[EN] Second edition of ‘Squatting in Europe’ published

[EN] Second edition of ‘Squatting in Europe’ published

The second edition of Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles has just been published. As before, the pdf is available and individual chapters are now being uploaded to the website, links below.

Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles

Published on Minor Compositions.

Squatting in Europe aims to move beyond the conventional understandings of squatting, investigating its history in Europe over the past four decades. Historical comparisons and analysis blend together in these inquiries into squatting in the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, France, Germany and England. In it members of SqEK (Squatting Europe Kollective) explore the diverse, radical, and often controversial nature of squatting as a form of militant research and self-managed knowledge production.


  • Margit Mayer: Preface
  • Introduction
  • Hans Pruijt: Squatting in Europe
  • Pierpaolo Mudu: Resisting and challenging Neoliberalism: the development of Italian Social
  • Gianni Piazza: How activists make decisions within Social Centres? A comparative study in an Italian city
  • Miguel A. Martínez: The Squatters’ Movement in Spain: A Local and Global Cycle of Urban Protests
  • Claudio Cattaneo: Urban squatting, rural squatting and the ecological-economic perspective
  • Andre Holm, Armin Kuhn: Squatting and Urban Renewal: The Interaction of Squatter Movements and Strategies of Urban Restructuring in Berlin
  • Linus Owens: Have squat, will travel: How squatter mobility mobilizes squatting
  • Florence Bouillon: What’s a ‘good’ squatter? Categorization’s processes of squats by government officials in France
  • Thomas Aguilera: Configurations of Squats in Paris and the Ile-de-France Region: diversity of goals and resources
  • E.T.C. Dee: Moving towards criminalisation and then what? Examining dominant discourses on squatting in England

Available from Minor Compositions direct and all good radical bookshops.

[EN] The Squatters’ Movement in Spain: A Local and Global Cycle of Urban Protests

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

The Squatters’ Movement in Spain: A Local and Global Cycle of Urban Protests

* This is a reprint of the article published in Martínez (2007, The Squatters’ Movement: Urban Counter-Culture and Alter-Globalization Dynamics.” – South European Society and Politics 12(3): 379-398).

Miguel A. Martínez López

“A rhizome establishes endless connections between se-
miotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances
relative to the arts, sciences and social struggles.”
(Deleuze & Guattari 1977)

The emergence of the squatters’ movement in Spanish cities in
the 1980s coincided with the first important crisis of the neighbour-
hoods’ movement. The latter, a protagonist movement for a great part
of the transition period between 1975 and 1982, has been studied by
several scholars (Castells 1983; Villasante 1984) who have emphasized
its combination of demands for collective facilities and democratic re-
form. In reality, although the practice of squatting was very common in
earlier urban movements, these were composed of different generations
(age cohorts) of activists (Villasante 1984; 2004). Squatting activists
were mainly young people who started to adopt lifestyles and ideas
that had spread through other European countries in previous decades
and which they tried to imitate, albeit in a slightly diffused manner.
Although clear lines of continuity may be identified between the events
of May 1968 and the new ‘alternative’ social movements on which
they had a substantial impact, this was not a somewhat delayed revival
of the communitarian and libertarian spirit of that era (Bailey 1973;
Fernandez Duran 1993).

The practice of squatting in abandoned buildings was initially a way
of finding spaces to strengthen the most radical aspects of the new so-
cial movements (NSMs) (conventionally reduced to environmentalism,
pacifism and feminism), but also of other more fringe and alternative
movements (students’ and workers’ autonomy, counter-information,
anti-fascism, solidarity with prisoners, and international solidarity). It
immediately spread as a movement with the characteristic features of
an urban movement, an alternative political scene and counter-cultural
practices that distinguished it from other social movements.

As we shall see later, only sensationalist reports in the media seemed
to acknowledge the movement’s existence in the mid 1990s. Social sci-
entists have paid scant attention during the years of its long journey,
a journey that began more than two decades ago. It is clear that this
social movement has not mobilized large numbers of the population,
as either activists or sympathizers. However, it cannot be excluded so
easily from the political and social analysis of our urban environments.
Its relevance and significance lie in both the actual characteristics of the
movement and its relationships with other movements and with the
key problems of the social context in which it operates.

This article will affirm that the squatters’ movement is an excellent
example of an urban movement with a ‘radical left’ approach and, si-
multaneously, one of the areas to have undergone the strongest political
and social ‘counter-cultural’ innovation, largely as a prelude to what has
since developed into the alter-globalization movement.

Of all the alternative movements to have appeared during the last
two decades in Spain, the anti-militarist movement and, in particu-
lar, the insumision campaign (refusal to serve compulsory military ser-
vice) have been those that have achieved the highest level of political
confrontation and success in terms of their objectives (Aguirre 1998).

This movement managed to enter public debates, draw attention to
protests and channel the broader anti-militarist sympathy of society
in its favour, and all this with relatively few activist and organizational
resources. Its small membership and politically radical nature (reject-
ing alternative national service and calling for the full dismantling of
armies), dealing with issues fundamentally affecting young people in
the process of finding employment and becoming independent from
their families, became an extraordinary paradigm for those who were
new to squatting. The seminal work of Manuel Castells (1983) on the
issue of urban movements pointed to an interesting approach to their
structural dimensions (economic, political and cultural) and effects.
Later criticisms of his model (Pickvance 1985; 1986; Fainstein & Hirst
1995; Marcuse 2002; Martınez 2003) stressed the need to focus on
other social and political dimensions of their context, and on organi-
zational resources, given the difficulties of understanding urban move-
ments such as that of the squatters (Lowe 1986: Pruijt 2003).

Therefore, it is appropriate to explain the genesis and development
of these types of movements and to identify their peculiarities and im-
pacts by complementing the traditional approaches of social sciences
with others that emphasize the movements’ complexity: their networks
of transversal relationships with other movements and with different
social contexts, their own reflexivity, their capacities for creativity and
for providing public goods (Martınez 2002a).

From this perspective, the squatters’ movement will be presented
as a ‘rhizomatic’ movement, with multiple connections between the
‘nodal points’ of networks, composed of these people, ideas, events or
spaces, characterized by non-linear evolution based on ruptures, recon-
stitutions and alliances, with the opening up of new possibilities for
expression, entry and metamorphosis (Deleuze & Guattari 1977). Or
as an ‘immediatist’ movement: criticizing the immediate sources and
impacts of power whilst rejecting utopias and ideologies that project
liberation from the existing forms of domination onto a distant future
(Foucault 1982). Or as a movement generating revolutionary situations
and temporarily autonomous zones, creating workers’ committees that
release the working class from their alienation, experimenting with
urban design to promote community meetings (Debord 1995/1976),
protesting against capitalist domination through insurrections of ‘po-
etic terrorism’, using music and ridicule, guaranteeing the invisibility
and invulnerability of protesters (Bey 1996/1985).

These theoretical approaches draw attention to aspects of the squat-
ters’ movement which are initially indiscernible and normally relegated
and undervalued in more conventional press and academic articles.
They also overcome analytical simplifications that focus almost ex-
clusively on: (a) the criminal nature of the movement’s main activity
(squatting as a violation of private property); (b) the subcultural and
fringe nature of squatting activists (squatting and squatters as an ‘urban
tribe’ with their specific dress code, discourse and original customs)
(Feixa 1999); (c) the juvenile nature of this social movement (squatting
as a passing and transitory collective action, limited to satisfying tem-
porary needs for accommodation—or temporary concerns—of young
people during their period of emancipation from their families).

Based on findings reported in earlier research (Martınez 2002b;
Pruijt 2003; 2004; Adell & Martınez 2004), this study follows an anal-
ysis of the squatters’ movement which, firstly, identifies the persistent
and consistent aspects of this set of urban practices which intervene in
local and global policies. In that sense, this article embarks on a pre-
sentation of the historical evolution of the squatters’ movement which
is structured along the basis of certain dimensions (such as claims over
the housing question and an explicit conflict with local authorities) that
have conferred its social relevance and its relationships with other social
movements and organizations.

Secondly, the analysis proceeds towards an explanation of some of
the contributions made by the squatters’ movement, such as its radi-
calism and political creativity both within the movement itself and in
relation to the urban, political and social contexts with which it has

In its aim of achieving both objectives, this article focuses on the
alter-globalization movement as the main benchmark of validation. To
this end, it asks the following questions: to what extent did the squat-
ter movement precede the alter-globalization movement, and to what
extent have its local characteristics been incorporated into that move-
ment? The final section presents evidence on these questions and pro-
vides some answers.

