Monday, May 18, 2009

Fascists on Mars

On the morning of the 25th of April 1994, Justine and I made our way to Piazzale Loreto under pouring rain to take part in the traditional Liberation Day march. Except this time it felt a little more significant than it ever had in my lifetime: less than a month earlier Silvio Berlusconi and his Coalition of the Unsavoury had won the national elections, and the new government - whilst not installed yet - was guaranteed to be the first in quite some time to include ministers for whom the word ‘fascist’ would be more than a generic insult, but rather a factual statement of self-avowed political affiliation.

Three hundred thousand people marched in Milan that day, and most of us didn’t make it to Cathedral square in time to hear any of the speeches. You can see some of the pictures and hear some of the sounds here, but it’s worth considering that number for a moment: three hundred thousand. Imagine yourself in a group of people that size. Now imagine yourself as part of the police contingent that is supposed to guarantee the order. You and what army, right? Later that year, one million people marched in Rome to protest the government’s plans for social and labour reform, and shortly thereafter Berlusconi lost the support of one of the parties in the coalition and had to forfeit his mandate.

But he came back, twice, and is in power to this day. As a result, there is now a far greater degree of normalcy in the idea that people who grew up politically in the Fronte della Gioventù, the main youth fascist organisation, may end up as national ministers. So here comes the part where I very humbly accept Mr Litterick’s invitation of some weeks ago to discuss what that means, politically, for my country, and if we can refer to Italy as being fascist, or run by fascists. If you’ll just allow me a little trip to space first.

Corrado Guzzanti is not well known outside of Italy. His sister Sabrina, who directed the political documentary Viva Zapatero! and whose TV work was famously censored by the public broadcaster at Berlusconi’s behest, enjoys a little more international notoriety. Both of them, at any rate, are important public voices who are occasionally allowed to speak in these difficult times. On one such occasion, in 2002, Corrado co-authored and starred in Il Caso Scafroglia, a satirical programme that contained some brutal indictments of the government’s policies, but is remembered mostly for a comparatively light offering: Fascisti su Marte, a six-part film purporting to document the voyage to Mars in 1939 of a handful of fascist militiamen. Much sepia-toned hilarity ensues as the bumbling explorers proceed to claim the ‘Bolshevik, traitorous planet’ for the glory of the regime (you can watch the whole series here). My favourite moments are those that caricature the rhetorical bombast of the triumph of the will, Italian-style: like when the men first descend on the planet and find it to be lacking in oxygen, a problem that the gerarca Barbagli solves by issuing a peremptory order: ‘Breathe!’ Or when Barbagli explains to his fellow cosmonauts floating around the rocket cabin that ‘gravity needs to be found within oneself, in the values of Fascism and in the mission.’

All very benign, all in good fun, so much so that at times you could be excused to think it was an affectionate homage, punctuated by some of the most unwittingly comical anthems of way back then.

These aren't fascists to be scared of. Except if one places Fascist on Mars in the context of the political and cultural work promoted by the Right in the same years and on the very same television channels: a methodical effort of revision underlying the claim that our values derive from pre-modern Christian roots, on the one hand, and the defeat of communism and socialism, on the other. Read against these texts, Fascists on Mars is only marginally less ridiculous than other acts of creative historiography instrumental to that particular cause.

Fascism is integral to this New History, consistent with its teleology, whereas the equal and contrary principles that informed our Republican constitution - to wit, the dangerous notion the work is a right of the citizen and the State is responsible for delivering social justice - are a deviation. To put it another way: the first Italian Republic (1948-1994) was founded on anti-fascist principles, which is why a not insignificant sector of the right wing inside and outside of Parliament could not clip its ticket to power without having performed appropriate acts of abjuration and unbecoming. In the second Republic - which began precisely in 1994 with the new electoral system - this is patently no longer the case, but there is still the small matter of rewriting the history books and the school curricula to reflect this change of heart. Nothing less will satisfy people who used in their youth to take such pride in their belonging.

