sexta-feira, 23 de fevereiro de 2018
The fascist movement that has brought Mussolini back to the mainstream
The long read
The fascist movement that has brought Mussolini back to the mainstream
Italy’s CasaPound has been central to normalising fascism again in the country of its birth. Now they’re trying to enter parliament. By Tobias Jones
Thu 22 Feb 2018 06.00 GMT
On the night of 27 December 2003, five men broke into a huge, empty office complex in Rome, just south of the city’s main railway station, Roma Termini. A few days earlier, the men had put up fake fliers, appealing to the public for help to find a lost black cat called “Pound”. It was a way to avoid suspicion as they surveyed the building before breaking in.
Nothing was left to chance: the date, between Christmas and New Year, was chosen because there wouldn’t be many people around. Even the name and colour of the cat wasn’t casual: “Pound” was a nod to the American poet and fascist evangelist Ezra Pound. And black was the colour associated with their hero, Benito Mussolini. They planned to start a radio station from inside their new building called Radio Bandiera Nera – “Black Flag Radio”.
The man giving orders that night was Gianluca Iannone. Then 30, he was tall, burly and brusque. With his shaved head and thick beard, he looked a bit like a Hells Angel. He had “me ne frego” (“I don’t care” – the slogan used by Mussolini’s troops) tattooed diagonally across the left side of his neck. Iannone was famous in fascist circles as the lead singer in a rock band called ZZA, and as the owner of a pub in Rome, the Cutty Sark, which was a meeting point for Rome’s extreme right.
The five men were nervous and excited as they took turns working on the wooden front door with crowbars. The others gathered close by, to watch and to provide cover. Once the door gave, they piled inside, pushing it shut behind them. What they found was breathtaking. There was a large entrance hall on the ground floor, a grand staircase, even a lift. There were 23 office suites in the seven-storey block. The previous occupier, a government quango, had moved out the year before, so the place was freezing and damp. But it was huge, covering thousands of square metres. The cherry on the cake was the terrace: a large, walled roof from which you could see the whole of Rome. The men gathered together up there and hugged, feeling that they had planted a flag in the centre of the Italian capital – in a gritty neighbourhood, Esquilino, which was home to many African and Asian immigrants. Iannone dubbed their building “the Italian embassy”.
That building became the headquarters of a new movement called CasaPound. Over the next 15 years, it would open another 106 centres across Italy. Iannone, who had been in the Italian army for three years, described each new centre as a “territorial reconquest”. Because every centre was self-financing, and because they claimed to “serve the people”, those new centres in turn opened gyms, pubs, bookshops, parachute clubs, diving clubs, motorbike clubs, football teams, restaurants, nightclubs, tattoo parlours and barbershops. CasaPound suddenly seemed everywhere. But it presented itself as something beyond politics: this was “metapolitics”, echoing the influential fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile, who wrote in 1925 that fascism was “before all else a total conception of life”.
Until then, fascist revivals had usually been seen, by the Italian mainstream, as nostalgic, uncultured and thuggish. CasaPound was different. It presented itself as forward-looking, cultured, even inclusive. Iannone had been drawn to fascism in his youth because of a “fascination with the symbols”, and now he creatively mixed and matched code words, slogans and symbols from Mussolini’s ventennio” (as his 20-year rule is known), and turned them into 21st-century song lyrics, logos and political positions. In a country in which style and pose are paramount, CasaPound was fascism for hipsters. There were reports of violence, but that – for young men who felt aimless, sidelined, even emasculated – only added to the attraction. Many flocked to pay their €15 to become members.
By the early 2000s, it was no longer taboo for mainstream politicians to speak warmly of Mussolini: admirers of Il Duce had become government ministers, and many fringe, fascist parties were growing in strength – Forza Nuova, Fronte Sociale Nazionale, and various skinhead groups. But where the other fascists seemed like throwbacks to the 1930s, CasaPound focused on contemporary causes and staged creative campaigns: in 2006 they hung 400 mannequins all over Rome, with signs protesting about the city’s housing crisis. In 2012, CasaPound militants occupied the European Union’s office in Rome and dumped sacks of coal outside to protest on behalf of Italian miners. Many of their policies looked surprising: they were against immigration, of course, but on the supposedly “progressive” grounds that the exploitation of immigrant labourers represented a return to slavery.