Most of the findings presented here stem from a long period of
participant observation within many (Centros Sociales Okupados y
Autogestionados/Squatted and Self-Managed Social Centres) CSOAs
and squatted houses in medium and large cities all over Spain. I stud-
ied squats during the period 1997-2004, though I have subsequent-
ly continued to collect documents and visit CSOAs. Sometimes my
participation took the form of giving talks or organizing workshops,
but more frequently I simply attended concerts, exhibitions, talks, mu-
sic festivals, meetings and demonstrations and visited people I knew.
My notes varied in length, as they were dependent on the length of
my stay in each city and the type of involvement and fieldwork I un-
dertook. Therefore, I made extensive use of information produced by
the movement itself through its various pamphlets, underground maga-
zines, self- recorded video tapes, internet websites and mainstream me-
dia. I conducted more than thirty in-depth interviews with activists in
different cities (mainly between 1998 and 2003, with squatters living
or working in CSOAs in Madrid, Barcelona, Vigo, Bilbao, Valencia,
Seville and Saragossa). Empirical data provided in other works (also
based on personal interviews and some focus groups) have been also
used (see Ehrenhaus & Perez 1999; Martınez 2002b; Batista 2002;
Adell & Martınez 2004; Llobet 2005). Historical examination, com-
parison with the experience of squatting in other European countries,
contextualization of Spanish social processes and urban politics, and
critical analysis of qualitative and quantitative data (basically pro-
vided by news in publications like IPA-Molotov, La Campana, CNT
Newspaper, Contra Infos, etc.) were the guidelines of the methodologi-
cal strategy adopted. Due to space limitations, the inclusion of specific
interview extracts has been avoided. Instead, a general assessment of the
evolution of this local and global urban movement has been favoured.

Missing Points in the Historical
Reconstruction of the Movement

As is the case with many social phenomena, it is not very enlighten-
ing to give an account of the history of the squatters’ movement by
simply grouping together facts in successive phases. That approach has
virtues in terms of charting events with respect to specific dates and
building an overall historical perspective but is insufficient in terms of
explanatory quality. For that reason, here, influenced by Foucault and
Guattari, there is a combination of that approach with an identification
of relevant ‘catalysts’, ‘triggers’ and attempts at ‘restructuring’ in the
development of the movement. Before considering these elements, it
should be remembered that the consideration of a set of practices as a
‘social movement’ is the result of a slightly artificial external operation.
This is particularly true in the case of squatting, not just because its
practitioners often refuse to see themselves as members of a supposed
squatters’ movement but also because the experiences of each squatted
building, district or city where successive squats have appeared include
uniquely local characteristics that force us to undertake a very accurate
and delicate appreciation of their common features.

According to the aforementioned three concepts, the approach pro-
moted here may be summarized in the following way.


The young people behind the emergence and development of squat-
ting in different cities during the 1980s and 1990s shared a common
experience of unemployment, job insecurity, difficulties in access to ac-
commodation, and the development of cultural outlets independent of
state institutions or other formal organizations. Certain circumstances
and social phenomena operated as ‘catalysts’ for the consolidation of
the movement, such as the relative lack of a precise legal and political
framework for the definition of squats, and the extraordinary survival
capacity of certain squats which served as a benchmark for others in the
same city and elsewhere.


The squatters’ movement endured strong judicial and political repres-
sion following the introduction of the Penal Code of 1995. Although
the Penal Code established stronger penalties and laid down the frame-
work for a more severe persecution of squatting, in the years immedi-
ately after its introduction the number of squats, and naturally, evic-
tions increased. That led to a stronger presence of squatting as an issue
in the mainstream media. The movement diversified and multiplied as
it suffered unprecedented criminalization and stigmatization. As ten-
sions with local authorities increased, the consolidation of certain in-
ternal tendencies within the movement, such as a rejection of what was
seen to be its institutionalization, the possible legalization of squats,
and a preference for urban districts targeted by planning authorities for
restructuring and development, became apparent.

Continuities and Restructuring

The squatting of buildings for housing purposes has always been a
feature of the movement. However, the strength and public significance
of the movement have been achieved through the use of squatted build-
ings as CSOAs. In them, the functions of residential buildings have
been integrated, subordinated or eliminated in favour of a broad range
of counter-cultural, political and productive activities open to other
social movements and sectors of the population beyond the ‘alternative
scene’. As the development of the movement was marked by a diversi-
fication of the social networks involved and greater experience of the
participants and activists, the squatters’ movement began to establish
new alliances and embrace non-squatted social centres and social orga-
nizations from a broad spectrum of the alter-globalization movement
or from the districts and cities where squats had appeared.

The article now moves to a diachronic evaluation which is accompa-
nied by a guiding chronology.

First Phase (1980-95)

This period can be traced back to the very first squats that appeared
in residential buildings and were publicly claimed as part of protest
activities by the young people involved until the introduction of the
so-called ‘Penal Code of Democracy’ which criminalized squatting in
abandoned buildings and refusal to undertake military service, in a
clear political U-turn designed specifically to persecute these two alter-
native social movements.

Multiple squatting in residential buildings began to spread in the main
Spanish cities (Madrid, Barcelona, Zaragoza, Bilbao and Valencia) and
slowly a different type of squats, which were also used for other activities
(concerts, discussions and debates, meetings of specific groups) open to
non-residents of the buildings in question, began to make their appear-
ance. Although there had already been some similar ‘squatting’ experi-
ences with an exclusively ‘social centre’ role during the transition period,
the squatters’ movement started with young people who lived in squat-
ted houses and who became increasingly committed to the dynamism of
the CSOAs. This mutual relationship produced a tension that was often
resolved by a drastic separation of squatted buildings used for housing
purposes and others used as social centres. In fact, it was the CSOAs
that gradually attracted more young people to the squatters’ movement
(and other social movements that used squats to meet, raise funds and
promote themselves) and made sure that new activists were recruited to
the movement in order to guarantee the survival of the squats, providing
support during evictions and then squatting in the buildings themselves.
Due to the high intensity of militancy in all facets of daily life and
the insecure nature of living conditions and survival within the CSOAs,
and even the elevated rhythm of organizing and performing all types
of counter-cultural activities, activists were constantly leaving (but re-
placed by others). However, the personal satisfaction offered by the ex-
perience of immediate emancipation in terms of accommodation, social
relations and political activity, coupled with the stimulus of emblematic
squats that had already been around for more than 3-5 years (some are
now more than 15 years old), were some of the main attractions for the
squatter activists who were multiplying in many Spanish cities.

Attention must also be drawn to another relevant element oper-
ating as a catalyst, i.e. that is that the number of squats (more than
80) was at least double the number of evictions (around 40) and that
these took place at a small personal cost, and relatively little repression,
though in many cases they took place without any legal guarantees.

Eviction processes during that period were slow and allowed squatters
to find alternative squats with relative ease. The authorities were only
able to penalize squats with fines and, at most, force eviction but many
squatters were arrested because they refused to do their national service
rather than because of their participation in squatting. The mass media
gradually and in a rather ambivalent fashion began to present a highly
stigmatized image of squatters, without, however, ever treating them as
either a social movement or a threat to social order.

Second Phase (1996-2000)

The accumulation of strengths, experience and generational renewal
within the movement led to the establishment of CSOAs as the main
structural elements of all squats, counter-cultural activities and related
social movements. With the enactment of the Penal Code, some CSOAs
openly challenged the new legal and political framework, increasing
their public presence, protest repertoire and alliances. Passive and active
resistance to evictions also increased, with more street confrontations
with the police. The ‘Battle of the Princesa Cinema’ in Barcelona, the
death of a squatter during eviction from a theatre in Valencia and the
successive evictions and re-squatting of the ‘Gaztetxe’ in Pamplona
drew the attention of the mass media and authorities to the movement,
prompting a quantitative leap in terms of its public visibility.

Housing was still a structural problem in Spanish society. There
were also other serious crises in the late 1990s (inflation, downturn in
the construction of social housing, among others), with a worsening
of the prospects for young people. However, the squatters’ movement
embraced these issues within a broader lifestyle perspective in which all
productive, reproductive and civic aspects are questioned. During that
period, residential buildings and CSOAs continued to be squatted, but
the new legal panorama led to numerous evictions and much harder
repression with documented cases of abuse, illegal eviction, prison sen-
tences and personal persecution. What is surprising is that the cycle of
squats, evictions and new squats did not cease with stronger repression.
As a result, there were more than 130 registered squats compared with
100 evictions in this five-year period.

The CSOAs organized a wide variety of activities and their po-
litical and counter-cultural specialization separated them even more
from squatting in residential buildings for housing purposes, though
not necessarily from people who lived in squats, as sometimes the two
worlds continued to mix. Due to increasing levels of repression suf-
fered by the movement, coordination meetings between the different
squats were considered more important than ever in many cities but
they rarely achieved continuity over time. Nevertheless, during this
period, political contacts between squats in different cities increased
through participation in joint demonstrations and the creation of the
first online communication lists.

