Autonomous social center

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Autonomous social centers are self-organized community centers in which anti-authoritarians put on voluntary activities. These self-managed spaces, often in multi-purpose venues affiliated with anarchism, can include bicycle workshops, infoshops, libraries, free schools, free shops, meeting spaces and concert venues. They often become political actors in their own right.


The centers are found worldwide, for example in Italy, the United States and the United Kingdom. They are inspired by various left-wing movements including anarchism and intentional communities. They are squatted, rented, or owned cooperatively.


Autonomous social centers vary in size and function depending on local context. [1] Uses might include an infoshop, a radical bookshop, a resource centre offering advice, a hacklab, a café, a bar, an affordable gig space, independent cinema or a housing co-operative. [2] As well as providing a space for activities, these social centers can become protest actors in local issues such as gentrification or megaprojects. [3] [4] Alongside protest camps, social centers are projects in which the commons are created and practiced. [5]


Western anarchists have long created enclaves in which they could live their societal principles of non-authoritarianism, mutual aid, gifting, and conviviality in microcosm. [6] Some of these community sites include Wobbly union halls (1910s, 1920s), Barcelonan community centers during the Spanish Revolution, and squatted community centers since the 1960s. They share a lineage with the radical intentional communities that have periodically surfaced throughout history [7] and are sometimes termed Temporary Autonomous Zones [6] or "free spaces", in which a counter-hegemonic resistance can form arguments and tactics. [8] Anarchists outside the class-struggle and workplace activism tradition instead organize through autonomous spaces including social centers, squats, camps, and mobilizations. [9] While these alternative, autonomous institutions tend to exist in transience, their proponents argue that their ideas are consistent between incarnations and that temporary institutions prevents government forces from easily clamping down on their activities. [10]

A free, or autonomous, space is defined as a place independent from dominant institutions and ideologies, formed outside standard economic relations, and fostering self-directing freedom through self-reliance. These nonhierarchical rules encourage experimental approaches to organization, power-sharing, social interaction, personal development, and finance. [11] Social centers can be squatted, rented, or owned cooperatively. They are largely self-maintained by volunteers and often close for reasons of burnout and reduced participation, especially if participant free time wanes as their economic circumstances change. [12]


Askatasuna social centre in Turin, 2016 Askatasuna torino.jpg
Askatasuna social centre in Turin, 2016

Since the 1980s, [13] young Italians maintained self-managed social centers (centri sociali) where they gathered to work on cultural projects, listen to music, discuss politics, and share basic living information. [14] By 2001, there were about 150 social centers, set up in abandoned, squatted buildings, such as former schools and factories. [15] These centers operate outside state and free market control, [15] and have an oppositional relationship with the police, often portrayed by conservative media as magnets for crime and illicit behavior. The Italian cultural centers were sometimes funded by city cultural programming. [14]

United States

In the United States, autonomous social spaces primarily take the form of infoshops and radical bookstores, such as Bluestockings in New York City and Red Emma's in Baltimore. [12] Since the 1990s, North American anarchists have created community centers, infoshops, and free spaces to foster alternative cultures, economies, media, and schools as a counterculture with a do-it-yourself ethic. These social spaces, as distinguished from regional intentional communities of the midcentury, often seek to integrate their community with the existing urban neighborhood instead of wholly "dropping out" of society to rural communes. [7]

United Kingdom

The rise of social centres in the United Kingdom as cultural activity and political organizing hubs has been a major feature of the region's radical and anarchist politics. [16] For example, the 1 in 12 Club in Bradford provides a café, a children's play area, a bar, an infoshop, large meeting areas and concert spaces. [17]


Street view of an infoshop in Barcelona Infoshop.jpg
Street view of an infoshop in Barcelona

Infoshops are multi-functional spaces that disseminate alternative media and provide a forum for alternative cultural, economic, political, and social activities. [18] Individual infoshops vary in features but can include a small library or reading room and serve as a distribution center for both free and priced/retail alternative media, [19] particularly media with revolutionary anarchist politics. [20] While infoshops can serve as a kind of community library, they are designed to meet the information needs of its users rather than to compete with the public library or per-existing information centers. [21] For alternative publishers and activist groups, infoshops can offer low-cost reprographic services for do-it-yourself publications, and provide a postal mail delivery address for those who cannot afford a post office box or receive mail at a squatted address. In the 1990s, available tools ranged from no-frills photocopiers to desktop publishing software. Besides these print publication functions, infoshops can also host meetings, discussions, concerts, or exhibitions. [19] For instance, as activist video grew in the 1990s, infoshops screened films and hosted discussion groups that, in turn, encouraged debate and collective action. [18] The infoshop attempts to offer a space where individuals can publish without the restrictions of the mainstream press [8] and discuss alternative ideas unimpeded by homophobia, racism, and sexism. [22]

Organized by political activists, infoshops are often independent, precariously self-funded, and unaffiliated with any organization or council. They too are often staffed by their own self-selected users as volunteers [21] and like the anarchist media they distribute, operate on inexpensive, borrowed, or donated resources, such as secondhand computers and furniture. [23] As a result, infoshops and other marginal institutions are often short-lived, with minimal income to pay their short-term leases on rented storefronts. [24] Infoshops sometimes combine the function of other alternative venues: vegetarian cafés, independent record stores, head shops, and alternative bookstores. [19] But foremost, infoshops disseminate information, serving as library, archive, distributor, retailer, [20] and hub of an informal and ephemeral network of alternative organizations and activists. [25]

A panoramic view of the interior of the Lucy Parsons Center in Boston, United States. Lucy Parsons Center panoramic.jpg
A panoramic view of the interior of the Lucy Parsons Center in Boston, United States.

