We are at a crossroads. Like a portal between one world and another, the pandemic stands as the threshold of a transition that sees cities as the privileged place where processes of change take shape. Moreover, urban centres are where the multiple vulnerabilities that the collective social body is experiencing in this very long health emergency are most manifested; and it is in cities that the simultaneous crises of protection and care systems, public services and local governance materialise.
No catastrophe carries a new world in its arms; rather it intensifies previous trends. In fact, the pandemic has dramatically highlighted the limits produced by decades of public spending cuts and profound deconstruction of social life, as well as the short circuits between the European, national and local spheres of government. Yet, overshadowed by the centralisation of emergency action, cities, local institutions and communities play a fundamental role in arranging social and environmental balances and well-being. This is a role that multiple solidarity initiatives have made evident; a role that in the post-pandemic transition it is necessary to claim with ever greater force. Because the authentic unit of political life is (still) the municipality.
The role of local institutions in the Italian context has been subject to various regulatory interventions aimed to make the local authorities more centre-stage in our common life. However, after the advances of the 1970s, the political-administrative vision of the urban and suburban level has been taking on connotations increasingly oriented towards the decentralised management of services in a small-scale replica of representative democracy, rather than the promotion of democracy from below. From law 278 of 1976 to 142 of 1990, to the TUEL (the “unified text of local authorities”, legislative decree 267/2000) and to the reform of Title V of the Constitution (and subsequent attempts to modify it), the trend has been to emphasise a political and bureaucratic decentralisation, with an increase in the territorial scale of district institutions, reserved for urban realities of ever larger dimensions in the name of efficiency, and the total disappearance of the reference to neighbourhoods and hamlets. Whilst it is true that the TUEL gives space to participatory institutions, the thrust appears somewhat weak if we consider, for example, that it provides the ability, rather than the obligation for the statutory regulation of a consultative referendum.
Above all, despite some exceptions that draw from the municipalist movement, in Italy there is not much creativity in the municipal statutes. In general, these enable at most referendums and popular initiatives such as petitions and requests.
In this context, the austerity cycle that started after the 2008 crisis – with the so-called “spending review” and “balanced budgets” for local authorities required by the central government and the European authorities – produced effects that have profoundly impacted the urban structure. This has resulted in a profound restriction of public service provision and had a negative impact on the well-being of citizens, in particular on the most vulnerable. This is where municipalism is situated in Italy.
Under the impetus of a range of social actors who have produced different mobilisations – to resist austerity and to defend the commons from privatisation attempts, and inspired by the fearless cities movement that met a reference in the government experiment of Barcelona En Comù – starting from about 2010 municipalism in Italy started to take hold. This thesis, as well as its lexicon, is not widespread throughout the country and has limits linked to certain movement cycles and restrictions due to the pandemic. Yet despite some regional differences, there are both social and institutional actors from north to south who try to materialise the municipalist demands.
The institutional actors active in the Italian municipalist field are composed of political platforms, civic lists and new party forms that, in a context of crisis of the nation-state and forms of representation, try to collect and put on the agenda the demand for radical democracy that has emerged in the last few years. At the same time, especially in small towns, the municipalist thesis allows politically orphaned actors a belonging that is adequate to recent historical transformations, as well as a re-elaboration and reconstruction of a political narrative and practice that in recent years has not found a common horizon.
In a national and local situation marked by strong political fragmentation, it is probably in the city of Naples that the most advanced municipalist experience can be found. Here some social actors such as “L’Asilo” and “Zero81”, leveraging an outsider mayor’s mobilisation capacity and receptivity, have positively impacted the municipal administration while maintaining a degree of political autonomy. This has allowed for the defense of the commons, the remunicipalisation of the local water service and resisting the sale of municipal assets, against the financial backdrop of the city’s strong indebtedness. The provision of civic councils – such as that on debt and health, but also the “popular observatory” on the land and sea remediation in Bagnoli and that on the commons – have provided useful tools for involving citizens, although it is important to note that popular deliberative mechanisms have not yet seen the light. This confirms the risk – common to many experiences that declare themselves as municipalist – that the expansion of democratic political participation could be emptied of efficacy and effectiveness, and with it the core of municipalism: the implementation of new, democratic institutional and decision-making arrangements.
As the case of Naples illustrates, municipalism has in its DNA a virtuous dialectic between social and political actors. It is from the former that the latter draws indications and lifeblood. In the decade before the pandemic, many movements have seen the crossing of actors who have tried to translate this function into the municipal framework. These movements are: in defense of commons and against the disposal of public assets; for citizenship rights and welcoming cities against racism; struggles to defend spaces; and providing socio-ecological alternatives to the disasters of today’s economic and social system. The institutional actors we have on the map, the civic platforms and the coalitions, come from a cycle of social activation that is now over. The scarcity of social actors who currently refer explicitly to municipalism is probably linked to the absence or fatigue in the emergence of new social movements and cycles of mobilisation, which give new impetus to the demands of radical transformation and diffusion of power in resident communities.
A society in ferment and groups that know how to translate these feelings into new forms of government and institutional hacking are essential. Their presence within the institutions must not deceive from the possibility that from within these institutions can be transformed at a macro-structural level. Rather, it is awareness and the organising of struggles outside the institutions that allow the society to be involved in the processes of popular and participatory organising, promoting a radical democracy inspired by the logic of solidarity. Subcomandante Marcos always said that he “did not want power”, but that he wanted to enter institutions to empty them of power and return it to the people: this still remains extremely valid for the municipalist movement to come.