Most Italians have been watching CasaPound with a mixture of fascination and alarm for 15 years, trying to work out quite what it is. The movement claims it is a democratic and credible variant of fascism, but it is accused of encouraging violence and racism. CasaPound militants have repeatedly told me that they’re a unifying force for Italy, but many Italians worry that they are merely recreating historical divisions in a society with a profound identity crisis.
That “CasaPound question” is now being posed with urgency, because it is aspiring to enter parliament next month. On 4 March, Italians will go to the polls in a general election in which centre-right and far-right parties are expected to triumph. CasaPound’s own electoral chances are slim: although in the past they have received nearly 10% of the vote in certain constituencies, they will need at least 3% of all votes nationwide to gain any parliamentary seats, which seems almost inconceivable. Still, the proliferation and growth of rival far-right parties is not a sign of the movement’s obsolescence, but of its success. For 15 years, CasaPound has been like the yeast in the far-right dough – the ingredient that makes everything around it rise.
CasaPound germinated in the late 1990s as a sort of Mussolini-admiring drinking club. Every Monday night, a dozen men would meet in the Cutty Sark and “plan what next,” as one recalled. It was there that Iannone met the man who would become his deputy, Simone Di Stefano. Di Stefano was two years younger and quieter, but a lifelong rightwing militant. “We were situationists trying to wake people up”, Di Stefano says, looking back, “bohemian artists based on models like Obey Giant [Shepard Fairey] and Banksy”.
In 1997, Iannone, Di Stefano and their mates had put up 10,000 stickers all over Rome: above eyeless faces, with barcoded foreheads and demented smiles, were just three unexplained words: Zeta Zero Alfa. It was the name of a punk rock band Iannone had decided to launch, its name hinting at both the American rock legends ZZ Top and at the notion that the world needed to go back to the beginning, back to the “alfa”.
Zetazeroalfa became, in the late 90s and early 2000s, an evangelising force for fascism. Touring all over Italy, the band sang raucous punk-rock songs with lyrics such as “nel dubbio, mena” (“if in doubt, beat up”) or “amo questo mio popolo fiero / che non conosce pace” (“I love this proud people / that doesn’t know peace”). In those early days, Iannone had about 100 hardcore fans, who doubled as roadies, crew, security and salesmen. The group sold as many T-shirts as they did CDs, with lines such as Picchia il vip (“beat up the VIP”) and Accademia della sassaiola (“academy of stone-throwing”). The song that became a crowd favourite was Cinghiamattanza, meaning “death by belt”: at all the gigs it became a ritual for fans to take off their belts and leather each other.
In those years, Iannone was more rock star than blackshirt. His informal movement was more about music than manifestos. CasaPound’s in-house lawyer, Domenico Di Tullio, was once the bassist and vocalist in a far-right band called Malabestia, “evil beast”. He was introduced to CasaPound when Iannone was teaching Thai boxing in a gym. “CasaPound has always been,” Di Tullio said, “halfway between politics and rock’n’roll.” Iannone was a canny entrepreneur: he co-founded a right-wing music label called “Rupe Tarpeia” – the name of the Roman rock from which traitors were thrown to their deaths.
Iannone – who was obsessed with Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club – had been arrested a few times for assault, once for beating up an off-duty carabiniere at Predappio, the burial shrine of Mussolini, because he was “drunk and being stupid”. Revisionist historians and rightwing politicians in the 1990s worked hard to rehabilitate Mussolini: expressing admiration for him was no longer considered heretical, but a sign of courageous thinking. Mussolini’s regime was airbrushed as benign – “he never killed anybody” said Silvio Berlusconi, who became prime minister for the first time in 1994 – and depicted as superior to the corruption and chaos of the avowedly anti-fascist First Republic that lasted from 1948 until 1992. Berlusconi and his far-right allies scorned the traditional anti-fascist celebrations of 25 April, the date of Italians’ liberation from Nazi fascism.
A canny politician, Berlusconi wasn’t setting this agenda but following it. He knew it was a vote-winner. Buildings all over Italy, but especially in the south, still bear the faded letters of the word “DUCE”. There are many monuments, and even a mountain, that still bear his name. A country that doesn’t renounce its past as much as absorb it, Italy was, by the turn of the millennium, more than ready to include Mussolini’s grandchildren in the body politic.
