CasaPound Italia: hybridization in the contemporary extreme right

The reference to Fascism is fundamental. We do not put fasces everywhere and we will not always quote Mussolini but if you have not read The Doctrine of Fascism and you come here [to CPI, you are out of place. You can go around and put up CPI’s posters, but you arc doing it wrong. The link with Fascism is total.

Simone di Stefano, deputy president of CPI, Rome 2012

As shown by the above quote, CasaPound Italia (CPI) makes no secret of its appreciation of Benito Mussolini’s regime. Since its birth on 26 December 2003 with the occupation of a state-owned building in Rome, this fringe group rapidly expanded to other parts of Italy acquiring national relevance and eventually running for general elections. In the last five years alone, the CPI opened 94 new local chapters. While it still constitutes a marginal electoral force in Italy, it has been successful in penetrating mainstream public debates, receiving disproportionate attention by mass media and commentators, surfing on the journalist- invented nickname of its members: the ‘Fascists of the Third Millennium’." The visibility of CPI in the media, the recognizability of its symbols, campaigns, and brand among large audiences are unprecedented for a fringe group so openly inspired by historical Fascism.

This is at odds with the findings of most literature on the far right, according to which contemporary far-right organizations had to dissociate themselves from historical Fascism and Nazism to avoid marginalization in post-World War II democracies. Open nostalgia for non-democratic regimes and outmoded forms of activism, in fact, usually relegates far-right groups to the margins of political systems and to (few) extreme supporters. This is why most of these groups chose to move beyond inter-war ideologies and extremist codes in search of credibility and broader support (Mudde 2016a; Von Beyme 1988). How to explain, then, the high profile achieved by the openly nostalgic CasaPound?

This study contends that CPI gained high-profile public attention through hybridization, resulting from the strategic combination of organizational features and activities inspired by different political cultures, institutional party' politics, and non-institutional contentious politics. At first sight, in fact, CPI looks no different from other post-war extremist ‘groupuscules’ in Europe (Griffin 2003). But a closer look at its internal workings and external mobilization shows that several crucial elements set it apart from classic models of extreme-right organization and activism. Since its origin, CPI has exhibited references to Mussolini, but also to Gramsci, Marx, and Che Guevara. It mobilized the iconography of historical Fascism but did not use traditional symbols like the fasces or the tricoloured flame. It has called for law and order policies, but also resorted to the practice of squatting to promote an agenda of housing rights. It has campaigned against Islam but refused theories of a ‘Clash of Civilizations’. It praised Vladimir Putin and the Russian philosopher Aleksandr Dugin but criticized Donald Trump and Steve Bannon. It has heavily invested in the youth subcultural milieu, but renovated the aesthetic stereotype of the male skinhead with combat boots and swastikas (Fielitz and Laloire 2016; Koch 2017). In short, several features, references, and activities of CPI are hybrid in nature. They build on the tradition of inter-war and post-war Italian Fascism but aim at renewing the style of extreme-right politics to make it more acceptable in public debates.

Specifically, hybridization refers to the strategy by which a group combines references drawn from different political cultures, as well as organizational structures and repertoires inspired by different types of collective actors. For CPI, hybridization stems from the juxtaposition of left-wing themes, extreme-right ideas, and pop-culture symbols, as well as from the combination of the internal structures, repertoires of action, and communication of both political parties and social movements.

As we shall show, two main logics drive this hybridization strategy: the need to find resources and the need for recognizability. On the one hand, hybridization means that resources can be supplied from multiple venues, which is fundamental for fringe groups that cannot rely on state funding alone. Specifically, the double investment in electoral campaigning and extra-institutional mobilization responds to the need to gather money, staff, and members, which are necessary for survival and to sustain its internal structure and everyday activities. On the other hand, hybridization ensures the recognizability of a group amongst its competitors, which is crucial as the nativist scene becomes more and more crowded. In a context of media-centred politics, fringe organizations thus use hybrid imager)' and communication styles to build their own ‘brand’ of stylized ideas, idioms, and practices.

For CPI, therefore, hybridization represents a double strategic asset, which allowed the group to gather the resources necessary to strengthen its organization and achieve special recognizability in the crowded milieu of the Italian far right. Hybrid symbols and unconventional repertoires of mobilization and communication (often synthesized in CPI’s notion of ‘non-compliant’ politics, politico non conforme) contributed to create a CasaPound political ‘brand’ which was necessary to reach beyond the restricted public of nostalgic fans of Mussolini and extremist activists.

Our analysis will show that the outcomes of hybridization are more complex than the simple achievement of electoral ‘success’ or ‘failure’. In fact, at the time of writing (April 2019), hybridization has granted CasaPound a high-profile position in Italian public debates, but very little electoral support. If CPI has been successful in attaining public recognizability and in attracting the attention of the media, it has failed to transform this visibility into votes. Because of its hybrid strategy, CPI risks appearing too moderate for extremist supporters, and too extremist for radical and moderate right-wing audiences.

The broader implication of our findings is that hybridization has an impact on how democratic societies relate to the extreme right. In fact, the combination of activities, resources, and protest tactics mediated from different political cultures, and from both political parties and social movements, may help to expand the reach of these groups and the diffusion of their ideas beyond fringe milieus. The changes brought by hybridization have an impact on the reasons why people (and especially youth) develop sympathy for or engage in extreme-right organizations but also on the ways in which extreme-right ideas become accepted among non-extremist audiences. The notion of hybridization advanced in this volume helps to make sense of some of these important changes in contemporary extreme-right politics.

By focusing on the notion of hybridization we do not wish to suggest that this phenomenon represents a novelty for far-right politics. Previous studies have suggested that both historical and post-war Fascism have been shaped by dynamic forms of cross-fertilization, or by the subsequent re-contextualization and the re- adaptation of a wide spectrum of ideas, discourses, and political experiments (see for a discussion Costa Pinto and Kallis 2014). In this respect, the notion of hybridization allows exploring how contemporary extreme-right actors perceive and operationalize different mass ideologies, organizational paradigms, and mobilization practices in their everyday political action.

This book provides the first comprehensive study of the politics of CasaPound in Italy. The approach is entirely multidisciplinary, bringing together expertise from the academic fields of political science, sociology, and contemporary history. In so doing, the volume intends to contribute to existing knowledge on extremism and democracy in two main ways. First, the book provides a theoretical framework to tackle the ‘complex heterogeneity’ of far-right politics at large (Mudde 2016b: 618). While there is a vast literature explaining how far-right parties succeed in elections and how right-wing movements mobilize on the street, the interconnections between these two phenomena have remained largely unexplored. The need to combine insights from party' politics and social movement studies seems rather compelling in this field of research, as most far-right actors engage simultaneously in the protest and electoral arena (Castelli Gattinara and Pirro 2019; Pirro 2019). Second, the book offers a time-sensitive account of the changes and challenges of contemporary extreme-right politics. It shows that, today, the extreme right does not necessarily coincide with marginalized old-style ideals and stereotyped violent practices. Rather, extremist groups increasingly try to ‘drift into the mainstream’, their ideas becoming routine in national public debates (Bail 2015: 10). Overall, therefore, the volume could provide a blueprint for future research on hybrid strategies of nativist collective actors and their impact on democracy, further contributing to the study of the complex relationship between party competition and street protest, and thus the interconnections between fringe groups and mainstream politics.

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