[EN] How do activists make decisions within Social Centres? A comparative study in an Italian city

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

How do activists make decisions within Social Centres?
A comparative study in an Italian city

Gianni Piazza

1. Introduction

The decision-making processes within the Italian Social Centres,
the way in which occupants and activists usually take their decisions is the
focus of this article. The Social Centres (SCs) in Italy have been defined
as autonomous spaces set up by left-wing radical activists (mainly stu-
dents and unemployed youth), who occupy and/or self-manage unused
buildings in the cities (based upon a conception of free spaces), where
they organize political campaigns, social and countercultural activities;
territorially rooted, they contest the moderation and bureaucratization
of environmental associations and political parties, proposing radical
forms of action and participatory organizational models (della Porta and
Piazza 2008: 43). Social Centres is the abbreviated term for “Squatted
(Occupied) and/or Self-Managed Social Centres” (Centri Sociali Occupati
e/o Autogestiti – CSOA-CSAs), because squatting and/or self-managing
vacant buildings represent their identity traits; however, SCs repertoire
of actions includes other unconventional forms as symbolic protests,
pickets, road and railway blockades, occupations of institutional offices,
unauthorized demonstrations, that sometimes end in clashes with police.

During the last decade alone, scholars have begun to study the Italian
SCs, notwithstanding the phenomenon is quite older with its roots in
the mid-seventies (Dines 1999; Berzano and Gallini 2000; Ruggiero
2000; Becucci 2003; Mudu 2004; Membretti 2007; Montagna 2006);
they have highlighted, on the one hand, SCs have long been the most
radical groups, among the main actors of urban conflicts and of those
related to LULU-Locally Unwanted Land Use (della Porta and Piazza,
2008); on the other hand, SCs can be considered the most important
radical sector of the Global Justice Movement (GJM) in Italy – quan-
titatively and qualitatively – for its effective contribution towards mo-
bilizing thousands of people in demonstrations and meetings against
neo-liberal globalization (della Porta et al. 2006).

These studies have pointed out the SCs, denouncing the rarity of
space for sociability outside of commercial circuits and campaigning
against market-oriented renewal and property speculation in the cit-
ies, are urban but not exclusively local protest actors. They are urban
actors because they are spatially localized in the city centres or in
the peripheral/working class districts (and are not local chapters of
extra-local organizations), however their reach of action is often not
only local, but also regional, national and global; the issues faced are
both local (social spaces and services, housing, urban renewal, etc.),
although always set in general framework, and extra-local (migration,
no militarization, no war, alter-globalization, etc.). Unlike other im-
portant urban actors (i.e. the citizens’ committees) the SCs are gener-
ally more ideological, with an universalistic identity, and usually last
longer than the former, which are instead more pragmatic, unstable,
set up ad hoc with localistic identity; in some cases SCs ally with com-
mittees, in others they promote and intertwine with them, giving ex-
tra-local, trans-territorial and cross-issues dimensions to the LULU
campaigns, in which both are involved (della Porta and Piazza 2008;
Piazza et al. 2005).

Moreover, research stressed how SCs ‘are also very heterogeneous
in cultural background, objectives and forms of action’ (della Porta et
al. 2006: 41). If at the beginning of the 1990s ‘there were two main
groups, one of which was close to Autonomia … while the other was
closer to anarchical movements’ (Mudu 2004: 934), the SCs’ area is
currently and continuously split into several groups and networks, very
fluid and unstable.

Here I propose a typology of the Italian SCs, which is a rework-
ing of models previously elaborated by other scholars (Dines 1999;
Montagna 2006), based on their political and ideological orientation,
the networks/areas they belong to, the aims pursued and activities car-
ried out (political, social, countercultural), the campaigns and issues
faced, the legal status (occupied or assigned), and the attitudes towards
institutions (hostile, pragmatic, strategic).

a. The Anarchists and Libertarians who, although divided among
themselves in different networks, ‘refuse any kind of formalisa-
tion of their structures and dialogue with state institutions, but
also with movements that they judge too moderate’ (Montagna
2006: 296; Berzano et al. 2002); these social centres are always
illegally occupied and political/countercultural activities are
carried out.

b. The ex-Disobedients, who adopt Negri’s theorizations on the
“multitude”; they entertained fair relations with local institutions
and were particularly close to PRC* until 2004 (Mudu 2004: 934),
when they broke with left parties and radicalized their forms of ac-
tion; their attitudes towards institutions oscillate between strategic
and pragmatic, and many social centres are officially assigned.

