“Power to the People!”: An Interview with Je so’ Pazzo


Potere al Popo­lo! (“Pow­er to the Peo­ple!”; PAP) is a coali­tion of left-wing par­ties, trade unions, and move­ment groups that was launched last Decem­ber. Togeth­er these orga­ni­za­tions are con­test­ing the forth­com­ing Ital­ian nation­al elec­tion, with votes to be cast this Sun­day.

Ital­ian gov­er­nance turns – or, since the 1990s, has suc­ces­sive­ly failed to turn – on “the stop-gap, designed to over­come imme­di­ate crises,” as David Broder recent­ly put it. The like­ly result of this weekend’s elec­tion – a grand coali­tion of the social­ly lib­er­al Par­ti­to Demo­c­ra­ti­co (PD) with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, as in 2013 – promis­es lit­tle change, once again.

I first met mem­bers of Je so’ Paz­zo (“I’m crazy to try”; JSP), one of the groups that ini­ti­at­ed PAP, at their Naples build­ing in mid-Sep­tem­ber of last year (when we spoke about JSP’s rela­tion­ship with the city’s may­or), and again, over the first week­end of Jan­u­ary, in Lon­don, as PAP launched their UK sec­tion.

JSP’s decade-long growth pri­or the PAP coali­tion pri­or­i­tized social root­ed­ness over polit­i­cal reach. Here we explore the ques­tions of how they built their move­ment infra­struc­ture in Naples, and what risks they face in extend­ing nation­al­ly into elec­toral pol­i­tics.

– Joe Hayns

Joe Hayns: Before we talk about JSP’s prac­ti­cal work, and after that about PAP, could you give a sense of the polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic con­di­tions of the city and region in which JSP has devel­oped?

Je so’ Paz­zo: In south­ern Italy, we actu­al­ly nev­er had big indus­tries – there are some excep­tions, like Ilva in Taran­to, which is a very big steel­works, and in Amal­fi there were ship­yards, but since the cri­sis in 2008, they just start­ed clos­ing due to high costs of pro­duc­tion and of labor. It can be more prof­itable for Ital­ian-owned cap­i­tal to invest out­side Italy, espe­cial­ly in East­ern Europe, and this is whats been hap­pen­ing in Italy in the last few decades.

In Italy, Milan, oth­er big cen­ters, cap­i­tal has invest­ed in finance, and ser­vices, with con­cen­tra­tion. This didn’t hap­pen in south­ern Italy – we say there has been a “cer­ti­fi­ca­tion” of south­ern Italy, because there are no longer any big pro­duc­tive units.

Cur­rent­ly, local gov­ern­ment is try­ing to con­cen­trate on tourism and trade, with a focus on small busi­ness­es. This is a prob­lem for work­ers as, most of the time, small busi­ness­es hire you with no con­tracts and you have no rights. We’re not talk­ing only about only migrants – migrants and Ital­ians. Young peo­ple like us work in small hotels, bars, restau­rants, and so on.

The prob­lem that we have now in Naples is that there are lots of tourists and so we have the Airbnb phe­nom­e­non, which means that rents are ris­ing. They’re very high in some areas in Naples. And the hous­ing stock here is pret­ty bad, with the worst qual­i­ty hous­ing being giv­en to migrants and to stu­dents. But we don’t have a big hous­ing emer­gency like oth­er Euro­pean cities. it’s not like Berlin, or Lon­don, or Paris.

We have a huge unem­ploy­ment prob­lem – that’s our prob­lem now. I mean, not now – I think it’s been about 150 years [laughs].

JH: Your group, the group that became JSP, came togeth­er in 2008. Could you explain your orga­ni­za­tion­al tra­jec­to­ry?

JSP: We decid­ed to occu­py this place, after a long polit­i­cal process. The first group of com­rades met in 2008. We had only a small room in a uni­ver­si­ty. We still have it today, but at that time it was the only one. We could only have small meet­ings, and at night and on week­ends, it was closed. We couldn’t host any kind of social activ­i­ty. Before here, we had been meet­ing togeth­er for sev­en years, and we had tried a lot of occu­pa­tions that all had failed.

For two years, we rent­ed a place. We had con­certs, we had debates, but we thought that it wasn’t enough. As one of our can­di­dates said in their first speech, we real­ized that we need­ed to change polit­i­cal strat­e­gy; we couldn’t wait for peo­ple to come to us, we had to come out from the under­ground and reach out to the com­mu­ni­ty. The eas­i­est way to meet and gath­er with­out pay­ing rent is to occu­py. We live just on fundrais­ing. This is an ille­gal occu­pa­tion.

