Fascism, a Haunting: Spectral Politics and Antifascist Resistance in Twenty-First-Century Italy
University of California, Irvine
Fascism by Any Other Name1
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, 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 Online:
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 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, as scholars of fascism and authoritarianism have noted (Hall 1985; Mann 2004; Sternhell 1986). In fact, the Merriam-Webster’s entry for fascism does not contemplate its rise without a dictatorial leader, or any leader at all, as a mass movement festering within democracy’s own underbelly. Does this mean that 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. Focusing on the specific case of Italy in the broader context of global populisms that this volume attempts to explain, I will analyze the deployment of fascism in order to analyze the term’s resurgence and its effects across the political spectrum. 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; Scoones et al. 2018). Although these terms remain ambiguous and imprecise in everyday lay usage, their growing relevance to global politics is symptomatic of shifting configurations of power for which fascism often becomes a catch-all organizing category. The fact that the word fascism can so easily attach to a vague and contradictory political lexicon 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 throughout the world. Unlike Nazism, which did not adapt as easily to other contexts and times, “[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 EU 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, which I will review in detail later in this paper, would have completely overhauled the electoral system and governing bodies of the country in the name of more efficient 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 overwhelmingly depicted as Eurosceptics, isolationists, and fascists, especially in the foreign press, which, routinely represented 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 explore 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 fascism incarnate 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 invoked through practices of fear that enliven political engagements across the spectrum. For instance, when fascism is conjured as a specter against which “we” must rise, a particular political subjectivity is called into being through the construction of an oppositional stance. The “we” that is animated in opposition to fascism could be an antifascist subject, and sometimes it is. However, since the 1990s it has been primarily neoliberal centrist parties in Europe that have mobilized fascism’s spectral power by invoking it as an imminent threat to political life. The political subjectivity animated in contrast to fascism, therefore, has more often than not been a liberal one, rather than an antifascist one—and that is a crucial distinction. Although liberalism is in theory and in rhetoric staunchly opposed to everything fascism stands for, its own values of moderation, rationality, and freedom have at times displaced to the margins of legitimate political discourse not only fascist positions but also antifascist ones. Far-left political parties and activist groups, such as those that opposed the constitutional reform in Italy, and which have historically been in the front line of the militant fight against fascism, have often been accused by centrist parties of being as extremist as fascists themselves. One of the greatest dangers of spectral fascism, therefore, lies in its power to stupefy a normative liberal subjectivity into disarming antifascist resistance, thus abetting fascism’s rise.
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?
My argument in this paper is that the Italian constitutional referendum, which many dubbed Italy’s Brexit, could just as easily have been celebrated as an antifascist victory in 2016. I build that alternative reading of the referendum by paying attention to both local activism and statistical results, which together paint a far more contradictory picture than headlines would suggest. Ultimately, though, I do not claim that my reading is necessarily more accurate than the official narrative of the triumph of fascist populism. I simply note that the erasure of antifascism from dominant accounts of the Italian constitutional referendum came at a high cost, and it is illustrative of the epistemic violence that liberalism continues to perpetuate against antifascist positions. I conclude, therefore, by reflecting on what it would take to turn the liberal project of anthropology into an antifascist endeavor, and what an antifascist anthropology could contribute to the analysis of the formidable politics of our time. While we may not be able to 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 any kind of “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, to either approve (“yes”) or veto (“no”) those constitutional changes before they could take effect.
According to its proponents, the reform 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 city mayors) serving ex officio. For supporters of the reform, such a reconfigured Senate would have better represented local governments. Moreover, turning the Senate into a consultative organ would have given the Chamber of Deputies, the other half of Italy’s bicameral Parliament, virtually unlimited authority to pass laws, making the legislative process overall 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 existing checks and balances. Such concerns were amplified 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 majority bonus to winning parties, and it would have made it much more difficult for small parties to hold any seats in Parliament. Unlike the constitutional reform, Italicum was not technically included in the referendum. However, the two were explicitly designed to complement each other. They were almost always discussed together in both political debates and informal conversations about the referendum. As the two pillars in what would have been Italy’s “Third Republic,” the Italicum and constitutional reforms promised to make the country easier to govern by effectively limiting the number of political parties and 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 people the details of the reform for a fee. Despite those educational campaigns, the only consensus on the ground seemed to be that the reform was incomprehensible. Discussing it with old friends and acquaintances in Italy, trying to tell fact from fiction in a sea of misinformation (e.g., 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 public chatter and debate that the reform engendered was 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 or what its impact might be, but high voter turnout for the referendum suggests that most people cared about what PM Renzi dubbed “the mother of all political battles” (La Stampa 2016).
