Co-ops in Italy

In Coop in Bolsena

inCoop in Bolsena

Co-operatives in Italy are prolific, compared to most regions and countries in the world, highly networked. Estimates of co-operative enterprises in Italy vary ranging between 110 and 150 thousand. —Even the low number amounts more than three times the number of co-operatives in the US (a much larger country in size). One cannot travel through Italy without seeing co-operative enterprises. Consumer food co-operative and retail stores are among the most visible, especially in the cities. I saw retail food co-operatives in all of the cities and towns I visited including Rome, Bolsena, Emilia Romagna, Trento, Florence, and Naples.

Co-operatives across sectors have proliferated in Italy partly because they are and highly networked. There are four main “umbrella” organizations or federations  of co-operatives in Italy. These are: General Association of Italian Cooperatives; the Confederation of Italian Cooperativesthe Cooperative League; and the Union of Italian Cooperatives. These four federations are historically rooted in differing political and ideological traditions such as liberal, socialist and Catholic traditions, however, according to Vera Zamagni, these groups are consolidating. The strength of the co-operative movement in Italy can also be attributed to favorable co-operative legislation that provides a clear identity for co-operative enterprise as well as a law (the Marcona Law) that the co-operatives themselves pushed forward in the 1980’s that requires co-operatives to contribute three percent of their surplus to one a co-operative association for the purpose of development.

In Naples

Co-op n Naples

Here’s how Carlo Borzaga, Depedri and Bodini, describe the landscape of co-operation in Italy:

A general analysis of co-operatives by sector of activity shows that most of these organizations concentrated in four main sectors: construction, agriculture, business services, and transportation. However, the number of co-operatives active in other sectors was also quite significant.


The distribution of co-operatives by macro-regions illustrates that almost half of cooperatives was located in the South of Italy, less than 20% in the Centre and the rest in the North (21.9% in North West and 19.1% in the North East). The average age of co-operatives was of 17 years, which is higher than the average of other organizational types (13.5).


The data shows a significantly higher presence of agricultural and construction cooperatives in the South, while in the North services and transportation co-operatives were more developed. In the Centre the distribution of co-operatives across sectors was close to the national average. Borzaga, Depedri, Bodini (2010) “Co-operatives: The Italian Experience” Co-operative Oportunities Conference

Small grape farmers get together to produce and market wine co-operatively

Small grape farmers get together to produce and market wine cooperatively.

Less visible than the food, retail, credit co-operatives in the consumer sector are the agricultural producers co-operatives which are everywhere. For example man of Italy’s small grape farmers are members of wine production co-operatives.

Emilia Romagna in Northern Italy has a particularly high concentration of co-operatives. This region is home to more than 7,500 co-operatives and two thirds of them are worker co-ops. Per capita GDP in this region is impressive even by European standards (31,900 EUR 2008), in good part because of the many co-operatives in the region. In the capital city of Bologna, they are unavoidable. From co-op grocery stores to eye-wear, skin products, catering and books, you see them everywhere and many of the businesses that don’t advertise their structure, are also co-operatives.

Summer 2013 661The University of Bologna which is home several political economists and sociologists specializing in co-operatives. Vera Zamagni is one of them and my interview with her will be the focus of the next post!

Here are a few great resources on co-ops in Italy:

Zamagni (2006) “Italy’s cooperatives from marginality to success” International Economic History Conference, Helsinki. (Zamagni 2006)

Borzaga, Depedri and Bodini (2010) “Co-operatives: The Italian Experience” The Co-operative Opportunities Conference (Italian Experience Bazorga et al)

Italian Documentation Center on Co-operatives and Social Enterprises

Making Contacts Northern Italy

There are plenty of scholars and cooperativistas in Italy but my lack of Italian limits the number and quality of conversations I might have. I am particularly excited to meet two scholars who I suspect speak English because they’ve published extensively in English. Vera Zamagni is one of them. She and her husband Stephano Zamagni are famous around the world for their work on co-operatives and they are actively involved with the movement internationally, working for example in programs with John Hopkins and St Mary’s University.  Vera Zamagani is a co-operative/international economist based in Emilia Romagna; she has written several books and a plethora of articles on Italian co-operatives. Of particular interest, for work available in English is the co-authored book Cooperative Enterprise: Facing the Challenge of Globalizationas well as several recent articles including Menzani and Zamagni “Italian Cooperative Networks” in Enterprise and Society“Interpreting the Roles and Importance of Co-operative Enterprises in a Historical Perspective” in a fantastic new journal, The Journal of Entrepreneurial and Economic Diversity which publishes articles by long-term favorites mine like Johnston Birchal and Panu Kalmi.

Carlo Borzaga is the other person I am excited to meet. He is the chairman of Euricse, the European Research Institute on Co-operative and Social Enterprise that publishes data on said topics throughout Europe. Some of Borzaga’s work on social enterprises and co-operatives available in English includes The Emergence of Social Enterprisean edited volume on social enterprise, and “Testing the Distributed Effects of Social Enterprise: the case study of Italy” as well as a chapter in The Social: International Perspectives on Solidarity Economy in which several members of the Community Economies Collective chapters including one co-authored by Julie Graham and myself.

Summer 2013 680To my great surprise, both Vera Zamagni and Carlo Borzorga responded to my emails the very next day. Zamagni said she was available to meet with me the next Wednesday or Monday and Borzorga said Friday would work for him. So, I’m headed on the fast train to Bologna to meet with Zamagni and then up to Trento to meet with Borzaga.

Benvenuti a Bolsena!

