Autonomous social centers are self-managed community centers in which non-authoritarians, often as volunteers, enact principles of mutual aid. These community spaces, often in multi-purpose venues affiliated with anarchism, can include propaganda library infoshops and non-hierarchical free skools.
Western anarchists have long created enclaves in which they could live their societal principles of non-authoritarianism, mutual aid, gifting, and conviviality in microcosm. 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 and are sometimes termed Temporary Autonomous Zones or "free spaces", in which a counter-hegemonic resistance can form arguments and tactics. Anarchists outside the class-struggle and workplace activism tradition instead organize through autonomous spaces including social centers, squats, camps, and mobilizations. 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.
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. 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.
Since the 1980s, young Italians maintained independent, self-managed social centers (centri sociali) where they gathered to work on cultural projects, listen to music, discuss politics, and share basic living information. By 2001, there were about 150 social centers, set up in abandoned, squatted buildings, such as former schools and factories. These centers operate outside state and free market control, 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.
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. 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.
In Great Britain, the rise of social centers as cultural activity and political organizing hubs has been a major feature of the region's radical and anarchist politics.
Infoshops are multi-functional spaces that disseminate alternative media and provide a forum for alternative cultural, economic, political, and social activities. 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, particularly media with revolutionary anarchist politics. 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. 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. For instance, as activist video grew in the 1990s, infoshops screened films and hosted discussion groups that, in turn, encouraged debate and collective action. The infoshop attempts to offer a space where individuals can publish without the restrictions of the mainstream press and discuss alternative ideas unimpeded by homophobia, racism, and sexism.
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 and like the anarchist media they distribute, operate on inexpensive, borrowed, or donated resources, such as secondhand computers and furniture. As a result, infoshops and other marginal institutions are often short-lived, with minimal income to pay their short-term leases on rented storefronts. Infoshops sometimes combine the function of other alternative venues: vegetarian cafés, independent record stores, head shops, and alternative bookstores. But foremost, infoshops disseminate information, serving as library, archive, distributor, retailer, and hub of an informal and ephemeral network of alternative organizations and activists.
Infoshops sprouted across North America and Europe in the 1990s from the squatted anarchist centers of the prior decade, such as 121 Centre in London. In the early 1990s, a network of infoshops in the United States shared resources and a zine, and thus were more developed as a network than the infoshops of the United Kingdom. Separate from the anarchist tradition, radical presses have long been associated with meeting space functions, such as Giles Calvert's press (1600s) and John Doherty's bookstore (1830s).
Some infoshops reflect the protest subcultures to which its volunteers belong. An Edinburgh infoshop, for example, sold punk records (a genre and subculture that shares the infoshop's anarchist philosophy) and prioritized vegan food, which tempered the group's accessibility. The infoshop was only open and staffed for two afternoons each week and ad hoc events, which limited drop-in socializing. The group made decisions by consensus at open business meetings with regular attendees, a handful of people who ran most of the infoshop. Infoshops in the United States, especially those run by large, unfocused groups, have been known to close for reasons of schisms and in-fighting. Their goals can also appear opaque to outsiders and inarticulate at explaining the purpose of its strategy, vision, and stances.
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. In contrast to traditional schools, anarchist free skools are autonomous, nonhierarchical spaces intended for educational exchange and skillsharing. They do not have admittance criteria or subordinate relations between teacher and student. Free skools 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.
Free skools 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. 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.
In one example, a free skool 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. Another free skool in Nottingham found skillshare-oriented classes with more traditional pedagogy more popular than sessions on radical education.
Similar to free skools, 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.