Mussolini’s Ghost

The Italian Future Past

Four days before Mussolini’s ghost came back, a friend and I raced through the high-walled alleys of Venice in dazzling afternoon sunshine.

Waiting to get cloned. Gran Madre flea market, Torino.

I moved to the country a month ago and we took the trip as a respite from the bureaucratic nightmares of crossing borders. That day, on a wild goose chase across canals, running for the train but careless enough to stop for takeaway spritzes at a little wooden bar, the election felt very far away – even for someone who has worked in and around politics for a decade. 

If you’re lucky enough to be in a crowd of tourists in languid late summer, you can ignore the shadows, at least for a while. But before we leave, there’s a defaced poster against the cobblestones. An inoffensive-looking smiling woman stares up in faded ink. By Sunday, she will lead the resurgent vanguard of the European hard right. 

Giorgia Meloni’s coalition took Venice by over half – an impressive victory, but far from the most striking one. Almost all of the electoral map is now a sea of blue.  

Wilfully burying one’s head in the sand for a few hours is one thing, but much of what passes for contemporary Western liberalism has been doing so for years. Since Donald Trump’s defeat in the US, middle-ground politics across the Atlantic has narrated a gradual return to business-as-usual “normality”, of the temporary insurgencies on both left and right stalling and the grown-ups being back in charge. 

But this mode of thought requires fundamentally suspending the idea that politics is connected to things that happen in the real world. The so-called grown-ups have not managed to deal with our rivers drying up, or the battery of economic crises sweeping across Europe, or the growing fragmentation of international systems meant to prevent interstate conflict. 

I write this from the heart of Lombardy, where early-pandemic devastation still makes locals more nervous about mask-wearing than most of Europe, and which now has just suffered its worst drought in decades, with over three billion euros of crop damage sustained. 

Normal politics has created or worsened abnormal conditions, which has generated abnormal politics. And in this context, Italy is far from a regrettable outlier. It is a place where conditions that are increasingly coming to define much of Europe are at their most pronounced and advanced. 

The Revenge of History 

If contemporary liberals have often underestimated danger, they also have a contradictory tendency to apply the “fascism” label too lightly. 

In the UK, Europeanist commentators routinely referred to Brexit as a fascist project. In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 US election, I referred to Trump as a fascist, before calming down and remembering that rampant racism, fascist links, and even insurgent politics rooted in a personality cult, are perfectly compatible with regular conservatism. 

Umberto Eco, who grew up during the fall of Italian fascism, identifies in a beautiful essay what he calls “ur-fascism”; the cocktail of latent fascist impulses lurking within our body politic. It’s possible for a political project to exhibit some of such tendencies and not fundamentally rupture with politics-as-usual. But why stress this point in relation to the Italian election? 

Because, for all the moderation of her election campaign, her personal ambiguity, and her reliance on a coalition which spans the right, incoming Italian prime minister Meloni is the closest a major Western economy has come to a fascist leader since the Second World War. 

The Italian fascist tradition has seen less interruption than in comparable countries. 

On a tourist trail overlooking the wealthy’s seaplanes as I ascend from Lake Como on a grey Tuesday, I see an imposing white lighthouse flanked by three crosses. Like many landmarks, it retains a dedication plaque to Benito Mussolini. It sits in an iron cage, lest anyone with a dimmer view of Il Duce takes matters into their own hands. And it sits over the village where partisans captured and executed Mussolini as he attempted to flee to the Swiss border in the dying days of the war. 

A year after his death, the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) was founded in Rome to openly celebrate his legacy and continue his work. Over the decades, participation in democratic politics blunted the MSI’s hardline edges to some degree – but the resurgence has been a long time coming. 

In the 2000s, right-wing prime minister and international punchline Silvio Berlusconi pursued a deliberate policy of rehabilitating fascists as junior coalition partners. (Berlusconi is now himself reduced to the status of junior coalition partner.) Meanwhile, in 2012, the MSI was refounded as Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) in an explicit reassertion of the movement’s original roots. It is this legacy that Georgia Meloni, their leader and a lifelong activist, inherits. 

Historian David Broder describes in Mussolini’s Grandchildren how FdI and similar organisations bridged respectable politics and the far-right, pursuing a mainstream parliamentary politics while continuing to fuel forces on the edges. (Mussolini’s actual grandchildren are also luminaries in FdI.)

If Italy is the birthplace of fascism, then it also looms large in the history of the left in both radical and moderate incarnations; and not only as the home of thinkers and poets. It was the home of the most electorally successful communist party in a Western liberal democracy. 

