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Italy’s Social Centres — ‘A Thousand Human Stories

hydrarchist writes "It's amazing just how little literature there is in circulation about Italy's scoail centres, a massive movement for the reclamation of urbanm space in action since the 1970s. Steve Wright's piece is from 2001 and is only an introduction, but hopefully over the next months this lacuna can be filled. Elsewhere Wight is the author of Storming Heaven an excellent account of the development of 'operaismo' (a movement of social criticism that placed the grassroots insurgency of labour at the center of history). You can read Sergio Bolona's review of it here, and another by Aufheben here

Italy’s Social Centres — ‘A Thousand Human Stories’

Steve Wright

If some form of radical working class politics continues to exist in Italy today, part of the credit must go to those who run that country’s self-managed occupied social centres (CSOA). As Steve Wright explains, the very growth of the centres has brought new and as yet unresolved problems of its own.

From a few dozen spaces maintained in the eighties by punks or the remnants of earlier autonomist and anarchist circles, the movement of social centres in Italy has blossomed since the early nineties. That part of the movement known as ‘Ya Basta’ was again in the news recently, providing mass security for the Zapatistas’ historic march to Mexico city. Meanwhile, back in Naples, another section of the movement was resisting police charges as part of a large demonstration against the ‘tyrants of globalisation’ (www.noglobal.org/ingleseindex.htm).

Amongst other claims to fame, the centres provide a tenuous link to Italy’s ‘creeping May’, which began in 1968 and continued for more than a decade. University occupations, mass strikes of factory workers demanding ‘more money, less work’, the largest women’s movement in the Western world: together these had shaken up the country’s power structures, including its left and labour movement. By 1979, however, it was clear that the tide had begun to turn, with the imprisonment of thousands of members of the revolutionary autonomist movement, the best known of whom was the social theorist Antonio Negri. The following year, FIAT’s management succeeded in sacking tens of thousands of employees at its Mirafiori factory in Turin, destroying the country’s leading symbol of working class militancy. Together these events proved a fitting opening to the eighties, a decade remembered by many in Italy as years of ‘opportunism, cynicism and despair’.

Around the middle of the seventies, above all in Milan, increasing numbers of young working class people began to occupy abandoned factories or warehouses as spaces from which to organise political as well as cultural activities. Refugees from a range of leninist groups, they tended to operate as affinity groups formed on the basis of friendship circles. Few such spaces would weather the mass arrests or the creeping insinuation of heroin dependence; those that did clung on precariously, as often as not retreating into something of a political ghetto for most of the following decade.

Having survived the eighties, the CSOA movement spread rapidly in the wake of a new wave of university occupations (the so-called Pantera movement). At present there are about 150 social centres all told, of which close to one third are concentrated in Rome and Milan. The exact number is unknown, simply because it’s always hard to keep tabs from week to week, with one month bringing an eviction here, the next a new occupation somewhere else. For perhaps the most important shared attribute of the CSOA is that they are still largely the product of squatting. The most common targets are disused local government buildings—often on the impoverished urban periphery—whose occupiers insist that the social use of public assets should take priority over speculation on the property market. For this reason alone the centres’ relationship with the authorities continues to be a difficult one, although in some cities space has been conceded formally to the movement.

Typically, social centres provide a range of services: from cheap concerts to movies, from language classes for immigrants to yoga classes, from a safe place in which to enjoy a pot or joint to meeting places for political campaigns. Many are engaged in the production of T-shirts and other alternative fare. Another common attribute is a commitment to self-management, in the sense not only of independence from existing institutions, but also of a model of decision making formally based upon some notion of direct democracy.

It was punk that shaped the musical sensibilities of the early social centres, and an almost symbiotic association with Italy’s alternative music scene continues to be one of their most important drawcards. For not only do most of the CSOA regularly host gigs in a country which lacks a pub scene like our own; they have also on occasion spawned performers who have gone on to achieve a national following.