c. Then, the areas and networks which base their political analysis
on Marxist or Leninist class categories: the Antagonists, the Anti-
imperialists, the SCs linked to Autonomia; others with Leninist
leanings (2003-4 “Europposizione”), and the Revolutionary
Communists who refuse any relationship with state institutions
and are considered the most radical SCs; within these areas usu-
ally SCs are illegally occupied and have hostile attitudes towards
institutions, but some can be officially assigned and keep strategic
relations with local administrations; further, social activities ad-
dressed to the neighbourhood in which the centres are located
are carried out, beyond the political and/or countercultural ones;
besides some Marxist SCs are not aligned to any networks.

d. Lastly, there are non-ideological SCs or heterogeneous ones,
in which different ideological leanings coexist; they are Non-
Aligned/Affiliated, because do not belong to any of the former
networks and include SCs both with a more political orientation
and a more countercultural one (Montagna 2006); usually they
are more moderate and have pragmatic or strategic attitudes
with institutions in order to obtain the official assignment of
the premises.

2. Models of decision-making: the framework

Considering this politiCal-ideologiCal fragmentation, I wondered if
all SCs shared similar types of decision making, notwithstanding their

differences. The existing research has been less focused on this feature,
except for those concerning the SCs belonging to the ex-Disobedient
sector. In particular, the use of the deliberative method in the internal
decision-making process emerged, as Becucci states: ‘The deliberative
method … within the Assembly … does not use the system of the
count of ayes and nays, but is based on the search for consensus and
tendential unanimity … the Disobedients’ movement prefers the search
for consensus. In the case there are positions that do not offer shared
solutions, the problems under discussion are momentarily suspended
to be faced later’ (2003: 90). But, are the other SCs’ political practices
inspired to deliberative democracy* too, or do they follow other mod-
els? Which of their methods are adopted in internal decision-making?
What are the dynamics and mechanisms characterizing their decision-
making processes?

In order to answer these questions, first I have considered the ty-
pology elaborated by della Porta and her Demos Project group (2009;
see specifically Andretta 2007: 116-120), that proposes four models
of democracy within the groups of GJM, by crossing the two dimen-
sions of the type of participation (indirect with delegation upward vs.
direct without delegation) and of the decision-making method (vote or
strategic negotiation vs. consensus) adopted for the treatment of pref-
erences (aggregation vs. transformation) in the formation of political
choices: a) Associational Model (delegation and preferences aggregation);
b) Assembleary Model (without delegation and preferences aggregation);
c) Deliberative Representation Model (delegation and preferences transfor-
mation); d) Deliberative Democracy Model (without delegation and prefer-
ences transformation). Nonetheless, the two models based on delega-
tion upward are in my opinion useless for my purposes, because social
centres have always been characterized by direct democracy, the refusal
of internal and external delegation and the denial of formal repre-
sentation (Mudu 2004; Montagna 2006). Then, their decision-making
should oscillate between the Deliberative and the Assembleary mod-
els. But, the remaining dimensions (method and preferences) are too
stretched to define as deliberative an internal decision-making, because
in literature ‘deliberation takes place under conditions of plurality of
values, including people with different perspectives but facing common
problems’ (della Porta 2006: 2); since the internal decisional process of
a SC can take place in an homogeneous ideological context, but also
in a heterogeneous one, I changed the denomination of models on
the basis of the method adopted alone (Consensual vs. Majoritarian),
avoiding, for example, to define as deliberative a decision-making pro-
cess in which consensus is reached when values and perspective are
shared by all members.

Besides, since decision-making is a process and not a single act, and
therefore changes can occur during it. A process starting as Consensual
can become Majoritarian and vice versa. I have considered the two
models as the opposite poles of a continuum in which the real deci-
sion-making of the SCs can be placed: the proposed models are con-
ceived indeed as ideal-types and the empirical cases can be more or
less close to them. In order to facilitate the analysis and the empirical
check, I introduced two intermediate models regarding the cases in
which Consensual and Majoritarian Democracy are not the exclusive
practices adopted in decision-making processes. Thus, we will have
four models, starting from the Consensual pole, along the continuum,
towards the Majoritarian one.

1. Consensual Model.

Consensus is always the decision-making method and preferences
transformation occurs (if initially different) when decisions, unani-
mously, are taken; when unanimity is not reached, preferences are
not aggregated (never vote nor strategic negotiation among different
positions), no decision is taken, issues under discussion are momen-
tarily suspended to be faced later. Notwithstanding, if a unanimous
decision is impossible to reach on issues considered crucial by activ-
ists, it can entail an internal split and the exit of the dissentients from
the group.

2. Consensual-Majoritarian Model.

The process is mainly consensual (the rule), but it becomes majoritarian
when unanimity is not reached (the exception); in any case a decision
must be taken, thus when the preferences are not transformed, they are
aggregated by strategic negotiation (compromise or agreement) or by
voting (majority decision).

