Italy has numerous traditions of cooperatives (Ammirato, 1994, 2018). In particular, the Italian coop sector evolved from both secular liberal thought, socialist and communist traditions, as well as from Catholic social thought. They have managed to become a class of principles-based enterprises strongly embedded in all sectors of the Italian economy.
However, within the Italian cooperative movement, a slow transformation has been occurring for decades, partly by necessity and institutional change – for instance, the rise of neoliberalism, the integration of women into the workplace, globalization, etc. – and partly motivated by the evolving needs of ordinary citizens, acting collectively to meet those needs. This article will focus on one particular class of such innovations, the tradition of social and community cooperatives. Using Tinbergen’s four questions (Tinbergen, 1963) as a framing device, I introduce this tradition below.
The function of social and community cooperatives is to provide citizens with the ability to self-organize the provision of goods and, in particular, services. The initial function of social cooperatives, the first of the two phenomena to emerge, was primarily restricted to providing mental health services or to integrating marginalized communities into the economy. Therefore, while alternative structures might have served to isolate or separate out groups according to proficiency, competency, or even, in the case of the asylum system, according to “sanity”, social cooperatives have operated to diminish distinctions in agency on the part of both individuals and groups that historically have not received such treatment. This includes recipients of mental health care. Thus, a primary function, especially of social cooperatives, has been to shift from what economists call a “principal-agent” model to a model of shared agency.
A second function of both social and community cooperatives derives from their impact on the communities in which they are founded. They tend to facilitate both community building and economic empowerment, though to different degrees. In this vein, community cooperatives have generally been stronger on the issue of community building.
Starting in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, social upheavals took place that changed Italy, both socially and economically. Writes Foot,
A ‘great transformation’ was taking place. Italy, in 1961, was in the middle of an unprecedented boom: the so-called economic miracle. After thousands of years, rural economies and cultures began to disappear almost overnight. Peasants flooded to the cities, and factories sprung up everywhere. This rush to modernity inevitably affected Italy’s outdated and static institutions, including the antiquated asylum system. (Foot, p. 7)
It was this “antiquated asylum system” that was to be, largely through the person of Franco Basaglia, the Italian psychiatrist, and a few colleagues, such as Antonio Slavich, reformulated into a new economic model. Many have argued that the experiences of the anti-fascist resistance played a central role in shaping the ideals and aspirations of Basaglia, Slavich, and other colleagues working to reform the Italian asylum system from within. Italy’s tradition of cooperatives provided an available framing for the eventual reorganization of the asylum system, which began in 1961 in Gorizia, a peripheral mental asylum on the Yugoslavian border. According to Basaglia, it was “like all the other Italian asylums, a concentration camp”. Its function was to isolate the ‘insane’ (‘pazzi’), who became “non-persons” (Foot, p. 19). Basaglia himself believed that patients “were already less than human. . . merely surviving.” (Id.)
Taking a relational view, Basaglia began in earnest to develop strategies to reform the institution from within, taking the agency and perspective of patients as well as the role of nursing staff, who “were usually the faces of the system” into account. Moreover, integrating an approach that recognized so-called “feedback effects” in complex systems, “he became convinced that some of the eccentric or disturbing behavior of the patients was created or exacerbated by the institution itself.” (p. 22) Therefore, “[a] distinct and specific ‘Basaglian canon’ began to emerge in Gorizia” (p. 23), especially influenced by “philosophical studies and research into the way psychiatric hospitals actually worked”, including in the international context. This canon culminated in The Negated Institution, a worldwide bestseller whose influence extended well beyond the psychiatric community and which inspired discussions for social reform in the context of the 1968 movement.
