What Italy’s “Potere al Popolo” Can Teach Us About Building a Popular Party of the Left

This party is rejecting the false choice between a Europe united under the misery of austerity, or one united under the horrors of racism and bigotry.

Valentina Dallona

Protesters hold flags of the 'Potere al popolo' (Power to the People) political party, during an anti-racism demonstration one week after an attack that injured at least six migrants, on February 10, 2018 in Macerata. (TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images)

On March 4, the Ital­ian peo­ple will walk to the bal­lots to choose their gov­ern­ment for the next five years. Dur­ing the past few weeks, the TV sched­ule has been filled with rep­re­sen­ta­tives from each run­ning par­ty clash­ing over the best ways to get the coun­try out of the lin­ger­ing eco­nom­ic reces­sion: struc­tur­al reforms, inno­va­tion, job cre­ation, more cuts, less cuts and, of course, stop­ping immigration.

PAP is the only political formation that explicitly talks about wealth redistribution, with pillars that include a tax on property and a battle against tax evasion aimed at shrinking Italy’s widening inequality gap.

The reg­u­lar pre-elec­tion spec­ta­cle is charged with a sense of grav­i­ty, as this will be the first time Ital­ian cit­i­zens will have the chance to elect their gov­ern­ment since the fall of Berlus­coni in 2011.

After the defeat of Le Pen’s far-right par­ty by the lib­er­al, pro-aus­ter­i­ty par­ty of Macron in France, law­mak­ers, inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions and investors across Europe are watch­ing with bat­ed breath to see whether Ital­ian vot­ers reject the far Right and its anti-Europe dis­course. On the oth­er hand, some observers wor­ry that the elec­tions could result in a hung par­lia­ment that will yet again be resolved by the for­ma­tion of a gov­ern­ment of tech­nocrats in charge of car­ry­ing for­ward the aus­ter­i­ty man­date as their pre­de­ces­sors did.

Yet, a new left coali­tion is pre­sent­ing a third option. Potere Al Popo­lo (Pow­er to the Peo­ple or PAP) is artic­u­lat­ing a polit­i­cal plat­form that breaks through the dread­ful dichoto­my between the anti-aus­ter­i­ty, xeno­pho­bic Right and the pro-Euro­pean, lib­er­al Left.” With years of involve­ment in labor and com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing behind it, PAP has entered the polit­i­cal are­na and resus­ci­tat­ed debates about inequal­i­ty and work­er pro­tec­tion — top­ics that have been set aside by par­ties across the entire polit­i­cal spec­trum to favor the smooth imple­men­ta­tion of struc­tur­al reforms. By bring­ing a net­work of grass­roots orga­ni­za­tions into elec­toral pol­i­tics, PAP demon­strates how build­ing a pop­u­lar par­ty of the Left is possible.

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty adrift

So far, the elec­toral debate has been dom­i­nat­ed by the Right, whose coali­tion list has secured between 34 and 38 per­cent of votes, as pre­dict­ed by the final Feb­ru­ary 16 pre-elec­tion polls. The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, cur­rent­ly the main force on the par­lia­men­tary Cen­ter-Left, is los­ing ground to the Five Star Move­ment, the anti-estab­lish­ment par­ty that grew out of the anti-Berlus­coni protests from 2008 to 2011. The Five Star Move­ment is polling as the largest sin­gle par­ty, with rough­ly 28 per­cent of the votes. Thanks to a polit­i­cal plat­form imbued with con­tra­dic­tions, this catch-all par­ty has man­aged so far to attract votes from por­tions of both the left and right electorate.

At 22 to 25 per­cent, and muti­lat­ed by con­stant inter­nal frac­tions, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty appears to be suf­fer­ing a ter­mi­nal cri­sis. Amid increas­ing social ten­sions over aus­ter­i­ty and immi­gra­tion, it is prov­ing unable to assert itself as the oppos­ing force against cuts to pub­lic spend­ing. On the con­trary, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has active­ly imple­ment­ed struc­tur­al reforms, such as the Fornero reform of the pen­sion sys­tem and Renzi’s Jobs Act — which first deep­ened and then extend­ed pover­ty and job inse­cu­ri­ty across all lay­ers of the work­force. In addi­tion, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has grad­u­al­ly aban­doned any dis­cus­sion of wealth dis­tri­b­u­tion, opt­ing instead to adopt a right-lean­ing nar­ra­tive that depicts the unem­ployed as choosy,” and those who try to artic­u­late a cri­tique of aus­ter­i­ty as irre­spon­si­ble.”