3. Majoritarian-Consensual Model.

The process is mainly majoritarian (the rule), but it becomes delibera-
tive when crucial issues are faced (the exception); usually preferences are
aggregated and decisions taken by voting or strategic negotiation, but
some issues (considered very important for the survival of the group)
require unanimity and thus preferences are transformed (even to avoid
internal split and the exit of minorities).

4. Majoritarian Model.

The process is always majoritarian: voting is the decision-making meth-
od and preferences aggregation occurs entailing the formation of ma-
jorities and minorities. Shared decisions (compromise or agreement)
can be taken without voting, only by strategic negotiation among dif-
ferent positions.

My initial hypothesis was that all social centres shared an internal
decision-making logic according to the Consensual Model. In fact, on
the basis of the previous research, every social centre seemed to be
characterized by the exclusive adoption of the consensual method con-
sidered ‘the only one accepted by everyone’ (Mudu 2004: 926), and by
decisions unanimously taken in order to make choices shared by all
members.

In order to test this hypothesis I designed my research around com-
parison of two SC with great differences between them (in terms ac-
tivities carried out, political affiliation, ideological orientation, attitudes
towards institutions, etc.), to see if they, notwithstanding their numer-
ous differences, had similar decision-making practices. For this reason
I have selected two SCs in Catania (in Sicily) with the most different
characteristics: a) Experia, a political squatted SC, belonging to the most
radical national network, which refuses any contact with public institu-
tions; b) Auro, a moderate countercultural and non-affiliated SC, whose
premises have been officially assigned by local institutions.

Nevertheless, as we shall see in the following pages, the findings of
this research are unexpected and thus require an explanation through
the procedure of re-identification and/or cultural re-collocation
(Pizzorno 2007a: 66-70). Explanation here is not pursued singling out
constant relations between variables, but understanding and interpret-
ing the meaning of actors’ actions (ibidem: 70-82).

The research, carried out between 2004 and 2008, was based on
three principal sources: a period of participant observation during the
internal meetings of the SCs; the analysis of self-produced documents;
above all, a set of semi-structured interviews with SCs’ activists, serv-
ing as my key-informants, in order to understand the meaning of their
practices and being able to interpret them.

In the following pages, first I will briefly analyse the phenomenon
of squatting in Catania, reconstructing the history, the activities and
campaigns, the organizational structure and the internal decision-mak-
ing of two SCs: Experia and Auro. Finally, I will make some conclu-
sive remarks returning to the hypothesis outlined above and discussing
them in particular from a comparative perspective.

3. Squatting in Catania

Catania is the second largest city in Sicily with a population of 340,000
inhabitants. Its economy is mainly based on trade and services with a
few industries, the most important is specialized in high technology
(ST-Microelectronics). Unemployment, under-employment and the
presence of organized crime (Mafia) are usually considered its main
social problems. The urban fabric is like the “leopard’s spots”, that is
characterized by the alternation of popular (lower-class) neighbour-
hoods and residential (upper-middle class) quarters both downtown
(historical centre) and in peripheral areas. As far as local government is
concerned, Catania had been always governed by moderate municipal
administrations led by Christian Democrats until 1992; from 1993 to
1999 a centre-left coalition had ruled the city, but from 2000 to the pres-
ent time, centre-right administrations led by Forza Italia and now Popolo
delle Libertà (People of Liberties) – have governed the Municipality. The
political culture of the majority of the population is indeed moderate
and conservative, given the low density of social capital and the weak
tradition of associationism; nevertheless, a few leftists groups, citizens’
committees, NGOs, civic and environmental associations are active in
protests and mobilizations on various issues in the city (Piazza 2004a;
Piazza et al. 2005).

The first squatting took place in Catania in June 1988 when the
Committee for Self-Managed Social Spaces – set up by two groups of
activists belonging to the Autonomous and the Anarchist areas – occu-
pied the SC Experia. It was located in one of the oldest popular neigh-
bourhoods of Catania, in a former cinema within an ancient building
owned by the Sicilian Region. After abandoning the centre only two
months later because of some arson attacks of Mafia origin, the activ-
ists of the Autonomous area squatted a new SC, Guernica, in another
area of the town (in a middle-class district) in March 1989. In autumn
1991, an internal split occurred because of the adhesion of some mili-
tants to the “revolutionary communist” area, harshly criticized by the
other activists of the Autonomia, who, after have exited from Guernica,
occupied a new squat, the Auro, together with a group of students. In
February 1992 police evicted simultaneously both Guernica and Auro,
without active resistance by occupants. After a brief occupation of a
private building in the spring of the same year, the activists of Guernica
re-occupied Experia for the second time in May 1992.

