[EN] Resisting and Challenging Neoliberalism: The Development of Italian Social Centers

A chapter from Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles

Resisting and Challenging Neoliberalism: The Development of Italian Social

* This is a reprint of the article published in Mudu (2004a, Resisting and
Challenging Neoliberalism. The Development of Italian Social Centres,
Antipode, 36 (5), pp. 917-41).

Pierpaolo Mudu

In the 20th century, Italy set the example for an extreme capi-
talistic accumulation model within a party system connoted by self-in-
terest, patronage and downright corruption. The 20-year fascist regime,
the 50-year political hegemony of the Christian Democrats (DC) as the
ruling party and the ensuing Berlusconi era set a doleful record. At the
same time, the strongest communist party in the Western world and a
myriad of collectives, associations and non-parliamentary leftist politi-
cal groups bore testimony to the efforts of the Italian working class to
resist and fight capitalistic models of life (Virno and Hardt 1996).

Extremely slow piecemeal reform, repressive police state methods
and shady dealings designed to shift the blame for violent attacks by
right-wing extremists onto the political left were the tools used to in-
hibit mass opposition to the economic restructuring masterminded
by the DC in the decade from 1968 to 1979 (Melucci 1996). Those
were days of social unrest marked by coordinated worker/student pro-
tests in factories and workplaces, schools and universities (Balestrini
and Moroni 1997). The reorganization of Fordist production and the
transition to models of flexible accumulation based on the widespread
use of temporary work contracts and the grey economy brought about
a drastic change in the possibility of carrying out political activity in
conventional spaces (i.e. workplaces, schools and universities) and in
the traditional premises of political parties. The result was a dramatic
decrease in political spaces. In the latter half of the 1970s and early
1980s, a generalized switchover of the anti-capitalist and anti-fascist
antagonistic movement towards more extreme forms of political strug-
gle often entailing the use of armed violence resulted in an ‘‘individual
and atomized response which expresses itself in disengagement from
collective action and disillusionment’’ (Melucci 1996:272). In the
1980s, faced with the advent of flexible accumulation and globalized
markets, the traditional left-wing parties and workers’ unions proved
unable to devise new spaces for social and political action. Hence the
birth of new movements within the political left (environmentalist and
anti-nuclear groups) and right (the separatist Lega Nord party). The
strategy adopted by extreme left-wing groups to counter the new order
emerging in Italian cities was to set up Self-managed Social Centers.
Social Centers revolutionized the political map, especially in subur-
ban working class districts traditionally far removed from the center of
political and economic events. Here, they sparked off a fresh cycle of
social struggles geared towards gaining control of existing spaces and
devising new ones. In this paper, some preliminary remarks on the
origins of Social Centers, their links with Autonomia Operaia in the
1970s, work modes and practices, will provide the starting point for
an in-depth analysis of the movement’s social composition, evolution
in time and political track record. One main achievement to the credit
of Social Centers is the part they played in renovating empty privately
and publicly owned properties. In doing so they helped focus attention
on land use issues and the struggle for re-appropriating social time.

Its remarkable geographical coverage has been and still is a far from
negligible strength, which afforded action even in areas where capital-
ist control of space and production (though varying in scale through-
out the country) was greatest. An analysis and assessment of the links
between Social Centers and the anti-neoliberal counter-globalization
movement (which actually dates back to its early beginnings) requires
a more critical approach with concomitant focus on the past history of
the workers’ movement.

The Origins of Social Centers

The earliest forebears of Social Centers were worker associations
organized as mutual aid societies, cooperatives and then Case del Popolo
(Houses of the People) which arose within the emerging socialist move-
ment at the end of the 19th century, strongly influenced also by po-
litical figures such as Bebel, Vandervelde, Jaures, Owen, Fourier and
Shulze-Delitsch (see Degl’Innocenti 1984). ‘‘Case del Popolo’’ like the
‘‘Maisons du peuple’’ in France and Belgium, were designed and planned
constructions (De Michelis 1986). These organizations and buildings
were violently dismantled by the Fascist regime and remained disused
following World War II as left-wing political activists looked instead to
political parties and unions for support.

After World War II, Italy was still a predominantly peasant-based
society, but in the 1950s and 1960s it went through furious, if incom-
plete, modernization and industrialization, a first economic miracle.
Then, however, in the 1970s and 1980s, when the processes of indus-
trialization were still not complete, the Italian economy embarked on
another transformation, a process of postmodernization, and achieved
a second economic miracle. One might usefully pose the Italian case as
the general model for all other backward economies in that the Italian
economy did not complete one stage (industrialization) before moving
on to another (informatization) (Hardt and Negri 2000:288-289).