In July 2002 the militants who had gathered around Gianluca Iannone and ZZA occupied their first building, an abandoned school north of Rome. Occupations had always been a form of protest by the far left in Italy: many squats had become “social centres” and were tacitly tolerated by police and politicians. Now the far right was trying the tactic. Iannone called the occupied school Casa Montag, after the protagonist of the Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag.
It was the first of many occasions in which CasaPound would confound ideological expectations. Most people read Bradbury’s novel as a critique of an anti-intellectual, totalitarian state, but for the CasaPounders it represented their own oppression by the forces of anti-fascism in Italian politics, who they regarded as metaphorical book-burners. Anticipating the rhetoric of the alt-right, CasaPound claimed to be a space “where debate is free”.
Within 18 months, though, Iannone’s men had upgraded and moved to the very centre of Rome, occupying the huge building in Esquilino. Their aim in 2003 wasn’t political in any parliamentary sense: the militants wanted to live cheaply together, to create a space for their ideals and, most of all, to make a statement.
In the entrance hall of their new home, CasaPounders painted a hundred or so surnames in garish colours, suggesting the ideological lineage of their movement. Many were obvious – Mussolini, Oswald Mosley, Nietzsche, the writer and proto-fascist Gabriele D’Annunzio, the Italian fascist philosopher Julius Evola – but many more were bizarre or wishful: Homer, Plato, Dante, Kerouac and even cartoon characters such as Captain Harlock and Corto Maltese. All were men.
The movement never hid its admiration for Benito Mussolini. Photos and slogans of Il Duce were put up. Every believer was referred to as a “camerato” (the fascist version of “comrade”) and exchanged the old-fashioned “legionary” handshake, grasping each other’s forearm rather than the hand. Above the door on the outside of the building, in beige, faux-marble, “CASAPOVND” appeared.
What made CasaPound unique was its game of smoke-and-mirrors with a fascinated Italian media. Both Di Stefano and Iannone were very media-savvy: Di Stefano was a graphic artist, and Iannone, after the army, had worked as a director’s assistant on Unomattina, a breakfast show on RAI, the state broadcaster. They promoted CasaPound via prank calls to newspapers, the invasion of TV studios, the frenetic production of posters and stickers, the organisation of debates and the occasional act of violence.
They also began pushing for policies the left had given up hope of ever hearing again, such as the renationalisation of Italy’s banking, communications, health, transport and energy sectors. They cited the most progressive aspects of Mussolini’s politics, focusing on his “social doctrines” regarding housing, unions, sanitation and a minimum wage. CasaPound accepted that the racial laws of 1938 (which introduced antisemitism and deportation) were “errors”; the movement claimed to be “opposed to any form of discrimination based on racial or religious criteria, or on sexual inclination”.
CasaPound’s concentration on housing also appealed to voters of the old left. Its logo was a turtle (an animal that always has a roof over its head) and Ezra Pound’s name was used in part because he had railed, in his poem Canto XLV, against rent (considered usury) and rapacious landlords. One of the first things CasaPound did in its occupied building was to hang sheets from the windows protesting against rent hikes and evictions – in 2009, there were an average of 25 evictions in Rome every day. They campaigned for a “social mortgage”, in which rental payments would effectively become mortgage payments, turning the tenant into a homeowner. Within months, they had given shelter to dozens of homeless families, as well as to many camerati down on their luck.
CasaPound presented itself as the house of the ideologically homeless too. Iannone said it offered “a space of liberty, where anyone who has something to say and can’t say it elsewhere will always find political asylum”. It adopted a pose of being not a part of the debate, but the receptacle of it. It reminded some of Mussolini’s line that “fascism is the church of all the heresies”.
Iannone was always a proponent of action. He knew fascism had always grown through taking the initiative: he spoke frequently about the proto-fascist arditi (“daring ones”), a squad of volunteers fighting under D’Annunzio, who seized the town of Fiume after the first world war in an attempt to resolve a border dispute between Italy and what was then Yugoslavia. Iannone knew that Mussolini had launched his first fascist manifesto from an occupied building in the piazza of San Sepolcro in Milan. But even here, in action, CasaPound was borrowing leftwing clothes: imitating the strategy of the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, it aimed for what Gramsci had called “cultural hegemony” by infiltrating the cultural and leisure activities of everyday Italians.