1. The Squatted Popular Centre
(Centro Popolare Occupato) ‘Experia’

The CPO Experia was exclusively characterized by the political identity
of the occupying group, based on a radical version of Marxist ideology.
This created significant consequences for their the choices of political
campaigns and for their orientation toward the inhabitants of the local
neighbourhood within. The Experia activists, in fact, defined themselves
as “revolutionary communists” to stress the difference with commu-
nists belonging to the institutional left, refusing conventional politics
and relationships with institutions and representative democracy, and
identifying the “proletarian referent” (people to who they address their
political activities) in subaltern classes living in “popular” districts of
the town, as Antico Corso where the social centre was located. The po-
litical choice to address their own activities and their capacity of “social
aggregation” to the lowest social classes of popular neighbourhoods,
and the affiliation with a national political area (the “revolutionary com-
munist”), was confirmed in 1998 by the change of denomination from
CSOA to CPO (Occupied Popular Centre). Nonetheless, in the 1990s
the activities of Experia were focused almost solely upon political and
counter-information campaigns, e.g. anti-fascist, anti-imperialist, inter-
nationalist, because they were unable to involve the inhabitants of the
lower classes districts.

In 2000, the CPO Experia contributed to the set up of the citizens’
committee “Antico Corso”, with whom they campaigned against the
threat of eviction by the local Authorities and against the construction
of an university building in the back yard of the centre, denouncing
urban speculation and demanding housing and social services for resi-
dents (Piazza 2004a; 2004b). It was a turning point: a new generation
of young activists, especially students, adhered to Experia, which also
obtained the support of the neighbourhood people and of the other
local movement organizations (I1; I5).

In 2003, after an internal debate, the Experia militants decided to
diversify their tasks, to leave the management of the SC to the younger
activists in order to raise social and youth aggregation, while the old-
est activists founded a political propaganda journal, “Without Bosses”
(Senza Padroni). There was a shifting of phase characterized by the
openness of the SC toward new groups and social actors, according to
the words of a young activist: ‘The youngest comrades have had a very
strong role in re-opening Experia to other social subjects that didn’t
frequent Experia for many years. So we invented the Festival of the
grass-roots groups, we gathered students, we were very present in the
schools and slowly new activists joined us’ (I1).

As a consequence of the generational turnover, the activities of
Experia aimed to social and political aggregation were re-launched.
“No aggregation, no struggle. No struggle, no rights” has been the
slogan which has characterized this phase of Experia. An interviewee
says: “For me a social centre is above all a place of ‘aggregation’. When
you come in the social centre, you feel part of a place, of an aim, of a
community of comrades; you do not feel disaggregated, isolated. It is
the difference between ‘place’ and ‘non-place’: a place where you feel
actively part of something” (I5). Here the strong feeling of belonging
and identification with the SC emerges corresponding to the value of
‘collectivity’ (community) shared by all activists. The SC is not con-
ceived as a closed community, a “happy island” separated from the rest
of the city (I3), but a ‘laboratory of resistance within society to inter-
vene on concrete, political and social problems’ (I1). Notwithstanding,
the defence and strengthening of the political identity of the squatting
group, rather than the defence of the centre as a physical place, has
become an end in itself.

Meanwhile, the political campaigns characterising Experia have gone
on during these years: the antifascist, anti-imperialist and internation-
alist campaigns, supporting Palestinian struggle and against the wars in
Afghanistan and in Iraq. After a period of crisis (2007), mainly due to
less attendance and engagement of some activists, in 2008 the Experia
militants aggregated new groups and carried out new activities within
the centre (cycle and juggler workshops, ‘popular gym’, capoeira dance),
whereas the student activists were involved in the university movement.
On 30 October 2009, the SC was brutally evicted by police, receiving
the solidarity of local residents and of associations, unions and left
parties of the city. After some unsuccessful attempts to reoccupy the
Experia, on the Spring of 2011, their militants and other radical left ac-
tivists occupied another vacant building, a former communal gym(“Le
verginelle”) in the same area of the city, which they however left some
months later.

a. Organizational structure and internal decision-making.
The organizational structure of Experia was informal, participative,
horizontal and non-hierarchical and no internal leading group, formally
separated from the entire membership, existed. It was mainly based
on the “management assembly” or “management committee”, which
met weekly on Monday evenings. The assemblies were generally public
and open to everyone (I5), even to outsiders, individual or collective
actors (inclusiveness), with the exclusion of only fascists and policemen
(I1). Nevertheless, some meetings with “different compositions” (I1)
could be held, where some (generally external individuals or groups)
participated only in the debates on the issues in which they were in-
terested and then, when other issues were discussed, they spontane-
ously went out; besides, some “closed-doors meetings” could be held,
that is without the presence of outsiders, when problems defined as
“sensitive” were faced. Then, there were two types of decision making
settings: one more inclusive where all people with an interest in the
issues discussed (even the outsiders) could participate; another more
exclusive, reserved only to the “hard core” of the occupants.
All decisions were taken during the assemblies and were binding for
all members, exclusively by the adoption of the consensual method, that is
through the discussion and the pursuit of unanimity, without any vot-
ing, as it was clearly stated by the interviewed activists: ‘Everything is
decided during the management committee through debate. Someone
proposes an initiative or a campaign; the proposals, which can come in-
ternally from a comrade or externally from other groups or individuals,
are discussed within the management committee and, if they are inter-
esting and congruent with our goals, we decide on them’ (I5); ‘decision
are taken unanimously through consensual methods’ (I1); ‘if someone
doesn’t agree, we try to discuss it until the end’ (I3); ‘there are no vot-
ing mechanisms’ (I5); ‘the issues faced sometimes are long currents of
debate which we open, we temporary abandon and which emerge again
during the years’ (I1).

