Napoli’s neomunicipal experience began in 2011. Mayor Luigi de Magistris was re-elected for a second five-year term in 2016. He and the coalition (of which I, as a city councillor, am a member) are still governing Italy’s third biggest city (after Rome and Milan) and the eleventh biggest in Europe per number of inhabitants.
To have a true understanding of what neomunipalism means in a city like Napoli and how this experience involves confronting major national and European powers, it is worth retracing Napoli’s recent history and the context which created the conditions for our experience of radical local government.
Our neomunicipal story began in the triennium between 2008 and 2011. This was a very depressing and dark period for the city of Napoli due to the corruption and malfeasance of all the traditional political parties, from the centre left wing parties which then governed at municipal and regional level, to the centre right wing parties, which governed, with Berlusconi, at national level. These seemingly opposing political sides were actually accomplices in the management of local affairs and complicit in protecting the interests of major powers as well as, in many cases, organised crime.
A municipalist experiment in the wake of a “garbage emergency”
Their complicity became unequivocally clear with the so-called “garbage emergency”. The waste disposal lobbies, together with organised crime groups and certain national and local politicians, created an artificial “emergency”, with tons of rubbish and mountains of garbage bags piling up in the streets. Pictures of Naples overridden with garbage circulated around the world. Being Neapolitan was suddenly synonymous with being a citizen of a dangerous, dirty and abandoned city, a hostage of mafia and political corruption. It was a period where racism against the city and its inhabitants was rampant, and tens of thousands of young people left the town, looking for a new life in the Northern Italy or abroad.
Citizens expressed both distrust and anger towards traditional parties and politicians. Poisoned by the illegal and legal garbage dumps, particularly prevalent in the suburbs, citizens wanted radical change, and sought a new, radical democratic outlook for the city.
So, in the run-up to the 2011 local elections, a coalition of citizen committees, associations and civil society groups held several meetings about the possibility of presenting candidates outside the framework of traditional politics. Thousands of people voted for Luigi de Magistris, then a member of European Parliament. De Magistris became popular after he conducted a famous investigation (“Why Not?”) into corrupt Italian politicians, both from the left and the right.
During the electoral campaign the polls showed nothing to indicate that an outsider could possibly win. But after election day, the traditional parties woke up and realised that the citizens of Napoli, tired of their arrogance, had chased them away! Thus de Magistris became mayor of Naples. In 2016 he began another five-year term, with the support of the nine city councillors from DemA, a platform for democracy and autonomy combining civil society initiatives and radical leftist parties.
Protection of public services and war on neoliberal dogmas
The neomunicipalist coalition inherited a city that was dirty, indebted and depressed, so its first years in power were extremely challenging. The new coalition’s core actions have always been to defend the interests of citizens against those of major powers and private corporations. In order to address the garbage issue, we immediately cut all relationships with external private waste disposal companies, often linked to organised crime. Waste management was brought under municipal control, in such a way as to avoid mafia infiltrations.
The same approach was taken to the private corporation, Romeo gestioni, which managed the entire municipality’s rental properties, including the maintenance of social housing. We decided to terminate the contract between the corporation and the municipality and, just as we had done with garbage, transfer the properties to municipal management. This was a tremendous undertaking as the corporation had accumulated thousands of documents on the properties. Every single paper had to be transferred to our archives and re-organised from scratch.
Remunicipalising rental properties meant more affordable rents for citizens and the end of the clientelism that had developed around the management of the properties. Most importantly, it meant waging war on the neoliberal dogma of selling off real estate assets, and protecting those in dire need of housing.
The European Union’s fiscal compact and other austerity policies represented a direct attack on local authorities, hindering the efforts to remunicipalise services controlled by private or corrupt companies. A lack of funds due to austerity rules often caused a slowdown in interventions and in the provision of services. An important part of our strategy has been to forge relationships with citizens through public assemblies and meetings with citizens’ groups. Participatory democracy is a crucial instrument for neomunicipalism in order to achieve consensus for the protection of public services.
Another example of our actions against transnational corporations was the decision to honour the 2011 Italian referendum on water management. Millions of Italians voted for water to be recognised as a fundamental human right. And they also voted to remunicipalise the whole water supply and distribution chain in cities. So far, Napoli is the only major city in Italy to respect the referendum’s result. The municipal water utility thus went from being a public-private partnership to being entirely public. The utility, called Acqua Bene Comune (“Water as a common good”), features participatory management, with a citizens’ council, managed by committees and ecologist associations. The result is a water tariff that is one of the lowest of the country and a total ban on water cuts for the impoverished.
The Bête Noire of cities: illegitimate debt
More recently we faced another major battle against what we call “illegitimate debt.” Most Italian cities have accrued an enormous amount of debt, and owe money to the national government, private companies, hedge funds, etc.
Before the EU’s fiscal compact, all cities were managed and governed through a system of debt and credit. It was the only way to guarantee services, but it also involved private speculation and clientelism. After 2010, and the radical shift in approach at EU level, cities were forced to change policy and to close their budget every year with no deficit. As a result of the EU’s fiscal compact, the Italian national constitution was changed and municipal deficits are now impossible. Local governments now have to choose between either cutting social services or disobedience.
This abrupt change forced a lot of local authorities to cut social services, welfare and policies for the poorest. Our situation was particularly difficult because we inherited hundreds of millions worth of debt from previous local governments. And more debt was piled on due to financial laws approved at national level and toxic financial products. Napoli, moreover, is burdened by two enormous loans due to the 1980 earthquake and the 2008 garbage emergency. These debts resulted in massive interest payments, pushing the city to the brink of bankruptcy.
So we decided to create a permanent consultative committee on municipal debt in order to address the issue of illegitimate debt. We hope to find other cities that also wish to fight against the financial blackmailing of cities. We aim to build a European campaign against illegitimate debt and the EU’s fiscal compact, which imposes disastrous austerity on cities.
“Cities are left alone”
Cities’ struggles against transnational corporations are like an inexhaustible battle for equality and justice. Private companies and private interests are always lurking behind the corner in our daily administrative life.
This is a challenge both in regards to public procurement and big urban regeneration projects like the one in Ex Taverna Del Ferro, a famous post industrial neighbourhood which became the focus of speculation by a cement company and several hotel chains. Fortunately, the city council was able to intervene and put a stop to the government’s plans for the neighbourhood. The urban regeneration plan was re-written after discussions with community organisations and local citizens. The council has had to intervene several other times to prevent private speculation attempts in other parts of the city.
The problem is that cities are completely alone in their struggles. National governments have turned local authorities into powerless institutions without financial autonomy. This is why cities need to join forces at European level and fight together in order to be effective.
EU parliament urgently needs to recognise cities as local authorities and allow them to manage EU financial programs at municipal level in order to avoid corruption and misuse of public funds.
Eleonora de Majo is a member of the City Council of Napoli and the president of the Urban Policies Commission
This article is part of the series Cities versus Multinationals by the European Network of Corporate Observatories (ENCO)