Disastro Italiano: Neo-Fascism Returns

With the flame burning eternally on the grave of their hero-Führer Mussolini, the Brothers of Italy not only won a big election victory but also claims to be post-fascists designed to camouflage their fascistic politics.

Their propagandistic “post-fascist” and “we are not fascist” mantra is happily propagated by the right wing press. Yet, Giorgia Meloni’sright-wing alliance – which includes her crypto-Neo-Nazi party – Fratelli d’Italia has won the 2022 election.

This might well be a historic turning point towards fascism or, at least – as many neo-fascists in Italy will hope – to something we know as, a Hungarian-style illiberal democracy – with the emphasis on “illiberal” rather than democracy.

Like Mussolini almost exactly 100 years ago – on October 1922 – when marching in Rome, Giorgia Meloni too, was overjoyed when she found herself in a hotel in Rome, and in front of hundreds of journalists from all over the world. Like her ideological predecessor Mussolini, she too, enjoyed the limelight and stardom. She smiled blissfully at the cameras, held a sheet with the two words Grazie Italia and offered a small – a bit below Mussolini’s theatrical standard – vocal performance.

Meloni had every reason to be in a victorious mood. As polls had predicted for weeks, her united right-wing/fascist bloc won 44% of the vote. While her neo-fascist party Fratelli d’Italia – known by its initials: FDI; the party’s name translates into the Brothers of Italy – won 26%. In other words, one quarter of the Italian voters supported neo-fascism – now re-framed as post-fascism.

The right-wing camp of the FDI also consists of the “Lega” of Salvini and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Together, they won a whopping majority of around 60% of the seats in both houses of parliament: the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The high number of seats is related to the Italian electoral law. Party alliances have a proportional advantage in this. This means that nothing stands in the way of forming a government under a neo-fascist Prime Minister Meloni. For the first time since 1945, Italy will have a government dominated by hard-right populists, right-wing extremists, and neo-fascists – a new reality in Western Europe.

Just ten years ago, the 45-year-old Roman Meloni had founded her party – a party with a symbol bearing the flame in the colors of the Italian flag. It remains one of “the” symbols of Italian neo-fascism that – after Mussolini’s killing was formed by the MSI or Movimento Sociale Italianofounded in 1946.

Yet, Meloni hasn’t been active in politics since 2012 when her party was founded. Before all that, she was active in the Alleanza Nazionale party – also semi-fascist and allied with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia since 1994. She also served in Berlusconi’s cabinet between 2008 and 2011, as Minister of Youth Affairs.

Meloni’s rise to power indicates that a right-wing petit bourgeois politician turns neo-fascist. How this and fascism work is shown in what is still one of the best cinematic depiction of Italian fascism featuring: Bernardo Bertolucci, Robert De Niro, Gérard Depardieu, Donald Sutherland, Burt Lancaster, and Ennio Morricone’s unsurpassed epic masterpiece, 1900.

Meanwhile, at her own party – founded in 2012 – the so-called old ultra-right and neo-fascist fighters had gathered at the time when the party was founded. With a distinctive neo-fascist background, no-one would have predicted her election victory at that time.

In the 2013 elections, there were only 2% of Italians who voted for FDI and 4% in 2018. Much more did not seem to be in it for the neo-fascist FDI at that time when featuring as a junior partner of the right-wing media owner Berlusconi – a man who likes to praise Mussolini even – or in particular – on Holocaust’s Memorial Day.

With her election win, the balance of power inside Italy’s right-wing/neo-fascist camp has changed radically. Meloni is now setting the tone with her 26%. Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, on the other hand – when in 2018 had won 14% – had to settle for a meager 8.1%. And, right-wing/neo-fascist Matteo Salvini’s Lega has fallen to 8.8% – after receiving 17% in the national elections in 2018, and – worse – 34% in the European elections in 2019.

The victory of the right-wing/neo-fascist conceals a double-edged outcome for the future coalition members. This time, only Fratellid’Italia has succeeded. The displeasure of the more right-wing and outright neo-fascist voters had secured her rich takings.

Above all, Salvini’s Lega has to live with the fact that the victory of Meloni means a bitter defeat for Salvini’s party. Even in the Veneto region in northern Italy – the former heartland of Lega Nord – Meloni’s FDI was able to win as twice as many votes – 30%.

Historically, Meloni’s party has always sat in opposition compared to her allies. Forza Italia, for example, had a coalition with the moderately social-democratic Partito Democratico (PD) in 2013.

Yet, both parties have also been supporting Forza Italia’s recent government under Mario Draghi’s emergency government – 2021-2022.

Meloni’s media-created public reputation framed her as an opposition politician – similar to Donald Trump in 2016 using a rather common, somewhat worn out, but highly successful tune of right-wing populism.

Meloni’s I-am-the-opposition theme exists simply because she had failed to get in bed with either Salvini or Berlusconi during previous election campaigns. Yet, Meloni could afford not to participate in previous electoral competitions simply so that she can now stage herself as Italy’s only real opposition.

Beyond that, Meloni has never made a secret of her reactionary, staunchly nationalist, and somewhat crypto-neo-fascist attitudes. She rallied against “gender madness” and was outraged by the cartoon character Peppa Pig because in a new episode, a little girl had two mothers – which is, after all, not so entirely new in the evolutionary history of human beings.

Meloni’s Volksgemeinschaft vision is that Italy should be an ethnically pure nation supporting the then Interior Minister Salvini’s illegal policy on closing Italian ports. To crank this up even further, Meloni talks about a naval blockade against refugee ships on the Mediterranean.