The Partito Communista Italiano (PCI) was a genuine mass force which was still polling in the mid-twenties at the time of self-immolation in the 1990s. 

That legacy is now far less evident except in hammer-and-sickles scrawled by edgy students. I live around the corner from the local office of the PCI’s successor, Rifondazione Comunista, which still has posters up advertising its electoral front that polled negligibly last week. Two streets away, there were stalls out throughout the election and the difference across party lines was palpable. 

The right was out every day and brimming with enthusiasm, even holding big rallies outfitted with stages and sound systems. Both the centre-left and radical left were seen fitfully and only for a few hours at a time. A campaigner from another small left party – an alliance of greens and socialists – mourned that they were under-resourced and plagued by infighting. 

The surrounding regions were once a heartland of Italy’s workers’ movement; from the mass strikes rolling across Milan and Turin, to Novara providing the inspiration and setting for Elio Petri’s The Working Class Goes to Heaven. 

Right Turn 

On election night I make dinner for an Italian friend after her two-hour journey back from the polls. She hails from Bergamo, on the other side of Milan, another one-time red city. 

Her father was a PCI activist, and Lucio Magri – author of a magisterial and melancholy history of the PCI – was once party secretary there. The area’s politics is now more mixed, with a left-leaning city mayor in a right-oriented region. 

My friend voted for the Popular Union, a minor left coalition, feeling unable to bring herself to back the discredited centre-left. Her assessment of its collapse was blunt and bleak. 

“The right had a common programme, the left didn’t,” she said. “The right had bullet points and straightforward communication, the left had 45 pages of dense text. About three in thirty people in my class went to university. Do you think they were going to read all that? The right made promises, the left focussed on why you shouldn’t vote for the right with stupid slogans about how it would make Putin happy.”  

My friend laments that her mother, albeit reluctantly, broke a lifetime of left-leaning votes and chose Meloni’s coalition.

In July this year, the previous Italian government collapsed. The election was also held for the first time under new electoral laws which shrink parliament while rewarding larger and more unified electoral blocs. The proximate cause of dissolution was a dispute over measures to solve the growing economic crisis between the prime minister and former European central bank boss Mario Draghi, and his coalition partners in the quixotic and populist Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S). 

Aggrieved at their treatment by coalition partners on both left and right, M5S opted to go it alone and pitch leftwards with a call for universal basic income and various crisis bailout measures. 

An awkward centre-left coalition and a centrist coalition under onetime social democrat Matteo Renzi – once dubbed Italy’s Tony Blair – contested a united and coherent far-right coalition. Composed of Fratelli d’Italia,  Matteo Salvini’s Lega Nord and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, these once giant beasts were humbled to flanking partners of Georgia Meloni’s party. 

The campaign proceeded fitfully and dismally. One wonders what those worrying about putting food on the table would have made of mid-election rows like the demand by Lega politicians to censor a scene in children’s cartoon Peppa Pig where it is implied that a character has two mothers. 

Meloni’s coalition was successful in most demographics. Despite being Italy’s first female leader she polls better with men, and hovers just under a stable 30% with every age group over 35. She comes second or third among young people and graduates. FdI wins the highest earners and some sections of the middle and working class whilst narrowly losing the poorest to Movimento Cinque Stelle and a layer of the middle-class to the centre-left. 

M5S fell back across the country but maintained its grip on parts of the poorer south. These themes are observable elsewhere – the hard right doing well with the richest, making inroads with the poorest, and winning over (particularly relevant in Italy) a layer of hardly rich business owners who identify their own interests with the ability to push down wages. 

Voter turnout was dismal, at only 64%. Multiple observers I spoke to said there was little enthusiasm for any candidate except Georgia Meloni, and even then, the one rally for her coalition I witnessed was hardly electrifying. 

Some comfort can be found in the relative level of public alienation from her. But, there is as much if not more alienation from every other force in politics.

The Road Ahead 

Meloni’s rise – from 4% at the last election to victor – reflects rage against a broken system. 

The Italian economy has been falling behind its peers for decades. A series of privatisations in the 1990s failed to produce competitive big business, and the country remains oversaturated by small and medium firms who respond to their uncompetitiveness by forcing down workers’ wages – absent the much more powerful labour movement the country once had. Then the  2008 crash hit Italy harder and earlier than most. And the story since 2008 has been one of institutional failure, largely by governments of the centre and centre-left, to turn the ship around. 

