Can Europe Make It?

Palermo is a laboratory for the precariat

We meet the young people drawn to the Sicilian capital by its anarchic appeal and opportunities for a new politics.

Jamie Mackay
15 October 2014

Palermo. Photo by Acido Nucleico.

Palermo is a frontier city caught between South Italy and North Africa and closer to Tunis than Rome. Like much of Sicily, it is staggeringly poor, with an unemployment rate of 22 per cent and thousands of homeless. The police are corrupt and ineffectual, welfare is nonexistent and the mafia ran rampant in the city until a crackdown in the late 1990s. As a Sicilian friend wryly put it to me, referring to both the people and the cityscape: “every day in Palermo is like waking up after the apocalypse and realizing that life goes on”. Today it is family, clientele and the remaining vestiges of organized crime that fill the roles left vacant by a powerless and distant government.

This may sound like the worst place to wait out the brutal economic austerity unleashed on Italy, yet Palermo is peculiarly equipped to withstand whatever new crisis is thrown its way. Founded by Phoenician traders in the 8th Century BC, the city has been conquered by numerous empires from across Europe, Africa and the Middle East. This long history of transient leadership, and the normalization of precarity this entailed, has had a profound effect on the local attitude to power. For Palermitans, austerity measures handed down from Rome, 250 miles away, are simply perceived as the latest struggle against an illegitimate sovereign force, another invasion to be subverted via the usual codes of solidarity.

“every day in Palermo is like waking up after the apocalypse and realizing that life goes on”

Visiting Palermo is indeed like walking through the apocalypse, and the long-term implications of this total rejection of the state are evident at every turn. The city’s bombastic architecture is now in a state of advanced decay. Eighteenth century palazzi and squares built in the Bourbon era lie crumbling, covered in anti-government graffiti. Byzantine churches are overshadowed by piles of rubbish and the impressive Norman Cathedral is just streets away from a vast network of slums left unrepaired since the Allied bombing in WWII. Framing this bedlam is a sprawling ring of skeleton suburbs, built by the mafia in the ‘70s and left without public spaces, shops or transport links to the city centre.

Searching to hear how Palermo’s young people were dealing with life in the chaos, I headed to Piazza Garraffello, a ramshackle district in the heart of Vucciria, which has in recent years served as a meeting point for the city’s precarious workers. In this impoverished quarter of the city, almost totally ruined, I spoke with numerous unemployed, underemployed and politically engaged individuals all eager to talk about precariatization in their personal lives and at a European level.


Piazza Garraffello on a Saturday afternoon. Credit: Jack Alexandroff

Giuseppe – the native

Palermo has experienced one of the most dramatic cases of exodus in Europe, particularly of young people. The city has lost 10,000 residents in the past ten years, with another 150,000 set to leave by 2050. An astounding 60 per cent of under-25s are out of work here, and a growing number of young people have begun to see their city as dirty and without a future. While the emphasis on those who leave is important, and particularly as part of a wider movement from South to North, this picture often obscures the reality that the majority of young people in Palermo have remained here. Many of those do so out of necessity, for reasons to do with family or health, but many others choose to live here out of a sense of belonging.

Meandering through Vucciria’s fish market in the early morning, I spoke with Guiseppe, one of the young people born and bred in Palermo who has chosen to remain. “You can see this area is very poor,” he said, “but it is my favourite neighborhood in all of Palermo. There’s a mix of long-term residents and new arrivals, people from all over the world have started coming. Stay more than a week, though, and everyone will know who you are I promise”. Giuseppe’s story is typical of Sicilian youth. He is 24, without formal qualifications and still living with his mother. His future is largely dependent on the health of the city’s still-modest tourist industry: “I’ve done every job you could imagine,” he told me, “bar work, fishing, construction, cleaning, telesales, supermarket work, dog walking, dog training, dog grooming. In ten years I’ve done thirty-odd jobs. Eventually I couldn’t take it any more, I couldn’t carry on working for a boss and flitting around like this.”

“Palermo is no worse than other places. All of Italy, all of Europe is ruled by a class of criminals, here is just the most glaring example. It is not more corrupt, it is just slower”

Unlike his friends, many of whom have chosen to emigrate to South America, Giuseppe decided to fight against the odds at home. “When my grandma died, she left my mother this house. Now me and a couple of friends are renovating the place together to make it something special, a real family hostel right in the middle of Vucciria”. Eager to demonstrate the future fruits of his work he whipped out his iPhone and after some inexplicable calculations came up with the grandiose estimate that in a year’s time he would be making €58k per month. He held his hands up at me, brandishing his calluses and scars as evidence of his commitment. “I’m almost German in how I work you see! A year ago I didn’t even have a euro to pay for the bus, but now I’m on my way to something big”.