When some divergence arose, participants tried to convince the
others by their argumentations. The internal clashes and disputes
were faced through the debate and very long discussions and resolved
only with the achievement of unanimity; in the case in which a shared
solution was not found, the discussion was postponed with the re-
sult of a “decisional stalemate”: ‘the discussion is not set aside but
postponed, even if this implies to paralyse the activity; so we have to
talk again if we all do not agree. It’s happened before and it happens
now’ (I1).

Therefore, when decisions were taken, preferences transformation oc-
curred, also on the basis of new elements (information, data) emerg-
ing in the course of the debate: ‘the mechanism of the transforma-
tion of the initial preferences exists and has existed in almost every
meeting and among almost all the comrades. It also depends on the
new information, a new element which I’ve never thought about ….
Personally, there have been times when I thought that my position, on
the basis of the others’ opinions, was wrong, and times when I was
right notwithstanding the others’ positions’ (I1). When the preferences
transformation did not happen, no decision was taken, but they were
never aggregated by voting or strategic negotiation, because internal
cohesion was a value and a trait of Experia collective identity.
Rational argumentations were often used during discussion in order
to convince other participants and to transform their preferences, but
always within the shared collective identity. In fact, when an activist
proudly stated that ‘we’ve never done things which could harm our
identity, just to reach a better effect, and we have preferred not to have
relationships with other groups rather than to make something to the
detriment of our ideological identity’ (I5), it meant that identity, ‘in
order to keep itself, must aim at coherence of the choices during the
time’ (Pizzorno 2007a: 27).

There were no internal groups autonomously managing the spac-
es of the SC until 2008. Nevertheless, with regard to political issues,
the Experia activists sometimes discussed these issues with the senior
militants, with whom they shared the political-ideological area. It was
during this type of meetings that tensions and disputes could arise be-
tween the young activists of the SC and the first occupants of the
Experia. The generational clash seemed to be based more on the tactics
and forms of communication than on the political contents, between
the more pragmatic young activists and the more ideological old mili-
tants. Usually a common solution was found by consensual method or,
more rarely, by a compromise between the autonomy of the occupants
and the political weight of the senior militants.

2. The Self-Managed Social Centre (Centro Sociale
Autogestito) ‘Auro’

The Social Centre Auro, is still situated in the historical centre of
Catania, located within a former nunnery. It is currently property of
the municipality. The Auro was occupied in the autumn of 1991, ac-
cording to one of the earlier squatters, ‘by a group linked to the area
of Autonomia, and by individual militants, people set outside political
groups and aggregated to this specific project, primarily based upon
the idea of taking a place in the town, setting it free and using it in
order to make various kind of activities, e.g. political campaigns, col-
lectives, groups working on NGOs and artistic and cultural aims’ (I2).
Evicted by the police on February 1992, Auro was re-occupied after
a little while by the same activists, who restarted cultural and artistic
activities and counter-information ones.

As a matter of fact, differently from Experia, the main traits
maintained until 2008 by Auro were the preference for (counter)cul-
tural and counter-information activities, and a reach of action extended
to the whole town, especially to young circles. In addition to count-
less weekly concerts, there were many groups enacting experimental
workshops, including one for the experimentation of new computer
technologies of communication, the FreakNet MediaLab. Moreover,
political activities were carried out during the 1990s through the orga-
nization of assemblies and debates about various issues: against wars,
solidarity with Palestinian people, about immigration, precarious work,
drug addictions and for the liberalization of the marijuana.