So CasaPound began doing outreach on an unprecedented scale: in 2006 a student movement called Blocco Studentesco was started. A fascist women’s movement, Tempo di Essere Madri (“time to be a mother”), was founded by Iannone’s wife. A pseudo-environmental group, La Foresta Che Avanza, began in order to put “the regime into nature”. (Earlier this month, 200 volunteers from La Foresta gathered to repair the huge tribute to Mussolini – the word DUX, written with pine trees – on a mountainside in Antrodoco.) The media – whether intrigued, anxious or excited – reported on every initiative: as Di Stefano told me, “everything CasaPound did became news”.
There was plenty of ideological contortionism. In 2007, CasaPound started describing itself not as fascist, but as estremo centro alto (the name of a ZZA song, which means “extreme, high centre”). It namechecked improbable influences, such as Che Guevara and the great anarchist singer-songwriters Rino Gaetano and Fabrizio De André.
That obfuscation was a continuation of what Italian fascism, contrary to stereotype, had often done. Mussolini once said: “We don’t believe in dogmatic programmes … we allow ourselves the luxury of being aristocratic and democratic, conservatives and progressives, reactionaries and revolutionaries, legals and illegals”. Mussolini’s totalitarianism often implied not fierce clarity, but slipperiness. “Mussolini did not have a philosophy,” Umberto Eco once wrote. “He had only rhetoric.”
To political scientists, this creative, eccentric force from the political extremities was captivating. Between 2006 and 2014, dozens of books were published on the movement – some by CasaPound’s friends, but others by academic presses in Italy and abroad. The latter fretted about the sinister implications of Mussolini’s favourite slogan: libro e moschetto – fascista perfetto (the rhyme boasting that “book and musket” make the “perfect fascist”). How important, people wondered, was that “musket”? CasaPound sometimes relished its violent reputation, and was sometimes angered by it. It proudly called its occupations and stunts examples of guerrilla tactics, but other times their tone was softer: they were just atti goliardici, “bohemian acts”.
That paradoxical attitude towards violence was encapsulated in the huge red letters painted on a central wall of CasaPound’s HQ: “Santa Teppa” – Holy Mob. It was the phrase Mussolini once used to describe his blackshirts. CasaPound militants say that they’re constantly under attack from leftwing “social centres” and anti-fascists. When you get to know them, though, the position is slightly different. “We’re not a violent organisation,” one militant told me, “but we’re not non-violent either.”
The fierce fighting between Italy’s partisans and fascists from 1943 to 1945 – sometimes called the country’s civil war – continued sporadically after the end of the second world war. But ever since 1952, when a law was passed that criminalised efforts to resuscitate Mussolini’s fascist party, Italian fascists have seen themselves as the victims, rather than the instigators, of state repression. In reality, however, there was no Italian equivalent of Germany’s denazification: throughout the postwar period, one far-right political party – the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) – kept alive the flame of Mussolini, at its height in 1972 winning 9% or 2.7m votes. Various radical splinter groups emerged from within the MSI – the most notorious being Pino Rauti’s Ordine Nuovo, which was involved in the bombing of a bank in 1969 that killed 17 civilians.
That atrocity was the beginning of a period known as “the years of lead”: in the 1970s, far-right and far-left groups fought, shot, bombed and kidnapped not only each other, but also the public and representatives of the state. Both sides used the rhetoric of the 1940s, recalling the heroism or disloyalty of the fascists and anti-fascists from three decades earlier.
But amid the violence of the 1970s, there were attempts to tap into the “softer” side of the far-right, with festivals where music, graphic design, history and ecology were discussed. They were called “Hobbit camps”, since JRR Tolkien had long been a hero for Italian neo-fascists, who liked to quote Bilbo Baggins’ line that “deep roots don’t freeze”. There was a popular leftwing slur that fascists belonged in the “sewers”, and so a magazine called La Voce della Fogna (“The Voice of the Sewer”) was launched by unapologetics.
The neo-fascist movement that most influenced CasaPound, Terza Posizione, was founded in 1978. It claimed to reject both capitalism and communism, and – like CasaPound – tried to revive Mussolini’s social policies. (Iannone has its symbol tattooed on the middle finger of his left hand. His deputy, Simone Di Stefano, spent a year in London working with one of the Terza Posizione founders in the 1990s.)