To add to the generalized sense of confusion, endorsements of the reform were all over the political map. 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 League, and all the smaller far-right parties. Moreover, the “no” side also included the populist Five Star Movement (M5S), a left-leaning protest party founded in 2009 by a comedian, but which has since acquired xenophobic and anti-EU positions in line with the far right. At first sight, therefore, the mother of all political battles looked like a straightforward battle of the left and the right. However, right-wingers and M5S populists were joined in voting “no” by the smaller far-left parties, as well as by a faction of the old communist leadership now housed inside the PD itself. The Communist labor union (CGIL) defected 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 antifascist militants who organized an armed resistance during WWII to liberate the country from Nazi-Fascism. The moral status of the Partisans in postwar Italy cannot be overestimated.3 When it came to opposing the constitutional reform, therefore, it is highly remarkable that Partisans, Communists, populists, right-wingers and fascists all found themselves on the same side, although for very different reasons, against the establishment center-left.
Despite the diverse makeup of the “no” camp, the referendum was widely misreported as a battle between progressives and 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, the sensationalist headlines of op-eds and news 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 somewhat more nuanced 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 at all, and conceded that the prospect of giving PM Renzi a mandate through a yes vote was just as troubling to some people as the idea 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 analogizing the Italian referendum to Brexit and to Trump’s election, experts and news media inevitably limited their own analytical scope, while reinforcing the PD’s narrative of progress (Brusini 2017). Given the complex and contradictory implications of both the “yes” and the “no,” as well as the strong possibility that neither would in fact make much of a difference to Italian and European politics, it is astonishing that the reform could be so systematically misrepresented (even by ostensibly neutral news outlets) as a battle of apocalyptic proportions between progressive reformers and illiberal populists. Out of all possible readings of these events, why did this one become so compelling? How did fascism become the referendum’s answer, despite all 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 pre-emptively cast any opposition as anti-modern, anti-European, and reactionary. 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. 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 reminded everyone that change is not always progressive). Second, the “no” option, which would have maintained the status quo, had to be recast as ushering in novel danger, with prophecies of financial collapse and democratic ruin to follow (Repubblica 2016). Couched 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 (and any refusals to change).
As Jonathan Rosa and Yarimar Bonilla wrote about Donald Trump, “there is just as much to be learned from the reactions to the election as there is from the results” (2017: 201). In the aftermath of the Italian 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 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 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. In the wake of the referendum, populist and right-wing parties, all of which had unanimously opposed the reform, pounced at the chance to demand new elections—which they won in 2018.
The referendum results, however, paint a far more complex picture of the vote. Although it seems clear that Renzi lost, it is not as clear that the right won. Results show that voters did not always follow party lines. Instead, age, class, and highest level of education 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 aged 44 and under (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 per year 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 is further entrenched through highly gendered accounts of this subject’s “anger.” But unlike legitimate political subjects, measured by party affiliations, this one can only result from a recuperation of missing pieces, lost in the cracks of recognizable categories, at the intersection of metrics that were not designed to account for its existence and its outrage. 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 used to have 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 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 of Italians 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.
How such a multitude could go unseen in Italian political surveys, how its compact actions as a class could elicit surprise even to a self-described left-wing party like the PD, 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 better 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 populist movement of “young” people 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 currency, reflect a nationalist socialist stance on par with the far-right League in its racist, anti-immigrant statements. As Gerald Creed and Mary Taylor elucidated in their chapter in this volume, liberal anti-populism has too often obscured and delegitimized reasonable and valid sources of popular discontent, with the result that the latter have found listening ears among the right. 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, joining forces with the League to form an ultra-populist government, and leaving no doubt about the need to take seriously the angry, under-employed, highly-educated youth that M5S represented. Just like right-wing parties, M5S claimed victory too, after the referendum, confirming fears that populism and fascism had won indeed.
Whereas both M5S and right-wing parties were named as possible “winners” in news coverage of the referendum, there is another potentially victorious formation that I argue remained largely unseen: the antifascist Left. Both numerically and morally, the 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 in January 2016. 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 Parliament, the two reforms bore a dangerous resemblance to Mussolini’s infamous 1923 electoral reform, the “Acerbo law.” Historically, the Acerbo law marked the turning point in the transformation of Mussolini’s rule from a “democratically” elected government into a “dictatorship.”5 The Acerbo law awarded a huge majority bonus to the winning party. It enabled the National Fascist Party to gain full control of Parliament, which Mussolini then used to pass the “extraordinary laws” of 1925-1928, which abolished democratic institutions piece by piece, until eventually Parliament itself was abolished. 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.”
