Capitalism or Fascism: Which Has Shaped Italy More?
Umberto Eco on the Lingering Impact of Italy's Dueling Histories
A recent television program dealt with how Italian children and young adults were educated under the Fascist regime of the 1920s and 30s. One of the questions raised was whether the totalitarian education of a generation had a profound effect in shaping the Italian character? Pier Paolo Pasolini remarked that Italy’s national character has been modified more by postwar neo-capitalism than by the years of dictatorship.
Aside from neo-Fascist extremism, something of the Fascist legacy lingers in the national character, and continually reemerges—in racism, homophobia, male chauvinism, and anti-communism—yet these attitudes could also be found in provincial pre-Fascist Italy. Pasolini was right: the national character has been more deeply influenced by consumerism, by notions of free trade, by television.
What did Fascism require of Italians and force upon them? To believe, obey and fight; to practice the cult of war, indeed to glorify death; to jump through hoops of fire; to produce as many children as possible; to regard politics as the primary purpose of existence; to think of Italians as the chosen ones. Have these traits remained in the Italian character? Not at all. Curiously, they have re-surfaced in Islamic fundamentalism, as Hamed Abdel-Samad recently observed in l’Espresso. That’s where the fanatical cult resides—the glorification of the hero and “viva la muerte,” the submission of women, the sense of a permanent state of war. Very few Italians absorbed these ideas, apart from right and left wing terrorists of the 1960s and 70s, though even they were more prepared to kill others than sacrifice themselves.
What has neo-capitalism in its various guises had to offer, up to Berlusconismo? It has offered the right to acquire, perhaps by installments, a car, a refrigerator, washing machine and television, to regard tax evasion as a perfectly human right, to spend evenings devoted to entertainment, contemplating half-naked dancers or, at the furthest extreme, watching hard pornography at the click of a mouse, not to worry too much about politics or even about voting; to avoid financial hardship by not producing too many children—in short, to live comfortably without making sacrifices. Most of Italian society has enthusiastically endorsed this model. And those who dedicate their lives to helping desperate people in third world countries remain a slender minority.
Excerpted from CHRONICLES OF A LIQUID SOCIETY by Umberto Eco, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon. Copyright ©2016 by La nave di Teseo Editore, Milano. English translation copyright ©2017 by Richard Dixon. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.