Liberation through Occupation: Italian Property Outlaws

Occupiers will win their struggle only when, in the col­lective ima­ginary, an oc­cu­pied space be­comes one that cannot be ‘dis-​occupied’


This short re­flec­tion stems from my re­cent ex­per­i­ence at the Ex Colorificio Liberato (Ex Paint Factory Liberated) in Pisa, a 14,000 square meter factory which had been aban­doned for eight years be­fore being oc­cu­pied el­even months ago by a group of cit­izens (Rebeldìa) and sub­sequently trans­formed into a place of so­cial gath­ering and ser­vice to the city. I had the op­por­tunity to visit the Ex Colorificio Liberato and par­ti­cipate in two days of de­bate on the com­mons, al­tern­ative ideas of prop­erty and on how to or­ganize a legal de­fense of these ‘il­legible’ spaces.1 In par­tic­ular, I was ex­posed to the pro­voc­ative idea of oc­cupying spaces in order to lib­erate them, an oxy­mor­onic com­bin­a­tion that I will try to un­pack hereunder.

From a con­cep­tual point of view, the word ‘oc­cu­pa­tion’ is closely linked with the no­tion of ter­ritory and space, in­dic­ating the con­crete of ab­stract pres­ence within its phys­ical or mental bor­ders. Similarly, oc­cu­pa­tion can stim­u­late im­ages of ex­clu­sion, sub­or­din­a­tion and vi­ol­ence, but can also be linked with the opening of en­closed spaces, the lib­er­a­tion of people and their ima­gin­a­tion, and the cre­ation of spaces of co­oper­a­tion. Military troops can, and cer­tainly do, oc­cupy ter­rit­ories and ex­er­cise vi­ol­ence over their cit­izens, but it is also the case that cit­izens oc­cupy their own cities, making claims for dif­ferent forms of ad­min­is­tra­tion and for a re-​consideration of their socio-​economic needs. Although his­tory ap­pears riddled with ex­amples of oc­cu­pa­tion as a mech­anism of power and con­trol (in­cluding in terms of ideo­lo­gical oc­cu­pa­tion and bi­opol­itics), re­cent events are trying to create and live al­tern­ative forms of oc­cu­pa­tion, whose main goal is lib­er­a­tion from the dom­in­a­tion of the mono-​paradigm.

Within the plur­ality of ex­per­i­ences and people that pop­u­late these counter-​hegemonic forms of oc­cu­pa­tion — and which were cer­tainly not ‘dis­covered’ by either Argentinian workers oc­cupying their factories in the af­ter­math of the 2011 crisis or by the oc­cupy move­ments at Zuccotti park — Italy and Italians are not lag­ging be­hind. Rather, mul­tiple ex­per­i­ences of occupation-​as-​liberation have been arising in re­cent years as a re­sponse to the eco­nomic crisis that is af­fecting il Bel Paese, but also, and more in­ter­est­ingly, as a bottom-​up coun­ter­measure against the func­tional use of public sov­er­eignty in a pro-​austerity manner. That is the case of the Ex Colorificio Liberato in Pisa, of ZAM in Milan, of Mezzocannone in Naples, Scup in Rome, Spazio 22 in Abruzzo, La talpa e l’orologio of Imperia, the Zone Temporaneamente Liberate (Temporary Liberated Zones) in Treviso, and many other real­ities that gathered in Pisa last weekend, with the in­ten­tion of get­ting to know each other and of dis­cussing their fu­ture. This short re­flec­tion aims at raising aware­ness over the pro­cesses hap­pening in Italy and at stim­u­lating fur­ther re­flec­tions over the role that cer­tain Italian oc­cu­pa­tions can play in lib­er­ating spaces and minds from an­other form of occupation.

All these ex­per­i­ences, each char­ac­ter­ized by pe­cu­li­ar­ities that cannot be ac­counted for here, were not born of an in­ten­tion to oc­cupy spaces in order to sep­arate them from the rest of the col­lectivity, nor to shift prop­erty from the public (or private) realm to the direct con­trol of a group of oc­cu­piers. The dif­fer­ence between the oc­cu­pa­tions of the ‘90s, which were mainly fi­nal­ized in the cre­ation of Centri Social Organizzati Autonomamente — CSOA — (Autonomously Organized Social Centers), and the cur­rent form of oc­cu­pa­tion, which someone called ‘Occupation 2.0′, ap­pears to be the clear in­ten­tion to re-​publicize pre­vi­ously en­closed spaces. Independently from their formal own­er­ship, which in some cases is public and in other is private, the ob­ject be­hind oc­cu­pa­tion is to trans­form en­closed spaces into a common re­source that can be ac­cessed, re­cre­ated, im­proved, and ap­pre­ci­ated by everyone who is in­ter­ested in being part of it. Each space which is oc­cu­pied, is there­fore sub­tracted from the dom­inant logic of ac­cu­mu­la­tion by dis­pos­ses­sion,2 lib­er­ated, and brought back to the com­munity to whom it be­longs. Such double tra­ject­ories of oc­cu­pa­tion and lib­er­a­tion, which are more or less ad­vanced and or­gan­ized, touch upon a series of legal is­sues, both in­sti­tu­tional and ideo­lo­gical. I will try to un­pack three of these.


