Chartbook #166: 1922/2022 - The centenary of Mussolini's "March on Rome" and the dilemmas of the liberal expert class.
100 years ago Mussolini’s fascists - the movement that first defined the political brand - staged their much ballyhooed “March on Rome” and completed a tumultuous four-year journey that brought Mussolini to power, first as Prime Minister and then, from 1925, as Il Duce - the authoritarian leader of a one-party state. Often treated as the diminutive little brother of Nazism, Mussolini’s fascism was, in fact, the archetype of a new style of authoritarianism. It was a new, modern form of power and as such it also initiated a new and disturbing cooperation between power and expert knowledge. We tend to think of the interwar period as the incubator of the New Deal and the “postwar welfare state”, which brought to power new kinds of expertise, above all Keynesian economics. But, as Clara Mattei of the New School shows us in a powerfully argued new book, if the name of the game was incorporating economic expertise into the state machinery, it was in fact the fascists who got there first.
But before we get onto the question of expertise let us spend a minute locating the significance of the 1922 events.
Existing elites were crucial to Mussolini’s rise to power - in business, in the military, in the civil service, and in politics. When 12 months after Mussolini’s March on Rome, Hitler made his attempt to stage a similar coup in Munich, it failed miserably. Unlike in Italy, the German military, political and business elites were still looking for a different solution to the crisis of the Weimar Republic. When Hitler did eventually come to power in 1933, he did so against the backdrop of a very different kind of crisis - something akin to a vacuum of power both at home and abroad crated by the global Great Depression. This was a situation quite unlike the postwar inflation and class conflict that provided the backdrop to Mussolini’s seizure of power.
Though the Nazi party mobilized a giant para-military force in the form of the brownshirted SA, it was above all a vast electoral movement, dwarfing the small political party that Mussolini commanded in 1922, which was far more reliant on conservatives and liberals for its majority. There was street-fighting in Germany in the early 1930s, but nothing like the conditions of low-intensity civil war that prevailed in both Italy and Germany in the early 1920s.
It is worth remembering that in 1922 when Mussolini muscled his way to power, World War I was only four years in the past. The arrival of the fascists in power caused as little stir as it did because all eyes in Europe were on the Franco-German struggle over reparations which in early 1923 spilled over into the French military occupation of the Ruhr. Ten years later, when Hitler finally took control, the men who had been young veterans in the early 1920s were entering middle-age.
In the 1920s it was Mussolini’s movement and regime that set the mould for a new kind of authoritarianism, self-consciously modern and popular rather than aristocratic or elitist. It actually helped that Italy, unlike Germany, Britain or France, was not Europe’s leading economic power. It made fascism appear as a developmental dictatorship that inspired imitators and admirers around the world from Portugal and Bulgaria, to India and China. In the late 1920s Japan was swept by what was at the time dubbed a “Mussolini boom”.
But it was not just imitators that Mussolini influenced. The Communists, his sworn enemies, crafted their concept of fascism around the features of Mussolini’s movement. Clara Zetkin produced an early report for the Third Enlarged Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International in June 1923 that defined fascism as follows:
Fascism is the concentrated expression of the general offensive undertaken by the world bourgeoisie against the proletariat....
Zetkin explicitly insisted on the primacy and novelty of the Italian movement and her characterization both of fascism’s popular character and its relationship to Italian elite interests was on point. The squads, disproportionately middle class (in the broadest sense of the term), did operate in many localities as the strong arm of local employers to smash trade unions. This was very far from the reality in Germany in 1933, where both the Communists and Nazi vote were surging on the back not of strikes and mass mobilization but of depression and mass unemployment. There were street battles, but no factory occupations. The question was not who would control the means of production, but whether there would be any production at all.
Of course, these finer points of difference between Nazism and Fascism matter little for the general use of the term “fascism” today. Redefined by political science in the 1950s, it is the name of Mussolini’s movement that echoes down to the present as a pejorative label freely applied to regimes and movements hostile to the values of liberal-democracy, but also by right-wing propagandists in the US to liberal regimes of state intervention. It is telling that the most commonly used label is fascist and not Nazi. Fascism serves to summon the specter of Hitler and the Holocaust without naming them explicitly, which would over-stretch credulity.
Meanwhile, In Italy, just weeks before the centennial, a post-fascist Prime Minister has actually taken office. So what is post-fascism?
