Racism and fascism stalk Italy

FRFI 206 December 2008 / January 2009

As economic crisis descends upon the imperialist economies of the US and Europe, bourgeois economists have turned to the financial crash of 1929 and the depression of the 1930s to explain the current chaos. What they fail to mention is the means by which the capitalist class in certain countries attempted to solve the worst economic and social crisis of the last century: fascism. Across Western Europe recent events provide a grim reminder of the depths to which the ruling elites of Europe, and Italy in particular, can sink. With one of the weakest economies in Europe, the country is set to plunge into possibly the continent’s worst depression. Italian capital, perhaps more than any other European economy, desperately needs to increase the exploitation of immigrant workers and the working class as a whole; in doing so, it faces renewed levels of class struggle.

The anti-immigrant and anti-Roma legislation and violence implemented and encouraged by Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition of xenophobes, ‘post-fascists’ and big business is increasingly being turned against the growing working class movement which has shaken Italy since October 2008. The crescendo of racist violence and terror, police brutality, anti-working class legislation and hysterical cries for the crushing of increasingly militant social movements is reminiscent of the fascist terror which the barons of finance capital unleashed across Europe 70 years ago.

Racist attacks
In June 2008, Berlusconi announced that Italy’s 160,000-strong Roma population, including children, would be fingerprinted and identified by race. Interior Minister Robert Maroni, a leader of the xenophobic Northern League, insisted the scheme was necessary to help solve the ‘security emergency’. Italy’s highest court ruled it was acceptable to discriminate against Roma on the basis that ‘all Gypsies were thieves’. In the face of international outrage, the plan was modified.

However, the counting of Italy’s most oppressed minority, whether of Italian citizenship or not, has already been underway for some time. Italian journalist Giovanna Boursier visited a camp in the southern outskirts of Milan where the Roma told her that ‘police arrived at dawn, woke everybody up, surrounded the camp and flooded it with lights and then went from home to home, demanding documents and photographing them.’ All the residents were Italian citizens. It made no difference. ‘This wasn’t a census,’ protested a Roma called Gorgio. ‘This was an ethnic register.’ (Independent, 16 May 2008)

The fingerprinting scheme was the culmination of intensifying rhetoric in Italian politics and media about crime and security in which immigrants and Roma have been reviled and scapegoated. In May 2008, rumours that a Roma woman had attempted to abduct a baby in Naples triggered what Seamus Milne described in The Guardian (10 July 2008) as an ‘orgy of racist violence’. A gypsy camp near Naples was attacked, its poverty-stricken residents driven out by thugs armed with Molotov cocktails, urged on by jeering local crowds and a silently onlooking police. The camp was finally razed to the ground by local Neopolitan gangsters. Umberto Bossi, the Northern League’s leader, issued a chilling endorsement of mob violence, declaring: ‘The people do what the political class isn’t able to do.’ Days later, a group of men went on a racist rampage in Rome, attacking stores run by immigrants. On 19 July, holidaymakers and sunbathing locals lounging on the beach in Torregaveta near Naples showed a shocking indifference to the bodies of two young Roma girls laid out on the sand for hours after drowning. After brief talk of ‘outrage’, the incident quickly faded from the national media.

Meanwhile the state has carried on its own campaign of terror alongside those of the criminals and mobs. The day after the violence in Naples, 400 immigrants living in Italy without identification were rounded up and arrested as part of a move to close down the 700 gypsy camps across the country and expel their inhabitants. For the Roma, the spectre of fascism is materialising by the day. Terry Davis, secretary general of the Council of Europe, stated that the move to fingerprint Roma ‘invites historical analogies which are so obvious that they do not have to be spelled out’.

As reported in FRFI 205, in September 2008 riots broke out after six African workers were gunned down by the Camorra mafia near Naples, in what the Italian press smeared as a drug-related incident, and 85 immigrants rioted at a temporary detention centre in Sardinia, with 50 police in riot gear and paramilitary Carabinieri police officers dispatched to the scene. A Senegalese market trader in Milan was beaten with a baseball bat after stallholders reportedly accused him of ‘stealing work from Italians’. When a Somalian-born woman claimed she had been strip-searched and verbally abused at the airport in Rome, Roberto Maroni said he would personally sue the woman for lying.
As Italy’s one black MP Jean-Leonard Touadi put it, ‘Immigrants are becoming the enemy. With an economic crisis under way, Italy has found a scapegoat to blame its woes on.’ He blamed the Northern League for ‘pushing discrimination, separation and xenophobia and dragging the government, and with it Italy, towards the systematic violation of human rights,’ citing proposals tabled in October by the League which ‘call for the expulsion of legal immigrants who commit a certain number of offences, restrictions on mixed marriages and a new obligation on doctors to report illegal immigrants in their care’. (The Guardian, 19 October 2008.

