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.


Anonymous said...

awesome. the image of unbecoming should naturally lean me towards deleuze?

because i should loan you a book. it illustrates (to my mind), that the fascist body politic is never gone. it existed as organs, each piece stitched together by the nazis, and became once electrified by the great depression.

your description tells me the monster is never really dead.

word verficiation. benti. inherently good, but a little twisted.

Anonymous said...

Che magone m'hai fatto venire, Giovanni.


vbfbfbkb said...

Looking at the pics all of a sudden I see "High Five" in a new context. Funny, never thought of that before.

Roman in Rome in 2008, our friends who were a bit brown (or how would Silvio call it.. well tanned?) would be routinely stopped to show their residency permits etc. on their way from work to home.
On one corner in our neighbourhood (San Saba) there was a permanent army truck with two armed guards, standing about, not protecting anything apart from being 'present'. UNIFORMS ON the street! I couldn't help but compare it to certain WWII movies or what I learned at school in Holland in the eighties and nineties about living under fascist occupation in 40 - 45. I was kind of shocked - and not just at Italy's special relationship with it's fascists.. it's not entirely although somewhat unique in Europe - about what's happening on the right wings in Europe and how mainstream they are becoming.

Unknown said...

As we used to say, what a sadness.

You know, Giovanni, it's refreshing to see that, on the outside, people still find outrageous what's happening here.

I have some small amount of faith that the speed of communication, the internet, the relative transparency of all that happens everywhere (in countries where the transparency is there to begin with, clearly; the internet in and by itself is not a revolution, not of the kind needed here at least), I have some small amount of faith that these factors might contribute in keeping us within confines we find acceptable, even barely acceptable maybe, but within them.

Then people will, hopefully, wake up.

But you are right, the left wing is doing all its best (worst?) not to represent a real alternative to Berlusconi. For the nth time they are still basing a lot of their political propaganda, in anticipation of the European elections, against Berlusconi.

IT DOES NOT WORK. People who have the conscience to see, for the best part, already see. The others, you have to win somehow else.

Giovanni Tiso said...

@objectdart: which Deleuze? I can only think of Capitalism and Schizophrenia but that was a Deleuze-Guattari joint. I had also more or less removed it form my memory... I should re-acknowledge in any event that I borrowed the term unbecoming from a presentation given by Graziella Parati in Wellington a couple of months ago, around the time when I wrote the first post in this particular series.

@Claudia: fammi indovinare. Ti sono venuti i lacrimoni quando hanno intervistato la signora di Reggio Emilia nel video della manifestazione?

@vbfbfbkb: yes, the army. I haven't actually seen that first hand, although I know it's been deployed for a while in the centre-south. I should point out though that one of our two police forces, the Carabinieri, are actually part of the army, so we've always had the army patrolling out streets, in fact the sight of sub-machine guns first thing in the morning on the way to catching the bus was an everyday occurrence in the last place where Justine and I lived. Also, sometimes when you see a bunch of heavily armed guys outside a building it could simply mean that an anti-mafia judge lives or works there. Not that I wish to normalise any of this, but again it's not radically new, just part of a continuum.

@Andrea. I was quite careful not to make the post about Berlusconi, whose name you use synecdochically to mean government or regime, because I really do not think that he's the problem. He's the continuation of the rule of the Christian Democrats, although he has to go to more extraordinary and one could say spectacular lenghts to secure consensus and ensure the stability of his political coalition. We could also wonder what would happen to the right wing alliance if he were to die tomorrow. But I worry that the obsession with 'Him' is similar to the obsession with Mussolini, and that when he is ultimately removed the Left will govern for a while, without so much as a rudder and a project, certainly without a historical sense of the need for radical change, and then once the Right has regrouped we'll be back to where we are now. I also worry that we are forgetting just how bad the Christian Democrats actually where.

If you allow me to be crude for a moment, Berlusconi hasn't had any any civilians killed yet. I'm sure that he wouldn't hesitate should his political survival come to depend on it, but as a matter of historical record he hasn't.

Giovanni Tiso said...

An email correspondent alerts me to an exhibition about the ruins of Italian fascism that sounds very interesting indeed. It's in Brigstock Kettering, if such a place even exists.


Paul said...