Her vision is an ethnically pure, racist, and white Italy. She also talks about the right-wing extremists’ hallucination of an ethnic population exchange – the neo-fascist ideology of The Great Replacement.

Meanwhile, she presents herself as completely tamed in public – at least on budgetary policy. Of course, the European requirements and the EU treaties would be complied with, Meloni said. And she has good reasons for that. Italy, too, is facing a hard autumn and winter. In Italy, energy prices are skyrocketing and companies are getting bogged down with high inflation and energy costs.

Salvini has already called for an immediate supplementary budget of €30bn ($45bn) during the election campaign. Interestingly, Meloni didn’t want to hear that – for the time being – when considering Italy’s highly indebted public coffers.

Worse, an explosive foreign policy is also to be expected. Meloni has skillfully positioned herself as a transatlantic politician in favor of maintaining the Russian sanctions and continuing Italian arms’ supplies to the Ukraine.

Meanwhile, her old pro-Putin friend Berlusconi sees things quite differently. In a recent TV broadcast, he claimed that Putin had been pushed into war and had only attacked the Ukraine to install decent people into the government in Kiev.

Meloni’s off-sider Salvini has traditionally also been pro-Russia. He – verbally – confessed to support the sanctions but like to add that they had been imposed on Italy by Europe. Therefore, the economic damage caused in Italy should be paid for by Europe.

Overall, there is plenty of conflicts on the cards for the incoming right-wing government – quite apart from the fact that all three (Salvini, Meloni and Berlusconi) want to be the true Führer of Italy. Yet, the three partners were clever enough to postpone their internal quarrels until after the election.

Unfortunately, Italy’s progressive camp did it differently. It had split-up in the running up to the election. Worse, it had split up twice before and that did not wash well with voters.

The highest price – for their very own electoral disaster – was paid by the social-democratic Partito Democratico (PD) under Enrico Letta. He had ruled out the originally planned alliance with the Five Stars at the last minute, because they had contributed to the overthrowing of the emergency government under Mario Draghi.

The PD has therefore sought an alliance towards the center’s two mini parties namely, Italia Viva and Azione. Yet, their two leaders handed the ball back to Letta, and just like the Five Stars, competed separately at the end.

Italy’s PD also failed to succeed with a progressive agenda which included a statutory minimum wage, as well as the significant increase in employee income through a tax cut. In the end, Letta achieved a disastrous result with 19.1%. The party is set to hold a party congress.

Meanwhile, many Europeans feel that the consequences of the Italian shift to the right will be felt throughout the European continent. The EU will have a hard time maneuvering through the multiple crises that the Italian election’s outcome might foreshadow.

Yet, it is dangerous to trivialize the rise of Italian neo-fascism. The electoral victory of the neo-fascists in Italy is not an accident – it has a 100 year-old history that as some say, occurred in a country which unlike Germany has never come to terms with neo-fascism. The bitter consequences of this will be bad. Europeans will feel the after-effects of the Italian shift to the far right. It is going to be painful.

Yet, the European Union will not break up – at least not so soon. But with Meloni as the head of the third largest EU country, the EU will have a much harder time maneuvering through a multitude of overlapping crises: Corona, global warming, Russia’s war, high inflation, the deepening energy crisis, and a crisis of Italy’s rule of law, as well as democracy.

In addition, there is now the bitter realization that right-wing nationalism, right-wing populism, right-wing extremism, and neo-fascism are by no means only exist in “Eastern” Europe. Too many have been fooling themselves for far too long. It was convenient to displace the danger onto Eastern Europe. Since Italy’s election, Europeans are starting to realize that the whole of Europe is in danger.

First, there was the recent voters in the North of Europe turning the so-called Sweden Democrats into a party capable of governing. And now, Italy. Together with Hungary and Poland, a right-wing populist bloc is emerging with the goal of radically rebuilding the EU on the basis of white power and outright nationalism.

Yet, Europe’s right-wing extremists do not have enough power to organize a right-wing majority at the EU level. Perhaps their will to cooperate will subside over time. Conceivably, the EU is drifting apart. Worse, it comes at a time when its member states have to move closer together – especially in times of unprecedented crises.

Europeans might soon see how this will paralyze the work of the EU. On global warming, for example, an Italian government under a neo-fascist Meloni is unlikely to be ambitious in fighting global heating. Meloni’s racist-nationalist slogan Italy first – as adapted from Donald Trump – contradicts the logic that climate change can only be mitigated together.

Italy cannot exclude itself from this – even if Meloni and Lega’s boss Salvini keep on saying this. Meanwhile, the EU’s migration policy will also suffer – particularly on a common EU-wide policy.

When Meloni’s designated coalition partner Salvini was Italian Interior Minister a few years ago, his entire attention was focused on fending off refugees. Nothing was resolved while thousands of people died – as Hungary’s Prime Minister Orbán applauded. This will be repeated when Salvini gets to say something in Italy again.

And then there is the rule of law and democracy crisis. Of course, one has to wait and see how the neo-fascist Italian government will behave. But the very prospect that a Meloni government could side with Hungary and Poland on the issue of law and democracy is a cause for great concern.

Finally, the EU’s attitude towards the Russian war of aggression against the Ukraine is unlikely to change significantly. For now, at least!

Meloni has widely presented herself as a transatlantic woman and, is therefore, closer to the Polish government than to the Hungarian leadership. However, Meloni’s potential coalition partner Salvini is close to the warmonger in the Kremlin. This could lead to more frictions which could give the new government in Rome a short life.

Thomas Klikauer is the author of Managerialism (Palgrave, 2013).