Interview #18: Caterina Froio on (neo)fascism, the far right, and the media

POP interviewed Caterina Froio, research fellow at the University of Oxford, to discuss about the legacy of fascism, radical right movements in Europe, the role of the media, the differences between Italy and Germany in dealing with their past, how movements such as CasaPound find space in the media, and much more.

Have a good summer, and enjoy…

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Predappio (Italy) nostalgic shop (picture of the author). Would you find this merchandising anywhere in Germany?

 

POP: In Italy “apology of fascism” is legally recognized as a crime (law n. 645 from 1952) but many organizations, associations, and political groups define themselves as fascist. How is this possible? And why for example in Germany they do not have any openly neo-Nazi party? 

Caterina Froio: Differences between Germany and Italy have complex explanations. Among those, institutional and historical ones are particularly important. Both help understanding why (so far) Italy didn’t deal with its fascist past. Luckily there are solutions that can be considered.

Differences have institutional roots. Both in Italy and in Germany legal instruments deter fascist and Nazi ideas from diffusion. In Germany, these statements are censured both by state institutions and public opinion, hence they tend to exist but latently and mostly at the ‘subcultural’ level. In Italy, the situation is different. Even if similar laws exist, the system is more open, because neofascist parties have been present in the Italian parliament for decades (in the past the Movimento Sociale Italiano, more recently Forza Nuova, Fiamma Tricolore and Alternativa Sociale in Berlusconi’s 2006 coalition). As explained by Andrea Mammone and colleagues in their 2013 book, in Italy Mussolini’s fascism ends with his killing in April 1945 by the resistance. It was born again in 1946 when the Movimento Sociale Italiano became a political actor. As an example, one might consider attitudes towards the exhibition of pro-nazism and pro-fascism tattoos in public spaces in Germany and Italy. In both countries, nazi and fascist supporters have often pro-Hitler or pro-Mussolini tattoos. Still, in public spaces, German skins hide those under plasters that are removed in private (see what happened recently in Germany to an American citizen for giving Nazi salute). In Italy, pro-fascism tattoos are exhibited even during (legally authorized) extreme right demonstrations.

Differences have also historical roots. To name just one, after the war and Hitler’s death in April 1945 Germany underwent a ‘denazification’ program that Italy never experienced. The way in which this process was carried could be discussed, but in Italy, this formal transition never happened. Hence, in the Italian collective imaginary, fascism has always been considered a sort of historical accident, rather than the result of a political culture pre-existing the March on Rome in October 1922. Accordingly, today in important parts of the Italian population there is indifference with respect to fascism, a collective amnesia. For example, this is visible during football matches. It is hard to find football players doing the roman salute in Germany! Whereas this is frequent in Italy, and not only in second or third division matches!

Another example is the existence of fascist ‘memorabilia’ places like Predappio. Germany doesn’t have a Predappio. In Italy, there are organized pilgrimages to the village where there is Mussolini’s grave.

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Predappio, nostalgic shop. You can find a convenient set of coffee cups with Hitler and Swastika for just 9 euros.

Indifference is one important explanation for why fascism is tolerated in Italy but not in Germany. In Italy, this complex interrelation of institutional and historical roots makes organizations like Forza Nuova, CasaPound, or phenomena like the “spiaggia di Chioggia” tolerated (here a BBC article about the Chioggia-gate).

There are however solutions that could be considered. Criminalization is not an efficient way to deal with these phenomena. Civic education is. Civic education helps understanding what fascism was and prevent its banalization. A serious civic pedagogical effort in all schools, universities, and associations explaining what fascism was (suppression of political opposition, and of freedom of expression among other things) would prevent having individuals claiming that “at the end, fascism was less worse than Nazism” or politicians -like Berlusconi– who said that political opponents consigned to internal exile were going on “holidays”, or that “Mussolini was a statesman until he signed an alliance with Hitler”. The latter statement neglects that Matteotti was assassinated in 1924 and that Mussolini and Hitler signed the Pact of Steel in 1939.

 

Q: It has been noticed that the media are extremely reluctant in using the *F-word* even when dealing with political groups that define themselves as fascist. Why do you think this is the case?

CF: The easiest answer is the fear of being suited for defamation. This is something that happens quite often and that is used by some far right organizations as a source of money. Beyond this, however, there are at least two more interesting explanations. First, a lack of clarity in the meaning of the word. As a social scientist, I believe we are partially responsible for this. Too much confusion exists when it comes to define the far, extreme, and radical right. The fact that these terms are often used as synonyms and that have a strongly (negative) moral connotation doesn’t help. To put it in a very simple way: the extreme right opposes democracy tout court, voicing for the re-establishment of authoritarian and/or totalitarian orders associated with exclusionary forms of nationalism rooted in ethnic, cultural/religious prejudices. In this sense fascism is extreme right.  A second reason has to do with broader value changes in our societies. The fading away of classic political ideologies among important parts of the electorate, makes ideological labels anachronistic to qualify most contemporary political actors.  As ideological adjectives are no longer in use, knowledge of the historical meaning of terms is also lost especially among the youngest. Why then media observers should use words that are unknown or too difficult to understand for broad audiences?