Finally, the most significant trends during this period were the evi-
dent restructuring of the movement with an increase in rural squats
with many links with urban squats and, in particular, a convergence
of the squatter movement with alter-globalization protests in which
squatters had participated in previous years. Despite the fact that these
protest events were not particularly well attended, they included more
artistic protest activities and more resources (lorries, music, etc.) and
were much better prepared given the ever present potential for violent
repression by the police (Adell 2004). However, the dramatic increase
in the number of attacks on public amenities or companies during
some of these demonstrations, together with the strategy of some po-
litical authorities to associate the movement with armed groups, such
as Euskadi ta Aslatasuna (ETA), prompted the mass media to transmit
a more negative image of squatters and promoted an increase in their
criminalization and persecution (Gonzalez et al. 2002; Alcalde 2004;
Asens 2004). All this partially undermined the movement’s social le-
gitimacy. However, its long history had already become well known
among young people and especially among social movements from
which squatters obtained new support, regardless of any negative media
stigma attached (Alcalde 2004; Asens 2004).

Third Phase (2001-2006)

Recent years have been dominated by a crisis in the squatters’
movement in both Spain and other European countries (Pruijt 2004;
Herreros 2004). Nevertheless, we cannot easily proclaim its demise be-
cause new squatting and networking initiatives continue and the move-
ment’s philosophy has come a long way. What is true is that squats
have disappeared in some cities whereas in others there has been no
squatting for several years. Evictions have been more conclusive, with
fewer opportunities for re-squatting or the stability of collectives with
evicted CSOAs. A high density of squats and evictions similar to those
in previous years has only been maintained in the metropolitan area of
Barcelona and in various cities and towns of the Basque Country.

Another aspect worth highlighting is that prison sentences have
only been applied in rare occasions and since the previous period the
courts have often been more lenient (or, at least, divided) with respect
to the application of the law. In this sense, eviction proceedings have
been more repressive and have been concluded more quickly but on the
other hand, rulings and sentences have often been delayed for years,
once again favouring attempts to take as much advantage as possible
of squatting without any great fear of immediate penal repercussions.
During this period new and sporadic negotiations were also held with
the owners of squatted buildings or with authorities, but practically
no rulings in favour of squatters have taken place (Gonzalez 2004).

In addition, no formal organizations were created for channelling the
claims of squatters through institutional channels, since in Spain hous-
ing has not been a highly specialized area of voluntary social work, in
contrast to the situation in The Netherlands or the United States (Corr
1999; Pruijt 2003). In fact, demonstrations, joined by the squatters’
movement, against urban speculation and housing shortages have only
recently, since 2006, become widespread.

The two main aspects of restructuring in this phase were: (1) the
appearance of new self-managed but non-squatted social centres (ei-
ther rented or purchased) that prolonged the activities performed in the
CSOAs or which continued to be linked to them in a new, more varied
and open network of activism (Herreros 2004; Martınez 2004); and (2)
the convergence with part of the alter-globalization movement which
strengthened international links by participating in key European dem-
onstrations (Prague, Genoa, Gothenburg, Athens) together with many
other organizations and collaborating in demonstrations organized in
Spain (Barcelona in 2001, Seville and Madrid in 2002, the anti-war
demonstrations of 2003).

More than Just an Urban Movement:
Oscillations between the Local and the

From the analytical perspective adopted here, it was demonstrated
that it is rather inappropriate to see the squatters’ movement as sim-
ply a youth movement or as isolated illegal actions to satisfy housing
needs. In contrast, there are sufficient indicators to confirm that this
is an urban movement (Pickvance 2003; Mayer 2003) that is durable
in time and has given rise to a first-order political conflict with the
dominant political and economic system: in particular, squats are pub-
licized, communicated and justified through the use of both alternative
and mainstream media sources. Squatters therefore try to participate
in the political arena and social life beside the fact that they occupy
empty buildings. This is also evident when the provision of housing by
squats is often combined through the openness of the CSOAs to other
activists, sympathisers and audiences, with the organization of various
cultural activities and protest events over different issues. Following to
Castells’s insights on urban movements (Castells 1983), we verify that
social reproduction, local power and cultural identity were crucial di-
mensions of squatting.

The consistency of the movement over time stems, above all, from
its internal networks of social relationships that are formed between the
different squats and with other social organizations and guarantee the
continuity of both projects and activist involvement independently of
each specific squat. However, it would be a gross mistake to solely clas-
sify this urban movement as a movement of the young, since getting
a place to live and expressing yourself is not only a definitive means of
emancipating yourself from your family but also an aspiration of any
adult person. Although most activists are young and have relatively un-
stable lives, when they squat they normally start to live away from their
families of origin and work in temporary jobs or in the black market
economy, while simultaneously embarking upon an intense process of
political socialization whereby they learn to exercise their civil rights,
collective organisation and self-expression when it comes to defending
squats and participating in different social struggles.

However, it is true that these common features have been ques-
tioned by some within the movement, who argue that squatting is only
a means for achieving other ends. As we shall show later, these types of
declarations only represent symptoms of the alter-globalization enthu-
siasm that has always fuelled squatting, despite the fact that its most
immediate actions have been restricted to local spaces in the districts
or cities where the squats are located. In fact, the existence of a na-
tional or Europe- wide movement has also been critiqued, by alluding
to the fact that the specific development of squats in each city displays
greater consistency. However, regardless of the interactions that have
taken place with local governments, it is important to note that it has
been this level of government that has repeatedly been the main actor
with which all groups of squatting activists have had to test their po-
litical strategies, and this has also been independent of the question of
ownership of squatted properties because most were neither municipal
nor public (owned by regional or central state authorities) (Martınez
2002b, p. 245).

The internal heterogeneity of the movement is generally the third ar-
gument for questioning its consistency as a social movement. At times
of greatest friction, the press and certain political authorities have re-
sorted to classifying squatters as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, making a distinc-
tion between those willing to negotiate and violent radicals, between
those who only claim residential buildings or social spaces and those
who are more interested in public protest, agitation and civil mobiliza-
tion. Academic publications tend to highlight the differences between
leaders and passive followers, differences between groups with different
ideologies (e.g. anarchists, communists and nationalists) or divisions
according to social class, gender or family. Squatters themselves may
agree with those and other classifications related, for example, to their
personal experience of squatting or their participation in other social
movements (Llobet 2005, pp. 309, 324).

However, it is not hard to identify a common magma of libertarian
and autonomous principles in almost all the experiences, promoting an
assembly-orientated self-organization independent of political parties,
trade unions and more formalized organizations and, above all, draw-
ing attention to the open dimensions of society and politics censored
by the institutional and commercial media. Once again, none of these
issues can be described as the passing concern of young people, even
if this is the time in their lives when they grow into squatter activists.

Furthermore, some social aspects must be highlighted concerning
the urban and political definition of this movement, such as the struc-
ture of socio-spatial opportunities that activists have systematically ex-
ploited in order to set up squats, such as the fact that squats have relied
on the existence of large, unoccupied and abandoned or dilapidated
estates in order to develop. Different squats have been able to concen-
trate in specific parts of cities and establish more or less intense rela-
tionships with one another during those long periods of urban specu-
lation or town planning, right before these areas are transformed into
new residential, commercial or business service areas (Martınez 2004).

Of course, these types of urban transformations are not confined to
Spanish cities. This is a much more global phenomenon. However, only
some places have been used for collective actions such as squatting (par-
ticularly evident in Spain but also in Italy and, to a lesser extent, The

Lastly, the most controversial dimension of the movement is its
counter-cultural element, which represents one of its strongest links
with the global dimension of the movement. Does that mean that
squatters do not have material needs? Could counter-culture be a refuge
enabling its practitioners to avoid the important problems of society? Is
it a post-modern movement that seeks maximum instantaneous plea-
sure through social diversity, partying and a nomadic lifestyle, all tinged
with vague ideological anti-capitalist affirmations?

In some countries, like Germany, squatting has been seen as an exam-
ple of a counter-cultural movement committed to building a collective
identity in strong opposition to other actors but with certain ambiva-
lence with respect to power and material living conditions (Rucht 1992;
Koopmans 1995, pp. 17-37). One of the premises of this article is that
this counter-cultural dimension is more easily understood by linking it to
a constant collective creativity in all facets of daily life which are, in turn,
developed as a reaction to perceived global constrictions (Llobet 2005,
pp. 49, 95). This position can be summarized in the following premises.

(a) Active participation in the squatter movement creates a lifestyle
that involves forms of expression, socializing, and social organization
within a frame of relatively austere material survival. Therefore, the cul-
tural nature of the movement consists of all these aggregated forms of
the squatters’ ‘lifestyle’.

Even though this is very difficult to verify with precision, our sample
of interviews suggests that around half of the squatters were university
graduates. Nevertheless, these squatters did not use their qualifications
for related employment. Temporary jobs, self-employment in coopera-
tives, the informal economy and mutual aid were the more typical way
for squatters to earn a living, irrespective of class origin. For those with
a middle-class background, their material conditions deteriorate when
they adopt a squatting lifestyle, regardless of the fact that they occa-
sionally make use of family resources (more often than squatters with a
working-class background). Nonetheless, it is estimated that approxi-
mately a third of squatters are of working-class origin. Consequently,
individual material necessities are largely resolved collectively or within
the practices of the aforementioned squatters’ lifestyle.