The postwar MSI, from which Meloni’s present-day Fratelli d’Italia descend, were the heirs not just to Mussolini’s movement but to the Republic of Salo, the puppet state supported by the Germans after the collapse of Mussolini’s regime in 1943. Salo was the most extreme and violent manifestation of fascism. By the late 1950s the MSI was the fourth largest party in Italy and a vital prop of Christian Democratic rule. By the early 1970s following a twin-track strategy of electoralism and violent radicalism, the party had almost 470,000 members. After splits within the party in the late 1970s and a turn to terrorism by the most extreme wing, the Italian post-fascists revived in the late 1980s and early 1990s, profiting from the collapse of the Cold War party system. After joining Berlusconi’s coalition with the Lega, they reemerged as a distinct party, the Fratelli d’Italia in 2012, following Berlusconi’s ouster from power during the Eurozone crisis. Meloni disowns overt fascist sympathies today, but the lineage of her movement speaks volumes.
But tracing a lineage is not the same as claiming that Meloni is likely to repeat Mussolini’s politics today. Indeed, to make such a claim would be absurd. What then is the purpose of such labeling? One purpose is clearly to place oneself in a lineage of descent rather than a continuity of actions. Political languages invent traditions. Political labels, whether authentic or not, may be helpful to stigmatize ones opponents by historical association. Flourishing such labels may serve your purpose if it is to claim authority as the historical expert. Whether that is a good or a bad thing, depends on what you say (and do) next.
For more on this, check out this fascinating conversation with Nick Mulder, Anton Jäger and Dominik Leusder
If the aim of the game in talking about fascism in the 21st century is actually to suggest real similarities with the movements of a century ago and to draw practical political conclusions from such inferred similarities, the exercise is likely to prove misleading and unhelpful. The conditions of the 21st century in both Europe and the United States are radically different from those prevailing in Italy in 1922 and so too are the movements that emerge in response to those conditions.
You might then ask, why refer back to the past at all? If current conditions are not the same, is enquiring into fascism’s history an antiquarian indulgence? That is a polemical question. But as far as fascism and Nazism are concerned one should approach it with an open mind. There are periods of history that are truly neglected. Stories that have been suppressed and need telling. That can hardly be said for fascism or Nazism. The umpteenth TV documentary about the evil’s of Hitler’s regime most likely serves the interest of escapism and titivation rather than casting fresh and useful light either on history or the present.
The strong answer to the question is that we should be interested in 19th- and 20th-century history not because the present is like the past. Modern history moves too dramatically for that to be plausible. The reason to be interested in those periods of history a hundred years ago, is that they are only a hundred years ago, a blink of the eye in the broader sweep of history, the history of our grandparents and great-grandparents. And it is out of that history that the present was made. The questions that should guide us, are how did we get here? Where do we come from? The challenge is how to understand change on a truly dramatic scale. Change that is indeed ongoing all around us on ever greater scale. One function of history may in fact be to help us grasp that. We may be able to better grasp the protean drama of modern history-making looking backwards than when we confront our own immediate polycrisis.
In this back and forth between present and past, there will, of course, be repetition and similarity in certain respects, but even that will be recognized as significant only against the backdrop of difference.
So, with those preliminaries out of the way, if we aim for is a general historical understanding of fascism, I would argue that we have to see it as shaped by three framing conditions. (1) the experience of total war; (2) the active threat of class war and revolution; (3) the shadow of the end of history as defined by the rise of Anglo-American global hegemony.
All three contexts shaped both Mussolini and Hitler’s movements. We can relate to all three of these dimensions form the point of view of 2022, but in large part through difference and contrast rather than similarity of situation.
Mussolini and Hitler were both combat veterans whose politics were defined around that experience. The fact that we mercifully have no experience of total war, helps to make the 21st century in Europe and the US distinctly post-fascist.
Both Hitler and Mussolini railed against the new American-led world order that emerged after 1918. Hitler did so at greatest length in his speeches of the late 1920s, collected in the compilation we call his “Second Book”. Mussolini, who was more of an intellectual, and more aware of the world scene launched his critique of Wilsonianism already in 1919. He defined Italy’s position as that of a proletarian nation that must struggle against British and American plutocracy.