In 1998, as a consequence of a threat of eviction and a follow-
ing negotiation with the centre-left communal administration, the
building was officially assigned at no cost to the occupants by the
municipality (use commodatum), although the squatters did not sign the
agreement because, according to an activist, ‘that entailed restric-
tions that would have allowed them to kick us out any moment’ (I2).
The “legalization” of Auro and its transition from an “Occupied and
Self-Managed Social Centre” (CSOA) to the following denomination
“Self-Managed Social Centre” (CSA) happened subsequently to an
internal debate between supporters and opponents that, as an activist
reminded, has reappeared at times also during the later period: ‘When
in 1998 there was the concession by the municipality, there was also
a division within the social centre, because a group didn’t agree. This
problem is always open and we still discuss it now: there is an internal
group hostile with respect to institutions and someone else who, on
the contrary, tries to safeguard the place and to maintain this close
relation (to the municipality)’ (I4).
In 2001, the Auro activists participated in the mobilizations against
G8 in Genoa, and to the brief life of the Catania Social Forum, but
only as individuals, because the main feature of Auro was the lack of
a political-ideological identity shared by all members, in the words of
one activist: ‘differently from other SCs, Auro lacks of a political col-
lective. Auro has a management assembly that doesn’t coincide with a
political collective, and this is a paradox, because you can share a space
with many people politically similar with a common identity – anti-
fascism, anti-liberism, no war, and so on – but the problem is that you
can’t act together with them, there isn’t a unified political message’ (I4).
It did not mean that Auro was lacking of a collective identity, as it was
perceived by their members, but that it was an inclusive identity which
encompassed different political-ideological leanings, even if they were
not shared by all activists.

In fact, the lack of a shared ideological orientation was the reason
why Auro was not affiliated to any SC network or national political
area; this condition was perceived by an interviewee as a problem, but
it is also claimed proudly as a positive specificity of Auro identity: “We
don’t have a national area as a reference, simply because every activist
has his own area. The problem is that there isn’t a common identity,
although it’s not a real problem, except in the perception of the outsid-
ers, but in my opinion it’s not a defect but a different way of being’ (I4).
In 2007-2008, the Auro mobilized as part of two political cam-
paigns, together with other local groups: an anti-fascist campaign, and
against the sale of the municipal real estate heritage through a company
constituted by the Commune with the intent to restore budget debts;
a campaign strongly felt by Auro, because the project of sale included
also the building where the SC is situated, and thus entailing threat
of eviction. In the following years the people who self-managed Auro
changed with the entry of an anarchist group.

a. Organizational structure and internal decision-making

The organizational structure of Auro was horizontal, non-hierar-
chical but fragmented, because it was formed by “the management as-
sembly” and various internal groups that autonomously managed their
owns spaces within the social centre, being obliged to respect just the
general rules of the centre.

It was described by an activist as a “container”: ‘Auro can be viewed
as a container, within which there is the management assembly that
decides the rules and main management activities (cleaning, shopping
for the bar, and so on). Other internal spaces are subdivided and orga-
nized autonomously. Every group working within Auro has an unques-
tioning autonomy in its choices, except that the obligation to respect
the general rules of the centre; therefore, there is a minimal coordina-
tion within the structure but no political interference in the choices
of the groups. Anyway there are also things made by all the groups
together to support Auro as a whole’ (I2). The idea of a “container”
was confirmed by another activist, who defined this kind of structure
as a set of “microcosms”, stressing the strong internal fragmentation,
the lack of cohesion, the difficulty to reach unitary positions, but also
claiming the autonomy of the groups: ‘Auro is a container, a set of
microcosms, also because every individual is a microcosm. Currently,
Auro lacks of cohesion and people working within it are in very small
groups. Everyone is autonomous and this is a specificity of this place.
Several groups participate to the management assembly that doesn’t
make ‘iron rules’, so that those who transgress them are not deviants
to be punished; of course, there are a few cohabitation rules assuring
a pacific management of the place’ (I4). Also what was perceived as a
problem (lack of internal cohesion) was also claimed as a peculiarity of
Auro collective identity (autonomy of individuals and groups in manag-
ing internal spaces).

The management assembly of Auro was an open and weekly meeting
that was held on Monday evenings. Issues regarding the centre as a whole
were discussed and decisions were taken. As an interviewee explained:
‘The decision-making setting is the management assembly: anyone, also
an outsider, can make a proposal, and every suggestion will be discussed
in its internal articulation, or collectively elaborated; if it is just an idea,
we try to decline all its points and convert it in action’ (I4).