Hav­ing this place gave us the oppor­tu­ni­ty to come into con­tact with more peo­ple, and to set up social activ­i­ties and work­shops. By being in touch with local com­mu­ni­ties in this way we were able to start dis­cus­sions about the prob­lems that they faced in their lives, the demands they had that were not being met, and so we began to work with the com­mu­ni­ty to meet these needs col­lec­tive­ly.

We don’t like to call our place a social cen­ter, we like to call it a “House of the Peo­ple” – it’s an impor­tant polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al tra­di­tion, the Case del popo­lo of the PCI [Par­ti­to Comu­nista Ital­iano]. Their aim was to have a House of the Peo­ple for every church in Italy; even in the small­est towns, in the cen­ter of Italy, in the moun­tains, the PCI had a “House of the Peo­ple.” We want to build on that tra­di­tion, though also inno­vat­ing it in order to adapt it to our cur­rent real­i­ty.

Though we are also part of a nation­al orga­ni­za­tion, called Clash City Work­ers, which is active in a few dif­fer­ent Ital­ian cities, JSP is based in one city, in Naples.

JH: One of your bases is infor­mal­ly-employed younger peo­ple, anoth­er is stu­dents, and anoth­er is peo­ple who have migrat­ed to Italy. Of course, peo­ple might be of all these groups. How does that social geog­ra­phy you’ve described relate to in-migra­tion? Every bour­geois state stri­ates the work­ing class – cit­i­zen, non-cit­i­zen, those with and with­out rights, and so on. How have you relat­ed to this process, as you’ve found it in Naples and the south?

JSP: Immi­gra­tion does not have a long his­to­ry in Italy – we have always been emi­grants. A lot of Ital­ians have emi­grat­ed to the UK, and I was born in the Unit­ed States. All of the laws regard­ing immi­grants and migrants have been approved in the last 10, 15, 20 years – it start­ed in the mid ‘90s.

There are dif­fer­ences between north­ern and south­ern Italy. Most of the immi­grants that come here to south­ern Italy don’t want to stay here – they want to go up north, because they know they’re not going to get work here.

Most migrants in south­ern Italy are undoc­u­ment­ed, they are ille­gal, and so they do not work in the for­mal econ­o­my. Up north it’s dif­fer­ent, as there has been migra­tion to the North for longer. Peo­ple are more “inte­grat­ed” into the local com­mu­ni­ty, though at the same time racism and anti-immi­grant sen­ti­ments have become per­va­sive there. Many migrants in the north are union­ized and in the South this is not the case.

In south­ern Italy in par­tic­u­lar we have a prob­lem with ille­gal recruit­ment by gang­mas­ters, a process which we call capo­rala­to. This phe­nom­e­non is par­tic­u­lar­ly com­mon in the agri­cul­tur­al indus­try, where labor­ers are picked up dai­ly accord­ing to demand by ille­gal mid­dle­men, often con­nect­ed to orga­nized crime, who take a cut from the labor­ers wages. It is a sys­tem of recruit­ment that has exist­ed for a long time in south­ern Italy. It is still very wide­spread and it is almost always ille­gal immi­grants, but also legal immi­grants, who are the vic­tims. It is a high­ly exploita­tive form of labor.

These work­ers work 12- or 14-hour days for 20 euros, or even less. Women are often raped or abused. Some­times they are not allowed to drink, they have no food, they sleep in the farm, with ani­mals, or in tents. This kind of work is often con­trolled by the camor­ra. Not by the big camor­ra, but by small­er fam­i­lies that con­trol the ter­ri­to­ry – they are small mafia clans even if they’re not part of the big­ger mafia fam­i­lies, involved in smug­gling, drug traf­fick­ing, and stuff like that. This is a still a big prob­lem in Italy.

Because in south­ern Italy migrants are very often undoc­u­ment­ed, it’s hard for them to even come in to con­tact with a trade union. What we and oth­er activist orga­ni­za­tions try and do is to go to them, main­tain con­tact with them, try to pro­vide the ser­vices they need, first of all, to become doc­u­ment­ed, reg­is­tered, legal. That’s why we have an Ital­ian school and offer legal assis­tance for migrants.

We have anoth­er prac­tice that we set up. We go to immi­gra­tion cen­ters to make sure that reg­u­la­tions are respect­ed and that liv­ing con­di­tions are humane. Most of the recep­tion cen­ters are pri­vate­ly owned, and most of the time are owned by peo­ple or orga­ni­za­tions, that are, let’s say, some­what sin­is­ter.

