Italian Populism, Two Sides of the Same Coin

The upcoming Italian election features two populist leaders who became famous through the entertainment industry. The Five Star Movement, founded by actor and comedian Beppe Grillo, is poised to make a push in the upcoming Italian election.  The party is an alternative to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. He became a prominent figure in Italian politics by running on principles such as anti-corruption and elitism but has since contradicted them after spending time as Prime Minister.  The five Star movement now carries the message of anti-politics, anti-elites and anti-corruption that the voters want.  The comparisons that can be made about the groups are palpable, although FI and Silvio Berlusconi are now political professionals.

Beppe Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi are more similar than they want to believe, Berlusconi has changed but his political rise and populist origins are eerily familiar.  Both leaders had immense fame before entering into politics which helped them build an audience that could be converted into political followers.  Berlusconi got his start working on cruise ships telling jokes and singing and now owns Italy’s three largest private T.V. networks that he uses to spread his message.  Grillo, too, is a product of the entertainment industry – a comedian, satirist and impressionist who was a frequent face on Italian national T.V.  Both men also use video formats to communicate to their constituents, Berlusconi through his T.V. networks and Grillo through his YouTube channel.  The leaders held public spotlight before entering into politics making it easier for them to amass supporters.

Italy has a long history of embracing populist style leaders who used popular media to appeal to the common man.  Inoslav Besker characterizes the two leaders’ approach as ‘populism, anti-party attitudes, demonization of opponents and an approach to the public and to politics focused on the leader.  Silvio Berlusconi started as an anti-politician and has described the politicians in Italy as to have never ‘worked’ a day in their life.  Unlike them Berlusconi has worked for his status and is thus shows himself as a worthy leader.  Grillo also despises the political class and refers to politicians as ‘zombies’ and ‘corpses’.  He would have one believe that he is not a politician and that his FSM isn’t even a political party.  They also share the similar sentiment that the political system in Italy needs to be reformed.  Grillo proposes bans on candidates convicted of crimes and limiting terms in office.  Similarly, Berlusconi, positions himself as a business man who is not at all like the politicians and that proportional representation needs to be replaced with a majoritarian system with more emphasis on the role of the Prime Minister.

Despite these anti-political origins, something changed once Berlusconi took power.  He became the very elite that he campaigned against causing him and his coalition to lose the favour of the public.  Berlusconi used his time in office to create laws that protected his own business interests instead of promoting the small business entrepreneurship of which was his platform.   The once anti-political populist who emphasised how corrupt the politicians and elites were became the embodiment of what he once despised.  By embracing the throngs of political leadership, he contradicted his original message and alienated his followers.  He created a political vacuum that afforded the opportunity for a party to propose the same anti-political message except this time he is the politician.  The upcoming election provides the perfect backdrop for an inquisitive look into the state of Italian politics, with the Five Star Movement polling so high, do they offer something new or is it the similar story of using the populist message for personal gain.

The Five Star Movement winning 25% of the votes in the 2013 election showcases a wider issue in Italy, the public’s distrust of politicians causes them to elect anti-government populists.  A positive feedback loop is created when an anti-government party is elected, they become the government causing the need for more anti-politics parties.  The Five Star Movements success means that they will become serious politicians, contradicting their platform.  After winning the election with not much of a party structure, clear leadership roles have been created and the founder has stepped down being replaced by Luigi di Maio.  Beppe Grillo once said his party was not even a party, but one look at the Five Star Movement, you can see that is changing.

By: Riley Bowman

Sweeper: Italian Fascism

This week’s examination of Italian Fascism brought to light several ideas that are essential to keep in mind when examining the rise of fascism generally. Some of the important points that were brought up, both in class and in the primary responses, were ideas about the way in which fascism began in contrast to other ideologies.

One of the main points that stood out in class was taken from Federico Finchelstein’s reading. It is the idea that fascist movements in different countries are not just imitations of what happened in Italy. In each different country there were circumstances that lead to the rise of a fascist group. For example, it could come from general social anxiety and a loss of faith in institutions.

Another idea that stood out in particular to me, and in my classmates responses, is the premise of fascism being distinct from other political theories, like communism. The main principles of fascism seek to distinguish it from other ideologies. In particular, this theory was developed to counter enlightenment ideals. This is clear in some of the twelve attributes of fascism that we discussed, such as the glorification of violence, and a leader cult.

Clearly, this is an ideology based on sentiments that reflect a desire to react to the social and political situation of a given moment, such as the post WWI landscape of Mussolini’s Italy. As my classmates have noted, this movement that sought to bring back an ideal, by any means possible. Many of my classmates noted in their blog posts one of the driving forces behind this, and one of the twelve attributes, a way of defining oneself in opposition to the other.

First Response: The Significance of Italian Fascism

Italian fascism is credited with being the first fascist state in mainland Europe in the 20th century and for providing a model that other authoritarian states sought to emulate or expand on. While whether it was the first to engage in extreme state control can be debated, the impact that Italian fascism had on the ideologies of other authoritarian state is very evident.

One of the readings this week was a primary source document by Mussolini and Giovanni Gentile that outlined what the considered some of the essential tenets of fascism. A key quote from this reading that embodies Italian fascism (and all fascism) is “he Fascist idea is embodied in the State. It is for the individual insofar as the individual coincides with the State, [which is] the conscience and the universal will of Man in his historical existence” . All individual needs and characteristics must be ignored for the benefit of the construction of the state. Mussolini, as shown as well in the Ruth Ben-Ghiat reading, was more pragmatic about the controls his state put into place. In comparison to Hitler, “For Mussolini and most of his officials, unlike the Nazis, national prerogatives almost always took precedence over racial ones” is used to describe the process in which they instituted anti-Semitic laws.

However, attempts to portray Italian fascism as the ‘nicer’ version is both useless to debate and also untrue. The casualties of their war with Ethiopia are examined in the Ben-Ghiat reading, as well as the lack of recognition of the atrocities committed. Comparatively, they pale against the holocaust but framing the atrocities of two separate regimes against each other in order to diminish the significance of one is not a fair examination of the events. Overall, the readings do a good job of outlining what was significant about Italian fascism and gives some context as to why it is often overlooked in popular understanding, at least compared to Nazi Germany and the USSR: their fascism was more pragmatic and focused the outright slaughter less on people inside the regime.

Sweeper: Importance of Historical Context

After the last class’ discussions there were some really great points to take away. The concept most interesting for me was the idea of how things are remembered. It appears more clearly from the lecture and discussion that history has a very large part in supporting ideas whether or not they be good or correct. Using history as some sort of propaganda will, as was seen, lead to some kind of distortion whether it be generalizations or misinterpreted facts. One example that Dr. Evans brought up was how some German people think about a “German Culture” when, in fact, there were times in German history were this culture was very different and diverse -not how they see it as being today. There are many other examples of this that can come up as well including the concept of “Making America Great Again.” There is more to the discussion than just whether one even thinks America is already great but if it ever was (“again”) or what made it great to begin with? Are the “great” factors of the “old” America exaggerated in the memory of American people?

 

Another topic that was discussed in our group is the use of words such as “fascism.” Often what is labeled “fascism” is not actually something that can be classified as that but rather populism. Labeling things or putting them “in a box” are not ways of fulling understanding what is happening. If everyone goes around calling people fascist, what do the real fascists become? Again a good critical analysis of history can help with this problem because people can then see the different types of fascist regimes that existed like the classic examples of Germany and Italy and then apply that knowledge.