After its election on Sept. 25, Italy is likely to have a right-wing government led by a far-right party directly descended from Benito Mussolini’s fascist movement. Giorgia Meloni, who heads the Brothers of Italy party—Fratelli d’Italia in Italian—has embraced fascist symbolism and praised Mussolini’s leadership.
Was fascism an economic project as well as a political ideology? Is the fascist project still alive today? And what kind of plans do the post-fascists have for today’s Italy?
Those are some of the questions that came up in my conversation this week with FP columnist Adam Tooze on the podcast we co-host, Ones and Tooze. What follows is a transcript of the interview, edited for clarity and length. For the entire conversation, subscribe to Ones and Tooze on your preferred podcast app.
Cameron Abadi: Let’s start with a bit of history here. Did the classical fascists have a unified economic program at all? I mean, was fascism a coherent economic idea in the first place?
Adam Tooze: Yeah. I mean, it’s tempting to say, simply, no. I mean, to speak about classical fascism is, you know, almost a contradiction in terms. It was a kind of messy movement. Some people even dispute the fact that national socialism in Germany and Italian fascism really should be lumped together. Let’s just, for sake of argument, say that we can treat them that way. Then I think you can distinguish some elements. Many of them are negative.
So, you know, one thing the fascists definitely were is they were anti-socialist, and they were also anti-liberal. So they were simultaneously anti-, you know, big government social democracy, let alone communism, and anti-free market liberalism. And the link between the two for them is actually kind of logical. So they blame laissez-faire economics for the rise of socialism. You don’t get one without the other. And so they were anti-laissez-faire in the end, because that was, as it were, the source of all evil, that had to be stopped, but not in a socialist way.
So the crucial thing is they don’t favor class conflict. They don’t favor the overthrow of the existing social structure by means of aggressive class conflict. On paper, they favor class collaboration. So both the Italian fascist movement and Nazi Germany establish labor fronts. They provide quite elaborate forms of incorporation for the working class. Both of them are trying to find ways in which workers can be brought into the body politic. This is one of the lessons of World War I, that you can’t be a powerful state if you cannot incorporate the working class. And every critique, every left critique of fascism ever since has pointed out that in practice, this effort to incorporate the workers was very one-sided, and it tended to be on the terms of big business, which in one way or another at least sort of turned a blind eye, or in some cases very actively supported the rise of fascism. So you could even read the regimes as very one-sided forms of class rule.
And it’s quite wrong, I think, to analyze fascism, as many people tended to do in the past, only in terms of its peacetime manifestations. I don’t really think you see the essence of fascism until you see conquest, until you see imperialism. And what that means in practice in both cases is not just a matter of conventional military conquest, but the explicit espousal of racial hierarchy. So these really are very late-stage white supremacist regimes, completely overt appropriation of racial superiority, logic, and genocidal practices.
So if you wanted a single thing that really defined what the fascist economic reality was, you’d say it was war-making for the purposes of racial conquest, which then, of course, turns out to be a self-destructive program, because it rallies against both regimes, the forces of an overwhelming coalition which crushes them. So another thing you could say about fascism is that it’s sort of suicidal when it’s actually acted out. It leads to its own destruction. It’s not, to that extent, a realistic politics that can ever be really sustained over the long run. Which then begs again the question of whether you can really ever speak of a realized program, because it’s only ever going to really be a crisis regime.
CA: Yeah. OK. That’s a sort of philosophical question, whether that’s a coherent economic idea.
AT: Yeah, exactly.
CA: But I guess I wonder traditionally, then, what is the social base of fascist movements? I mean, on one hand, we might think of it as a variety of right-wing populism that kind of is a working-class phenomenon. But yeah, you mentioned it’s avowedly non-socialist and, you know, the industrial working class was the social base for communist parties at the same time, you know, these were the enemies of fascism. So is there another kind of form of underclass that the fascists were drawing on, one that’s maybe less emancipatory than the communist working classes?
AT: Yeah. I mean, this is a crucial point to clarify, I think, because in the current debate, in the 21st-century debate about new right politics, populism, and so on, the image that we have is that of the left behind, the disenfranchised, the frustrated, post-industrial working class. That’s the kind of classic image. And it’s exemplified, perhaps pioneering, by the Le Pen movement that has gone through various incarnations in France, which has to a very considerable extent gobbled up the white working-class French vote that in the past might have gone to the French Communist Party, which was still a force in France until the 1990s.
