Neapolitan municipalism is based on three different elements: strong mayoral leadership; a political organisation connected to him (Democrazia Autonomia, demA) and made of individuals coming from very diverse backgrounds; and the many social movements and self-managed and occupied spaces. The latter, though not connected in any formal way to the institutional experience, played a crucial role in agenda setting and policy-making. This is the ‘critical mass’ process – or Massa Critica as it is known in Naples – launched in 2015 by a coalition of city-based movements, working in an assembly-based way across different neighbourhoods, which today is mainly focusing on the public debt audit and on a commons observatory. One of its activists, Nicola Angrisano, provided an in-depth explanation of the process in this interview from 2016 (in Italian).
Another relatively well-known example is that of Messina, a city in North-East Sicily that between 2013-18 was governed by an openly municipalist movement (Cambiamo Messina dal Basso, CMdB) along with other civic society groups and actors. Much like Naples, the mayor, Renato Accorinti, was particularly charismatic and power-concentrating. Ivana Risitano, CMdB activist and former city councillor, shared some interesting reflections (in Italian) on the peculiar nature of CMdB, in particular on this being the result of an endless work of confluence and transformation from electoral platform to political subject, which characterises the Messina case.
Besides Naples and Messina, other movements, platforms and coalitions have arisen throughout Italy, placing at their core the narrative of social movements ‘taking back’ institutions. This happened in Bologna and Catania, two other major cities like Naples and Messina. But it also happened in mid-size (Avellino, Livorno, Barletta) and small cities (such as Cinquefrondi, in Calabria). Whilst municipalist platforms managed to get councillors elected in some of these cases, none were able to take overall control of their councils or to get a mayor elected, and in some cases their activity was exclusively outside of the institutions.
The case of Padua is an exception to this, where the municipalist platform (Coalizione Civica, a name used by other independent platforms in cities such as Bologna) decided to form a coalition government with the social-democratic Democratic Party. This is an interesting and so far isolated experiment in Italian local politics, considered by some commentators a potential “example for the left”, as a concrete instance of conducive dialogue between “social left” and “liberal left.” To what extent such dialogue will bring concrete results in the core policies of the municipalist platform and how much shall be sacrificed in the name of coalition cohesion is still to be seen and will definitely be an interesting element for collective reflection in Padua and elsewhere.
How structural factors shape movements’ approach to institutions
This broad picture is not only the result of a popular commitment to municipalist organising approaches. It is also strongly influenced by specific characteristics of the current Italian political system and the current national political situation, having an impact on movements at the moment of taking the institutional step. Acknowledging their existence and roughly understanding how they contributed to shape Italian municipalism is of utmost importance if we are to understand the recent popularity.
A first element is the electoral process for those municipalities with more than 15.000 inhabitants. It is a majority system with the direct election of the mayor (i.e. 50%+1 is needed at the first ballot, otherwise there is a second ballot between the two most voted candidates) and a proportional system for the election of the city council. This system contributes to create a strong personalisation of the political debate and to ‘over-legitimise’ the mayor, at the detriment of the coalition/platform supporting him or her. The cases of Naples and Messina are clear examples of that, where charismatic (stretching towards individualistic) and power-concentrating attitudes were facilitated by this system.
The second element is the lack of a big leftist national party. This has opened room for manoeuvre for some local initiatives to take over small parties or to include them in a process of confluence (this is the case of Messina, among others, especially in the first phase). But, on the other side, it has also made dramatically more complicated any stable process of networking. This was essentially due to the absence of a political entity able to stimulate local initiatives to come together and to generate national or trans-local spaces of discussion and political production. Individual attempts from local initiatives to take the lead did not succeed in the absence of a systemic approach. Furthermore, it has often left local governments without any reliable ally at the national level. However, in spite of the shortcomings of the absence of a central coordination process, from this it cannot be inferred that the presence of a national party would have made things necessarily easier: it could entail the risk of jeopardising the autonomy of municipalist platforms.
A third aspect is related to the existence of the Five Star Movement (M5S). Even though it is both ideologically and politically distant from what animates most municipalist experiences, it has often been associated with them – especially before the M5S entered into a national coalition with the far-right Lega Nord – with the simplistic argument that both municipalist movements and M5S were ‘against the system’. Again, this might have helped in one electoral and political cycle (2011-2014), where voters proved to split in certain cases their preferences between national (M5S) and local (municipalist) levels, but it subsequently became counterproductive. This was due to the progressive growth of M5S in certain territories, re-occupying a political space that was previously in the hands of municipalist movements, as in the case of Messina in 2018.
