What italy is experiencing under Berlusconi is not fascism. The proprietary dictatorship of Berlusconi is not the political dictatorship of Mussolini. Fascism was, first and foremost, the violence of Mussolini’s ‘action squads’: armed bands that set fire to the premises of unions, left-wing parties and workers’ associations, that attacked and beat individuals and forced them to drink castor oil, to add humiliation to violence. Fascism was essentially violent—a seizure of power that explicitly subverted the law. Its violence and subversion could easily have been stopped, if a larger portion of the country’s ‘moderate’ political and institutional forces had valued legality over profit and privilege. Instead, Fascist violence found zealous support in crucial sectors of the state, and acquiescence from all the others: from the King to the Army; from the head of the government, Luigi Facta, to the former liberal premier, Giovanni Giolitti, to the philosopher, Benedetto Croce.

Giolitti and Croce were convinced they could use Fascism against the ‘reds’ and then dismiss it, once it had done its dirty work. But this proved a fatal illusion. Once he became head of the government, Mussolini rapidly transformed executive power into power tout court. Thanks to the weaknesses and divisions of the opposition, and the de facto approval of Catholics and liberals, he obtained electoral consecration. From this point on, there was no stopping him: he liquidated the other parties, abrogated freedom of the press and ordered the assassination of the leader of the opposition, Giacomo Matteotti. He created a system of surveillance that was declaredly Fascist and introduced legislation to criminalize any form of dissent. Since ordinary magistrates did not prosecute the new political crimes with the required severity, he created a Special Tribunal to inflict years of prison or ‘internal exile’, confino, on his opponents.footnote1

The Fascist dictatorship did not limit itself to repression. It was not satisfied with the destruction of political parties, trade unions and freedom of the press, but demanded the organic integration of all Italians into the regime, making their participation compulsory; for the regime, being Italian meant being Fascist. It instituted an extensive system of reciprocal spying: every building had its ‘house monitor’ of proven Fascist faith, who kept the secret police informed about even the slightest murmuring against the regime. But far beyond this surveillance, life in its entirety was regimented, ‘fascistized’—starting with the children. At the age of four, children became Sons or Daughters of the She Wolf, in reference to the symbol of Roman-ness; at nine a boy became a Balilla—after the Genoese boy who sparked an uprising against the Habsburg occupiers in 1746—and a girl a Little Italian; and at fourteen, respectively, an Avanguardista and a Young Italian. Eighteen-year-olds joined the Fascist Youth Organization, while those who made it to college became members of Fascist University Groups. After 1934 the winners of the annual cultural competition, the Fascist Games, had a gold ‘M’ (for Mussolini) monogrammed onto their jackets. For all age-groups, education was also paramilitary—beginning with toy rifles for the Sons of the She Wolf and ending with drills for students under banners reading ‘Book and Musket—Perfect Fascist.’

While the young were being indoctrinated, adults could only receive the social services of a budding welfare state through active adherence to Fascism. The National Organization for Mother and Child Welfare provided health assistance before and after childbirth, and prophylaxis and care for infantile tuberculosis; the National Veterans Administration organized social assistance for the veterans of the Great War; the Fascist National Institute for Social Welfare provided unemployment insurance, family allowances and supplementary wages for workers who had been suspended or had their hours reduced; and the National Recreational Club, in the regime’s own words, took care of ‘the moral and physical elevation of the people, through sports, hiking, tourism, artistic education, popular culture’. In addition, there were summer camps for children and adolescents, and for the ‘Fascist woman’, courses in first aid, hygiene and home economics.

So much for ‘free time’. During working hours, every employee and every entrepreneur was organized in the ‘corporations’ and unions of the regime. There was, then, no moment or aspect of the day that escaped the ethico-political claims of a regime whose ideal was nothing less than the ‘fascistization’ of existence. This totalitarian will was exercised particularly strongly with regard to culture. The centuries-old independence of the universities was dismantled: all professors were required to swear a loyalty oath to Fascism; out of 1,250, all but twelve (or fourteen, by other reckonings) submitted. The cinema deserves special mention: the regime gave it an enormous boost, conscious of the screen’s powers of suggestion. The newsreels shown before every film were rigorously Fascist, and although explicitly propagandistic films were not very successful, there were vast audiences for blockbusters on ancient Rome—intended to suggest analogies with the Fascist empire—and for ‘white telephone’ films, intimate stories of the good bourgeoisie that distracted audiences from the problems of real life. Fascism, in short, wanted to saturate all spheres of existence with its presence, because it wanted to create a new type of human being. It wanted to shape every individual according to its own doctrine, alternating violence and co-optation through social services or indoctrination—the carrot and the stick, as Mussolini himself wrote.

There is nothing, or next to nothing, of all this in the Italy of Berlusconi—not so far, anyway. No ‘action squad’ violence, first of all; and the difference between consensus obtained through physical violence and that secured by mass-media manipulation is critical, especially for those who undergo it. In Italy today there is a plurality of political parties, of newspapers, of trade-union organizations. At regular intervals a parliament is elected by secret ballot. The independence of the universities is acknowledged. Magistrates are appointed after competitive examinations and are ‘subject only to the law’—that is, they are independent of the executive branch. In short, the Constitution officially in force is still the republican one approved in 1947 and born of the anti-Fascist Resistance. A merely formal description of its institutions reveals nothing to distinguish Italy under Berlusconi from liberal democracies elsewhere in the world.

But as is well known, formal descriptions can be deceptive. On paper, the ussr’s 1936 ‘Stalin Constitution’ was the most democratic the world had ever seen. Even without examining the gulf between theory and practice, all schools of political science agree that the term ‘multipartism’ can express or conceal a wide variety of situations, since what matters most are the background conditions in which voting takes place—the material or socio-cultural premises of democracy. In a country dominated by drug-trafficking gangs, a formally secret ballot cannot truly guarantee the citizen’s free choice. To be properly exercised, moreover, that choice also requires a minimum level of accurate information on facts and candidates. The principle of ‘one person, one vote’ establishes the technique for the exercise of each citizen’s autonomy, but no less necessary are pre-existing conditions of equal political rights and information, legality and security.