Here’s the last bit I want to share about Rome for now. One of the last days we were in Rome we got to take a trip out to the edge of the city to one of the longest running squatted social centers, Forte Prenestino. Set within a public park, Prenestino is literally an old military fort, surrounded by a moat and sitting on top of 100 centuries old jail cells. It was originally squatted in 1985, and is one of, if not the oldest, social center in Rome. It is still a squat, but is involved in some sort of legalization scheme, so sits in a semi-legal zone. We weren’t able to get the whole story about this, but it seems pretty controversial.
The fort itself is split into 3 major areas. First, a central indoor corridor, with rooms and paths off to the sides, that lead to rooms on ground level and above, as well as to the jail cells below. Off this main corridor are a restaurant, a bar, a cafe, a movie theater, an infoshop, a long running pirate radio station and a wine bar! They are all run by people involved in Prenestino, and appear to be cheap and not for profit. Second, the corridor opens up onto two huge courtyards, one on each side. These are half-football field sized open areas which hold huge concerts (all the classic punk bands of played here, from the Dead Kennedys to Fugazi), encampments of trailers, buses, and RVs, and a monthly farmer’s market. The walls were covered with graffiti and wheatpasted posters, with one whole side dominated by a giant mural by Blu. Off to the sides of each courtyard are additional rooms, which hold things like a Yoga studio and a musical instrument workshop. Third, ringing above the whole thing is a raised trail and a bunch of green space. Built into the earth are a number of small houses and private dwellings. The trails are all marked with super professional signs which clarify and distinguish all of the native plants that live in the Forte. All in all it is pretty overwhelming, just an immense amount of space and activity. There’s simply nothing comparable in the US.
We happened to be there for the monthly farmer’s market, and it was quite cool. The place was filled with people, many generations of social activists, from young dreadlocked punks to 30-something squatters with kids to 60 year old anarchist farmers selling their chestnuts. The environment was really open and inviting, and had much less of the sub-cultural trappings and cliquishness of most US equivalents (of course, this is an observation from the perspective of someone that doesn’t speak Italian, so it’s completely from the outside!). The farmers at the market were a diverse lot as well, we got big glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice from a 20-something hip guy from Southern Italy who was in town to sell of the rest of his season’s orange crop in Rome, and talked and tasted wine from a 40-something guy representing an anarchist farming commune/social experiment on the edge of Rome that had it’s own vineyards and winery, producing Urupia Wine.
I don’t have the time or energy to go too deep into Italian Left political history, and my understanding of it is tenuous at best anyway, but I think the trip to Forte and Rome in general gave me some new insights. For most of the history of contemporary Italy, there has been a very strong mainstream Left. There has been a mass-based Communist Party, and even if it was authoritarian, corrupt, and failed to live up to it’s promises, it was usually miles to the left of something like the Democratic Party in the US. This was a rank and file worker’s party, that at its best was responsive to the needs and demands of hundreds of thousands of workers. The ultra-left in Italy could develop extremely liberatory politics in part because it was tethered to and in the shadow of this mass-based party. An activist could through her heart into extremely marginal political activity in part because she knew that there was thousands of people holding a pretty progressive political line that passed as the “center.” Is is a privilege we don’t have in the US, and maybe never have. And unfortunately, it appears to be a privilege the Italians are losing. The Communist Party has lost massive support in the past decade, and has failed to get elected into the government in any form, which means the loss of jobs for all the people that worked within the party structure as organizers, newspaper editors, and thousands of other paying jobs created by a popular Left political apparatus…
In addition, when you have very strong and powerful social movements, which are functionally multi-generational and reach across peoples individual interests and work places, it is easier for a person to relate to that movement without devoting their entire existence to it. It appears it is much easier for people in Europe to relate in a multiplicity of ways to radical politics, seeing themselves as part of movements even if they don’t devote the majority of their life to organizing or have “political activist” ass their primary identity. So many times it feels here in the US that you are either a 100% activist/organizer, or you are “not political.” This is extremely unproductive and harmful to movement building. We desperately need movements in the US that people can plug into at the level they are at, whether that be one activity a year, a meeting once a month, or full time activist. And all of these levels of engagement must be valued and seen as important.