Fascism, a Haunting
Spectral Politics and Resistance in Twenty-First-Century Italy
Fascism by Any Other Name
The year 2016 made fascism popular again. In the Merriam Webster American English dictionary’s annual tally of the most frequently searched terms, fascism came dangerously close to winning the title of “word of the year”—an honor ultimately bestowed upon the term surreal, but only after the dictionary editors issued a passionate appeal to readers in November urging them “to stop fascism’s rise” (Pengelly 2016).
Turning to the dictionary is what students of social phenomena do when at a loss for words. (When world events defy available nomenclatures and force a reorganization of categories of thought, the dictionary promises answers.) In an interview with The Guardian, the Merriam Webster editors explained that there are marked patterns in the words people search for. Surreal, for instance, had already spiked in searches after September 11, 2001, whereas fascism rose in 2016 after Brexit and throughout Donald Trump’s presidential campaign (Pengelly 2016). But if the allure of the dictionary is the promise of clarity, what one actually finds there is also an absence of meaning, a set of definitional exclusions that raise further doubts.
Take, for instance, the first definition of Fascism in the Merriam Webster:
Fascism: often capitalized : a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.
Interestingly, this first definition makes no mention of populism (one of the terms most frequently associated with fascism in contemporary political discourse), nor does it include the possibility that fascism might very well exist within, rather than without, the boundaries of a democratic society. In fact, there is no mention of democracy. The definition does not contemplate fascism rising without a dictatorial leader or any leader at all, as a mass movement festering within democracy’s own underbelly. Does this therefore mean that, by definition, it is not fascism, if “it” is democratically elected, just as Benito Mussolini was in 1921? Or does it mean that “it” can only become fascism later, only in retrospect, when it is too late to stop its rise? Can fascism be named, before it is?
My central concern in this paper is with the symbolic meaning of fascism in twenty-first-century politics. The year 2016 (re)activated a dormant semantic field, bringing to the fore of mainstream political debates in Europe and North America not only fascism, but also populism, nationalism, authoritarianism, and the right (Edwards, Haugerud, and Parikh 2017; Gusterson 2017). Although these terms are often ambiguous and imprecise in everyday usage, their resurgence is indicative of a broad political configuration, within which fascism figures prominently as an organizing category. The fact that the word fascism could so easily attach to a vague and contradictory semantic field needs not be surprising. According to semiotician Umberto Eco, fascism’s own definitional “fuzziness” and philosophical “discombobulation” allowed it to become a “synecdoche” for different totalitarian movements. Unlike Nazism, “[f]ascism became an all-purpose term because one can eliminate from a fascist regime one or more features, and it will still be recognizable as fascist” (Eco 1995).
The ground for my analysis of the discursive rise of fascism is the case of the Italian constitutional referendum of December 4th, 2016. Held in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election and in the wake of Brexit, the referendum sent shockwaves through Europe, as the Union braced itself for yet another populist, Eurosceptic victory. The reform that the referendum put to popular vote and ultimately defeated was the brain child of then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and of his center-left Democratic Party (PD). It would have been the first major reform of the Italian constitution since it was written in 1946. The reform would have completely overhauled the electoral system and governing bodies of the country in the name of more efficient, less bureaucratic governance. The “yes” campaign received the support of liberal democratic EU leaders, who valued its promise of modernizing Italy’s notoriously slow legislative processes (Ansa 2016). By contrast, the reform’s opponents were disproportionately depicted as Eurosceptic, isolationist, and fascist, especially in the foreign press, which, as I will show, framed the “no” vote as a threat to European liberal values analogous to Brexit. Taking issue with what I argue are profound mischaracterizations of the “no” side, I am interested in exploring what the case of the Italian referendum can teach us about the spectral life of fascism, and about its invocations to animate what are ultimately (neo)liberal policies.
The kind of fascism that is on the rise, I argue, is not only incarnate, embodied in a wide range of far-right parties and hate groups, whose violent actions and words, though not new, have certainly entered parliaments in greater numbers over the last two decades. Fascism is also spectral. It can haunt, possess, and manipulate mainstream politics even in the absence of actual fascists. It is this second meaning that interests me here. To be clear, the difference between incarnate fascism and spectral fascism is not to be found in a metric of the real. Both are “real” in the sense that social constructs and ideologies are real. Rather, the distinction matters tactically and analytically, if there is any hope of understanding contemporary manifestations of fascism in order to mount an effective resistance against them.
As a spectral force, fascism can be animated through invocative practices of fear that enliven political engagements across the spectrum. For instance, when fascism is invoked as a specter against which “we” must rise, a particular political subjectivity is called into being through the construction of an oppositional stance with or without an embodied counter-part. The “we” that is conjured up in this fashion could be an anti-fascist subject, and sometimes it is. However, more often than not, since the 1990s it has been primarily neoliberal centrist parties in Europe that have mobilized fascism’s spectral capital by invoking it as an imminent threat to political life. The political subjectivity animated in contrast to fascism, therefore, has often been a liberal one, rather than an anti-fascist one. That is a crucial distinction. Although liberalism is in theory and in rhetoric staunchly opposed to everything fascism stands for, its values of moderation, rationality, and freedom can actually displace to the margins of legitimate political discourse not only fascist positions but also anti-fascist ones. Far-left political parties and activist groups such as antifa, for instance, which have historically been on the front lines of the fight against fascism in the streets, on the mountains, and at the ballot box, have also routinely been vilified by dominant liberal parties for being extremist.1 The danger of spectral fascism, therefore, lies in its power to stupefy a normative liberal subjectivity into abetting fascism’s rise by effectively disarming any resistance against it.
