Innovating in the South: new forms of co-operation as practices of active citizenship (Part One)

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This article belongs to the Figli di Annibale stream.


Employment, volunteer work and gift have been the theme of a two-day «Forum on the gift» (Forum del dono, in the original Italian); organised by an interdisciplinary society – the research group «A piene mani: dono e beni comuni» (literally With Hands Full: Gift and the Commons) – of the «Federico II» University of Naples. These three notions – and the shifting boundaries between them – served as pivots for a collective inquiry, which sought to find a grip on the innovative experiments in grassroots collaborative organisation, emerging from the plural matrix of social movements and civic activism, that are currently under way in the South of Italy. Indeed, it could be said that these make the South a special laboratory of vernacular innovation, at the level of arrangements to facilitate cooperation at the periphery of the market economy.

Social relationships of employment, of voluntary work and of gifting are oftentimes at odds with one another, and a clarification of their respective boundaries constituted the focus of the first of the two days of collective discussion (i.e. October 7 and 8, 2015). Let us think for instance – as it was observed in the inaugural address by Mario Rusciano – how employment presupposes, by definition, an agreed salary, and how this formatting immediately distances this arrangement from the web of indirect reciprocity, and from the indeterminacy of future counter-gifting, that connote the gift relationship. Yet, it is this very otherness of the gift paradigm vis-à-vis the model of paid employment that makes it an effective «probe», a heuristic tool with which to revisit and contemplate categories of accepted meaning that may now be floating uneasily over a restless sea of collectve practices – think of the variety of experiments for which the notion of volunteer work provides an (inadequate) catchall identifier (Ugo Olivieri). This suggestion was echoed in the contribution of Lorenzo Zoppoli, a jurist who has previously explored the tension between gift and paid employment, in a recent article on «Il Tetto». Zoppoli’s talk focused on the enduring presence of a gift dimension, even in a regime of collaboration secured through paid employment. Specifically, he referred to all those qualitative aspects that are difficult to specify contractually, yet enhance the goods or services provided in recognisable ways. At the same time, the motivation behind this generosity – whereby a worker holds up a reputational standard of «care» or «professionalism» in his or her performance, irrespective of the difficulty in spelling that out into contractual terms – is undermined by the casualisation and precarisation of employment relations.

In fact, the precariousness of organisational belonging easily turns the potential for contamination between gift and employment into a boundary, if not an outright battlefront. While traditionally one looked at the absence or presence of a salary as a first port of call to distinguish between (paid) work and gift, this criterion holds less well in a regime of labour precarisation, and generates a host of ambiguities that chip away at the concept of volunteer work. It is far from unusual, these days, that volunteer work is undertaken in view of a determinate return (a retribution, either monetary or in terms of reputational or curriculum advancement): hence under an expectation that tends to be incompatible with a gift paradigm (Marco Musella). This level of ambiguity is not merely attributable to precarious conditions of employment, but also to a host of concurrent factors – which were discussed in Paola Saracini’s talk:

  1. widespread unemployment burdens volunteer work with the prospect that it turn into paid employment, nurturing a perception that work is being «exchanged»
  2. retrenchment in the public provision of care services, in favour of private enterprise and of various kinds of volunteer organisation: the competitive vicinity between these two kinds of private actors acts in turn as a potential source of contamination at the level of organisational practices and motivations for intervention.

The latter point was echoed by Dario Stefano Dell’Aquila, who shared his perplexity – in the face of a generalised retrenchment of direct state provision of care services – with the adoption of the «hospital» as a conceptual model around which to design regulation for the private provision of care services. This, in fact, introduces issues of regulatory compliance that sit uneasily with grassroots solutions based on reciprocity and horizontality. Think – he suggested – of a time bank run by mothers, to babysit each other’s offspring, and how public regulation can get in the way by demanding of the mothers who are part of the initiative – as «care providers» – that they possess pedagogical qualifications suitable for looking after children, under the assumption that a horizontal web of exchange ought to function like a residential institution.
The convergence of these pressures – precariat, unemployment, privatisation and the ensuing organisational professionalisation that is mandated by regulation – entails one fundamental risk, underscored once again by Lorenzo Zoppoli. Namely that any and every instance of collaborative provision cluster around the model of private and for-profit enterprise (and of paid employment within it), turning volunteer work into a pale variant of that very paradigm and shielded from any contamination with the gift. This would amount to loss of «biodiversity» in livelihood paradigms, identifying private enterprise as the new normal, and thereby justifying it as the one legitimate source of control/regimentation over a worker’s life.

Having surveyed conceptual difficulties such as these, the rest of the day gathered a number of experiential testimonies to help refresh and expand the possibilities for collective imagination, in order to carve suitable spaces – also of a conceptual sort – to the sprawling undergrowth of collective forms of grassroots «enterprising» existing in the South. For instance, practices of active citizenship and the paradigm of caring for the commons constitute alternative pillars to recover spaces for the gift economy, outside of the ambiguous continuum between paid employment and volunteer work. To this end, Chiara Ciccarelli of the «Mammut» Centre in Scampia (a neighborhood in the periphery of Naples) stressed the continuity – at the level of motivations – between volunteer work and political activism, and of how the former builds a useful passage from indignation to enacted change and thereby nurtures collective consciousness. These thoughts were echoed by Emma Ferulano of «La Kumpanìa», a social enterprise also based in Scampia. She suggested, in addition, to relinquish the term «volunteer work», and replace it outright with «self-funding». The word choice stresses the ambition to attain a qualitatively robust cultural and project offering, directing impropmtu activism towards the design practices and organisational solutions that constellate the realm of social and civic enterprising. These, in turn, can help make grassroots forms of service provision financially sustainable, also for those participants that contribute their work to them (for instance, through forms of indirect subsidy between different activities, as in the case of La Kumpania, where a small catering business supports the cultural production of a multicultural theatre collective). On the back of these experiences, Giovanni De Stefanis recalled the work of Laura Pennacchi to stress the importance of channelling disparate grassroots initiatives for the care of the commons through the paradigm of the gift, as a step towards the progressive emergence of an alternative to neoliberal development. The gift is a particularly fertile notion for this purpose, as it weaves a relational/ecological perspective (as opposed to an atomistic/contractual one), and attracts organisational experimentation that acknowledges and voices the ethical dimensions of joint action (Caterina Arcidiacono).