Italy’s creeping fascism

Geoff Andrews
19 February 2009

The death of a young woman after seventeen years in a coma, following a decision by doctors on legal advice not to continue feeding her, is a public as well as a private event. In a mature democratic society, it would merit dignified ethical debate of a kind that might be expected to balance differing views and cut across party-political boundaries.

Among openDemocracy articles on Italy's politics:

Sarah Pozzoli & Mario Rossi, "The fall and rise of Silvio Berlusconi" (21 April 2005)

Sarah Pozzoli, "Who rules Italy?" (23 June 2005)

Marco Niada, "Italy's tragic democracy" (23 August 2005)

Marco Brazzoduro, "Italy's choice: risk from Roma vs Roma at risk" (24 June 2008)

Italy, however, is different. The country is at present dominated by intolerant public discourses and veering towards authoritarian solutions; in this febrile atmosphere, such an event threatens to become a serious constitutional crisis. As the prime minister blames the president of the republic for the young woman's death, and as leading politicians and Vatican representatives indulge in feverish rhetoric and stoke paranoia, what Pier Paolo Pasolini once called "clerical fascism" feels like apt social critique (see "The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini", 1 November 2005).

Eluana Englaro was just 21 when she fell into a coma in January 1992 after a car accident. Her father and her friends always testified that her wish would have been to end her life rather than prolong it in a vegetative state. In November 2008, the court of cassation ruled that her feeding-tubes could be removed.  On 3 February 2009 she was transferred to a clinic in Udine, northeast Italy, where she died on 9 February. Her father, Beppino, who is also currently nursing his seriously ill wife, was relieved that this particular journey had come to an end; he asked to be left alone in his grief.

In contemporary Italy, this proved a vain hope. The prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is as populist and opportunist as ever; he has used the occasion to refuel his political ambitions, revealing in the process his contempt for the rule of law and constitutional processes. The Vatican has exploited the case to reinforce its conservative agenda, castigating the voices of liberal and secular opinion.

Berlusconi had attempted to pass an emergency decree instructing doctors to continue feeding Englaro. The president of the republic, Giorgio Napolitano, rejected this; he asked that the law be respected and that changes to the legal and constitutional process could not be amended in such an arbitrary way and needed full consideration and the consent of both chambers of parliament.

Berlusconi and his allies responded by turning their fire on Napolitano for the president's "serious mistake", as well as on the judges for their temerity in upholding and protecting constitutional procedures. The prime minister attempted to rush through a new law that could be used to keep Eluana Englaro alive, something rendered null by the young woman's death. There followed uproar in the Italian parliament, with right-wing politicians shouting "murderers" at the opposition; Berlusconi fed the pack by accusing the president of responsibility for her death.

Geoff Andrews is staff tutor in politics at the Open University. He is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005), published in Italian as Un Paese Anormale (effepilibri, 2007); and of The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure (Pluto Press/McGill-Queen's, 2008).
Geoff Andrews is also an associate editor of Soundings. His website is here

Among Geoff Andrews's articles on openDemocracy: "The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (November 2005)

"Italy's election: no laughing matter" (1 February 2006)

"Berlusconi's bitter legacy" (29 March 2006)

"In search of a normal country" (6 April 2006)

"Italy: another false dawn" (22 October 2007)

"Italy's governing disorder" (31 January 2008)

"Italy: the ungovernable nation" (11 April 2008)

"Roberto Saviano, an Italian dissident" (22 October 2008)

The pope's battalion

Pope Benedict XVI also entered the fray. Since his election in 2005, the pope has advanced a very traditional Catholic doctrine, condemning many features of modern living; free unions and trial marriages were the result of "anarchic freedoms" and "moral relativism", while homosexuality was "an intrinsic moral evil". His time in office has been marked with a series of controversial acts that have alienated a host of constituencies - the lecture at Regensburg in September 2006; the planned speech at Rome's La Sapienza University in January 2008, which was cancelled after protests over comments made in 1990 about the trial of Galileo in 1633; criticism of Barack Obama for his views on abortion; and most recently the astonishing rehabilitation of four ultra-conservative bishops, including a holocaust-denier (see Maurice Walsh, "The Vatican's debacle", 16 February 2009).