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Benito Mussolini’s bust and crypt in San Cassiano cemetery (Predappio). Saiko/Wikimedia, CC BY-ND

Q: Normally the media are blamed because they facilitate the success of far right actors by providing legitimacy and visibility to their leaders and issues. Do you think that non radical political movements are less represented in the media compared to more flamboyant and controversial movements? In particular, you studied the case of CasaPound Italia (CPI). Who are they, and how do they manage to be constantly under the spotlight of the media?

CF: CasaPound Italia (CPI) is an extreme right organization revendicating Mussolini’s fascism as its ideology. CasaPound was born on December 2003 and it changed name in June 2008, when it became CasaPound Italia. CPI runs for elections while sometimes adopting mobilization strategies that are more typical of left-wing social movements (squatting for example).  Although often referred to as an ‘Italian specificity’ CPI’s experience is very similar to Haus Montag in Germany, Casal Tramuntana, and Hogar Social in Spain.

In a recent study for the Journal “Comunicazione Politica” with Pietro Castelli Gattinara, we analyze the frequency and the ways in which Italian quality newspapers reported events promoted by CPI between 2009 and 2015. We find that chances of appearing in quality newspapers increase when events exhibit specific characteristics that make them somehow ‘flamboyant’. More precisely when CPI mobilizes on immigration, engages in street protest, and creates public controversies. To my understanding, the matter is not whether the media are friends or foes of the extreme right. Rather, the matter is why the media give visibility to political actors, like CasaPound Italia, enjoying so little support and social anchors. Specialists of political communication speak about ‘media logics’ privileging leaders’ personalization, dramatization and sensationalism to maximize the taste of specific audiences especially in more commercial media outlets. In this interpretation, one might understand why groups like CPI can be good customers.

 

(In the tweet above, CasaPound Italia insists that the NGOs helping migrants and saving them from the sea are part of a big business involving politicians and European institutions, based on corruption and with the aim of speculating on the “invasion of migrants” to make money.)

Q: The media are essential gatekeepers in the relationship between represented and representatives, but with the development of social media and online communication platforms, political actors can communicate their messages directly to the voters. How is this changing the link between media and politics?

CF: Online communication, social and digital media, are changing the way in which individuals access information and communicate. Still I believe that it would be misleading to overemphasize their impact on contemporary politics.

It is true that social and digital media faster communication between ‘people’ and ‘elites’ somehow reinforcing the sense of ‘direct control’ on what politicians do, a sort of virtual accountability if you want. However, this is far from being universal and the tangible impact on offline politics of large-scale social media behavior is still unclear. Today, individuals might (potentially) access information from many different sources. Accordingly, the “gatekeeping” function of legacy media (such as TV, Press, Radio) is affected. However, internet access and digital literacy are far from being universal. They are strongly affected by sociodemographic determinants, such as age, profession, and levels of education, just to name the most important. On the internet, the way in which individuals select information matters even more. It is true that the world-wide web offers unlimited possibilities, but it is always up to individuals to select their sources depending on pre-existing (offline!) preferences.

In other words, individuals might virtually follow political personalities or campaigns and get information about them online. Virtual support however does not necessarily translate into votes or offline political engagement. Very often this does not happen. More rarely it does (like in the case of the Five Star Movement-M5S). The problem is that we tend to remember more easily cases like the M5S that are the exception rather than the rule.

Q: The Great Recession rather than triggering the success of left-wing parties seems to foster the growth of (more or less) radical and populist right-wing parties. Why do you think this is the case?

CF: The Great Recession and some of its political consequences (technocratic governments) fueled dissatisfaction vis à vis parties in government. However, this does not necessarily translate into exponential support for populist radical right parties.

If we consider the case of recent elections in the PIIGS countries -those harshly affected by the euro crisis and austerity measures- we notice that only in one case the hypothesis crisis-breeds-extremism holds. It is Greece, where the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn entered the parliament in June 2012.

 

In Portugal, Ireland and Spain there are no relevant far right parties. In Italy, the situation is more complex. If any, the countercoup to the political and economic crises is the Five Star Movement and not the Northern Ligue that has been around for almost 30 years. If we look at recent general elections in Western Europe (Austria, France, Greece, Spain, Netherlands) it appears that electoral sanctions were particularly harsh on social democratic parties. Differently, other leftist parties have been instead rewarded. This is the case of La France Insoumise, SYRIZA, Podemos, and Corbyn’s Labour.  What do they have in common? The defense of states against globalization as well as a strong anti-establishment critic.