(b) If the social practices associated with squatting tend to be seen as
‘counter-cultural’, this is mainly because on a more conscious or ideo-
logical level squatters seek to oppose and overcome the dominant cul-
ture. ‘Dominant culture’ refers to forms of production, consumption,
social relationships and political decision-making. These are processes
of searching without any specific end. At best they can be seen as ex-
periments or laboratories but that does not imply wandering in a limbo
of theories, discourses and debates. Instead, the opposite is true. The
actual experience of civil disobedience exercised through the action of
squatting enables other practices to take root and reveal the counter-
cultural character of the movement.

Low-priced tickets to music concerts and other spectacles and the
money collected from such events are used to finance squats or other
similar causes. The free promotion of training workshops on the use of
new technologies or craftwork, the opening of squats to promote books
or political campaigns, and the setting up of libraries, work coopera-
tives or language schools for immigrants are just some of the facets that
establish a high level of counter-cultural coherence between means and
ends. It is true that such dynamics often distract activists from other
political struggles (employment) and that the main social problem asso-
ciated with squatting (urban speculation) is only combated through the
action of squatting, which until recently lacked more far-reaching alli-
ances and tactics. However, this should not prevent us from acknowl-
edging the contributions of the squatting movement, the coherence of
many of its practices and the establishment of free spaces for expression
and criticism of the dominant culture.

The Boomerang Effect of Alter-Globalization

The alter-globalization enthusiasm that has fuelled the squatter
movement right from its origins shares certain common features with
the development of the European squatters’ movement: the campaign
against the Olympic Games, for example, successfully promoted by
Dutch squats in 1986 (ADILKNO 1994, pp. 129- 147), and, more
recently, the Social Forum of Genoa in 2000, where the ‘Disobedient’
and ‘White Overalls’ emerged from the Italian CSOAs to resist po-
lice attacks during protests against the G8 summit (Famiglietti 2004),
are a direct manifestation of the fact that squatting has always been
understood by its protagonists as something ‘more than just living’.
That something more turns the political protest into a ‘politics of desire’
(P&P: ‘party and protest’) and the search for a broader self-sufficiency
(DIY: ‘do it yourself ’).

Hence, it seems that from an ideological standpoint and bearing in
mind the types of counter-cultural actions undertaken, the squatter’s
movement has always had a global vocation that differentiates its activi-
ties from those squats whose sole purpose is to satisfy housing needs.
Moreover, some would classify this movement in Spain as a ‘precur-
sor’ or even ‘instigator’ of an entire cycle of protests, which influenced,
through their example of radical democracy, an entire family of social
movements converging in the alter-globalization movement (Herreros
2004). For others, the gradual adhesion of the squatter movement to
the alter-globalization movement and the subsequent crisis of the for-
mer and the rising success of the latter reveal the successful culmination
of one of the predominant discourses (among the most developed) in
the squatting movement, namely the search for greater social autonomy
and multiple alliances in movements that criticize the capitalist order
(Calle 2004).

From sustained participant observation and according to docu-
mented records and interviews, I believe there is abundant evidence to
justify that original global (or alter-global) orientation of the squatters’
movement. First of all, information circulating in Spanish CSOAs has
always included news about squats and libertarian protests in Europe
and Latin America. This international involvement had a direct practi-
cal consequence in the action repertoire adopted by Spanish squatters,
such as conferences and festivals in order to collect funds for specific
causes, protest events in front of diplomatic buildings in Spain and the
boycotting of products produced by globally targeted companies.

Global concerns and new styles of interactions between social move-
ments, through the strong links that squatters kept with the campaign
against obligatory national service throughout Spain and with the free
local radio stations that also tend to act as platforms for counter-in-
formation on global issues, were also developed. Squatters themselves
pioneered early alter-globalization protest campaigns: such as the
‘Desenmascaremos el 92’ (Let’s unmask 1992) against the commercial
nature, urban speculation and social control involved in the interna-
tional Megaevents celebrated in Barcelona (Olympic Games); the elec-
tion of Madrid as the European Capital of Culture and the World Expo
in Seville in 1992; and the ‘50 anos bastan’ (50 years is enough) cam-
paign against the policies of the World Bank, which held its summit
meeting in Madrid in 1994.

In the same year, 1994, Spanish CSOAs served as one of the main
means for disseminating information on the uprising of the EZLN
(Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional/Zapatista Army for National
Liberation) in Chiapas (Mexico), which coincided with the entry into
force of the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). This activ-
ity took the form of solidarity and support groups in various CSOAs, trips
by activist squatters to Chiapas as ‘international observers’ and involve-
ment of various CSOAs (mainly from Catalonia, Madrid and Andalusia)
in the organization and provision of infrastructures for the Second
Intercontinental Meeting for Humanity and Against Neo-liberalism that
took place, in decentralized form, in various parts of Spain in 1998.

There has also been a gradual extension of relationships with
European CSOAs (particularly Italian social centres), with visits and
debates to organize discussions and protest actions at ‘counter-summits’
and demonstrations of the alter-globalization movement in Prague
(2000), Genoa (2001), Barcelona (2001) and European Social Forum
in Florence (2002). Another global turn can be observed in the use of
the internet by Spanish squatters with specific mailing lists and their
own webpages (although most were not maintained on a regular basis),
but also promoting Indymedia nodes and, above all, organizing hack
meetings for expanding free software and extensive electronic training
within the squatters’ movement, albeit on a very unequal basis, as high-
lighted by Sadaba and Roig (2004), and Ramos and Martınez (2004).
Since the last years of the 1990s, squatters have been active in other
types of events with both a local and global dimension, such as those
involving lock-ins and demonstrations by undocumented immigrants,
which have proven to be particularly conflictive and publicly relevant
in Madrid (2000-1) and Barcelona (2004-5).

Finally, all of this background experience merged together with the
alter-globalization movement and squatters participated in mobiliza-
tions making an international impact such as: the public referendum,
held parallel with the national elections, promoted by RECADE (Red
Ciudadana para por la Abolicion de la Deuda Externa/Civil Network
for the Abolition of External Debt) (2000) involving CSOAs from
Catalonia, the Basque Country and Madrid; protesting against EU
meetings during Spain’s presidency (2002) involving CSOAs from
different Spanish cities (e.g. Santiago de Compostela and Seville) and
against the Iraq War (2003); and campaigns against hypocrisy, waste
and urban speculation coinciding with the 2004 Universal Forum of
Cultures in Barcelona (Unio Temporal d’Escribes [UTE] 2004).

As mentioned by Herreros (2004), in many of these actions, the
squatters’ movement has been associated with other groups and social
movements (and sometimes even with political parties and traditional
trade unions), always promoting its model of open, horizontal and as-
sembly-orientated political participation. However, it has also suffered,
to a certain degree, isolation and self-inflicted marginalization in some
cases in order to preserve the whole content of its radical discourse
in a coherent manner. This is a crucial question in any process of con-
vergence and coordination of different ideological principles and ori-
gins, one that also affects the entire process of federating in cases quite
similar entities. What are the minimum points on which those alliances
are founded? To what extent can they move forward together? Who
influences who? Are the minority groups doomed to disappear despite
initially being the most influential?

As is acknowledged by some authors (see Klein 2002; Notes From
Nowhere 2003; Santos 2005), the alter-globalization movement has
not just embraced a broad mixture in its composition but has also
revived forms of political organization of a more libertarian nature,
promoting models of direct democracy, seeking the maximum par-
ticipation of all its members, prioritizing the assembly-orientated de-
bate and consensus above the delegation of power and representation
by leaders, in practice rejecting authoritarianism of any ideological
form and promoting direct action and civil disobedience as legitimate
forms of civil expression.

In Spain, parallel to the decline of neighbourhood associations fol-
lowing the first municipal elections after the end of the dictatorship
in 1979 (Castells 1983; Villasante 1984), the same approach was ad-
opted by anarchist trade union organizations which also tried, albeit
relatively unsuccessfully, to revive the libertarian ideals of the transition
and post-transition period. However, it was alternative movements,
such as the squatting, anti-militarist, feminist and counter-information
movements (later, also joined by some factions of the environmentalist
movement), which most openly continued that tradition by forming
a type of neo-anarchism committed more to specific practices than to
strategic reflections on the transmission of their ideological axioms to
the rest of society, bringing forth a new cycle of protests that culmi-
nated in the above-mentioned alter-globalization alliances.

