The first by-lined piece I ever had in a newspaper dealt with the rise of political parties in Italy that proudly claimed descent from the Fascists of Benito Mussolini. This was almost 30 years ago, when memories of the Fascist era in Italy and Germany were still relatively fresh; one didn't have to be very old – hardly middle-aged – to remember growing up under those regimes or else being touched by their shadow in one way or another. And of course, the Fascist regimes in Spain and Portugal had only ended a few years before the article appeared. So the emergence of openly neo-Fascist mainstream parties in Italy – the birthplace of the movement – was a genuine shock in those days.
It's not shocking anymore, of course. For the past 14 years, Italian politics has been dominated by a Fascist-aligned bloc led by sleazy oligarch Silvio Berlusconi. A capsule description of the dubious neo-Duce that I wrote five years ago for the Bergen Record – on the occasion of Berlusconi's visit to the Crawford ranch of his good friend, sleazy oligarch George W. Bush – is still apt today:
Berlusconi is Italy's richest man, a media mogul who now controls 90 percent of the nation's broadcast media and much of its print media – newspapers, magazines, and book publishing – as well Italy's top sports team, the nation's biggest financial services firm and a vast portfolio of other holdings. His first term in office ended in a welter of corruption indictments; his second has been marked by heavy-handed media manipulation and a shocking use of his parliamentary majority to craft laws exempting him and his cronies from ongoing prosecutions and looming investigations.
He rules Italy through a right-wing coalition that includes a party which proclaims itself the "successor" to fascist dictator Benito Mussolini's sinister faction. He has flatly reneged on earlier promises to divest himself of his media holdings, while conducting a relentless campaign aimed at undermining the authority of Italy's judicial system, a bulwark of the nation's ever-turbulent democratic system. He has sacked journalists from Italy's state television network for criticizing his government – an act of free speech that Berlusconi called "criminal."
Berlusconi was turfed out of office in 2006, but returned to power this year at the head of his most hard-line coalition yet. And these days – in our "changed" post-9/11 world, when Western governments have embraced aggression, authoritarianism and the adoration of raw power as never before – there is no need for Berlusconi's blackshirts to sugarcoat their Fascist proclivities. Yet even though we have learned to expect the worst from our degraded democracies (and are rarely disappointed), it still comes as something of a shock to see Italy reviving one of Fascism's most brutal policies – the official demonization of an entire ethnic group – against one of the movement's most ravaged historical targets: the Gypsies. Seamus Milne reports in the Guardian:
At the heart of Europe, police have begun fingerprinting children on the basis of their race - with barely a murmur of protest from European governments. Last week, Silvio Berlusconi's new rightwing Italian administration announced plans to carry out a national registration of all the country's estimated 150,000 Gypsies - Roma and Sinti people - whether Italian-born or migrants. Interior minister and leading light of the xenophobic Northern League, Roberto Maroni, insisted that taking fingerprints of all Roma, including children, was needed to "prevent begging" and, if necessary, remove the children from their parents.
The ethnic fingerprinting drive is part of a broader crackdown on Italy's three-and-a-half million migrants, most of them legal, carried out in an atmosphere of increasingly hysterical rhetoric about crime and security. But the reviled Roma, some of whose families have been in Italy since the middle ages, are taking the brunt of it. The aim is to close 700 Roma squatter camps and force their inhabitants out of the cities or the country. In the same week as Maroni was defending his racial registration plans in parliament, Italy's highest appeal court ruled that it was acceptable to discriminate against Roma on the grounds that "all Gypsies were thieves", rather than because of their "Gypsy nature".
Official roundups and forced closures of Roma camps have been punctuated with vigilante attacks. In May, rumours of an abduction of a baby girl by a Gypsy woman in Naples triggered an orgy of racist violence against Roma camps by thugs wielding iron bars, who torched caravans and drove Gypsies from their slum homes in dozens of assaults, orchestrated by the local mafia, the Camorra. [More on the Camorra's increasing symbiosis with the state here.] The response of Berlusconi's government to the firebombing and ethnic cleansing? "That is what happens when Gypsies steal babies," shrugged Maroni; while fellow minister and Northern League leader Umberto Bossi declared: "The people do what the political class isn't able to do."
This, it should be recalled, is taking place in a state that under Benito Mussolini's fascist dictatorship played a willing part in the Holocaust, during which more than a million Gypsies are estimated to have died as "sub-humans" alongside the Nazi genocide perpetrated against the Jews. The first expulsions of Gypsies by Mussolini took place as early as 1926. Now the dictator's political heirs, the "post-fascist" National Alliance, are coalition partners in Berlusconi's government. In case anyone missed that, when the Alliance's Gianni Alemanno was elected mayor of Rome in April, his supporters gave the fascist salute chanting "Duce" (equivalent to the German "Führer") and Berlusconi enthused: "We are the new Falange" (the Spanish fascist party of General Franco).