The decisional method adopted by Auro during the meetings
should be the consensual one, as the interviewed senior militant stat-
ed: ‘there is always the search for consensus … there are never votes’
(I2). Nevertheless, the youngest activist described a different process
in which the adopted method oscillated between the consensual one
preferred by activists, although considered scarcely realistic, and the
majoritarian one, used to solve internal divergences and conflicts, when
unanimity was not reached: ‘Our method is a good mediation between
the two methods (consensual and majoritarian), because we are aware
that unanimity is difficult to reach. Not always everyone agrees, thus
there is a majority. We think it is difficult finding an unitary position
about a specific question, and if an issue splits the assembly, we have
a problem; in fact, divergences and internal conflicts usually can be
solved, so that we firstly try to search as much as possible for con-
sensus, especially through mediation, but if it isn’t possible, we take a
decision by majority rule’ (I4). In this case, activists adopted the ma-
joritarian method to avoid the “decisional stalemate” by voting, even
if it occurred rarely: ‘if an agreement is impossible to reach, there will
be a decision taken by majority, because we can’t stop or fossilize, we
have to do something and a decision must be taken; the voting, eventu-
ally, is for show of hands, but rarely we come to this kind of situation’
(I4). Therefore, a “culture of decision in any case” emerged, that is the
willingness to make activities, even if not always shared by everyone, as
another trait of collective identity.

The preference transformation usually occurred when unanimous
decisions were taken and rational argumentation was used during de-
bates. This transformation was facilitated, in the opinion of the inter-
viewees, thanks to the low ideological rigidity and pragmatism of Auro
activists. In fact, differently from Experia, the decisions which were tak-
en were not rigidly binding for all members, because people disagreeing
with a decision were not obliged to implement it, as a consequence
of the internal autonomy. Therefore, preference transformation did
not always occur, because when initial different positions expressed
by participants remained far from each other during the process, the
preferences were aggregated by voting and a decision was made by
majority rule.

4. Comparative concluding remarks

In conclusion, I make some considerations regarding the findings
and the hypothesis formulated in the introduction from a comparative
perspective. As mentioned in the introduction, the two social centres
studied in Catania were very different according to their main dimen-
sions (Table 2).

Regarding their organizational structures, they could seem similar,
both horizontal, non-hierarchical, based on the refusal of delegation
upwards and on the primary role of the management assembly; but
actually they differed significantly because the structure of Experia
was more cohesive and homogeneous, whereas Auro was fragmented
in several groups which autonomously managed their own internal
spaces. In connection with this last aspect, the two social centres in-
vestigated significantly differed with regards to the internal decision-
making processes. In fact, the process of Experia was closer to the
Consensual Model, while that of Auro to the Consensual-Majoritarian
one. Although activists from both social centres adopted the consen-
sual method to solve internal divergences and to take unanimous deci-
sions, transforming their preferences during the debates, they consid-
erably diverged when unanimity was not achieved; while Experia occu-
pants never aggregated their preferences (never voted nor negotiated),
no decision was taken and issues under discussion were momentarily
suspended to be addressed. The Auro activists aggregated their prefer-
ences by voting (majority rule) in order to take a decision in any case
(not always implemented by minorities). Therefore, the Experia internal
decision-making was always Consensual, while that of Auro was only
‘mainly’ but not exclusively Consensual, because it became Majoritarian
when their activists were not able to take an unanimous decision.
On the basis of these findings, my initial hypothesis appears only
partially confirmed, because the research has provided unexpected
outcomes. In fact, while the results regarding the Experia decision
processes confirm the hypothesis that they are characterized by the
Consensual Model, the findings concerning Auro decision-making are
different from those hypothesized in the introduction; it can be defined
according to the intermediate model, surprising for the use of the ma-
joritarian method and the aggregation of preferences.

The unexpected findings can be explained through the procedure
of re-identification (ends) and/or cultural re-collocation (beliefs and
information), according to Pizzorno (2007a). The Italian sociologist,
criticizing the rational choice theory (see Pizzorno 1986; 2007b), states
that when an unexpected action happens (because the hypothesis fore-
saw, given certain circumstances, another type of action), it does not
mean that it was irrational or not understandable, but that we have to
find another kind of rationality to explain it, re-identifying the ends (re-
identification) and/or beliefs and information (re-collocation) as dif-
ferent from those we initially supposed (Pizzorno 2007a: 70). In fact,
an action can be explained when it is carried out for certain reasons,
that is when the means adopted, on the basis of beliefs and informa-
tion owned by the actor, are effective and coherent to pursue certain
ends; when the means adopted appear incoherent or ineffective, it
means that the ends and/or the beliefs/information are actually dif-
ferent from those previously supposed as real; thus we have to change
the ends and/or the beliefs (identifying the real ones) to reconstruct
the meaning of the action, thus re-establishing its rational coherence
(ibidem: pp. 64-65).

Considering my research, I started from the hypothesis that all SCs
exclusively adopted the consensus method in order to always take
unanimous decisions, and that this was based on shared beliefs in the
refusal of delegation and hierarchy in favour of self-management. But,
as shown with the decision-making of the Auro the consensus method
was not exclusively adopted: it became majoritarian when unanimity
was not reached. This requires I have to changing its ends (re-identifi-
cation) and/or beliefs (re-collocation). The ends of the Auro decision-
making process was its effectiveness, that is a choice had to be made
in any case, because its beliefs stressed more the preference for the
“decision in any case” and internal autonomy, rather than for collective
choices and the social centre cohesion (preferences shared by Experia
activists).

