The gains made by the far-right in Italy are worrying, but there is time to turn the tide, argues Chris Bambery
Prior to Sunday’s Italian elections, we were bombarded with articles about how a fascist tide was about to engulf the peninsula, in the form of the Brothers of Italy (part of Silvio Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition) and the more sinister and dangerous Casapound.
But as soon as polling ceased this fascist tide didn't simply recede, it disappeared. Now, the fact that Casapound, an openly fascist organisation, got 300,000 votes across Italy is to be deplored. But it was under one percent of the vote, beaten by the radical left Power to the People who’ve only just been formed and struggled to get notice. The Brothers of Italy are the heirs of the old MSI (Movimento Sociale Italiano) which became the post-fascist Alleanza Nazionale in 1995 and broke up in 2009.
The failure of a fascist tide to drown Italy doesn’t seem to have stopped those same Cassandras proclaiming the election results were a victory for the far right. I’ve just read an article by one scholar of fascism doing exactly this by conflating the vote for the 5 Star Movement with that for the League (formerly the Lega Nord). The former got per 32 percent, the latter under 18 percent. The former’s vote was heavily concentrated in the poverty-ridden South; the latter, unsurprisingly, in the North.
Now the League is a thoroughly nasty, racist party which has promised mass deportations of migrants. In towns where it holds control of the council, they have done things like banning people from drinking beer or singing in parks and squares where Eastern European workers gather, or blocking permission for Mosques to operate.
They concentrated during the election on a horrific murder case involving a migrant but ignored the fact that one of their former candidates had gone on a gun spree, shooting eight migrants, in Macerata in the South. Tragically the centre-left and the unions stood back from protesting this because of the earlier murder.
So, the fact the League emerged as the largest right-wing party is again a cause of worry, but while it is nasty and racist it is not fascist. If it gets into government, and possibly the premiership, it will be also caught on pledges to boost government spending and to create jobs on the one hand and the pressure from its coalition partners, the Italian Central Bank and the EU. It has, unfortunately, attracted widespread support in former Communist areas of cities such as Turin, but that could be undercut by a radical left fighting for jobs, investment, better wages and benefits, and opposing racism.
But to equate 5 Star and the League is wrong. 5 Star have attacked migrants and said they’d stop the rescue service in the Mediterranean, plus other bad things. But they built themselves by being an anti-corruption and anti-elite party, winning lots of young people and former leftists in the absence of a credible radical left. The day after the election I watched students at the University of Calabria saying they’d voted 5 Star because they wanted jobs.
There might be a lot wrong with 5 Star but it’s not the League and it is not fascist. Its support is heavily in the South and it should not be beyond the ken of people to dust off clips of League leaders attacking Southerners in racist terms (that’s how they built the party 20 years ago).
Things are not good in Italy but Mussolini is not stirring in his well-maintained tomb outside Forli.
We need to be careful about simply accepting claims that racism or fascism is an imminent threat.
Two years ago as polling neared in the Brexit referendum here in Britain I was showered with messages from people on social media that while they were aware of a few problems with the European Union these had to be put aside in order to vote Yes to stop the racist violence which would sweep Britain in event of a Leave vote.
I’d previously argued that if we could step outside Britain for a moment then the driving force creating racism in Europe was the EU itself, as the body count mounted in the Mediterranean and fences went up, with France even closing its border with Italy (as it can do under the Schengen Agreement) and Austria threatening to fortify its own.
Today the EU sits idly by as racist and far-right groups enter government – in contrast to its response to Catalonia’s bid for independence.
Meanwhile, in Britain UKIP has fallen apart, the fascists are at their weakest in my adult life and the major political phenomenon is the rise of a mass left around Jeremy Corbyn. Racism is a daily reality but there has not been a Spring tide of racial violence.
Yet, instead of concentrating on protecting EU citizens living here or fighting to retain as open borders as we can we are being told by posh neo-liberals we must over turn the referendum result or get another vote (the EU has always demanded people vote again when referendums went against things like the Lisbon Treaty or the European Constitution). Seems to me that this is the best way to push Leave voters into the hands of the right. It also seems to me that those same people look down their nose at anyone who does not uncritically accept their neoliberal template.
There are those on the left who see fascism as the key threat just now. What is happening in Hungary, Poland, Austria, Greece etc. has to be a concern. But in over-egging this it can open up another danger.
My partner voted for the left wing Fair and Equal ticket on Sunday’s Italian elections (the more radical Power to the People were not allowed on the ballot for overseas Italian voters). Beforehand there were raging arguments with friends that we had to vote for the Democrats to stop fascism and/or Silvio Berlusconi.
Well, Silvio stopped himself. The interesting thing is that in Rome and Milan the Democrats' vote seemed to go up with the house prices. In simple arithmetical terms if Free and Equals and Power to the People’s votes had all gone to the Democrats it would have made not a jot of difference to the result – they’d have still trailed in third with a big drop in support.
Most of the Democrats' previous support either didn’t vote or opted for 5 Star, seeing the Democrats' leader, Matteo Renzi, as the favourite of the Italian and European elites (as he was). Short of pulling a gun on them you could not have got them to vote Democrat. You might have got them to vote for the radical left, or at least opened a dialogue which might lead to future common action (to ensure 5 Star delivered on its promise of a decent minimum wage for instance).
Or you could have concentrated on the upcoming fascist tide. Don’t get me wrong, the Macerata protests required the biggest possible response and Casapound should be opposed, but by doing that you can aid those neo-liberals desperate to pitch their “lesser evil” argument and avoid the crying need in Italy, Britain and elsewhere to rebuild a radical left presence in areas where there has long not been one. Corbyn and, across the Atlantic, Bernie Sanders shows how that can be done.
In Europe we have now reached a point where the centre-left is shipping support in most countries, England and Portugal are exceptions, and where the radical left is all too often absent or too weak and divided. There is on the radical left a tradition whereby it preserved its independence and its readiness to work with others on the left where possible. That tradition – that of the united front – seems to me to retain its validity.
And there is another thing. If a fascist tide was rising then in most European countries the organisations existing to fight fascism would be woefully inadequate. We are not yet at 1922 or 1933 when Mussolini and Hitler knocked on an open door. We need to build a viable radical left and movements of resistance. We have time, for now.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.