The Mayor of Naples Champions the Commons

I am fascinated to watch the constructive ferment about the commons in Italy.  The most stunning sign of this trend (as mentioned in a previous blog post) was the voter referendum on water in June 2011 when Italians overwhelmingly rejected the privatization of their municipal water systems.  The vote was a stinging defeat for political elites and the media, and a surprising confirmation that the commons can be a template for shuffling the ideological deck.  Some 94% of voters, including the center/right, said that water should be controlled by the people, not profit-maximizing corporations.

This signal was apparently heard in Italian political culture.  Luigi de Magistris, a former prosecutor and member of the European Parliament,was elected mayor of Naples in May 2011 on a law and order platform.  He has now become a big-time champion of the commons.  As Anthony Quattrone of the Naples Politics blog puts it, Naples is now a hothouse of “participatory democracy, bottom-up initiatives, and social innovation.” 

De Magistris was an outsider to Neapolitan politics when he won the support of two minor parties for his quest for the mayoralty.  With support from both the far left and conservatives, he improbably defeated the businessman supported Prime Minister Berlusconi.  “Many citizens in Naples feel that the election of Luigi de Magistris is a last-ditch bid to save whatever is left of the glorious capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies,” Quattrone wrote.  “Neapolitan disenchantment with politics and total distrust of politicians started with the unification of Italy and has basically persisted to this day.”

The commons as a path forward?  De Magistris thinks so.  He has appointed an “Assessor of Commons” to reclaim public management of the city’s water services.  The Assessor is also charged with identifying new commons-based ways of providing services.  The Mayor has national political ambitions, and talks frankly of the commons as a framework for managing the people’s wealth.

One sign of De Magistris' commitment to the commons is a conference that he hosted this past weekend, “A Forum on the Commons for the Common Good.”  The event brought together municipal officials, a few mayors, political associations and movements, and citizens from across Italy.  The goal:  “to defend and promote the commons….understood as the heritage of all, the foundation of inalienable rights and participatory democracy.”  (See story on the MicroMega website.)  The discussions were divided into four thematic streams:  the financial autonomy of local authorities; common goods and public services; participatory democracy, welfare, rights, immigration policies and the work environment; and new urban models.

Based on a rough Google translation of the Italian, Mayor De Magistris decided to convene the conference to “defend the need for common goods and public services against the processes of privatization and liberalization.”  Such policies have resulted in “market speculation and corporate expropriation of control from the sole and legitimate managers:  each one of us.  Just as there is a strong link between rights and common goods, so there is a strong link between the commons and democracy.”

Strong words from a mayor!  An Italian friend of mine is impressed by De Magistris’ initiatives, but cautions that “Italy has always been a laboratory of new ideas that don’t go too far.  In Italy one must be careful about putting too much faith in any single political leader.”  My friend also cautioned that it is difficult in Italian politics to aggregate and consolidate political victories.  Furthermore, political egos and leadership struggles can get in the way. 

Still, it’s remarkable that the commons appears to have so much resonance among Neapolitans, even among the center/right.  This feeling may be the result of Italians’ historic distrust of government and disgust with chronic corruption – a feeling intensified by a floodtide of corrupt privatization deals in the 1990s that drained the public treasury and degraded public services.  People experienced the realities of a “free market” that colludes secretly and regularly with government. 

About 2,000 people reportedly showed up at the Mayor’s conference.  But can such interest translate into workable policies and programs?  How does a city government structure and leverage the energies of local commons without simply re-introducing bureaucracy?

The provisional answer seems to be:  Walk the talk.  Encourage direct citizen action and responsibility.

The Mayor has lent support to numerous initiatives of participatory democracy.  He consults with stakeholders before implementing new policies.  He holds well-attended open-air street assemblies where citizens can ask tough questions and the mayor and his staff must be responsive.  De Magistris also said that his meetings with social action groups and citizens tend to generate information and solutions that have not occurred to the city government.

The Naples Politics blog notes, “Bottom-up initiatives keep flourishing in all neighborhoods” in the city.  It cites three particularly impressive initiatives:  one that is taking direct action to clean up garbage and graffiti from various city squares and streets; the second, a group of “guerilla gardeners” that cuts weeds and plants flowers in public spaces; and a third group that aggressively documents the deterioration of monuments, churches and other public buildings, and advises how to prevent future damage.  Can the city actually support such commons-based action without exploiting it as simply a cheap way to evade government responsibilities and cut budgets?    

It is still too early to know how Mayor De Magistris’ bold gambit on behalf of the commons will evolve, what complications may arise, and what sorts of larger political ripples they may cause.  Will these campaigns propel him to greater national prominence?  However it turns out, it is great to see bold experimentation and political leadership for the commons.  But I'm no expert in Italian politics and culture, so I welcome informed comment by Italian readers on these developments.