In pursuing a political anthropology of spectral fascism, I will ask two questions about the Italian constitutional referendum that could also be asked of a number of other political events of recent times. First, what kinds of political configurations did the Referendum bring about? The poll-defying surprise that the victory of the “no” generated would appear to mark a departure from pre-existing and predictable voting patterns based on operationalized identity categories. What novel political subjects did the referendum therefore represent? Second, why was the referendum so widely (mis)read as another Brexit—another right-wing, anti-European victory—by otherwise intelligent commentators? To put it differently, what is it that makes complex, alternative political configurations of resistance against dominant political parties legible only through a narrow binary logic of left and right sides, and, worst yet, through an invocation of fascism? While we cannot stop fascism’s rise by simply limiting our dictionary searches, we can trace its spectral appearances across the body politic to discover the unexpected sites where fascism takes hold, the different shapes it shifts into, and the many dialects in which it speaks. And in each instance we can ask—to echo Sophie Bjork-James’ intervention in this very volume—if fascism is the answer here, then what was the question?
Italy’s Phantom Brexit
Between 2015 and 2016, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his center-left Democratic Party (PD) put forth a complex package of legislative changes known collectively as the Renzi-Boschi constitutional reform. Parliament approved the reform package in early 2016, and a confirmatory referendum was called to take place by the end of the year to allow citizens, in accordance with Italian law, either to approve (“yes”) or to veto (“no”) those constitutional changes before they could take effect.
According to its proponents, the constitutional reform package would modernize Italy’s governing bureaucracy. Its most significant proposal was a complete overhaul of the Senate as we know it, which would have been demoted to a consultative body made not of nationally elected senators but, rather, of a much smaller number of local politicians (regional presidents and mayors) serving ex officio. For supporters of the reform, such a reconfigured “Senate” would have ensured greater representation of regional and local governments. Moreover, turning the Senate into a consultative organ would have given the Chamber of Deputies, the other half in Italy’s bicameral Parliament, virtually unencumbered authority to pass laws, thus making the legislative process more expedient. For detractors of the constitutional reform, the demotion of the Senate was the main point of contention. Whereas the idea of streamlining a long-winded and ineffective government could easily gather wide consensus, the legal and political risks of de facto reducing Parliament to a single chamber were frightening to those concerned about losing checks and balances. Such concerns were intensified by the simultaneous debates taking place throughout 2016 about another reform proposed by PM Renzi: a sweeping electoral reform known as “Italicum.” The Italicum reform would have altered Italy’s proportional electoral system by allotting a big majority bonus to larger parties, thus making it very difficult for small parties to win any seats. Unlike the constitutional reform, the Italicum reform was not up for popular vote in the Referendum, but the two were designed to complement each other, as two pillars in what would have been Italy’s “Third Republic.” Taken together, the Italicum and constitutional reforms promised to make the belpaese vastly more governable by limiting the number of political parties and by reducing Parliament to a single legislative chamber.
Throughout 2016, talk of the referendum was everywhere in Italy. The technical and legal complexity of the proposed reform package, however, made it unintelligible to the vast majority of voters, including educated audiences. In the months leading up to the vote, news outlets dedicated special segments to unpacking the details of the reform with the help of expert talking heads, while a number of online courses offered to teach the details of the reform for a fee. Despite such efforts, the only consensus on the ground, in everyday conversations, seemed to be that the reform was incomprehensible. Discussing it with old friends and acquaintances in Italy, trying to discern fact from myth (would mayors-turned-senators earn two pensions?), I too initially struggled to educate myself about the elusive details of the reform. But if the content was fuzzy, the amount of chatter, debate, and publicity that the reform engendered were indicative of its high stakes. It may not have been fully clear to most citizens of Italy how exactly the reform was going to work, but high voter turnout suggests that most people cared about what PM Renzi dubbed, “the mother of all political battles” (La Stampa 2016).
To add to the generalized confusion, endorsements of the reform were all over the political map. At first sight, the mother of all political battles looked like a straightforward battle of the Left and the Right. Its main proponent was the ruling center-left PD, joined in the “yes” by a choir of other left-wing parties and labor unions. The “no” side, on the contrary, included the entire right-wing coalition: Berlusconi’s party, the Northern League, and the neo-fascist parties. It also included the populist Five Star Movement (M5S), a left-leaning protest party founded in 2009 by a comedian, but which had since acquired xenophobic and anti-EU positions reminiscent of the far-right. It is therefore easy to understand why, at first sight, the “no” side could look like a motorcade of right-wing, Eurosceptic positions. However, right-wingers and M5S populists were joined in the “no” by some smaller far-left parties and by a faction of the old communist leadership now in the PD. The Communist labor union (CGIL) dissented from other labor unions and voted no. Perhaps most importantly, the National Association of Italian Partisans (ANPI) also endorsed the no.2 The Partisans (partigiani) were the WWII anti-fascist rebels who organized an armed resistance to liberate the country from Nazi-Fascism. The moral status of the Partisans in post-WWII Italy cannot be underestimated.3 When it came to opposing the constitutional reform, therefore, it is highly remarkable that Partisans, Communists, populists, right-wingers and fascists found themselves all on the same side, although for very different reasons, against the establishment center-left.