Upon its first emergence in Italy in the 1950s, the compound noun
‘‘Centro Sociale’’ denoted a ‘‘community center’’ set up and run by mu-
nicipal authorities (see Ibba 1995; Tortoreto 1977). Its current denota-
tion, i.e. a venue for political activity and, ultimately, the emblem of a
distinct social category, gradually emerged over the 1970s (Ibba 1995). In
the latter half of the 1970s, the PCI (Italian Communist Party) seemed
to be in the process of breaking the hegemonic position of the DC and
taking over the government of the country. In the end, this epoch-mak-
ing event did not happen, as the PCI entered into a compromise agree-
ment – the so-called ‘‘historical compromise’’ – with the DC and formed
a ‘‘national coalition government’’ with them between 1976 and 1979.
Coupled with the crisis of the party system, which was gradually losing
its former role as the sole agent for political organization and debate,
the PCI’s drift towards more moderate institutional political programmes
provided scope for action to dozens of left-wing grassroots organizations
and collectives. Some non-parliamentary left-wing groups modified their
action within cities by playing an active part in protests in factories and
schools, thus prioritizing the ‘‘microphysics of power’’ over the meth-
ods of institutional conflict. The emerging movement for women’s rights
was drawing attention to the perennial rift between private and public
life; instead of waiting for the promises of a post-revolutionary society
to come true in a highly improbable future, women preferred to voice
their criticisms in the political arena of everyday life issues (Balestrini and
Moroni 1997). In particular, backed by increasing sectors of the move-
ment, they found fault with the typical Marxist-Leninist assumption that
the revolution in private relations should be deferred until after the rise to
power of the working class and reorganization of the economic order and
pressed for a reversal in priorities. The favourite subjects discussed within
the antagonistic movement in Italy were the collective needs of women
and working class youths, the marginalization of entire neighborhoods
in metropolitan areas and the surge in heroin abuse. These years saw the
birth of Autonomia Operaia (Workers’ Autonomy), a federation of vari-
ously sized and composed collectives which urged into action thousands
of people and managed to gain the support of numerous intellectuals, in-
cluding Franco Berardi, Paolo Virno, Nanni Balestrini, Lucio Castellano
and Antonio Negri.

Autonomia emerged in the post-1960s heyday of ‘‘workerism’’, an in-
teresting distinctively Italian version of Marxist thought theorized and
developed by Raniero Panzieri, Mario Tronti, Sergio Bologna and Negri
in open contrast to the original theoretical core of Marxism-Leninism
(Wright 2002). The collectives that were associated in Autonomia con-
ceived of crisis no longer as a ‘‘social collapse,’’ a blast ignited by the
inability of capitalists to meet social needs, but rather as the explosion
of social relations whose great complexity could not be traced back to
ruptured capital-labor relationships. Crisis was looked upon as the ex-
act opposite of a catastrophe (Castellano 1980). Since its earliest days,
the workers’ movement had thought of seizing power as the necessary
assumption for changing relations of production and shaping a project
for social reform. In contrast, minimizing the importance of the seizure
of power by the working class, the points at the top of Autonomia’s po-
litical agenda were the hatred of work, upward delegation of responsi-
bilities and a call for guaranteed wages (see Comitati Autonomi Operai
di Roma 1976). Far from being the mere expression of the logic of
refusal and negation in principle as the typical response to the erosion
of standards of life in capitalist society, its aims and practices prefigured
a glimpse of the modes of life and social relationships that the ‘‘new so-
ciety’’ of the future was expected to vouchsafe (see Comitati Autonomi
Operai di Roma 1976).

Autonomia had its strongholds in Rome, Milan, Padua and Bologna.
One of its best-known tag lines ‘‘create and build worker autonomy as
counterpower in factories and city districts’’, condenses in a few words
years and years of intense political activity in workplaces, universi-
ties and schools, and was aimed at opposing the Italian establishment
overall, including the PCI and the largest pro-leftist union, the CGIL
(Virno and Hardt 1996). In the same period, the movement launched a
cycle of pro-housing initiatives which led thousands of people to squat
uninhabited flats in Rome, Milan and Bologna.

Although the ‘‘Neighborhood Committees’’ set up in Rome in the
1970s operated in close collaboration with local political institutions,
they were actually pursuing social objectives comparable to those of
the Social Centers movement (see Testa 1979). Along with hundreds
of pro-squatter actions and other initiatives designed to attract the at-
tention of the general public, they were part of the Roman movement’s
strategy to build a collective political entity and make up for the loss of
meeting places such as the large industrial concerns where people had
previously been able to come together especially in cities in the north
of Italy (Comitato di Quartiere Alberone 2000).