Thus I have re-established the internal coherence of decision pro-
cesses according to scheme “ends-beliefs-means”; that is, the two social
centres adopted different means, because their ends and beliefs were
different, although not completely; in other words they did not share
one and the same collective identity, conceived in this scheme as ‘a set
of beliefs and preferences of the actor at the moment of the choice’
(ibidem: 67). The Experia (exclusive) identity and the Auro (inclusive)
identity were both based on the refusal of delegation (autonomy) and
hierarchy, but the former was also based on a radical version of Marxist
ideology which stressed the values of ‘collectivity’ (community), inter-
nal cohesion and social aggregation; the latter, on the contrary, under-
lined more the preferences for the “decision in any case”, pragmatism,
and for the self-management of their spaces (internal autonomy).

Nevertheless, if the (immediate) ends of decision-making are ob-
viously those of taking decisions (shared or not), these choices are
in their turn means to pursue other ends; thus we have to find the
(long-term) ends followed by decision processes, answering the ques-
tion: Why SCs activists take collective decisions? They make choices
because they want to establish rules, to take positions on certain issues
but, above all, to make radical political collective actions which they call
“antagonist”, and social and countercultural activities, defined as “self-
managed”; thus we have to find what kinds of collective action/ac-
tivities are chosen as the outcome of decision-making (manifest ends).
The Experia militants preferred social aggregation activities and radical
political actions, while the Auro activists were more oriented towards
countercultural and self-managed activities.

But there is another end pursued by participating in decision mak-
ing processes, although not explicitly manifest (latent), that is the
maintenance and strengthening of collective identity, which depends
on the coherence of choices made during the time (Pizzorno 2007a:
27); therefore, activists have to make coherent decisions, not only re-
garding the content (ends) but also the way in which they are taken
(means), in order to maintain their identity. If identity is different, then
the ends and means will also be different, of course. Nevertheless, if
we conceive collective identity not only as a specific set of beliefs and
preferences which are shared by a group, but also as processes by which
social actors recognize themselves – and are recognized by others – as
a part of this group (della Porta and Diani 2006: 91; Pizzorno 2007a:
23), coherence of choices made will ensure recognition to identity.

Therefore, for the Experia militants it was coherent adopting the
Consensual model in order to make radical political actions and social
aggregation activities, because they recognized themselves and were
recognized by others as a social aggregation place and as a radical cohe-
sive and unitary actor, in this way maintaining and strengthening their
identity. In fact, majority decision would have been too dangerous for
the identity and cohesion of the group, because it could have entailed
internal rifts between majority and minority too deep to be worked
through. On the contrary, the Auro activists made coherent choices
adopting the intermediate model in order to make countercultural and
self-managed activities, because they recognized themselves and were
recognized by others as an “open and neutral place”, where people
could autonomously manage internal spaces, thus maintaining and
strengthening their identity. The eventual formation of majorities and
minorities in the internal decision-making, differently from Experia, did
not jeopardise the low cohesion of the group nor their identity, be-
cause in their conception it was more important to be free to manage
autonomously the internal spaces, than the feeling of belonging to a
broader community (the social centre as a whole).

This connection between different models of decision-making pro-
cesses and identities, varying from one SC to another, recalls the con-
cept of “group style” elaborated by Paul Lichterman, that is “a recur-
rent pattern of interaction that arises from a group’s taken-for-granted
understandings about how to be a good member in a group setting.

Group style is how people coordinate themselves as a group; there
are different ways to be together as a group, and thus different group
styles” (2006: 539). In fact, decisional processes can be included in
“recurrent patterns of interaction”, depending on collective identities,
which in turn comprise “group’s taken-for-granted understandings”;
so they vary according to different group styles, but always maintaining
group bonds (internal cohesion) and drawing group boundaries (ibidem:
540).

Lastly, I am surely aware that these results are valid only for the
empirical cases investigated, and they cannot abruptly be generalized
to other social centres, although “comparative analysis can contribute
to obtain valid inferential conclusions” (Isernia 2001: 149). At any rate,
the models of internal decision-making proposed could be a useful
analytical tool for future research, extending it to other empirical cases
in other urban areas.

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Interviews
I1. Antonio, CPO Experia, Catania, 5-7/3/2007.
I2. Claudio, CSA Auro, Catania, 3/11/2004.
I3. Luca, CPO Experia, Catania, 5/3/2007.
I4. Orazio, CSA Auro, Catania, 13/3/2007.
I5. Valentina, CPO Experia, Catania, 5-7/3/2007.


[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
Centers

* 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).

Self-financing

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

TABLE 1

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
establishment.

Conclusions

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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