When Neo-Fascists Storm Into Government (A Context for Genoa)
Issue #58, December 2001
The Battle of Genoa
Governments and police forces around the world face increasing difficulty in responding to the results of modernized global trade rules. Dissent is arising from growing divides between haves and have-nots, and from increasing international opposition to the treaties and conferences that promote free trade as an inalienable right. At the recent G8 summit in Genoa, Italy, proponents of some old-fashioned ideologies were busy refining their enduring methods for dealing with perceived threats to the social order. In their view, rubber bullets and industrial strength pepper spray will never replace live ammunition for putting the fear of God into non-violent protesters. But if it increases the level of violence overall, then so much the better.
The Italian police by all accounts aided and abetted the "Black Bloc" of so-called violent protesters. This aid was provided through infiltration, through encouraging the participation of extreme right-wing thugs (the "nazi-skins"), and through direct chaos and violence. Walden Bello, writing in The Nation, describes how a column of ten thousand protesters who were chanting "we believe in non-violence" were attacked by the police at the beginning of the G8 conference:
"At the foot of the hill, at the intersection with Via Corsino, carabinieri hidden in a small side street started firing tear gas in an unprovoked attack that scattered the advance ranks of the march where there were many reporters and television crews. The battle of Genoa had begun."
The ideological underpinnings of this brutal show were installed by Italy's new Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and his hand-picked Council of Ministers. The council is led by the Alleanza Nazionale who are unrepentant, historically accurate fascists.
Lo Zio Americano
During the waves of emigration from Europe to the US generations ago, the expression "Lo Zio Americano" ("the American uncle") referred to the stereotypical emigre. The stereotype was a newly successful relative who sent money back to his village, presumably along with snapshots of his Cadillac cruising the 14-karat causeways of the new world. But rank and file American travelers can attest to the changing attitudes of Western Europeans toward the United States in recent decades. While the US is regarded as a good place to make money, few Europeans harbor hidden dreams of Ellis Island anymore. The old image of modern America with its gilded gutters has long since faded against realistic images of an empire in serious decline.
Italians are as enthralled as the rest of Europe by the unique popular trappings of what has come to be known as American culture: blue jean cowboys and chewing gum G.I.Joes blasting through their cinema screens. But while festivals at Cannes, Venice, and Berlin continue to bolster the local film industries, "globalization" is a decidedly less glamorous affair. As promoted by the G8 and by the World Trade Organization (WTO), globalization is the forced opening of healthy local markets and systems of resource distribution to pure Yankee capitalism. It manifests as profit crazed feed lots in England exporting their diseased livestock, and as genetically manipulated pollen sailing from scirocco to maestrale. It appears as the golden arches sleazing up the Piazza di Spagna, and as Disney littering the Loire Valley with its revisionist history. Time and again the US-led WTO has proven that its complex formula of money, threats, and maxi-media frontal assault is the gold standard in the promotion of all that glitters. Obviously a few Italians have profited mightily from this American fueled onslaught. None have done so more than Silvio Berlusconi.
Berlusconi has flourished as a peddler of old American TV shows, dubbed into Italian: "Gli Angeli di Charlie," "Le Strade di San Francisco," and "Baywatch" are broadcast non-stop on his three national stations sandwiched between bombastic advertisements and sensationalist "newsbreaks" which often flog his own interests. His billionaire status alone is enough to earn him kind, albeit condescending, treatment in the American press. In a recent fluffy profile in the New York Times Magazine, he is said to possess "the kind of engaging good humor shared by the best Italians." This is presumably different from the type of humor his corny sit-coms share with the rest of the population. How the seemingly innocuous Zio Americano of Italian media came to be the overseer of the brutal police riots outside the G8 conference is primarily a story of concession and ruthless coalition building. But it is also a story of globalization as the last resort of billionaires.
"A Judicial Coup"
The twentieth century placed Italy at ground zero in the struggles between the authoritarian and populist trends that racked Europe in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Italy was the ideological spawning ground for fascism in the first half of the century as well as the home of the largest, most popular communist party in Western Europe in the second half. Mussolini first wrote for a "socialist" journal and his ultimately iron-fisted totalitarianism was based on a rhetoric of elevation of the masses to their rightful place in society, in the world, in history. Hitler idolized Mussolini and both rode to power on the backs of post-World War One industrialists and monarchies terrified by the revolutionary fervor sweeping Europe. After fascism was crushed in World War Two, communist agitation, real and perceived, caused the center-right coalition that ran Italy from 1948 to 1994 to make notable concessions to social welfare. The large, popular, and intellectually fluid Italian Communist Party (PCI) educated generations of Italians and to some extent inoculated them against the ad agency driven simplification of modern Western politics. Until Berlusconi.