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 Italian 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 antifascist critics to the referendum’s debate in 2016: the willingness to name as fascist even seemingly 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 antifascist 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 the case of the Italian constitutional referendum, and increasingly across Euro-American politics, the notions of crisis and progress have been deployed by ruling parties as they invoked fascism to explain their own defeats. This case serves as a reminder, then, that any notion of “progress” that conjures up the specter of fascism in order to pit itself against it ought to look suspect if it forecloses the actual lived politics of antifascist resistance.
No, We Won
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 in clouds of smoke, consuming and transacting ill-disguised drugs, occupied the public space of the urine reeking piazza with dogs, guitars, and bottles of alcohol, just as they had been doing for decades, under the gaze of police forces surrounding them from a safe 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 feed its habitual hustlers.
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 knowledge, the mural’s nostalgic iconography of resistance made clear the political leanings of the artists. “Partisan history” was an explicit reference to the antifascist national heroes of WWII, and to their political legacy. The figure of the Partisan was invoked in the mural in the service of a trans-historical and romanticized imagery of resistance, as it so often is in Italian politics. The Partisans’ famous battle song, “Bella Ciao,” for instance, continues to serve as the soundtrack to 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 antifascist 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, fascism was not embodied by militants in black shirts but, rather, by 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 piazza in recent years, and which were rebuked by members of CUA and other far-left collettivi. On the right side of the mural, the imagery of hay balls (which also looked like gun powder barrels) recalled the real-life hay balls that CUA had used a few months earlier, in June 2016, to barricade Piazza Verdi when the leader of the far-right League, Matteo Salvini, had tried to lead a march through it on Italy’s Republic Day (Del Prete 2016). Spectral fascism was therefore present in the image, but it assumed contemporary, neoliberal, political, and militarized forms, whereas “Partisan history” figured as a timeless source of righteousness and truth, as written in Hikmet’s verses, for present-day antifascists.
When I walked by the mural, a few days after the referendum in early December, a make-shift banner was hanging right above it. Its message written in black marker on a white sheet 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 contained a play on words. The pronoun noi means “we.” However, in the first sentence of the banner the word “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. The hand-written protest banner about the constitutional referendum was added on later, but it mobilized the mural’s timeless iconography of resistance in the service of a specific cause. The banner re-signified the mural as a proud statement of victory of the “no.” Just as PM Renzi had identified the “yes” with himself, here the dissenters—the CUA and other far-left groups that have long occupied Piazza Verdi—identified their own 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, which had earned it the nickname of “the red city,” had slowly but steadily given way to political compromises. Bologna was now headquarters of 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, and it found in the referendum a new opportunity for expression. Although it predated the referendum by three months, the mural could easily become legible as a powerful critique of Renzi’s proposed reform, and as a broader critique of the neoliberal left for betraying its Partisan history even in the red city.
Italy’s constitution of 1946 is sometimes affectionately referred to as the “partisan constitution” (costituzione partigiana). Even though the Partisans, most of whom had been communists, socialists and anarchists, did not gain control of Italy’s postwar Catholic and centrist government, the new constitution they helped bring to life was imprinted with their utopian visions. In addition to guaranteeing fundamental rights to work, healthcare, and education, Italy’s 1946 constitution also outlawed fascism and the Fascist Party. The Partisan constitution, therefore, did not simply reinstate a liberal democracy after the war. It established an antifascist democracy, setting up legal and institutional mechanisms meant to prevent the return of fascism. That was the antifascist constitution that the referendum proposed to change. That was the “Partisan history” that the ruling center-left party attempted to revision, but which new antifascists fought to protect.
Fig. 1. Storia Partigiana mural. Piazza Verdi, Bologna, Italy. (Photo by the author December 2016.)
Conclusion: Conjuring an Antifascist 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.