Numerous groups, including the upstart “Radical Party”, took up the mantle of asylum reform. The party organized a drive for signatures. In Italy’s post-war republican constitution, a plebiscite could be called if 700,000 signatures were gathered. Thus, this democratic device put pressure on parliamentary institutions to act: “[a]s on other occasions during the Italian republic, the possibility of a referendum concentrated the minds of politicians who otherwise might have prevaricated for years to come.” [Foot, 2015, p. 372]
The resulting legislation, Law 180 (“Legge Basaglia”, literally “Basaglia law”), was crafted in the spirit of compromise, impacted by grass-roots activism, both inside the asylum system as well as on the streets. Italian philosopher Noberto Bobbio referred to the Legge Basaglia as “the only real reform in Italian history”. Foot argues that this can be seen by the fact that, “[v]ery simply, the 180 Law made people inside the asylums into Italians, for the first time. Their rights were now guaranteed in line with the constitution. They were equal before the law, and in the future, mental health patients would always remain so (in most cases). David Forgacs argued that the law ‘made central the patient’s human and civil rights’.” [Foot, 2015, p. 379]
However, it would take until 1991 for the final law on the creation of new localized social cooperatives (Law 381/1991) to be put in place to replace the old asylums. I next introduce the basic mechanism of operation of this new system.
The mechanism by which social and community cooperatives operate can be described most suitably along two lines: firstly, in legal terms. Secondly, in institutional terms. Legally speaking, according to Law 381/1991, there are two types of social cooperative: Type A social cooperatives provide social services, such as mental health services. These services are by their nature restricted to those making use of them (e.g., recipients of mental health counseling, drug treatment, cultural integration courses, etc.). Meanwhile, Type B social cooperatives focus on carrying out a broad range of activities that is rather unrestricted, however, for underprivileged demographics like the handicapped, elderly, youth, migrants, etc. Therefore, Type A social cooperatives restrict the activity, while Type B cooperatives restrict the stakeholders involved.
At the same time, the mechanism can also be described in an institutional way. As such, social (and community) cooperatives can be described as a mechanism providing a locus for municipalities, regional governments, citizens, civil society organizations, and others to engage in a structured dialogue towards establishing more formal tools or organizations for providing services, or for dealing with particular political, social, economic, health or other challenges.
While the original function of social cooperatives was integration, in particular, of socially marginalized individuals, from the beginning, “mutations” began to appear. For instance, the phenomenon of the social cooperative was soon applied to integrate additional types of communities, including geographically marginalized villages in remote areas. Thus, in 1991, the first “cross-over” social cooperative, which prefigured the later community cooperatives arose. Valle dei Cavalieri originated as an attempt to revitalize a disconnected rural community. It began when residents attempted to stem the demographic decline by creating a legal form to carry out the revitalization effort. It was initiated as a social cooperative (Type B) , but differed form most social cooperatives in that it basically involved a large part of the community of Succiso, instead of just mental health patients, migrants or other traditional marginalized subcommunities.
The example caught on, mainly through the agency of the then-President of Legacoop (2002-2014) and later Italian Minister of Labor (2014-2018), Giuliano Poletti, who was looking to promote cooperative solutions to community revitalization. The takeup of “community cooperatives” was initially slow and picked up in particular with the passage, in 2014, of the first regional legislation for community cooperatives, not in Emilia-Romagna, the province in which Valle dei Cavalieri is located, but instead in the southern region of Puglia. Moreover, while Puglia’s law is the first formal law of its kind, the community cooperative phenomenon has arguably informally existed since the founding of Valle dei Cavalieri in 1991.
The community cooperative of Melpignano was the first-ever formally recognized community cooperative in Italy. Started in response to an unpopular planned project by the regional government which foresaw an international firm installing a “farm” of photovoltaic (PV) panels near the village, a collective of 70 engaged citizens in this village of 2,500 people organized a protest to inform the citizenry and the municipality of their opposition to the project. They received assistance from the regional office of Legacoop, the largest cooperative federation in Italy, and drafted a plan, at the time, to create a service cooperative in order to self-organize the installation of photovoltaic cells. As the roofs in Melpignano are mostly flat, the panels could easily be placed on house roofs without obstructing the natural environment around the village.