That, however, was an awesome task involving international war. The Western powers had shown their might in crushing the Central Powers led by Imperial Germany. In 1915 Italy had picked the winning side of that war. But the Italian political class knew how close they had come to defeat. Mussolini defined the task of fascism, as Hitler did that of his movement, in terms of ensuring that the next time Italy was involved in a total war there would be no cracks either on the frontline or on the home front.
The moment for their “jail break” effort to break Anglo-American hegemony came in the 1930s, with the Great Depression. In the European arena, it was Mussolini who would lead the way. In Asia it was Japan’s militarists who would lead the way ramping up their efforts to subordinate China. It was an existential gamble and the insurgent regimes knew it. For both Italian fascism and Nazism, their desperate drive to change the world order would bring about their downfall.
Given the odds stacked against them, the reason why it is ultimately fatuous to draw strong analogies between historic fascism and current right-wing movements is that the only true fascist is a dead fascist buried amidst the ruins of their regime. The survivors of the interwar period survived by moderating their position. Those that remained active in fascistoid politic after the epic defeat of 1945 are, by virtue of that fact properly described as post-fascist.
War fought against the odds for existential stakes is not an accidental aspect of fascism, it is a defining feature. The results were predictable. The mobilization of US power, including the Manhattan atomic bomb program, was launched to counter the challenge they posed. To gauge the scale of the joint reaction by the British Empire and the United States, remember that in the summer of 1940, after the fall of France and the rest of North Western Europe, the Nazi regime was allied not only with Fascist Italy but with the Soviet Union and Imperial Japan as well. It took the mobilization of gigantic forces to crush the Nazi block, but that destruction was comprehensive and definitive.
An illuminating contrast is offered in this respect by Franco or Salazar’s regimes - authoritarian but not fascist - in Spain and Portugal. They emerged from the same historic cauldron as Hitler’s and Mussolini’s. At times they cultivated the support of local fascist movements and flirted with fascist ideology. But they survived down to the 1970s, because at the critical moment in the 1940s they shrank from a confrontation with the Western powers. If he had chosen to stay out of the war in 1940 and not to chase his historic destiny, there little reason to doubt that Mussolini could have matched Franco’s longevity. Certainly, the violence of fascist colonial policy in Libya and the war against Ethiopia in the 1930s did not condemn his regime to extinction. Portugal’s authoritarian regime was still fighting its African colonial wars into the 1970s.
Eisenhower visits Madrid, 1959
It was Mussolini’s reckless decision to join Hitler’s world war that doomed his regime and allows us to close the book on it. But at this anniversary it is important to remember that that is not at all what most participants or observers imagined the future course to be. What they saw in Italy was a new-fangled synthesis of fascism’s energy and authoritarianism with more established institutions of political and cultural authority. And this is where Mattei’s new book comes in.
In economic and financial terms, the regime that Mussolini established with the cooperation of Italy’s elites not by the kind of adventurous economic policy associated with fascism in the 1930s. It was a regime of thorough-going austerity. But this was austerity not merely as fiscal traditionalism, or cameralism, but as a new science and discipline, a strictly logical, truly neoclassical economics. In the old era of Italian liberalism and the emergency of the war it had struggled to get a hearing. With Mussolini’s rise to power, its moment had come.
The bloody work of breaking the Italian left done by fascist squads between 1919 and 1921, created the political room for maneuver that enabled Mussolini’s regime and his economic advisors to impose severe austerity after 1922. Those economic advisors were not early followers of fascism. They were for the most part liberals who saw in the alliance with Mussolini the condition of possibility for the implementation of a form of pure economics that thought of itself as unpolitical but de facto required authoritarian power.
Not only does Mattei show that Italian liberals collaborated closely with Mussolini’s regime. But she also shows by way of comparison with British fiscal and monetary discussions at the same time, how a common discourse of austerity emerged in the 1920s in the common push to restore monetary stability after the war.
The anchor of this drive was not just national but international. The aim was the restoration of the gold standard. Mussolini, somewhat perversely, saw an overvalued exchange rate - Quota 90 - as a key source of stability and authority for his regime. As Gian Giacomo Migone showed in his classic study The United States and Fascist Italy: The Rise of American Finance in Europe this in turn helped to turn Mussolini’s regime into a darling of Wall Street.
Mussolini made it clear early on that he understood the power of the US. As he put it to King Vittorio Emanuele III in 1923 in urging him to make a state visit to America: “The return of migratory flow into the United States and cooperation with American capital represent two elements of vital importance for us. Beyond the economic advantages…it would be of immense benefit to Italy…because of the inarguable influence it would have on our relations with other States,…and among them none more than England.”