Of all these movements, the squatters’ movement was most suc-
cessful in combining that ideological approach with a global perspec-
tive and intense local and militant action. It is perhaps the movement
that has demanded the most personal commitment in all areas of life,
though prison sentences, with the high personal costs they entail, were
more severe for opponents of military service, many of whom were
also squatters. In this context, interesting political innovations of this
movement included the rejection of official spokespeople (when they
appeared, they tended to do so with their faces covered), public lead-
ers or to setup formal organizations registered by the administration*
and which may be entitled to receive subsidies. The actions of civil and
social disobedience were not limited to squatting in abandoned build-
ings; other actions included calling demonstrations without notifying
government delegations, peacefully resisting police attacks on rooftops
during evictions or causing damage in streets and public buildings
when the demonstrations were repressed by the police, and the perfor-
mance of festive elements during demonstrations.

Consequently, in view of the aforementioned, we may acknowledge
the strong influence of the squatters’ movement on the alter-globaliza-
tion movement and on the many groups that have fed into it. We may
identify both the sources of its influence and the elements that favoured
its coalition with other alter-globalisation organizations:

1. The high level of geographic mobility of squatters and alter-glo-
balization activists from many countries thanks to the greater
availability of cheap flights since the 1990s;

2. Greater expertise in the use of electronic communication equip-
ment, albeit on a very unequal basis, as mentioned earlier, if we
compare the most advanced CSOAs with those most isolated
from new communication technologies;

3. And, above all, the embracing of the Zapatista discourse, which
fuelled anti-capitalist resistance in a way equally detached from
both political and revolutionary parties, and whose goal was not
‘to seize power’ but for ‘civil society’ to organize itself and for
governments to be formed and based on participatory democ-
racy: ‘lead by obeying’.

All of these points may also represent maximum limits that most
squatters are, nevertheless, unwilling to relinquish. In fact, social fo-
rums have gradually embraced an autonomous and radical nucleus in-
creasingly detached from the institutionalizing trends of other formal
organizations such as trade unions and political parties, which are more
willing to negotiate within the official forums of international organiza-
tions or even to join a type of international ‘new left’ party.

This argument leads us inevitably to a consideration of the possible
‘boomerang effect’ that this invisible success of squats has had on the
actual squatters’ movement.

We must consider that the global enthusiasm for opening up and
allying with other non-squatter collectives, spreading forth as much as
possible the ideas of autonomy and disobedience, was never a discourse
that developed in all types of squats and CSOAs. From what we know
about the general European experience, squatting environments have
a strong proclivity for endogamy and towards protecting their signs of

The most dynamic, durable and politicized CSOAs in large cities, or
in suburban areas, when compared with squats in residential buildings
and more isolated squats, have been more effective in breaking down
the barriers of prejudice and in embracing a plurality of actors and
support in both the squats themselves and in their acts of protest. That
attitude prompted them to participate in local and global platforms in
which they had to share demonstrations or manifestos with other orga-
nizations. The experiences of these different groups of squatters have,
in turn, dragged along many of the most reticent members, although
some have even been actively against that, as they considered them to
be ‘reformist’. For instance, some CSOAs have focused exclusively on
organizing concerts while at the other extreme, some Italian CSOAs
are groups more interested in promoting the model of disruptive ac-
tions of the Black Bloc (Famiglietti 2004). In any case, it would be a
simplification to claim that this global enthusiasm was characteristic of
all squatting experiences and squatter activists. However, it can be ar-
gued that some effects of its influence can be identified in the increasing
involvement in alter-globalization initiatives by most of CSOAs.

We should also ask ourselves the following question: are squats in
danger of drowning in the tide of the new (and, for many, ephemeral)
‘movement of movements’? Calle (2004) suggests that this problem af-
fects both squatters and the alter-globalization movement. Squats have
not been perfect schools for self-management and direct democracy
and the alter-globalization movement has yet to show its capacity for
survival and consistency. In this sense, we must refer back to the most
genuine urban and constant qualities of the squatters’ movement,
namely its local focus, roots and effectiveness.

A single CSOA may be the best platform for capturing persons and
collectives with similar concerns in order to draw attention to themes
and social struggles censored by the mass media and to introduce new
activists to practices of civil and social disobedience already widely ex-
perimented within the movement over two decades, but its potential
is even greater when linked to other CSOAs, to squats in residential
buildings and to a network of groups and organizations in districts and
cities that help to gain more public legitimacy and increase the chances
of survival for the squats. The self-provision of accessible accommoda-
tion and spaces for nurturing counter-cultural creativity and forms of
socialization, freed from the shackles of dominant morals, are the real
ends of the squatting movement and also have the virtue of making
the movement’s critique of real estate speculation and the falseness of
civil participation pronounced by municipal governments all the more

Consequently, the squatter movement has faithfully adopted the
slogans of the post-1968 NSMs, ‘the personal is political’ and ‘think
globally, act locally’. This politicization of daily, reproductive and more
spatially proximate environments, and the knowledge of these local dy-
namics and public acknowledgement obtained through such experi-
ence, has ensured that the strength of, and need for, squats has been
maintained firmly as an integral part of the alter-globalization move-
ment. Therefore, the crisis in the squatters’ movement cannot be at-
tributed to either the boom of the alter-globalization movement, or,
in particular, the containment actions by local authorities (structures
of opportunities), or the management strategies of the squats them-
selves (mobilization of resources), because much of the social legitimacy
(local and global) of its autonomous practice (identity) has already been
achieved (Martınez 2004; Herreros 2004).


This paper has highlighted three aspects of the squatter movement in
Spanish cities: (1) its historical development, identifying the impor-
tance of the counter-cultural actions of CSOAs beyond squatting in
residential buildings; (2) the local roots of squats in relation to the per-
sistent conflict with local authorities and strong activist dedication to
everyday, domestic, socializing aspects and so on; (3) an incipient inno-
vation in the repertoires of political action and in the alter-globalization
objectives that have gradually spread through much of the squatters’

As can be seen, we are dealing with a typical social paradox, namely a
movement that is local and global at the same time. In order to unravel
its purpose, it was worthwhile to distinguish the origins, consequences
and mutual relationship of both dimensions (the local and the global).

As one of the movement’s slogans implies, ‘They can evict [us from]
our homes but not our ideas’. Since its creation the movement has simul-
taneously combined a local and global orientation; it aims both to satisfy
material needs for self-managed accommodation and meeting spaces and
to intervene in the social life of districts and cities, always promoting the
projects of many social movements and fostering the circulation of ideas
and persons, and protest actions, in relation to squatting, social problems
and anti-capitalist causes that affect many other countries.

The consequences of that dual attribute (local and global interlinks)
have had different effects on the local and global dimensions of the
squatters’ movement. Precisely due to the gradual increase in involve-
ment and convergence with the alter-globalization movement, incorpo-
ration of these inter-global concerns in the different groups of squatters
has occurred at different speeds, and there have even been internal divi-
sions regarding the approaches and ways of developing this participa-
tion. However, there has never been any opposition to the continuation
of local ‘restructuring’ actions and initiatives for the counter-cultural
usage of abandoned spaces. Other factors, and not increasing globaliza-
tion, are therefore responsible for the crisis of the squatters’ movement
in some cities.

We could therefore ask ourselves whether that paradox is paralys-
ing the movement and whether this has to be overcome with a leap to
conventional rationality. These questions would be particularly relevant
in the case of other urban movements that seem to be less involved in
alter-globalization dynamics.

The information referred to in this study suggests that this has actu-
ally been a fruitful paradox, not just for the movement to the extent
that it has been able to fuel its own internal creativity, providing stimuli
for activists and for the development of new squats, but mainly for
other social movements with which it has interacted, providing them
with the spaces offered by CSOAs and contributing models of radical

In contrast to traditional urban movements (e.g. the neighbourhood
movement) and more innovative movements (e.g. the environmental
movement focused on urban issues), the ‘transmission effect’ seems to
have been relatively scarce. It is difficult to predict whether these move-
ments might also be influenced by the squatters’ movement in the fu-
ture, though, according to the independent and libertarian philosophy
of this movement, each organization and movement must follow its
own path. Cooptation, institutionalization and stabilization of alliances
have always been some of the conservative perils openly challenged by


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

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

Resisting and Challenging Neoliberalism: The Development of Italian Social

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

Pierpaolo Mudu

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

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

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

The Origins of Social Centers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Review of Social Centers’ Practices

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

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

Squatting, Illegality and Conflict

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

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

Self-production and Self-management

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


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


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

Political Identity and Social Networks

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

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

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

The Uneven Distribution of Social Centers
Across Italy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside the Anti-Globalization Movement

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

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

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

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

The Current Stage: Political Trends

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

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

Survival: Limits and Problems

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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[EN] Introduction to ‘Squatting in Europe’

Introduction to Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles

Miguel Martínez, Gianni Piazza and Hans Pruijt

While homelessness is rampant worldwide, the production of
empty spaces is a regular feature of contemporary society. When build-
ings sit empty for a long time while homelessness persists, it is clear that
in these cases markets and states fail to fulfill their expected role as effec-
tive allocators of space. Often, people decided to take matters into their
own hands by squatting a diversity of spaces: office blocks, factories,
theaters and bars as well as houses. For some squatters, squatting is a
purely individual solution; others feel that the possibilities of squatting
should be developed further, feel solidarity towards other squatters and
work to build a squatters’ movement.