In 2011, a service cooperative was created with 70 members with support from Legacoop. In order to secure funding for the PV project, Legacoop also provided security for a loan. Members of the cooperative paid a fee of €25 and installed panels on their roofs. Electricity generation was mainly for self-use, but any excess was sold into the grid. This plan was highly successful and Legacoop used the successful example of community self-organization and its leverage and resources to help draft and pass the Puglian Regional Law 2014/23, the first law of its kind regulating community cooperatives.
Moreover, in 2014, a project was begun to refurbish small abandoned buildings and turn them into so-called Case d’Acqua (literally “water houses”). Here, natural filtration using roots and minerals is employed to treat groundwater, which has been partly polluted by local agricultural run-off. The water is then sold at individual Case d’Acqua for a small fee. Another early project was the restoration of the Parco del Pace (Park of Peace), which was carried out starting in 2017. At the time, the park had no working toilets and much of the infrastructure was “unusable”. The cooperative took out a loan and was able to refurbish the park to its current status, where it is actively used by a wide range of stakeholders and citizens. Today, the cooperative is flourishing, with over 240 members. Students are even able to perform a year of civil service in the cooperative. It has successively adapted new projects, such as after-school care for children, where children are taught the principles of environmental sustainability, such as separating waste. Children also engage in arts and crafts. The birdhouses in the Parco del Pace are made by children in the program.
Cooperativa di Comunità Melpignano became Italy’s first official community cooperative and the Regional Law 2014/23 a model for other provinces and regions of Italy. Projects began appearing in the region of Puglia, initially in small, marginalized communities like Biccari, but eventually sprouting up in larger cities like Bari and Brindisi. Many of the “cooperative di communita” in Puglia discovered the option of organizing in such a way via the case of Melpignano. For instance, members of the small, unincorporated community of Serranova stumbled across Melpignano during an Internet search for methods to prevent the local school from closing. A community cooperative was started, whose projects include managing wetlands and, more recently, installing a public fountain and installing a fleet of e-bikes for providing a modicum of local transit in the summer. The same can be said of other similar projects, such as Legame Brindisi.
Ultimately, as the cultural and economic environment in Italy has changed, the character of the cooperative movement has changed. Social and community cooperatives have played a role in channeling these changes. One can see a clear trajectory from the struggles to close Italy’s mental asylums through social cooperatives to the rise of community cooperatives, which are beginning to appear in large Italian cities, like Bari (MEST) and Genova (Ce.Sto). It is a diverse model that has taken on different legal and institutional attributes in different settings. (Sforzi & Borzaga, 2019)
Italy was a pioneer in this regard, but similar developments have spread around the globe. Since Italy passed its first law on social cooperatives, countries like Canada (1997), France (2001), and Spain (2011) (cf. Fici, 2013) have followed suit. A future task will be to study the different species of social and community cooperatives in their continually evolving trajectory, perhaps comparing the experiences of Italian social and community cooperatives with the so-called “Community shares” in the UK, with “community land trusts” in the U.S., and with various analogous traditions worldwide, e.g., the cooking cooperatives of the Basque region of northern Spain, or the tradition of consumer cooperatives in post-war Korea, among others.
Ammirato, P. (1996). La Lega: The making of a successful cooperative network. Dartmouth Publishing Group.
Ammirato, P. (2018). The Growth of Italian Cooperatives: Innovation, Resilience and Social Responsibility. Routledge.
Fici, A., Cracogna, D., and Henry, H. (2013). International Handbook of Cooperative Law. Springer-Verlag.
Foot, J. (2015). The man who closed the asylums: Franco Basaglia and the revolution in mental health care. Verso Books.
Sforzi, J. and Borzaga, C. (2019). Imprese di comunità e riconoscimento giuridico: È davvero necessaria una nuova legge. Riv. Impresa Soc, 13:17–30.
Tinbergen, Niko (1963) "On Aims and Methods of Ethology," Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, 20: 410–433.