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Pointing the way ahead: Community organising in Southern Italy
Article published on 14 May 2006
last modification on 23 September 2006

by r-c.
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SPEZZANO ALBANESE is a small town of 6000 situated in La Sila. in Calabria. There is an Albanian community where Albanian is still spoken and orthodox religion practised. [1].

Two comrades of the group Drapeau Noir who went to southern Italy last summer, interviewed Domenico Liquore, one of the veterans of this experience, who has written a book about it. The interview has been translated from French, and some concepts have been impossible to convey successfully in English; for example where «specific groups» are mentioned, these are groups with a specific membership of people who subscribe to the politics, aims and strategies of the group, as opposed to mass movements where many people come together to pursue a common aim.whatever their individual political beliefs. The interview gives a fascinating insight into one group’s attempts and successes at not only confronting the local administration, but also offering alternative ways of organising and decision making for the local (and wider) community, to provide a "glimpse" of a future libertarian society. [2]

Drapeau Noir: How did the Municipal Federation of thc Buse (FMB) become constituted?

A: The FMB is the result of the local anarchist group’s activities during the period between 1972 and 1992 when the FMB was finally constituted. Our activity always paid particular attention to local and territorial problems, without ignoring national and international issues. For example, the death of Franco and the re-construction of the CNT in Spain, which prompted debate nationally in Italy, was addressed in various activities in Spezzano. The ‘70s saw strong social movements in Italy, after the Massacre of the Piazza Fontana. Here this was expressed in a strong student and unemployed movement.

Our group quickly understood we couldn’t limit ouselves to ideological intervention and thought our principles should involve us in the practise of grassroots struggle which was developing at the lime. The group was made up of students, unemployed, some building workers and day labourers. The only group not represented was,. perhaps, women which was our eternal problem, while there were more and more women in the collectives emerging from these struggles.

From these struggles came the first Committees of the Unemployed, of Workers, the first mass structures which aimed towards a national influence. These bodies weren’t only made up of anarchists and were completely autonomous from the specific anarchist group. There was a dual vision of the organisation - the specific groups and the mass organisations. This work continued until 1977, the years in which the local anarchists of Spezzano provided a rallying point for the whole Castrovillari region.

At a national level in those years there was talk of the reconstruction of the USI (Unione Sindacale Italiana - AIT section). There were 2 «congresses», one in Rome the other in Genoa, from which emerged 2 tendencies. We fought for anarcho-syndicalism because our experience had already pre-empted the debate which took place nationally. We participated in the debate but were told that the Italian situation couldn’t accommodate our political viewpoint. The debate was mainly ideological, with almost personal polemics and a perception that the USI didn’t grow from the needs of workplace organisation but from the desires of certain anarchists who had simply changed their name. During this time in Spezzano. anarcho-syndicalism was being built in the committees of struggle which covered a vast geographical area and contained anarchists, comrades from extra-parliamentary groups, some from Proletarian Democracy or Marxist formations and the majority were workers, unemployed, etc. While the formation of a union was proposed nationally, there was little anarchist presence in the struggles of this period (hospital workers, airport workers, etc). So the USI was bom inside specific groups incapable of recruiting dissidents from the official unions. This situation brought about, at the Congress of Genoa, two different posi-tions. On one side certain comrades wanted the renaissance of the USI, on the other were those who prioritised grassroots struggles (e.g. temporary school workers).

We did not fit into either of these positions and on returning to Spezzano it was decided to unite all the different structures of the area in one Union Sindacale de Zone (USZ). The USZ, formed in ‘78, did not adhere to the CAD (Committee of Direct Action) formed in Bologna after the Genoa Congress, nor to the USI constituted in the Parma Congress in 1979. The USZ worked for more than 5 years on work struggles, unemployment etc. and opposition to the town hall began to grow. From this communalist and municipalist current came, in 1992, the FMB. I would like it to be understood - the diversified mass structures… which were doing a specific job with the USZ, found unity which expanded into a wider territory. It moved from classical syndicalism to a complex intervention which put together not only workplace issues but also the other realities present in the local area. It began to look at the choices of the administration which were publicly denounced for their clientist character, blackmail, discriminatory behaviour and use of repression. There were struggles over health’, education and fraud in the local council. Our relationship with the council administration, who tried to slop our meetings, was one of struggle. Sympathy was growing towards us. There were 200 in the organisation of which 30 were very active.

DN: Who were the left groups working in the same terrain at the time?