Squatting is also an intervention in urban development and renew-
al, i.e. urban and housing politics and spatial adjustment, which is re-
interpreted and shifted. Squatting often involves attempts to practice
non-hierarchical and participatory organizational models. Squatted
social centers offer an alternative mode of activities such as critical and
radical political meetings and countercultural events outside of, and in
antagonism with, commercial circuits. Social center activists and squat-
ters are thus often engaged in broader protest campaigns and social
movements, fighting against precariousness, urban speculation, racism,
neo-fascism, state repression, militarization, war, locally unwanted land
use, privatization of education/university reforms. By drawing atten-
tion to the existence of vacant buildings, sometimes on prestigious
locations in metropolitan areas, squatters question neo-liberal ideol-
ogy. An example is a demonstrative Parisian squat that existed just in
front of the Presidential Palace. Squatting helps to show the vacuity
of current political debate. Politicians call for social cohesion and self-
responsibility. However, when people actually take these values seri-
ously by engaging in squatting, they are often treated as criminals who
undermine social integration.

Squatting may not be seen to be a very powerful movement.
However, looking at its history and reflecting on the links with other
movements and its international dimensions makes one realize that it is
by far not as marginal as it may seem at first glance.

In the following chapters, researchers associated with the Squatting
Europe Kollektive (SqEK) present an analytical and explanatory tour of
the European squatting experience.

In chapter 2, Hans Pruijt addresses the diversity in squatting by de-
veloping a typology. Five basic configurations, various combinations
of features that fit together well and are effective, are discussed. In the
case of squatting, configurations differ with respect to the characteris-
tics of the people involved, type of buildings, framing, demands made
by activists, mobilization and organizational patterns. Each configura-
tion also entails specific problems. Deprivation based squatting involves
poor people who are distressed because of severe housing deprivation.
Typically, middle class activists open up squats for poor people to move
into. This set-up deflects accusations of queue-jumping, making this
configuration appropriate when squatting has little legitimacy. In squat-
ting as an alternative housing strategy people organize squatting to meet
their own housing needs. Entrepreneurial squatting offers opportunities
for setting up nearly any kind of establishment, without the need for
large resources nor the risk of getting bogged down in bureaucracy.
Prime examples are the occupied social centers that are prominent in
Italy and Spain. Conservational squatting involves squatting as a tactic
used in the preservation of a cityscape or landscape against efficiency-
driven planned transformation. All these four configuration have po-
litical aspects, but they are also squatting projects that are driven by ul-
terior political motives, particularly engaging in anti-systemic politics.
This fifth configuration is called political squatting.

The next three chapters are about entrepreneurial and politi-
cal squatting, especially in the shape of establishing social centers. In
chapter 3, Pierpaolo Mudu traces the development of squatted Self-
Managed Social Centers (CSAs) in Italy. Overall, 250 Social Centers
have been active in Italy over the past 15 years, especially in urban
areas. Currently about 100 are open as venues for social, political and
cultural events. He argues the main impetus was the disappearance in
the 1970s of traditional public spaces and meeting places such as open
squares, workplaces, party offices or the premises of groups involved in
the antagonistic, i.e. anti-capitalist and anti-fascist, movement. Social
centers have been opened by a variety of grassroots left-wing organiza-
tions and collectives, some have an autonomist and others an anarchist
political flavor. They are commonly organized through forms of direct
democracy and in non-hierarchical structures. The task first on a Social
Center’s agenda is daunting: it must renovate and refurbish privately
or publicly owned empty properties and turn them into usable public
spaces open to the general public. For this task it relies exclusively on
collective action, i.e. cooperative working modes which do not come
under the provisions governing regular employment contracts. There is
considerable variation in size, attitudes towards legalization, acceptance
of commercial sponsorship for performances, and orientation towards
the neighborhood.

In chapter 4, Gianni Piazza examines the decision-making processes
in squatted social centers. He approaches this issue by comparing two so-
cial centers located in the Sicilian city of Catania. These centers were very
different in terms of campaigns and activities, political ideological orien-
tations, relation to national networks, legal position and attitude towards
institutions. The methods used were participant observation, analysis
of self-produced documents and semi-structured interviews. The social
center Experia had a coherent radical Marxist political identity, careful-
ly shielded by refraining from building ties with the local government.
Decision-making was strictly consensual, which in case of disagreements
led to delays. The social center Auro had a much more variegated identity,
it united groups with cultural interests and radical political groups, and
it was legalized after striking a deal with the city government. Central
decision-making was largely confined to the building and matters of in-
frastructure, while the various groups made decisions about their own ac-
tivities. Decision-making was consensual, unless there was a stalemate as
a result of disagreement. In such cases, a switch to majoritarian decision
making occurred. This guaranteed speed, which was fitting for a social
center that opened itself up to the community.
Squatters’ movements often have links with other social movements.

In chapter 5, Miguel A. Martínez López examines the relationships
between the Spanish squatters’ movement, especially as manifested in
social centers and the alter-globalization movement. He points to vari-
ous area of overlap:

• squatters staged protests against international commercialized
megaprojects such as the Olympic games,
• counter-information on global issues, information about pro-
tests in Europe and Latin-America and about the Zapatista
movement in Chiapas (Mexico) widely circulated in social cen-
• the Zapatista ideology of not seizing power but encouraging
self-organization in civil society extended into the social centers,
• social centers as organizations became increasingly involved in
alter-globalization movement actions.

In addition to the overlap, there were also various similarities be-
tween the two movement scenes such as the use of artistic and hu-
morous tactics mixed with street confrontations with police, the com-
bination of party and protest, a Do-It-Yourself ethic, a high level of
countercultural coherence between means and ends, a fondness of the
idea of creating temporary autonomous zones, an ideology of “the per-
sonal is political” and “think globally, act locally”, plus a willingness to
take personal risks. In terms of organization, both were characterized
by an open and horizontal model of organization with assemblies as the
platform for decision-making and a rejection of official spokespeople,
formal organization and institutionalization; both scenes consisted of
roughly half of their membership of university graduates.

Chapter 6, by Claudio Cattaneo, addresses a different configuration
of squatting: squatting as an alternative housing strategy, i.e. people
who squat a place for themselves to live in. Squatting as an alternative
housing strategy can facilitate a variety of lifestyles that cannot be easily
accommodated by the regular housing market. A prominent example
is communal living. In this chapter, the focus is even more specific,
because it is on communal living with very little money, with the objec-
tive of having a low environmental impact and in rural or rural-urban
areas. The strength of the case under analysis, Can Masdeu in Barcelona,
resides also in the combination of housing, numerous public activities
and the involvement of the surrounding neighbours in the squat.

Chapter 7, by Andrej Holm and Armin Kuhn, highlights yet anoth-
er configuration: conservational squatting. In an analysis of the history
of the Berlin squatters’ movements, their political context and their
effects on urban policies since the 1970s, they show how massive mo-
bilizations at the beginning of the 1980s and in the early 1990s devel-
oped in a context of transition in regimes of urban renewal. The crisis
of Fordist city planning at the end of the 1970s provoked a movement
of ‘rehab squatting’ (Instandbesetzung), which contributed to the insti-
tutionalization of ‘cautious urban renewal’ (behutsame Stadterneuerung)
in an important way. In contrast to this first squatting wave in Berlin,
they contend the large-scale squatting during in the 1990s – mainly in
the Eastern parts of the city – as political squatting.

The various squatters’ movements covered in this book did not de-
velop in isolation. There was international diffusion, which is the topic
of chapter 8, by Lynn Owens. This chapter reveals as the key mecha-
nism of diffusion the frequent visits by squatters to fellow activists in
emergent movements in other countries, with the explicit objective to
spread knowledge and experience. For example, the squatters’ move-
ment of Berlin (covered in chapter 7) and of Madrid (described in
chapter 5) had visits by Dutch squatters that were significant events in
their history. Between established movements, exchange of knowledges
and experiences continued through international meetings.
Deprivation based squatting, the final configurations of squatting,
i.e. middle class activists opening squats to help poor people, is at the
heart of chapters 9 and 10. In France, this is the prevalent configuration
of squatting.

In chapter 9, Thomas Aguilera maps out the squatters’
movement in Paris, clearly showing the different strategies adopted by
city officials when facing the perseverance of squatting actions, in spite
of the lack of a very unified movement.

Squatting is often shrouded in masculine ideological rhetoric
about struggle, claiming the “right to the city”, creating “temporary
autonomous zones” and so forth. Nevertheless, squatters are in prin-
ciple quite vulnerable because of the strong legal protection of private
property and the virtually unlimited repressive powers of the state.
Plus, the squatters who actually live in their squats, as opposed to
squatters who are involved in a social centers, are sitting ducks for the
forces of repression. Mostly, their fate can be determined by decisions
that authorities take about them. Within bounds defined by the legal
framework and the political alignments there is variation in such deci-
sions. Therefore, in chapter 10, Florence Bouillon presents an analysis
of the processes of categorizations of squats that applied by govern-
ment officials in France.

