'Social streets' and the mutual aid economy

The crisis is grinding on, day after day. People are struggling and then they struggle some more. Health suffers. Food can be a difficult subject. Where is the money for the rent coming from? Celebrations are cut back. Household appliances break. In times of crisis, people often turn to one another for help: to neighbours, friends, colleagues. It’s mutual aid.

Submitted by StrugglesInItaly on January 5, 2014

The Left has a long history of setting up mutual aid associations, particularly in times of economic crisis. Mutualism was, for example, undoubtedly the most important Italian mass movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The passing of the Albertino Statute on 4 March 1848 gave permission for freedom of association. Taking advantage of this, mutual aid associations spread throughout Piedmont and the rest of Italy, involving very many workers, artisans and professionals. The first Workers’ Society of Mutual Aid was established in Pinerolo on 12 October 1848. Its purpose was union and brotherhood, mutual aid and mutual education, to help one other and give a hand to others by making an individual contribution.

Where does mutual aid stand now that social media is almost everywhere? Can social media help? Or does it hinder? Or does it even end up making mutual aid a different animal?

The social streets movement (a newborn Italian movement based on neighbours’ mutual support which largely uses the internet to coordinate action) represents an interesting experiment in this field. Its development may indicate the potential (but also the limits) of bringing together popular social networks like Facebook with the philosophy of mutual aid. The movement was started in September 2013 by Federico Bastiani, journalists and residents of Via Fondazza, a street in the historic centre of Bologna.

At first, the social street project’s aim was modest. Federico Bastiani had grown up in a small town in Tuscany where people knew one another and supported each other. When he moved to Bologna he didn’t like the mix of mistrust and indifference which can characterise neighbourhood relations in big cities. To try and create a sense of community, Federico opened a Facebook page called ‘Residents of Via Fondazza – Bologna’ and promoted the initiative through leaflets. After only two weeks the Facebook group had about 90 subscriptions and now it has over 500. This is not too surprising as in via Fondazza there’s always been quite a bit of helpfulness between neighbours.

The residents of Via Fondazza soon started to explore the network’s potential to improve their everyday life. There have been dozens of activities around the sharing of information, time, knowledge and goods. Initiatives so far include giving free piano lessons, lending washing machines, providing tips to newcomers about services in the city, giving away leftover food when going on holiday, holding street birthday parties open to all residents, and discounts for residents at the local cinema.

The Via Fondazza social street has attracted national media attention since late October, with reports from major newspapers like La Repubblica andCorriere della Sera and news channels like TG1 and TG2. Since than, dozen of social streets have spread across Italy, turning an isolated experiment into a nationwide movement. To facilitate the establishment of new social streets, an internet page (http://www.socialstreet.it/) with simple guidelines has been set up. It’s also available in Spanish and English. Currently, almost 50 social streets (around 20 in Bologna itself) have been set up in 15 Italian cities.

Loretta Napoleoni is a well-known economist and journalist, and also Federico Bastiani’s collaborator and spin-doctor. She notes in a recent article that this ‘experience enriches not only socially but also economically’; even though it ‘cannot be transformed into a business … it represents a major saving’. She conceptualises the project as an embryonic form of what she calls the mutual aid economy, pointing to the great potential that such solidarity and locally based economies might have in the future, especially during times of prolonged crisis.

Perhaps Napoleoni is a little quick to generalise. So far, the social streets movement has been a great success from a recreational point of view but, at this stage, its impact on the household economy seems very restricted. It’s likely that other analysts and commentators will develop a more critically nuanced view as time goes on. We’ll return to the social streets movement in another article as its development becomes clearer.