In the same year, two young militants were shot outside the offices of the MSI in Acca Larentia in Rome. That evening, when a journalist allegedly disrespected the victims by flicking a cigarette butt in a pool of blood, a riot began in which a third young man was killed by a policeman. Other deaths followed that initial bloodshed: the father of one of the young men killed committed suicide. On the first anniversary of Acca Larentia, another militant was killed by police.
Acca Larentia seemed proof, to fascists, that they were sitting ducks. Some renounced extremism altogether, but others simply took it further. A far-right terrorist organisation, NAR (the “nuclei of armed revolutionaries”) was founded and took part in various killings and the bombing of Bologna railway station in 1980, in which 85 people died. As a state crackdown on the far-right began, the three founders of Terza Posizione fled abroad and the leaders of NAR were either killed or imprisoned.
For a generation, through the 1980s and early 1990s,fascism seemed finished. But when Silvio Berlusconi burst into politics looking for anti-communist allies, he identified the MSI as his ideal political partner. The party renamed itself the National Alliance, and became the second-largest component in Berlusconi’s ruling centre-right coalition in 1994. The wind had changed completely: many of the militants on the far-right in the 1970s – old hands from the MSI – were now in government. In 1999 the three founders of Terza Posizione returned from exile.
That was the context in which CasaPound, in the early 2000s, first began to flourish: it was full of marginalised men who had grown up in the wilderness years of the 80s and early 90s. They were convinced that fascists had been mistreated and killed by “communist hatred and servants of the state”, as a plaque memorialising the murders at Acca Larentia put it.
But in fact, their bread was buttered on both sides: they presented themselves as underdogs, but their ideological fathers were now at the very top of Italian political power. They could claim to be the victims of repressive laws banning the revival of fascism, but because those laws were never enforced, they could proselytise with impunity.
By 2005, CasaPound was toying with electoral politics. One its militants stood for election in Lazio on the electoral list of one of Berlusconi’s cabinet ministers, who had been a press officer of the MSI. From 2006 until 2008 CasaPound joined another offshoot of the MSI, the “Tricolour Flame”. Neither alliance produced any seats in parliament, but both afforded more publicity and “respectability” to the slow-moving but determined “turtle”.
In 2008, Gianni Alemanno, who had been imprisoned as a far-right militant, became mayor of Rome. He looked on CasaPound’s occupations with a decidedly indulgent eye – and that same year CasaPound occupied another building: an abandoned railway station near the Stadio Olimpico. Called Area 19 (1919 was the year Mussolini announced the first fascist manifesto), it became a gym by day and nightclub by night.
Meanwhile young CasaPound heavies enjoyed public shows of force. In 2009, Blocco Studentesco – CasaPound’s youth movement – came to Rome’s central square, Piazza Navona, armed with truncheons painted with the Italian tricolor. They found a use for them on leftwing students. When one TV programme criticised Blocco Studentesco, its offices were “occupied” by CasaPound militants.
On 13 December 2011, Gianluca Casseri, a CasaPound sympathiser in Tuscany, left home with a Magnum 357 in his bag. He was a taciturn loner, 50 years old, rotund with short, grey hair, but had found a home in CasaPound: he had held a launch for his fantasy novel – The Keys of Chaos – at the local club.
On that December morning, Casseri had a plan to shoot as many immigrants as possible. He went to a square in Florence and, at 12.30pm, killed two Senegalese men, Samb Modou and Diop Mor. He shot another man, Moustapha Dieng, in the back and throat and then got in his blue VW Polo and drove off. Just over two hours later, Casseri was at the city’s central market, where he shot two more men, Sougou Mor and Mbenghe Cheike, who survived the attack. He then turned his gun on himself in the market’s underground carpark.
After Casseri’s murders, CasaPound’s leaders were invited on to national television to face the accusation that they were fomenting violence. In a special programme about the killings, the former president of the Rai TV channel accused Iannone of having “ideologically armed” the killer. Ezra Pound’s daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz, began a legal action (which she eventually lost) to stop CasaPound using and sullying her father’s name. “They distort his ideas”, she said, “they’re violent. [My father] wanted an encounter between civilisations.”