Creeping fascism
Gianni Alemanno, elected as mayor of Rome earlier this year, came to power promising to begin immediately expelling 20,000 migrants convicted of criminal offences. Leader of the extreme right ‘post-fascist’ National Alliance, another of the main groupings in Berlusconi’s coalition, and formerly youth leader of the Italian Social Movement, one of the most powerful neo-fascist organisations in Europe, Alemanno was greeted by crowds giving the fascist salute. He stated: ‘We will chase out the delinquents. There are 85 abusive nomad camps to destroy.’ After his victory, Berlusconi announced: ‘We are the new Falange’ – a reference to the Spanish fascist party of the Franco dictatorship. Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League, said in the same week that immigrants had to be hunted out, and that if reforms were not forthcoming, his followers would take up arms. ‘We have no fear of taking things to the piazzas. We have 300,000 martyrs ready to come down from the mountains. Our rifles are always smoking’. (The Telegraph, 30 April 2008) Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of the dictator and an open cheerleader for fascism, is also part of Berlusconi’s coalition.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, far from fascist elements being purged from Italian society, the imperialist countries, and the US in particular, actively nurtured such forces, along with sections of the Mafia, to root out and kill Italian communists.

Today, as the capitalist crisis intensifies, this fascist ideology and violence, first targeted against immigrants and Roma, is increasingly being unleashed against the social movements which are battling against the government’s attacks on the working class.
In November, some of Italy’s top police officers were cleared of any role in the savage violence police inflicted on unarmed protestors sleeping in a Genoa school during the G8 protests in the city in 2001. The raid on the Armando Diaz school by around 150 truncheon wielding riot cops left dozens of protestors hospitalised, some in comas; protestors were savagely beaten, stamped and spat upon, left lying unconscious in pools of blood and battered in an orgy of relentless violence. They were then illegally incarcerated in a detention centre and subjected to a regime the public prosecutor described as ‘torture’. Some were urinated on and battered for refusing to sing the fascist song Faccetta Nera or praise ‘Il Duce’ (Mussolini); others were forced to crawl, naked, on all fours and bark like dogs. The police who carried out the beatings were masked, nameless and numberless; only one has ever been identified and none have had to stand trial. As one of the victim’s lawyers, Massimo Pastore, put it: ‘This is a culture of fascism.’

Working class protests sweep Italy
The day after the trial of the police officers, across Italy hundreds of thousands of students, teachers and researchers engaged in another series of protests against massive education cuts. These protests developed into full-scale confrontation with the Berlusconi government. A one-day general strike on 30 October saw 90% of schools closed nationally; over one million teachers and students demonstrated in Rome, while elsewhere during October and November around 300 demonstrations took place in the education sector.

Education Minister Gelmini described the students as a ‘terrorist’ threat. Berlusconi stated: ‘We won’t allow schools and universities to be occupied...I will call the interior minister and give him detailed instructions on how to intervene with the police forces to stop these things happening.’ Already, students attempting to occupy the Otiense train station in Rome have been subject to sustained beatings from riot police, while students gathered in the Piazza Navona after occupying La Sapienza University in Rome were attacked by members of the neo-fascist Cosa Pound movement. On 28 October, in an interview with far-right newspaper Quotidiano Nazional, former Christian Democrat Prime Minister and Italian President (1985-1992) Francesco Cossiga, now a lifetime member of the senate, advised Berlusconi to ‘do what I did when I was Home Secretary.’

‘Withdraw the police from the streets and the universities, infiltrate the movement with agents provocateurs ready for anything and allow the demonstrators to run loose for a week or so, devastating shops, setting cars on fire and causing havoc in the streets...
‘Then, with public opinion on your side, the sound of ambulance sirens should drown out the sirens of police and carabinieri cars...the forces of law and order should massacre the demonstrators without pity and send them all to hospital. Not arrest them – the magistrates would set them free straight away in any event – beat them bloody and beat the teachers stirring them up bloody too.’
Asked if he realised that Europe would condemn such measures as a return to fascism. Cossiga replied ‘Rubbish – it’s the democratic way. Put out the fire before the flame spreads.’

As the movement against education reforms grows, together with massive national strikes of transport workers, public and private sector workers, and working class mobilisations against low wages and temporary contracts which have seen millions take to the streets and tens of thousands occupy buildings and clash with police from Milan to Naples, the measures spoken about by Cossiga will become the norm. The day after his interview, 50 fascists armed with clubs, acting as agents provocateurs, attempted to put themselves at the head of a demonstration in Rome but were driven away by other demonstrators.
The Italian state is no stranger to unleashing fascist terror to destroy a militant working class movement. Cossiga was a founder of Operation Gladio along with elements of the CIA and British intelligence, established to deal with ‘communist subversion’ by committing terrorist actions which were then blamed on the left. In 2000, an investigation by the Italian senate finally revealed that the bombing of a train station in the communist city of Bologna on 2 August 1980, which murdered 85 people, had been carried out by ‘men inside Italian state institutions and ... men linked to the structures of US intelligence’.

History does not go round in circles. The theatre of fascism past is unlikely to be played out again in Europe, with its blackshirts, militias and swastikas. But the fundamental contradictions of the capitalist crisis, if not solved by the victory of socialism, will be solved with the utmost violence of the ruling class whatever its form. As Nick Davies wrote on the ‘Bloody battle of Genoa’ (The Guardian, 17 July 2008):

‘This isn’t fascism with jack-booted dictators with foam on their lips. It’s the pragmatism of nicely turned-out politicians. But the result looks very similar. Genoa tells us that when the state feels threatened, the rule of law can be suspended. Anywhere.’

Joseph Eskovitchl