At the same time, Italy was straitjacketed by the austerity demands of European authorities, which rebounded hardest on those least able to cope. Moderate governments felt they had little choice but to accept Europe’s demands, and in case they didn’t, a European commissioner was installed as Italian prime minister in a Brussels-backed soft coup. 

Interminable bureaucracy combines with capitalism and cronyism to produce situations such as the destructive marketisation of much of Italy’s coastline. And things just kept getting worse. By 2020, nearly one in ten Italians lived in absolute – not relative – poverty. Italian public debt remains monstrously large, but without much welfare to show for any of the spending.

This is the context in which Giorgia Meloni swept in. But her cure will be worse than the disease. Meloni’s coalition looks set to expand the ability of business to carry out exploitation in the name of efficiency. 

Regressive moves such Salvini’s proposed 15% flat tax are set to make that situation much worse. Meanwhile, one of the coalition’s first moves has been to cut already meagre unemployment benefits. 

There’s a crude stereotype about fascist economics being vaguely centrist or at least statist. Not so for the FdI chief. Her protectionism notwithstanding, she leads one of the most economically right-wing forces in Europe.

These economic issues cannot be divorced from Meloni’s race politics. All these crises cry out for scapegoats, and she relied on the right’s traditional tactic of scapegoating foreigners. 

Italy’s premier-elect has pledged a “naval blockade” against people seeking safety in Italy. This would not be a gigantic policy departure. European Union border policies have resulted in the deaths of thousands, and the Italian state under different parties has been assiduous in its persecution of those who aid refugees. 

Georgia Meloni’s rhetoric may discomfort moderates in Brussels, but it’s the EU’s border agency, Frontex – not the Italian far right – who have done far more in recent months to extend the Mediterranean graveyard.  

Regardless, things can still get worse. In May I went to Sicily to report on the trial of the Iuventa 10, seafarers threatened with jail over their search-and-rescue work. Francesca, on their legal team, is worried. 

“I expect strong discrimination and a heavy step back in the reception and protection system”, she says. “And I fear there will be a general cultural impact which will affect many cases I am working on. It is impossible to foresee every specific change, but as an example, I am prepared to face a huge criminalization of solidarity work.”

Meloni’s border policies will kill, but they will also serve a broader political purpose. Since 2015, the far-right has used border security to rebuild and reorganise – to agitate among the public, to attack the centre and left, and to congeal their own unity across borders through a common narrative. 

In the Italian case, it has also blended with a (reasonable) critique of how Europe’s poorest countries have been left to manage refugee emergencies whilst the rest of the continent (with the short-lived exception of Germany) largely stands by. Economic anxieties, racism, and resentment of European elites have been combined by the right in a toxic, but effective, brew. 

While Fratelli d’Italia won, my own country entered a spiralling currency crisis, causing the rare occurrence of a public IMF rebuke to a major economic power. The Italian coalition is to the right of Britain’s Conservatives, but the similarities illustrate that the Italian case is far from unique. 

It’s not just the soaring living costs exacerbated by policy choices, or the attempts to deflect attention by talking up plans to deport refugees to Rwanda – it’s also the partially self-inflicted macroeconomic crisis in the presence of deep vulnerabilities. A few weeks before the election, hedge fund managers issued their biggest ever bet against Italian bonds since 2008. 

It’s reasonable not to want to overstate the likelihood of a sovereign debt emergency, but these are stormy waters regardless. They are also possibly part of the reason why Giorgia Meloni has sought to remain firmly Atlanticist; to ensure the EU sees Italy as a strategic ally in the new Cold War and ratchets down its current aggressive tone. 

Indeed, neither Brussels nor Rome has much to gain from open conflict. But the reasons for avoiding clashes – from currency pressures to war on Europe’s frontier to domestic discontent – may generate such clashes regardless.

In short, Italy is suffering from more acute symptoms of a disease we all have. And its current condition can also generate further symptoms. 

The wider threat of the Meloni win is the confidence and instruction she gives to others seeking to emulate her, as we hurtle down a path of climate disasters, heightened geopolitical competition, and a winter of freezing economic misery. 

We are left only with the hope that a successful alternative to a discredited status quo and a refuelled insurgent right can yet emerge. 

The morning after Mussolini’s ghost returns, life goes on. The billboards are being taken down. I walk to the coffee shop where they are patient with my very limited Italian but can’t help sighing at the quantity of hot water in my coffee. 

It all seems normal, like nothing has changed. But of course, everything has.  

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.