Significantly enough, it was in the north of Italy, more precisely
Milan, that first-generation Social Centers arose (Cecchi et al 1978)
in 1975. These followed the harsh class struggles associated with the
abrupt shift away from an industrial economy towards the construc-
tion of an economy based on finance, fashion and service industries,
accompanied by a relentless rise in rents. Starting from the latter half of
the 1970s, sheds, warehouses and other industrial premises owned by
Pirelli, Innocenti, OM, Falck, Breda, Alfa Romeo or Marelli in Milan
stopped production and were closed down. By the late 1990s, industrial
properties totaling 7 million square meters had been vacated in Milan
alone, not to speak of peripheral municipalities such as Sesto San
Giovanni, where closures affected a total of another 3 million square
meters (Censis 2002). Two hundred and eighty thousand workers lost
their jobs in industry in Milan between 1971 and 1989 (Foot 2001).
At the end of the 1970s, the non-parliamentary groups that had
joined forces either with Autonomia, or with hundreds of other in-
dependent organizations, ‘‘Neighborhood Committees’’ and Social
Centers came under attack from reactionary forces. By 1979 only a
few of the Social Centers set up in the 1970s still existed, among them
was the Leoncavallo squat in Milan. After that date, the surviving Social
Centers kept a low political profile and seldom hit the headlines or
attracted the attention of the general public. In the latter half of the
1970s, a network of local radios, bookstores and political collectives
remained active and carried on their action. With the support of non-
Marxist groups, including the Punk movement whose supporters used
their bodies as a strong means of protest in public spaces, they cre-
ated the background for the birth of second-generation Social Centers
(Consorzio Aaster et al 1996; Dazieri 1996).

Two turning points in the process of growth and expansion of sec-
ond-generation Social Centers in the 1980s deserve mention. First, to-
wards the end of 1985, the Hai Visto Quinto school in Rome and many
other properties were occupied in quick succession. The year 1985 was
a turning point for two reasons: secondary school students gave life to a
movement involving the occupation of a huge number of school build-
ings and the left-wing parties were defeated in a referendum launched
to protect wages and salaries.

Second, the Leoncavallo Social Center in Milan was stormed by
the police in August of 1989. This event was extensively covered in all
media and, coupled with the first national convention of Social Centers
held in Milan on 23 and 24 September 1989, helped bring the move-
ment back into the limelight. The logo adopted by most Social Centers
in the 1980s, a flash of lightning that breaks through a circle, sym-
bolically represented the end of a long period of marginalization and
social rejection (Tiddi 1997). After 1985 the second-generation Social
Centers gradually developed distinctive characteristics which will be
the specific focus of this paper.

A Review of Social Centers’ Practices

As Social Centers differ greatly from each other in origin, political
affiliations and organizational modes, it is difficult to provide a com-
prehensive description of the movement as a whole (Bregman 2001;
Dines 1999; Pierri and Sernaglia 1998). From 1985 onwards, second-
generation Social Centers adopted a number of collective practices and
common symbolic definitions, building up a network that shares cer-
tain specific characteristics. Some of these are worth mentioning and
can be subsumed under four points. First of all, they adopt the acro-
nym ‘‘CSOA’’ (Centro Sociale Occupato Autogestito) if they are squatters
or ‘‘CSA’’ (Centro Sociale Autogestito) if they use premises made avail-
able by local authorities at no cost. It is worth noting that some Social
Centers do not accept the description ‘‘squatted place’’ and prefer that
of ‘‘squatted space’’ instead. Second, they self-produce and self-manage
social, political and cultural events and adopt all relevant decisions in
(usually weekly) meetings open to the general public. Third, to finance
their activities they mainly rely on funds collected by selling low-price
snacks and beverages during these events. As the affiliates of a Social
Center are ‘‘volunteer’’ workers, they do not earn regular wages or sala-
ries. Fourth, they have formed a network based on similar political af-
filiations. Most Social Centers are close to the extreme political left and
made up of either communists or anarchists.

As considerable differences emerge depending on the geographical
scale or time frame adopted from time to time, these characteristics are
only useful for the purposes of this analysis.

Squatting, Illegality and Conflict

Social Centers illustrate participatory modes of action designed to
bring about change through a deliberate use of conflict (Ansini and
Lutrario 2002). Squatting is an essential component of the strategic
mix of these Social Centers not only because it involves breaking the
law, but because it is a way of obtaining what has been denied (Solaro
1992). An illegal act such as squatting is also intended as a way to draw
attention to the waste of public land and buildings and the high social
costs of building speculation (Romano 1998). In practice, as also in
other contexts, the primary result of the struggle for rights is space
(Mitchell 2003). In terms of organization, a Social Center usually oper-
ates ‘‘beyond the law’’: it has no written charter, and has an extremely
high turnover of participants. These modes offer an alternative option
to the bureaucratic organization of so many aspects of our social and
political life and illustrate forms of direct, non-hierarchical democracy.
Huge financial resources and a horde of operators working for profit
would be needed if the empty buildings taken over by Social Centers
were to be renovated in strict accordance with the law. As things stand,
the architectural heritage restored and covered by graffiti in Social
Centers includes a vast number of buildings, disused industrial prem-
ises, deconsecrated churches, unused schools and movie theatres, etc,
which had remained deserted for decades (see Figures 1 and 2). The rel-
evant projects proved costly and complex to complete (Viccaro 2003),
providing space to hundreds of Social Centers in many Italian cities.