It was true that CasaPound’s language and imagery was relentlessly combative. In its Rome bookshop – “Iron Head” – you can buy posters of insurgents from far-flung civil wars with automatic weapons wearing ZZA T-shirts. They speak about “trincerocrazia”, an “-ocracy” for people who have done their time in the trenches. The shell of their turtle logo also has a military meaning: it represents the testuggine, the carapace of shields used by the Roman army. All of this makes the movement edgy and decidedly testosteronic: 87% of the movement’s Facebook supporters are male and 62% are between 16 and 30.
It’s a movement that is tight, compact and united. When you’re among the militants inside that shell, the disdain for the outside world is almost cultish. The separation between insider and outsider is clear and loyalty is total: “I do whatever Gianluca [Iannone] tells me to”, one female militant has said. The movement has published a political and historical glossary for all novice militants, so they always know what to say.
Iannone himself is forcefully charismatic and physically imposing – tall, tattooed and gravel-voiced – and perhaps even bears a slight resemblance to Mussolini. It’s easy to see why lost youngsters might be desperate to please (and scared to displease) him. “He’s a very pure leader”, Di Stefano told me, with evident admiration, as we took a walk with his two chihuahuas – called “Punk” and “Rock”.
By 2013, aggressive leadership was what a lot of Italians were longing for. The country was facing an unprecedented crisis of confidence. In 2010 youth unemployment was at almost 30%, and would rise to over 40% by 2015. That year, Italy’s national statistics office suggested that almost 5 million Italians were living in “absolute poverty”. The degradation in certain suburbs – the lack of rubbish collections was just the most visible example – suggested that the Italian state was, in places, almost entirely absent. The success of the populist Five Star Movement – coming from nowhere to win 25.55% of the vote in the 2013 elections – showed the Italian electorate would respond to a party that was angry and anti-establishment. (The fathers of two of the leading lights of the Five Star Movement, Luigi Di Maio and Alessandro Di Battista, were both in the MSI.)
By then CasaPound was becoming known far beyond Italy. The lift in its Rome HQ was covered by stickers with the logos of far-right pilgrims from across the globe. CasaPound had always voraciously consumed foreign trends and repackaged them for an Italian audience: it had absorbed the anticapitalist ideas of France’s Nouvelle Droite (“new right”) movement, and built friendships with members of Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Now French visitors started talking about a 2012 book by Renaud Camus called The Great Replacement: it spoke of the idea that native Europeans would soon be completely sidelined and substituted by waves of immigrants. It was a theory that had caught on in the US. This was the root of the “identitarian” doctrine, which claimed that globalisation had created a homogeneous culture with no distinct national or cultural identities. True pluralism – “ethnopluralism” – would mean racial separation.
These ideas famously influenced both Steve Bannon at Breitbart and the American white supremacist leader Richard Spencer – but they also percolated into the thinking of CasaPound’s cultural attache, Adriano Scianca. Scianca, who lives in Umbria, is the editor of CasaPound’s magazine, Primato Nazionale (which has a circulation, they say, of 25,000). In 2016 he published a book called The Sacred Identity: “The cancellation of a people from the face of the earth,” he wrote, “is factually the number one [aim] in the diary of all the global oligarchs.” It sounds silly, but these ideas soon made their way into mainstream newspapers – and very quickly racial separation became official CasaPound policy.
Throughout 2014 and 2015, CasaPound leaders organised rallies against asylum centres that were due to open. They formed a movement, with Matteo Salvini’s Northern League (a formerly separatist movement which was, by then, purely nationalist) called Sovereignty: “Italians First” was the slogan. All over Italy – from Gorizia to Milan, from Vicenza to Genoa – every time a vacant building was converted into an asylum centre, CasaPound members would make friends among the locals opposing the centres, distributing food parcels, clearing rubbish, and offering strategies and strong-arms. (CasaPound argued that because a proportion of immigrants had arrived illegally, their opposition was about legality rather than race.)
Simone Di Stefano is CasaPound’s political leader and its most prominent candidate in next week’s elections. With his neat, salt-and-pepper hair and trim beard, he looks like any other moderate politician. But his problem is now the opposite of his rhetoric: it’s not that the Italian establishment excludes the far-right from politics, but that there are now so many far right parties, CasaPound seems just one among many. Di Stefano is, therefore, distinguishing himself by campaigning to leave the European Union and urging a military intervention in Libya to halt the flow of migrants: “We have to resolve the problem of Africa,” he told me.
