The fascist movement at the centre of Italy’s culture war

In an attempt to reinforce his anti-establishment credentials, Matteo Salvini continues to flirt with neo-fascist street movements like CasaPound. 

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As public scandals go, the “Angels and Demons” investigation into child protection services in Emilia-Romagna, northern Italy, had all the ingredients for outrage. Reports allege that social workers in Bibbiano manipulated children's testimonies in order to cast their parents as abusers and sell them – for a profit – into foster care. Italian police have arrested 18 people to date, including a mayor and doctors.

Although the investigation dominated the news cycle, some seemed to think the public had been kept in the dark. In a Facebook post that was shared over 19,000 times last month, acclaimed Italian popstar Laura Pausini encouraged her seven million followers to read up on the case, expressing her anger that she “had to search out a story” that “ought to be the real news everyone is talking about”. Another prominent Italian singer-songwriter, Nek posted a photo on Facebook, which was shared 13,000 times, of a banner stating: “Tell us about Bibbiano”.

The slogan was the product of CasaPound, a neo-fascist group of activists renowned for their memes and violent attacks on migrants. In Italian, their slogan, which they circulated in an image on Facebook, reads Parlateci Di Bibbiano, with P and D highlighted in vibrant green and red – a coded reference to the Partito Democratico, the centre-left party that currently runs Bibbiano council. Though seemingly an innocuous request for information, the slogan is part of the group’s longstanding effort to depict mainstream media and politicians as aloof, out of touch with the “people”, and guided by the political left. 

Though Pausini insisted her post wasn’t meant to be “political”, and Nek denied any association with the far-right group, this merely reflected CasaPound's success. The group has broadcast its agenda far beyond the small far-right circles from which it emerged. Rather than taking control of the state, it has set its eyes on the realm of culture and ideas.

By using memes and slogans to infiltrate cultural discourse and shape what counts as "common sense", CasaPound, a small group with big political ambitions, has propelled itself to the forefront of the unfolding scandal in Italy. 

An anti-social centre

The media have often fallen for a narrative that suggests Italy is undergoing a fascist revival as far-right forces sweep across Europe. In the run-up to Italy’s March 2018 general election, the Guardian wrote that CasaPound had “brought Mussolini back to the mainstream” and a Channel 4 documentary flattered the group’s rhetoric of “filling in for an absent state”. Yet CasaPound's media presence is entirely out of proportion with its electoral support. The group counts just 5,000 members, recently abandoned all efforts to stand in elections, and declared itself “a movement, not a party” – realising that its best prospects lie in working as a satellite of the right-wing Lega Nord party.

Contrary to media reports of a neo-fascist revival, fascism in Italy never really went away. In 1945, the Italian Social Movement (MSI) was founded by veterans of Mussolini’s regime. After the end of the Cold War, MSI leaders sought a break with their fascist image. In 1994–5 MSI leaders Gianni Alemanno and Gianfranco Fini rebranded the party as Alleanza Nazionale – a “national-conservative” force in Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition. Fascism had undergone a makeover: it had reformed its image, and managed to fold itself into the mainstream.

CasaPound was established in response to this turn. The group describes itself as a “rebel” or “alternative” movement, invoking a slippery array of reference points; lionising Che Guevara and Benito Mussolini, Jack Kerouac and Bashar al-Assad. It has projected a younger, cooler image than its far-right counterparts, building a presence around a Roman squat that its members occupied in late 2003, which has since served as a base for the group's “community clean-up operations” – often a matter of beating up immigrants as much as hosing down graffiti.

Keeping the project running has required financial and political backing. Despite its anti-establishment stance and anti-capitalist rhetoric, the group has relied on former camerati like Berlusconi's ally Gianni Alemanno, Rome's former mayor who began his political career as an MSI youth organiser. In 2009, Alemanno proposed using city funds to buy CasaPound’s Roman squat and secure the group’s headquarters – a project that would have cost the taxpayer some €11.8m (£10.8m).

Protests sunk Alemanno’s plans. But the group still maintains friends in high places. In July this year, the Interior Ministry, headed by deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, announced plans to clear out squats and occupied buildings in the city in conjunction with Rome's police. Though migrant shelters were first in the firing line, the neofascist squat was left off the list of targets.

Outsourcing provocation

For Salvini, removing CasaPound is “not a priority”. In 2015, he spoke twice alongside CasaPound leader Simone di Stefano at Lega rallies. In May 2018, he attended a footbal match wearing a jacket with the logo of Piverty – a clothing brand founded by CasaPound cadre Francesco Polacchi, and earlier this year published a book with CasaPound publisher Altaforte.

His stance is hardly surprising; the group is strategically important for Salvini's image. Maintaining a relationship with neofascists helps assert the Lega's populist, anti-establishment credentials. The tactic is an old one – former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi relied on his “post-fascist” allies to break with the supposed “pieties” of the “political class”, while Five Star Movement founder Beppe Grillo met on camera with CasaPound leaders. CasaPound – known for its distribution of food parcels to white Italians – has propelled the call to “put Italians first”, a slogan that Salvini, too, has adopted. 

Today, CasaPound’s continued existence is more reliant on the interior minister than ever. On 25 July Rome’s Five Star mayor Virginia Raggi paid a surprise visit to the street outside the occupied social centre, insisting that its name – written in two-foot-high, modernist font – be removed from the building. As relations between her party and the Lega worsen, the interior minister’s refusal to act against CasaPound represents a fresh flashpoint in the ruling coalition. The side that Salvini takes will matter for more than just his relations with the neofascists.