Italy After Neoliberalism

Mussolini’s Grandchildren, by David Broder

Giorgia Meloni’s election win in September 2022 was a watershed moment in history. Coming from Italy’s postfascist right, Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) was the first party to overcome the antifascist nostrums that had been integral to European politics since 1945.

Single mother, but anti-gay families. Giorgia Meloni, Hyderabad.

Something like this had been in the offing for some time.

The success of Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party in Hungary, Law and Justice in Poland, and the growing popularity of Marine Le Pen in France have all been warning signs that change is coming.

But the rise of FdI is something different, perhaps more sinister.

Fratelli d’Italia is the end-product of several decades of complex political jockeying, much of which seems opaque even to those who follow European politics avidly.

In Mussolini’s Grandchildren: Fascism in Contemporary Italy, Syracuse University historian David Broder has provided a thorough and readable account of the regeneration of the Italian far-right.

Italy was the birthplace of fascism and, depending on whom one asks, possibly the only place where it existed in its true form.

If Mussolini’s regime never embodied the homicidal mania of Hitler’s Third Reich, it was nonetheless paranoid and brutal, and more than willing to adopt the racial laws demanded by the Nazis.

The Italian exit from the Second World War was less catastrophic than the German defeat, and although antifascists did wreak vengeance against their erstwhile opponents, this was generally less extensive than the period of so-called “purging” undertaken by France after the fall of Vichy.

Antifascism was the political order that was formed in Italy in the decades after the war. Having said that, fascism continued to be somewhat closer to the political mainstream than in West Germany.

Some personnel from the National Socialist regime turned up in public life. Most notoriously, Hans Globke, who had written the interpretations for the notorious Nuremberg Laws, had a second act as chief of staff of the West Germany Chancellery under Konrad Adenauer.

On the other hand, West Germany took steps to limit political radicalism at both ends of the spectrum.

The Socialist Reich Party, one of the few parties that explicitly looked back with veneration toward Nazism, was banned in 1952. The German Communist Party was banned three years later.

Italian political life in the postwar decades evinced many of the same forms as elsewhere in Europe. The centre-right was represented by Alcide de Gasperi’s Christian Democrats, and both the socialists and communists had prominent representation at the national level.

As Broder notes, however, there was always a thread leading back to fascism, particularly to the Salò Republic, the Nazi-backed puppet state formed after Mussolini was deposed in 1943.

The feeling that there were positive aspects or unexplored potentials to the fascist heritage percolated under the surface of Italian politics for decades.

The central thrust of Mussolini’s Grandchildren is what happened once the postwar structure of Italian politics collapsed in the 1990s.

After the Christian Democrats and the Socialists disintegrated under the weight of corruption scandals, the way was opened for new approaches to politics.

David Broder provides a roadmap through the complex thicket of organisations that achieved prominence in this period, a sometimes impenetrable catalogue of new orders, vanguards, and positions.

Much as the title of the book sets its sites on fascism, a lot of what is being discussed here is, in fact, postfascism, a term of central importance for understanding European and North American politics in the era of national populism.

The distinction is important. Throughout the postwar decades, a fascist or neofascist underground was active in Italy, with entities such as Ordine Nuovo and Avanguardia Nazionale trading atrocities with the far left during the notorious Years of Lead from the late 1960s to the 1980s.

More important for the current story is the existence of parties like the Italian Social Movement (MSI), whose politics were neofascist but who, by and large, eschewed terrorism.

There was a space for this in Italian political life, in which figures from the more radical groups mixed with Salò veterans in a politics that was extremely nationalist and racist but didn’t aim at overthrowing the democratic system.

These far-right parties flowed into the space opened up by the disappearance of the postwar parties. Leavened with younger figures from student life and the skinhead scene, what has arisen in Italy is a political faction that looks back unapologetically at the ‘positive’ features of the Mussolini regime.

Meloni’s politics are, in many respects, consonant with those espoused by the far right elsewhere in Europe and North America.

Europeans (read Christians) are in the process of being replaced by Black and Muslim immigrants. LGBTQ mores are being promoted in society to depress the birthrate and fracture the nuclear family. Pride in one’s nation and culture are dismissed out of hand by cosmopolitan, woke elites intent on wiping out the traditional civilisation of the West.

If the rhetoric sounds familiar to American ears, it’s because many of these conspiracy theories have been promoted by Evangelicals in the US for years. It’s just been added to the fascist repertoire in Europe, to help update its right-wing appeal.

The distinction between fascist (or neofascist) and postfascist is central to the current success of the Italian far right. The rise of national populist parties in Europe and of Donald Trump in the US have made fascism a central category in discussions of European politics in ways that it has not been for eighty years.

Part of the problem with employing fascism as a term for political analysis is the degree to which it has simply become a synonym for bad in some political or social sense.

The expansion of the term to encompass radical Islamists and liberals is a sign of just how powerful fascism continues to be as a term of abuse.

Meloni and her comrades in Fratelli d’Italia seem to have taken on postfascism as a self-designation, indicating thereby that they want to distil what they see as fascism’s positive, culture-affirming aspects without the threat of completely rejigging the political system.

Still, the integration of postfascism into the European political mainstream is the kind of thing which ought to give us pause.

Over and above its bigotry and xenophobia, the normalising of fascism (even in its postfascist guise) provides the grounds for a revision of our historical understanding of fascism’s original era. It creates the basis for excusing some of the most brutal movements of the mid-20th century.

David Broder’s book has much to recommend it, particularly his description of the ways that the postfascist right in Italy has managed to finesse the more violent behaviour of some of its adherents.

While Fratelli d’Italia and related groups have working relationships with more aggressive figures (such as those in the skinhead scene), they have managed to promote an aura of plausible deniability, allowing the party to deplore certain excesses while still keeping nationalist extremists onside.

Mussolini’s Grandchildren is an important book in many ways, not least for the light that it sheds on a political trend that seems to be on the rise.

As neoliberalism becomes increasingly dysfunctional, encouraging increasingly undemocratic responses to mass protests like in France, the far right benefits more than the left does.

Ideally, it should be the opposite. But, like in Italy, the French left remains tainted by association with centrist, technocratic politics associated with elites.

Until the Italian left gets back to its working-class roots and gives up its bromance with austerity bankers like Mario Draghi, politicians like Giorgia Meloni will always seem a lot more attractive.

She may still be a neoliberal, economically, but Meloni offers Italians plenty of opportunities to blame their woes on someone else – gays and lesbians and minorities, in particular.

Never underestimate the power of scapegoating. Nobody understands that better than fascists.

Photograph courtesy of MEAPhotogallery. Published under a Creative Commons license.