Commentary Magazine


No, Italy Is Not Going Fascist

On March 27-28, 1994, Italians went to the polls. When the ballots were counted, all the parties that had formed all the governments since World War II had disappeared. Fully four-fifths of the new members of the Italian parliament were themselves brand-new; most were also to the Right of Center.

Clearly, this was some kind of revolution. But what kind? The world’s prestige media carried a single answer: fascist. The burden of the charge rested on the 13.5 percent of the vote that had gone to the National Alliance (AN), one of three roughly equal parts of the rightist coalition that swept the elections. AN, which gained five cabinet posts (out of 25), contains a core of people who think well of Benito Mussolini, including the dictator’s own granddaughter, who ran from Naples.

The alarms about Italy spread far and wide. In the United States, in op-ed pieces and in news stories with headlines like “The Ghost of Mussolini Keeps Rattling Its Chains,” the New York Times painted a picture of Italy leading all of Europe to a legitimized fascism. The Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, and the New Yorker followed suit, with only the Wall Street Journal dissenting. In France, Le Monde editorialized that Italy had made “Mussolinian fascism” into “an ordinary thing.” German television superimposed scenes of Italian politicians on old films of goose-stepping Nazi storm-troopers.

Politicians sang the same tune. On May 5, the European parliament, taking the unprecedented step of warning a member country about its politics, reminded Italy that “Nazism and fascism” are beyond modern Europe’s pale. France’s former Prime Minister, Laurent Fabius, proposed “boycotting” any member of AN that Italy might send to organs of the European Union. France’s President Mitterrand, Germany’s President Herzog, Greece’s Prime Minister Papandreou, all issued denunciations of Italy’s voters. In Israel, Deputy Foreign Minister Yossi Beilin proposed the use of tongs in dealing with a tainted Italian government.

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Since Italy is the world’s fifth-largest economy, and is part of the core of the European Union, its slide into fascism would indeed be a worrisome thing. But that is not happening. What is happening instead was well captured by Massimo D’Alema, the number-two man of Italy’s renamed Communist party, who ascribed the Right’s victory to a spirit of “privatizing libertarianism” combined with “mass anti-statism.”

D’Alema is correct, and this alone suggests that the Italian revolution has nothing to do with fascism. For if fascism means anything, it means government ownership and control of business. This was Mussolini’s most corrupting legacy, and it is exactly what the new majority is committed to dismantling.

Nor does any Italian politician propose repeating Mussolini’s policies in other spheres. Worries about World War II revisionism and a revival of anti-Semitism are particularly misplaced. No country has fewer redeeming memories of the war than Italy; even those who have kind words for Mussolini typically offer the caveat, “except, of course, for the war.”

As for anti-Semitism, few places have seen less of it than postwar Italy. Nowadays it is found mainly among the leftist university students who wear fashionable Palestinian headscarves. The longstanding bias of left-leaning Italian governments toward the likes of Arafat and Qaddafi has given way, under the new rightist government, to a tilt toward Israel. Rome’s Jewish precincts voted for the Right in 1993 and 1994.

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But it is, again, especially in the area of the economy that the new government is bent on disengaging the country from Mussolini’s legacy—a legacy preserved, nurtured, and perfected by the postwar Italian regime. Indeed, it is impossible to overstate the debt which that regime, although it traveled under the banner of anti-fascism, owed, precisely, to fascism. Most of the features of modern Italy’s welfare state were invented by none other than Mussolini himself, and the state’s instruments for control of the economy, and some of the social-welfare agencies, still bear the names he gave them.

Mussolini also pioneered the underlying political structure of modern Italian government: by taxing and spending a large part of the national income, by influencing the fortunes of the most influential people in society, the fascist party spread its patronage network and engineered popular support for its programs.

This structure survived World War II. For, at the end of the war, the Allies did not destroy Italy’s fascist state as they did Germany’s. Rather, they turned it over to a consortium of six parties, divided by ideology but united by the desire to take up the fascist party’s powers over society and the economy. These parties then adopted the electoral system of proportional representation to shut out competition.

Over the ensuing decades, the new regime—whether nominally run by Christian Democrats or Socialists—succeeded in doing what it set out to do, and thus sowed the seeds of its own collapse. Conquering more and more of society’s jobs, buildings, and privileges, and spreading the resulting wealth among its supporters, it created a situation in which the number of beneficiaries began to approach the number of payers, and the increasing discontent of the payers began to overwhelm the decreasing gratitude of the beneficiaries.

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By 1993, the average Italian citizen was working from January 1 to July 28 to pay the state, and only thereafter for himself. Even the value of the house he lived in was considered part of income for tax purposes. Italy’s retirement-income system, driven in part by demographic factors, in part by corruption, and in part by its very nature as a pay-as-you-go scheme, was on the verge of imploding, with payroll deductions headed for 50 percent and pensioners deprived of what they thought they had earned. Citizens had to pay for many of their medicines, and medical care was rationed, yet taxes continued to rise.

The Italian people concluded, sensibly enough, that the very pillars of the welfare state—social security and medical care, and widespread regulation of business—had become, in the words of Edward Luttwak, “bureaucratic parasitism, technological stagnation, and immense thievery.”

And so the backlash began: during the past two years, some 3,000 of Italy’s highest ranking politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen found themselves indicted for doing things that, until very recently, had been considered perfectly normal. And some members of Italy’s ruling class even began to call things by their proper names.

Thus, in 1992 the last of the Socialist Prime Ministers, Giuliano Amato, went so far as to dub the Italian regime a “partyocracy” of Christian Democrats, Communists, and Socialists, and then broke a longstanding taboo by saying that this was nothing but “the continuation of fascism.” He was right, although prior to the 1990’s anyone speaking this way would automatically have been branded a fascist himself.

