Living In The Heart Of The Beast - Italy's Social Centres

Robert (101607.2566@CompuServe.COM)
17 Jul 96 13:15:26 EDT


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From: Arm The Spirit, INTERNET:ats@locust.cic.net
To: Multiple recipients of list, INTERNET:ATS-L@BURN.UCSD.EDU
Date: 17.07.1996 02:55

Subject:Living In The Heart Of The Beast - Italy's Social Centres

Living In The Heart Of The Beast - Italy's Social Centres

By Steve Wright

This May 1st, as with each May 1st since 1986, Forte
Prenestino in Rome will host the 'Festival of Non-Labour'.
Through music, videos, theatre, good food, and debate, its
occupants will 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 is an enormous edifice flung across eight
hectares of land on the south-eastern edge of Rome, not far from
the Viale Palmiro Togliatti. As its name suggests, the Forte had
originally been built a century ago as a military base. In the
sixties it had been abandoned, left to stand empty like so many
of Italy's publicly-owned buildings in this time of property
speculation and public corruption.
Despite a recent wave of 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 - a famous Italian communist leader who had
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
held out to them.
"All of a sudden, we were inside, 'running' the place - we
who had never managed anything except our unemployment, our
homelessness", they would later comment 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 'tea salon'. African dance classes are held on Tuesday
nights, yoga on Mondays and Wednesdays, a gym class on Tuesdays
and Thursdays. There are regular film nights, courses on design
and sculpture, a documentation centre. Outside Rome, the Forte is
probably best known for its music label, which distributes the
work of local rap and reggae bands. It also produces the journal
Nessuna Dipendenza, which not only documents the Forte's
activities, but engages in discussion and debate concerning
projects against capital and the state both in Italy and beyond.
Forte Prenestino is only one of about fourteen 'Occupied
Self-Managed Social Centres' (CSOA) in Rome. There are about
hundred or so CSOA elsewhere in Italy - the precise number is
impossible to determine, as any given week over the last five
years has brought 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-parliamantary 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 decade, the organised far left had largely
been pulverised, caught between extensive State repression on the
one hand, and a flight into private life or terrorism on the
other. Within the country's workplaces, a decade-long battle for
control over working conditions came to an end in the same
period, with the massive 1980 lay-offs at FIAT flagging an
impending victory for managerial prerogative throughout Italy as
a whole.
The CSOA that survived the chaos of those years eked out
much of their existence during the early and mid-eighties as
little 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 across the emotive landscape.
A revival of social conflict from the late eighties onwards
has helped to confound many of the glib arguments that class war
in Italy is passe, or that all possible futures have been reduced
to a choice between 'Export or death'. Beginning in 1987 amongst
school teachers and railway staff, a growing dissatisfaction with
the inability of existing unions to defend pay and working
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 fostering direct action and
self-organisation in the workplace. Unrest within the student
population of Italy's schools and universities has brought a
similar cycle of mass action since 1990, with occupations 'under
self-management' a frequent occurence of late.
Much of this activity in the workplace and school has fed
into the revival of the social centres during 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 by the
filmmaker Gabriele Salvatores (director of Mediterraneo) as a
location for his film Sud. 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."

While two computer networks - the European Counter Network,
and CyberNet - play an important role in keeping the social
centres in touch with each other, the CSOAs' biggest risk
continues to be that of closure from the rest of society. This
problem has expressed itself in a variety of forms: amongst the
most immediate, the difficulties involved in drawing the
thousands who regularly attend concerts and other public
activities within each centre 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,
social protagonists 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 alliance-building in their local community and
cities: around questions such as housing, jobs, racism, the lack
of parkland in many urban landscapes.
Recently, a sympathetic observer of the CSOA from within an
older generation of Italy's radical left stressed the importance
of the social centres as practical examples of direct democracy
in action. "This doesn't necessarily mean", Bruno Cartosio went
on to say, "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 of the sixties and seventies, 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?

Sources:

____ "Stretti tra il tempo...", Nessuna Dipendenza #3, (1 May
1993).
____ "Uscita dal ghetto, esodo verso il centro", Klinamen #4,
(May 1993).
Borrelli, "La societi dei lavori nell'era del postfordismo", il
manifesto, (21 March 1995).
Borrelli, "Un agori tra i banchi di libri e riviste", il
manifesto, (28 March 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.,
"Comunite virtuali: I centro sociali in Italia", Manifestolibri,
Rome, (1994).
Sandrone "'Il cavallo non vuole bevere!'", Riff Raff #2, (March
1994).
R. Vaneigem, "Basic Banalities (II)", in K. Knabb (ed.)
Situationist International Anthology, Bureau of Public Secrets,
Berkeley, (1981).

Addendum:

News from the Italian social centres is regularly e-mailed from
the European Counter Network to the xchange bbs, a
Melbourne-based node of the local 'anet' anarchist computer
network. If you have a modem, you can dial xchange directly on
03-9388-0018. If you would like to receive the regular electronic
newsbulletin of translated Italian material edited by xchange and
the Padua node of the ECN, contact pmargin@xchange.apana.org.au
___________________________________________
http://www.monash.edu.au/arts/ces/sw.html
http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/~spoons/aut_html
___________________________________________

(Source: Rabelais - May 1995)

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