[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

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

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:

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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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.