I’m worn out from the worst-case scenarists, bedwetters, and Nervous Nellies opining on the Italian election. There’s supposedly an international conspiracy afoot that links the incoming far right Italian government to Hungary, Brazil, and every place that right-wing populism is thriving including our own country. Extremism is indeed on the march, but it’s driven by national, not global circumstances. A brief history lesson is in order.
Hungary and Brazil are countries with limited small d democratic traditions. Hungary was a member of the Axis during World War II and had a communist government imposed on it by the Soviet Union. Brazil has a long history of military dictatorships and strongmen. The man my Brazilian friends call Bozo is just the latest strongman. He does, however, have the best derisive nickname:
I’m not an expert on Italian politics. I love the food but don’t speak the language. My interest began with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 in which Lt. Nately has an encounter with a cynical old Italian man who explains the facts of political life to the naive young American:
“America,” he said, “will lose the war. And Italy will win it.”
“America is the strongest and most prosperous nation on earth,” Nately informed him with lofty fervor and dignity. “And the American fighting man is second to none.”
“Exactly,” agreed the old man pleasantly, with a hint of taunting amusement. “Italy, on the other hand, is one of the least prosperous nations on earth. And the Italian fighting man is probably second to all. And that’s exactly why my country is doing so well in this war while your country is doing so poorly.”
Nately guffawed with surprise, then blushed apologetically for his impoliteness. “I’m sorry I laughed at you,” he said sincerely, and he continued in a tone of respectful condescension. “But Italy was occupied by the Germans and is now being occupied by us. You don’t call that doing very well, do you?”
“But of course I do,” exclaimed the old man cheerfully. “The Germans are being driven out, and we are still here. In a few years you will be gone, too, and we will still be here. You see, Italy is really a very poor and weak country, and that’s what makes us so strong. Italian soldiers are not dying any more. But American and German soldiers are. I call that doing extremely well. Yes, I am quite certain that Italy will survive this war and still be in existence long after your own country has been destroyed.”
Heller brilliantly captured the cynical attitude of Italians about their politics. That survivalist cynicism continues to this day. Nately’s old man lives.
In the post-World War II era, Italy has had 69 governments. There was an extended period of dominance by the center-right Christian Democrats but its ministries came and went frequently because the party was highly factionalized. That party blew up in the mid-1990’s after revelations that one faction was essentially a branch of La Cosa Nostra with Giulio Andreotti as its godfather. The right continued to thrive. Nately’s old man lives.
One of the best things I’ve read about Fascism’s enduring hold on the Italian imagination is by Barbara Serra at Al-Jazeera.com who quotes the Italian historian Francesco Filippi at length as will I:
“Filippi told me that the answers, according to him, lie in how the war ended. “German Nazism and Italian Fascism ended in very different ways,” he said.
In Germany, the Nazis and Hitler were defeated by the Allies, who imposed denazification. That did not happen in Italy. “Mussolini is toppled from power by the Fascist Party itself in July 1943. That’s when he stops having control of the narrative, and of much of the country,” Filippi explained.
By then, the Cold War was brewing, and Italy had the largest communist party in the West. It was not in the interests of the United States and the United Kingdom to target conservative, ex-fascist forces who could work towards containing the so-called “Red Threat”, he told me “better to leave things as they were”.
That allowed Italians to build their own narrative about the past – so it is not surprising that many difficult questions around who had been a fascist and what it meant were not properly dealt with.”
As far as many Italians are concerned, Mussolini was killed by commies. In fact, he was killed by partisans some of whom were far leftists, but people in every country prefer simple narratives to nuanced ones. The right continues to thrive. Nately’s old man lives.
You’re probably wondering where Mussolini souvenirs come in. Here’s where. In 2017, there was an attempt by a previous Italian government to ban Mussolini knick-knacks and gee-gaws from public display and sale. The effort passed the lower house but seems to have died in the Senate since they’re still available. I say “seems to have” because the English language media lost interest in the law after it passed one house of parliament. Research can be frustrating.
You can actually buy wines with Il Duce’s mug on the label. I am not making this up:
The right continues to thrive. Nately’s old man lives.
Another swell piece about the late Italian election and its implications comes from Yascha Mounk at the Atlantic. He’s worried about the new government but also quotes modern day Italian cynics on what’s likely to happen next:
“Most of the Italians I have spoken with in recent days await the new government with weary equanimity. One neighbor, an outspoken woman in her 70s who, like most people in her village, has voted for the left all her life, told me of her intense dislike for Giorgia Meloni. But when I asked her whether she was worried about what the leader of Brothers of Italy would do to the country, she gave a nonchalant shrug. “In the end, the new government won’t be that different from all the others,” she said. “It’ll fail to get much of anything done. And then it’ll collapse.”
Governments come and go but Italy is forever. The spirit of Nately’s old man is eternal.
The last word goes to Marc Ribot and Tom Waits with an Italian song of resistance that has come under attack by the far right this election season.