A woman with long brown hair and a cigarette scratched voice has a question. "What does this place look like to you," she asks, with the help of an interpreter. "An ugly ghetto, or something maybe beautiful?"
It was a trick question. We were sitting in a ramshackle squat in one of the least picturesque suburbs of Rome. The walls of the stumpy building were covered in graffiti, the ground was muddy, and all around us were bulky, menacing housing projects. If any of the 20-million tourists who flocked to Rome last year had taken a wrong turn and ended up here, they would have immediately dived for their Fodor's and fled for somewhere with vaulted ceilings, fountains and frescoes.
But while the remains of one of the most powerful and centralised empires in history are impeccably preserved in downtown Rome, it is here, in the city's poor outskirts, where I caught a glimpse of a new, living politics. And it is as far away from Roman emperors and Caesar's armies as you can possibly get.
The squat in question is called Corto Ciccuito, one of Italy's many "centri sociali." Social centres are abandoned buildings—warehouses, factories, military forts, schools—that have been occupied by squatters and transformed into cultural and political hubs, explicitly free from both the market, and from state control. By some estimates there are 150 social centres in Italy.
The largest and oldest—Leoncavallo in Milan—has been shut down by the police and reopened many times. Today, it is practically a self-contained city, with several restaurants, gardens, a bookstore, a cinema, an indoor skateboard ramp, and a club so large it was able to host Public Enemy when they came to town. These are scarce bohemian spaces in a rapidly gentrifying world, a fact that prompted the Frenchnewspaper Le Monde to describe the intricate network of squats as "the Italian cultural jewel."
But the social centres are more than the best place to be on a Saturday night, they are also ground zero of a growing political militancy in Italy—one that is poised to explode onto the world stage when the G8 meets in Genoa next month. In the centres, culture and politics mix easily together: a debate about direct-action turns into a huge outdoor party, a rave takes place next door to a meeting about unionizing fast-food workers.
In Italy, this culture developed out of necessity. With politicians on both the left and the right mired in corruption scandals, large numbers of Italian youths have understandably concluded that it is power itself that corrupts. The social centre network is a parallel political sphere that, rather than trying to gain state power, provides alternative state services—such as day-care and advocacy for refugees—at the same time as it confronts the state through direct action. For instance, on the night I spent at Rome's Corto Ciccuito, the communal dinner of lasagne and caprese salad received a particularly enthusiastic reception because it was prepared by a chef who had just been released from jail after his arrest at an anti-fascist rally. And two days before, at Milan's Leoncavallo centre, I stumbled across several members of Le Tute Bianche (the white overalls) who were pouring over digital maps of Genoa, in preparation for the G8.
The direct-action group, named after the uniform its members wear to protests, has just issued a "declaration of war" on the meeting in Genoa. It has pledged to cross police lines and, last weekend held a public demonstration of the defensive armaments it plans to use (including suits padded with foam and rubber tires).
But war declarations aren't the most shocking things going on at the social centres these days. Far more surprising is the fact that, in the past few years, these anti-authoritarian militants, defined by their rejection of party politics, have begun running for office—and winning. In Venice, Rome and Milan, prominent social centre activists, including leaders of Tute Bianche, are now city councillors.
Some say the trend is simply a defensive measure: with Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing Forza Italia in power, they need to protect themselves from those that would shut down the centres. But others, including Beppe Caccia, a member of the Tute Bianche and a Venetian city councillor, say that the move into municipal politics is a natural evolution of social centre theory.
The nation state is in crisis, he argues, both weakened in the face of global powers and corrupt in the face of corporate ones. Meanwhile, in Italy, strong regional sentiments for greater decentralization have been seized by the right, often with fascist under-tones. In this climate, Mr. Caccia proposes a two-pronged strategy of confronting unaccountable, unrepresentative powers at the global level (for example, at the G8) while simultaneously rebuilding a new, more accountable and participatory politic locally (where the social centre meets the city council). Which brings me back to the question posed in the suburbs of Rome's mummified empire. Though it may be hard to tell at first, the social centres aren't ghettos, they are windows—not only into another way to live, disengaged from the state, but also into a new politics of engagement.
And yes, it's something maybe beautiful.