Giovanni, thank you for your response, and such an excellent one at that. I wish I could think of something cheerful to say. This seems to be a problem which the political Left alone cannot solve. Italy needs a political Right which is not tainted with Fascism, authoritarianism or corruption, some alternative to the mobs currently in
power. That might be a big ask.

Word verifcation: stogi. Sto Gi?

Anonymous said...

@giovanni. that's the one, but it was a thousand plateaus.

they wax lyrical a fair bit about becoming as a state of being, and discuss fascism as a permanent mode, but always seeking activation.

the book you might like is "Confronting the Nation: Jewish and Western Nationalism". George Mosse.

word verification: becrepo. the process of slowly turning into an old man.

stephen said...

I wonder what you make of this article in the LRB?

I stumbled on it via the LRB blog. The post about it used the sadly evocative phrase "resistible rise".

Giovanni Tiso said...

@Stephen: it is a very good piece, as was his earlier offering Land without Prejudice, which I commented upon here.

I have some quibbles, mainly the fact that in nearly 20,000 words between the two articles he didn't see fit to mention the role of the Episcopal Conference, which cannot be understated. Tom Behan had a more substantive objection in a letter to the LRB regarding Anderson's failure to account for the mass militancy I've discussed this week, claiming that the real opposition is there. But I'd say that for that opposition to achieve anything, it needs adequate parliamentary representation. The reality of labour relations for Italians under forty years of age is a national shame and testimony of the ultimate ineffectiveness of our mass activism without an effective suture with party system. The PCI used to offer that representation, even as it embodied the paradox of a revolutionary movement seated in Parliament. Now we have the anemic PD and its inadequacy to the task couldn’t be overstated.

That's where I think that Anderson is right on the mark, but if you spend any time in Italy you'll hear nothing about the failings of the Left and everything about the illegitimacy of the Right.

@PaulThis seems to be a problem which the political Left alone cannot solve. Italy needs a political Right which is not tainted with Fascism, authoritarianism or corruption, some alternative to the mobs currently in power. That might be a big ask.

The Right was in disarray before Berlusconi - out of sheer desperation or self-preservation - founded his party on the very eve of the 1994 elections, and it looked like the Left was going to run against a very moderate, respectable, sane coalition led by Mario Segni, a politician of some honesty but very little charisma and without a national party structure to rely upon. The Left would have scored a massive victory simply by showing up, but then what? Its ideology of modernisation and good, clean, honest government, which had quickly replaced the tenets of the old communist party machine, would have led us straight into New Labour, or quite possibly something similar to the Lange government here. And then of course the Right that we now lament would have eventually swept back into power, with half its work already done by the likes of D'Alema or Veltroni.

That's essentially why I think that the Left - so long as its aims are to modernise us and normalise us, make us more like Germany and France and Britain, instead of dealing with our specific problems and fulfilling our specific historical aspirations - is part of the problem just as much as the Right. (Although naturally yes, of course, I'll vote for whatever the Left puts up these days.)

@objectdart: Thank you sir, duly added.

harvestbird said...

That imaginary stone woman
who comes toward you
in an uncanny, truth-like drift,
is holding high a mirror.

Behind the mirror are the laurel leaves,
or beams of anti-meridian light,
or starry variants that intertwine.
It doesn't matter. They're in her hair. That doesn't matter.

In the mirror-glass
you see yourself
but not as you are. You've been remade.
Look at that high truthful brow,
that purposeful expression. Just like those
beside you.

From this first mirror,
you'll be charged to make your own.
Keep the sharp edge of the shard
outwardly directed.
It's up to you,
or those beside you:
they'll decide who's reflected
and who's not.

You can call it a lie. It doesn't matter. That uncanny, truth-like drift
was just a metaphor. That doesn't matter. The sharp edge of the shard
is not.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I've talked a bit about unbecoming, but just as interesting is the becoming, how you remake culture in order to create fascism, manufacture its necessary mythologies. The secessionist northern league, which to me is the true new face of fascism, has done this thing to perfection, inventing elaborate quasi-pagan rituals going all the way back to, oh, 1992 or thereabouts. The work of the New Zealand mock-historians who have been attempting to prove that the country was originally colonised by Celts are doing some of the work of invention of the past that goes into that kind of project.

I'm working on some sort of post but I think Claudia for one needs time to recover from this one first. And so do I.