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Case #132

Italy's thriving unofficial social/political culture


In Italy, many abandoned buildings warehouses, factories, military forts, schools - have been occupied by squatters and transformed into cultural and political hubs, explicitly free from both the market and state control. By some estimates there are 150 social centers in Italy.

The largest and oldest - Leoncavallo in Milan - has been shut down by the police and reopened many times. Today, it is practically a self contained city, with several restaurants, gardens, a bookstore, a cinema, an indoor skateboard ramp, and a club so large it was able to host the Public Enemy rock group when they came to town. These are scarce bohemian spaces in a rapidly gentrifying world, a fact that prompted the French newspaper Le Monde to describe the intricate network of squats as "the Italian cultural jewel."

But the social centers are also ground zero of a growing political militancy in Italy. With politicians on both the left and right mired in corruption scandals, large numbers of Italian youths understandably have concluded that it is power itself that corrupts. The social center network is a parallel political sphere that, rather than trying to gain state power, provides alternative state services - such as day care and advocacy for refugees - at the same time as it confronts the state through direct action.

Further, in the past few years, these anti authoritarian militants, defined by their rejection of party politics, have begun running for office - and winning. In Venice, Rome and Milan, prominent social center activists, including leaders of Tute Bianche, are now City Council members.

The nation state is in crisis, the members believe, both weakened in the face of global powers and corrupt in the face of corporate ones. Meanwhile, in Italy, strong regional sentiments for greater decentralization have been seized by the right, often with fascist undertones. In this climate, one leading member proposes a two pronged strategy of confronting unaccountable, unrepresentative powers at the global level (for example, at the G8), while simultaneously rebuilding a new, more accountable and participatory politic locally.


Though it may be hard to tell at first, the social centers aren't ghettos, they are windows - not only into another way to live, disengaged from the state, but also into a new politics of engagement.

When: 1990s

Location: Italy
Action: Political, Direct, Building
Setting: Developed World, Urban
Extent of Action: National
Issues: Other
Year(s): 1990
Outcome successful for now
Source: JULY 23. 2001 IN THESE TIMES, back page


Prepared By: alb 12/01
Rating: 1
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