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Politics put to work: Workers’ experiences in social cooperatives in Milan, Italy

Authors: Valentina Castellini*, University of Toronto
Topics: Economic Geography, Europe, Gender
Keywords: Precarious Work, Meaningful Work, Social Economy, Italy, Austerity, Welfare Restructuring, Social Reproduction
Session Type: Paper
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


In a contemporary moment defined by increased precariousness for many, recurrent social, economic and ecological crises have exasperated inequalities on a global scale. At a local level, growing disparities are increasingly met with authoritarian political responses and an intensified privatization of public services. Italy, where my research is focused, is a crucible in this respect. There, right-wing and populist forces use an economy crippled by recession and dramatic social issues, such as the ongoing refugee crisis, to justify the exacerbation of austerity measures. My research centres on how people working in the social economy (SE) in Milan shoulder the work of responding to austerity while ensuring the provision of essential social services. I am interested in the ways in which both SE organizations and their membership cope with austerity, but also internalize it and reproduce its logics. Specifically, I investigate the overlap between work and activism in social cooperatives. These organizations are major players in the Italian social economy. Social cooperatives perform work that has vital social and political significance, and yet are deeply implicated in processes of welfare restructuring. These organizations tend to attract progressive-leaning individuals driven by strong ethical and political motivations. Nonetheless, SE work is emotionally intense, poorly paid, often feminized, precarious, and constantly threatened by lack of funding. Exposing the ways in which politics and motivation can be instrumentalized could help us envisage responses to austerity that are not only socially meaningful but that also avoid reproduce intense, unrecognized, and unevenly distributed forms of labour.

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