Berlusconi, who describes his politics as "Thatcherite/Reaganite," ran a glitzy American style campaign full of jingles and sound bites during which he spoke of little more than "tax cuts and free markets." Owning the media proved invaluable: his TV and radio outlets refused to run ads for his opponents, his newspapers were unflinching in their editorial support, and his publishing house, "Mondadori," (Italy's largest) sent a glossy 130-page book to every potential Italian voter. This book, An Italian Story has 114 photos of himself on the cover alone and another 132 inside (yes, I counted).
There is no popular or ideological base for Berlusconi's party, Forza Italia, apart from the dependents, the chroniclers, and the wannabees of his vast business empires. He became the richest man in Italy during the era of "Tangentopoli" (bribe city), an ongoing scandal that was devastating to Italian politics. Tangentopoli caused not only the total collapse and disbandment of the ruling Christian Democrats, but suicides such as that of Raul Gardini, an industrialist who had led an Italian sailing bid for the America's Cup. Tangentopoli resulted in prison sentences for ministers and businessmen alike, and the death in exile of Berlusconi's most valuable political ally, Prime Minister and Socialist Party leader Bettino Craxi. Berlusconi dismisses Tangentopoli as a leftist inspired "judicial coup." Regrettably this is not the worst historical rewrite his government is now involved in; he seems to think that historians have perhaps been too hasty in condemning fascism itself.
Of Fascists and Xenophobes
Berlusconi lacks any political vision beyond the protection of his businesses from regulation and his own ass from a jail cell. He handed over the business of governing Italy to two extreme right-wing parties with minimal popular support but lots of tenacity. A center-left coalition had been governing Italy since the fall of Berlusconi's first corruption-plagued government of 1994. In order to gain electoral victory over them, he renewed ties to a bizarre gang of xenophobic, homophobic Northern Italians known as the "Lega Nord" (Northern League), as well as a group he single handedly rescued from the brink of history's dustbin, the neo-fascist "Movimento Sociale" (MSI). The Lega Nord, headed by Umberto Bossi, the new Minister for Institutional Reform, fear and despise not only immigrants from Africa and Eastern Europe but southern Italians as well. They have called repeatedly for secession of various provinces from the Italian republic while arming themselves for an expected purge even as neighboring Yugoslavia was dissolving into the most brutal killing fields Europe has seen in fifty years. Luckily for Bossi's bigots, Mr. Berlusconi offered cabinet posts as well as credibility for their dangerous demands in exchange for a few crucial votes.
The anabiosis of Italian Fascism came when Berlusconi revived flagging Italian interest in the MSI. The MSI was born from the ashes of Mussolini's cadres in 1946 and routinely drew about 5 or 6% of the national vote until judicial inquests around Tangentopoli shed light on many of their shadowy organizations and nefarious activities. In 1990 they reached their electoral nadir at only 3.9% of the vote nationwide. Berlusconi's media boys, experts at "buying short," singled out MSI leader Gianfranco Fini and created an Italian version of compassionate conservatism for him to embody. This was achieved in spite of the fact that Fini had termed Mussolini "the greatest statesman in Italian history" at a rally in 1992 celebrating the 70th anniversary of Mussolini's march on Rome. Fini had also run a thuggish campaign for mayor of Rome with moshpits of nazi skinheads at every rally. But with their new name, Alleanza Nazionale, and newly polished jackboots, their vote totals have soared and Vice President Fini is Berlusconi's right hand man.
To understand the immediacy of the danger that the re-emergence of unfettered fascism represents, one needs to consider not only the activities of the numerous police and paramilitary forces arrayed against the demonstrators in Genoa but the function of state-(Berlusconi-) controlled media in presenting and coloring the tragic results. Any neo-fascist pronouncements about the instigators of violence in Genoa must be weighed against the historical record of right wing violence perpetrated by fascist gangs in the 70s and 80s. Minister of Communications Maurizio Gasparri, along with Forests and Agriculture Minister Giovanni Alemanno and Vice President Fini, all boast in their official government biographies of membership during the turbulent 70s in the "Fronte Della Gioventu." This gang of young fascists was known for their brutality and racism. The police who raided and terrorized the center for non-violent protests in Genoa were singing a favorite Fronte song, "La Facetta Nera" ("Little Black Face"), which commemorates Mussolini's brutal domination of Ethiopia in the 30s with a message of racism and rape.