In the last decades, Spain and the Netherlands have seen changes
in their relevant legal framework resulting in an increasing criminal
persecution of squatting. In England, this process is also under way.

In chapter 11, E.T.C. Dee examines the role of media discourse in the
move towards criminalization of squatting in England. In spite of be-
ing a long-term and well-established practice in this country, due to
a relatively favourable legislation, recent mass media discourses have
contributed to display a rather negative image of squatters. Stereotypes
of squatters, thus, tend to hide the relevant variations of the squatting
practices as well as pave the way for a more repressive treatment by the

[EN] Margit Mayer Preface to ‘Squatting in Europe’

Preface to Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles

Margit Mayer

Thanks to the Occupy movement, the call to squat is once
again raised more widely and acted upon with increasing frequency.
The movements of the Arab Spring and the 15M movement in Spain,
which catalyzed similar “real democracy” movements of ‘Indignados’
in Italy, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Greece, as well as the
Occupy movement in the US all started out with taking over – not
buildings but – public and private squares and plazas. Most of these
movements used the (re)appropriated spaces to set up tents, kitchens,
libraries, and media centers to collectively organize their assemblies
and working groups, their rallies and marches, as well as their everyday
lives in a horizontal, self-managed, and direct-democratic style. In the
process, they have transformed public spaces into commons – com-
mon spaces opened up by the occupiers who inhabit them and share
them according to their own rules. As with squatters of social centers or
large buildings, the occupied squares represent(ed) not only a collective
form of residence on the basis of shared resources, but also a politi-
cal action: in this case laying siege to centers of financial and political
power. Importantly, they have also served to explore direct-democratic
decision-making, to prefigure post-capitalist ways of life, and to de-
vise innovative forms of political action. As with squatting, the prac-
tice of occupying has enacted a democratic (re)appropriation of public
squares epitomized by their inhabitation. As with squatting, the power
of bodies that continue to be present – that don’t go home at the end
of the demonstration and that speak for themselves rather than being
represented by others – exerts a forceful message as it gives ongoing pres-
ence to political protest.

In today’s situation of the worldwide spread and the open future of
the Occupy movement, it is helpful to take some lessons from squatters’
movements as they have influenced the trajectory of many contemporary
movements and struggles. Squatting is a unique form of protest activity
that holds a potential of unfurling energies; it focuses action in a way that
is prefigurative of another mode of organizing society and challenging a
paramount institution of capitalist society: private property.

The special features of squatting

Squatting – simply defined as living in or using a dwelling without the
consent of the owner – occurs in many different circumstances, and as
such, even if it occurs with the intention of long-term use, is not neces-
sarily transformative of social relations. Most forms of stealth squatting
or other forms of deprivation-based squatting, whether carried out by
homeless people themselves or by advocate activists opening up build-
ings for destitute would-be squatters, are not part of transformative
progressive social movements.

Thus, squatting as a tactic can be used by individuals to improve
their housing situation outside of any social movement, or it can be
used, as a technique or action repertoire, by a variety of different social
movements (including right-wing movements). Of the many different
types of squatting, the one highlighted in this book is part of wider
progressive or radical social movements. This squatting movement as-
sertively operates in the open (rather than stealthily), engages in net-
working and coalition building with tenant organization and urban or
environmental and/or other social justice movements; it makes explicit
demands on the state, calling (most often) for affordable, decent hous-
ing and social centers, but also for (more or less) radical solutions to the
underlying causes of the lack of adequate housing and social infrastruc-
tures. Crucially, it uses the occupied space not only for collective living
arrangements, but also for collective self-organization and empower-
ment, in the case of the self-managed social centers for political and
counter-cultural activities.

Thus, for these movements squatting is a two-fold experience: it in-
volves, first, the actual act of civil and social disobedience, which then
allows other counter-cultural and militant practices to take hold, pre-
figurative free spaces to be built, and thick bonds of solidarity to be
forged. Horizontal and assembly-oriented forms of self-organization
and political participation are as essential to this practice as cooperative
management and direct democracy. But since the movement is also
making use of the illegal act of squatting (also as a way to draw public
attention to massive social and housing problems, the high social cost
of speculation, or the waste of public land and buildings), this chal-
lenge to the primacy of the individual right to private property puts the
movements at risk of repression, even when they enjoy broad legitimacy
and popular support. Repressive or containment strategies of the state
often force the movements to ‘choose’ either eviction or some form of
legalization. But under specific circumstances, some squatting move-
ments have been able to experiment with double track strategies and
been able to go back and forth between (or even apply simultaneously)
direct action and negotiation, most often in some kind of division of
labor between radical core groups and more moderate supporters, and
thereby managed to extend their squats and with them the infrastruc-
tures for their collective living, working, and political organizing.
Even where squats have been evicted with more or less police force,
their actions have often led to saving old buildings from being demol-
ished; in many European cities squatters movements have enhanced
political participation of tenants and residents, and led to new forms
of institutionalized participation and “careful urban renewal” instead of
“urban removal.”

Observers have also begun to identify certain patterns and waves of
squatting that correlate with movement cycles and different phases of
urban development and urban politics, shifting from fordism to neo-

What’s new about squatting in neoliberalism?

The neoliberalization of capitalism has reintroduced “accumulation
by dispossession” as a way to solve the problems of flagging capital ac-
cumulation (cf. Harvey 2005). As with original accumulation, it in-
volves the conversion of common, collective, and state forms of prop-
erty rights into exclusive private property rights and the suppression of
rights to the commons. Neoliberal forms of dispossession complement
the (intensification of) the older, time-tested forms by also chipping
away at common property rights that have been won in the course of
the Fordist class struggle (such as access to education, health care, wel-
fare, and state pensions) and reverting them to the private sector.
However, neoliberalization dissolves forms of social solidarity not
only in favor of private property, economization, and marketization,
but also in favor of unbridled individualism, personal responsibility,
and entrepreneurial activation. These latter dimensions resonate in
some ways with movement values of self-determination and empower-
ment, and with its critique of the bureaucratic and paternalistic Fordist
welfare state. In both neoliberal as well as new social movements’ vi-
sions instead of the state, individuals, communities, and voluntarism
should be playing stronger roles so as to create more vibrant societies.
Both view ‘too much state intervention’ as hindering not only personal
development and self-realization, but also societal self-regulation –
which the neoliberals, of course, prefer to see happening via the market
and economic rationality, whereas progressive movements would like to
see happening through alternative networks.

In the course of the neoliberalization of urban governance, a series
of political demands as well as organizational forms of the new social
movements have become incorporated into the neoliberal project. With
new public management and the shift from public to private and semi-
public institutions via outcontracting, not only established third-sector
but also oppositional organizations were integrated into this regime;
and with the shift from centralized to local and more differentiated
modes of decision-making, more consensus-oriented and participatory
modes found their way into local governance.

What’s more, with intensifying interurban competition, cities have
discovered cultural revitalization and creativity-led economic and ur-
ban development policies as a useful strategy to enhance their brand
and improve their global image. Becoming a ‘creative city’ is increas-
ingly seen as necessary to attract tourists, global investors, and affluent
middle and upper classes. Politicians have thus become keen to instru-
mentalize dynamic local subcultures and harness them as a competitive
advantage in the interurban rivalry. In this context, the cultural milieus
of artists and other ‘creatives’, subcultural scenes including squats and
self-managed social centers, have taken on a new function as they mark
urban space as attractive. They charge them with cultural capital, which
in the scheme of ‘creative city’ policy then becomes transformed by
investors into economic capital.

Clever urban politicians harness the cultural production that goes
on in squatted centers as branding assets that contribute to the image of
‘cool cities,’ ‘happening places’ or sub-cultural magnets. Many German
cities offer contracts for interim use of urban space (see for Berlin’s
example Colomb 2012), while Dutch cities have created a so-called
‘Breeding Grounds’ policy in order to “maintain and recreate the cul-
tural functions previously performed by large squats” (Owens 2008,

Not just in Holland, but also in the UK, an industry of anti-squat
agencies has sprung up, where interim use of vacant private property is
managed on the owners’ behalf on the basis of “guardian angel” con-
tracts that require payment of utilities but not rent, and that strictly
control the rights of the temporary tenants: they are in a very weak legal
position, the agencies barely respect their privacy, often neither visitors
nor pets are allowed; the tenants may be prohibited from contacting
the press, and they can be evicted with 14 days’ notice. About ten times
more vacant spaces in Holland are occupied by such “anti-squatters”
than by actual squatters thanks to this clever commercial strategy, and
in spite of the infringements of the residents’ rights, most appear to ap-
preciate living in high-value central city real estate (cf. Priemus 2011;
Buchholz 2011).

