With a net worth of over $10 billion, and media tentacles throughout Italy and he rest of Europe, self-made man Silvio Berlusconi can afford to laugh at those who deride him as a buffoon. Many have compared him to George W. Bush for both his reactionary positions, crudities, and teflonesque aptitude to avoid political disaster.
ROME DIARY: MARCH 2009 UPDATE—FASCIST TIMES IN THE LAND WHERE LEMON TREES BLOOM
“Tottering Steps Along the Rim of Fascism and Revolution”
A Special Dispatch by Cyrano’s Journal Correspondent Gaither Stewart
(Rome) ISTAT, Italy’s Statistical Office, has announced that for the first time the nation’s population has passed 60,000,000. The disconcerting reality behind the statistic is that while Italy ages and Italians produce less children, immigration is providing the growth of the nation that until a few decades ago was an emigration country and Italian workers spread over north Europe. Today, as usual, immigrants do what Italians don’t. Over 1,000,000 Romanians are in Italy today, followed closely by Albanians and Moroccans. immigrants make front page news. Usually negative news. Not a day passes that foreigners (until the crisis immigrants were the manpower necessary for Italian industry), are not accused of nefarious crimes.
After any crime the rule is cherchez l’étranger. Police immediately accused an Albanian gang for a series of nocturnal burglaries in houses and apartments near me. Statistics showing that propotionately Romanians commit more crimes—robbery, rape and prostitution—are regularly headlined. Moreover, the Romanian government itself is accused of sending its criminals abroad. Ditto for Albanians, who were the crime leaders until not long ago. In general, illegal immigrants prefer the chaos of Italy where they can easily evade the law.
SECURITY AND POPULISM
It is a piece of cake for the populist, authoritarian regime of Silvio Berlusconi to gain accolades from public opinion for a political platform based on security. Concerning immigration and crime, the issue today is, who is to guarantee public security, police, the military or the people themselves.
Two extremist components of the Berlusconi regime coalition, Rome proto-Fascists of the neo-Fascist National Alliance and the Green Shirts of the folkloristic Northern League, have organized bands of vigilantes for do-it-yourself security patrols against foreigners in general and against clandestine immigrants and the homeless in particular. Incited by xenophobic mayors in north Italy and the ministers of Berlusconi’s increasingly extremist government, so-called “ronde” (literally “rounds”, that is, squads) carry out exemplary beatings and even killings in the name of “security”, allegedly acting in response to popular demand or the “fury of the people”.
Despite objections of the police itself, the consternation on the part of some of public opinion, of opposition parties and liberal media, an inconstitutional government decree has legalized the vigilantes. Not only the police object to the vigilantes but also the Catholic Church.The government claims that citizens are organizing themselves militarily within a “people’s plan for control of the territory.” That is, a kind of Homeland Security conducted by private persons in a new Italian “participatory security system.”
Meanwhile, a series of new laws or law bills call for separate school classes for foreigners. Rudimentary immigrant camps of tents and shacks are methodically destroyed. Locks are placed on the gates of gypsy camps. Doctors are encouraged to denounce clandestine patients. The demand for chemical castration of rapers spreads. In sum, a social purge of undesirable elements (gypsies, Romanians, Albanians et al) is underway. Heard on a daily basis that rings ominous and familiar. Remember the racial laws of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy?
In its determination to control everything, the populist-authoritarian-Fascist Right deliberately magnifies the perception of insecurity in Italy, artificially ignited or sustained by regime policies. Then, its most radical components fan the flames. Familiar Fascist words have returned to the popular vocabulary—patrols, house searches, squadracce for squads (the old Fascist word), ronde—which turn into a nightmare under Fascist regimes. In these new militias violent neo-Fascist, neo-Nazi volunteers (often ex-policemen and military men) and government leaders meld. No doubt about it, these are Fascist times in the land where lemon trees bloom.
In a recent talk show a Romanian journalist said to a Northern League Senator wearing the symbolic green tie and green jacket pocket handkerchief of that folkloristic xenophobic party, “We once got to know your Ronde, they were called Securitate.” Unfazed by being compared to the vigilante squads that terrorized the criminal regime of Ceausescu in Romania, the Green Senator answered, “And in those times there was a lot less delinquency in Romania.”
As history shows over and again the actions of ronde do not end with thieves and rapers. The squads of vigilantes under Mussolinian Fascism were the squadracce which today appear as harbingers of an internal war in Italy. This late winter no day passes that new attacks on the defenseless are not reported. While government spokemen underline statistics of the violence committed by Romanians, Albanians and Moroccans, government drums relentlessly beat an anti-immigration message, gypsy camps are raided and sleeping homeless beaten or even torched.
Meanwhile the Berlusconi government plays down the new realities. The ronde will NOT be armed as first proposed. The ronde are merely symbolic, the government backtracks. They will have no real effect on public security. Yet, extremism and violence prevail in workers districts of the big cities and across the poorer South. Already the reduction of social services for legal, tax-paying immigrants is underway. Foreigners are also the first to lose their jobs in the economic crisis. The return of Mussolini’s racial laws are no longer around the corner, they are here.In a recent talk showI
In these days the north Italian city of Padua witnessed a satirical burlesque-like ronde episode. Vigilantes of ronde bearing party identities, one of the Northern League, the other of the neo-Fascist National Alliance, appeared at the railway station, escorted by police. In turn, the police was escorted by the militarized Carabinieri, and the Carabinieri by the financial police. In addition there was one ronda of non-European immigrants out to defend themselves against one and all, sustained by groups of anti-ronda protesters, and reportedly more journalists and cameramen than vigilantes. The result was a lot of squabbles and fisticuffs in general.