Giuseppe’s enthusiasm is disarming. The planning registration enabling him to begin work took eight months to process and while waiting he was left with no source of income. Despite this, his attitude to the city is one of obstinate affection: “Palermo is no worse than other places. All of Italy, all of Europe is ruled by a class of criminals, here is just the most glaring example. It is not more corrupt, it is just slower”. In line with such views, Giuseppe voted for the Five Star Movement in the EU elections, an anti-corruption party led by the comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo. Like many of the young people that make up the party’s voter base, he is attracted to the party’s green ambitions and calls for a more equal and fair Italy. “I hope Grillo can do something about Sicily’s problems but I don’t really believe it. Change has to begin from us you know, at the level of mentality. I want to make Vucciria something special for people from all over the world; like Germany in the ‘90s. Maybe if lots of groups worked together we could clean this place up. That would be a start at least.”

Romeo – the nomadic entrepreneur

Many other young people have chosen to move to Palermo to take advantage of its esoteric culture and lack of legal restrictions. In the backstreets the informal economy thrives with unregistered businesses and black market dealers trading openly. The scale of these enterprises alone is staggering. Despite the problems they bring in terms of lost taxes, the relative tolerance by the authorities renders the city better equipped than many other places in Southern European to deal with the current crisis.

I talk to Romeo, a 25 year-old financial trader and freelance web designer from Bucharest, who I meet eating pani a meusa (a veal spleen sandwich) on a sweltering August afternoon. “I came here to Palermo because I love monuments and museums. It is a very special city with a lot of art and ruins, which are not appreciated by people who think of Italy as just Rome, Venice and Florence. Here the whole of Europe looks different, more exotic,” he said. Romanians are now the largest migrant group in Sicily with over one million living on the island. Many of the poorest come to work as housekeepers; others to take advantage of the cheap EU export rates to their home country. 

I asked Romeo why he thought this was. “The produce is very good here and there is a good market for it back home. Plus the people sell it too cheaply. What I see here – it’s like Bucharest a hundred years in the past. Even in Palermo the people think like villagers, they trust too much and are easy to trick. It is a good place to do business for me but I think it is also why in the past there have been many problems”. Despite this frank opportunism Romeo was enthused by the city, and was clearly on friendly terms with the local stallholders. He was even concerned about cleaning up the neighbourhood, though his motivations were more about respecting the relics than the future of the city and ecosystem.

“I go from city to city, one-month London the next month Madrid. All you have to do is take a bit less money than everyone else and do a better job”

We talked about local folklore, about Saint Roselia, the santuzza, and the preserved corpses in the Cappucini crypt. I wondered what Giuseppe would make of this driven young entrepreneur. Inevitably our conversation turned to the mafia and, as if on cue, an acquaintance of Romeo’s approached with the offer of some cheap cocaine. He declined sheepishly, turning to me with a shrug. “This is a very free place. I spent time in France and when people drink there they go crazy and hit each other; here it is much more calm, and people stay happy. Everyone knows the rules. I mean look at this square, there is no other place like it in the world to spend time in”.

I pushed the point, eager to hear his views on organized crime and establish his relationship with the illicit businesses here. His response, though, was as ambiguous as his job title: “I think to start a local business here it would be a nightmare with the slow administration and the pizzo. But for me it is not a problem. I do not need permissions from the state, only these people who will sell me things cheaply. I go from city to city, one-month London the next month Madrid. All you have to do is take a bit less money than everyone else and do a better job”.


Francesco Camilliani’s ‘Fountain of Shame’, 1555. Credit: Elena Dan

Francesca – the economic refugee

Other migrants are beginning to arrive from Northern Europe, fleeing the exploitative working environment and looking for cheaper living costs. There is scant statistical information on this phenomenon, due primarily to cash-in-hand housing arrangements, though walking around Vucciria it is clear that there are many educated young people here among the poorest class.

Among these is Francesca, a 27-year old graphic designer from the Northern Italian town of Ferrara, who has recently moved to the city. I met her in the square on a Saturday night on her way out to dance: “I came here because mainland Italy is too expensive and the culture is not so good anymore; it is a dying country. I graduated from Bologna University but I still couldn’t find a job, I was freelancing and could barely afford to pay my rent. I couldn’t get a job in a bar and I couldn’t afford to go out with my friends”.