And yet, the mother of all battles was widely misreported as a battle of progressives against those “integralist,” counter-Enlightenment movements (Holmes 2000) that increasingly threaten European imaginaries of modernity, and which are often summed up as “fascist,” for short. Leading up to the vote, sensationalist headlines of op-eds and new stories in the international press drew explicit continuities between the upcoming Italian referendum and the preceding cases of Brexit and Trump’s election. The Guardian, for instance, called the referendum “a test of populism” in the aftermath of Trump, while both CNN and the Washington Post emphasized the magnitude of the “shockwaves” that would “rock” Europe. To be fair, those articles did offer deeper analyses past the headlines. For instance, the Guardian admitted that voters were skeptical of whether the mother of all battles would ultimately make any difference, and that the prospect of giving PM Renzi a mandate through a yes vote was just as troubling for some people as was the fear that a no vote would legitimize the populist M5S party (Kirchgaessner 2016). CNN even acknowledged that “while the foreign media is alarmed about the prospect of a ‘No’ victory, many Italians are surprisingly blasé about the potential consequences” (Wedeman 2016). And the Washington Post answered its own rhetorical title question—whether this was “Italy’s Brexit moment”—by equivocating, several paragraphs down, that “not exactly” (Taylor 2016). However, by consistently framing the Italian vote in terms of Brexit, Trump, and populism, news stories inevitably limited their own analytical scope by reinforcing an apocalyptic narrative, which was all along staged as such by the reform proponents, and which was therefore not neutral (Brusini 2017).
Given the complex and contradictory implications of both the “yes” and the “no,” as well as the possibility that in fact neither would make much of a difference to Italian or European politics, it is puzzling how the reform could be so systematically represented (even by ostensibly neutral news media) as a battle of apocalyptic proportions between progressive reformers and illiberal populists. When we acknowledge that Partisans and far-left anti-fascist groups strongly endorsed the “no” vote, the official reading of the referendum’s result as a fascist and populist victory is not only tendentious but perverse. Out of all the possible readings of these events, then, why did this one become so compelling? What was the question that produced fascism as the answer here, despite evidence to the contrary?
The initial terms of the debate, set by the PD, framed the reform as “progress,” and boasted that it would bring Italy up to European standards of governance. The framework of the debate therefore pre-emptively cast any opposition to it as anti-modern and anti-European. The logical slippage is especially worth noting in comparison to Brexit, where the equivalent of a “yes” vote (“leave”) had brought about significant anti-European change, whereas the equivalent of a “no” vote (“remain”) would have simply maintained the status quo of the United Kingdom within the EU, and would have therefore been more “progressive” while changing nothing. Similarly, in the Italian constitutional referendum a “no” vote would have kept the constitution as it was. Two assaults on logic had to occur, therefore, to transform the Italian referendum into another Brexit. First, the notion of “change” had to be re-defined as necessarily progressive (despite the fact that Brexit had recently reminded everyone that not all change is progressive). Second, the “no” option of simply maintaining the status quo had to be recast as ushering novel danger, with prophecies of financial collapse and democratic ruin to follow (Repubblica 2016).
Coached as it was in the language of neoliberalism, the reform therefore unleashed the discursive power of EU modernity to normativize its ideological positions, while simultaneously invoking the spectral power of an increasingly populist and xenophobic fascism to stigmatize any competing notions of change.
In the aftermath of the referendum, the far-from-obvious questions of who won and who lost drove political debates. The striking defeat of the reform caught the ruling party by surprise. PM Matteo Renzi had repeatedly promised to resign if his constitutional reform was rejected by voters, and he kept his word. That ill-fated promise was indicative of the over confidence with which the “yes” side had approached the vote, but also of its political identification of the “yes” with the center-left coalition in power. It was PM Renzi who personalized a rather dull referendum on legislative bureaucracy into a plebiscite on him (Matteucci 2016). By attaching his political mandate to the outcome of the referendum, Renzi’s loss handed over to the right a victory they had not necessarily earned, but which they were happy to claim. Sure enough, in the wake of the referendum, center-right and far-right parties, all of which had unanimously opposed the reform, pounced at the chance to demand new elections.
The referendum results, however, paint a far more complex picture of the vote. Although it seems clear that Renzi lost, it is not at all clear that the right won. Results show that voters did not always follow party lines. Instead, age, class, and educational level turned out to be the variables most highly correlated with the vote. Although the “no” side won 59.1% of the total votes, that percentage spiked among those under the age of 44 (69% of whom voted no), as well as among the unemployed and underemployed (73%), and among those with advanced degrees. Demographic differences in voting were found even among registered PD members, among whom those making less than 18,000 euros broke away from PM Renzi and voted against the reform at a rate of 51% (Feltri 2016). Finally, the “no” side won by a higher margin in the south, showing the ongoing significance of regional differences to contemporary Italian politics.4 Therefore, the statistical results paint a revealing picture of “no” voters as younger people, the unemployed or underemployed, the highly educated, and many southerners: categories that are very often one and the same in Italy.
