In a variation on my last post, on the commons in South East Europe, it seems apt to mention another regional history of the commons, in Italy. This history was written by Ugo Mattei in 2014 as a chapter in a book, Global Activism: Art and Conflict in the 21st Century, edited by Peter Weibel (and published by ZKM/Center for Art Media Karlsruhe, in Germany, and MIT Press in the US).

Mattei is the noted international law scholar, lawyer and activist who has been at the center of some of the most significant commons initiatives in Italy. His chapter is a welcome synthesis of how the commons discourse in Italy arose from the misty-eyed imagination of a few far-sighted legal commoners, to become a rally cry in critical fights against the privatization of water, the Teatro Valley theater in Rome, and other cherished shared wealth. The concept of the commons has since gone mainstream in Italian political culture, animating new initiatives and providing an indispensable vocabulary for fighting neoliberal capitalist policies.

Ugo’s piece is called “Institutionalizing the Commons: An Italian Primer.” (PDF file) In it, he describes the history of the commons in Italy as “a unique experiment in transforming indignation into new institutions of the commons,” adding, “perhaps this praxis ‘Italian style’ could become an example for a global strategy.”

The story starts in 2005 with a scholarly project at the Academia Nazionale dei Lincei, which examined the many ways in which public authorities were routinely privatizing public resources, often with no compensation or benefit to the public. This project later led to a national commission headed by Stefano Rodotà, a noted law scholar and politician. In April 2008, the Rodotà Commission delivered a bill to the Italian minister of justice containing, as Mattei puts it, “the first legal definitions of the commons to appear in an official document” in Italy.

The Rodotà Commission defined the commons (in Italian beni comuni) by dividing assets into three categories – commons, public properties, and private properties. Resources in commons were defined as

such goods whose utility is functional to the pursuit of fundamental rights and free development of the person. Commons must be upheld and safeguarded by law also for the benefit of future generations. The legal title to the commons can be held by private individuals, legal persons or by public entities. No matter their title, their collective fruition must be safeguarded, within the limits of and according to the process of law.

Specific common assets mentioned included “rivers, torrents and their springs; lakes and other waterways; the air; parks defined as such by law; forests and woodlands; high altitude mountain ranges, glaciers and snowlines beaches and stretches of coastline declared natural reserves; the protected flora and fauna; protected archaeological, cultural and environmental properties; and other protected landscapes.

This early (modern) legal definition of the commons is rooted more in state law and its recognition of certain biophysical resources as public, than in the sanctity of self-organized, customary social practices and norms. The definition nonetheless has provided a valuable language for challenging privatization, most notably, the alarming proposal by the Italian Senate in 2010 to sell Italy’s entire Italian water management system.

This outrage led to the collecting of over 1.5 million signatures to secure a ballot referendum to let the public decide whether the state should be allowed to privatize the water commons. In June 2011, Italian proto-commoners prevailed by huge margins and helped make the commons – beni comuni – a keyword in Italian politics. As Mattei puts it, the commons provided “a unifying political grammar for different actions.”

Over the past eight years, the commons has continued to gain currency in Italian politics as the economic crises of capitalism have worsened. The language of enclosure showcased how government corruption, neoliberal trade and investment policies, and state subsidies and giveaways were destroying the common wealth.This was underscored by parallel protests by the Indignados in Spain, the Occupy movement, and the Arab Spring protests, which also focused on inequality and enclosures of the commons. Mattei’s short book Beni comuni: Un Manifesto helped bring these themes to further prominence and connecting many single-issue struggles that had long been seen as separate, but which in fact share common goals, adversaries, and values.

I like to think that most towns, cities and regions of the world could and should begin to write their own modern-day histories of their distinctive commons. It’s imperative that we recover and learn these histories if we are going to learn from the terrible disruptions and struggles of the past, and invent new forms of social practice, culture and politics.

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