The Authoritarian State in Place

By Gaither Stewart in Rome

Anyone traveling to Italy this year will find a lovely, calm and tranquil country. This June the rolling hills around Rome are unusually green and the waters of the Tiber River slicing through the city are white-capped and swift after abundant rainfall in May and early June. Elegant sidewalk cafés and restaurants are packed. Brightly colored double-decker tour buses glide slowly along the Roman Forum and around the Coliseum. Summer has arrived and the food and wine are good.

So calm is Italy that when the neo-Fascist Defense Minister announced his decision to send army troops to patrol city streets, most people shrugged, more absorbed by the European Soccer Cup and making a living than the devastation of political-social Italy. People act as if what is happening here were happening in another country or on another continent. Not in Italia. Only isolated skeptics here and there, like the marginalized Left opposition, ask ironically when the first curfew will be posted. And, one might add, how long before martial law arrives?

Busily trying to make ends meet, hustling Italians are politically jaded. Like Americans they seem unconcerned about what is going on behind the scenes. This spreading and contagious indifference, this chi se ne frega? (Who gives a damn?) mood is the reason for my spate of articles about Fascism in Italy, a nation of only 60 million people far from fortress America. For what is happening here is much more than simply “foreign news.” What is happening on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea today reflects a new infectious mood in a corporatist European Union-dominated Europe moving rapidly to the right. And what happens in Europe is of vital significance to people of the USA. One should care. One should be extremely concerned as to whether Europe will continue its political deterioration or instead wake up to the reality of a continental wide emergence of authoritarianism—or put bluntly, to a resurgence of neo-Fascism-Corporatism.

On June 18 the Italian Senate approved a new law on “security,” a law however now labeled by the opposition “Save the Prime Minister Law.” The scandal for aware people is an amendment nonchalantly attached to that bill which does no less than block judicial procedures in a wide category of court cases including also one major judicial process against none other than neo-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The law puts a one-year stop on judicial procedures for crimes committed before 2002 and carrying jail sentences of less than ten years, for example for such crimes as armed robbery and even rape. The law in effect stops 100,000 trials in order to block one: a pending case against Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for bribery, by chance committed before 2002 and by chance carrying a sentence of 8 years.

So he’s at it again: making laws ad personam to protect himself and his business interests. Speaking of conflict of interests! Not only America’s Cheney and Bush et al engage in such nefarious activities.

On the same day, while Italians worked and tourists swarmed in expensive shopping streets of downtown Rome, the nearby Parliament approved also a new law for the criminalization and expulsion from Italy of “illegal immigrants”, coincidentally one day after another boatload of illegal immigrants sank between Libya and Italy, leaving 149 dead in the graveyard the Mediterranean has become. There was one survivor.

Meanwhile the neo-Defense Minister Ignazio La Russa (neo-Fascist National Alliance Party) confirmed the deployment of 3000 troops to patrol the streets of Italy as fulfillment of campaign slogans of  “security.” The army instead of police on the streets most closely resembles the use of the military in the cities of dictatorial Colombia today. In Italy today the words “emergency” and “security” are used in the same way as “terrorism” in the USA—justification for the suppression of civil rights. When army troops hit city streets, look out! Golpe and martial law are in the air and dictatorship just around the corner.

From day to day the face of a new form of Fascism is emerging clearly both on the streets and in the corridors of power in Italy. Only a decade ago such a charge would have been ridiculed. Fascism in our beloved Italy? “Oh,” people say today, “that was such a long time ago! History doesn’t repeat itself.” Not on the peninsula in the sun where palm trees sway in sea breezes, the land of good food and soothing wines and beautiful women. Who would have believed possible a return to authoritarianism in Wolfgang Goethe’s “land where the lemon trees bloom?”

After all, Italy is a free and democratic country. Italians in fact are Europe’s most fervent voters. Electors par excellence. They go to the urns in droves. Up to 85% of the electorate turns out for local, national and European elections and for a variety of popular referenda. Italians love to vote. They participate in the political system. Early last century they voted in Mussolini. And in 2001 they voted for Berlusconi. However, these Italic peoples are a fickle people. A couple years ago they got a glimpse of the true face of Silvio Berlusconi and voted him out of office. But by last spring they had forgotten that face and voted him back in power.

