Association for Political and Legal Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Following World War II, under its democratically elected Communist Party leadership, Bologna, Italy developed into the wealthy, famously progressive city that Robert Putnam, et. al. used as an example of a thriving civil society in Making Democracy Work. In the parliamentary elections of 2018, however, elderly members of the Arci Benassi, an antifascist social center at the heart of Bologna’s progressive culture, confessed in a television interview to voting for the populist Lega Party. This confession sparked a public reckoning with shifts in Bologna’s community values, topped off by an open-mike discussion at the Benassi center involving community leaders from representatives of immigrant residents to the city’s administrator of “civic imagination.” The event exposed tensions visible in many places across the city. Paradoxically, despite the angry divisions between progressive elites and populists, however, their conflict is driven by a shared refusal to imagine a desirable civic community that is not dependent upon persistent economic growth. Both groups also overlook successes in marginal communities such as precariat youth. Yet, very slow or negative growth is the future of many democracies, and a refusal to imagine communities that can thrive within it is dangerous. My analysis draws on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted between November 2012 and August 2018 among diverse community stakeholders, including leaders of neighborhood associations, urban planners, elected officials, real estate agents, advocates for the homeless, and members of anarchic youth collectives, among others.