Par­al­lel­ing the tra­jec­to­ry of many oth­er lib­er­al par­ties across Europe and the Unit­ed States, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has failed to speak to those who have endured more than eight years of eco­nom­ic reces­sion. This short­com­ing has flood­ed par­ties of the Right with a new con­stituen­cy, while leav­ing the pre­car­i­ous youth, low-income pen­sion­ers and the unem­ployed with no polit­i­cal harbor.

Just as in the Unit­ed States, the long-last­ing absence of a real Left in the Ital­ian par­lia­ment has also forced social move­ments, activists and orga­niz­ers to think about how to be a dif­fer­ent kind of Left: one that does not aban­don its mis­sion for social jus­tice in favor of a neolib­er­al agen­da. In the past, most of this think­ing has led social move­ments to oper­ate out­side of the polit­i­cal are­na — in the social cen­ters and the streets.

The after­math of the debt cri­sis saw the emer­gence of the unrep­re­senta­bles—the peo­ple who are not and can­not be rep­re­sent­ed by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, which made their jobs pre­car­i­ous and cut their access to good health­care, edu­ca­tion and pen­sions. Many of these unrep­re­senta­bles flocked to the Five Star Move­ment, a par­ty born to chan­nel the indig­na­dos and Occu­py-type dis­con­tent that explod­ed in mass protests between 2008 and 2011. Yet the par­ty has no real analy­sis of the cri­sis that goes beyond con­demn­ing the cor­rup­tion of the polit­i­cal class. As the Five Star Move­ment sheds its orig­i­nal social move­ment ele­ments, it increas­ing­ly shows signs of a drift to the Right, as exem­pli­fied by its Zero Boats” pro­gram on immigration.

PAP’s path from the streets to elections

It is in this con­text of aim­less stray­ing of the par­lia­men­tary Left away from the real coun­try” — a com­mon term that refers to the ordi­nary peo­ple who strug­gle to make ends meet — that PAP has emerged as a new force that claims to be the only polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the wretched of the coun­try. Offi­cial­ly found­ed in Decem­ber 2017, PAP was born as the polit­i­cal embod­i­ment of almost a decade of grass­roots organizing.

At the core of the coali­tion is the group of activists around Je So’ Paz­zo, a com­mu­ni­ty space in the heart of Naples. Pre­vi­ous­ly a psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal-prison, the build­ing was occu­pied in March 2015, and since then hun­dreds of peo­ple have vol­un­teered at the cen­ter to turn the prison into free­dom,” as one of the center’s slo­gans goes.

Par­tic­i­pants are pur­su­ing dozens of activ­i­ties to fight pre­car­i­ous employ­ment, pover­ty and racism. The list of ser­vices that the space offers com­plete­ly free of charge is extra­or­di­nary, rang­ing from a med­ical cen­ter that has served hun­dreds of peo­ple in the past year to an after-school pro­gram for young peo­ple who would oth­er­wise be in the streets and vul­ner­a­ble to the orga­nized crime that still plagues the city. The cen­ter also pro­vides legal-sup­port ser­vices for pre­car­i­ous work­ers and immigrants.

What dif­fer­en­ti­ates Je So’ Paz­zo from a char­i­ty, though, is that all these activ­i­ties — while ori­ent­ed to pro­vide much need­ed relief to the peo­ple in Naples — are offered in a space that active­ly orga­nizes those indi­vid­ual issues into cam­paigns. The cen­ter has been sup­port­ing work­place bat­tles across the coun­try since 2011 through the work of its par­ent group Clash City Work­ers. (Dis­clo­sure: This author was for­mer­ly part of Clash City Workers.)

I used to be a mem­ber of groups that would stand out­side the FIAT plant, fliers in our hands, telling the work­ers how they were being exploit­ed,” Vio­la Caro­fa­lo, one of the long-term activists of Je So’ Paz­zo and polit­i­cal leader of PAP, said in an inter­view with the polit­i­cal satirist Sabi­na Guz­zan­ti. The work­ers didn’t care. They did not want you to stand out­side their work­place to teach them about their prob­lems. It’s when we start­ed ask­ing them what do you need?’ that every­thing changed, and we start­ed to win.”

