From abroad - Italy to face its xenophobia as neo-fascist movements rise
The mass shooting in Macerata in early February is just the last of a long series of intimidations and episodes of violence carried out by neo-fascist groups in Italy in the past few years. Why do these movements keep attracting new followers? What it says about italian society at large? Viola Serena Stefanello, a journalism student at Sciences Po, tackles these issues for Émile.
October 2014 : a self-managed space is vandalized, its library set on fire, its walls covered in swastikas and references to Mussolini. December 2016 : a national monument to the antifascist resistance is desecrated. January 2017 : a petition to prosecute all the partisans still living as war criminals is published. November 2017 : skinheads interrupt the private meeting of local associations to recite statements against the « migrant invasion ». October 2017: Forza Nuova tries to organise a « march on Rome » on the anniversary of the actual mass demonstration that opened the way to Benito Mussolini’s rise to power in 1922…
And more recently, an attempted massacre in Macerata motivated by racial hatred, left six asylum seekers heavily wounded.
Since 2014, over 100 aggressions in Italy have been directly linked to neo-fascist, neo-Nazi or extreme right-wing groups, as a worrying amount of data suggests that racism might not be taboo in the country anymore.
According to a poll conducted by the research institute SWG, 55 % of Italians now believe that racism and discrimination are justified, depending on the circumstances. Non-partisan american think tank Pew adds that 69 % Italians admit to being hostile towards Muslims. The Lunaria association counted 1483 cases of « racist violence and discrimination » in Italy between January 2015 and May 2017 – while the number reached 319 between 2013 and 2015.
Italy, as a founder member of the European Union and as the only mediterranean state to remain democratic post-war, had somehow managed to keep extremist views in check – until now.
It’s not always been easy : after all, the thousands of proud fascists who had survived the war were spared any criminal charge when minister of Justice Palmiro Togliatti granted them general amnesty in 1948. The country even found itself under the crossfire of violent fascist and communist brigades hoping to overthrow the political order during its anni di piombo – spanning between the 1960s and the 1980s – and even risked a fascist coup.
Nonetheless, Italy arrived in the 21st century having somewhat limited the influence of those who still shared Benito Mussolini’s values. The final renouncement of a more traditional fascist ideology by the main far-right party, the Italian Social Movement, was marked by the historical svolta di Fiuggi in 1995, when the party decided to rebrand itself as a modern conservative party fit for governing – leaving an empty space on the extreme right of the Italian political spectrum.
That empty space, monopolised by a myriad of small, scarcely relevant groups for years, is now becoming increasingly crowded as movements like ultranationalist Forza Nuova (FN) and admittedly fascist Casa Pound Italia (CPI) are becoming attractive to a growing number of people – with CPI obtaining 5 % to 9 % of the preferences in several Italian cities at the administrative elections of 2017.
If most activists are still recruited on the ground, social media are proving to be a useful ally – particularly when it comes to normalising hate speech, as Wired Italia showed in a recent article.
Openly neo-fascist movements aren’t the only ones mainstreaming xenophobia with their online presence. Populist and Eurosceptic Lega Nord, politically affiliated to the French Front National and to Germany’s Alternative for Germany, has been running on a « politically incorrect » platform for years, with its leader Matteo Salvini even blaming the Macerata attack on illegal immigration. Same goes for Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia, who’s been using the tool of « reverse racism » towards Italians as leverage to attract the vote of her fellow, angry nationals.
Even when just taking into consideration purely neo-fascist groups, though, the « black galaxy » of Italian pages spreading fake news about immigration, national politics or the European Union and feeding on racist slogans on Facebook appears as an ever-flourishing behemoth. An interactive map published at the end of 2016 on Patria Indipendente counted thousands of such pages.
Giangranco Pagliaruolo, vice-president of ANPI (the National Association of Italian Partisans), who coordinated Patria Indipendente’s project, says that such a massive online presence mirrors a strong, real-life sympathy towards xenophobic ideologies. He also notes that it’s in the web’s nature to oversimplify problems – even when the issues at hand are complex – and that fascism has never shied away from dumbing down reality to draw sympathy, he says. « In the current social situation Italy’s in, especially in its urban, cultural and social peripheries, fascist discourses easily take root – and the web just perfectly reflects the times we live in », he adds.
Reading comments glorifying the actions of Luca Traini (the Macerata shooter) online is disheartening. Hearing that many people have already offered to contribute in paying his legal fees, as Traini faces trial for attempted massacre with racist connotations, is even more so. But it also leads to a more problematic risk : that of identifying every member of Casa Pound Italia or Forza Nuova as a violent extremist. The truth, as it often is, rather lies in a grey area.
Antonio Carioti, who works as journalist for Il Corriere della Sera and has written several books on post-WW2 fascism in Italy, explains how ideology is no longer mainly why people approach neo-fascist movements. « The link between those black extremists who are active today and historical fascism is now mostly, if not exclusively, symbolic », he says : « The growth of Casa Pound, for example, mostly resides in the economic crisis, which heavily touched the standards of living of Italian households, and the objective uneasiness that the presence of some immigrants who are employed in illegal activities creates. »
His words mirror those of Daniele R., who used to participate in Lotta Studentesca, the youth section of Forza Nuova, until very recently. « It’s those people who suddenly find themselves unemployed with nothing but a middle school diploma, or those who are too scared to walk the streets because of the migrants: as soon as they discover Forza Nuova or Casa Pound, they sign up for it », he recalls.
He, too, says the economic crisis of 2008 – and Italy’s struggle with growing austerity measures – and the more frequent landings of migrants coming from the Mediterranean route, were turning points. « Before these crises, FN and CPI were mostly kept alive by people nostalgic of past regimes, and fanatics – now you see regular folks, unemployed parents who don’t know how to feed their children, or people who just hope for a strong man in power who will solve every problem », he sums up.
As for the laws prohibiting the use of Nazi and Fascist symbology and slogans or sanctioning the promotion of neo-fascist ideologies – such as the 1993 legge Mancino and the 1952 legge Scelba, Daniele thinks they might do more harm than good. He recalls a particular feeling he had in his first years as a militant : « When you’re inside that system you feel link everyone’s against you, everyone insults you, everyone feels superior to you, everyone telling you you’re ignorant. Either you can’t hold the pressure and you kill yourself, or you start thinking that, if people are so strongly opposed to what you’re doing, you must be doing the right thing. »
Emanuele Toscano, who’s lived side by side with Casa Pound activists for months to prepare his book Dentro e Fuori CasaPound. Capire il fascismo del Terzo Millennio, also believes that completely banning thousands of people from the political discourse is not helpful. « Forcing them to shut down by decree is a controversial practice », he says, before adding that he still thinks that the kind of hate speech that FN, CPI and even Lega Nord often indulge is should be recognised as unconstitutional.
What he sees as the most viable path to counter the growing consensus around such movements is a simple practice that seems to be lost on most Italian politicians – from one end of the parliamentary spectrum to the other. After Macerata, both sides were quick to point the finger at the other, accusing them to be the moral instigators of this spiral of violence. Very few stopped to question the deeper meaning of what seems to be tearing Italy apart once again.
« The battle has to be cultural », Toscano assures. « Fascism can only be hit and sank in those places where it’s gaining most consensus… with the pure strength of ideas. » l
Viola Serena Stefanello