Notes on the Architects of Neo-Fascism
At the end of World War Two, British and American Secret Service officials began planning their follow-up war with the Soviet Union by cultivating friendships with many of the most notorious nazi and fascist war criminals. Presumably they wished to take advantage of their savagery as well as their expertise concerning their longtime Russian foes. Allied intelligence services set up secret escape routes known as the "Ratlines" through the Vatican in Rome by which many of these newfound friends of freedom were allowed to escape to the Americas. The escapees included such luminaries as the "butcher of Lyon," Klaus Barbie; the architect of the Holocaust, Adolph Eichmann; the "White Angel" of Auschwitz, Joseph Mengele; Deputy Fuhrer Martin Bormann; and Mussolini's emissary to the Goerring SS, Licio Gelli. The operation for which some of these war criminals were being prepared was code-named "Gladio." Referred to in English as "stay behinds," fascists and nazis throughout Europe were organized into cells with buried arms caches to be used to thwart an imminent Soviet invasion.
Licio Gelli was brought back from Argentina to coordinate the intrigue in the Italian political scene. From his post as head of a secret neo-fascist Masonic lodge known as P2, Gelli, known as the "puppet master," incorporated treachery and terrorism into his newly respectable position. P2 grew to include many prominent right wing DC ministers and members of parliament including one time President of the Republic Francesco Cossiga and the ubiquitous Prime Minister Giuglio Andreotti. Much of Gelli's handiwork was implemented under the watchful eyes of the US and NATO security apparatus headed by Henry Kissinger and General Alexander Haig.
As the PCI's brand of electoral communism became ever more popular in the 60s and 70s, Italy's right wing became convinced that this was the communist invasion for which they had been preparing and they became increasingly bold. They attempted two outright military coups, and reinvented a traditional fascist tactic of orchestrating chaos and fear in order to increase public demand for authoritarian control. After the dramatic communist victory of 35% of the vote in 1976 (a landslide by Italy's electoral standards), a series of monstrous bomb attacks rocked the country including a 1980 attack on the train station in Bologna that left 85 dead. Four avowed fascists were later convicted of planting the bomb with Gladio materials and even the "puppet-master" Licio Gelli was sentenced to prison for creating an elaborate scheme to protect the bombers. After seven months, higher courts overturned the convictions prompting the original trial Judge, Liberato Mancuso to lament (as reported in the Guardian, 3/8/90):
"It is now understood among those engaged in the matter of democratic rights that we are isolated, and the objects of a campaign of aggression. This is what has happened to the commission into the P2, and to the magistrates. The personal risks to us are small in comparison to this offensive of denigration, which attempts to discredit the quest for truth. In Italy there has functioned for some years now a sort of conditioning, a control of our national sovereignty by the P2 — which was literally the master of the secret services, the army, and our most delicate organs of state."
Minister of the Interior Claudio Scajola was architect of the 20,000-strong police defense of the fortified summit of economic leaders in Genoa. He was unapologetic about the death of one demonstrator and the beatings, false imprisonments, torture, and unprovoked attacks on countless others. He boasted that "A state must never lose the monopoly on the use of force." (Not surprisingly, in his government bio he was a "militant anti leftist in the 60s".) The pattern here is unavoidable. Italy, Europe, and the world ignore it at their peril. Some would have us believe that fascism didn't get a fair reading by history. One of Fini's boys, Franco Storace, is now president of the region (similar to state governor in the US) of Lazio, which includes Rome. He is leading an initiative to rewrite school books which he says unjustly glorify the partisans who struggled against fascism during World War Two.
Fascism had its chance. It had an entire era with its own calendar still commemorated on the sides of numerous buildings throughout Italy. It cut its murderous path across the planet, enslaving great swaths of Europe, Africa, and Asia. It initiated a holocaust against a religious group of non-combatants, women, and children that systematically killed six million. It was not thrown out of power by some sort of electoral reform. It had to be crushed by an uprising the likes of which the world had never seen. Millions died at its bloody hands and millions more died to destroy it.
Neo-fascists do not renounce racism, nor do they renounce brutal, authoritarian tactics — not in Italy, not in Germany, not in Japan, not in the United States. They claim that racism doesn't get a fair hearing in the court of world opinion, and that the state deserves its monopoly on force. for the sake of strict order. Silvio Berlusconi understands this as well as Blair or Schroeder or G.W. Bush (OK maybe not G.W. Bush), but has assets apparently immense enough to shelter him from deals with the devil himself.
Edmund Zimmerman, performer, poet, and co-founder of TongueMagazine.com (which makes an oft-disputed claim to compassionate conservatism), lived in Italy from 1986 through 1996.