Some Thoughts on Italy
As you are no doubt aware, Fratelli d’Italia, the far-right party headed by Georgia Meloni has won a plurality of the seats in Italy’s parliament and the “center-right” list it is part of is headed for government with Meloni as prime minister. Often I am forced to make arguments by analogy or morphology, demonstrating how political movements have features that I believe resemble fascism, but in the case of Meloni and Fratelli d’Italia the relationship to fascism is genetic—sometimes literally so: Mussolini’s descendants run for office on its ticket—this is party formed by neo-fascists and Meloni herself was a youth member of the Italian Social Movement.
I wish I could provide some in-depth analysis of the situation in Italy, but I have to confess that my understanding of contemporary Italian politics is pretty limited, even though I’ve spent a little time there. But I did notice one thing while I was there that was perhaps telling: a surprising casualness and indifference to Italy’s Fascist past. Fascist art and architecture is displayed without shame or even without much concern for putting it into its context. When I pressed young Italians on this they sort of sheepishly shrugged and said “Well, some of it is beautiful…” And that is true: unlike Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy allowed a great deal of freedom to its artists and intellectuals and they produced work of high quality.
I thought that this could just be chalked up to charming and sometimes naive Italian insouciance, an aestheticism that trumped all other concerns in life, but others I spoke to told me a different story. One man I spoke to, about my age, who grew up in traditionally red Tuscany, heart of the anti-fascist resistance, spoke of gradual decay. The culprit for him was the Berlusconi years, both its “normalization” of the far-right parties that formed a part of his ruling coalition but also its unrelenting, almost carnivalesque atmosphere of irresponsibility and cynicism. With Berlusconi it became impossible to take seriously the past, and almost anything else: corruption, lies, criminality.
In the American mind, fascism is so closely associated with regimentation and rules, perfect marching uniformed soldiers, that it’s often missed that it’s also a form of rebellion, a kind of gleeful rejection of liberal hypocrisy, reveling in its own vulgarity and brutality. It has an intrinsically populist spirit: “Let’s horrify, shock, beat up, and who knows what else, whomever we’ve decided is responsible for all this.” In America we were fortunate in a way to get our Berlusconi and Mussolini in one person and neither the clown nor the tough guy could get the upper hand, but we have to wonder how much damage his time in office really did.
I am not sure how concerned we should be about Meloni yet. Unlike its forebears, her party does not have blackshirts going out and forcing people to drink castor oil. But this itself may not be reassuring. For Gramsci, the reliance on paramilitary squads was always a sign of weakness of the fascist parties: they could not achieve actual hegemony, that is persuade the masses that they were the true inheritors of national destiny, so they had to force it, using violence and shrill propaganda. And the blackshirts for Mussolini were as much a nuisance as a help: he had to constantly placate or sideline them depending on the political circumstances. Meloni and FdI has received more of the vote than the Fascists ever did in an honest election. Granted, the turnout was extremely low: yet another sign of cynicism and demoralization. Do I think Meloni will bring down parliamentary democracy in Italy? No. And she doesn’t need to or want to: consent, apathy, and indifference seem to be her political strengths, not dramatic coups and mass mobilizations.
I don’t know how Meloni will govern. I am optimistic the refractory nature of Italian politics will likely contribute to her downfall as much as it did to her rise. I have faith that the Italian people, sooner or later roused and indignant rather than beaten down and pessimistic, will eventually reject this form of politics as they have in the past. But, again, I have to reiterate a key premise of this entire newsletter: it’s worth taking these things seriously.