These ideas are not likely to appeal to many Italian voters – but CasaPound’s job is already done. It has been essential to the normalisation of fascism. At the end of 2017, Il Tempo newspaper announced Benito Mussolini as its “person of the year”. It wasn’t being facetious: Il Duce barged into the news agenda every week last year. A few weeks ago, even a leftwing politician in Florence said that “nobody in this country has done more than Mussolini”. Today, 73 years after his death, he is more admired than traditional Italian heroes such as Giuseppes Garibaldi and Mazzini.
CasaPound has also been a participant in an escalating political conflict in which violence – both verbal and physical – has become commonplace. When you speak to CasaPound militants, they’re quick to say they only commit violence in self-defence, but their definition of self-defence is extremely elastic. Luca Marsella, a top colonel in the movement, once said to 14-year-old schoolchildren who were protesting against a new CasaPound centre: “I’ll cut your throats like dogs, I’ll kill all of you.” Another militant was convicted of beating up leftwing activists in Rome in 2011 when they were putting up posters. Another activist, Giovanni Battista Ceniti, was involved in a murder, though – as Iannone pointed out – he had already been expelled from CasaPound for “intellectual laziness”. In February last year, in Viterbo, two militants, Jacopo Polidori and Michele Santini, beat up a man who had dared to post an ironic comment about CasaPound on Facebook. A leftwing site has compiled an interactive map of episodes of reported fascist violence across the peninsula – and there are so many incidents that you can barely see the boot of Italy.
Then, earlier this month, a man who had previously stood for election with the far-right Northern League, and had ties to CasaPound, went on a two-hour shooting rampage in the town of Macerata. Luca Traini fired his Glock pistol at anyone with black skin. What was shocking wasn’t just the bloodshed (he injured six people, but all survived), but that it all seemed unsurprising in the current climate. Traini’s inspiration was old-fashioned fascism: he had the “Wolfsangel” rune (used by both Nazis and Italy’s Terza Posizione) on his forehead. He gave a Roman salute at the monument to Italy’s war dead.
But in the aftermath of his shooting, mainstream politicians on the so-called centre-right blamed immigration, not Traini. Berlusconi, who has embraced the far right as he attempts to engineer another election win, spoke of a “social bomb” created by foreigners. Italy, he said, needs to deport 600,000 illegal immigrants.
On Sunday 7 January this year, CasaPound organised a mass rally in Rome to mark the 40th anniversary of the Acca Larentia killings. Four or five thousand people turned up, many wearing similar clothes: bomber jackets and black beanies, military fatigues or drainpipe jeans. There were 50 men in red CasaPound bibs, the security detail, shepherding the troops. Not everyone was a CasaPound militant, but the other groups all fell in behind Gianluca Iannone and Simone di Stefano. This, it was clear, was their show.
Gianluca Iannone at the 7 January CasaPound rally in Rome.
Gianluca Iannone at the 7 January CasaPound rally in Rome. Photograph: Stefano Montesi - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images
They walked the half-mile to the site of the killings in silence. “We’re here, and always will be” was the implicit message. In front was a huge banner, held up by 20 foot batons, saying “honour to the fallen camerati”. There was a police escort in case it kicked off, but the only tension was from honking drivers, fed up of waiting an hour for the river of humans to pass.
At the end of the march, CasaPound security guards lined up the troops in the courtyard where their three camerati fell. On the road either side, the rest of the marchers gathered. A voice called all the camerati to attention. In one split second, hands dropped to sides, and feet were pulled together. “Per tutti i camerati caduti”, a voice barked. All the men raised their right arms in a straight-arm salute: “Presenti!” they shouted. The noise was so loud that a car alarm went off, and dogs started to bark. The ritual was repeated twice more, then the voice barked “at ease”, and the troops dispersed, heading home in the cold January night.
In 15 years, CasaPound has grown so large that its initial ambition – to be accepted into the theatre of “open debate” – is now obsolete. Instead, its leaders now talk of eradicating anti-fascism entirely. Having once presented itself as playful, it is now deadly serious: “I’ll be a fascist as long as anti-fascists exist”, Iannone says. Fascism, he enthuses, was “the greatest revolution in the world, the completion of the Risorgimento [Italian unification]”. Mussolini’s regime was “the most beautiful moment of this nation”. When you ask him if the anti-fascists aren’t also, as the national anthem says, brothers of Italy, he stares out from under his heavy eyelids: “Cain and Abel,” he says, “were brothers.”