If one wanted to explain to a student the shape and pattern of 20th century European history (and beyond), the first thing to do would be to show them the maps of Africa during the previous century, in succession, during the decades of its carving up by the continental powers. The tearing apart of territories, of their unity, and accordingly that of their communities, is accompanied by an occupation of land and expropriation of resources in sudden, spasmodic movements, whose consequences reach up to the present day, under a new guise, through the structural inequalities of the international market. Which are not a sign of a pathology, but rather of a systemic physiology.
Therefore, to speak of colonialism and, most importantly, of its many legacies is not a useless exercise in posthumous penance, accompanied by a sense of guilt that must somehow be exorcised, but rather a necessary reflection on the alter ego of the incomplete European consciousness of nowadays. Which, of course, is a question of self-consciousness. It is not by chance that a divided and parochial country like Italy, self-colonized in a number of its territories during the 19th century, is now struggling to acknowledge to itself, even timidly, its late participation in the “imperialist enterprises” under whose aegis the dismemberment of conquered societies took place.
There is little point to recall once more the gaps in the history books, the repeated omissions or late presuppositions of awareness if this long-term framework is not taken into account. Or the fact that, when we speak of the colonial heritage, we refer not only to political dynamics, but above all to the construction of anthropological models, i.e. visions of social relations between human beings which were destined to become consolidated, stratified and repeat themselves over time. The colonial imaginary is a strongly sexualized one: the model is the predatory one of penetration and possession, on which a solid ideological structure has been built that acts as a framework to uphold power relations, i.e. ensure their concealment under the discourse of civilization differentials.
The colonized person is coded as “female,” being intrinsically inferior because of being disposed, “physically” and materially, to assume a subordinate, passive, horizontal position. The colonial construct ties together, through legal legitimation given to the systematic violation of bodies (from being reduced to a shapeless crowd to exploitation, from enslavement to eventual extermination), the connected notions of dependence and impotence, fundamentally tied to the satisfaction of the dominator. It is no coincidence that the image of the colonies and colonized people is transferred and superimposed on that of social relations between different groups in the homeland: it is an ordering instrument to naturalize social differences, to affirm that the differentials of power, of resources and, above all, of opportunities are part and parcel of an “inevitable history,” dictated by the nature of the individuals, who are intrinsically different and, as such, necessarily destined to reach different stations, according to a scale of values that is supposed to be purely objective, a recording of the facts.
Indro Montanelli remains an integral part of this political and cultural framework, which has survived the historical regime that benefited most from it. It survives as a mental pattern, as a way of perceiving individuals through the filter of ethnicities, understood as elements that establish non-negotiable value hierarchies between lives. This filter is still fully operational today, discounting for historical differences with respect to the past. The references to “contextualization” aiming at legitimizing, in retrospect, the institution of madamato (a form of temporary marriage between Italian colonists and native women) with child brides, are only the long shadow of this brutal, but still fully functional, machine of segregation, which has not exhausted its energy at all in our times. At least in the collective imagination—since the colonies themselves, in many cases, are no longer geographically remote, but have been transferred into the gigantic machine of production on European soil.
But there is something more that is notable regarding the figure of Montanelli, the Tuscan-Milanese journalist who has stood the test of time, still projecting an image of steely-minded, unquestionable and incontrovertible credibility before a wide audience of conservative readers (and voters). The aspect in question is his contempt for social movements—that is to say, both for their civil autonomy and for the ability on the part of communities to develop, in autonomy, a ruling class of their own.
For Montanelli, and for the whole genre of pseudo-historical literature of which he was one of the most brilliant writers, this split is a permanent one—indeed, it is the foundation for a universe of values. It is not the community that can decide for itself, but rather the leaders who must decide what kind of community they want. His famous History of Italy, a best-seller and winner of many accolades, is the apotheosis of this approach. Therefore, questioning the degree of Montanelli’s adherence to Fascism, or his disavowal thereof, is an almost meaningless exercise, because it is based on a lack of understanding of what Fascism itself was and of what kind of narrative it was made from, both qualitatively and quantitatively—starting from its ability to construct manufactured support through the aid of a myth-making machine in constant movement, which is still a challenge for us today.
This foundational core, suspended between cold cynicism and irreverent narcissism, smug creativity and cruel ingenuity, includes, together with “Cilindro” [translator’s note: “Top Hat,” Montanelli’s nickname], other highly notable Italian authors, such as Leo Longanesi, Mino Maccari or Curzio Malaparte, to name just a few. The trajectory of each of them—and others—even if it ended up taking very different forms from the original ones, was forged in the Fascist cultural climate and summarizes and reproduces its mechanisms in successive waves over time, translating them into forms of acceptability among the general public. All the way up to the present day, with that publishing genre, written or performed—or rather shouted on video—that obsessively invokes “non-conformism,” “being a dissenting voice,” the call to a populism of the downtrodden put in the service of celebrating their own superiority as an intellectualized class, entirely subordinate to the logic of those corporate powers which they pretend to criticize.
The sexualization asserted by all fascistoid literature is fully inscribed within this sphere of ideas, thoughts, fantasies and narratives—because, behind the courtesy and formalisms of the facade, the respectful salons and social ritualisms drawn in black tones, the idea of “order,” naturalistically made to coincide with that of “hierarchy,” reveals the brutal combination of patriarchy, machismo, paternalism and misogyny that are among the perennial ideological catalysts for the crystallization of social roles.
On the other hand, the link between “negro” and “woman,” two strategic figures in the symbolism of the relations between slave and master, is one of the greatest legacies that Italian colonialism has given us. Precisely because this colonialism was “beggarly” (as Gramsci called it), incapable of fulfilling the developmentally stunted desires of a country that wanted to be among the winners when it was already inhabited internally by a population of the defeated, it found in Fascism its most effective and most efficient structure, the one that managed to the greatest extent to lubricate and give strength to a desire for the sublimation of social conflicts by passing it off as collective self-assertion.
It is not by chance that Montanelli’s infamous remark remains as an epitaph of an existential experience: “We will never be dominators if we do not have the exact consciousness of our inevitable superiority. One does not fraternize with the Negroes. One cannot, one must not. At least not until one has given them a civilization.”
However, what Fascism still carries with it is something that came before it, already debated by a part of the ruling classes in the liberal age, who were also facing the growing disruption caused by the ”social question,” and then taken up again by those who were always unable to stomach the constitutionalist discourse that came to the fore after two World Wars. It is no coincidence that this form should reappear today, in guises that are not even too different from those of the past.
However, the terms of the question are now shifted in order to keep the disruptive element intact: it is no longer a matter of conquering others, but of not being conquered; not of possessing, but of not being possessed; of not being colonized, since existence is nothing but a ruthless struggle for domination. On the literary level, the profound trait is not the search for respect, but for contempt. And even when it displays some nobility of expression, it winks at the same time towards the discomforts of a middle class in the process of social downgrading, offering them the logic of the herd as a refuge: the phalanx of the civilized against the hordes of savages, the latter merely an indistinct set of bodies, to be either possessed or destroyed.
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