The year 2016 changed the terms of engagement. 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” was animated as a convenient answer to fill the gaps of knowledge. Perhaps that is because fascism can be an answer to virtually any political question. Michael Mann (2004) noted that “fascist” works as an insult against any opponent, and the invective itself therefore tells us little about its recipients. It is far more telling to consider who is doing the name calling. In each of the 2016 cases, mutata mutandis, a ruling centrist neoliberal party deployed fascism pre-emptively, as a threat against which “we” must guard, and retroactively, as an explanation for what happened, ousting any alternative interpretations from public discourse. If we acknowledge that Partisans and far-left groups in Italy strongly endorsed the “no” vote, however, the official reading of the referendum as a fascist and populist victory becomes not only tendentious but perverse.
My aim in this paper has been to show that against the grain of dominant political analyses there is an equally plausible reading of the Italian constitutional reform’s defeat as an antifascist victory. The point is not that one reading is better than the other, but that one reading—the one espoused by the party in power—eclipsed the other with serious repercussions for Italian politics. The invocation of fascism by the Italian PD not only elided the antifascist activism that contributed to the reform’s defeat, but also bolstered far-right claims to victory that may not have been entirely merited. A little over a year later, the League and M5S went on to win the 2018 national elections, forming the most populist government in Italy since Mussolini. It is possible, of course, that the referendum results simply foreshadowed the victory of a populist right that was to come. But it is also possible that the story of fascism’s victory became a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the PD attributed its referendum’s loss to the specter of fascism, rather than to the antifascist far left, or simply to its own shortcomings, it lent credibility to a previously doubtful far right and populist alliance. Ironically, the erasure of antifascism from the official narrative of Italy’s constitutional referendum was perpetuated in the name of fighting against fascism.
I suggest that it is both possible and necessary to recover an antifascist perspective from the rubble of 2016—in fact, it might even be possible to refuse to concede 2016 to fascism at all. For such a reading to be plausible, however, a new definition of fascism is needed, one that can reconcile it with history and locate it firmly within, rather than in opposition to, the liberal democratic model from which it came. In other words, we need a definition of fascism capacious enough to name it both in its evident incarnate forms and in its insidious spectral forms. Fortunately, the masterminds of Italian fascism have already provided the world with such a definition. In the Treccani encyclopedia entry that Mussolini himself co-authored, fascism is described 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 already told us what fascism is in their own emic terms. We just need to take them seriously.
Understandably, much of the early critical scholarship, especially coming out of an Italian Marxist lens, dismissed and ridiculed fascism’s capacity to engender meaningful worldviews and social systems, reducing its ensnaring influence to captive forms of “brain washing” or to acquiescence to Nazi Germany.8 As the historian of fascism Zeev Sternhell cautioned, however, “the official Marxist interpretation of the history of the interwar period, whereby fascism is alleged to have been merely the tool of monopolistic capitalism and its ideology a mere rationalization of imperialist interests, was a major obstacle to a comprehensive understanding of the phenomenon” (1986: 4). In addition to dismissing fascism’s lack of a coherent philosophy, much work on Italian fascism has also foregrounded the class politics of the movement (Poulantzas 2018) at the expense of any serious analysis of its racial and white supremacist roots. To put it simply, fascism has been mythologized as Nazism’s “lesser evil.” In order to support the untenable claim that fascism was not really about race, postwar scholars excluded Italy’s genocidal racial regimes in the African colonies from their studies, as though the lives of Eritreans, Ethiopians, Libyans, and Somalis under fascism did not matter to the argument (Ben-Ghiat and Fuller 2005; Burgio 1999; Palumbo 2003). They also had to downplay the 1938 racial laws against Italian Jews, looking at them as Mussolini’s last-minute favor to Hitler rather than the culmination of a long anti-Semitic campaign that the duce had started in the 1920s, and which led to the systematic obliteration of Italian Jews’ rights and life (Sarfatti 1994).9 Italian historiography since at least the 1980s has moved away from the “lie” (Raspanti 1994) of fascism’s less virulent racism (Capristo and Ialongo 2019; Traverso 2008), but the fact that it took so long to get here is a reminder of the insidiousness of fascism: its ability to pass for something more benign than what it is. As Antonio Gramsci warned in 1925, when he was still a Member of Parliament and the democratically elected National Fascist Party held the majority of seats, we underestimate fascism at our own peril (Gramsci and Mussolini 1997).
If we believe what fascists told us about fascism—that it is a total conception of life, a quasi-religious worldview with spiritual, social, economic, and political dimensions, then anthropologists are uniquely well positioned to study it. A robust anthropology of fascism, however, cannot be merely about the right, though more ethnographic research on conservative and far-right movements is certainly called for.10 It must also understand the deployment of fascism by the left, by the center, or in sites that may not appear “political” at all. Fascism is everywhere. In the wake of 2016, there is an urgent need for a renewed anthropological approach to the political that could deliver what polls and political commentaries could not: a way to foresee and to resist fascism’s rise before it is too late. What is needed, I suggest, is an antifascist anthropology.