A deep gulf separates Social Centers, which pragmatically accept
some sort of relationship with institutions, from those that oppose
any such contacts in principle. 1993 marked the beginning of nego-
tiations between municipalities and Social Centers for the legaliza-
tion of squats. While some continued to oppose them, most Social
Centers endorsed such negotiations and following a lengthy confron-
tation process within the movement and between Social Centers and
some municipal governments, a few Social Centers were officially as-
signed the properties and spaces they had so far illegally held. By
1998, about 50% of the existing Social Centers had entered into
agreements with the private or, more often, public owners of the
squatted properties (Eurispes 1999). Social Centers have generally
had difficulty liaising with the parties of the institutional left and have
deliberately stood clear of the more conservative or neo-fascist parties
(which in turn opposed the movement by dubbing Social Centers
‘‘dens of criminals’’). At present, Social Centers enjoy the open sup-
port of the ‘‘Communist Refoundation Party’’ (PRC) and, to a lesser
degree, of the ‘‘Party of Italian Communists’’ (PdC) and ‘‘Greens’’.
On the leftwing political front, relations are especially difficult with
the Left (Figure 2: Rome: details of graffiti on the outer walls of the
Ex Snia Viscosa established in the warehouses of a vacated industrial
plant) Democrats (DS), whose allegedly ambiguous stances on sub-
jects such as war, neoliberalism and citizenship rights often spark off
mutually confrontational actions.

Self-production and Self-management

Of the two words forming the compound noun ‘‘Social Center’’, the
term ‘‘social’’ is all-important since the very first contacts with a Social
Center are usually mediated by friends and prompted by the desire to
be with other people (Consorzio Aaster et al 1996; Pierri and Sernaglia
1998; Senzamedia 1996). The wish to come together outside costly
commercial circuits is a need/right claimed by the affiliates of all Social
Centers (Maggio 1998). Those who join a Social Center often end up
masterminding the creative drive behind new cultural trends in music
and theatrical activities. Very often, Social Centers help launch cul-
tural trends (e.g. cyberpunk) to a larger audience (Ansini and Lutrario
2002). The activities which take place in Social Centers make for a very
long list (see Table 1, the information provided in numerous websites,
or Gallini and Genova 2002).


Until the mid-1990s, only volunteers were active in Social Centers
and no salary or wage earners were envisaged (Lombardi and Mazzonis
1998). The fact that some Social Centers have resolved to pay salaries to
some of their regular volunteers has resulted in ongoing debate, within
the groups, concerning proper forms of militancy and the logic of wage
earning outside of official circuits. Moreover, a few Social Centers have
accepted forms of public and private sponsorship. Among them is a
Social Center in Rome whose weekly discotheque evenings are spon-
sored by the Virgin Group. This decision ignited divisive debate be-
tween those prepared to accept compromise as long as this helped the


growth of their centers (some went so far as to set up real and proper
firms) and those upholding the principle that growth should exclusively
be attained through procedures that would ensure complete indepen-
dence (http://www.tmcrew.org/csa/csa.htm; Membretti 2003).

Political Identity and Social Networks

The squatters of a Social Center usually enjoy the support of dozens
of sympathizers and habitués who readily give a hand when it comes to
organizing special initiatives. In addition, there is a mass of occasional
visitors who pass by with friends or are attracted by special events. In
Milan, the average monthly number of visitors to a Social Center was
found to be 20,000 (Maggio 1998) and a comparable figure can prob-
ably be assumed for Rome as well. In short, Social Center attendance
can be classed as a marginal, but nonetheless ‘‘fruitful’’ collective activ-
ity (Moroni 1994:43). Compared with the situation in northern and
central Italy, where Social Centers are visited by members of all social
classes, Social Centers in the south are prevailingly supported by people
living on the fringes of society (Dazieri 1996).

Regular frequenters and occasional visitors of Social Centers make up
a mix whose composition varies greatly in terms of age, gender, edu-
cational level and social class. The recent entry of foreign immigrants
into this very peculiar social network has resulted in a strong emphasis,
within Social Centers, on the need for immigrants to be granted citizen
rights. Although some sort of hierarchical structure is at times found to
exist among Social Centers and within Social Centers, the movement
as a whole can still be described as a search for a ‘‘multi-centered non-
hierarchical affiliation network’’ and this network structure is indeed one
of the most interesting aspects of the movement. Each Social Center can
be described as the central node of a network of activists, sympathiz-
ers and occasional visitors, and each such node plays a role in building
a collective identity founded on the sympathetic attitudes of an infor-
mal circle of occasional visitors prepared to travel in a wide gravitational
area to attend events in one or the other Social Center (Consorzio Aaster
et al 1996:60). In terms of ‘‘status’’, Social Centers may range from a
simple meeting place attracting visitors from one specific neighborhood
only, to internationally known hubs such as the Leoncavallo in Milan and
the Forte Prenestino in Rome. An additional major characteristic of this
network is quick mobilization: these centers not only attract over 5,000
people to concerts or raves organized in a very tight timeframe (see Tiddi
1997), but are equally swift when it comes to responding to neoliberalist
policies. Social Centers have revolutionized long-standing conventional
demonstration procedures and political communication codes by orga-
nizing street parades with demonstrators feasting and dancing to the mu-
sic produced by sound systems mounted on trucks. Political parties were
quick to imitate and take over these new demonstration modes. Unlike
official center-left political parties, they do not need weeks or months to
organize political events in public spaces.

