Money and Territoriality: Complementary Currencies and the Construction of Local Sovereignty in Italy

Start of project: September 2019

This proposal outlines a broad conceptual framework for conducting qualitative empirical research of complementary currencies in Italian local solidarity economies. This framework aims to deploy the notion of “monetary sovereignty” as an investigative guide towards understanding the relation between economic practices, territorial notions of belonging and collectivity, and political conflicts that call into question the status of the territory as such. This proposal aims to develop an open-ended framework that can facilitate the analysis of the empirical data, whilst also being amenable to substantial modification in light of the data itself. Following the methodological approach of social anthropology and ethnography, this proposal takes theory and empirical data as interrelated parts of a broader process of inductive research.

While a large part of this project will depend on the specific case study, and on the field research that will be carried out starting in mid-2020, some broad concepts that frame the research design can be outlined here. Thus, the notion of monetary sovereignty is taken as indicating a general operational capacity to act within a monetary economy, without making any presupposition as to who the actors are. This notion of monetary sovereignty, therefore, does not assume that sovereignty is exclusively applicable to nation-states; rather, it asks whether it might be possible to define a local solidarity economy as the enactment of a certain form of monetary sovereignty. In the process of answering this question, a number of other issues will be developed in detail. For instance, the economic activities that make up the local economies under consideration are understood here in terms of concrete participation in an economy, in terms of economic practice within a certain territorial context. In this way, the intention is to bring together a wide variety of economic forms, from the familiar category of the capitalist business to other kinds of activities that - while being unambiguously part of the economy - might not fit the mold of capitalism so easily, for instance by relying on networks of kinship or on other forms of mutual support.

The local solidarity economies that will form the empirical part of this project are therefore understood in terms of the economic practices and the social relations that occur within these local networks. In the Italian context, such networks are situated and highly contingent phenomena which are distinctive for their close relationship with the local territory where they find themselves. Previous scholarship on these networks emphasizes the fact that workers and consumers in these territories make a deliberate effort to build local networks of exchange, in which the specificity of the territory as such plays a strong cultural, affective and often political role. The relation between the territory and the local economy is different from place to place, but there is always a very close and tightly woven relationship: on the one hand, the products and services that are exchanged in these solidarity economies are heavily dependent on the territory as such, often linked to the “terroir” status of a region - especially where agricultural produce is involved, as is frequently the case. And on the other hand, the network itself contributes to a certain “territoriality”, which can be understood as a collective attempt to influence relationships within a given territory, by emphasizing certain cultural, social, and political dimensions of collectivity and belonging as tied to the territory.

Given the anthropological and ethnographic focus of this project, an attention to the territory and to processes that create territoriality also presumes a focus on scale. This notion has been developed extensively within the anthropology of globalization in order to account for how a territory may be constructed within cultural and political projects as being significant on a specific scale. In this sense, scale functions as a sorting device that denotes the scope of a given phenomenon, whether it is big or small, long-term or short-term. Additionally, anthropologists in this field have emphasised the fact that scales are often contested, and often in friction with one another precisely over questions of territoriality. Applying this frame to the topic of solidarity economies therefore raises the issue of competing claims over the territory, which leads us to ask whether a solidarity economy may also be created in order to assert a certain territoriality, understood here as a form of authority over the territory as such, possibly against other actors such as the state or private corporations that might attempt to implement different projects upon the territory.

Therefore, the notion of territoriality defined in this way opens up another approach onto the question of monetary sovereignty, this time not from the angle of economic practices but rather in terms of other dimensions of sovereignty, such as territorial sovereignty. As with monetary sovereignty, territorial sovereignty will be similarly framed as an open concept to guide the research process. The aim here is to come to an understanding as to whether -- and to what extent -- local economic practices can be understood as attempts to enact a certain dimension of local power, against state-driven impositions upon the territory. Two conspicuous examples currently under consideration include an infrastructure “megaproject” in Piedmont, Northwestern Italy, where a local currency form has emerged from the grassroots opposition against the infrastructure, and the economic rebirth of a quasi-derelict small town in Calabria, Southern Italy, where a local currency form has opened up access to the economy to asylum-seekers in the region, in direct opposition to Italy’s asylum laws.

This project is currently under elaboration, and is pending ethical approval from the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex. Once approval of the project has been obtained, and access to the actual field site has been confirmed, research will be primarily conducted through sustained and long-term participant-observation for a duration of approximately 12 months. Rather than being a single unified method, participant-observation refers to a spectrum of different approaches to qualitative research, ranging from full participation to full observation, depending on the context. Furthermore, a significant number of qualitative ethnographic interviews will be conducted and recorded with residents of the territory and/or participants in the solidarity economy network under consideration. In addition to ethnographic methods, this project will also rely upon archival research in Italy, in order to complement the first-hand empirical data with official documentation on the legal, historical, economic and infrastructural status of the territory itself.