If we define populism in non-normative terms, but just as a rhetoric emphasizing the opposition between ordinary people and the ‘establishment’, populism might exist both on the far left and on the far right. However, confusing the two is highly problematic, because these are different phenomena. While sharing similar anti-establishment rhetoric, politicians like Marine Le Pen, Matteo Salvini, Pablo Iglesias, and Jean Luc Melenchon display alternative configurations of ‘the people’, which correspond to their respective location at the far right, and far left ends of the political spectrum. While the far right builds on exclusionary nationalism and ethnocentrism and defines ‘the people’ exclusively in ethnic/cultural terms, the far left defends a ‘we are the 99%’ interpretation of the national community.

In the same way, thinking that everything is just populism, or that all politicians are populist is also misleading. Populism stops where elitism begins. For example, political actors like Macron are closer to the upper end of the elite/people divide characterising contemporary European politics.

Q: At the European level, do you think that radical and far right movements are growing in terms of online and offline presence, but also in terms of votes and access to the public administration? What do you think might be at the root of this phenomenon?

CF: Assessing whether the far right is “growing” is difficult and it depends on how “growth” is defined.

If we define “growth” in electoral terms, an increasing number of votes for radical right populist parties in Europe, the answer is yes. Like for all other political parties, increasing the number of votes implies increasing chances to access national and local governments as demonstrated in a recent book by Albertazzi and McDonnel. When it comes to online politics, things are more complex. Although evidence exists that major far right parties and movements invest more in online communication, it is difficult to “quantify” these trends, and to assess how effective is online communication in bringing more offline support to these organizations. So far, no directory exists to trace longitudinal trends, and studies exploring the relationship between online communication and voting behavior are still in their infantry.

Concerning the root of this phenomenon, I don’t believe that individuals are longing for fascism. We live in societies where conventional forms of political participation are declining, and where historical political ideologies are secularized. I believe that fascism will not come back in the form that it had in the beginning of the XX century. The limited number of voters and supporters for openly neofascist organizations in Europe is a sign of this. However, if fascism is dead, specific ideas that accompanied it are still alive and kicking and not only among those openly nostalgic for the fascist past. For example, the opposition to pluralism and diversity within societies, that often takes the form of ethnocentrism and racism. These ideas are antithetic to the principles of liberal democracy. They are often fueled by the lack of serious integration policies and effective institutional communication explaining diversity to individuals that face it, without understanding it.

Q: Ideologies are less and less appealing for voters, and many actors claim to be neither right-wing nor left-wing: among others Front National, UKIP, Five Star Movement. Why the impression is that, more often than not, *neither-nor* actors are actually right-wing? What is the ‘third way’ nowadays?

CF: The expression ‘third way’ has different meanings. If you speak about ‘third way’ for social democratic parties, the reference is to Tony Blair that detached the British Labour party from economic interventionism and Keynesianism and brought it closer to economic liberalism. If you speak about ‘third way’ for the far right, this means something different. In this context, back in time, fascist dictators were calling to go beyond capitalism and communism, and presented fascism or Nazism as the ‘third way’. After the war, within Western European far right, third way referred to ideological hybrids such as nazi-maoist (see Franco Freda) or redbrowns (rossobruni). These are political groups likely to promote hybrid political ideas resulting from a mixture between those of the extreme right, such as exclusionary nationalism (the brown) and the anti-capitalist left (red). In the case of the parties that you mention, I have the impression that ‘third way’ is simply used as a marker of distance from traditional parties that might be more easily associated with classic ideologies.

Above, the trailer of a nice documentary, La Duce Vita, highly recommended to understand what happens in Predappio and what the legacy of Benito Mussolini still means for his birthplace.


Caterina Froio is VOX-Pol research fellow at the University of Oxford, Oxford Internet Institute (here her academic page: http://oxford.academia.edu/CaterinaFroio). Her research is comparative and it focuses on political parties, agenda-setting, internet and the far right.  She is co-convenor of the European Consortium of Political Research (ECPR) section on Populism, Political Radicalism and Political Extremism and joint convenor of the ECPR standing group Extremism & Democracy. Her research has been published on academic journals such as Comunicazione Politica, French Politics, Party Politics, and Reseaux. More info about her research is available here.

The featured pictured on top has been taken by the author in Zurich, Switzerland. It has been painted on the walls of an occupied building in the Kreis 4. Around the dystopian Apple Unicorn it is possible to read in German the following sentences:

“Zukunft ist Luxus, Sicherheit ist Freiheit” –> Future is luxury, security is freedom

“Schule. Arbeit. Tod.” –> School. Job. Death.

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