The contemporary scenario
In the early 1990s, the transition of the MSI into mainstream conservative politics inevitably triggered reactions among the right-wing milieu. Indeed, numerous activists and several party officials who did not support the rejection of the revolutionary features of Fascism founded the Mommento Sociale-Fiamma Tricolore (Social Movement - Tricolour Flame, MS-FT). While AN progressively took a clear stand against biological racism and anti-Semitism, MS-FT did not renounce references to Fascism, nor to its social foundations and revolutionary principles (Castelli Gattinara et al. 2013). The group benefited from considerable popularity in the early years among marginalized groups in metropolitan areas, thanks to its radical positions against globalization, immigration and the liberal economy, which define the party as a clear example of extreme-right politics (Ignazi 2003). MS-FT in fact successfully elected one Member of Parliament at the 1996 general election, and one Euro-MP at the 1999 European Parliament election. Over the years, however, the party lost momentum, as other actors in the same area increasingly challenged its distinctive profile.
In the same years, former members of post-war fascist militant organizations founded the party Forza Nuova (New Force, FzNv). At its origins, the group formed the grassroots faction of the MS-FT. Subsequently, it splintered from the party to develop an agenda of its own, focusing primarily on street activism and protest politics, and promoting a series of campaigns against abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage. FzNv’s politics hence combined historical Fascism ideals with ultra-catholic values, which set it apart from the secularist tradition of Italy’s post-war fascist sector. During the 1990s and early 2000s, FzNv infiltrated organized soccer clubs to recruit militants among hooligans and the skinhead music subculture to attract young activists (Caldiron 2013). At the same time, the group also tried to gain legitimacy in the electoral arena, by collaborating with small splinter groups originating from the AN. After 2008, FzNv fielded candidates using their own independent lists in national and local elections, generally with little success. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, FzNv displayed characteristics that are similar to some factions of post-war Italian Fascism, in that it was contradictory in nature, seeking respectability as a political party in the electoral arena, but also claiming a ‘revolutionary’ spirit, open to violence (Campani 2016).
In the early 2000s, therefore, both FzNv and MS-FT transitioned to the electoral arena, where they repeatedly established national and local alliances with the mainstream right coalition of Silvio Berlusconi. As will be discussed in the next section, the origins of CasaPound are tightly embedded in this political climate and are related to the tensions generated by the decision of most actors of the Italian far right to enter elections. The right-wing coalition between Silvio Berlusconi’s personal party, the Northern League, and various other conservative and Christian-democratic groups, in fact, produced a progressive blurring of the distinction between mainstream and far-right politics in Italy (Albertazzi and McDonnell 2010; Fella and Ruzza 2013). While this led to the marginalization of at least some extreme-right movements at the fringe of the political spectrum, it also contributed to mainstreaming a number of far-right narratives. Notably, the promotion of openly xenophobic vocabularies by mainstream right actors provided radical movements with public credibility in national and local debates over migration and diversity (Castelli Gattinara 2016).
Over the following years, Italy was at the core of two major critical events, the Eurozone crisis and the EU migration policy crisis (Castelli Gattinara 2018; Kriesi and Pappas 2016; Mudde 2016). As well as contributing to a further weakening of the mainstream parties, these issues also reshaped the opportunities for far-right mobilization. While the linkage between ‘crises’ and the breakthrough of the far light remains contested (Mudde 2013), critical events of this sort offer new opportunities to political actors to diversify their engagement across political arenas, as well as across socio-economic and socio-cultural issues. With respect to the far right, previous research suggested that political crises might induce far-right parties to use street organizations as a route into society, thus facilitating coexistence, if not cooperation, across arenas of engagement (Pedahzur and Weinberg 2001). Indeed, today the Italian far right benefits from the growing public resonance of issues like immigration, security and opposition to the establishment. This boosted the electoral support of the most influential party actor of this area, the increasingly right-wing populist Lega Nord (rebranded Lega in 2018), while also granting political leeway to the smaller Fratelli d’llalia (Brothers of Italy, Fdl). This came to the detriment of mainstream right and conservative actors, which are more and more marginal in Italy’s increasingly polarized political system. The intensive media coverage of these parties further expanded the opportunities for other far-right groups to take action, including extremist and violent events (The Washington Post 2018). In this context, taking advantage of the inefficient implementation of anti-racist and anti-fascist sanctions, a multiplicity of anti-democratic, autocratic and ultra-nationalist organizations have managed to obtain access to the public domain (ECRI 2015; Human Rights Watch 2011).
Overall, contemporary right-wing mobilization in Italy is faced with a rather favourable pattern of political opportunities, which facilitates the participation of small grassroots groups in national politics, and their access to the public sphere (Caiani et al. 2012). While radical right populist parties (RRPPs) enjoy considerable electoral support, in fact, they also sustain a privileged channel of communication with the social movement arena. In return, social movement organizations can count on the presence of far-right parties in institutions to gather the necessary resources to increase their visibility in the public sphere (Rao 2014; Wetzel 2009: 337). As we shall illustrate in the next section, the emergence of CasaPound in the early 2000s is strongly linked to the process of institutionalization of pre-existing extreme-right actors. Yet, the rapid growth of CPI and the visibility of its social movement campaigns is also related to the availability of favourable opportunities for mobilization and access to the media.