A: In ‘76, the marxist Luta Continua disappeared. In ‘77, the Marxist left returned to parliamentary institutions like Proletarian Democracy. There were some Leninists and Workers Autonomy who never had much clout with us. There weren’t any organised groups and already in ‘77 our group was the only real opposition in the whole district.

DN: Which party controlled the Town Hall?

A: The mayor was Communist Party (PC), but was worse than a Christian Democrat. Part of our work was to show that political membership didn’t change things deeply. Power corrupts. The libertarian ideology of the USZ could be seen there and it was agreed to propagate this idea, even if it meant a hard struggle with the rank and file of the PC whose leaders denounced us. There were times where this confrontation verged on the physical.

In ‘92 the mayor and a group of councillors were held on criminal charges. People began to realise that everything we had been denouncing since the end of the ‘70s wasn’t just fabrication, and it generated more interest in our activities. Before ‘83 the mayor often dared us to denounce his dealings to the law knowing this was against our logic and our praxis. In 83, some of the workers in the USZ, after a big debate, on a personal level decided to take the matter before the magistrate. A year later, following the enquiry, a split occurred in the PC. In ‘84 to keep his office, the mayor was obliged to buy a councillor of the MSI (fascists). During the ‘85 elections, we look the opportunily to create an alternative. There were strong pressures to present a list (of candidates); however over the years we had developed an absientionist practice. The message had got across for national elections but in the local elections the illusion of being able to change things was tenacious. A civic list was presented in which we refused to participate. This list, in an indirect manner, had libertarian aspirations and hijacked many of the methods which we had used effectively in the previous years. With time though, it backtracked, changing practice and objectives, to defend the same old interests as before. While the civic list was being drawn up, we recognised the need for a libertarian response, to reinforce the reasons for our abstentionism at national and local level, a Municipal Federation of the Base which would present an alternative to the power of the town hall. And while the others worked on their electoral campaign, we set up a Committee for the FMB in an attempt to gather together those who saw themselves in the current of self-organisation and direct action and opposed abdicating power to the local council. During the electoral campaign, a constitutive assembly of the FMB was held. The Town Hall was made up of the civic list, socialists, CDs and the PC in opposition. The mayor was from the civic list.

DN: What were the relations between the FMB and the local administration?

A: The FMB posed an alternative. It has always wanted to represent something other than the power of the Town Hall and that’s why we defined ourselves as an al-ternative. Relations with the Town Hall were conflictual. The FMB used its past experience and offered a complex structure. A mass organisation which didn’t want to be only about the bread and butter issues of the workplace, unemployment and the school, but also political. It had to offer a glimpse of what a future libertarian society could be. There were workplace union structures in the FMB but they encompassed all the other diverse social categories in the civic union.

DN: What’s the civic union?

A: Workers are not just those fighting for their rights but also citizens living in the same area. All groups had the right to sit in the civic union. The civic union organises the district’s services, education and health in opposition to the choice of the administration and offers a different way of managing and deciding. When we began to talk about the FMB, we were afraid of being misunderstood by the libertarian movement, of being accused of being «interclassists» or of playing up to the ideas of the right wing union UIL. That was our fear but it was the logical follow on from our actions over the years. Il must be stated that our concenpion of municipalism is different from that of Bookchin. Italy has had historically a very varied tradition ofcommunalism. Bemeri is one of the greatest agitators in this tradition and I believe he would have much to say to Bookchin as he would to Malatesta in his later years when he began to talk of gradualism. It is certain he would not have agreed with Bookchin.

DN: What does Bookchin propose?

A: He proposes that anarchists should present themselves for election, and once in the town hall give an impetus to a direct, grassroots democracy. We believe that to enter the electoral game is to lose what is specific to anarchism. Anarchists reject the delegation of power. They can never create a party. To accept power and to say that the others are acting in bad faith and that we would be better, would/force non-anarchists towards direct democracy. We reject this logic and believe that all or-ganisations must come from the grassroots.

DN: How do you define communalism?

A: It is the bringing together of all the interests within the district. In intervening at a municipal level, we become involved in not only the world of work but also the life of the community. Every time the Spezzano council make a choice, the Civic Union of the FMB make counter proposals, which aren’t presented to the Council but proposed for discussion in the area to raise people’s level of consciousness. Whether they like it or not the Town Hall is obliged to take account of these proposals. For example, it was proposed that the rates and the land use plans and its variants should be discussed in a general assembly. We have fought and continue to fight the Choices of the administration, but an alternative can be made possible, making alternative proposals and managing it properly.

DN: We read in Umanita Nova that there was one assembly where 4 mayors were invited. How did you arrive at that decision and what was brought to the FMB?