In terms of political ideology, most of the supporters of Social
Centers are libertarian anarchists or communists. To build a political
identity, they rely on continual interaction, which becomes particularly
intense during the preparations for social events aimed at denouncing
neoliberalist policies from a wide spectrum of different perspectives.
Routledge’s comment that ‘‘This heterogeneous affinity was precisely
not an ‘identity’, rather it represented a collectivity based upon the pro-
cessing of differences through symbolic and direct action’’ (Routledge
1997:365) is consequently a fair description of this movement as well.
Matters for debate include major subjects such as globalization, war,
solidarity with Palestine and Chiapas, racism, the rights of minorities,
the rejection of copyright law, the production of GMOs, the legaliza-
tion of marijuana, etc, and are usually the object of clear and critical
in-depth analysis.

The Uneven Distribution of Social Centers
Across Italy

As a result of the Italian capitalistic model, there are marked differ-
ences between regions in terms of the prevailing mix of agricultural,
industrial and informational activities. Large-size industrial concerns
are mainly concentrated in the north-west, in the areas around Milan,
Turin and Genoa (i.e. Lombardy, Piedmont and Liguria). The north-
east of Italy is characterized by industrial districts which have suc-
cessfully specialized in traditional sectors such as the textile, clothing,
footwear, furniture and other comparable industries (Bagnasco 1992).
Farming and service industries have been the traditional mainstay of
southern Italy’s economy. Average wage and salary levels in the south
are half those in the north and young people in search of first jobs
account for 40% of the total as compared with the north’s 11% rate
(Graziani 1998). Due to the huge civil service apparatus, the situation
in Rome does not fit within either of the pictures outlined above and
calls for separate analysis (Ginsborg 1998).

Politically speaking, the north-west ceased its long-standing left-
wing affiliation upon the dissolution of the PCI in the 1990s. The
north-east had been a stronghold of the DC, since the end of World
War II, but in the 1990s the place of the DC was taken over by Mr
Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and the Lega Nord. Only in central re-
gions does the political left still enjoy majority consensus. In the south,
the DC – and now Forza Italia in their place – have always wielded
control in all regions with just a few exceptions.

It is far from easy to keep track of the map of Social Centers over
the past 18 years throughout Italy. Between 1985 and 2003, over 200
centers were established and operated in Italy (see Figure 3 and Table
2), being distributed among all but two regions (The Aosta Valley,
Molise). Considering that few centers have been established in Abruzzo,
Basilicata, Sardinia and Calabria, it is evident that the movement has
difficulty taking root in the south (squats in southern Italy account for
only 17% of the total).

An additional problem in many towns in southern Italy stems from
the ‘‘control’’ of the territory by criminal organizations. In 1996, a
Social Center in Bari vacated its Fucine Meridionali squat because it
proved unable to challenge rampant mafia gangs in the neighborhood
(ECN 1996). The few Social Centers established in southern Italy were
mainly concentrated in Campania, Puglia and Sicily. The geopolitical
map of Italian cities is seen to affect the viability and growth of Social
Centers, but not their birth, since even cities with marked rightist and
conservative traditions have had Social Centers.

A local university has always been a major factor contributing to the
growth of the Social Center movement. Most squats date back to 1990-
1993, the years immediately after large protest movement occupations
in all Italian universities. It is worth mentioning that about 130 Social
Centers were active in 2001-2003.

There is no denying that economic and political prospects, orga-
nizational resources, social institutions, education levels and the ef-
fects of broad-scale social change vary greatly from place to place, with
concomitant effects on the practices adopted by the movement (Miller
2000). The changing political affiliations of militants, the example set
by the movement’s grassroots organization and the Social Center expe-
rience of students who returned to their native provincial towns after
years spent in university cities produced a rapid increase in the move-
ment’s geographical coverage.

In the 1980s, Social Centers were mainly operating in peripheral
and decentralized areas. At the top of their agenda was the fight against
heroin diffusion and building speculation, as well as the effort to break
free from the ghettoes in which they had been trapped since the 1970s,
when mass arrests of Autonomia activists, dubbed as criminals, obliged
the antagonistic movement to retreat for the sake of maintaining con-
nections and a network that could again prove useful at a later stage.

Anyway, there is some ambiguity in the fact that resistance is always
countered by segregation, dominance and exile (Routledge 1997).
Following the second wave of squatting initiatives, which started about
1985 and reached a peak in the 1990s, Social Centers sought to qualify
their role throughout the territory.

The Roman map of Social Centers roughly reflects that of the politi-
cal parties of the institutional left in terms of territorial distribution,
but is utterly different in terms of modes of conduct and the network’s
spatial mobilization strategies. The fact that most of the existing Social
Centers are concentrated in the traditional pro-worker and pro-PCI
part of the city, namely its eastern districts (Mudu 2004) confirms close
links, at least at neighborhood level, with the class structure and the
parties that institutionally represent it. The first Roman Self-Managed
Social Center, Hai Visto Quinto, was set up in 1985, followed in quick
succession by Blitz and Forte Prenestino, Alice nella citta, Break Out,
Ricomincio dal Faro, Intifada and Zona Rischio. All of them proved
highly influential and built an extremely varied, though very efficient
network successfully engaging in the organization of political events
and musical happenings (Tozzi 1991).

