In late October 1922, thousands of fascists marched on the Italian capital in what proved to be a successful coup d’état. Rather than mobilizing the army against the squadracce (fascist mob), the king of Italy called their leader Benito Mussolini to form a government, marking the beginning of 20 years of dictatorship. Exactly a century later, it’s tempting to view Italy as poised for a historical rerun. The September 25 parliamentary elections saw the triumph of Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Fratelli d’Italia party. The Italian and international media have found the coincidence impossible to ignore: Does Meloni’s victory on the centennial of the infamous March on Rome presage a plunge back into fascism?
Mussolini comparisons are not far-fetched—culturally and ideologically, Meloni and her close allies do indeed stem directly from that tradition. However, the danger she embodies is not the sudden rise of a dictatorial system, as in fascist regimes in the past. The more immediate threat is perhaps less scary, but nonetheless highly toxic: the normalization of authoritarian politics and rabid cultural conservativism within the framework of liberal democracy, similar to what is happening under Hungary’s “illiberal” prime minister Viktor Orbán. In other words, what we may witness in coming years is a slow descent into darkness, rather than an abrupt leap into dictatorship: fascism lite.
The fascist roots of Meloni and her party are well-known; Fratelli d’Italia is the only large European far-right movement that makes little secret of this. Its logo features the the tricolor flame of the Movimento Sociale Italiano—a party formed by a group of fascist veterans in the 1950s—sometimes interpreted as being the fire springing from Mussolini’s own tomb. While in France, Marine le Pen has actively tried to shed her party’s extremist associations as part of her strategy of “de-demonization,” Fratelli d’Italia still exhibits them unabashedly, profiting from the fact that the Italian press has by now normalized and accepted their presence.
Italy is a country in which nostalgia for il Duce’s time has never completely waned, abetted by a significant faction of public commentators and the intelligentsia. Even during the election campaign, party grandees felt comfortable enough to make open appeals to this nostalgia (Meloni’s right-hand man Ignazio La Russa stated in a debate that all Italians are “heir to Mussolini”; his brother Romano La Russa was caught on camera making the Roman salute at a funeral). The party has also fielded a number of Mussolini’s literal descendants, including niece Rachele Mussolini and pompously named great-grandson Caio Giulio Cesare Mussolini.
Although a video resurfaced during the campaign featuring a teenage Meloni saying that Mussolini was a “capable politician,” she has since made a show of repentance, declaring that she has changed her mind and now condemns fascism. While these declarations are nakedly hypocritical—she continues to tolerate her party’s fascist sympathizers—it would be a mistake to interpret her rise as merely 21st-century fascism redux. She is more similar to Trump and the alt-right than to Mussolini, and while her ideology is certainly reactionary, it reflects the specific conditions we’re traversing now, rather than those at the end of World War I.
Meloni and her allies have coined a name for this ideology: “national conservatism.” It’s the official ideology of the European Conservatives and Reformists Party (ECR), an alliance in the European Parliament that Meloni has led since 2020. ECR combines radical social and cultural conservatism with moderate Euroscepticism, and counts among its member parties Poland’s long-ruling conservative Law and Justice Party, the newly invigorated nationalist party Sweden Democrats, and Spain’s far-right Vox party, which has also experienced momentous growth.
While not part of this grouping, Orbán is a clear source of inspiration for the incoming Italian prime minister. The ways in which he has attacked minorities, gutted Hungarian democracy, and undermined the independence of the country’s judiciary casts a worrying shadow on Italy’s future. Meloni will likely follow this model and its promise to defend tradition and Christianity. She often blames the liberal media and obscure “LGBT lobbies” for eroding Italy’s heritage. In her most famous speech to date—which has since launched a thousand memes—she declared, “I am Giorgia, I am a woman, I am a mother, I am an Italian, I am a Christian.” Even in a period of resurgent “traditionalism” across Europe, her positions and tone are particularly extreme. Equally toxic are her remarks against immigration: She has even proposed sinking ships that transport migrants and mustering a naval blockade against them.
Many of these extreme proposals seem like knee-jerk responses to a perceived precipitous societal decline, which in the eyes of the right is particularly exemplified by the country’s demographic crisis: Italy is tied with Japan for the world’s lowest birth rate, which, combined with the high rates of youth emigration, is steadily shrinking its native population. For Meloni, low fertility is not to be blamed on the sorry economic condition of Italian youth, who are forced to move from one precarious short-term job contract to another as a consequence of neoliberal reforms. Rather, it is attributed to the usual scapegoats of the conspiratorial discourse of the right: the left, the media, and LGBT people all trying to convince people not to have children.
Meloni’s victory suggests that the forecast for Italy’s already discredited political institutions is grim. She is poised to channel popular discontent at various institutions accused of standing in her way, including the judiciary and universities. One of her most striking proposals is a sweeping reform of the Italian Constitution, created in the aftermath of fascism and designed expressly to prevent its return. She proposes effectively abandoning parliamentary democracy and instituting direct election of the president. Liberal centrists such as Carlo Calenda and Matteo Renzi—Italian equivalents of Democratic outliers like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema—have already signaled that they are ready to lend a hand in this transformation.
Orbán also provides a model for Meloni in terms of economic policy. The Hungarian prime minister has pursued a nationalist strategy, trying to help local industry while attacking workers’ bargaining power. Meloni has promised to adopt a more interventionist industrial policy than her predecessors using state subsidies to support ailing industries. She enjoys strong support among formerly nationalized, now partly state-owned companies such as oil firm ENI and defense conglomerate Leonardo. Significantly, one of her strongest allies is party cofounder Guido Crosetto, who is president of the Italian Federation for Aerospace, Defense, and Security. In this light, one can also better understand how she has opportunistically switched from supporting Putin to being fully behind Ukraine in this war.
Meloni also promises to defend the interests of small and medium business, a key element of the Italian economy, while attacking the interests of workers. Italy is a country of small and mid-sized business that can only be internationally competitive by suppressing wages, and one of the few European countries that does not have a minimum wage. It is also the only country in the EU where wages have lost value in real terms since the 1990s. The incoming prime minister not only opposes the introduction of a minimum wage, but wants to repeal the Reddito di cittadinanza, a universal basic-income policy introduced in the previous legislature by the Five Star Movement. This subsidy, which provides an average of 500 euros a month to recipients, is strongly resented by the entrepreneurial class, because it has allowed poor people to say no to poverty wages, acting as a sort of indirect minimum wage. In this battle against the poor, Meloni has once again found strong allies in liberal centrists as Renzi and Calenda.
All in all, Meloni’s venture is best understood as an authoritarian response to a moment of prolonged capitalist crisis. At least in the short term, it will not do away with liberal democracy wholesale. Rather, it will weaponize popular consensus in the service of capitalist interests, for which it will guarantee order and continuity during an unstable time, resorting to nationalistic and radical conservative rhetoric as a means to divert people’s anger away from corporate rapacity. At a time when globalization is imploding and neoliberal policies are no longer able to win popular consensus, her mixture of nationalism, conservatism, and rabid culture war rhetoric, combined with strong support for business and the rich, is the best offer in store for the capitalist class.
In the 1920s, business interests switched allegiances from liberalism to fascism to find someone capable of defending them against an emboldened working class and the threat of a communist revolution. In 2022, there may be many similarities, but the picture is in certain respects even more pathetic. Lite fascists or “national conservatives” are not called upon to stymie a rebellion of the working class but simply to further curb workers’ and citizens’ existing freedoms and economic expectations, using the “national interest” and growing international instability as an excuse to wage an internal war against the poor.