In the Shell of the Old - Italy's Social Centres

Article from the 1990s containing information about Italy's movement of political squats called "social centres."

Living In The Heart Of The Beast - Italy's Social Centres
Every May Day since 1986, Forte Prenestino in Rome has hosted the 'Festival of Non-Labour'.

Through music, videos, theatre, good food, and debate, its occupants celebrate not only the coming of Spring, but the ongoing efforts of people like themselves to challenge and overturn the rhythms of capital and the state.

Forte Prenestino covers eight hectares south-east of Rome, not far from the Viale Palmiro Togliatti. Originally built a century ago as a military base, the Forte was abandoned in the sixties like so many of Italy's public buildings in this time of property speculation and public corruption.

Despite recent gentrification, the nearby suburb of Centocelle is still best known for its high levels of unemployment and heroin addiction. When a group of mostly young people from the neighbourhood decided to occupy the Forte on May Day nine years ago, they were inspired not by the legacy of Togliatti - the Italian communist leader who effortlessly blended stalinism and social democracy - but by a determination to establish and extend a radical, self-managed alternative to the marginalisation which life on the city fringes offered.

"All of a sudden, we were inside, 'running' the place - we who had never managed anything except our unemployment, our homelessness", they later commented wryly. "Many people are convinced that the Forte is run by just a handful of people, a management committee that makes decisions in the name of and on behalf of everyone else. Such people simply can't conceive - whether for reasons of ideology or cynicism - that a micro-society of equal persons can survive and prosper..."

Today Forte Prenestino plays an important role in its local community. It houses an exhibition gallery, practice rooms for bands, space for theatrical performances, a dark room, gymnasium, and cafe. Classes are held, there are regular film nights, courses on design and sculpture, and a documentation centre. Outside Rome, the Forte is best known for its music label, featuring local rap and reggae bands. It also produces the journal Nessuna Dipendenza, which documents the Forte's activities and engages in political discussion and debate.

Forte Prenestino is one of about fourteen 'Occupied Self-Managed Social Centres' (CSOA) in Rome. There are about hundred or so CSOA elsewhere in Italy - it's hard to be precise, as any given week brings news of a new site or two established, or an old one evicted. Their origins go back to the mid-seventies, a time when the extra-parliamentary left played an important part in Italian youth culture. Even then, the CSOA were often established in reaction to the growing conservatism and authoritarianism of such groups, whether these be the little parties formed after the Hot Autumn of 1969, or the apparently more radical collectives known as Autonomia Operaia (Workers' Autonomy).

By the end of the seventies, the organised far left had largely been smashed, caught between extensive State repression on the one hand, and a flight into private life or terrorism on the other. In industry, a decade-long battle for control over working conditions came to an end, with the massive 1980 lay-offs at FIAT flagging an impending victory for managerial prerogative throughout Italy.

The CSOA that survived the chaos of those years eked out their existence during the early and mid-eighties as bastions of an 'alternative lifestyle'. 'Transgressive' identities - from those associated with punk music, to more traditional anarchist or autonomist politics - played a central role in holding many of the remaining social centres together, in the face of an Italy where opportunism, fear and cynicism apparently reigned supreme.
The late eighties onwards have confounded many of the glib arguments that class war in Italy is over, or that the future has been reduced to a choice of 'Export or death'.

Beginning in 1987 among school teachers and railway staff, a growing dissatisfaction with the inability of existing unions to defend pay and conditions has spread to other sections of the workforce, creating a small but lively current of rank and file groups and 'alternative' unions pledged to direct action and self-organisation. Unrest among school and university students has brought a similar cycle of mass action since 1990, with occupations 'under self-management' a frequent occurence.

Much of this activity has fed into the revival of the social centres in the nineties. As dozens of abandoned buildings have been seized up and down the Italian peninsula, the social and political identity of the CSOA has become richer, more complex. Here are brief descriptions of three of the newer social centres, taken from an account published in 1994:

PIRATERIA DI PORTA is the most recent of the Roman CSOA, and the first to be established in the city centre. Born in December 1993, it is housed in a large warehouse near the Porta Portese Sunday market. With an emphasis upon youth concerns, it offers many activities for children: films, dance classes, martial arts.

In February 1994 it was shut down by the police, only to be immediately re-opened by the occupiers.