Two Social Centers were set up by Autonomia in Bologna: Isola in
1987, and Fabbrika in 1989. The Pedro squat in Padua dates from 1987.
In that same period, the Milan Social Centers (Leoncavallo, Conchetta,
Garibaldi) were experiencing a revival thanks to the vitality of a new
generation of activists. On 16 August 1989, the police stormed the
Leoncavallo CSOA in Milan. The unexpected resistance of the squatters
led to a riot. The police demolished the center and violently beat the
squatters (see Federazione milanese di Democrazia Proletaria 1989).
Soon after, the evicted squatters re-entered the center and literally re-
built it brick by brick. The property was a privately owned factory
situated in a typical working-class neighborhood not far from the city
center. It had remained vacant for about ten years, but the situation in
the neighborhood had changed due to the design of the majority party
on the City Council, the corrupt, neoliberal-minded Italian Socialists
(PSI), to support building speculators and expel its original working-
class residents. This goal was all but impossible to achieve, since the
prices of flats in Milan had been soaring to levels unprecedented in
Italy. As the Leoncavallo property had been a squat since 1975, the news
of the police raid made the headlines for weeks. When Social Centers
found themselves all of a sudden at the center of public attention, they
were met with unexpected solidarity from the general public. Thanks to
the extensive press coverage of a reality which few people knew about,
the Leoncavallo became the symbol of all Italian Social Centers, thus
ending the first stage in the movement’s history.

Inside the Anti-Globalization Movement

In 1994, the Italian Social Centers had promptly responded to the
revolt against the Mexican government in Chiapas by supporting cam-
paigns in solidarity with the rebels. Some Social Centers looked upon
Zapatism as a situation similar to theirs, a movement towards bottom-
up local self-development founded on the rejection of the example set
by the seizure of the ‘‘winter palace’’ and a political organization not in
terms of being but in terms of doing (Holloway 2002).

Social Centers were not entirely new to internationally coordi-
nated actions. In the 1980s they had helped promote solidarity with
Nicaragua, Northern Ireland, Palestine and the Basque movement in
Spain, and in the 1990s the countries at the top of their agenda were
Chiapas, Palestine and Kurdistan. Solidarity is pursued not only by
organizing fund-raising events for particular projects or circulating
videos and information brochures on the areas concerned, but also
through trips and work camps in the countries involved whenever
possible (as in the case of Nicaragua). Worldwide, Social Centers li-
aise with Marxist and/or libertarian groups devoted to political self-
determination projects including the People’s Front for the Liberation
of Palestine (PFLP), though some social centers support Maoist
groups such as Sendero Luminoso in Peru. Zapatism marked a break-
away from traditional solidarity policies with specific focus on the
‘‘South’’ of the World and a progress towards proactive solidarity with
two-way exchanges.

From the anti-WTO marches in Seattle in November 1999 to this
day, the movement has been pressing for a different direction in the
globalization processes under way worldwide and has played a proactive
role in the international arena (see Figure 4). In this process, it greatly
benefited from on-line communication modes afforded by modern web
technology. Its standing within the overall anti-liberalist movement
grew thanks to the extensive press coverage of important demonstra-
tions and meetings in Prague (Czech Republic) in 2000, Genoa (Italy)
in 2001, and Porto Alegre (Brazil). In July 2001, the Italian Social
Centers movement made an effective contribution towards mobilizing
dozens of thousands of people in protest against the G8 Summit in
Genoa (Andretta et al 2002) – a far-reaching event which shed light on
an arrogant and ruthless use of power.

As mentioned before, this most recent stage in the evolution of the
Social Centers movement is marked by a growing use of web technol-
ogy. The earliest on-line information and documentation network, the
‘‘ECN’’ (European Counter Network), was set up in the 1990s and
is still in operation. It set the example for a large number of Social
Centers’ specific websites (among which is Tactical Media Crew:http://
www.tmcrew.org) providing information on events that may be of
interest to the movement as a whole. The Italian node of the global
Indymedia network is closely linked to Italian Social Centers.
The importance of Social Centers within the movement opposing
neoliberalist globalization processes lies in their ability to mobilize
thousands of people in a snap. People take to the streets in their thou-
sands even for local demonstrations, earnestly and constantly commit-
ted to gaining fresh understanding and experimenting with what they
have learnt in an effort to make available fresh social spaces and press
for global political space.