Summer 2013 182It’s the morning of July 2nd so we’re headed to Bolsena!  There are 21 of us–here are our names here are in order of our working groups of three: Jenny Cameron, Esra Erdam, Sean Tanner, Claire Brault, Kath Gibson, Eric Sarimento, Kelly Dombroski, Rhyall Gordon, Yayha Madre, Janelle Cornwell (that’s me!), Ceren Ozselcuk, Boone Shear, Ann Hill, Ethan Miller, Kevin St Martin, Nate Gabriel, Oona Morrow, Marianna Pavlovskaya, Za Barron, Stephen Healy, and Maliha Safri.  We pile into a bus and hit the road.

I’m working with Boone Shear and Ceren Ozselcuk. Boone is an activist anthropologist/doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts. His research and organizing focuses on solidarity and green economy networks in Western and Central Massachusetts. He’s a prolific writer. For example, his work is widely available on the internet including several articles in Truth out, the Daily Hampshire Gazette and Occupy LA as well as a bunch of academic articles in journals such as Rethinking Marxism, Urban Anthropology and Practicing Anthropology. He submitted two papers for the retreat. The first paper is about economic desire and building the economy as we want it. His second paper, co-authored with Stephen Healy is about defining the solidarity economy in Worcester MA.

Ceren Ozselcuk is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boğaziçi University. She is a heterodox economist with interests in economic geography, political economy, psychoanalysis and ideology analysis. Her academic work in English can be found in Rethinking Marxism, Subjectivity, Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society and Forced Migration Review. For the retreat, Ceren is working on chapter for the edited volume Performing Diverse Economies. Her chapter, “Communism and Sublimation: reading diverse economies with desire” is co-authored with another economies Yaya Madra. Both Ceren and Yaya have come to the retreat from Turkey.

My paper is about worker co-operatives building a movement of scale in Western Massachusetts. The paper began as a reaction to critiques of worker co-operatives that are based exclusively on the size of the movement (see scale rant). It took the theoretical approach obsessing over theories of scale. However it has become a paper about worker co-operatives leaving conceptual scale in the back ground.

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Well in the cloister

We are staying at Il Convento Santa Maria del Giglio in Bolsena, maybe an hour and a half from Rome in Northern Lazio on Lake Bolsena. In the rush to get everything done before leaving the states, I hadn’t contemplated what the convent might be like… And, I’m so glad I didn’t. It is the most beautiful, peaceful place I’ve ever known. Wendy Harcourt welcomed and a young grounds keeper with German Shepard by his side welcomed us at the door. We walked through the arched entrances doorways wide-eyed, past 16th century frescoes down a long hallway to a sunny cloister where a lunch of local meats, cheeses, wines and bread waited for us alongside flowers, water and wine.

The First Supper

Summer 2013 354Before heading off to Bolsena, and breaking into working groups of three, we gathered at the Villa Benedetta in RomeI am surrounded by 23 scholars with a deep commitment to economic possibility and a rich diversity of interests. 

Wendy Harcourt is our local host/academic participant. She leads us to a restaurant a few blocks from the hotel where we introduce ourselves, get to know each other and/or get reacquainted over a seven course dinner, bottomless cups of wine and jovial conversation.

Boone Shear and Claire Brault are sitting on either side of me. Boone is an anthropologist who works with radical organizations on non-capitalist development in New England. Claire is a political scientist and theorist busy developing a theory of uchronia and translating The End of Capitalism into French. The introduction to the French translation is her project for the retreat. Seated across from me is Sonja Capello, whom I just met. If memory serves, Sonja is geographer working on food sustainability and climate change issues in Africa–Mozambique. She is completing a post doc at the Hague with Wendy Harcourt (I think they’re finishing a book together). Oona Morrow, another geographer, is next to Sonja. Among other things, Oona researchers Urban Homesteading in Boston. During the retreat, she is working on a book chapter about social reproduction, co-authored with Kelly Dombroski who has done research in China, Indonesia and Australia. Katherine Gibson and some 16 other Community Economies scholars with fascinating research projects are seated at this long table, talking, laughing and toasting.

In preparation for the retreat, we all read 21 abstracts submitted by fellow participants so we knew a little about what everyone was working on. Topics of conversation range from diverse economies to diverse loved ones; the projects we are working on, what we’re excited about and where we are stuck. The courses and wine keep coming. We talk about about our working groups and share initial impressions of the projects and the prospects of the retreat.

Cheers to us CEC!

Meeting with Ethan Earle

This evening I met with Ethan Earle, former U.S. director of The Working World and former loan agent and coordinator at La Base in Argentina. Michael Johnson suggested we meet and Ethan was most gracious to meet with me last minute while I’m here in NYC. It turns out that he lives only a few blocks from where I’m staying.

The Working World is a non-profit organization that provides investment capital and technical support for worker cooperatives. It was founded to help “design, fund, and carry out productive projects only requiring that cooperatives pay [them] back with the revenues the investments generate. As active partners, [they] are more motivated to ensure that these projects are successful” and “that finance is only used as a tool to create real, lasting wealth for those that it serves.” Brendan Martin, began the Working World in 2004. He created a small loan fund in Argentina called La Base into which he invested $50,000 of his own money saved up from working on Wall Street. The Working World begain providing small loans to (mostly) worker co-operatives in Argentina and expanded into Nicaragua and more recently into the US, making low/no interest loans in NYC and Chicago. 

Ethan lived in Buenos Aires for several years and had a bunch of excellent advice about who and which organizations I should contact during my visit to Argentina. Among contacts, he suggested two author/professors (Esteban Magnani and Andres Ruggeri) and several organizations including La Facultad Abierta. See entrees in August for more on the work of these men and the movement.

Ethan currently works with the Rosa Luxemberg Stiftung a German non-profit affiliated with Germany’s left party.