While polling metrics may fail to capture the intersectionality of these variables, an ethnographically informed analysis of the vote suggests that a new political subject emerged outside political taxonomies of old. For anyone who has spent any time in Italy in the last few decades, the political subject of the highly-educated but under-employed youth, especially from the south, should be immediately recognizable. Although certain parties might appeal more or less explicitly to any of its constituting categories, the intersectional subject that defeated the reform is found across the political spectrum. Like any other legitimate political subject, this one too appears genderless in the data, as mainstream polls in Italy typically do not account for gender differences. Its unmarked masculinity, further entrenched through highly gendered accounts of this subject’s “anger,” is assumed to stand in for the generic. But unlike legitimate political subjects, measured by party affiliation, this one can only result from a Gestaltian recuperation of missing pieces, lost in the cracks of recognizable categories, at the intersection of metrics that were not designed to account for it or its anger. As a subject, it amounts to an unaccounted multitude, an entire generation (or two, depending on how one counts it), lost to structural adjustment programs, systemic defunding of the welfare state, and neoliberal reforms in the country that once boasted the most powerful Communist Party in the West (Kertzer 1996; Molé 2012; Muehlebach 2012). “Youth” in this context is a cultural category, which in Italian allows the use of the words for girl or boy (“ragazza/o”) to refer to people well into their forties. The prolonging of the status of youth is precisely the collective condition experienced by generations for whom the socio-economic markers of adulthood that had applied to their parents became unattainable: a permanent job contract in the public sector; a mortgage; marriage and children. In the United States and other wealthy countries, there have long been stereotypes deriding Italians living with their parents into their 30s, as though they suffered from unhealthy psychological attachments (the classic “mamma’s boy”) rather than adverse economic conditions.
How such a multitude could go unseen in Italian political surveys, however, how its compact actions as a class could elicit surprise even among ruling left-wing parties, is the mystification that needs to be unraveled. Renzi himself took office at the age of 39, becoming the youngest Prime Minister Italy had ever had since Mussolini. Renzi was often condescendingly referred to as the “bravo ragazzo” (“good boy”), who had attempted to move Italy forward but failed with his signature “Jobs Act” of EU-driven austerity policies dispensed in cool global English to an increasingly globalized European under-class (Jones 2015). Fed up and angry, but not unsophisticated, the highly educated unemployed “youth” of Italy lived on their skin the demystification of neoliberal ideologies, either succumbing to a “brain drain” and leaving the country in search of career opportunities, or staying behind to work in a gig economy for which they are often overqualified (Alderman 2013). Over the last decade, the anger and energy of this dispossessed youth has been channeled by new political parties and, most notably, by the Five Star Movement (M5S), which strongly opposed Renzi’s constitutional reform. Although technically on the left, M5S is a truly populist movement of “young” people, whose members were drawn from various sides of the political spectrum to form a protest party. In its championing of young, angry, disenfranchised Italians, the positions of M5S, such as increased welfare for citizens and critiques of the Euro common currency, express a nationalist socialist stance that has been on par with the Northern League in its racist, anti-immigrant statements. The political influence of M5S might have been underestimated by PM Renzi leading up to the referendum. But a mere 15 months later, when new elections took place in March 2018, M5S rose to become the country’s first party, leaving no doubt about the need to take seriously the angry, under-employed, highly-educated youth that M5S mobilized to represent. Just like right-wing parties, M5S claimed victory too, after the referendum, confirming fears that populism and fascism won.
Whereas both M5S and the right-wing coalition parties were recognized as possible “winners” in news coverage of the referendum, there is another potentially victorious formation that remained largely unseen: the anti-fascist left. Both numerically and morally, the anti-fascist far-left shaped the referendum’s results and the debates around it. One of the most illustrious voices of the “no” camp belonged to former Supreme Court justice and former Communist Party senator, Domenico Gallo. He was among the first to sound the alarm as soon as the constitutional reform was approved by Parliament back in January 2016. Writing as a constitutional scholar, and as a member of the committee that called for a confirmatory referendum, Gallo warned against the fascist echoes of Renzi’s ostensibly progressive proposals: the Italicum electoral reform and the constitutional reform. By concentrating power within a few large parties and by abrogating the system of checks and balances built into the Parliament, the two reforms bore a dangerous resemblance to Mussolini’s infamous 1923 electoral reform, the “Acerbo law.” Historically, the Acerbo law marked a turning point in the transformation of Mussolini’s regime from a “democratically” elected one into a “dictatorship.”5 It was the Acerbo law that by awarding a huge majority bonus to the winning party enabled the National Fascist Party first to gain full control of Parliament, and then to use Parliament to pass the “extraordinary laws” of 1925-1928, which legally and systematically abolished democracy piece by piece, and eventually led to the abolition of Parliament itself. In Gallo’s (2016) words, “only the erasure of historical memory can make a set of institutional reforms pass for innovative when they attempt to restore autocratic forms of power that history had left behind.”