In his Anti-fascist Handbook, Mark Bray has defined antifascism broadly as “an illiberal politics of social revolutionism applied to fighting the far right, not only literal fascists” (2017: xv; emphasis added). While the methods and ideologies of various antifascist groups have differed widely, Bray has suggested that “it is vital to understand antifascism as a solitary component of a larger legacy of resistance to white supremacy in all its forms” (2017: xvii). There are two distinctive elements to Bray’s definition that I find especially useful for anthropology. First, Bray subtended antifascism to anti-racism. Given that an over-emphasis on class analysis has too often obscured the deep roots of Italian fascism in white supremacy—a mistake seldom made about German Nazism—, Bray’s ideological framing of antifascist resistance squarely within the legacy of anti-racist resistance leaves no doubt about the political stakes of such a project. Second, Bray characterized antifascism as an illiberal movement. Given liberalism’s historical complicity with the rise of fascism, and its sometimes hostile relationship to antifascist movements, Bray’s definition signals the need to untether a project of antifascist resistance from the constraints of a liberal worldview. This is not to say that antifascism must necessarily be anti-liberal, nor to suggest a false equivalence between liberalism and fascism. It is merely to recognize that antifascism must be willing to resist liberalism, too, whenever the latter hinders an anti-racist project of social justice centered on the principled rejection of fascism in all its forms.11
I recognize this is a tall order for anthropology—the liberal discipline par excellence, born from the marriage of colonial biopolitics and Eurocentric Orientalism. Elsewhere I have argued that liberalism is a cosmology, rather than merely an ideology (Mahmud 2016, 2018), and its worldviews and origin stories occupy a dominant place both in anthropology’s assumptions and in what Michael Herzfeld (2004) termed the “global hierarchy of values.” Some antifascist positions, especially around the use of violence, or the refusal to dialogue with fascists, can seem antithetical to anthropological ethics of relativism and engagement. Those ethics, however, are not neutral. They are steeped in an unreflexive acceptance of liberal premises and of all their attending power dynamics, which have proven resilient even to decades of decolonial, feminist, ‘native’, queer, and indigenous critiques coming from within anthropology itself.
The mural at the center of my analysis, for instance, was an act of vandalism committed by members of a militant far-left collective and publicly condemned by city and university officials alike. On multiple occasions CUA members have destroyed private property and resorted to physical violence to stop leghisti and fascists from marching through the piazza, just as they have fought back the state police forces deployed against them by a center-left democratic government. Engaging in such actions, members of the CUA have lived up to the most stereotypical depictions of groups like antifa. Within a liberal system of morality, which values private property and condemns physical violence when it is not state-sponsored, it is easy to dismiss such groups as extremist. However, much of the CUA’s less visible activism has been non-violent, satirical, and artistic. In his ethnography of anti-globalization activists in the former Yugoslavia, Maple Razsa (2015) has shown that the violent practices attributed to far-left militant groups (e.g., the trope of “punching Nazis”) are often exaggerated in mainstream representations precisely to discredit far-left collectives and social centers, all of which actually engage in a far wider range of direct action practices. Given the uncomfortable fact that liberalism often does more violence to antifascist positions than to fascist ones, an antifascist anthropology would have to become reflexive about those Eurocentric liberal values of progress, freedom, and rights, which overwhelmingly shape our etic categories.
Ultimately, it is true that antifascist militant actions rest on a fundamentally illiberal premise: that fascist speech is not a legitimate viewpoint in the marketplace of ideas but a violent assault on bodies and democracy to be rebuked by any means. The Italian “partisan” constitution of 1946 recognized as much when it outlawed the Fascist Party, and Italy’s postwar government went even further in criminalizing both “fascist propaganda” and the “apology” of fascism.12 Despite such lofty principles, (neo)fascist parties have nonetheless ascended to power in Italy simply by changing their names, and the constitutional reform that promised to make Italy more modern bore some dangerous resemblances to fascist ideals of governance. To call out those liberal practices that aid and abet fascism’s rise, anthropology would need to become partisan in a political context where neutrality was never an option.