Finding nothing at home, like many other Italians Francesca moved to the UK. After a few months of working in a fast food chain in London, though, she decided to give up on the Northern dream. “I was depressed. The mentality of the people was horrible, the pace of life was just too fast. I missed my family and my boyfriend. I hated every second of my job and I was paying all of my salary on rent and transport. It was no better than here. No offence, but that city is a horrendous place”.

“One of the big problems in Italy is this division. Of course there is a big difference between the North and the South but I think there is no solution unless we think bigger and across the border.”

Last year Francesca moved to Sicily with her now-fiancé who was born near Trapani, the island’s easternmost city, and wanted to return home. Since February they have been renting a room in Vucciria. “Here I live a great quality of life; I can go out, I can go to the sea and eat well and I don’t have to work that much. We pay €100 a month each for our room and I have lots of time to work on my art. I’ve even saved some money”.

I asked Francesca about her relationship with other people in the neighbourhood. “Fitting in with the locals is difficult. I find it hard to understand the way people think here; everyone is friendly but they’re suspicious of me I think, as a North Italian. It is maybe even easier for you speaking the language but not being Italian. Here people see me as a snob. I get it, in the North people talk about how this place is non-European, but even with these things I still feel it is part of my country. In fact, it is a better part! One of the big problems in Italy is this division. Of course there is a big difference between the North and the South but I think there is no solution unless we think bigger and across the border. All the people that are coming here now, maybe they can do something together”.

A politics of the precariat?

In his recent book The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class Guy Standing  posits the existence of a new social group characterized by extreme labour insecurity and a deep mistrust of the state. As he writes, “[this new class] wants control over life, a revival of social solidarity and a sustainable autonomy, while rejecting old labourist forms of security and state paternalism”. These desires have, of course, long characterized Palermo’s strange politics, where power has always been suspect and social security a pipedream. Guiseppe, Romeo and Francesa, with their very different experiences and backgrounds, all exhibit these qualities: skepticism towards political parties, a reliance on informal local networks to find work and housing and a strong passion for environmental issues.


Anarchist graffiti on the seafront. Credit: Jamie Mackay

In an important sense, the Palermo experience is becoming a ‘new normal’ for many young people in austerity-hit Europe. At the same time, people are starting to take on precariousness as an identity. On mainland Italy in particular, the term precariato, initially a slogan for EuroMayDay activist groups in 2003, has become a household term, thanks predominantly to the thunderous rhetoric of Beppe Grillo. His election campaign, fuelled with descriptions of precarity as “a bubonic plague” and the precariat as “modern slaves” touched a nerve with the multitude of those on flexible and part-time contracts and was a key component in his 2013 victory.

Since then migrant groups have been at the forefront of a series of explicit precariat housing movements, while groups such as HOBO in Bologna have helped to construct an influential cultural image. Now the nation’s most influential newspaper La Repubblica has an section dedicated to discussions about the concept and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has even begun using the term in his public addresses. In an Italian context the question is not so much if precariat is an identity, but how these various groups will interact and which of the various political forces attempting to influence it will win out.

Spaces such as Garraffello piazza, however – where members of the precariat from different cultures and backgrounds meet in a space free from police repression – are important as potential breeding grounds for this new form of politics.

Palermo has not yet intervened in this discussion, though given its long acquaintance with this apparently ‘new’ identity it is well-placed to do so. Such an engagement would have two effects. On the one hand, the city has much to say to all those in Italy and beyond who are attempting to understand the ‘precariat’. On a more direct level, the popularization of this identity may empower a new generation of Palermitans to confront their fate with organised resistance. With 650,000 residents, the city is full of undocumented and unregistered migrants able to survive, and occasionally thrive, without the aid of government. This in itself is a small miracle. As digital workers in art, journalism, film and computing, silently swell the numbers, there is certainly scope for individuals like Francesca to collaborate with natives of Palermo such as Giuseppe and even nomadic opportunists like Romeo, connecting the Sicilian experience more closely with other movements of the precariato

For now there is little evidence that these different groups in Palermo are working together to build a movement. Spaces such as Garraffello piazza, however – where members of the precariat from different cultures and backgrounds meet in a space free from police repression – are important as potential breeding grounds for this new form of politics. Giuseppe, Romeo and Francesca might hail from different political backgrounds but their common bonds demonstrate more than an incidental collision of interests. For those in power in Italy, Sicily is a blighted land and a black hole of public spending. At the heart of its capital, however, an experiment is taking place that may have implications for young people across the continent.

[some of the names in this article were altered on request]

This article was originally published on Precarious Europe.

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