The notion of progress attached to the reform that Gallo called into question ought to have been suspect all along. Demographic analyses reveal that age was one of the most salient variables in the breakdown of the vote, and that while older Italians voted for Renzi’s notion of “progress,” the younger generations vehemently rejected it. More fundamentally, a critical analysis of the reform as a return to fascist politics served as an important reminder that Italian Fascism was born out of democracy, and that it used democratic institutions to undo democracy itself.
To call the Italian Fascist regime a dictatorship, as people commonly do, is to simplify by way of misnaming it what was an internal weakness of liberal democracy—perhaps its own litmus test—, which the Fascists seized upon and carried to a dictatorial conclusion. To put it differently, characterizing Mussolini’s regime as simply a dictatorship mystifies by means of historical amnesia the complicity of liberal democracy in authorizing, enabling, and disseminating fascism as a dictatorial regime. In postwar Italy, this mystification persisted through nationalist ideologies that retroactively construed fascism as a historical aberration (Del Boca 2003). However, any definition of fascism that posits it outside of democracy or in contrast to it (as the dictionary does), is not only historically untenable but ultimately dangerous in its failure to name fascism before it is too late. That was the contribution of anti-fascist critics to the referendum’s debate in 2016: the willingness to name as fascist even ostensibly progressive, left-wing reforms like the Italicum and the constitutional reform. There is therefore an equally plausible reading of the referendum’s outcome as an anti-fascist victory. In the remaining pages, I pursue that alternative reading not to declare the far-left the “true” winner, but to examine what its significant absence from official victory narratives can reveal about the spectral work of fascism in this case and in others like it.
A few days after the referendum, while I was in Bologna conducting research on a project about the intertwining crises of labor and migration, I came across an enormous mural (Figure 1). As a “native” anthropologist of Italy, I had walked by that same spot in Piazza Verdi countless times before, in the heart of the old city, by the Alma Mater Studiorum, the oldest university in Europe, and I had been greeted by the same scene that since the early 1980s has been indicted as the icon of social degradation in one of the wealthiest cities in Italy. A sea of bodies enveloped in clouds of smoke, consuming and transacting ill-disguised drugs, occupied the public space of the urine-reeking piazza with dogs, musical instruments, and bottles of alcohol, just as they had been doing for decades, under the gaze of police forces surrounding them from a distance. Despite repeated “cleansing” campaigns over the years, and not infrequent clashes with the authorities, Piazza Verdi has resisted gentrifying efforts waged in the name of safety and legality, seamlessly incorporating into its ranks of white students and drug addicts increasing numbers of black and brown immigrants, many of whom now not only populate the square and partake in its underground economy, but also own the convenience stores and kebab shops that have popped up all around it.
With the surreptitiousness of street art, the approximately 20-meter-long mural had appeared suddenly overnight a few months earlier, in September 2016. At the center of the image, in all capital letters, the words “STORIA PARTIGIANA” (“Partisan history”) sat triumphantly and defiantly against a backdrop of red and yellow rays reminiscent of Communist esthetics, while life-size police forces in riot gear were depicted as unsuccessfully trying to mount an assault against it from one side. In small letters, right under “Partisan History,” the mural quoted in Italian some verses by the socialist Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet: “To walk toward what is just and true. To fight for what is true, just. To seize what is just, true.”6
The mural was claimed by the Collettivo Universitario Autonomo (CUA), an anarchist group that has engaged in a battle of street art with the city on multiple occasions (Zic.it 2016). Even without that information, upon first seeing the mural, its nostalgic iconography of resistance left no doubt about the political leanings of the artists. “Partisan history” was an explicit reference to the anti-fascist national heroes of WWII, and the political legacy they left after defeating fascism. The figure of the Partisan was invoked in the mural in the service of a trans-historical and romanticized imagery of resistance, as it often is in Italian politics. For instance, the Partisans’ famous battle song, “Bella Ciao,” continues to be sung at rallies and protests even today. But instead of celebrating the Partisans of the past or the far-left militants of the present, the mural re-centered an anti-fascist historicity, and reclaimed its centrality both to Italian liberation during WWII and to contemporary politics.
In the mural’s trans-historical representation, fascism figured as the spectral nemesis of Partisan history. Here, however, it was not embodied by fascists in black shirts but, rather, by state police in riot gear. The uncanny life-size image of police forces attacking “Partisan history” could recall any number of police-led assaults that took place in that very square in recent years, and which were rebuked by members of CUA and of other far-left collettivi. Similarly, on the right side of the mural, the imagery of hay balls (that also looked like gun powder barrels) recalled the real-life hay balls that CUA had used earlier that year to barricade Piazza Verdi when the leader of the far-right Northern League, Matteo Salvini, had tried to lead a march through it on June 2nd, Italy’s Republic Day (Del Prete 2016). Spectral fascism was therefore present in the image, but it was represented through contemporary neoliberal, political, and militarized forms, whereas “Partisan history” figured as a timeless source of righteousness and truth (Hikmet’s verses) for present-day anti-fascists.