An important lesson offered by the ethnography of the right is that the study of conservative movements can make visible the shared cosmologies and hegemonic assumptions that are otherwise difficult to see about one’s own social world. For instance, there are significant continuities between socially acceptable liberal beliefs and their inflammatory far-right counterparts with regards to Islamophobia (Fernando 2014), xenophobia (Cabot 2014), and workers’ dispossession (Muehlebach 2012). Rather than taking 2016 as an aberration of apocalyptic proportions, then, an antifascist anthropology could have seen it coming (Mahmud 2016). It could have recognized the work of spectral fascism across various domains of life, including among liberal and democratic groups.
Regardless of whether the victory of the “no” in Italy should be attributed to the far-left, as the CUA and others claimed, or to populism and neo-fascism, as both the PD and the right decreed, there is a populist lesson that gets lost if the analysis is blinded by liberal politics. That is, that the people of contemporary populisms are no longer captured by existing socio-economic or party-centered taxonomies (if they ever were). Just as it turns out that the “white working class” (Walley 2017) did not elect Trump, it was not just the far-right that won Italy’s constitutional 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 is not confined to the right or the left of the political spectrum (Anderson  1991), 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 decried, 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,” of its unwelcoming and inhumane immigration policies, of its neoliberal austerity economics that have eroded workers’ 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 vote alike that is worth pondering. We are witnessing a populism of strangers united not by a shared class or identity as a “people,” nor by shared concerns, but, rather, by a shared oppositional stance against a real or imagined common enemy. Historians have suggested that in the 1930s it was the ideological rejection of materialism and of the civilization it represented—“that is, of the essence of the European intellectual heritage from the seventeenth century onward” (Sternhell 1986: 268)—that allied a strain of socialism of the time with the anti-liberal and anti-bourgeois nationalism of fascists. In 2016 that perceived common enemy of the people might have been liberalism.
To resist fascism, therefore, an anti-racist and antifascist anthropology of the contemporary must be willing to take liberalism to task. White supremacy is at the center of fascism, despite revisionist amnesia. But white supremacy also lives deeply and paradoxically within liberalism itself, despite all its inclusionary promises. There cannot be a genuine critique of fascism without recognizing the complicity of a liberal system of values in the historical production of racism and in the rise of fascist regimes. An antifascist, illiberal anthropology must be ready and willing to name fascism even when it haunts democratic sites, when it latches onto liberal thought, when it sounds civilized and reasonable, when it incarnates in police uniforms rather than black shirts. There is another ghost stalking Europe, as Eco feared. And as any exorcist knows, the only way to vanquish a demonic being is to call it by its true name.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: I thank the volume editors, fellow contributors, and anonymous peer reviewers for their constructive feedback at different stages of completion, including workshops held at the CUNY Graduate Center and Vanderbilt University. A version of this paper was presented at the AAA annual meeting in San Jose, CA. I especially thank the panel organizers and discussant, Tony Sorge, Stavroula Pipyrou, and Angelique Haugerud, for their insightful suggestions.↩
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, affirming one’s grandparent’s role as a partigiano (a militant fighter) or a staffetta (a messenger and carrier of weapons) 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 speak to school children, and they would be celebrated as the national freedom fighters who defeated fascism (see Krause 2009).↩
Perhaps as an indication of the international coverage, the “yes” prevailed among Italians residing abroad, whose votes are collected at embassies and counted separately.↩
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.” The English version is my translation.↩
“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 down to the piazza” and “taking to the streets” have, respectively, in Italian and English. In this context, “piazza” could also be a literal reference to Piazza Verdi.↩
The scholarship has been especially dismissive of women’s active participation in Italian fascism. Save a few exceptions (De Grazia 1992; Macciocchi 1976), fascist women have been largely understood as either brainwashed or unwitting accomplices of fascism’s masculine and statist project of racial supremacy.↩
Even an otherwise astute thinker like George Mosse wrote that, unlike for Nazism, “[r]acism and anti-Semitism were not a necessary component of fascism” (1999: 35). This failure to recognize the constitutive racism of Italian fascism has undoubtedly multiple causes, including Italy’s successful postwar efforts to erase its colonial past from national memory, and its nationalist trope of Italians as “brava gente” (good people), who could not possibly have committed those atrocities on purpose.↩
For ethnographic research on the right, see Bacchetta and Power (2002); Ginsburg (1998); Harding (1991, 2000); Holmes (2000); Mahmud (2014); Shoshan (2016).↩
For recent anthropological work on liberalism, see Boyer (2016); Dzenovska and Kurtović (2018).↩
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