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All this, however, was too little, too late. Over the years, as the outrages committed against decent, productive citizens by the “partyocracy” continued to mount, an opposition had begun to form. Because the cultural elite in modern Italy had always flaunted its leftist views on everything from family life to economics, the opposition was sure to define itself as rightist. And because the ruling parties controlled so much of society, the opposition had to come from the margins. That meant it had to arise locally, and it differed from place to place.

In the South, from Rome to Naples to Sardinia, the margin of opposition politics was occupied by the Italian Social Movement (MSI), a (truly) neo-fascist party that since the 1950’s had been getting between 4 and 8 percent of the vote. There was a certain congruence of world view between the old guard in MSI and many Southern Italians—in particular a tendency to be for strong and decorous government, to be rather patriotic, and to favor paternalism in economic matters. But in time, MSI’s very status as an outcast began to draw to it masses of voters who wanted to say no to the regime for other reasons, as well as many who were galled by the “advanced” views of the Italian Left on issues like feminism and homosexuality.

One thing is clear: in the 1990’s the new voters who were coming to MSI in droves were not motivated by a rediscovered taste for Mussolini. On the contrary, these voters were themselves pushing the party in new and unaccustomed directions.

MSI’s young leader, Gianfranco Fini, had the insight to recruit new candidates to match the new electorate coming his way. Even Mussolini’s granddaughter in Naples reshaped herself by campaigning against the connection between government and business. Thus the MSI broadened itself, becoming the National Alliance, and in the process transcending neo-fascism. By 1993, it was winning just under half the voters in the South’s major cities.

Meanwhile, in Northern Italy, a group had formed that was even more extraneous to the establishment and in tune with local sentiment. The upstarts who began the Lombard, Venetian, Piedmontese, and Ligurian leagues—now united as the Northern League—emphasized their extraneousness by speaking local dialects rather than Italian. Like their constituents, they were not hicks but rather middle-class professionals in what may be the most productive and highest-income part of Europe. Their complaint was scrawled on countless walls: “We work, Rome robs.”

The first of the League’s twin demands was autonomy, especially fiscal autonomy, for the North. The second was to shrink the scope of government by privatizing industries and social services, above all by cutting taxes and firing bureaucrats. The League’s appeal seemed to come out of the tradition of hard work, personal responsibility, and personal piety as expressed in Alessandro Manzoni’s 19th-century novel The Betrothed. Among its winning candidates were people who had urged a tax strike and members of very orthodox (and unfashionable) Catholic organizations.

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The way these disparate protest movements became a national majority further discredits the thesis that their victory had something to do with fascism.

The Northern League had sworn never to work with the National Alliance, because the latter still retained some of Mussolini’s statism and aversion to local autonomy—and also, frankly, because Northerners tend to see Southerners as welfare cases. The National Alliance, for its part, had sworn never to work with the Northern League, whose demand for federalism it considered seditious, with whose economic policy it disagreed, and whose attitude toward the South it found insulting.

The industrialist Silvio Berlusconi devised an elegant solution: the Northern League would present candidates only in Northern districts where they were well-placed to win; the AN would present candidates only in its Southern bastions. Everywhere else, both would support candidates of Berlusconi’s own upstart organization, Forza Italia. Forza Italia and the League would campaign together in the North, and Forza Italia and AN would campaign together in the South.

Throughout the ensuing election campaign, the Left presented itself as a centrist, experienced, and knowledgeable manager of the social-democratic state, and chastised its opponents as extremists. Candidates of the Left alliance, led by the renamed Communist party, denounced the League’s demands for local autonomy as racist and undemocratic, and its demand for local control of local resources as selfish. They called AN’s opposition to immigration racist, and AN itself fascist. They ridiculed both groups’ moral concerns as evidence that they had succumbed to the sales pitch of a professional salesman (Berlusconi).

The Right, by contrast, presented itself as the defender of the people’s pocketbook, and the people’s morality, against the government. The Right also made radical proposals—for a single tax rate, individual retirement accounts, vouchers for schools, local and regional autonomy—and promised a clean sweep of the privileged class. Berlusconi wrapped the whole thing in Reaganesque optimism. The Right won big.

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Italy’s new government may or may not do what it was elected to do. But what happened in Italy offers perspective on the desire for wholesale political housecleaning that is growing throughout the Western world. From Sweden to San Diego, social democracy has just about run its course. Every Western country is experiencing a drastic drop of popular affection for the political parties that have been alternating in government. The new dividing line seems to be between the well-connected and the rest—often represented by rightist groups, if only because these are so clearly the outs.

Because the welfare state has become a giant patronage machine, its passing will mean the loss of power, perquisites, and prestige for those who run it, or draw grants and connections from it. Thus, establishment figures worried about popular rejection, and confusing social democracy with democracy, will try to pin on the threatening new phenomenon a label that they hope may delegitimize it. Like fascism.

In Italy, the label does not fit: there the revolution is heading away from rather than toward fascism. Of course, this does not mean that elsewhere the decay of the modern welfare state will look the same. After all, other countries have not been vaccinated by experience as Italy was between 1923 and 1943, and the fact that the charges leveled against the Italian Right are false does not mean that similar charges against other political movements (like the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen in France) may not have some truth to them.

What the Italian experience does mean, however, is that the effort to stigmatize opposition to the ideas and policies of the Left as fascist or anti-democratic should be viewed with the utmost skepticism—not just in fascism’s birthplace, but everywhere (America most emphatically included).

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