When I walked by the mural, a few days after the referendum in early December, there was a banner hanging right above it with a message written in black marker on a white background. It read: “We are the ones who won the referendum. Now we are taking to the streets again to reclaim social rights and dignity.”7 In Italian, the message was delivered with a play on words. The pronoun noi means “we,” but in the first sentence of the banner “NOi” stood out in all red letters, the first two of which (“NO”) were capitalized to spell out a second word within the word: a resounding NO inside the noi. The political subject of the “we” animated in the sign was therefore rhetorically enjoined to a refusal. Literally, the NO won, WE won, WE are the NO.
Tacked on to the timeless message of resistance that the mural invoked, the specific protest sign about the constitutional referendum mobilized the iconography of the mural in the service of a particular cause. The banner re-signified the mural as a proud statement of victory of the “no.” Like Renzi had identified the “yes” with himself, here the dissenters—the CUA and other far-left groups that have long occupied the piazza—identified their subject positions with the “no,” both sides personifying the referendum’s stakes. In the center of Bologna, moreover, the victory sign and the “Partisan history” mural acquired heightened local meanings. During WWII, Bologna was the epicenter of Partisan resistance, but that communist history that had earned it the nickname of “the red city” had slowly but steadily given way to neoliberal compromises. Bologna was now home to the center-left PD establishment, and the “yes” therefore won in the city (with 52% of the votes), even though it lost nationally. In Piazza Verdi, however, a class-based and anti-racist form of resistance had long been brewing that found in the referendum a new opportunity for expression. The mural, which predated the referendum by three months, could easily become legible as a powerful critique of the assault against the Partisan constitution that Renzi’s reform represented, and as a broader critique of the neoliberal left for betraying its Partisan history. Even though the Partisans, most of whom had been communists, socialists and anarchists, did not gain control of Italy’s democratic government after the war, the new constitution that they helped write in 1946 was imprinted with their utopian visions. In addition to guaranteeing fundamental rights to work, to healthcare, and to education, the constitution also outlawed fascism and the Fascist Party. The Partisan constitution, therefore, did not simply reinstate a liberal democracy. It established an anti-fascist democracy, setting up the legal and institutional mechanisms necessary to close the loopholes that had allowed Fascism to rise the first time around. That was the anti-fascist constitution that the referendum proposed to reform. In the murals’ words, that was the Partisan history that the ruling center-left party (embodied in state police forces) attempted to attack, and that the new anti-fascists set out to defend.
Figure 1: “Storia Partigiana” mural. Bologna, December 2016. Photo by the author.
Conclusion: From an Anthropology of Fascism to an Anti-Fascist Anthropology
Nevertheless, even though political regimes can be overthrown, and ideologies can be criticized and disowned, behind a regime and its ideology there is always a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives. Is there still another ghost stalking Europe (not to speak of other parts of the world)?
Umberto Eco. (1995). Ur-Fascism.
What this essay has aimed to show is that against the grain of dominant political analyses there is an equally plausible, if not more likely, reading of the Italian constitutional reform’s defeat as an anti-fascist victory. For such a reading to gain narrative plausibility, however, one has to be willing to redefine fascism first in order to recognize it even when it speaks through the voice of a leading center-left party, or when it incarnates in state police forces in riot gear rather than in black shirts. For this alternative reading to become possible, one must first expand the definition of fascism, reconcile it with history, and be willing to name it even within the bounds of democracy. The masterminds of Fascism have already provided the world with such a definition. In the famous Treccani encyclopedia entry for fascism that Mussolini co-authored, he described it not merely as a party or a political doctrine but as a “fundamental conception of life: …an organic conception of the world” (Mussolini and Volpe 1932). Fascists have therefore already told us what fascism is: a total conception of life, a quasi-religious worldview with spiritual, social, economic, and political dimensions.
If fascism is a cultural category, as dangerous in its spectral forms as in its doctrinal incarnations, then anthropologists are uniquely well positioned to study it. However, a robust anthropology of fascism must understand its deployment not only by the right but also by the left, if it is to interpret the formidable politics of the present. As an anthropologist who has worked on the right, I am well aware of the dearth of literature on conservative movements, let alone far-right ones.8 More ethnographic work on the right is certainly called for, but what I am attempting to signal here is the need for a renewed anthropological approach to the political that could capture the ghost of fascism in Europe (or elsewhere) even while working on the left, or while working on sites that may not appear “political” at all. Such an anthropology, I suggest, would not need to be merely about fascism but it would need to be an anti-fascist anthropology.