Public/​Private v. Commons

In con­trast with the rhet­oric that de­scribes oc­cu­pa­tion as a sub­versive activity that tar­gets the bour­geoisie and private prop­erty, what is hap­pening in Italy is a wider at­tempt to chal­lenge the public/​private di­cho­tomy of prop­erty, af­firming the need to go beyond this formal at­tri­bu­tion and to in­vest­igate the common utility that prop­erty gen­er­ates. This ap­pears clear from the various ex­amples. While the ex­per­i­ence of the Ex Colorificio Occupato con­cerns a privately owned factory, the two oc­cu­pa­tions which are going on in via Mezzocannone (Naples) target pub­licly owned build­ings. Abandoning the cru­sade against private prop­erty per se, the new ‘lib­er­ators’ are at­tacking prop­erty as a form of oc­cupying ter­rit­ories and sub­tracting it from the public utility and the public be­nefit. According to this per­spective, ex­clu­sion, ab­uses, sub­trac­tion, and the pre­dom­in­ance of eco­nomic profit over public in­terests, can be ex­er­cised both by a private owner and the State through the use of its authority.

Only the shift from form to sub­stance, from the ana­lysis of rights to the scru­tin­izing of the way in which these rights are ex­er­cised, can even­tu­ally guar­antee the so­cial func­tion of prop­erty, which is guar­an­teed by art­icle 42 of the Italian Constitution. This is par­tic­u­larly rel­evant at a time of eco­nomic aus­terity. However, the en­tire oc­cu­pa­tion lib­er­a­tion move­ment ap­pears to be a counter-​measure to the way in which public au­thority is ex­er­cised (or not ex­er­cised) vis-​à-​vis the com­munity and its needs. The oc­cu­pa­tion of an area to pro­duce common utility in the form of jobs, cul­ture, housing, as­sist­ance to mi­grants, or­ganic products, etc., is thus a way of chal­len­ging tra­di­tional top-​down sov­er­eignty by con­structing and living an alternative.

Reappropriating Sovereignty from Below

A cru­cial as­pect of the Italian oc­cu­pa­tions is the re­newed con­cern about the role of the State — as the holder of public au­thority and ex­er­ciser of public vi­ol­ence — in guar­an­teeing the re­pro­duc­tion of a system based on ex­clu­sion, scarcity, ac­cu­mu­la­tion, and in­equality. In par­tic­ular, these new move­ments are pro­posing a cri­tique that goes beyond the on­going cam­paign against ‘bad’ cor­porate power. They are acutely aware of the nar­row­ness of a per­spective which sep­ar­ates the realm of private eco­nomic power from the realm of law and sovereignty.

In fact, private prop­erty is in­tro­duced by the Constitution and the civil code, and is pro­tected through the de­ploy­ment of prerog­at­ives which be­long to the ex­ec­utive and ju­di­ciary. Moreover, sov­er­eignty is cru­cial when urban plan­ning is at stake, be­cause there that we can clearly see the as­semblage between au­thority, ter­ritory, and rights.3 Without public con­sulta­tions, the stroke of a pen can trans­form a privately owned in­dus­trial area into a res­id­en­tial zone. This is done ir­re­spective of the needs of the com­munity and without con­sid­er­a­tion of al­tern­ative uses of the same area.

In ad­di­tion, sov­er­eignty is cru­cial when prop­erty is public be­cause it is the means by which a public space can be given in con­ces­sion, en­closed, and made less openly ac­cess­ible. This re­duces the pos­sib­ility of col­lective fruition and priv­ileges private be­nefit (in­cluded that of the public ad­min­is­tra­tion) over that of the en­tire community.

Finally, oc­cu­pa­tions cri­ti­cize sov­er­eignty for being in­active and for not util­izing ex­pro­pri­ation as an in­stru­ment of lib­er­a­tion, which is sporad­ic­ally provided by the legal order. From this view­point, the il­legal oc­cu­pa­tion of such spaces mani­fests a lack of sat­is­fac­tion in the way in which sov­er­eignty is ex­er­cised (or not ex­er­cised). It is a bottom-​up at­tempt to ad­dress the im­bal­ance which cur­rently char­ac­ter­izes the State-​market-​community tri­angle.4

Occupation is not an end in it­self, but a weapon of last re­sort in the hands of the weakest part of the re­la­tion­ship. It is a clear mes­sage sent to the State, as the formal holder of sov­er­eignty, from the people as the source of that power. However, nu­merous and con­tinuous evic­tions demon­strate that there are ser­ious prob­lems of miscommunication.


