A Different Kind of Social Enterprise: Social Cooperatives and the Development of Civic Capital in Italy

Article excerpt

Viewed predominantly as service-based institutions, the contribution of social enterprises to civil society has not received much attention. In the discussion that follows, I draw from a variety of primary sources, including an in person survey of presidents and directors of 140 Italian social cooperatives, as well as in-depth interviews with leaders of the Italian Cooperative Movement, to investigate the capacity of social cooperatives to generate collective benefits for Italian civil society. Combining a social economy framework with emerging conceptual work on civic capital, I analyze the relationship between this unique form of social enterprise and two key challenges to community development in Italy: parochialism and clientelism. By combining systematic empirical research of Italian social cooperatives, as a novel though increasingly important form of social enterprise in Europe, with a conceptual framework which focuses on the solidaristic aspects of these organizations, for which there is very little published research in English, l hope to broaden our understanding of how third sector organizations are able to cope with challenges endemic to community development in contexts that extend well beyond Italy.

Keywords: civic capital; clientelism; cooperative movement; Italy; social enterprises

Introduction

Much has been written about the weakness of Italian civil society. Anglo-American scholarship in particular has focused a great deal on Italy's propensity for amoral individualism, familialism, and social hierarchy--characteristics frequently linked to a host of economic and political dysfunctions (Banfield, 1958; Chubb, 1982; Davis, 1973; Putnam, 1993). Less recognized are the vibrant social movements Italy has spawned, particularly its student and worker movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, the deinstitutionalization movement of the 1980s, and the more recent flourishing of its third sector.

In a political environment characterized by wide spread reform away from the post-war ideal of the universal welfare state toward a social development model strongly connected to economic goals, the third sector has become an important focal point in seeking opportunity amidst constraint. The centrality of the third sector in Italy's social and institutional agenda in recent years is linked to three overlapping forces: 1) Domestic political crisis and changing dynamics in Italy's political culture 2) Decentralization and other structural opportunities derived from well known deficiencies within the Italian public sector and 3) Pervasive skepticism and distrust concerning a larger role for private enterprise in the social sphere.

While Italy's post war political system has been infamous for its instability and inefficiency, the spectacular collapse of the Italian party system in the mid 1990s following the unearthing of systematic corruption and widespread problems within the Italian bureaucracy, have engendered a broad sense of alienation from the political elite and a more generalized questioning of the hegemony of political institutions in structuring participation in governance (Pasquino, 2008). Although a considerably decentralized polity whose local politics and public administration reflects the diverse origins of the Italian state, the widespread perception of excessive hierarchy, unresponsiveness, and lack of transparency, has led Italians to seek greater democratic accountability and closer connections with citizens through a variety of experiments with civic engagement, from deliberative policy making and participatory budgeting, to facilitating social dialog and the proliferation of a variety of social forums. This trend toward greater pluralism in the political system has paralleled developments in Italian society, most notably, the ossification of formerly vibrant social movements, a renewal of territorial identities, and changing understandings of membership. By opening up political space for civil society action and generating new ideas about the public good, these developments have placed a higher premium on the intermediary role played by the third sector, its capacity for social and democratic innovation, as well as its role in protecting individuals and societies from new social risks. …