Free schools

Anarchists, in pursuit of freedom from dogma, believe that individuals must not be socialized into acceptance of authority or dogma as part of their education. [26] In contrast to traditional schools, anarchist free schools are autonomous, nonhierarchical spaces intended for educational exchange and skillsharing. [27] They do not have admittance criteria or subordinate relations between teacher and student. Free schools follow a loosely structured program that seeks to defy dominant institutions and ideologies under a nonhierarchical division of power and prefigure a more equitable world. Classes are run by volunteers and held in autonomous social centers, community centers, parks, and other public places. [28]

Free schools follow in the anarchist education lineage from Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer's Escuela Moderna and resulting modern school movement in the early 1900s, through the predominantly American free school movement of the 1960s. [29] The American anarchist Paul Goodman, who was prominent in this latter movement, advocated for small schools for children to be held in storefronts and to use the city as its classroom. [30]

In one example, a free school in Toronto grew from the closure of a countercultural community café with the opening of an anarchist free space. It sought to share ideas about how to create anti-authoritarian social relations through a series of classes. All were invited to propose and attend classes, whose topics included: 1920s love songs, alternative economics, street art, and violence against women, though the longest running classes introduced anarchism and related politics of syndicalism and libertarian socialism. The course instructors served as facilitators, providing texts and encouraging participation, rather than as top-down lecturers. The free space also hosted art events, parties, and conversational forums. Other initiatives were short-lived or nonstarters, such as an anemic lending library and free used goods table. [31] Another free school in Nottingham found skillshare-oriented classes with more traditional pedagogy more popular than sessions on radical education. [32]

Similar to free schools, free university projects are run from college campuses most prominently in Europe. Organized by volunteer student collectives, participants in these initiatives experiment with the process of learning and are not designed to replace the traditional university. [33]

See also

Related Research Articles

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Infoshop A space that serves as a node for the distribution of political, subcultural and radical information

Infoshops are places in which people can access anarchist or autonomist ideas. They are often stand-alone projects, or can form part of a larger radical bookshop, archive, autonomous social centre or community centre. Typically, infoshops offer flyers, posters, zines, pamphlets and books for sale or donation. Other items such as badges, locally produced artworks and T-shirts are also often available. Infoshops can also provide printing and copying facilities for people to produce their own literature or have a meeting space.

The Alternative Media Project was a non-profit organization that promotes alternative and independent media.

Red Emmas a radical infoshop located in Baltimore, Maryland, USA and run by a worker-owner collective

Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse is a radical infoshop located in Baltimore, Maryland, United States and run by a worker-owner collective. Named for anarchist Emma Goldman, Red Emma's opened in November 2004 and sells fair trade coffee, vegetarian and vegan foods and books. The space also provides free computer access to the Baltimore community, wireless internet and film screenings, political teach-ins, and community events.

"An Anarchist FAQ" is a FAQ written by an international work group of social anarchists connected through the internet. It documents anarchist theory and ideas and argues in favor of social anarchism. It also explores other debates internal to the anarchist movement and counters common arguments against anarchism. It has been in constant evolution since 1995. While it was started as a critique of anarcho-capitalism, by the time it was officially released it had become a general introduction to anarchism.

The Iron Rail Book Collective ran a volunteer-run radical library and anarchist bookstore in New Orleans, Louisiana. The infoshop's main focus was a lending library featuring a wide selection of books on topics including anarchism and socialism, fiction, gardening and philosophy. The Iron Rail also sold records, zines, local CDs and some miscellany. Events held at the Iron Rail included workshops and art presentations. The Iron Rail also contained the Above Ground Zine Library with a selection of thousands of zines, some very rare. As of September 2017, their personal site and Facebook page have not been updated in since 2015 and 2016 respectively.

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Anarchism in Greece can trace its roots to ancient Greece but was formed as a political movement during the 19th century. It was in the ancient era that the first libertarian thoughts appeared when philosophers based on rationality questioned the fundamentals of tradition. Modern anarchism in Greece emerged in the 19th century, heavily influenced by the contemporary European classical anarchism. Because of the Bolshevik success in the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the rise of the Communist Party, anarchism faded after the first decades of the 20th century. The collapse of the military Junta put an end to the monopoly of the political power from the Right, whereas the dissolution of the Soviet Union diminished the allure of the KKE, allowing anarchist groups to gain pace in Athens and other cities.