The situation is getting out of the hands of even Prime Minister Berlusconi who should recall that security is constitutionally in the hands of the police and forbidden to private persons.
Despite Berlusconi’s ridiculous claims that Italy is in better economic shape than the rest of Europe, Italy’s economic situation is particularly grim. The reality is that Italy is at the tail end in every economic category. Workers are underpaid, schools are under-financed and its inventive, hard-working researchers are forced to go abroad for employment. Italy’s high speed railway system is the least developed in West Europe, excluding it from the rapidly spreading railway network already criss-crossing Europe.
Italy’s creditibility abroad is lower than zero and its leader Silvio Berlusconi widely considered a clown—a dangerous clown however—in serious countries like France and Germany. After the Italian leader’s gaffes and quips such as comparing Germany’s leftwing deputy to the European Parliament in Strasbourg to a concentration camp Kapo or describing Obama as “young, handsome, and sun-tanned,” the rest of Europe can well wonder what is wrong with Italy and Italians who keep electing Berlusconi.
ITALY, EUROPE AND THE WORLD
Berlusconi, who was more Bushian than Bush himself, is in fact isolated. His jokes and quips, his wild promises and boasts of special friendships with Putin no longer work. The new administration in Washington has made it clear there is no time or room for Berlusconi’s sallies in America’s new plans for the world. No place for his claims of special openings to Iran and Russia and his attempts at mediation of great international crises. He can either be part of the team or play no role.
Berlusconi claims that Europe is in better shape than the USA, and Italy better than the rest of Europe. The contrary is true. The East European bubble financed by EU countries is about to burst. Europe needs 200 billion euros to bolster East Europe in the crisis. The alternative is the crash of a string of European banks, especially in Austria and Sweden, which have largely financed new East European nations, some already in the European Union: the three Baltic states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, Ukraine, Poland, Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia. The reality is that Italy is in no condition to even consider particpation in such a gigantic bailout.
Meanwhile, Italy, separated from the rest by the curtain-like Alpine chain and its populist government, finds no political peace. This weekend 300 militants of the neo-Nazi organization Forza Nuova bused into the prosperous city of Bergamo near Milan for the opening of its new office. The Nazis were escorted and protected by police against Left protesters. On the other hand, Left political opposition hardly exists today in the nation that until the 1980s boasted Europe’s biggest Communist Party with one-third of the vote. The Left has been crushed as much by electoral laws master-minded by Berlusconi as stymied by internal dissension. Yet it continues to wonder why the Right always wins.
Italy’s capital in the hands of the National Alliance, Fascism’s direct heir and Berlusconi’s chief ally, is an anomaly, as is the country’s new political geography: the North with its capital of Milan belongs to the autonomist Northern League, the South including Calabria and Sicily to neo-Fascists and the Southern Autonomist Movement, Rome to the neo-Fascists, and Italy to Berlusconi.
As in many European countries the Right vote in Italy is both nationalistic and sometimes anti-European Union, xenophobic, anti-immigration and today anti-globalization. It is the voice of the populist spirit sweeping across the Continent. That new Right has an ideology—the Christian roots of Europe, low tolerance level for others, emphasis on security. Old social blocks have collapsed, the class role weakened, interest groups intertwined. These are the components of modern populism.
The bourgeois Right is triumphant on the Continent and in the UK while Italy’s Left continues to teeter and totter in disarray, divided among various small parties, showing no signs of overcoming its minority syndrome and electoral inferiority complex. The Leftist in today’s Italy lives like an exile in his own country. He plays no role in national politics. Moreover the necessary unity on the Left remains a chimera.
Yet, the economic crisis, growing unemployment and the continuing departure from Italy of traditional industries in search of cheap labour are creating a new workers’ consciousness arising out of fear of job loss. The crisis is creating a new kind of resistance, a resistance that crosses traditional class and political lines. The new resistance demands the return of protectionism in defense of Italian workers. It demands that the government obligate big industries like FIAT and medium-sized industries to remain in Italy. A popular talk show recently presented the women of a small successful fashion company in Central Italy which was sold to a San Francisco group that had fired the 130 women employees and announced it was moving the company to East Europe. Predictions for 2009 are ominous: 75,000 jobs will be lost each month, 1,000,000 this year—industrial workers, office employees, and various professionals. One of two Italians workers fears for his job. Especially women under 40. Uncertainly affects all, managers included.
Italy seems to have regained its post-World War II and Cold War position of the weak underbelly of Europe. The terrorists of the Red Brigades of the 1970s and 80s emerged too early. Of all European countries, the atmosphere in Italy, despite the strength of the Right, seems to be pre-revolutionary. Another million lost jobs and it could explode.
Senior Editor Gaither Stewart is Cyrano’s Journal Online’s European Correspondent, based in Rome and Paris. His dispatches and essays are widely distributed throughout the web in several languages, including German and Russian.