In his “Anti-fascist Handbook,” Mark Bray defines anti-fascism broadly as “an illiberal politics of social revolutionism applied to fighting the Far Right, not only literal fascists” (2017, xv). While the methods and ideologies of various anti-fascist groups differ widely, Bray suggests that “it is vital to understand anti-fascism as a solitary component of a larger legacy of resistance to white supremacy in all its forms” (2017, xvii). Some of the most widely publicized positions of antifa groups on the use of physical violence (e.g., “punching Nazis”) and on silencing fascist speech might at first seem antithetical to anthropological ethics of relativism and engagement. But those practices are often exaggerated precisely to discredit antifa groups, which in fact engage in a much wider range of resistance and direct action practices (Razsa 2015), with the consequence that false equivalences are sometimes drawn between anti-fascist defensive acts and the physical violence used by fascist groups to intimidate and harass minorities and opponents. For anti-fascist groups, fascist speech, just like fascist violence in the streets, is not a neutral viewpoint in the marketplace of ideas but an assault on bodies and democracy, typically with dire material consequences. The Italian constitution of 1946 recognized as much when it outlawed the Fascist Party, marking fascism as incompatible with democratic values (transitional and final provs. XII).9 Just the year before, 1945, saw the publication of “Race and Democratic Society,” a set of essays written and compiled by the founder of American cultural anthropology, Franz Boas. Written specifically for a lay audience, the volume shared Boas’s lifelong research on race and culture with the general public to disabuse people of the ideologies of racial superiority that Nazi-Fascism had emboldened (Boas 1945). The resistance against white-supremacy that defines anti-fascism is therefore also a defining premise of Boasian cultural anthropology, founded as it was on the critique of racial taxonomies and racist science. In other words, anti-fascism may be as constitutive of American cultural anthropology as it is of the Italian constitution.
An anti-fascist anthropology would necessarily have to be illiberal. That is, it would need to self-consciously reclaim its anti-racist history and distance itself from those Eurocentric liberal values that overwhelmingly define our etic categories, against our own stated commitment to the emic. While liberalism is a cosmology like any other (Mahmud 2016), it occupies a dominant place both in anthropology’s assumptions and, more broadly, in what Michael Herzfeld (2004) called the “global hierarchy of values.” This dominance results from European political supremacy in the staging of a universal standard for modernity, and not from any inherent merit of liberalism itself. In fact, to suggest that liberalism is somehow a “better” political system and worldview than any other—as many Euro-American leaders and citizens have done, especially in recent years, and especially against Islam—might be a fine belief to hold, but not a tenable claim when proposed from within liberalism’s own hegemony, which already posits liberal societies as the best of all possible worlds.10 Given the uncomfortable fact that liberalism often does more violence to antifascist positions than to fascist ones, an illiberal anti-fascist anthropology would have to systematically deconstruct those built-in liberal assumptions, especially when they harm social justice causes.
While certainly not limited to a study of the right, an anti-fascist anthropology could learn at least three important lessons from existing ethnographic scholarship on the right. First, any serious anthropology must take its subjects seriously. Writing against Marxist theories of false consciousness, anthropologists working on conservative movements have recognized the agency of our interlocutors’ actions and viewpoints (Mahmood 2005). The aim is of course not to amplify unsavory messages, but to make intelligible the exigent circumstances, worldviews, and life experiences that can produce “hate,” for instance, as a structure of feeling (see Shoshan 2016). Taking the right seriously is therefore an epistemological mandate in addition to an ethical one. Second, the anthropology of the right has often had to approach right-wing formations as cultural systems, and not merely political doctrines. Notions of citizenship, religion, gender, race, or sexuality, which provide the fodder for right-wing political positions, are primarily socio-cultural categories. Understanding the symbolic meanings and worldviews underlying particular political ideologies, therefore, can assist in making the strange familiar, and possibly in developing more compelling arguments against those positions. Finally, making the strange familiar can also help reconcile seemingly extremist viewpoints with commonsensical ones within the same society. That is the third lesson imparted by the ethnography of the right: that the study of European or American conservative movements can make visible the shared cosmologies, the shared hegemonic assumptions, that are otherwise difficult to see about one’s own social world. Instead of taking the rise of the right as an apocalyptic “crisis” (Mahmud 2016), the anthropology of the right and the anthropology of Europe have together shown that there are significant continuities between socially acceptable liberal beliefs and offensive far-right positions on politicized topics such as Islam (Fernando 2014), immigration (Cabot 2014), and labor (Muehlebach 2012). An anti-fascist anthropology could attend to those continuities in order to recognize the spectral work of fascism across various domains of life. In the process, an anti-fascist anthropology could uncover how subjects are politicized into antagonistic positions, despite the mutual interests and complicities that bind us all.
Regardless of whether the “no” victory should be attributed to the far-left, as the CUA claimed, or to populism and neo-fascism, as the PD warned, there is a populist lesson that gets lost if the analysis is blinded by parties and political taxonomies of old. That is, that the people of contemporary populism cannot fit neatly into existing socio-economic or party-centered categories. Just as it was not simply the “white working class” (Walley 2017) that elected Trump, it was not just Euroscepticism that won the referendum. The “no” vote in Italy was the vote of the highly educated and of the poorest. It was the young vote. It was driven as much by a distrust of neoliberal notions of “progress” as it was by nationalist sentiments. And because nationalism, as Benedict Anderson ( 1991) taught us, is not an ideology on the right or the left of the political spectrum, young nationalists could fight Renzi’s reform out of allegiance to a romanticized partisan history or out of neo-fascist xenophobia. To be sure, many may have been Eurosceptics, as the international press decreed, but what that actually means should not be taken for granted. As I wrote elsewhere, Euroscepticism has become a shared rubric of dissent for widely different political actors (Mahmud 2018). On the far-left, anti-EU sentiments typically emerge from a critique of “fortress Europe,” its unwelcoming and inhumane immigration policies, and its neoliberal austerity economics that have eroded labor rights and the public sector—a radically different set of considerations from those that motivate right-wing Euroscepticism. But it is the fact that such strange bedfellows can come together that is worth pondering. This is a populism of strangers brought together not by a shared class or identity as a “people,” and not even by shared concerns, necessarily, but rather by a shared oppositional stance against a real or imagined common enemy. It is the populism of people who are “repugnant” to each other, in Susan Harding’s (1991) sense of the term, but who found themselves on the same political side in 2016 (and not only then).