For anyone who has visited one, it is clear that the appeal of the social centres remains restricted primarily to the world of youth. Depending upon one’s point of view, this affinity between the CSOAs and the young is proof either of their vitality, or else of their innate limits. Or if one member of the Cox18 centre in Milan is to be believed, it is symptomatic of ‘a generation that has decided to prolong its adolescence ad infinitum’.

Generational divisions may also help explain why many of the social centres have found it so difficult to develop a close working relationship with the other main pillar of Italy’s ‘social left’. Here I’m referring to the wide range of militant rank-and-file groups and breakaway ‘alternative’ unions’, which draw so much of their support from (primarily public sector) workers born into an older cohort (http://www.mercatiesplosivi.com/dibase/page137.ht m).

In some parts of the country — the Veneto region, for instance — many of the social centres have worked closely with a number of alternative unions. On the other hand, the very different situation in Milan may be explained in part by the particular weight in that city’s CSOA of young self-employed people. In a country with a particularly high level of self-employment, many such ‘lavoratori autonomi’ are really wage labourers in all but name. Whether couriers or web designers, many find themselves structurally dependent upon a single client (typically, a large firm to whose production rhythms they are beholden). To date, this dependence is not in itself enough to bridge many of the gaps that separate them from those who receive a more conventional pay packet. As in other countries, the relations between organised labour and the self-employed promises to be one of the more significant sleepers in Italian class politics; so far, at least, the social centres have got no further than anyone else in resolving the question.

In the past seven years, as the CSOA movement has expanded in size and influence, the tensions within and between many social centres over questions of direction and emphasis have led to increased polemics in some quarters, and a withdrawal into local activities in others. Fundamental differences remain over approaches to the world of work, or relations with the centres’ own neighbourhoods; over dealings with the state and the so-called ‘third sector’ of not-for-profit enterprises; most fundamentally, over the very meaning of political activity and its place within social life as a whole (http://services.csi.it/~chaos/steve.htm). Some centres, for example, have sought to establish their own ‘third sector’ enterprises producing a range of cultural artifacts (CDs, T-shirts, magazines) for the market.

The fact that a number of such projects have attracted financial support from various government bodies has led many other social centres to respond with talk of co-optation. Beyond this, that part of the movement most closely associated with Ya Basta have latterly come to develop not only a spectacular approach to demonstrations, but also a rethinking of the sensibilities inherited from Italy’s distinctive traditions of autonomist politics. Inspired in part by the Zapatista experience, this rethinking has led to the abandonment of the communist label in favour of a more generically non-statist discourse, coupled with a newfound engagement with sections of the mainstream left. While they may be right in arguing that some of their libertarian and autonomist critics remain trapped in the past, many of their own ‘innovations’ have so far proved even more old-hat.

I was made conscious of this a few years ago, when I attended a meeting in the Veneto region, called by the major political tendency within the local social centres. It was a significant gathering in many ways; amongst other things, it was announced that evening that members of the tendency, part of the broader Ya Basta alignment, would be standing as independents on Green and Communist party (PRC) tickets at the forthcoming council elections. Afterwards, a couple of friends present suggested that I didn’t look too enthralled by the decision, which after all represented a fundamental shift from their longstanding rejection of electoral politics. What had struck me most forcefully about the meeting was something else, though: that in a room of one hundred activists, one comrade had spoken for the greater part of three hours, laying down the new line. It helped me to understand that, having abandoned the leninism of the past, this section of the social centres movement had turned instead to more informal, but no less hierarchical, ways of organising itself.

This is not to deny that elsewhere at least, the practice of self-management is taken seriously within many of the CSOA. But direct democracy in itself is not enough: no less important is a coherent political project able to engage with real social forces. For now, Italy’s social centres continue to maintain a holding pattern. As Angelo Zaccaria from the Milan movement has pointed out, the CSOA

“are an important place of possible communication, proliferation and visibility for an antagonistic point of view; they are one of the few spaces in an ever more fragmented society where different subjects, which otherwise remain segregated in their respective specificities and places of belonging, can socialise and interact politically.”

In these difficult times, keeping open such channels of communication is a vital task, worthy in its own right. Whether the social centres are able to do more than simply ‘hold the fort’, however, may well determine their broader relevance in the global struggles to come."