Interview. Domenico De Masi’s predictions about the Lega have so far come true. Now he says things could get worse. ‘Umberto Eco listed 14 elements by which we can recognize one’s propensity to authoritarianism. … Salvini exhibits all of them.’

De Masi: ‘Where do we get the idea we’re immune to fascism?’

The sociologist Domenico De Masi has studied the 5 Star Movement, conducted research for them, and praised their potential. Then, he was the first to warn them that if they went into government with the Lega, they would end up eaten alive. De Masi has just published Il mondo è ancora giovane (“The world is still young,” ed. Rizzoli), a book brimming with hope. That hope, however, comes with a final warning—it is valid on one condition: “if we don’t run headlong into fascism.”

Professor, has the Lega eaten the 5 Stars alive—in the Diciotti affair as well, have they surrendered themselves to Salvini?

There are clashes between them each and every day, but by now their outcome can be quantified. At the beginning, Salvini had 17 percent and Di Maio had 33 percent. Now, the numbers are reversed. Never in Italy—maybe never in the whole world—has a party doubled its support while in government, and in just eight months. The trend will continue. Salvini is the lion who has caught the gazelle, holding it tight and eating it one piece at a time.

And what will he do after his “feast”?

Salvini is showing off his plan. He goes around dressed in a military uniform. He’s quoting openly fascist language: “Many enemies, much honor.” Umberto Eco listed 14 elements by which we can recognize one’s propensity to authoritarianism, to what is the “Ur-Fascism,” the eternal fascism. Salvini exhibits all of them. He also has all the elements that Adorno identifies as part of the authoritarian personality. And those that Talcott Parsons outlined as well. Everything is at a low dose, for now. But the security decree bans public gatherings and punishes beggars—other fascist regimes did exactly this after taking power. Here, he’s doing it before.

Is Salvini getting close to seizing power?

If he gets a great result in the European elections—like the victory that went to Renzi’s head some years ago—he will right away force the president to make a choice: give him the Prime Minister’s office or there will be early elections. He would not continue as “just” a vice-prime minister. At that point, he would no longer do the dirty work himself. It’s no coincidence that he is courting groups like Casapound.

Is this “dirty work” building support on the backs of migrants, like he is doing now?

These episodes are an effect of something else. The cause is the phenomenon that, in Italy, 35 percent of the voters agree with him. Salvini is using despicable methods to capture this support: keeping migrants on a ship in freezing cold, taking away children from schools. These are things that cannot fail to remind us of what the fascists were doing to the Jews. What Salvini is doing is speaking a specific language. The same with the “language” of his choice of attire, the use of military uniforms. It means: if I had power, I would use it in a military manner. But that “military manner” is the “democracy” of the barracks: in civilian society, it means fascism. He also aims to communicate to those in the armed forces: be ready to support me, I am the right person to lead.

And the other 65 percent, what are they doing?

That is the crucial point. Fascism is the mixture that makes accomplices of those who allow the seizing of power. I saw it in Brazil, where I have been going often for 30 years. Bolsonaro didn’t hide at all: he said on TV that he was against equality and in favor of torture, he asked students to film the professors who talked about politics and report them. The reasonable and educated left didn’t want to vote for the PT, so they wasted their vote. Millions of votes were wasted. Now, Brazil has seven ministers who are from the military.

Is there a risk of such a scenario in Italy?

Where do we get the idea that we’d be immune? We have been lulled with the notion that two things could never happen: the return of fascism and the return of war. But history shows that these are both recurring phenomena. Camus wrote that the germs of the plague don’t die—they lay in hiding in the coffins.

Many are questioning the use of the word “fascism” in our contemporary context.

Unlike other authoritarianisms, fascism has also been turned into an adjective, and has been used for Franco’s Spain, for the dictatorship in Argentina, or for the rule of the colonels in Greece. I use this term to name a regime where the constitution is not respected, where the will of the leader prevails over everything else, dissidents are punished, there is a cult of tradition and the homeland, there is a rejection of criticism, a fear of diversity, contempt for minorities and machismo. This is the condition we are becoming addicted to, more and more every day.

And what about the 5 Stars?

They have been a bulwark.

The M5S—a bulwark?

A frail one, but a bulwark nonetheless. They are the only ones that Salvini still has to negotiate with. Now, those on the right are going to line up behind Salvini, and those on the left will remain scattered and will stay away from the polls. The Democratic Party is too slow to change, and perhaps does not have the cultural substance to be able to do it. It is a party that seems to be left wing, but is for all practical purposes neoliberal, and doesn’t appeal to those who are abandoning the 5 Stars.

You’re saying the Democratic Party is not socialist at all, but neoliberal?

Renzi has marginalized the unions, cut taxes, pampered foreign capital, abolished Article 18 [of the Workers’ Statute, making it easier to fire workers]. A neoliberal agenda.

So, there is a social base, a people of the left, but there is no political left, no party, no point of reference for them?

There were people protesting against mayor Raggi in Rome for whom a political demonstration is just a superficial ripple, without any awareness of the context. Do people not realize that if Raggi goes down, Meloni will be her successor? Or the Lega? There is simply no alternative in Italy. Renzi tried to implement a plan that was disastrous for the Democratic Party: alienate the left and attract Berlusconi’s voters. Only the first half succeeded. Today, it is difficult to reunite the upper-class progressives and the underclass. True, there is a common enemy. There is some movement. But it’s too slow compared to the rate at which Salvini is gaining power.

Do you predict that the right will be in power for a long time?

The left will need a long time. Broken pieces of the left are scattered everywhere—exploited people whom the left has not managed to educate. And because of that, the exploited are siding with the exploiters. Marx called it “alienation.” There is a part of the left that is intellectual enough to be skeptical, but not enough to be actually cultured. They will be the ones who will plunge us into fascism by wasting their vote.

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