A few years ago, it was dis­cov­ered that many immi­gra­tion cen­ters in Rome were being run by the mafia – upon win­ning the con­tract, they would leave the peo­ple liv­ing in their cen­ters with­out even the most basic of ser­vices, includ­ing food. This sit­u­a­tion still exists in the South.

It has often hap­pened that some of our com­rades who go to the deten­tion cen­ters have been black­mailed or threat­ened, and they had to leave – or they had to arrive there with a cam­era so that they could say, “I’m record­ing, so be care­ful with what you’re say­ing.”

JH: I can imag­ine that some Marx­ists, of a par­tic­u­lar type, would crit­i­cize your relat­ing with migrants, with unem­ployed peo­ple, home­less peo­ple, with stu­dents, rather than with the clas­sic rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­ject, the indus­tri­al pro­le­tari­at.

JSP: We receive these kinds of – uh, I don’t want to call them, offences – almost every day. When we do social activ­i­ties, they say “that’s not Com­mu­nist.”

Peo­ple often accuse us of not talk­ing to work­ers, to the work­ing class, the clas­sic rev­o­lu­tion­ary sub­ject, “accord­ing to Marx.” But, it depends on how you read Marx, and whether you under­stand what Marx want­ed to say.

We col­lec­tive­ly read and dis­cuss the clas­si­cal texts of Marx­ism. We’ve read Marx, we’ve read Engels, Lenin, the works of Black Pan­ther Par­ty, all togeth­er. We even wrote a book togeth­er, which is a soci­o­log­i­cal analy­sis of the work­ing class in Italy today. We ana­lyzed the var­i­ous sec­tors, the pro­duc­tive sec­tors, of the Ital­ian econ­o­my – we ana­lyzed how the make-up of the work­ing class has changed through­out the years.

Pro­le­tar­i­an does not sim­ply mean the work­er who goes to the fac­to­ry, arriv­ing in the morn­ing and leav­ing at six at night, because work has changed. Work has changed; peo­ple have changed; soci­ety has changed.

When we have to make impor­tant choic­es – for exam­ple, what should our posi­tion be in rela­tion to the may­or of Naples? – we think about Lenin and his writ­ings. But we need to ana­lyze these writ­ings, and con­sid­er them in light of the  sit­u­a­tion that we’re in today – this is not Rus­sia in 1917, or even Italy in 1970. It’s Italy in 2017. It is imper­a­tive, in fact, that we con­tin­ue to car­ry out polit­i­cal prax­is and analy­sis rather than let­ting our­selves be par­a­lyzed in the same, end­less the­o­ret­i­cal debates that have been going on since Marx’s time. And if you don’t like it because it’s hard work or because it’s not “ortho­dox” – well, actu­al­ly, we don’t care.

If we con­tin­ue to restrict our­selves to an unbend­ing schema, we will only be able to talk to 20 peo­ple. We don’t want to talk to 20 peo­ple. We want to talk to 20,000 peo­ple, way more than that actu­al­ly. We don’t think it’s help­ful to adopt an atti­tude that views peo­ple who are not famil­iar with Marx­ist, Lenin­ist, or oth­er the­o­ret­i­cal con­cepts with a patron­iz­ing eye. This kind of atti­tude is in fact extreme­ly unhelp­ful, and naïve in its under­stand­ing of the world.

JH: There are prob­a­bly only a few words so emp­ty as “peo­ple” – it’s almost alge­bra­ic, an x or y of polit­i­cal dis­course. “Peo­ple” in its right-wing vari­a­tion can refer to some­thing like a “nation­al group,” with the var­i­ous exclu­sions that nation-build­ing requires. The more fre­quent pro­gres­sive vari­a­tion coun­ter­pos­es “the peo­ple” with “the elites.” But just because it is a flex­i­ble term does not mean it is mean­ing­less or use­less.

The gener­ic Marx­ist crit­i­cism, which at least ini­tial­ly applies to both of these sens­es, is that “peo­ple” masks class dif­fer­ence. At the very least, empha­sis is drawn away from the “work­ing class,” and indeed away from class as a con­tra­dic­to­ry social rela­tion. You’re alive to this crit­i­cism – could you explain the pol­i­tics of your use of popo­lo?

JSP: Yes, a crit­i­cism that peo­ple make of us is that we use the word “peo­ple,” rather than “pro­le­tari­at.” When we use the terms “the peo­ple” or “pop­u­lar class­es,” we don’t intend them to have nation­al­ist con­no­ta­tions. What we want to con­vey is an idea of all the social class­es that are oppressed in soci­ety, which does not only include the pro­le­tari­at as it has come to be under­stood.

