The victory of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia in the recent Italian election should be read as a warning. A year ago neither Berlusconi nor his party existed. The three biggest commercial TV networks in Italy are owned by Berlusconi. These, combined with huge financial resources, were used to sell the hard right, free market ideology which won the election. It is like Murdoch deciding to make the odious Andrew Neil the next Prime Minister of Britain — or Maxwell having used his media power base to do the same for himself: from Labour MP to media tycoon to national leader. The power which can be utilized by those who own and control the media is not to be underestimated.
This was not just the victory of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, with its smoothly designed media imagery and appropriation of the Italian football song as its theme tune; in coalition with Berlusconi was the ultra-nationalist Northern League, led by the Yeltsin like chauvinist yob, Umberto Bossi, and the cleancd-up neo-fascist party, Alleanza Nationale, led by Gianfranco Fini. The latter is on record as stating that “Mussolini was the greatest statesman of the century”. There is no way that the neo-fascist right would have been able to achieve the respectability of government office without Berlusconi’s front to work behind. It was the freshness and media potency of Forza Italia which persuaded many voters to turn a blind eye to the unpalatable historic origins of Fini’s party. As it is, we are now seeing for the first time since 1945 a group of neo-fascist politicians taking their place in the government of a major European nation state. It did not take very long for capitalism to recreate that horror, despite claims that the military victory in 1945 had defeated such an ideology once and for all.
But this was not just a spectacular act of trickery by a media tycoon. Nor was it a relapse of millions of Italian workers into the idiocies of the Twenties and Thirties. Once again, the real stimulus to this retreat into right-wing callousness was the utter failure of the left-wing reformists to show any signs of being able to tame the effects of capitalism. Like all reformists everywhere, the PSI and PCI, running in the recent election as a so-called Progressive Alliance, were complete victims of the iron economic laws of the profit system. And like their counterparts in the British government, Craxi and his fellow political leaders were not only extremely corrupt but — sin of political sins — they were caught. So, a discredited left-centrist political tradition provided the very soil in which the simplistic messages of the hard right grew.
In itself, neo-fascists sitting in a government created out of the media power of a would-be President is not of great moment. But it is part of a political trend. In the last US election the rise of Ross Perot, a transparently right-wing crackpot, was based quite simply upon the fact that he was a billionaire with money to buy as much media time as he wanted.
Against him were two discredited and intellectually-bankrupt opponents: Bush and Clinton. The most important point about the Perot campaign was not that he lost, but that there was a chance that he could have won. In the USA today the right wing ravings of the media star, Rush Limbaugh, are all the rage. Is he to be dismissed as a future Presidential hopeful? And if not a lunatic like him, what about some other smoother media created demagogue? In Russia the ultra-nationalist ravings of Zhirinovsky and his Liberal Democratic Party are such that even the thuggish Yeltsin is regarded by political commentators as the most respectable option. In France Le Pen is still on the loose, still winning a fifth or quarter of the votes in the South and around Paris, and still forcing the more legitimate parties of French capitalism to adopt more racist positions so as to compete with the neo-fascists.
Anyone who has seen the new film, Schindler’s List, which in the view of the present writer is the finest film to be made by an American director in decades and should be viewed by everyone with a functioning brain, will know what happens when political instability gives way to political crisis and implosion. After the sighs of resentment at useless politicians will often come the desperate rush towards demagogic leaders and the politics of simple hate. In a century which has seen concentration camps, electoral victories by fascistic forces are to be taken seriously.
Mussolini and Hitler won the support of workers on the basis of an economic system in severe crisis and a political system which fewer and fewer people any longer believed in. Both of these factors are clearly present now. But Mussolini and Hitler won power through ritualistic techniques of persuasion essentially more typical of the last century than this one: mass rallies, flag-waving, anthems and military stunts. Today any potential dictator could do no better than obtain control of the electronic media and the press. These “barons” are elected by nobody and accountable to nobody. They are the most obvious sign that capitalism is not essentially a democratic political culture. They should be watched very carefully.