Italy has one of the widest and strongest social centre movements in Europe. Social centres can be found all over the country in almost every medium-sized and large city, though they tend to be more concentrated in the big cities of the centre-north. They first appeared in the 1970s and since then have been the main crucible of Italian radical urban movements. Social centre activists have been involved in all major contemporary social struggles, such as the No-TAV movement and the housing rights movement.
Although the first social centres were illegal occupations, most have undergone a process of legalisation over the past two decades (a pattern which can be seen in almost every European country). There are two steps to this process: a) changing from a collective running the centre to a formal association and b) setting up a formal lease between the city administration and the association representing the collective, granting the use of the social centre building for a fixed term. Sometimes these leases are free of charge for the social centre association, sometimes they involve moderate rents.
Since the first legalisations in the late 1980s and early 1990s the social centre movement has been divided by a massive, continuing debate. Almost all legalisations were initiated by city councils with the aim of ‘managing’ social centres more effectively and were usually enforced by the threat of eviction. Many of the most radical spaces opposed legalisation arguing that it would deradicalise social centre politics, divide the movement into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and go against the founding practice of autogestione (self-management). Others argued that legalisation could be an opportunity to put centres’ activities onto a more stable footing and so provide an opportunity to develop their potential more fully, without the ever-present danger of eviction.
Since the battle for what might be called ‘the right of illegality’ has been mostly lost, the debate in the social centre movement has partially shifted over the past few years to the kind of legalisation involved. As many social centres activists emphasise, the traditional pattern of legalisation (association + lease) is deeply problematic. There are two main problems.
The first concerns the organisational structure of a formal association. According to Italian private law, formal associations must have an assembly, a president of the association and a management committee. This structure reflects a social formation where practices such as division of labour and the distinction between leaders and followers is clear. In contrast, social centres try to organise their activities through self-management which does not embrace a preset division of labour and emphasises informal and inclusive decision-making.
In practice, though, not every social centre follows the self-management ideal although almost all identify with the concept. There are actually many examples which have a clearly established power hierarchy. Some claim that this is the reason that some social centres have found it easy to take the path of association-based legalisation. Yet, for those spaces for whom the practice of self-management is central, it is hard to accept being institutionalised in a legal form based on opposite principles (even though after becoming an association, in practice a social centre can avoid organising itself in this formal way).
Secondly, the traditional pattern of legalisation throws up another widely recognised problem: it makes social centres more dependent on the city administration. Leases granted to the associations representing the centres are always fixed-term. Some centres have found themselves avoiding involvement in radical action to keep on the right side of the city administration and so ensure a renewal of the lease.
Against this background, over the past couple of years a group of social and cultural centres has started to agitate for a model of legalisation which recognises the practice of self-management. Some of the social centres involved are MACAO in Milan, Teatro Valle Occupato in Rome and XM24 in Bologna. These places – some are only a few years old – are not yet legalised and they refuse to go along the traditional association+contract route. They are pressing for a different form which would mirror their organisational practice. Their ultimate aim is to produce a legal innovation which could be used by occupied spaces all over Italy to legalise and ground their activities without distorting them.
The struggle for what might be called ‘self-management-based legalisation’ is a work in progress. So far there have been meetings between a number of spaces interested in the project but it is still unclear whether other parts of the social centre movement will join the struggle. Critics note that self-managed legalisation does not really address the question of autonomy from the city council. And, at this stage, it is still unclear what this new legal instrument should look like.