The use of fascist symbols, the threat of violence, the demonisation of minorities … hasn’t Italy been here before?

It is now clear that the left’s victory in the Italian general election of 2006 represented no more than a brief pause in the country’s remorseless shift to the right.

One hoped that election might have signalled an end to the degenerative and anti-democratic trends that had accompanied the rise of Silvio Berlusconi over the previous decade. In fact, it represented no such thing.
It is already clear that the third Berlusconi government will be markedly different from its two predecessors, which were primarily about Berlusconi’s desire to use public power to protect his private empire and to change the law in order to prevent legal action being taken against him. He was successful on both counts. Meanwhile the concentration of immense private and public power in the hands of one man signalled a serious corrosion in the fabric of democracy.

The tone of public debate degenerated as political opponents were branded “communists” irrespective of their affiliation and Berlusconi steadily shifted the terms of what was say-able and acceptable. While Berlusconi’s allies, the neo-fascist National Alliance and the xenophobic Northern League, unconstrained by the need of Berlusconi to appear – at least intermittently – respectable, worked relentlessly to shift the minds of millions to the right.

This new government lies significantly to the right of the previous two. Armed with a sweeping majority in both chambers of parliament, it does not have to worry, unlike, for example, the last one, about ensuring that the Union of Christian and Centre Democrats are on side. The anti-immigrant Northern League doubled its vote in the election, cornering 28% of the vote in the northern cities and emerged as the largest party in Venice. The neo-fascists have just flexed their muscles in the election for the mayor of Rome and convincingly defeated the candidate of the left. With Berlusconi enjoying a new-found confidence enabled by a government that now enjoys more power than any previous one in recent times, and the Northern League and National Alliance similarly encouraged and empowered by their electoral support, Italian politics have entered a new phase.

This was demonstrated by the manner in which the supporters of Gianni Alemanno, the new mayor of Rome, a man steeled in the fascist tradition, celebrated his victory in the Campidoglio with fascist salutes and cries of “Duce, Duce!”, just as Mussolini was once acclaimed by his adherents. Or the way in which Berlusconi felt able to declare, in response to the victory, that “we are the new Falange” – the name given to the fascist party in Spain in the 1930s. Or the fact that Umberto Bossi, at the first session of parliament, threatened violence if the centre-left did not acquiesce in its plans for federalism. “I don’t know what the left wants [but] we are ready,” he told reporters. “If they want conflicts, I have 300,000 men always on hand.” Or the fashion in which Gianfranco Fini, during a public walkabout with his followers in support of Alemanno, demanded to see immigrants’ residence permits, while Alemanno threatens to expel 20,000 immigrants from the capital, who he claims have broken the law, and shut illegal Roma encampments; with Bossi is no less vitriolic in his attitude towards immigrants.

The use of fascist symbols and terms, the threat of violence, and the demonisation of ethnic minorities: haven’t we been here somewhere before? They mark a decisive shift in what is regarded as acceptable. The tone and agenda of Italian politics have taken a major turn to the right. We can now see the emergence of an incipient fascist trend in Italy which, far from being confined to the extremes, has entered and infected mainstream political life.
The roots of the revival of this far-right populism are fivefold.

First, there was the disillusionment in the political class following the collapse of the cold war system together with the tangentopoli corruption scandal, which provided the conditions for the emergence of a new wave of anti-politicians untainted by the old system, such as Berlusconi and Bossi.

Second, there has been the creeping corrosion of the democratic system as represented by Berlusconi, which has progressively adjusted and habituated Italians to a political system that is no longer based on the values of open and fair political competition but on a populist authoritarianism.

Third, there has been the chronic stagnation of the Italian economy, which in recent years, notwithstanding a buoyant global economy and the fact that, for example, it has been greatly out-performed by a not-so-dissimilar Spanish economy, has barely grown at all. This has contributed towards a sense of unease and insecurity, raising fears about the consequences of globalisation, a rejection of the outside (well-illustrated by Berlusconi’s refusal to allow Alitalia to be taken over by another airline), and growing hostility towards one of the most visible signs of globalisation, namely immigration. Politically this is clearly reflected in the doubling of support in the recent election for the anti-globalisation, anti-immigrant Northern League in cities like Milan and Turin.

Fourth, as the postwar political order has unravelled, so the older historical fault-lines of Italy have re-emerged more clearly and more contentiously: in particular, the division between north and south exemplified by the secessionist Northern League, and the long-running failure to construct an open, legitimate and representative state that is not subject to private capture of one kind or another.

Finally, the very fact that the fascist tradition is such an integral feature of modern Italian history, having governed from 1922 until its final defeat in 1945, means that its values, symbols, philosophies, assumptions, prejudices and emotions remain embedded in the Italian psyche, only a little beneath the surface, ready to be reawakened and mobilised by a new generation of fascists should circumstances allow. That, alas, is what we are now witnessing.

One of Europe’s great countries threatens to return to its worst past and thereby at the same time remind the whole continent that the darkest passage in its own history is in the process of being exhumed and rekindled on the Italian peninsula. The signs have been there since 1994. Now they are irresistible. We are being warned. Europe must take heed.