When existing metrics failed to capture the complexity of political life on the ground, in Brexit’s case, in Trump’s case, and again in the Italian referendum’s case, “fascism” became a convenient answer to fill the gaps of knowledge. In each of those cases, mutata mutandis, a ruling centrist neoliberal party deployed fascism pre-emptively as a threat against which to guard, and later as an explanation for what happened, despite plausible alternatives. The political strategy of invoking a state of emergency, which fascism represents, is not new (Benjamin 1969). Next to the “evil” of a fascist threat, neoliberalism can be a “lesser evil” and, therefore, a palatable alternative, even when it serves deeply controversial reforms. The problem with the lesser evil logic, as Hannah Arendt (2003) cogently articulated in regards to Nazi Germany, is that choosing the lesser evil is still choosing evil. In fact, it “is one of the mechanisms built into the machinery of terror and criminality” to ease the population into “the acceptance of evil as such” (Arendt 2003, 36-37). When voters defy the logic of the “lesser evil,” as they did in the Italian referendum and arguably in Trump’s election, too, it does not necessarily mean that they are choosing evil by embracing or condoning a fascist populism, though some certainly are. It could also mean that they are agentically refusing to choose evil at all. The latter possibility becomes invisible when spectral fascism is animated as the dominant answer.
The question, then, to which fascism could so easily become an answer, is really a question about liberalism’s legitimacy among large swaths of voters who seem unmoved by a “lesser evil” argument. In the case of the Italian constitutional referendum, and increasingly across Euro-American politics, the notions of crisis and progress were deployed simultaneously to produce fascism as an answer. This case, then, serves as a reminder that any notion of “progress” that conjures up the specter of fascism in order to pit itself against it ought to look suspect because of its tautological ineffectiveness but also because of the power dynamics that it mystifies. As it harnesses fascism’s spectral potential to re-center liberalism, such mystification can ultimately obscure the lived politics of anti-fascist resistance, which liberalism has often disarmed.
To fight against fascism, therefore, an anti-racist and anti-fascist anthropology must be willing to take liberalism to task, as itself a cultural category. White supremacy is undoubtedly at the center of fascism, but it also lives deeply and paradoxically within liberalism, despite its inclusionary promises. It is not helpful to ask which is the lesser evil because there cannot be an effective critique of fascism without recognizing the complicity with it of a liberal system of values that has historically produced race as a function of white supremacy. An anti-fascist, illiberal anthropology must be willing to recognize fascism even when it incarnates in unlikely places, when it haunts democratic sites, when it latches onto liberal thought, when it sounds civilized and reasonable. Audre Lorde famously wrote that there is a “piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within us” (1984, 123). That is what we must be willing to exorcise from our own bodies and disciplines to stop fascism’s rise.
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For an ethnographic account of how central the value of “moderation” is to the construction of a liberal political subject in Europe, see also my study of Italian women Freemasons (Mahmud 2014).↩
While some local ANPI chapters publicly dissented from the organization’s national leadership and joined the PD in voting “yes,” the association as a whole strongly endorsed the “no.”↩
Even in the present day, affirming one’s grandfather’s role as a partigiano (or one’s grandmother’s role as a staffetta, a messenger and carrier of weapons, one of the most typical roles women played in the anti-Fascist resistance) is a claim to virtue in Italy. Well into the late twentieth century, when many partisans were still alive, they would routinely be invited to visit schools to educate children about Italy’s horrific past, and they would be celebrated as the national freedom fighters who defeated Fascism when they were little more than children themselves (see Krause 2009).↩
It is important to note that perhaps as an effect of the international coverage of the referendum, the “yes” won among Italians abroad, those who reside in other countries and whose votes are collected at embassies.↩
At the time of Mussolini’s election, Italy was a constitutional monarchy. Women did not gain the right to vote until 1945, and the monarchy was replaced by a Republic in 1946.↩
On the mural, the verses read: “Camminare verso il giusto e il vero. Combattere per il vero, il giusto. Conquistare il giusto, il vero.”↩
“Il referendum l’abbiamo vinto NOi. Ora torniamo in piazza per riprenderci diritti sociali e dignità.” I translated the original “piazza” as “streets” rather than “square” to preserve the idiomatic connotation of protest that “going to the piazza” and “taking to the streets” have, respectively, in Italian and English.↩
For some of the exceptions, see (Bacchetta and Power 2002; Ginsburg 1998; Harding 1991, 2000; Holmes 2000; Shoshan 2016).↩
In addition, Italian law explicitly criminalizes the “apology of fascism” and its propaganda (1952)↩
For recent anthropological work on liberalism, see (Boyer 2016; Dzenovska and Kurtović 2018).↩