The Current Stage: Political Trends

Thorough political and structural changes in the overall context
necessitated redefining existing inter-Social Centers relations. The ‘‘of-
ficial’’ network that the Social Centers had been gradually building in
more recent years had in fact been severely affected by different po-
litical affiliations. Initially, there were two main groups, one of which
was close to Autonomia and such cult broadcasting stations as Radio
Onda Rossa in Rome and Radio Sherwood in Padua, while the other
one was closer to anarchical movements. In the 1990s, the political
map of Social Centers became even more complex and diversified and
Autonomia split into two factions: the ‘‘Disobbedienti’’ and the move-
ment associated with the grassroots-union organization (Cobas).
In short, today’s Social Centers movement is split into five groups:
the Disobbedienti (Dissentients) who originally dubbed themselves
Tute Bianche (White Overalls) and assumed their new name after the
anti- G8 demonstrations in Genoa in 2001, following the ‘‘Milan
Charter’’; the Network for Global Rights operating in close col-
laboration with the Cobas Union since its establishment in March
2001; a pro-anarchist group; and a fourth group with Leninist lean-
ings which in 2003 dubbed itself ‘‘Europposizione’’. The fifth group
includes Social Centers that do not identify with the affiliations of
any of the former.

The fastest-growing group within Social Centers, the
‘‘Disobbedienti’’, adopt Negri’s theorizations on the ‘‘multitude’’ and
in their practical action they focus greatly on themes such as biopoli-
tics and the politics of bodies. They entertain fairly formal relations
with institutions and some of their supporters have been elected to
the Municipal Councils of Milan, Rome and Venice. They are partic-
ularly close to the PRC. The Global Rights Network was founded by
groups previously associated with the Roman section of Autonomia; it
liases with the COBAS union, but not with the PRC, and its affiliates
oppose any form of delegation of responsibility upward. Analysing
the disintegration process under way within the class system, the
Global Rights Network aims to provide evidence of the so-called pro-
letarianization of the labor force and press for the parity of manual
and intellectual work.

Survival: Limits and Problems

In its history to date, the movement has experienced both the tradi-
tional rifts between opposing factions within the historical political left,
e.g. the confrontation between anarchists and communists, and new
ones stemming from the movement’s specific and original experience
(see Figure 5 where a kind of Aztec calendar symbolically represents the
revolutionary left experiences). One major watershed is that between
‘‘pragmatic-minded’’ groups and groups not prepared to strike any
compromise with institutions. Moreover, some of the better-organized
and richer Social Centers in the north-east have made attempts to gain
control of the movement as a whole.

The debate within the movement points to diverging opinions con-
cerning the way relations with ‘‘external’’ society should be handled,
i.e. the opportunity to define and establish centers unrelated to the re-
quirements of a given neighborhood (TAZs 5 Temporary Autonomous
Zones) or, conversely, check the tendency towards isolation or self-ref-
erentiality. A TAZ is a temporary squat used to evade government con-
trol in respect of clandestine social activities, raves or other happenings.
If it escapes detection, it can be dismantled and set up again elsewhere
for a shorter or longer period of time (Bey 1993). The opposite of a
TAZ is a Social Center which concentrates on the problems and needs
of the neighborhood in which it is located. Nevertheless, although the
TAZ definition circulates widely within Social Centers, it is valid only
in a small number of cases (Quaderni Libertari 1994). An additional
obstacle to the growth of a Social Center are the difficulties encoun-
tered in circulating self-produced materials, e.g. music recordings.
In part, these problems have to do with cross-generational misun-
derstandings between militant squatters and equally difficult relations
between the latter and external visitors. As far as the gender composi-
tion of Social Centers is concerned, there is no denying that women
are still a minority (see Membretti 2003; Senzamedia 1996). Last but
not least, let us mention the emergence of would-be leaders in a few
Social Centers, as well as the fact that difficult inter-center relations
may be responsible for a low degree of coordination (Andretta et al
2002). As far as within-movement communication is concerned, it is
a recognized truth that hardly any Social Center – and especially those
located at a distance from each other – have regular interaction except
when they come under external attack or during preparations for par-
ticularly important events or demonstrations (interview with Daniele
Farina, Milan Leoncavallo, in Dazieri 1996).

Despite its difficulties, the ‘‘Disobbedienti’’ continue to have a loose
affiliation to the Global Rights Network, but both movements have
little contact with Leninist and pro-anarchist groups. The degrees of
openness of the latter vary greatly from city to city, so that it is their
interrelations with other groups and, generally, individuals that makes
the difference. These divisions become particularly noticeable when all
the sections of the movement come together on the occasion of dem-
onstrations and radio programmes.

Lastly, the survival of a Social Center may be jeopardized by external
attacks, for instance from fascist groups or the police. Over half the
existing Social Centers have suffered at least one such attack since their


Self-managed Social Centers are an innovative form of the Italian
movement born of the social crisis caused by the transition, in the
1970s, from Fordism to the present accumulation regime. Comparable,
though smaller movements have developed in Germany, Spain, Great
Britain, Switzerland and the Netherlands (Bieri 2002; Martı nez Lopez
2002), but not the United States, with the sole exception of New York
(Pruijt 2003).

