Neapolitan Experience with New Commons-Based Participatory Institutions

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* Article: Commons towards New Participatory Institutions. The Neapolitan Experience. Maria Francesca De Tullio


First introductory article from the book: Commonism. A New Aesthetics of the Real. By Nico Dockx & Pascal Gielen (eds.)


Introduction: Property and Democratic Participation

"This work is a narration of the Neapolitan experience of commons, aimed at finding in that movement new possible patterns of participatory democracy (Allegretti 2010, p. 7; Chevallier 1999, p. 410).

Commons and participatory democracy follow, in principle, different logics. Nevertheless, they are getting more and more interlaced with each other due to two converging phenomena. The first one is the politicization of commons. Commons are becoming—in many parts of Europe—a way to rethink political subjectivation by imagining and practicing new forms of relation and institutional organization beyond the neoliberal imprint. In other words, political movements are generating ‘emerging common goods’ (Micciarelli 2014, pp. 67–69), i.e. commons defined not only by their nature and function, but also by their governing, shared between public sector and people. The second phenomenon comes from the opposite direction: the traditional institutions are actively seeking more responsive, accountable, and participatory forms of democracy, to face the distrust towards representatives and electoral mechanisms. Therefore, there is an opportunity for commons to fill a void of political legitimacy of the institutions. A void which, presently, is also a battleground, for at least two reasons. The first one is that representatives are attempting to put in place weak procedures of participation, with the intention of gaining trust and consent from the citizens without giving away too much power. The second and perhaps more important one is that the weakening of elected organisms also leaves room to deregulation, privatization and, thus, inequalities.

Then, the main issue of this study is to use the Neapolitan case, and its challenges, to unemployment and precarious working conditions, as well as against national cultural policies they deemed inefficient and unequal (Gielen 2015, pp. 65–67). In fact, they attacked a symbol of these policies by grabbing a space that, at that time, had been given in concession to a Foundation in charge of organizing the UNESCO’s Universal Forum of Cultures. The building was considered emblematic, because this kermesse, like many big events, was failing to stimulate all of the artistic texture of the territory. On the contrary, it produced a waste of money and concentration of funding in few hands.

However, soon the entire city was involved in the process of l’Asilo: cultural workers above all, but also other inhabitants and activists, who were experimenting with new ways to engage in politics. In a series of animated assemblies, they decided not to be ‘occupants’, but commoners. So, they transformed the public spaces in shared and freely accessible means of production, with lower costs and horizontal management, following collaborative rather than competitive logics. Consequently, a creative effort was made to pour that vision into a juridical construction. The aim was not to seek the protection of the law, but to ‘hack’ legality, i.e. to use the disruptive energy of the process to carve the rules and change institutions.

Eventually, they identified this new juridical instrument as ‘urban civic uses’, through an extensive interpretation of the ‘civic use’, a tool that—since ancient times—grants to a certain community collective rights over lands and pastures. But they also brought innovation to this juridical instrument, because they conceived the ‘community’ not in the traditional ‘communitarian’ meaning, but in an inclusive, heterogeneous, and ever-changing sense.

Thus they wrote collectively, in public and open assemblies, a Declaration of Urban Civic and Collective Use (hereinafter Declaration), formally recognized later, in 2015, by two Resolutions of the Giunta Comunale (City Government) (Delibere 400/2012, 893/2015). This Declaration ‘rules the use of the spaces of l’Asilo and of the means of production that it contains, ensuring usability, inclusiveness, fairness, accessibility and self-government’ (cf. Ostrom 1990, pp. 93–94).

The Administration, on its part, by approving the Declaration recognized not only a mere access entitlement, but also ‘the rights to the direct administration of the building itself’. The objective of the Giunta Comunale (City Government) was not to express tolerance towards the occupation. Rather, it was accepting the challenge of transforming juridical science and practices.

Hence, the public domain is not used in an exclusive fashion, nor entrusted to a particular private subject, but opened up to the entire community. Indeed, the administration of the spaces, in consistence with their nature of common goods, is undertaken by Governing and Management Assemblies that are open to everyone (not only citizens and adults) and decide by consensus (Declaration, Art. 3). Moreover, the overriding principle in the programming of activities is the non-exclusive use of any part of the property, as turn-taking and the guarantee of use, access and usability of the space by the parties who benefit is the guiding principle of the whole urban civic use system. (Declaration, Art. 14).

In practice, the building was transformed in an ‘interdependent’ centre of artistic production, which has been crossed—in five years—by over 2,400 productive subjects, 7,800 public initiatives, and 260,000 beneficiaries. Anyone who wishes to employ the space to work, rehearse, or organize civil, political, and cultural initiatives only needs to propose the activity to the Management Assemblies. These do not exercise an artistic direction, but, as to the contents, only refuse fascist, sexist, and racist proposals. Yet, as requests grow in number, and spaces and energies remain limited, the community constantly engages in reasoning, to elaborate choosing criteria consistent with the destination of the building. With this participatory establishment the Administration does not abandon its responsibilities.

Indeed, by recognizing the Declaration, the Giunta Comunale (City Government) binds itself to very precise commitments:

- The City Administration … provides, within the limits of the available resources, the management expenditures and what is necessary to ensure adequate accessibility to the property. It also provides what is necessary to ensure a safe environment for carrying out the activities and the protection of the property by preventing damages by vandalism. (Art. 20)

Not last, ‘City Administration undertakes to intervene in any case ensuring access to and use of the spaces according to the scheduled activities’ (Ibid.). These public expenses are justified through the recognition of the ‘civic redditivity’ of the experience, i.e. the ability of the commons to generate a social non-monetary value which is worth the expense of maintaining the building. That way, a piece of real estate became, through collective will, an ‘emerging common good’, getting to represent not only a platform of mutualism for workers in the field of arts, culture, and performance, but also an incubator for democratic participation.

Afterwards, the same path has been followed in favour of seven more spaces, which have been declared common goods in a new Resolution (Delibere 446/2016, 458/2017). Namely, these spaces are Villa Medusa and ex Lido Pola, in the suburban area of Bagnoli, together with ex Schipa, ex Opg (Psychiatric Criminal Hospital), Giardino Liberato (Freed Garden), Ex-conservatory of Santa Fede, and former juvenile prison Filangieri, now called Scugnizzo Liberato, in the area of the historical city centre. All of them have their own characteristics and vocation, but they share the same engagement to remain self-governed and accessible to everyone.

From the Conclusion

"In synthesis, the Neapolitan experimentation with commons has contaminated the Administration with new languages and procedures, characterized by the complete accessibility of self-government organisms, the selective public provision of spaces and funding to weak grassroots movements, and a constant questioning of property and exclusive use.

A further question, then, from both a legal and political point of view, is to imagine how these tools can be useful in other realities and territories, where other commons are emerging. Here, the hardest challenges, besides the political ones, derive from the crisis of public debt, which increases the pressure towards privatization and clearance sale of public goods."