Because the transition is not yet complete, and the former fascist youngsters who now fill the offices of, say, Minister of Defence, or Mayor of our capital, cannot indulge quite yet in public displays of affection for the old regime and still hope to occupy those institutions, especially in the wider context of international relations with out major allies. This was the scene when Gianni Alemanno, the current mayor of Rome, took office:

More of these lovely pictures here

You could almost physically hear the sound of eyebrows being raised across Europe, including those of Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who publicly doubted his ability to work with a politician who would tolerate such displays from his supporters. Alemanno initially bristled, but later went on to express 'pain and revulsion for the inhumanity of Fascism'. A bitter pill, no doubt, and it won't be the last one he has to swallow in order to be allowed to play with the big boys of European politics.

And he's not alone. Even leaders of Forza Nuova, the organisation for fascists who never have to say I'm sorry, have started walking that embarrassing tight rope in the hope of getting closer to the levers of power. Following the recent congress of the movement in Milan, secretary Roberto Fiore said 'I didn't see any Roman salutes'. He is in fact pictured here, first from the left, experiencing a freak occurrence of sudden and temporary retinal detachment in both eyes:

It's like they're daring him to show his hand and return the salute, don't you think? And here's another one of Fiore's mates, Padre Tam, Roman-saluting at a Forza Nuova march in Bergamo.

This fine figure of clergyman, recently in the news for claiming that the Nazi gas chambers were used for disinfection purposes, belongs to the Society of St. Pius X, well known for its anti-semitism and recently re-admitted by the current Pope into the fold of the Church.

All this, however, is theatre, and I get a little impatient with it. We should be more afraid of self-disciplined fascists who know not to do the Roman salute in public, than we are of those whose right arms start twitching uncontrollably when they find themselves in a crowd of like-minded fellows. The Roman salute is our friend, it's a GPS for fascists: look, there they are. But what of the politics? Does monsieur Delanoë have a problem with Alemanno's actual policies, or is it just a matter of decorum, of respectability? Because they're working really hard on the respectability thing, Delanoë needs not worry about that. And when the last one of them has learnt how to use the last of the dessert forks, we'll get to comparing immigration policies, or public policing, or surveillance practices. Does France, does the UK, does Germany think that this exercise will make them look good?

But I don't want to be drawn into the relative fascism quotient of other European powers and besides it still doesn't answer Paul's question. So here goes.

I do not think the regime in Italy at the moment could accurately be described as fascist, in terms of its historical specificity. But I also believe that things are bad, and could precipitate rather quickly. While the Right is busy weakening our institutions and generally making things worse for everyone but friends, family and concubines, the Left offers no credible alternative, no meaningful solution for a significant set of social and economic problems. And if the crisis deepens, as I believe it will, a descent into actual, honest to God authoritarianism could be achieved in very little time. The conditions are there, the action stations well and truly manned.

If it ever comes to that, however, we should not talk of a restoration, of a traumatic return to the past, but rather look back on a long parenthesis of non-actual-fascism that is coming to a close. For we never truly ceased to be fascists: we never dealt honestly with that time in our past; we never demanded true change from our institutions; we never asked that our politicians cease to be corrupt, or treat their offices as anything other than fiefdoms; we never expected our judges to find the culprits when scores were being massacred - using fascist muscle, like the old actions squads but with bombs - in the name of authority and the preservation of the State; we never demanded that the promise of our constitution be kept, and social justice be made to inform a programme of reforms and the country's belated transition into modernity. We acted rather like the man in this photo I shall never tire of recycling: we erased the hated symbol, but left the rest of the edifice intact.

Milan, 26th July 1943. Photo by Vincenzo Carrese.

In 2004 I happened to be visiting home in April and went on the Liberation Day demonstration with my mother, the first time we marched together since I was a little boy. It was a much smaller affair than the one of 1994, although still in the order of the tens of thousands, and there was less of a sense of urgency, a smaller supply of palpable shock and anger. A whole lot less rain, too. But it reminded me - after having been out of the country for almost seven years - of that uncanny kinship, the sense of shared history and common purpose one feels amongst so many like-minded people. Marching on such a day and in such numbers performs an important and far more than symbolic function, too: it stakes a principled claim regarding who we are, about the realities of our past, and who we ought to be and how. It's like a slow-moving, living, breathing blueprint of the Italy that could be.

The squandering of that human capital, of a capacity for mass mobilisation that has no equal in the rest of Europe, begins in earnest the very next day. But so long as the people keep turning up, I'll keep a modest reserve of hope.