Self-managed social centres in the United Kingdom Self-organised anti-capitalist communal spaces in the UK

Social centres in the United Kingdom can be found in squatted, rented, mortgaged and fully owned buildings. These autonomous social centres differ from community centres in that they are self-managed under anti-authoritarian principles and volunteer-run, without any assistance from the state. The largest number have been found in London from the 1980s onwards, although projects exist in most cities. Squatted social centres tend to not last long and therefore some projects choose a short-term existence, such as A-Spire in Leeds or the Okasional Café in Manchester. Co-operatively owned social centres include the 1 in 12 Club in Bradford, the Cowley Club in Brighton and the Sumac Centre in Nottingham.

Trumbullplex Housing collective and showspace in the Woodbridge neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan, USA

The Trumbullplex is a housing collective and showspace in the Woodbridge neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan, USA.

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Andrej Grubačić Academic, lecturer, editor, activist.

Andrej Grubačić is a US-based Yugoslav Sociologist, Balkan federalist, and university Professor with a Yugoslavian background who has written on cooperation and mutual aid in world history, world systems theory, labor history, and the history of the Balkans. He is the grandson of Ratomir Dugonjić, Yugoslav partisan leader and communist revolutionary. An advocate of an anarchist approach to world-systems theory, Grubačić is one of the protagonists of "new anarchism", and a prominent member of the now defunct antiglobalization or global justice movement. He is also a member of the International Organization for a Participatory Society.. He is a long standing friend of the Kurdish freedom movement. His writings and interests range from comparative world history of exilic ("non-state") spaces and exilic societies to the neo-marxist world-systems analysis, and from the sociology of stateless democracy to the history of mutual aid. He is an active participants in the World-Ecology, a global conversation of academics, activists, and artists committed to understanding human relations of power, production, and environment-making in the web of life. He is a social science editor at PM Press. He taught at the University of Rojava in Qamislo, and he is one of the most prominent supporters of the democratic revolution in Rojava.

Social anarchism is the branch of anarchism that sees individual freedom as interrelated with mutual aid. Social anarchist thought emphasizes community and social equality as complementary to autonomy and personal freedom. It attempts to accomplish this balance through freedom of speech maintained in a decentralized federalism, with freedom of interaction in thought and subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is best defined as "that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry" and that "[f]or every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them", or the slogan "Do not take tools out of people's hands".

The Autonomous Centre of Edinburgh, also known as ACE, is an infoshop and autonomous social centre in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was founded in 1997, although it follows on from previous groups. From 1997 to 2004, ACE was the Edinburgh base for the collective producing the news sheet Counter information.

121 Centre was an squatted autonomous social centre in Brixton, South London, between 1981 and 1999. As an anarchist social centre, the venue hosted a bookshop, cafe, infoshop, library, meeting space, office space, printing facility, and rehearsal space. Organisations using the space included Food Not Bombs, Anarchist Black Cross prisoner aid chapters, an anarcho-feminist magazine, a squatters aid organisation, and an anarchist queer group. Regular events at 121 Centre included punk concerts, a women's cafe night, and a monthly queer night. The centre kept a low profile and was one of the longest-lasting squats in London.

Rozbrat Squatted left-wing project in Poland

Rozbrat is a long-running anarchist social centre in Jeżyce in Poznań, Poland.


  1. Lacey 2005, p. 292.
  2. Trapese Collective 2007, p. 218.
  3. Piazza 2016, p. 499.
  4. Casaglia 2016, p. 489.
  5. Pusey 2010, p. 184.
  6. 1 2 Shantz 2012, p. 124.
  7. 1 2 Shantz 2012, p. 125.
  8. 1 2 Atton 2003, p. 57.
  9. Franks & Kinna 2014, ¶14.
  10. Atton 2010, p. 49.
  11. Atton 2003, p. 59.
  12. 1 2 Noterman & Pusey 2012, p. 194.
  13. Atton 2010, p. 53.
  14. 1 2 Downing 2000, pp. 293–294.
  15. 1 2 Klein 2001.
  16. Franks & Kinna 2014, ¶34.
  17. Lacey 2005, p. 297.
  18. 1 2 Atton 2010, pp. 47–48.
  19. 1 2 3 Atton 2010, p. 47.
  20. 1 2 Atton 2003, p. 58, 63.
  21. 1 2 Atton 1999, p. 24.
  22. Atton 2003, p. 63.
  23. Atton 2003, p. 62.
  24. Atton 2010, pp. 48–49.
  25. Atton 2010, p. 48.
  26. Shantz 2012, p. 126.
  27. Noterman & Pusey 2012, p. 182.
  28. Noterman & Pusey 2012, pp. 182–183.
  29. Shantz 2012, p. 127.
  30. Shantz 2012, pp. 127–128.
  31. Shantz 2012, pp. 128–130.
  32. Noterman & Pusey 2012, p. 184.
  33. Noterman & Pusey 2012, pp. 184–185.


Further reading