As Europe's financial woes deepen and depositors increasingly question the safety of their savings, some European citizens are looking to escape their economic troubles by joining an Italian commune, replete with its own monetary, political and economic system.
Located in Piedmont in northwestern Italy, the "Damanhur" commune calls itself an "eco-society," operating with the help of its own social and political structure and money, the Credito. Since the financial crisis, the community says, there has been a "significant increase" in ordinary people asking to visit or join its community, whose economic system is based on "a mix of free enterprise, solidarity, communal sharing and cooperative trade".
Damanur resident Macaco Tamerice (Macaco means "monkey" in Italian—all residents of Damanhur take on an animal name) told CNBC that Damanhur is attracting many Europeans tired of economic crisis as interest in "alternative social models" grows.
"In the last few years there has been an increase in interest in Damanhur, and the hits on our website and participation in our Facebook page and blog have increased significantly," Tamerice said.
"This is why we have developed a program called the 'New Life Citizenship' which allows people to apply to come and live in Damanhur for three months, inside its communities as a citizen….After this period people can decide to become a citizen of Damanhur or use the new experience to be spread somewhere else," Tamerice told CNBC.
The commune has had over 3,000 requests for information regarding temporary residence since it started its citizenship course, during which visitors live in the commune and attend its "university" courses, ranging from art and ecology to holistic wellbeing, "astral travel" and "past lives research." Those who stay or leave often pass on the ethos of Damanhur, which has regional centers, called "embassies," in capital cities across Europe, America and Japan.
Though it could be dismissed as another New Age hippie refuge or throwback to the free-loving 1960s, Damanhur is a commune with a mission to create a new model society in Europe, a region it sees as desperately in need of a new type of economic and societal model.
Damanhur says its economy offers the "best of two opposing economic doctrines: liberalism and socialism"—an economic system it has developed since its founding in 1975. The community states that its economic system "blends free enterprise with solidarity and communal sharing, with the objective of creating the most advantages and wealth possible at an individual and collective level."
In light of the current banking deposit levy being imposed in Cyprus in return for a bailout from international lenders, the Damanhur community is keen to highlight the independence of its citizens' employment activities and stresses that all its citizens manage their own money.
Though not all of its 1,000 multinational residents work in the community's "co-operative" economic system, there are 60 businesses in the community across a number of sectors, from artistic workshops and computer and IT consultancies to publishing and eco-building, and these trade using the local currency- the "Credito" - which is minted in a normal Italian coin factory, Tamerice told CNBC.
"Inside Damanhur, you can buy and sell anything with the Credito. But we also have a convention with some shops and fuel stations in the area that people can buy products with Creditos. These businesses can then spend the Creditos in our shops and services, or exchange the Creditos into euro," Tamerice said. The commune's website states that the Credito "is legally and fiscally regulated, and its value is equal to that of the euro."
Italy has been in political limbo since inconclusive elections in February which saw the rise of radical, alternative political parties such as comedian Beppe Grillo's Five Star-Movement. On Thursday, the leader of the center-left coalition, Pier-Luigi Bersani, is expected to visit President Giorgio Napolitano with the news that he has acquired enough broader political support to form a government.
In Damanhur, however, a democratic system with representatives and elected bodies has evolved over the last thirty years, based on the active participation of the community in debates and decision-making. "In Italy there is a huge crisis and as we live in Italy, Damanhur is also affected by the crisis. But our system is based on solidarity, and in this way living together and helping each other when needed, we can live well," Tamerice said.