By doing work that was deeply inspired by the Black Pan­thers’ com­mu­ni­ty pro­grams, the mem­bers of Je So’ Paz­zo have learned that the rad­i­cal Left today needs to oper­ate over and with­in this world, and avoid post­pon­ing it all to the utopia, by devel­op­ing the capac­i­ty to improve people’s lives here and now,” as put by mem­ber, Gian­piero Lau­ren­zano, now a can­di­date for PAP in Naples. But to be a real force, activists of Je So’ Paz­zo knew that the manda­to­ry next step was to build a par­ty. And so PAP was born.

As stat­ed in their elec­toral pro­gram, PAP decid­ed to run for these elec­tions by doing every­thing upside down” — build­ing its polit­i­cal pro­gram and list of can­di­dates through 150 pub­lic assem­blies held across the country.

Giv­ing voice to the unrep­re­senta­bles

PAP is the only polit­i­cal for­ma­tion that explic­it­ly talks about wealth redis­tri­b­u­tion, with pil­lars that include a tax on prop­er­ty and a bat­tle against tax eva­sion aimed at shrink­ing Italy’s widen­ing inequal­i­ty gap. While attack­ing the wealth of the rich, PAP is deter­mined to fight the Euro­pean aus­ter­i­ty dic­tates by re-chan­nel­ing pub­lic spend­ing into social wel­fare. The par­ty also aims to decrease mil­i­tary spend­ing by break­ing away from NATO’s fetters.

PAP puts work­er pro­tec­tion at the cen­ter of its polit­i­cal agen­da, fight­ing the struc­tur­al reforms of the labor mar­ket and the cuts to pub­lic spend­ing that have been imple­ment­ed since the off­set of the cri­sis. By form­ing alliances with sim­i­lar par­ties across Europe, such as Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, PAP hopes to re-define the Euro­pean Union as a struc­ture aimed at enhanc­ing the rights of work­ers, migrants and all peo­ple, rather than being a mech­a­nism of wage com­pres­sion and bor­der patrolling.

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is attempt­ing to avoid tak­ing a posi­tion on the piv­otal ques­tion of immi­gra­tion, as exem­pli­fied by the party’s elec­toral pro­gram, which in 43 pages only men­tions the word immi­gra­tion” once. In con­trast, PAP is proud to assert the prin­ci­ples of anti-fas­cism and anti-racism. In its pro­gram, PAP calls for the imme­di­ate stop to the emer­gency and mil­i­ta­rized man­age­ment of immi­gra­tion” and the repeal of the 2001 Bossi-Fini law that made immi­gra­tion a crime by cre­at­ing the cat­e­go­ry of clan­des­ti­no.”

Giv­ing voice to the unrep­re­senta­bles, PAP is dis­man­tling the false choice between two cat­a­stro­phes: a Europe unit­ed under the mis­ery of aus­ter­i­ty, or one unit­ed under the hor­rors of racism and bigotry.

By virtue of its grass­roots for­ma­tion and its nov­el­ty, PAP is still a very small polit­i­cal force: Many doubt it will reach the 3 per­cent of votes thresh­old to get any rep­re­sen­ta­tives in par­lia­ment. To those who ques­tion the sig­nif­i­cance of its project, PAP says that for us, elec­tions are a means to an end, not an end itself.” The coalition’s goal is to recom­pose the Left into a unit­ed front by show­ing peo­ple that they have pow­er to affect change.

PAP is demon­strat­ing to the world that a real par­ty of the Left must be built from the ground — and that process requires Par­ty mem­bers to become the real inter­locu­tors of the peo­ple. This bet is for the long-term. Invit­ed to the news­cast TG7 on Feb. 12, Caro­fa­lo was asked, You are aware you will not win the elec­tions, so what’s the point?” She respond­ed: Of course, we’ll win the next ones.” 

Valenti­na Dal­lona is a PhD stu­dent in the Depart­ment of Soci­ol­o­gy at Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­si­ty in Bal­ti­more, where she stud­ies fas­cism, labor move­ments and the pol­i­tics of the aus­ter­i­ty. Before mov­ing to the US, she was a mem­ber of the Clash City Work­ers col­lec­tive in Italy.
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