What we take from the Black Pan­thers is the idea that rev­o­lu­tion­ary polit­i­cal activ­i­ty should not focus only on the pro­le­tari­at as tra­di­tion­al­ly under­stood, because this excludes, for exam­ple, the peo­ple – still, in most cas­es, women – who work only in the home, a kind of work that is not rec­og­nized as work and yet is fun­da­men­tal for the sur­vival of the cap­i­tal­ist mode of pro­duc­tion.

For us, polit­i­cal action is about get­ting peo­ple to real­ize that the sources of their oppres­sion and exploita­tion are what they have in com­mon – this is why we use the word “peo­ple.” We use these terms because there is a neces­si­ty for us to be able to speak of a uni­fied polit­i­cal sub­ject that is broad­er than a nar­row def­i­n­i­tion of the pro­le­tari­at, and to rec­og­nize that there is a sub­jec­tive ele­ment to it.

The bonds that held togeth­er the tra­di­tion­al indus­tri­al work­ing class do not exist today in the same way – a work­er is much more like­ly to move work­places fre­quent­ly, for exam­ple. We must work to form new social bonds, and the way to do that is to focus efforts not only in the work­place but also in the com­mu­ni­ty.

If we only work with a tra­di­tion­al­ly-defined pro­le­tari­at, then we leave behind oth­er sec­tions of soci­ety, peo­ple who are suf­fer­ing, who are oppressed, and also exploit­ed. Our polit­i­cal work is about real­iz­ing the demands of every­one who is exploit­ed, oppressed, and exclud­ed. We use mate­r­i­al analy­ses to help us under­stand how best to do this.

But we also don’t think there is an easy or mechan­i­cal route to rev­o­lu­tion­ary change. We don’t lose sight of the ulti­mate goal of end­ing cap­i­tal­ism and we also don’t resign our­selves to wait­ing; our duty as com­mu­nists is to work hard to meet the every­day demands of peo­ple who lose out in the cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem while also plan­ning – study­ing, research­ing, exper­i­ment­ing – every day for its end.

JH: In a recent piece Rosa Gilbert explains that PAP includes “civ­il soci­ety and stu­dent groups, hous­ing and migrant strug­gles and rad­i­cal trade unions such as the Unione Sin­da­cale di Base,” plus var­i­ous par­ties. Could you speak a lit­tle about the groups to which you’re relat­ing through PAP? There seems an admirable real­iza­tion of shared views and shared objec­tives from all sides – what are the points of agree­ment? And why not ful­ly merge, giv­en your shared pro­gram and, as it seems, polit­i­cal sim­i­lar­i­ties?

JSP: With­in Potere al Popo­lo there is a broad range of dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions. We view polit­i­cal work as hav­ing two fronts. The day-to-day work of pro­vid­ing ser­vices is one. This kind of work has to be part of a project which aims to solve these prob­lems at their roots, rather than sim­ply hold­ing back the tide. As such, we want to aggre­gate all the forces we can to cre­ate an effec­tive polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion, which can make an impact on polit­i­cal life at the insti­tu­tion­al lev­el. This is what we are try­ing to do in Naples, in terms of our rela­tion­ship with the local author­i­ties, but this is also what we are try­ing to do at a nation­al lev­el with Potere al Popo­lo.

So Potere al Popo­lo is made up of social move­ments and orga­ni­za­tions that work to build a social base for left-wing, anti-cap­i­tal­ist pol­i­tics. There are groups involved in envi­ron­men­tal strug­gles, there are social cen­ters, there are work­ers’ move­ments and trade unions.

Our aim is not sim­ply to unite the var­i­ous orga­ni­za­tions active on the left, but to cre­ate a force capa­ble of politi­ciz­ing parts of our soci­ety that are not politi­cized, or that have turned to the 5 Star Move­ment or even to the far right. We are par­tic­u­lar­ly keen to involve young peo­ple – 70% of young peo­ple will abstain in these elec­tions.

As to the ques­tion of merg­ing, for the local­ly-based orga­ni­za­tions, or sin­gle issue civ­il-soci­ety groups, this is not an issue, because they can con­tin­ue to do what they do along­side the Potere al Popo­lo work, as ex-OPG – the ex-Ospedale Psichi­atri­co Giudiziario, the for­mer secure psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal where JSP is based – will, in fact.