As Mattei shows, unlike the democratically elected politicians who ruled in Paris, in Italy Mussolini’s dictatorship delegated financial policy to a succession of businessmen and technocrats. Unlike the French, they accepted the basic economic terms set down by Congress and articulated by Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover and Andrew Mellon at the Treasury. Circulating among them, as ubiquitous facilitators of conversations on both sides, were prominent bankers and above all J.P. Morgan.
In 1930 when President Hoover began his last-ditch effort to rebuild the internaitonal order, starting with the London conference on naval arms control, fascist Italy, after Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government in Britain, was Washington’s favored partner in Europe. When Mussolini’s foreign minister, the charismatic ex-squadistra Dino Grandi, met Hoover in 1931, the president is said to have assured his Italian guest that the vocal minority of antifascists in America should be ignored: “They do not exist for us Americans, and neither should they exist for you.”
Mussolini’s regime, in other words, was not per se an alien force, an “other” that was rejected from the existing international order. On the contrary it was understood, especially, in the 1920s as a force of order, offering a new set of solutions to the problem of capitalist governance and one which forward-thinking liberals and conservatives associated themselves.
And this opens a further disconcerting historical vista. In his elegant study Globalists Quinn Slobodian showed how the Austrian school of neoliberalism emerged after 1918 from the collapse of the Habsburg Empire. It promised to find a way of encasing the economy so that it would be immune to the unleashed politics of national democracy. It would have huge ramifications decades later because of the influence of the Austrian school on Mont Pelerin and the worldwide market revolution. What Mattei shows us, is that a view of economics as having key role in disciplining both state and society went far beyond the confines of the Austrian tradition. It was a basic element in the vision of (new) liberalism from World War I onwards and its influence extended well beyond the diminished crisis-ridden rump of the Habsburg Empire. What motivated it and formed the bridge to the fascists was its desire to restore control - if necessary by repressive means - over government finances, inflation, the workplace and the labour market. The risk otherwise was not Stalinist communism - that was still a far off threat - but a descent into anarchy of the type they saw being played out in civil war Russia.
With her history of the relationship between liberal economists and fascism, Mattei puts the skids under complacent champions of liberal democracy who today summon the fascist figure as a reassuring boogyman. For Mattei this is the launching pad for a round house critique of the role of liberal economics in general. She takes swipes at all the usual suspects - the Chicago boys in Chile in the 1970s or Berkeley economists in Suharto’s Indonesia, or Western economists in Russia in the 1990s.
From the perspective of a settled leftist politics this is no doubt a confirming historical narrative. It is a history painted in dark colors, but at least it is one in which the lines of continuity and difference, between the past and the present, between friends and enemies are clearly drawn. Unsurprisingly, reading Mattei as I do, from the position of a left-inclined liberal, I find her portrait of the choices of liberal economists not so much confirming as deeply unsettling.
One might say that a commitment to Keynesian economics would immunize one against the kind of authoritarian austerity which Alberto de’ Stefani and Luigi Einaudi promoted after Mussolini’s “seizure of power”. I would argue that that is the case. But in a more complicated sense than might at first appear.
After all, though the alliance with conservatives and liberals brought Mussolini to power, it also in the first instance constrained the fascist regime. The drive for austerity acted as a check on what a would-be militarist regime could do. Indeed, that was one of the reasons why liberals and even many social-democrats favored budget balance too. It disciplined military spending. Wars, after all, not welfare were the real drivers of government spending, deficits and debt. Fascism in its more aggressive mode in the 1930s, as exemplified by Nazism and the Japanese militarist regime, was a different economic beast. Far from being wedded to austerity, both regimes made use of “new” economics to fuel their expansionary militarization drives. As Keynes himself acknowledged in the preface to the German edition to the General Theory, his macroeconomic theory was “much more easily adapted to the conditions of a totalitarian state”. And on that score the feeling was mutual. Mussolini, who unlike Hitler was something of an intellectual, read and liked Keynes’s 1926 essay, “The End of Laissez Faire”.
