Constituent Assembly of the Commons

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"the CAC aims at producing a legal regulation of the access and use of common goods. This has resulted in the introduction of new limits and constraints to property rights of both private owners and public bodies.

Such an enterprise finds its political and scientific legitimacy in the so-called Rodotà Commission (RC) – its chair was an internationally renowned law professor, Stefano Rodotà – who was appointed in 2007 by the national Minister of Justice to reform the third chapter of the civil code devoted to goods that are owned by the State. RC produced a draft, which, although it remained steadfastly ignored by the Parliament, introduced to us the innovative category of beni comuni (common goods) as a third category of goods progressing beyond beyond the public/private divide. The CAC restarted its initiative precisely from there.

The Costituente dei beni comuni has a two-level structure: it consists of: a) a travelling assembly which includes activists & jurists and gathers in different places in Italy; and b) a drafting commission (only jurists). The stopovers of the ‘itinerant’ Costituente are chosen among sites of severe environmental and political breakdown, such as L'Aquila, the gorgeous renaissance city destroyed by an earthquake and never reconstructed." (



"To my knowledge, there are three hotspots in the current Italian debate on property law that may well influence analogous developments in other countries. The first concerns the attempt to construct a law of the commons (beni comuni, common goods, biens communes) as a counter-narrative to the current naturalisation of private property. This is a new – even fashionable – topic, which Italian legal scholarship is increasingly investigating.

The second concerns the sunset of the constitutional principle of the social function of property as a legal strategy for subordinating private property to social interests.

The third is an experiment of bottom up law-making as a political practice run by a mixed group of legal scholars with a strong political commitment and social movements engaged in mobilisation for the commons. Although this experience is strictly linked to the renewed interest in the commons in Italian scholarship, not all theorists working on the commons are involved in this bottom-up lawmaking project. The goal is, roughly speaking, to reform the law of property and the legal regulation of access to resources (in civil law a specific branch of legal regulation, the droit des biens) through an experiment in collective drafting.

These three legal topics are tightly linked one with another. In this short article, however, I will focus on the third issue only; that is, I will discuss the experience of the Costituente dei beni comuni (Constituent Assembly of the Commons, henceforth CAC). Although I am one of its members, I was initially skeptical as far as some of its premises were concerned. This initial scepticism – I suspect – might be felt by many critics. It is for this reason that I would like here to share the pros and cons of such an experiment with respect to its theoretical and political foundations. This will offer an occasion for us to reflect on the role the law can play as a strategy of struggle and resistance against the neoliberal policies of commodification and privatization.


The issue of the ‘new’ occupations deserves some attention. I am referring here not to the usual squats, but to places of ‘commoning’ where occupants reinvent social welfare by opening up buildings of public or private ownership – especially theatres, movie houses, but also factories and farms released by their owners – to a larger community (the neighbourhood, the town, etc.). In doing so, they transform them into facilities and services to be shared and managed in common.

These occupations activate a virtuous circle of utilities production by ‘freeing’ real estates and areas from owners’ misuse whilst, at the same time, using them ‘properly’; for instance, organising Italian language courses for migrants, free sport activities, cultural happenings, after-school activities, free access libraries, etc.

By guaranteeing free access to urban sites, occupants not only put in place a bottom up production of welfare, but also try to reinvent labour out of the labour/capital relation. This requires finding alternative ways of income through ‘commoning’. Now, the attempt to save these occupations from eviction allows for a legal construction of common goods and communing. This permits disarticulating property rights while re-connecting what is legal to what is (illegal but perceived as) legitimate and fair.


Anyway the discussion on the symbolic and social impact of the law is actually very intense within the CAC. Participants uphold different critical approaches to the law and different ideas about what the politics/law relation is like: for instance Stefano Rodotà’s faith in ‘the right to have rights’, which endorses a notion of human rights as far-reaching entitlements no longer rooted in national citizenship, but in a new, global legal consciousness; or CLS and legal realist approaches, according to which legal rules are indeterminate and serve different political projects, so that we can use them to produce a fairer distribution of power; or more Marxian attitudes, where the law is deployed in a purely tactical perspective.

All of us basically share (or are aware of) the traditional caveats about the law. Most importantly: the idea of a bottom up process of lawmaking is supported by an ironic sense of our common role as lawmakers and by the enjoyment of the collective dimension of the enterprise.