When it comes to the polit­i­cal par­ties, the first thing to say is that Potere al Popo­lo is an elec­toral list, not a polit­i­cal par­ty. How­ev­er, its prin­ci­pal objec­tive is not elec­toral suc­cess, but the con­struc­tion of a last­ing nation­al coor­di­na­tion of all the move­ments that have come togeth­er under the Potere al Popo­lo ban­ner. There is no rea­son why this would require the for­mal merg­ing of all the par­ties – what we are inter­est­ed in is strength­en­ing this coor­di­na­tion.

JH: Lenin’s 1906 pam­phlet The Social-Democ­rats and Elec­toral Agree­ments shows a great atten­tion to the details of par­lia­men­tary pol­i­tics – the rules gov­ern­ing it, the inter­nal dynam­ics of par­ties, their rela­tions to class­es and their sec­tions, and so on, 15 years or so before “Left Wing” Com­mu­nism: An Infan­tile Dis­or­der. The Bol­she­viks knew the rev­o­lu­tion­ary poten­tial of elec­toral, bour­geois pol­i­tics, which have, of course, split, deformed, and oth­er­wise changed com­mu­nist par­ties – a his­to­ry of those changes is prob­a­bly one of the bet­ter sin­gle ways to under­stand the his­tor­i­cal tra­jec­to­ry of com­mu­nism. Is PaP strong enough to fight both elec­tions and elec­toral­ism?

JSP: We don’t have any illu­sions about the nature of the bour­geois state, or any illu­sions about what we can achieve in terms of a for­mal result at these elec­tions. Our aim is to use the elec­tions as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to cre­ate a shared nation­al plat­form for the left, that can be trans­formed into a sol­id and long-last­ing nation­al orga­ni­za­tion.

Part of what made us take this deci­sion was look­ing at the sit­u­a­tion across West­ern Europe, where rad­i­cal left move­ments of dif­fer­ent kinds have had sig­nif­i­cant suc­cess, both for­mal­ly at the bal­lot box, but also impor­tant­ly in terms of impact­ing on pub­lic dis­course. Italy real­ly stood out in that sense, with the prospect of an elec­tion cam­paign dom­i­nat­ed by the right wing.

On a deep­er lev­el, we think that engag­ing with the insti­tu­tions of the state is a neces­si­ty. If we refuse to con­front the pow­er of the rul­ing class­es, out of fear of being cor­rupt­ed, we cede ground to them. We must face up to them on every front that they open up. This does not have to mean com­pro­mis­ing on our auton­o­my – we must try to do this on our own terms.

This is why we use the prac­tice that we call “pop­u­lar con­trol.” Pop­u­lar con­trol is a prac­tice of democ­ra­cy, but not of bour­geois democ­ra­cy, because it does not fit with­in that mod­el. Pop­u­lar con­trol is a way that the peo­ple can affect con­trol over the insti­tu­tions which gov­ern them; it is the exer­cise of pow­er by the col­lec­tiv­i­ty, or, in the words of Gram­sci, it is how we guard our­selves from the sit­u­a­tion where “unchecked hands weave the fab­ric of col­lec­tive life.”

We have demon­strat­ed here in Naples some very basic forms that pop­u­lar con­trol can take. We go inside the immi­gra­tion deten­tion cen­ters; we orga­nize out­side the polling booths dur­ing local elec­tions, as inde­pen­dent observers, mak­ing sure no irreg­u­lar­i­ties were tak­ing place; and we have car­ried out actions to make sure that the local labor inspec­torate, respon­si­ble for ensur­ing work­ers’ rights are respect­ed, was not engag­ing in cor­rup­tion and col­lu­sion with exploita­tive employ­ers.

We are not try­ing to get into par­lia­ment at all costs. Our focus is on build­ing a col­lec­tive pow­er of the pop­u­lar class­es through these local­ized prac­tices, and aggre­gat­ing them to cre­ate a force capa­ble of exert­ing itself over the cen­tral insti­tu­tions of the state. This is how we will be strong enough to fight elec­toral­ism, by not mak­ing it our focus – as our Cata­lan com­rades say, “by hav­ing one foot in par­lia­ment and a thou­sand in the streets.”

We have only just begun – any elec­toral result for us is basi­cal­ly a good result because we start­ed from zero only a few months ago. But, suc­cess for us will be mea­sured by many dif­fer­ent means.

Authors of the article

is an occupied social center in Naples, Italy, linked to the Clash City Workers collective. They helped to found the Potere al Popolo coalition.

is a member of rs21. He is a student doing research on Morocco.