So it is not economics as such that draws a sharp line between Keynesianism and authoritarianism. In the case of Keynes himself there can be no doubt that his personal politics and values made fascism distasteful to him. But there is also a more basic answer, which goes back to the three structural conditions that define historic fascism: Anglo-American hegemony; total war; and class war. On all three dimensions one can see Keynes staking out positions that are effectively an answer to the fascist and authoritarian temptation that Mattei skewers in more conventional liberal economists in Italy and that Keynes himself clearly knew to be real.
If Anglo-American hegemony was one of the ultimate targets of fascist politics, Keynes was a self-conscious architect of Anglo-American hegemony. Both after World War I and World War II he worked feverishly to shape a postwar world that would moderate the resentment of the defeated powers, constrain the victors, reduce the chance of radicalization, or, in other words, “neutralize” them. With this in mind, as I hinted in my book Deluge, Keynes should be seen as the anti-Schmitt.
On total war mobilization, the central preoccupation of fascist domestic politics, Keynes too was the architect of a strategy of total mobilization. But his strategy was designed to minimize the disruptive pressure of inflation on the home front and thus secured a maximum for the war effort with a minimum of coercion. He was also an advocate of a strategy of “Homes Fit for Heroes” i.e. a strategy of securing cooperation and mobilization by promises of large-scale postwar reform. Both were clearly designed to address the risk of escalating distributional struggles on the home front without resorting either to massive indoctrination or coercion - the fascist solutions.
But the basic thread running through all of Keynes thought was the need to contain the risk of escalating class struggle. Why? Because Keynes clearly understood, and Mattei’s Italian history shows, that class war was the ultimate challenge to Keynes’s strategy of liberal balance. When push came to shove, as it did in Italy in the early 1920s, Keynes knew which side he was on. As he put it in, “Am I a Liberal?” in the summer of 1925:
Ought I, then, to join the Labour Party? Superficially that is more attractive. But looked at closer, there are great difficulties. To begin with, it is a class party, and the class is not my class. If I am going to pursue sectional interests at all, I shall pursue my own. When it comes to the class struggle as such, my local and personal patriotisms, like those of every one else, except certain unpleasant zealous ones, are attached to my own surroundings. I can be influenced by what seems to me to be justice ad good sense; but the Class war will find me on the side of the educated bourgeoisie.
This was the dilemma, you might say, that the likes of de’ Stefani and Einaudi had found themselves in, in Italy, in the early 1920s. Keynes like them was deeply concerned both by Bolshevism and what he saw as the dull power of organized labour. The Bolsheviks deliberately and organized labour unwittingly might through the escalation of class struggle destroy the place on which a balancing liberalism stood and thus force Keynes to take sides in the class war. Reactionary conservatives were an even greater danger in this respect. They were only too keen to bring on the crisis that would justify their own authoritarian tendencies.
Avoiding the condition of extremis that would evacuate the space for liberalism was precisely what Keynes’s political economics was ultimately intended to do. Conventional gold standard economics was a ticking time bomb as exemplified by the deflationary pressure created by Britain’s return to gold and the general strike that provoked in the spring of 1926. The only way to escape such ruinous confrontations that created the setting for the disastrous collaboration between liberalism and authoritarianism was to convert both the center-ground and the democratic left-wing of politics to an expansionary Keynesian view of economics.
A hundred years on from 1922, the problems of that era are not our problems. We do not live in an age of intense and politicized class-struggle, in the aftermath of a total war, or under the shadow of an ascendant Anglo-American hegemony. Our reality is that of the polycrisis. But, thinking about 1922 and the choices made then by the likes of Einaudi and the de’ Stefani must lead us to ask, where are the pitfalls today?
In the classic domains of economic policy, the absence of class conflict and the dampness of wage-price spirals ought to free technocratic policy-making. If it does not, if policy-choices remain locked in a discourse of TINA. If we see no alternative to aggressive inflation-fighting that is a matter of hidebound thinking and narrow vested interests rather than a real structural dilemma.
The two more fundamental challenges of our moment are:
One, THE distributional struggle of the 21st century, namely the battle over the remaining carbon budget, which stands here as a cipher for broader environmental constraints.
Two, the struggle over the terms of a new multipolar world beyond the end of US hegemony i.e. the relation of the West to Russia and China.
These are the challenges for the 21st century and in both dimensions the Keynesian dilemma could not be more urgent: how can progressive and left liberal thinking sway policy so that narrow-minded and self-interested forces do not create disastrous situations in which all the choices, dictated in extremis not merely by good will and good ideas, but by one’s own identity and interest, are disastrous?
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