Italians last April believed Berlusconi had changed. They believed they were electing a statesman. The statesman Berlusconi so wants to be. The person who could make Italy a normal country. But Berlusconi’s true nature of the outrageous crook he is betrays him each time. No one at age 72 changes from one day to the next. Daily I observe Prime Minister Berlusconi in his most pensive pose, his thin lips clamped shut, his face a veritable mask from all the lifting, a contemplative and preoccupied expression in his eyes—fake expression, phony and false—and I can’t help but think of Thomas Mann’s Hochstapler, that irresistible confidence man, Felix Krull. Berlusconi simply cannot control his thirst for power. For the power of GWB, the power of his political cousin Nicolas Sarkozy across the Alps, the power of Vladimir Putin.

For Italy’s Prime Minister, the parliamentary system is a charade and/or an obstacle to be overcome. For him the limits of the Prime Minister of Italy (that is, the President of the Council of Ministers) of a coalition government must be degrading. In his estimation the testimony of the London lawyer David Mills that Berlusconi paid him to lie in a case concerning the use of black funds of Berlusconi’s Fininvest Holding Company for bribery is insignificant in comparison to his own political destiny. No dissent about a stupid law concerning a little bribery is going to stop Berlusconi. The stakes are high. Why, a sentence like that and he could forget his dream of becoming Italy’s President in 2013.

Just as at the beginning of his premiership in 2001, Berlusconi’s energies today—only one month after the installation of his fourth government—still aim at clearing himself of the endless backlog of judicial procedures against him accumulated during the construction of his media empire from the late 1970s. As the newly elected Premier at the start of the new millennium he wasted two years of the nation’s time and money to pass a series of laws ad personam to clear himself of charges of various forms of corruption, bribery, the creation and use of black funds, of indirect mafia ties and collusion with illegal Masonic lodges. Now, barely back in the saddle, he is again up to his old tricks: another law to save himself.

For Berlusconi, the unabashed egotist, the only good law is what is good for him personally. But what can Italians expect from a man who created his own political party leaning over the hood of a car on Milan’s Piazza San Babila—with what funds is unclear—which he himself named il Popolo della Libertà (The People of Freedom Party), personally appointed all its officials from top to bottom, and outlined its electoral program. He made an alliance with neo-Fascists and separatists of north Italy and co-opted them into his coalition. After winning a crushing electoral victory he appointed not only his ministers and deputy ministers but also indirectly the members of his parliamentary majority. (According to the present electoral law Italians do not vote for specific representatives, they simply check a list of candidates compiled by party chiefs.) Now in firm control of both the executive and legislative branches, Berlusconi is free to devote his efforts to attacking the magistracy and deforming the judicial system and, as he said at a press conference at the European Union in Brussels,  “subverting democracy” in order to save himself and his interests. 

One last item concerning the return of Berlusconi to the political scene: On the same June 18 in a speech to Italy’s Trade Confederation the irrepressible Prime Minister said: “I will demand the immediate approval of the Lisbon Treaty by the 26 nations of the European Union, except Ireland, which can do as it likes.” This treaty is in effect an incomprehensible re-edition of the draft European Constitution, already voted down by France and The Netherlands, drawn up in a new version by EU bureaucrats in representation of corporate Europe. “Europe,” Berlusconi continued, “is very different from that of two years ago when there were people like Tony Blair (a traitor to European Socialism), Aznar (the ex-Spanish Fascist), Chirac (never a fan of an extended EU), and myself. (Berlusconi has never been an ardent supporter of the EU and detests its rules, as he does any rules at all.)

The disconcerting events of the first month in power of the new government of Silvio Berlusconi—militarization, army troops on the streets and more troops and aircraft promised to Bush for Afghanistan, criminalization of illegal immigrants, laws ad personam to save himself—are only the start of a dismal period for Italy and for Europe. The worst is yet to come. In today’s artificial atmosphere of fear and xenophobia, Italy’s Right government with an obedient parliamentary majority and dominated by a Felix Krull at the helm seems capable of any deformation of the democratic process.

-Gaither Stewart, a Senior Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal/tantmieux, is a novelist and journalist based in Italy. His stories, essays and dispatches are read widely throughout the Internet on many leading venues. His collections of fiction, Icy Current Compulsive Course, To Be A Stranger and Once In Berlin are published by Wind River Press – His recent novel, Asheville, is published by Wastelandrunes – He contributed this article to

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