Home > Uncategorized > Italy and new models of authoritarianism – posted 5/18/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/2/2019

Italy and new models of authoritarianism – posted 5/18/2019 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/2/2019

I just spent the last two weeks in Italy and while there are many, many things to love about that country, politics is not one of them. Italy is now under the control of two far right political parties.

As is true of the far right here in the U.S., the Italian parties have risen to power by demagoguing about immigration. Their answer to many complex social problems is simple: increase the number of immigrants to be deported.

Sound familiar?

These quasi-fascist groupings, the League and the Five Star Movement, are often dismissed as bullying clowns but they should be seen as deadly serious. Given Italy’s tragic history with fascism in the 20th century, they must not be taken lightly.

The Italian economy is weak. It is highly focused on tourism but very large numbers of young Italians are going abroad because of the lack of job opportunities. Unemployment is extremely high and career prospects for too many are poor.

Since 2013, it is estimated that almost 700,000 immigrants have arrived in Italy by boat, most from sub-Saharan Africa. Some have papers but others are in the country illegally. With the economy precarious, Italian politics have become very combustible.

Italians, like many Americans, seem to need something to define themselves against. Illegal immigrants, less than 1% of the population in Italy, are the current scapegoat. The Italian Deputy Premier and Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, who is head of the League party, has said, “Italy cannot be Europe’s refugee camp”.

There is a current dispute about whether Italy will take in immigrants found in the Mediterranean Sea in international waters. Sea-Watch, a relief and rescue agency, reported on May 15 that 70 people drowned in the last week and 240 were forcibly returned to Libya. Salvini has proposed that the Italian government fine shipmasters 5500 Euros for every person they rescue and take to Italy. Italy has already cut back on search and rescue operations, delayed or refused to take people rescued at sea to Italy and has supported efforts of the Libyan Coast Guard to interdict asylum seekers and migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean to Europe.

The Italian proposal drew fire from Human Rights Watch as it conflicts with international law. The law of the sea governing rescue operations imposes obligations on shipmasters to respond to situations of distress at sea and to take the people rescued to safe places.

I am reminded of a quote I saw from the Italian writer and survivor of Auschwitz, Primo Levi.

“Every age has its own fascism and we see the warning signals wherever the concentration of power denies citizens the possibility and the means of expressing and acting on their own free will. There are many ways of reaching this point, and not just through the terror of police intimidation but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system and by spreading in myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned and where the security of a privileged few depends on the forced labor and the forced silence of the many.”

This quote captures the important insight that we must not expect 21st century fascism to be a reincarnation of what happened in the past. We are seeing new versions of authoritarianism in many countries, including Italy and the U.S.

Here is how I see the new internationally-operative authoritarian model: start with a charismatic leader who fills the popular need for a strong man. The strong man needs a winning brand that can be the basis for a cult of personality. He constantly self-advertises his wealth and power. He seems most offended by accusations that he is not filthy rich.

Loyalty of followers is forged through an emotional tie to a glorified leader, not a set of principles.

The leader creates an us versus them narrative to justify his actions. He poses as a victim of a witch hunt. He expresses utter contempt for the law and the press. He succeeds in weakening democracy through aggressive expansion of executive power. He weakens and bypasses Congress and parliamentary bodies so they can only impotently respond to his actions which become fait accomplis.

Unlike fascism in the past, he feels no need to create a one-party state or a dictatorship. He can accomplish his goals through a combination of executive orders, stacking the courts, and voter suppression. He marginalizes his opposition.

As a master marketer, he uses the principles of propaganda, especially repetition and saturation. The Big Lie becomes the truth when it is repeated enough.

Optics matter and twitter is a high intensity means to manipulate how we view reality. It is a way to de-legitimize evidence-based inquiries with accusations of fake news. The leader is anti-intellectual and anti-science, denying climate change and indulging in conspiracy theories.

Everything that the leader says is a trial balloon, testing to see the popular response. As the historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat has written, even the leader’s jokes are trial balloons. He is testing to see what he can get away with and what rights he may be able to infringe. Such fascist tactics normalize things previously considered rogue.

He makes dominant groups feel like victims. The leader promotes anger and resentment to get people to buy into the fantasy version of reality he is selling.

The leader uses racism to designate people of color as his adversary and as an other. He plays on demographic changes and the increase in immigration to heighten fears. When convenient, he will traffick in antisemitism. He plays on the perception that he is protecting the white Christian heritage of the nation.

He embodies a toxic form of masculinity where he postures as a macho male who acts outside normal boundaries. The fact that multiple women may have sued for sexual harassment is of zero consequence because he sees himself as beyond law. Consent is for the weak. Remember: “When you are a star, they let you do it.”.

When accused of corruption, the leader always remains unrepentant and boastful. He counterattacks and accuses his opponent of the accusation of which he stands accused. He acts like integrity is for sissies and lying is kosher. In the face of detailed and factual exposes of his own corruption, he responds by lambasting opposition.

Too much of conventional political discussion misses the reality that we are in a new paradigm internationally and at home and we need a new openness to talking about and describing the new models of authoritarianism. Trump, Putin, Orban, Duterte, Bolsonaro, Erdogan and Italy’s new leaders are playing by an authoritarian playbook that has no respect for democracy or civil liberties.

We can expect the authoritarians to introduce and float more reprehensible ideas to see if they can expand their power and marginalize dissent. The authoritarian goal is to normalize what was previously unthinkable.

The struggle in the world is now between those who support some form of political/economic democracy and those who favor extreme right wing authoritarianism. With our deep-seated commitment to the ideals of liberty and equality, Americans will not be easy prey for the authoritarians. In the words of Joe Hill: “Don’t mourn, organize.”.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Pat
    May 24, 2019 at 4:43 am

    Interesting piece, as always.
    Hope you had a chance to enjoy the scenery as well as the politics!!

  2. Erika T
    June 3, 2019 at 2:03 am

    I really enjoyed reading this in The Monitor today. Hard to believe our country is in this predicament…

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