In conclusion, I believe that this enterprise is significant beyond the legal text it will produce. Its importance is mostly political. To participate in the drafting is a way to diffuse political consciousness and pro-activism, to boost ongoing social conflicts, to lift the veil on latent ones and at the same time to make them connect. Moreover it brings with it an emancipatory promise playing with the same techniques deployed by the power it confronts, and might be a way to supersede the emptiness of representative democracy without remaining at the margins. Last but not least, it might represent a challenge to mere cynical critiques of law, but without replacing the crucial role of politics.

Nonetheless, I do not intend to celebrate CAC beyond its actual potentiality. This is not the opportunity to downplay the lack of a stage of general mobilization in Italy as Syntagma does in Greece or Puerta del Sol and 15-M in Spain. Resistance and struggle against neoliberal policies would ultimately require a moment when identities no longer matter according to the Agambenian notion of ‘whatever singularity’, when the sum of individuals engaged in the uprising dismiss the various identities normally ascribed to militants and protesters: students, precarious workers, jobless intellectuals, debtors, and even jurists (!), and become just a multiplicity of singularities acting in common, a crowd, a class, a multitude. Perhaps a demos, as Costas Douzinas advocates. " (

Is Bottom-Up Lawmaking Possible and Desirable?


"is bottom up lawmaking feasible and/or desirable at all?

The first burning question we have to face is namely: is it possible to produce law from below? To my knowledge, there is no evidence of such a course in legal history.

a) In the middle ages jurists were private citizens who created law: they were not representatives of the State. They derived their legitimation not from state authority but from the prestige of the legal source they interpreted (Corpus Iuris Civilis) and from their own personal prestige. However they represented an elite and created new law to serve the interests of dominant social groups (not poor people).

b) Customary law might be an example of law from below, but in complex legal systems its enforceability is in the gift of the sovereign and is in a way absorbed within it.

c) Is the lex mercatoria an example of bottom-up lawmaking? The lex mercatoria is certainly not produced under a state authority but it is definitely not law from below.

So we must conclude that so far the law has never been a weapon handled by the subaltern. We come now to another big question: how to deal with this (updated) faith in law? The attitude recently taken by some radical movements in Italy clashes with the most traditional findings of Critical Legal Studies (hereinafter CLS). And, of course, with the Marxist tradition, which I leave apart here. I will instead confront two CLS’ topoi.

First: we know that law is inherently incoherent, that legal rules are indeterminate, and that rights can be deployed to fulfil divergent political projects. However our disenchantment towards legal change as social engineering cannot disguise the lack of something. Is the internal critique strategy enough at this point? Can we defeat neoliberal policies, unbundle property, grant access to resources through internal critique, that is by denouncing the indeterminacy of legal rules and proposing socially oriented interpretations that might perhaps achieve more desirable adjudication outcomes?

I am not proposing to set aside the tools of critical analysis – which I am very fond of – and to embrace instead an illuminist project of legal change; yet, I am convinced that disarticulating property is a necessary step toward a fairer model of wealth distribution, toward, ultimately, a new idea of citizenship, and I doubt that such goals can be fulfilled today by means of ‘microsurgery’.

Second: the project of a bottom-up lawmaking has to deal with the Foucauldian critique of law’s performativity. Legal rules as governamentality devices produce not only behaviours but even subjects. If, in theory, ‘lawmaking from below’ should be able to flip the order of discourse, it would not lose its performativity, its ability to construe individuals’ identities, to orient people’s conduct. Distributive analysis, however, can help us to set aside the darkness of a deterministic image of the law as an apparatus that unavoidably maintains a given distribution of power within the social body and to focus on the ‘good’ performativity of possible legal rules capable of moulding different settings of power.

To begin with, a legal regime of open access for some resources, together with the defeat of the hegemonic role of property, would empower the 99% of all human beings, although this would not prevent distributive conflicts from reproducing themselves within the now-reinvigorated majority. " (

More Information

Commissione Rodotà sui beni pubblici,

E. Conte. ‘Roman Law vs Custom in a Changing Society: Italy in the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries’, in P. Andersen and Mia Münster-Swendsen (eds.), Custom - The Development and Use of a Legal Concept in the Middle Ages (Copenhagen: Djoef Publishing, 2009), p. 33.