Networking: something has gone wrong
Another characteristic of this rich and diverse panorama of experiences is a certain degree of fragmentation. However, unlike the aspects considered above, this is less the result of systemic reasons and more the (unintended) consequence of the political action of municipalist movements.
Whilst seemingly paradoxical, on those rare occasions when Italian municipalist platforms have actually met, one of the most commonly addressed subjects is what it concretely means – both theoretically and in practice – for these platforms to actually ‘network’ together. This is the case both in terms of horizontal cooperation between movements, platforms and institutions, and in terms of a nationwide confluence process, aimed at creating a political entity able to run for national and EU elections, representing those parts of the Italian left that feel progressively further away from institutional politics.
Still, this has led to very few achievements in concrete terms. Besides occasional public statements – such as the offering of mutual support during local electoral campaigns – and rare meetings in Italy and (curiously, also quite often) abroad, any timid attempts to develop wider collective practices have failed thus far. Some of the reasons have to do with a sort of parochialist culture, some with the very practical limits of municipalist experiences. Even though they are perfectly aware of the broader context and impact of issues dealt with at a local level, they often lack the time to focus more broadly, being so absorbed by the everyday political life.
The most remarkable attempt was probably the one led by Luigi De Magistris and demA a few months before the 2019 EU elections, when they tried to gather several local initiatives, associations and national leftist parties into a common nationwide political platform, but which was not conclusive and failed just on the eve of elections. A missed opportunity, where the lack of systemic relationships between locally grounded initiatives played a major role.
Ultimately, what underpins the relative failure of these platforms to develop meaningful forms of collective and networked practice has been the reluctance of the platforms to conceive of themselves as belonging to a new form of municipalist political culture. This is not to say that these platforms offer an outright rejection of municipalism as an emergent and novel political approach, rather that such a debate – and the reflection on how these platforms may offer something different not only in function but also form – has not come to the surface.
Towards a new municipalist challenge
Besides what Italian municipalism is and what could have been, it seems important to think about what Italian municipalism can be in the future. In other words, to consider those axes that can play a major role in revitalising and providing new meanings for the role of local political platforms.
Firstly, the municipalist movement can keep struggling and resisting at the local level. Yes, it is common sense and perhaps even a bit trite to say, but it is very important that this continues to happen. There is a need to keep fighting within and outside institutions, and the fact that new municipalist experiences have come to exist in the last couple of years is significant in this perspective, independently from their electoral result.
Secondly, it is important to focus more on the implications that municipalism has and can further have for the non-institutional side of the experience. After CMdB lost in 2018 elections, we critically reflected on the idea of “municipalism beyond the town hall”; if it is true that municipalism brought a revolution in the way in which institutional politics and movements act and interact, it is also true that the power of municipalism goes much beyond that. This can be insightful both for movements and platforms with institutional representations and for those which no longer have it.
Thirdly, there is a need, especially in certain territories, to critically rethink the relationship with parties such as M5S and PD. The perspective should not be – needless to say – that of a grosse Koalition or anything similar, which has proven to be failing, but rather an open and honest debate on local issues and on finding common grounds on specific topics that can prove particularly significant (e.g. housing, public services, environmental issues, among others).
Fourth, there exists the Southern issue. The gap between North and South keeps growing, and so does migration from Southern regions. All social and economic indicators point in this direction and, besides that, this is something that anybody living in the South for some time can experience. Grounded, grass-rooted movements cannot ignore this aspect, and one of the bases for a productive dialogue between different realities could and should be addressing what drives these growing inequalities. It is worth mentioning and praising that some of the very last meetings and interactions between municipalist movements have specifically addressed this point.
Fifth, networking. As discussed throughout the article, this is one of the starting points for a significant change and improvement of Italian municipalism. Far from the idea that there should exist some sort of brand of municipalist cities, it is rather important to start discussing concrete measures – one, two maximum – that movements intend to address together, adopting some minimal organisation, and starting an open-ended inclusive process, with basic commonly agreed rules but with a serious commitment to do.
A united front of grounded movements, that scale down big political talks to ‘real’ life without losing the political complexity and nature of them, and scale it back up to national and EU level, able to struggle for all of this at a higher stage. This could be the key for a new-new municipalism in Italy, building upon successful stories and challenges of the last few years, and, in so doing, addressing many of those aspects that came out in this article.
Featured image: A public assembly of CMdB in the town hall of Messina