Fascism 2.0 in Italy
It was the great Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm who remarked that “for a variety of reasons, Italy is a sort of laboratory of political experiences”. Jonathan Foot’s remarkable The Archipelago: Italy Since 1945 certainly seems to bear this observation out.
Not only did Italy pioneer fascism – with the fascist coup d’etat of the March on Rome having its 100th anniversary next month – in Bettino Craxi (leader of the Italian Socialist Party from 1976 to 1993) we see the template for Tony Blair and Bill Clinton; and in Silvio Berlusconi in the 1990s and 2000s, we saw the template for Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Victor Orban. Italy has also shown us the forerunners of technocratic governance and the populist revolt in the forms of Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement and the transformation of the Northern League of Salvini into a national right-wing populist party. With the corruption scandals that brought down the First Republic in the 1990s (colloquially called the Tagentopoli) we see both the precursor of other corruption scandals (such as Operation Car Wash in South America) and the collapse of traditional mass parties, in the decline of the Italian Christian Democrats, the Italian Socialist Party and the Italian Communist Party.
It is for this reason that political developments in Italy are potentially well worth keeping abreast of.
And, of course, trends originating in Italy that ripple out triggering changes elsewhere often rebound back into Italy. Berlusconi may have provided a model for Trump, Johnson and Orban; however, they, too, have provided new models for the Italian Right today.
As it stands, the Italian far Right, in an alliance of the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy (the direct descendant of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party), the (Northern) League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, are on course for a comfortable victory in the Italian general elections on September 25. Of these, the neo-fascists are in pole position, with their leader, Giorgia Meloni, the likely new Italian prime minister. A century after the victory of fascism through a coup, we are seeing the victory of fascism again — only this time through the ballot box. Needless to say, this is rather concerning.
Before a high-level look at this resurgent fascism, and what it may mean, I think it is useful to reflect on the superficiality of some aspects of modern politics. That Ms Meloni is poised to break the proverbial glass ceiling — and that it is the parties of the Right that have pioneered female leaders in Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Marine Le Pen and now Meloni is an interesting future discussion — has led to some truly bizarre situations where otherwise erstwhile feminists have voiced support for Meloni solely on the basis of her sex. Just the other week, at the Venice Film Festival, Hillary Clinton, speaking to the Italian daily Corriere della Sera was quoted as saying that: “the election of the first woman prime minister in the country always represents a break with the past, and that is certainly a good thing”. She continued in this vein, generally celebrating the imminent victory of Meloni.
While it is certainly true that there is some symbolic currency in smashing past hitherto barriers, it is a mistake to focus solely on the superficial aspect in itself. Electing the African National Congress in South Africa was certainly a victory and symbolic change there; however, if it has failed to take anything more than superficial steps to dismantle the economic, psychological and power structures of apartheid, then the benefit is relatively minimal — as great as the ending of formal apartheid there certainly is, if apartheid continues de facto otherwise.
The same, of course, can be said about the election of America’s first Black president who did virtually nothing to dismantle the legacies of segregation and structural racism there – Jim Crow may have gone, but James Crow Esquire III is still very much in place. Independence that simply changes flags but recreates or retains colonial structures and mentalities is only independence in name after all. The whip of oppression is still the whip of oppression regardless of the race or sex of the wielder. That “we” have, at times, been collectively seduced by the superficial and blinded to the lack of substance — or the actuality of the substance — is an all-too-familiar challenge, especially for those champing at the bit for change, regardless of whether it is from the proverbial frying pan and into the fire.
It should go without saying that the potential victory of fascism on September 25 is hardly a victory for feminism.
How this has happened is complex; however, it is useful to sketch out some key aspects of what this may mean.
All three far-right parties find their home base in northern Italy and were long animated by a perception that the richer and industrialised north was being bled dry by both a parasitic central government in Rome and by the parasitic poorer and agrarian south. Only recently have they reframed this from a regional argument to a national one — replacing the parasitic bogeyman of Rome with Brussels, and replacing the Italian south with the global south, in terms of African and Muslim countries.
A key unifying ideology of these far-right parties is a version of the Great Replacement Theory — which has animated White supremacist terrorist attacks from New Zealand to America, with the most recent Buffalo supermarket massacre being an example. In the Italian context, the far Right spokes fears of African immigration replacing White Italians, and of Islam replacing Christianity, combined with anti-Semitic tropes of elites in Brussels — or, with Covid, the World Health Organisation — facilitating this conspiracy. In stoking fears of a White genocide, the far Right has responded with the standard bearers of “patriotism”, “traditional family values” and “the Church”.
Flowing from this comes the “patriotic”, militarised response to refugees in the Mediterranean, pioneered by Salvini. And, in areas under local control of the far Right already, we see incentives given to encourage (White) women to be housewives and patriotic breeders. Distribution of abortion pills is hampered, and public funds redistributed to anti-abortion organisations. In 2019, they hosted the World Congress of Families, focused on gay conversion therapy and the defence of traditional family values against a conspiracy of leftists, LGBTQ+ and Islam. Similarly, they have supported the conservative resistance within Catholicism against the more liberal Pope Francis.
On geopolitics, the far Right has been quite sympathetic to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, while antagonistic towards Xi Jinping’s China. On coming to power, one would expect them to seek to dilute Western resolve regarding the Russian-Ukraine war, while focusing on the perceived threat of China instead — with Covid-origin conspiracies playing a key role.
It is not hard to imagine how all of this will be ramped up should they indeed form the national government. Similarly, it is possible to see how this will reinvigorate the far Right elsewhere — with movements in Brazil, the United States and Canada being key beneficiaries of this resurgent Right. How this may find echoes in Bermuda is also worth considering going forward.
• Jonathan Starling is a socialist writer with an MSc in Ecological Economics from the University of Edinburgh and an MSc in Urban and Regional Planning from Heriot-Watt University