Neoliberal urban policies thus on the one hand manage to hijack
and incorporate alternative and subcultural activism including the cre-
ativity of squatters (who, in the process, may find it difficult to main-
tain their political autonomy), while on the other they entail intensify-
ing repressive strategies, stricter laws, tougher policing, and hence more
evictions and fiercer criminalization of squatting. Often local authori-
ties implement both strategies simultaneously, which tends to sharpen
the differences among and create collisions between cultural and politi-
cal squatters. As a result, radical political action and alternative cultural
production that before had been part and parcel of the same move-
ment increasingly become differentiated and sometimes even opposed
to each other. Such processes can be observed in all European cities,
and have accelerated in the wake of the economic crisis, which has
provided a rationale for dismantling alternative infrastructures and for
cutting back on funding for self-organized projects of all kinds – at the
same time as neoliberal urban regeneration and hyper-gentrification of
central city land accelerates displacement pressures and threatens leftist
“free zones” and alternative infrastructures, seeking to displace them
with trendy bars, chic new designer stores, and expensive condos.
This hostile environment has been making radical oppositional poli-
tics far more challenging than in the past.

Even while critical of neoliberal urban policies and resisting ‘creative
city’ programs, the activities of squatters often end up contributing to
upgrading and valorizing such contested urban areas – the more so
where cultural experimentation has displaced political radicalism. At
the same time, demands for self-management and self-realization have
lost their radical edge, as participation and self-management have be-
come essential ingredients of sub-local regeneration programs as well
as in the public discourse (if with the purpose of encouraging activa-
tion and self-responsibilization rather than political empowerment). In
this situation, struggles for the recognition and legalization of auton-
omous squats are taking on a qualitatively new political significance.
Withdrawing these spaces from neoliberal utilization for profit-making
and disrupting the private property-based logic of capitalist urban-
ization puts the struggle over the proper conception of rights on the
agenda. And claiming the currently secondary rights – such as the right
to economic security, education, or housing, the right to organize,
or rights to freedom of speech and expression – as primary over and
against the right to individual private property and profit, would “entail
a revolution” (Harvey 2006: 57) because the latter is essential to capital
accumulation as the dominant process shaping our lives.

The more people comprehend the logic of this system the more they
see housing being speculated upon while their own access to adequate
shelter becomes precarious. Claiming housing as a right has a great po-
tential to win mass support. Once that argument has entered the collec-
tive imagination (re)appropriating vacant buildings becomes a logical
and defensible next step.

New opportunities opened up through the
crisis and through Occupy

The financial crisis created a situation, where more people are with-
out (adequate) housing, while more than enough buildings owned by
the 1% sit vacant awaiting better yields. The “market” as well as the
political and legal system favor those owners and stigmatize those who
struggle to find shelter. In this situation, occupying is not only the logi-
cal response, but is increasingly resorted to, politicizing previously apo-
litical squats by foreclosed and homeless people.

After their eviction from squares and plazas all over the US, the
Occupy movement has fanned out into neighborhoods to (re)claim
abandoned and foreclosed properties for ordinary people. The Spanish
15M movement, after it was pushed off the Puerta del Sol in Madrid,
joined community groups and came to the defense of homes threatened
by foreclosure, occupied an abandoned hotel and more than 30 build-
ings, and secured, through negotiations with the federal government,
a vacant tobacco factory and turned them into social and community
centers. “Occupy the ‘hood!” became a new rallying cry, spin-off or-
ganizations (such as Organize4Occupation, O4O – with the second
O crossed through with the squatting sign) were formed, direct action
events at bailed-out banks and the physical presence of Occupiers at
threatened buildings have prevented evictions, and re-taken and refur-
bished homes, while other actions have disrupted auction sales of fore-
closed houses.

With these actions, new connections are forged between the Occupy
movement and community-based groups that have been resisting evic-
tions and displacement for a long time, lending more visibility to those
struggles. As these campaigns become more coordinated, they scale up
local struggles, turning them into regional movements that protest the
same banks at the same time or go to each others’ rallies; and partici-
pants increasingly see themselves as part of national and international

SQEK and this book

Mainstream research has paid scarce attention to the unfolding of
squatting movements, their dynamics, their differences, their transfor-
mations, let alone their new challenges. With careful observation and
analyses of squatting movements and the development of self-managed
social centers in a variety of European cities this book provides a huge
treasure trove of insight into the differentiated experiences, path-
specific developments, internal operations, unique achievements and
challenges of the politics of occupying – from the period of Fordist
growth via deindustrialization and urban restructuring all the way to
the current neoliberal era and austerity politics. With an emphasis on
comparative research and the involving of activists in the research, the
Squatting Europe Kollektiv has chosen the most productive methodol-
ogy to push our understanding of this extremely important yet under-
researched movement.

Several chapters in this book do a great job identifying the radical
and transformative potential of those squatting movements that chal-
lenge the neoliberal market logic and are political while at the same
time providing movement infrastructures. Especially the large squats
that serve as (self-managed) social centers along with places of resi-
dence (integrating counter-cultural, political and productive activities)
and that strengthen the political activities of the local movements, are
analyzed in order to comprehend how they offer not merely spaces for
performances, happenings, concerts, exhibits, community organizing,
and homes, but also for organizing protest and political events, and
how they manage to be open not just to movements and the alternative
scenes, but also to urban residents beyond those circles, which allows
them to serve as “recruiting” spaces.

Much still needs to be better understood – about the containment
strategies of the authorities, the management strategies of the squats
themselves, the local and global sides of this movement and its relation-
ship to the anti-globalization and Occupy movements. But the chap-
ters brought together in this book by the Squatting Europe Kollektiv
provide an excellent base for gaining a better understanding of these
questions and for building the power of this movement, by researchers
and activists together.


Buchholz, Tino (2011). Creativity and the capitalist city. The struggle for afford-
able space in Amsterdam (film) http://www.creativecapitalistcity.org/
Christie, Les (2011). Occupy protesters take over foreclosed homes,
CNNMoney, December 6 <http://money.cnn.com/2011/12/06/real_es-
Colomb, Claire (forthcoming 2012). “Pushing the urban frontier: temporary
uses of space, city marketing, and the creative city discourse in 2000s
Berlin,” Journal of Urban Affairs.
Gabbat, Adam and Ryan Devereux (2011). “Wall Street protesters to occupy
foreclosed homes,” Guardian, 6 December <http://www.guardian.co.uk/
Harvey, David (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford UP
Harvey, David (2006). “Neoliberalism and the restoration of class power” in:
D. Harvey, Spaces of global capitalism. Towards a theory of uneven geograph-
ical development. London/New York.
Novy, Johannes, Claire Colomb (2012). “Struggling for the Right to the
(Creative) City in Berlin and Hamburg: New Urban Social Movements,
New ‘Spaces of Hope’?” International Journal of Urban and Regional
Research, March, doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2427.2012.01115.x
Owens, Lynn (2008). “From Tourists to Anti-Tourists to Tourist Attractions:
The Transformation of the Amsterdam Squatters’ Movement,” Social
Movement Studies 7/1, May, 43-59.
Priemus, Hugo (2011). “Squatters and municipal policies to reduce vacan-
cy. Evidence from The Netherlands,” Enhr Conference, Toulouse, July

[EN] Book review: Squatting in Europe

Review of Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles by Amy Starecheski, in City journal

Squatting in Europe: Radical Spaces, Urban Struggles is a collection of 10 essays edited by the Squatting Europe Kollective (SqEK). SqEK is a network of activists and scholars that formed in 2009 and has been remarkably productive over the past four years, convening nine gatherings and supporting the development of numerous research projects. This is their first book. SqEK’s organization mirrors that of the movements they study: horizontal and open. Both the SqEK project and this volume have intertwined activist and political aims, and these authors see the production and dissemination of knowledge about squatting as an essential part of their activism. In the service of that goal, the book is available as a free download, but has also been published as a printed volume. SqEK seeks to marshal the power of social scientific academic knowledge production to intervene with authority in current political discourse, and the essays included here largely fit within that frame. Most are written in the third person, and in a neutral, professional tone. While many participants have been involved in squatting and take their inspiration from those experiences, they are also serious researchers who ‘work together in order to develop a thorough, systematic and critical knowledge about this so frequently forgotten social movement’ (273). Much of the research in this volume would not have been possible without the authors’ direct participation in the movements they document, and it is one weakness of the work that the authors do not draw more directly upon their own experiences and personal insights.

[EN] Book released in Paris!

[EN] Book released in Paris!

The book is now printed! You can download the complete pdf – sqek-book.

Please help us promote/sell the book also, we are not making any profit from this and want to spread the articles widely…

It is published by minorcompositions, where you can buy it for a reasonable £10. They will send worldwide.

It will also soon be available to buy via AKUK, Active, AKpress, Autonomedia and all decent radical bookshops. For wholesale it is distributed by Turnaround or by Minor Compositions direct.