OFFICINA 99 can be found in a former garage in the working class suburbs of eastern Naples. It was first occupied in December 1990 by members of that year's mass student movement (popularly known as Pantera - the Panther) but immediately evicted by the authorities. It was reoccupied on May 1st, 1991, when 500 students and unemployed people marched from the university and took the site over. It is the most active social centre in the region, offering a meeting place not only for younger people, but also for workplace rank and file groups and the local unemployed movement. Its strength lies in its activity within the surrounding community, particularly over the questions of jobs and the fight for a guaranteed income. The first floor of Officina 99 offers a lovely view of Vesuvius, and was used as a location for the film Sud (by Gabriele Salvatores, director of Mediterraneo). The social centre has also spawned the popular political rap group 99 Posse.

BAROCCHIO is a spin-off from another of Turin's CSOA - El Paso - with which its members continue to work. It was occupied in October 1992, on the initiative of a local anarchist group. Both a social centre and a living space, Barocchio is best known for its music scene. For reasons of space, its annual film festivals
have been transferred to El Paso.

Two computer networks - the European Counter Network, and CyberNet - play an important role in keeping the social centres in touch with each other but the CSOAs' biggest risk continues to be that of closure. This problem has expressed itself in several ways: among the most immediate, are the difficulties involved in drawing the thousands who regularly attend concerts and other public activities into the daily work carried out by the dozens (often hundreds) of 'regulars'. Beyond this, there is also the challenge of communicating with, and learning from, activists outside the social centres' 'natural' constituency of urban youth. Interestingly enough, some of the more important initiatives taken by many CSOA in recent years have involved questions such as housing, jobs, racism, the lack of parkland in many urban landscapes.

Recently, Bruno Cartosio, a sympathetic observer of the CSOA from an older generation of the radical left stressed the importance of the social centres as practical examples of direct democracy in action. "This doesn't necessarily mean taking the social centres as a model, but rather of seeing, in their structure - in their very existence - an example not only of a necessity, but also of an opportunity from which to begin anew any overall political project".

Primo Moroni, another veteran and unofficial chronicler of Milan's radical scene, disagrees. Whilst conceding that "a formidable transformation" is presently underway within the CSOA, he has expressed some concern that the social centres remain "zones of defence", the product of "a generation which has decided to prolong its adolescence ad infinitum". Perhaps he is right. Or could it be that, in an age when "almost everyone lives in a state of terror at the possibility that they might awake to themselves" (Vaneigem), a self-conscious prolonging of adolescence might yet have its merits?

Adapted from an article by Steve Wright

This appeared in Black Flag #209, October 1996, with the following introducton.

Continuing our series looking at solidarity centres, we pulled this interesting article off the internet. We've edited it a little, but it gives an interesting flavour of a country where local centres are much more numerous, and are part of a much more significiant movement than we have here. The potential of the centres is, we believe emphasised by the act they are linked to local communities, and the individual centres featured here are more than just a home for youth rebellion.

Comments

lumpnboy
Oct 24 2016 07:56

For what it is worth, the original piece from which this was adapted appeared in Rabelais vol.29 no.4, 1995, the La Trobe University student magazine then published by the Students Representative Council (SRC).

Most of the editing the Black Flag editors performed to create this version seems to have consisted of trying to cut as many words as they could get away with while also changing the meaning as little as possible.

If this reproduction is complete, the Black Flag editors also didn't include the list of sources appended to Steve's article, all of which were in Italian except for the Vaneigem quote from 'Basic Banalities':

'Stretti tra il tempo...', Nessuna Dipendenza 3. May 1st, 1993.
'Uscita dal ghetto, esodo verso il centro', Klinamen 4, May 1993.
F. Borrelli, 'La societa dei lavon nell'era del postfordismo', il manifesto, March 21, 1995.
F. Borrelli, 'Un agora tra i banchi di libri e nviste', il manifesto, March 28, 1995.
C. Branzaglia et al., Posse italiane: Centri sociali, underground musicale e cultura giovanile degli anni '90 in Italia. Tosca, Florence, 1992.
M Giannetti, 'Cento centri in movimento', in F. Adinolfi et al., Comunita Virtuali: I centro sociali in Italia. Manifestolibri, Rome, 1994.