Classically, what fascism, however, represented was an anti-socialist, anti-communist movement, which to an extent limited its ability to appeal to a wider population. This was particularly the case in Italy. In fact, the first phase, first-wave Italian fascism, the movement that came out of 1919 and took power 100 years ago in October 1922, that movement was very petite bourgeoisie. So they were subordinate groups, you could say, in the sense that these are not the dominant capitalist classes who were in the fascist squads, smashing heads, you know, destroying trade union offices. We’re talking about small shopkeepers, small businesspeople, farmers, farm managers who are mobilized by landlords and sometimes by large industrial interests to the purposes of doing battle against the working class.
What is interesting about national socialism, because Nazis took power not in 1923 in the Beer Hall Putsch, but 10 years later in 1933 as an electoral movement, so that movement was different from the Italian fascist movement in that it had to succeed electorally. And so it was, in fact, still biased toward lower-middle-class and middle-class voters but, in fact, highly successful in also gaining the votes of considerable numbers of German working-class voters. Not unemployed—they went to the communists—but rank-and-file working-class voters as well.
And that’s, interestingly, the model that we see in Italy today. So, it’s not easy to find data on the electoral preferences of Italians in the current moment, but I got lucky with the help of some friends on Twitter. I’ll be putting out the data on Chartbook, on the newsletter, in the next couple of days. But what those data show is that the Fratelli d’Italia, this new far-right movement that Meloni heads, is remarkable precisely for the breadth of its base. So one of the things which I think accounts for the Fratelli d’Italia surge in recent polling is precisely that they escape class ghettos, if you like, and have been able to position themselves as a party that’s going to get about 20 to 25 percent of the vote across a very wide segment of Italian society. Everything to the right of center seems to be fair game for them.
CA: Yeah, as I mentioned, I mean, if you trace the lineage here, you would see that the Brothers of Italy is a kind of direct descendant of Mussolini’s. But I wonder what specific traces of fascism, ideologically, are still evident.
AT: You could say that there is a direct line through. So they play this game: Of course we’re not descended from fascism. But then underhand, as they might say, you know, off camera and sometimes on camera, there will be toasts to Mussolini. Senior figures will be attending commemorations of Mussolini’s march on Rome. Meloni, herself, as a young politician, was an overt apologist and indeed a supporter of Mussolini’s legacy.
And this isn’t confined to the extreme right. Berlusconi in 2003 happily told the British newspaper the Spectator that Mussolini, quote unquote, never killed anyone and that his prison camps were like holiday venues where people took, you know, breaks from their political careers. Yes, in many respects now their ideology is essentially that of a conservative party, not very different from the [Republican Party] in the United States. But nevertheless, they take this a whole notch further. They do actively associate themselves with a lineage which goes back to a dictator who led Italy into war in World War II.
And this isn’t true of any of the analogs, so it’s not true in Hungary, for instance. [Viktor] Orban is quite careful to distance himself on key issues from [Miklos] Horthy, very careful to align himself quite sensibly, condemning the involvement of Hungarian rightists in the Holocaust. Likewise, in Poland, there isn’t a direct link that runs through to the current nationalist movements in Poland and the politics of extreme nationalism in the interwar period. This willingness to directly appropriate the fascist past is quite particular to Italy.
CA: Yeah, I mean, it does strike me that one of the consistent throughlines of fascist policy has been anti-parliamentarism. And yeah, true to form, the Brothers of Italy argue for a constitutional reform in Italy that would create a directly elected, presumably more empowered president. So is there any economic substance associated with this kind of reform? A “legislature is a hindrance to economic action” of some kind.
AT: The reasons they advocated are quite interesting. One of the reasons they want presidentialism is they think that it will free the public square. So it’ll be more plebiscitary, essentially. So the Italian population, if they directly elect a president, will speak directly their mind rather than having everything filtered through these extraordinary backroom deals that are done when they the parliament goes through the process of picking the president and the president then becomes this arbiter of the parliamentary game. And I think they want to break all of that.
I mean, the funny thing is, of course, the Fratelli d’Italia themselves are born out of Italian parliamentary politics. And what exactly would they have in mind? I mean, there aren’t a lot of straightforwardly presidential regimes for obvious reasons, I think. I mean, the most common model of a presidentialism is that you have a directly elected president and then you have a congress and parliament, which is also directly elected. And whether or not this, you know, makes for straightforward governance or easy decision-making depends on whether or not you can get the two aligned. In the moments that you can, you can get a lot done. But of course, as we’ve seen many times in the United States and also France, you can also end up, as it were, split against each other.