A: We have made links with 4 council districts because we fell that our experience should go beyond Spezzano. In effect, the FMB is already well known as Spezzano is the principal town in the canton and because our activity was not only known in the surrounding country but by many passing through. We think we must make a qualitative leap to promote the formation of identical bodies in neighbouring areas where there is already sympathy for the FMB. In areas such as Terranova. Tarsia, etc. research on services and administrative choices was done. We have been to 4 districts where they have been given provisional rates and studied them and looked at the choices involved. It must be said that in this work we have some facilities because after 20 years of existence no council administration dares refuse our requests out of fear of public denunciation. In this study, a document was produced where we laid out the choices and put counter proposals at a departmental level. Those proposals which touched services, health, education and town planning were addressed not just to Spezzano but also to Terranova, Tarsia and San Lorenzo. At the end of this work we called an assembly where we invited the mayors to see the functioning and critiques of the assembly. The assembly was positive because it created conditions for this type of activity to spread across the whole area. After the summer holidays it’s the type of intervention we are going to develop. Now, nationally, this type of intervention is widely discussed. The festivals of self-organisation mirror the question of Communalism versus municipalism or self government (the 2 terms used in Italy - municipalism a la Bookchin or communalism which we prefer)

DN: Do other experiences of this type exist in Italy? Or others who work from the same perspective?

A: When we were thinking about the Civic Union we were afraid that many comrades would misunderstand our step. This led us to under-publicisc the FMB. For Umanita Nova we only wrote a report of what led up to the FMB without explaining what it really was. We immediately got a number of letters asking for further explanations. In effect we got the negative reactions we expected. This prompted us to come clean with our strategy. We found that other currents were agitating on the municipalist problem. We made contact with a network of small groups, co-ordinated from Bologna. From this came a First congress. At the same time the Liga Nord (‘Northern League’ - conservatives who want northern Italy to cecede) were also raising the question of federalism. On one side, in Italy, there is a reactionary federalism, racist and conservative, as in the Liga, and on the other, in opposition, libertarian federalism was reinvigoralcd from its historic ideological roots. Comrades of Milan, Turin and others had the idea of a festival of self-organisation to address all those active around municipalism, communalism or simply self-organisation, against the logic of domination. At Alessandria, the first festival happened and many different currents were present. It linked all ages and was important as much on a quantitative level as a qualitative. I would like to reaffirm that municipalism wasn’t invented by Bookchin.

Municipalism is part of the historic ideology of anarchism. Bookchin has taken a strand of this and put his ideas inside it, ideas not shared by all, us included. We reject the argument that anarchists should become candidates, making them manage power and lose their identity. This strategy could come from a grassroots movement but anarchists must have the capacity to defend their alternative, or they risk becoming no better than the others. The few who follow Bookchin’s logic and stand in municipal elections are not regarded as part of the general anarchist movement.

DN: In your book, you speak about the attitudes and language that the anarchists have taken from the Marxist movement. You consider it embarrassing and negative, why?

A: I think that anarchists, historically, have an inferiority complex towards Marxism (in the Spanish revolution I believe many errors were due to this complex). If one takes as an example the concept of class and class struggle, we still retain the Marxist conception of the proletariat. In the anarchist movement, the class is not only the proletariat but all the exploited, the dominated, those submitting to power. When we begin to speak only of the proletariat, our logic is Marxist. Even our syndicalism, which is complex and not only supportive (anarcho-syndicalism), has submitted to the same logic. The Spanish CNT has at its core a strong concept of the proletariat even though it attained communalism and self organisation. It’s as if the anarchists want to use the same Marxist logic, logic in which they will be lost. Anarchists must take account of all the exploited, of all the dominated and create the social structures which anticipate a future libertarian soci-ety. Apart from the Spanish revolution we have not succeeded in that. I think that the Spanish revolution must be discussed critically to separate the positive aspects and the limits.

DN: Does the FMB limit Itself to counter propositions to the Town Hall or does it seek to create alternatives on the ground?

A: We have created a co-operative, «Arcobaleno» (Rainbow) of painters and decoraters. We have also tried to organise agricultural workers and services. We want to be capable of creating self-organised work. The big merit and the goal of self-organisation is to regroup the comrades not only for political discussions on municipalism but lo confront practical experience like the co-operatives. Beyond intervention in opposition to the institution. one wants to create alternative structures of production capable of glimpsing the future society.

DN: Let’s be devil’s advocate. Are you not afraid that your co-operative will become like the co-operulives in the north of Italy? These co-operatives, in their dealings with the capitalist economy suceeded in achieving self-exploitation, that is to.say they respond to market forces and so have lost all alternative potential.

