Italy’s Social Centres are inexpensive places for local people or tourists to hold a meeting, enjoy a meal or take in a concert. They are mostly run by volunteers and many of them have taken root in squatted buildings. Right now, there are hundreds of social centres of different sizes operating in Italy. While they vary in terms of their methods, programs and styles, they all seek to provide ordinary people with a non-commercial urban space for socializing, civic engagement and daily living. There are also a number of social centres operating in the United Kingdom, some of which are squatted and some of which are rented.
History of Italy’s Social Centres
The first social centres arose in Northern Italy in 1975 as one of many forms of protest organized by the autonomist Marxist movement. The Leoncavallo, one of the largest social centres, was first squatted in 1975 in an abandoned pharmaceutical factory in Milan. In Italy, in the early seventies, there was widespread squatting of residential buildings. This squatting spread to include space for cultural activities as young people sought to meet a broader set of ‘needs’ – including the opportunity to experiment with new lifestyles, living arrangements and ideas of family. The protestors of 1977 wanted more than just a fair share of economic outputs, they wanted to shape society. Autonomists felt that the working class deserved their fair share of power as well as production. This outlook makes a lot of sense in 2015. Even those of us who are able to meet our basic needs often feel constrained by the way our economic system shapes or limits our interactions with our friends and neighbours.
Many of the original social centres were abandoned with the decline of 1977’s protest movement. In the eighties, Italy’s punk movement took an interest in the social centres and a new wave of squatting began. During this time, political protest became an underlying theme rather than an explicit demand and participants directed their energy towards organizing counter-cultural events and concerts. In doing so, they attracted visitors from all across the city, introducing people who might not have been interested in overtly political events to an alternative social arrangement. In 1989, property owners tried to evict the Leoncavallo’s occupants. However, by then, the space was already very popular and widely-used. The eviction process was covered in the media and attracted public sympathy. People wanted cheap, grassroots cultural spaces in their cities and, as a result, the eviction actually created a renewed interest in social centres. The Rivolta, a social centre in Venice, was initially squatted in sympathy with attempts to evict the Leoncavallo. Since the eighties, Italy’s social centres have grown in number and shifted increasingly towards cultural activities. The Leoncavallo has kept it’s name and heritage alive in multiple locations, meaning that a ‘space’ is not necessarily identical with the property that houses it — an interesting idea for those seeking to create grassroots community space. By the 2000s, there were between 150 and 200 active social centres throughout Italy.
Social Centres Today
Today, the Leoncavallo and many other social centres operate bars and restaurants. They host concerts and support music recording and physical and internet publishing. The cultural services offered by the social centres are extremely popular. The Leoncavallo has up to 100,000 users per year (Membretti). Social centres take different approaches to private property rights. Some centres are squatted, while others, especially in the UK, are legal and may even pay rent (Hodkinson and Chatterton). The Rivolta in Venice demonstrates both practices in a single property. While the space was originally squatted, part of it has been legalized by the municipal government (Montagna). The precise characteristics which separate social centres from other community spaces are still up for debate. Pierpaolo Mudu suggests four features that are shared by all social centres:
1) They call themselves either CSAs (Centro Sociale Autegestito) or CSOAs (Centro Sociale Occupato Autegestito).
2) They “self-produce and self-manage social, political and cultural events” and make important decisions in meetings that are open to the general public.
3) They finance their operations through sale of food and drinks.
4) They form a network with other organizations with similar political beliefs.
Other scholars have pointed out that Italian social centres avoid hierarchy and that most work done in these spaces is done by volunteers – although some of the larger spaces now have paid employees. In addition to cultural events, Italy’s social centers provide other services. Montagna terms these social services ‘welfare from below.’ At the Leoncavallo, these services include free meals, legal services, short-term hospitality and protection from persecution by the police and intolerant groups (Membretti). These services often take place in the same space as the cultural services, promoting sociality between people from different income groups. This is something we rarely see in government services, where people using services like art classes are unlikely to cross paths with food bank users.
Commodities, Private Property and Culture
“We are not a group of people building up a counter-power or fighting for the abolition of power, we only oppose the logic that all social and vital spaces must be colonised and must take on a commodified character” – Social Centre Participant Quoted in Ruggiero (2000, p.176).
Modern society is shaped by economics, but economic relationships are in fact social relationships. There are two distinct ways in which social centers attempt to create spaces with reduced economic influences. All social centres seek to create social and cultural opportunities which require little or no money to participate in. Squatted social centres also attempt to control space outside of property rights.
Our social and cultural activities are becoming extremely commodified. Contemporary marketers are working every day to determine new social and cultural needs and to tie them to commercial products. Music is an important cultural sphere, but sometimes it feels as if every inch of that space has been sliced up and auctioned off. Not only do we pay for concert tickets and buy t-shirts to express our musical preferences, we even pay a “convenience fee” to the company that sells the tickets. To counteract this corporate control of culture, social centres give people the opportunity to create their own cultural offerings. They provide an inexpensive space for bands to practice, put on concerts and record albums. Unlike protests against consumerism, social centres work to meet people’s cultural needs directly, side-stepping consumerism and creating something new that has the potential to take its place.
Some social centre participants feel that a truly non-economic space must be squatted. Urban space is controlled by property laws, but these seemingly economic relationships are socially constituted – when a pushy door-to-door salesperson talks their way into your home, they have not seized your property rights, but they have temporarily undermined them through the application of social pressures. Power structures like property ownership aren’t automatic – they must be continually performed (Gibson-Graham). At each step in this performance there is the possibility that individual people will perform their roles differently. Property claims must be defended in court and rulings must be enforced by individual police officers – all the links in this chain are enacted through social relationships. The occupants of squatted social centres seek to walk into abandoned buildings and remain there through social persuasion and non-economic negotiation. In doing so, they are certainly experimenting with new kinds of social power. However, some people feel that squatted spaces tend to become ‘activist enclaves’ (Maggio) and thereby weaken their efforts to offer day-to-day cultural and social opportunities for ordinary people. If social centres are primarily an attempt to seize and hold property through alternative arguments about social needs, then rented centres will be of little benefit; however, if the primary purpose of social centres is to shift the day-to-day social relations of their visitors by allowing them to fulfil their social and cultural needs in a less consumerist environment, then stable, welcoming spaces will be most effective whether they are rented or squatted. Either way, social centres are creating interesting and dynamic spaces in the hearts of major cities throughout Italy and the U.K.
A longer, more academic paper on this topic is available upon request.
Gibson-Graham, J. K. (2006). A postcapitalist politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hodkinson, S., & Chatterton, P. (2006). Autonomy in the city? City, 10(3), 305-315.
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