The discussion and the movement underway around the issue of the commons – common goods is the term used in Italy – benefits from knowing something of its prehistory. This is particularly true for our country. Indeed, if in Italy, too, the organisational model of the left was based on the primacy of the party and of politics, it is no less true that there was a wide array of experience in cooperativism, involvement in associations, and volunteering, stretching across almost three centuries, from the 19th century to today. Although the model of the German labour movement structured on state forms – and not the cooperativist model of the earlier labour movement – prevailed in Italy, the social practices based on conscientisation and the organising of the protagonists in Italy have been and are very vast.
There are various major factors in this development. First, the heritage of the city states, of the crafts and guilds that created an extraordinary Renaissance after the feudal epoch and which, in the difficult process of building a unified state, survives today, animating experiences of artisanal work through cooperatives and of civic localism based on the principle of mutualism. Then there is the religious factor originating in the medieval confraternities, which survives today mainly through the kind of democratic Catholicism that Don Milani did so much to develop. Then, unquestionably, there is Gramsci who indicated a path for a party that is inside society, that lives the life of the subjects to whom it relates and promotes their self-organisation and the improvement of their conditions of existence. Togliatti’s new mass party draws a great deal on this Gramscian inspiration, although it is built on its own primacy and that of political action. It is no coincidence then that it was a party with millions of members that contributed to the creation and sustenance of very many forms of social organisation that operated in all social sectors and all spheres of life. Mass organisations were created in a wide variety of forms and in all spheres – the economy, services, culture, sports, and around issues of gender, peace, youth, and environmentalism.
These experiences, naturally, involved different historic phases ever since their ancient origins. Moreover, there is a legislative background that in some cases is situated in a still older history, with some legal definitions of common goods based on Roman law, for example ‘usi civici’, which are a very old form of access to common goods such as those arising from natural and civil contexts.
In terms of the nexus between common goods and labour, the creation of alternative forms of labour occupies an important place in the history of Italian cooperativism and its historical precedents of artisanal labour, besides offering an alternative approach to industrialisation. Italy’s cooperative movement has involved, and still involves, millions of people in many spheres – production, distribution, housing, and services. If its regression is obvious to all and it is increasingly becoming just another part of market society, we still cannot erase its existence nor refrain from reflecting on its trajectories and on what it might yet be able to express. Indeed, still today, and particularly in new areas, such as in services of a social character, there are important experiences with great subjective value.
Cooperativism was originally conceived as an emancipation of labour, as a form of organisation that would result in more justice and a different way of producing, and so we have to ask why it was defeated.
In recent decades, however, new forms have grown. As mentioned, there has been a socially-oriented cooperativism, based specifically on issues such as democratic psychiatry and the struggle against discrimination and with the phenomenon of social centres that have interwoven the reappropriation of spaces, cultural practices, and promoted forms of self-income. In terms of self-income, the practice of ‘co-working’ has emerged. The transition to an increasingly multi-ethnic society has engendered multiple forms of intervention to support integration, for example in teaching the Italian language and in the area of schools more generally with a great deal of voluntary activity in schools and beyond, originating from various worlds – that of the left, youth, Catholicism, and other spheres.
Confronting crisis and de-industrialisation, we have had a substantial legislative history going back to the 1970s. This involves the so-called Marcora Law, called after the minister who introduced it, which has allowed a significant number of workers to take over their own factories during the crisis and manage them in a cooperative form. A law full of limits and compromises, to be sure, but it now applies to about 1,500 workers. Then, in the wake of what has happened particularly in Latin America, we have the first examples of salvaged and self-managed factories that point to a radical change of the overall paradigm – of the mode of working, producing, relating to the region, and of emancipation from the institutions themselves. Italy’s is thus a long and complex history, which deserves to be reconstructed in concert with the real protagonists of these experiences and requires a careful assessment of the mistakes, defeats, and potential. Only today, finally, is a clear connection being drawn between self-management and the idea of common goods, which has in part been made possible by the unhappy outcome of the older experiences. But it is all the more important to pose the problem of how this new phase can have the mass dimension that the older experiences had. There is truly much work ahead of us.