A: The result of the co-operatives in Italy is as you say, but the origin is a libertarian idea of self-organisation. They must be taken back to their origins. The same fears exist around federalism: the US is federalist, Bossi (leader of the Liga Nord) is a federalist, Switzerland is federalist. They have taken many of our words, such as, federalism. self-organisation, etc. but should that stop us using these words? As for the co-operatives, there are some dangers especially when there isn’t a strong libertarian presence. We had many difficulties when we set up the co-operative because there isn’t a mentality or conception of how to work in an alternative way in opposition to the capitalist model. Mistakes are possible but if the conviction is there and the anarchist movement becomes practically interested, there is less danger of a drift to aulhoritarianism.

DN: The co-operative is an economic structure and must be accountable to the marke. This is why I spoke to you about self-exploitation. To survive you must create an alternative market, an alternative manner of living capable of blocking the race to consumption, which ends by subverting it.

A: Certainly if the co-operatives are bom in isolation, if they’aren’t seen in terms of a global debate which includes different realities (that is the aim of the “self-organisation festivals), the danger of which you speak is very real. We always have it in mind. That’s why we seek to bring together all the currents, all the problems and contradictions to seek solutions. You spoke of self-exploitation. It is possible that in a co-operative one gains less and works more. But all that can change if there are more comrades who have input and a network of different realities. The important thing is that you make it without a boss. Decisions are taken altogcther. Yes concessions have to be made lo the Capitalist system, but we are beginning to model an alternative society.

There is a division in the anarchist movement. Certain comrades are for the supportive struggle, political, confronting power. They think that the co-operatives, the self-organised groups, must be rejected because they cannot be done within the capitalist system. Others think that it’s only important to set up co-operatives or other moments of self-organisation. For me both lack something. They must be brought together, one cannot live fully in an antagonist manner. In a system of domination, one must be in conflict with power and at the same time one can put forward alternative structures; these two attitudes are part of the same struggle against domination. However, many among us live either 100% class struggle, or a lifestyle buffered against the world of capitalist work, in our self-made utopias. In both cases there is a danger of reintegration.

DN: After a long absence I’m struck by the uniformity that the south has succombed to and by the push to consumer society. 12 year ago a variety of different cultures were evident and the poor could easily be distinguished from the rich. Today it seems that the social fabric might disintegrate. People live in front of the TV where the programmes are the same as in France. In one of the poorest regions of Italy there is a constant bombardment of impressionable riches. What is yout evaluation of this process and your position on these fiew facts?

A: The same situation, which can be seen everywhere else is perhaps amplified by the fact that people identify with the TV models and get the impression that they can leave behind underdevelopment. I don’t believe this to be be something positive because it hides the contradictions that we live in. For example, here, with lime, many Albanian words are being replaced by Italian words. Spezzano has submitted to the tyranny of an Italianising culture. The anarchists must be sensible and in this changing situation, not prioritise the issue, but give it its place in a wider cultural context, to make understood that a different way of life to that proposed by consumerism and capitalism does exist. A communalist intervention could address this issue, and progress towards tlie fulure in a federalist discourse of respect for minority cultures. Our struggle must be global and culture forms a part of it

DN: What do you think of Bossi’s proposition of. secession from Italy?

A: I can say that in the south, the question doesn’t exist. In Sicily in the last regional elections, there was a tentative independentist list but it failed. There isn’t a strong independence movement here and secessionism is dimly viewed. There is, on the contrary, a strong demand for administrative decentralisation. In the FMB there are also people who see federalism as a means of decentralisation. For example we are often asked why our taxes must pass through Rome, and why we can’t decide ourselves on their use? We say that it is the community which should decide. This question gets a lot of interest. There isn’t a pro-independence feeling, the Liga Nord is rather rejected than viewed as a project to support, even among those who are against the State. The State here is seen in a contradictory way. It is hated and liked at the same time, liked for the facilities it gives.

DN: What are your links today with USI?

A: We stuck to the USI because we believed that a real discourse was possible there about the social organisation of society. Now, with the USI split, it was decided to stay outside. What is missing and is in our view indispensable is a debate on anarcho-syndicalism: its ends and means. At the moment this debate does not exist. And without it we can’t see what will come out of it.

Notes :

[1There has been an Albanian minority in Calabria since the 14th century.

[2This article was published in Anarchist Age Monthly, issue 75, March 1997, Melbourne. It was scanned by Dimitri.

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