A woman with long brown hair and a cigarette-scratched voice has a question. “What does this place look like to you,” she asks, with the help of an interpreter. “An ugly ghetto, or something maybe beautiful?”

It was a trick question. We were sitting in a ramshackle squat in one of the least picturesque suburbs of Rome. The walls of the stumpy building were covered in graffiti, the ground was muddy, and all around us were bulky, menacing housing projects. If any of the 20 million tourists who flocked to Rome last year had taken a wrong turn and ended up here, they would have dived for their Fodor’s and fled for somewhere with vaulted ceilings, fountains and frescoes.

But while the remains of one of the most powerful and centralized empires in history are impeccably preserved in downtown Rome, it is here, in the city’s poor outskirts, where I caught a glimpse of a new, living politics.

The squat in question is called Corto Ciccuito, one of Italy’s many centri sociali. Social centres are abandoned buildings – warehouses, factories, military forts, schools — that have been occupied by squatters and transformed into cultural and political hubs, explicitly free from both the market and state control. By some estimates, there are 150 social centres in Italy.

The largest and oldest – Leoncavallo in Milan – is practically a self-contained city, with several restaurants, gardens, a bookstore, a cinema, an indoor skateboard ramp, and a club so large it was able to host Public Enemy when the rap group came to town. These are scarce bohemian spaces in a rapidly gentrifying world, a fact that prompted the French newspaper Le Monde to describe them as “the Italian cultural jewel.”

But the social centres are more than the best place to be on a Saturday night. They are also ground zero of a growing political militancy in Italy, one that is poised to explode onto the world stage when the G8 meets in Genoa next month. In the centres, culture and politics mix easily: a debate about direct action turns into a huge outdoor party; a rave takes place next door to a meeting about unionizing fast-food workers.

In Italy, this culture developed out of necessity. With politicians on both the left and right mired in corruption scandals, large numbers of Italian youth have understandably concluded that it is power itself that corrupts. The social centre network is a parallel political sphere that, rather than trying to gain state power, provides alternative state services – such as daycare and advocacy for refugees – at the same time as it confronts the state through direct action.

For instance, on the night I spent at Rome’s Corto Ciccuito, the communal dinner of lasagne and caprese salad received a particularly enthusiastic reception because it was prepared by a chef who had just been released from jail after his arrest at an anti-fascist rally. And two days before, at Milan’s Leoncavallo centre, I stumbled across several members of Le Tute Bianche (the white overalls) poring over digital maps of Genoa in preparation for the G8. The direct-action group, named after the uniform its members wear to protests, has just issued a “declaration of war” on the meeting in Genoa.

But such declarations aren’t the most shocking things going on at the social centres. Far more surprising is the fact that these anti-authoritarian militants, defined by their rejection of party politics, have begun running for office – and winning. In Venice, Rome and Milan, prominent social-centre activists, including Tute Bianche leaders, are now city councillors.

With Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing Forza Italia in office, they need to protect themselves from those that would shut down the centres. But Beppe Caccia, a Tute Bianche member and a Venetian city councillor, also says the move into municipal politics is a natural evolution of social centre theory.

The nation-state is in crisis, he argues, weakened in the face of global powers and corrupt in the face of corporate ones. Meanwhile, in Italy, as in Canada, strong regional sentiments for greater decentralization have been seized by the right. In this climate, Mr. Caccia proposes a two-pronged strategy of confronting unaccountable, unrepresentative powers at the global level (for example, at the G8) while simultaneously rebuilding a more accountable and participatory politic locally (where the social centre meets the city council).

Which brings me back to the question posed in the suburbs of Rome’s mummified empire. Though it may be hard to tell at first, the social centres aren’t ghettos, they are windows — not only into another way to live, disengaged from the state, but also into a new politics of engagement. And, yes, it’s something maybe beautiful.

Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein is the award-winning author of the international bestsellers, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. She writes a regular column...