In the Englaro case, the Vatican has revealed its full force as an unrestrained power with little respect for constitutional procedures or individual liberty. The pope's spokesmen whipped up such frenzy in the wake of Englaro's death that her funeral shrine was turned into a site of moral outrage directed towards those who had followed Italian law and her father's wishes. "May the Lord embrace and forgive those who brought her to this point", as Javier Lozano Barragan, the Vatican's equivalent of health minister, put it. 

Berlusconi had not previously shown much interest in defending Catholic morality, and indeed his multiple private interests have not always met with Vatican approval. However many believe his interventions reflect his ambition to assume the presidency at a later date. His hostility to Napolitano is not a surprise: he always opposed the latter's election as head of state. But his rapprochement with the Vatican is a truly unholy alliance (see "Death in Udine", Economist, 12 February 2009). 

A dark return

Indeed, the alliance between the Vatican and Silvio Berlusconi reveals an older, threatening undercurrent in Italian politics. This is characterised by the arrogance of power and an unyielding belief that there are higher values capable of rendering liberal constitutional norms and democratic procedures irrelevant (see Sarah Pozzoli, "Who rules Italy?" 23 June 2005).

In recent times there seems to be a growing convergence between Berlusconi's attacks on legality and constitutionalism and the Vatican's hostility to secular society. Pier Paolo Pasolini's stark description of the way in which the Vatican provided the legitimacy for the Christian Democrats' (DC) long and manipulative hold on power and repression of dissident voices has acquired fresh relevance, even if the DC is no more.

Both Berlusconi and the Vatican have significant interests to defend. For the Vatican it is a declining authority over its subjects - opinion polls show that even many lay Catholics regard the Englaro affair as a private family matter. The Vatican has in the past been prepared to make dubious compromises in order to preserve its interests and power; the 1929 concordat with fascism is an example.

For Berlusconi, it is a further opportunity to berate and subdue his critics. Martin Jacques has compared him to Benito Mussolini - both have displayed a similar contempt for democracy, used parliament to protect their own interests, manipulated laws and attacks on anyone who got in their way (see "New Labour must recognise that Berlusconi is the devil", Guardian, 16 March 2006). In the recent controversy, the links with the Vatican has provided legitimacy for the shift towards authoritarianism and intolerance, further apparent in the increasing restrictions on immigration and the demand that doctors and other public-sector professionals report anyone they suspect is an illegal immigrant.

Against the tide

Italy's creeping fascism has been aided by the opposition's disarray. The new Democratic Party should be well placed to defend the integrity of the constitution, the supremacy of the rule of law and transparent democracy. Yet even the conviction on 17 February 2009 of the British tax lawyer David Mills for giving false evidence in return for a payment from Berlusconi seems to leave the prime minister himself untarnished, and the opposition unable to persuade the electorate of the dangers he poses - even if the fact that Berlusconi changed the law to avoid prosecution while he remains in office makes his opponents' job harder.

The Democratic Party leader, Walter Veltroni, may have made constant favourable references to Barack Obama and aspired to create a modern European social-democratic movement. But the rhetoric cannot disguise the reality of a top-down party led by sectional interests, which is disabled by the contradiction between its Christian-democratic conservatism and its ambitions to escape from the old left. This "phantom opposition" has wasted the hopes it once raised, an outcome that has culminated in Veltroni's announcement of his resignation on the evening of 17 February 2009 after an embarrassing election defeat in Sardinia. 

At least the "old left", in the form of the Italian Communist Party, sustained a strong defence of Italy's anti-fascist tradition embodied in the post-war constitution. It is a mark of Italy's decline that in the current dispute it has been the "post-fascist" speaker of the Italian lower house, Gianfranco Fini, and the leader of the secessionist Northern League, Umberto Bossi, who have intervened to defend the "integrity" of the constitution. 

Those democratic parliamentarians able to offer a coherent and stringent defence of the Italian constitution have been reduced to a declining minority of dissenters. They include Italy's former president, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro; Giorgio Napolitano himself, an aged dignitary who in his later years has assumed the role of a beleaguered representative of the anti-fascist constitution, and Antonio Di Pietro, the reforming judge whose earlier attempts to clean up Italian politics in the early 1990s have been largely forgotten by the Italian public and is generally regarded with disdain by Italy's political class. But these in any case are marginalised voices in what is becoming a decayed and intolerant state.

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