As Milne notes, this Fascist revanche has not drawn a single protest from the leaders of the "free world." Indeed, they welcomed Berlusconi back with open arms to the gilded circle of G-8 supremos last week. Bush was the most enthusiastic of all, greeting his old friend and partner in war crime with enthusiastic shouts of "Amigo!" (Well, it's a foreign word anyway, if not quite Italian), then commiserating with him over Berlusconi's continuing criminal indictments (which, once again, he is using state powers to try to squirm out of). “I read the courts are after you again,” the American lawbreaker told the Italian sleaze merchant. “It’s unbelievable. I’ve never seen anything like it. Constantly after you.” (One can only hope that relentless prosecutors will be "constantly after" Bush in the years to come.)
But Milne makes a further point. The rise of neo-fascism in Italy, and elsewhere, is tied to the collapse -- or rather the surrender -- of center-left parties to the pernicious doctrines of the Right. Everywhere, these parties --- Democrats in America, Labour in the UK, various Social Democrats throughout Europe – have turned themselves into pale copies of conservative parties, adopting policies that have degraded society, destroyed communities, entrenched injustice, rewarded greed, poisoned the earth, embraced militarism and aggression, inflicted vast suffering on developing nations (through the straightjacket of "market reforms," i.e., corporate-crony welfare), subverted democracy, diminished liberty and gutted the very notion of the common good.
[Yet we are being too kind in calling this process a "surrender." As Arthur Silber has pointed out many times, the Democrats – and New Labour and other craven centre-left parties – have embraced the Right's agenda of elitist domination, militarism and scorn for the common good because they agree with it. Any figures with genuinely "progressive" views have been winnowed out or marginalized by the big money machines that run the parties. Such people are always a minority amongst the self-interested factions who vie for domination over a nation's affairs, of course. But there used to be a more substantial minority of such folks in U.S. politics, with enough leverage to sometimes affect national policy and even score some successes. But this strain has been almost completely bred out, as we have seen in the latest Democratic Congress – the most reviled and unpopular Congress in American history.]
Back to Milne:
...the same phenomena can be seen to varying degrees all over Europe, where racist and Islamophobic parties are on the march: take the far right Swiss People's party, which on Tuesday succeeded in collecting enough signatures to force a referendum on banning minarets throughout the country. In Britain, as Peter Oborne's Channel 4 film on Islamophobia this week underlined, a mendacious media and political campaign has fed anti-Muslim hostility and violence since the 2005 London bombings - just as hostility to asylum seekers was whipped up in the 1990s. The social and democratic degeneration now reached by Italy can happen anywhere in the current climate.
Italy has a further lesson for Britain and the rest of Europe. Berlusconi's election victory in April was built on the collapse of confidence in the centre-left government of Romano Prodi, which stuck to a narrow neoliberal programme and miserably failed to deliver to its own voters. Meanwhile, centre-left politicians such as Walter Veltroni, the former mayor of Rome, pandered to, rather than challenged, the xenophobic agenda of the rightwing parties - tearing down Gypsy camps himself and absurdly claiming last year that 75% of all crime was committed by Romanians (often confused with Roma in Italy).
What was needed instead, as in the case of other countries experiencing large-scale immigration, was public action to provide decent housing and jobs, clamp down on exploitation of migrant workers and support economic development in Europe's neighbours. That opportunity has now been lost, as Italy is gripped by an ominous and retrograde spasm. The persecution of Gypsies is Italy's shame - and a warning to us all.
In the current U.S. presidential campaign, we can see this dynamic of center-left collaboration with the Right – which has been going on for almost a quarter-century in America – playing itself out once again. Barack Obama's "surge" to the Right – as exemplified by his vote for the tyrannical FISA measure – is just another iteration of this process. Likewise, his embrace of the Terror War; true, he wants to do it more "efficiently," and perhaps add a few more targets – in Pakistan, say – but he still wants to do it. He makes no bones about continuing this militarist project which has already killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, bankrupted the national treasury, and is now – through the Terror War oil price spike – strangling the entire national economy. All of this – especially the Terror War's continuing brutalization and coarsening of the national ethos – is meet food for neo-fascism to feed upon.
And it's already gorging itself in its ancestral homeland. Rounding up Gypsy children, fingerprinting them, driving them from their homes, applauding pogroms -- as Faulkner said, the past is never dead; it's not even past.
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This story was published on July 14, 2008.