Illegality, Cooperation, Legitimacy

The third point relates to the ca­pa­city of oc­cu­pa­tion to sub­vert the legality/​legitimacy duality, and to use il­leg­ality as the starting point of a vir­tuous pro­cess that passes through the pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion of common re­sources. The oc­cu­pa­tion of someone else’s prop­erty, whether public or private, runs counter to the Italian legal order. Not only can oc­cu­piers be forced to com­pensate and re­turn the space to the formal owner, they can also be vi­ol­ently evicted and sen­tenced to prison, with a wor­ri­some tend­ency in re­cent years to priv­ilege crim­inal rem­edies over civil mech­an­isms. However, as Peñalver and Katyal high­light in their Property Outlaws,5 an ori­ginal act of il­leg­ality can also be the first step in a tra­jectory to­ward legal in­nov­a­tions, so­cial trans­form­a­tion, and legalization.

Crucial for this shift from il­leg­ality to leg­ality is the con­sol­id­a­tion of le­git­imacy, in­tended as the local and col­lective re­cog­ni­tion of the de­sirab­ility of the oc­cu­pa­tion, which can then be trans­planted into pos­itive law. If anti-​discrimination laws were en­acted in the United States when a group of black people oc­cu­pied the whites-​only space of a res­taurant for sev­eral days, leading to col­lective con­cern, public mo­bil­iz­a­tion, and even­tu­ally the in­ter­ven­tion of the le­gis­lator, why could not the cur­rent oc­cu­pa­tions of aban­doned factories, empty public build­ings, or other spaces, which are not cre­ating any common utility or are about to be sub­tracted from the col­lectivity, lead to fu­ture le­gis­lative re­form aimed at re­cog­nizing the su­premacy of common utility and common in­terest over the private ac­cu­mu­la­tion of re­sources and the logic of the market?

Admittedly, the con­struc­tion of le­git­imacy is not a pro­cess that can happen overnight. It re­quires deep in­volve­ment with so­ciety, not only at the local level. The novel lib­er­a­tion of oc­cu­pied space, where the col­lectivity is in­vited and can profit from ser­vices that would not be avail­able oth­er­wise (or more ex­pens­ively), could play a cru­cial role if prop­erly re­in­forced and ad­equately rooted in the so­cial struc­ture of each city. The legal and so­cial de­fense of the oc­cu­pa­tion could act as mu­tual sup­ports, since a modi­fic­a­tion of the law (or of the in­ter­pret­a­tion of the law provided by courts) would be in­flu­enced by col­lective per­cep­tion and as­so­ci­ated pres­sures ex­erted on polit­ical and le­gis­lative powers. Rather than acting like a frightened an­imal that de­fends it­self with all its force, oc­cu­piers would be­nefit from a de­fense based on more open­ness, more par­ti­cip­a­tion, more in­volve­ment of the com­munity in the pro­ject and in the utility pro­duced. They will need to ‘bring their spaces out­side their spaces’, in­crease vis­ib­ility and trans­par­ency, and place ima­gin­a­tion at the center.

Only then, when in the col­lective ima­ginary an oc­cu­pied space be­comes a space that cannot be ‘dis-​occupied’, will oc­cu­piers win their struggle. Italian prop­erty out­laws will reach their goal only when their ac­tion is re­cog­nized as a le­git­imate use of ab­so­lute sov­er­eignty, when their lib­er­a­tion of a pre­vi­ously en­closed space is so strongly sup­ported that it would be un­ima­gin­able for the public au­thority to en­force its own form of lib­er­a­tion by means of public violence.

Despite the ef­forts and the at­tempts made by Rebeldìa and the other move­ments in­volved in the cam­paign to lib­erate en­closed spaces, on Tuesday September 17th the crim­inal court of Pisa de­clared the oc­cu­pa­tion il­legal, as the crim­inal code re­quired, without re­cog­nizing the so­cial func­tion and the col­lective utility pro­duced by the oc­cu­piers. Once again, leg­ality won over le­git­imacy, high­lighting the im­port­ance of re­de­fining the bor­ders of the former through a con­sol­id­a­tion of the latter. However, the struggle for spaces of lib­er­a­tion and a re­appro­pri­ation of sov­er­eignty is only just beginning.

Tomaso Fer­rando is a PhD Can­did­ate at Sci­ences Po Law School, Paris.

Show 5 foot­notes

  1. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New edi­tion ed. 1999).
  2. David Harvey, The New Imperialism (2003).
  3. Saskia Sassen, Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (2008).
  4. Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Toward a New Legal Common Sense: Law, Globalization, and Emancipation (2002).
  5. Eduardo M. Penalver & Sonia Katyal, Property Outlaws: How Squatters, Pirates, and Protesters Improve the Law of Ownership (2010).

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