If you’re looking for and if your idea, as it were, of good government is for the purposes of making decisive economic changes or imposing tough policies which are unpopular, you’re probably best off with the first-past-the-post Westminster-style system, right? Which means the government automatically has a mandate and the system is geared toward—at least in a two-party form—delivering a large majority to whoever happens to win. It hasn’t always worked, even recently in the United Kingdom, but it’s often delivered that kind of outcome.
I think Italy’s problem is it has multiple overlaying different types of economic problems. And so it’s not clear, you know, whether one particular constitutional form will be better than the other. It has simultaneously a huge debt problem that needs to be managed. It doesn’t need to be run down necessarily, but it needs to be carefully managed. For which purposes you need to stay on good terms with Brussels. And on the other hand, it also has deep structural problems which manifest themselves in slow growth, for which you would probably want deep consensual agreement of many political parties to long-term programs, which would suggest a different type of political structure. So it’s difficult to know really where Italy heads on this score.
CA: I mean, another fact about fascism in the 20th century, at least in the early 20th century, it seemed like a young person’s project. But Italy is such an overwhelmingly aging society. So, you know, what is the attraction of a kind of potentially revolutionary actionistic, you know, even avowedly violent movement for an aging population like Italy’s?
AT: This is a really important point. And it does go again to the heart of the difference between fascism now and historical classic fascism. I mean, if two things defined historic fascism, one was the fear of communist revolution and the reaction to it in Italy. That was a very concrete fear. There was a very powerful Communist Party in the aftermath of World War I, a major strike wave, the so-called famous red years to which fascism responded, and the other defining experience of the period was total war, World War I. And that may be led by elderly men in uniforms, but total wars are fought by young men.
I mean, the Fratelli celebrates natalism. So what they would like is a return to the age in which young people had more babies. But this is, as it were, middle-aged in politics. It’s not an elderly politics. So older Italians who was shaped by the politics of the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s tend to vote for the [Democratic Party]. But Italians in the age group 35 to 64 are most likely to vote for the Fratelli. So stressed, middle-aged people. Young Italians, who you might think would be, you know, attracted by this, you know, appeal of supporting youthful, healthy Italy, overwhelmingly, voters under the age of 24 dramatically favor the [Democrats] and the Five Star over the Fratelli. So it seems like a kind of almost a politics of nostalgia for a better youth, for a better Italy, in support of this formerly marginal party.
CA: Yeah. And finally, I mean, one of the expressions of this conservatism, I suppose, is that the Brothers of Italy claims to be committed to the European Union as a project, which, given its fascist lineage, seems to be a kind of potential contradiction in various ways. But that got me wondering, is it conceivable that there could ever be a kind of pan-European fascism as a political project?
AT: Well, I think the idea of a conflict here is obvious in the sense that fascists are nothing if not nationalists. And so how could you construct a pan-European as a matter of a nationalism? But in fairness to fascism in its history, it’s always had this dimension, right? I mean, in 1936, there was the anti-Comintern pact in response to the popular fronts declared by the Comintern in that period which linked Nazi Germany in Italy and Imperial Japan as well. And the Holocaust is a collaborative effort led by the Germans. But it’s a collaborative effort of European anti-Semites and fascists pursuing the genocidal destruction of the Jewish population of Europe.
And in the emergent European [right], the New Right of the 1980s as well, we see the same strain, an emphasis on common European heritage now pitched more often than not against the Islamic world as the great other. And it’s striking that Meloni, unlike Salvini and the Lega, who were the previous champions of the far right in Italian politics, is true to this legacy in the sense that she’s a stronger Atlanticist than Salvini was. She’s much more aligned. And this also, I think, is going to make her more, as it were, possible and acceptable.
It’s also, however, of course, true that Italian politicians have to be pragmatic. They know that the Italian electorate is still majority pro-European, so a strong anti-European position marginalizes you. And they know also that Italy de facto is dependent on EU support, notably support from the [European Central Bank]. And I think, you know, here we are going to see Rome, whatever government emerges, looking to negotiate a deal, essentially a modus vivendi. And you could say this, too, has history, right? Because Mussolini in the 1920s was not the radical that he became in the ’30s. He was radical at home. He destroyed the Italian left. But he was a darling of Wall Street and quite deliberately cultivated foreign finance in the ’20s.
So, this doesn’t necessarily differentiate you from the classic Italian fascist model. But that kind of pragmatism, I think, is what we’re going to see.