First-generation Social Centers were established as early as the 1970s
as part of an overall anti-institution movement, but it was only in 1985
that squatters occupied an empty building with the intention of using
it for social, political and cultural events planned in the course of meet-
ings open to all. This event gave rise to a movement that quickly spread
throughout Italy and led to the occupation of over 250 properties in a
period of some 15 years. ‘‘Though it may be hard to tell at first, the so-
cial 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 engage-
ment’’ (Klein 2001). Due to their successful attempts to provide venues
for the material resolution of conflicts, over the years the Italian Social
Centers movement has emancipated the antagonistic movement from
the ‘‘ghetto’’ in which it was constrained. Thus it has actually opened
up a window into novel strategies of resistance and ways of combating
neoliberalist globalization policies. Social Centers were successful both
because they were a public movement ‘‘in the making’’, committed to
the creation of spaces and forums for public discussion, and because
they experimented with new cooperation models not founded on the
use of paid labor (Maggio 2000; Vecchi 1994).

An analysis of the development of Social Centers in time points to
analogies with the history of the working class (especially its struggle
for the establishment of a welfare system and cooperatives) and the
anarchist movement. In 1852, in ‘‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis
Napoleon’’, Marx himself found fault with the tendency to build par-
allel circuits, accusing the proletariat of converging towards ‘‘[...] a
movement renouncing an overthrow of the old world by means of
its great resources, and instead seeking to achieve its salvation behind
society’s back, privately, within its limited conditions of existence,
and hence necessarily coming to naught’’ (Marx 1996:39). There can
be little doubt that the very idea of creating havens free of capitalis-
tic relations is a mere illusion and that the self-referential isolation
policies pursued by some Social Centers will only make it easier to
discourage, repress and marginalize the movement. But the broader
Social Centers’ challenge is to change the existing state of affairs by
committing their networks to local-scale actions geared towards fur-
thering socialization processes and mutual aid – a goal that must be
attained by working not behind society’s back, but rather by looking
beyond dominant social relationships.

The most important achievement to the credit of the Social Centers
movement is probably its contribution to renovating publicly and pri-
vately owned vacated properties as an alternative to property specu-
lation. Considering that Social Centers mostly operate in degraded
peripheral areas, this action plays a role in counteracting the unfair
spatial distribution of urban resources. While devising and perfecting
its anti-neoliberal strategies, the movement underwent radical change
and today it is a sort of continuum formed both of temporary associa-
tions such as TAZs and stable organizations some of which continue to
prioritize confrontation and struggle, while others have accepted subsi-
dies from private individuals and local governments. The complex ap-
proaches, activities and connections of Social Centers make it difficult
to examine them in conjunction with New Social movements formed
of temporary or single-issue organizations. In fact, the analyst is con-
fronted with two different, though closely interconnected efforts: on
the one hand, actions consistent with traditional class struggle, geared
towards re-appropriating social space and time; on the other, collective
demands intended to deny the legitimacy of power and the current uses
of social and intellectual resources. The spectrum of possible responses
to these demands is necessarily wide, and Social Centers are currently
prioritizing small-scale actions that sometimes prove capable of fuel-
ing more thorough changes, particularly in showing the potentiality of
self-management and self-production. The extent to which this model
or its single parts can be made to work on a higher scale or extended to
the rest of society will necessarily depend on the ultimate outcome of a
confrontation process designed to redefine the power relationships. It
would be naıve to assume that Social Centers will be able to re-define
the balance of power simply by criticizing the existing state of affairs
and suggesting alternative social models and lifestyles. What is needed
is a libertarian project with an inherent potential for expansion in terms
of attracting growing sectors of the population and capable of overcom-
ing the existing balance of power. It is an irrefutable fact that, from
the outset, the declared aim of Social Centers has not been to seize
power, but to help break up existing power structures and that all these
practices can be interpreted as an ‘‘exodus’’ from, or ‘‘scream’’ against,
dominant practices. As there is no denying that going beyond the exist-
ing power structure requires breaking new ground in an unexplored ter-
ritory (Holloway 2002), the movement’s prospects for further growth
will ultimately depend on whether or not Social Centers will be able
to discard outworn action modes, devise means of changing the people
involved and critically analyse the composition of social classes today.

Although this approach might at first sight bear some resemblance to
that of the separatist Lega Nord, a party preaching disentanglement from
traditional power circles, an abyss separates the Social Centers movement
from the Lega. The most important of many far-reaching differences is
the stark contrast between the Social Centers’ aim to dismantle power
structures and build a social ‘‘order’’ founded on solidarity and the Lega’s
anti-solidarity policies. This conclusion is all the more convincing since
the spaces provided by Social Centers are open to all, including the very
immigrants targeted by the Lega’s racist policies.

In summarizing, Social Centers are committed to confounding
the continuous message of the power structure inviting citizens to
keep away from political activity since ‘‘there is no way things can be
changed’’. This message is closely reminiscent of the fascist regime’s call
to the people to abstain from political action and leave the ‘‘burden’’ of
decision-making to the Duce, the fascist party and fascist corporations.
Hence the need not to underrate the part that this minority movement
can play in the fight against neoliberalism.


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