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Sometimes, as you travel the country, you sense that many have itchy right arms that are just dying to go up unashamedly and hail il Duce. Paolo Di Canio, the former West Ham footballer, did just that while playing for Lazio a few years ago. In front of fans who are known for their rightwing sympathies, Di Canio gave the Roman salute. The crowd went wild, a scandal ensued, and Di Canio sort of excused himself by saying, "It's something that's stronger than I am."
If you travel an hour north of Rome you will come to a mountain called Monte Giano, near Antrodoco. There, at the summit, is a forest planted in the late 1930s. It is just reaching maturity and has recently been tidied up with public money. From the road below you can see the familiar DVX logo, the Latin name for Duce. The forest is an eloquent symbol of the country's enduring fascination with its long-lost leader.
A story that perfectly illustrates the continuum between Mussolini and the present emerged in Bari this month. For the 30th anniversary of the murder of Aldo Moro, the former prime minister who was killed by the Red Brigades, the rector of the university decided to rename it in his honour. But that would have meant cancelling the official name of the university which was still, on paper, Università Benito Mussolini. You might have thought that the academics would have preferred association with a devout Christian Democrat to the Fascist leader, but no, the Law Department voted against the change.
It remains, at time of writing, Università Benito Mussolini.
Beyond the rehabilitation of Mussolini, the other cultural shift which began in the 1990s was immigration. Unlike Britain, Italy had witnessed negligible immigration prior to 1990. It had almost no colonies and thus the new arrivals were almost entirely unfamiliar with the language and culture of the "mother country". Italy has found the unprecedented levels of immigration traumatic and bewildering, particularly because any kidnap, theft or murder by foreigners receives much more press coverage than a boring one by the locals. There is no doubt that many millions of Italians feel besieged in their own homeland and turn to the National Alliance and the Northern League as a bulwark against immigration. The electoral poster for the Northern League might be crude, but it touched a nerve. Using an image of a melancholic native American, the slogan went: "He let in the immigrants and now he lives on a reservation."
Even those who are sceptical about drawing a comparison with Mussolini recognise that Italy is now likely to see more authoritarian calls against immigrants and a greater flirtation with emblems of nationalism. The Rage and Pride, by the late Oriana Fallaci, is the sacred text of the anti-immigration movement, and the rhetoric against foreigners (or, more specifically, against extracomunitari, those outside the EU) is now relentless.
In that sense, Italy is no different to the Netherlands or Austria, where large swathes of the electorate have voted for parties which promise to put natives first. Where Italy is different is in having Berlusconi, who, like Mussolini, is a barrel-chested demagogue who enjoys boasting from balconies. And it is true that the last time Berlusconi was in power, there was an isolated outbreak of police brutality at the G8 at Genoa that turned many stomachs. It is telling that one of Berlusconi's former newspaper editors, Indro Montanelli, accused Berlusconi of using the manganello, the truncheon.
But while Berlusconi himself enjoys being compared to il Duce, in truth he is completely different. Mussolini's Italy was a bit like 1984; Berlusconi's is more Brave New World. He does not use a truncheon; he is more like a dispenser, through his TV channels and publishing empire, of ceaseless titillation and trivia. The ancient Romans used to say that the masses would be content as long as they had panem et circenses, bread and circuses. Berlusconi guarantees them the second. He provides the entertainment, he is the ringmaster of the teatrino, the "little theatre" that is Italian politics.
Against that backdrop, any weighty, considered political debate becomes impossible. Bosworth maintains that the superficial revisionism of fascism has happened because history has been reduced "to infotainment instead of a critical discipline". It has allowed "the more troubling side of the tyranny to be forgotten, meaning that only the fun bits, the dressage, remains". Dressage, of course, is one of Italy's favourite pastimes and is something fascism was rather good at.
In his 1946 preface to Brave New World, Huxley wrote: "A really efficient totalitarian state would be one in which the all-powerful executive of political bosses and their army of managers control a population of slaves who do not have to be coerced, because they love their servitude. To make them love it is the task assigned ... to ministries of propaganda, newspaper editors, and schoolteachers." That is the sense that one gets in Italy today: a feeling that Berlusconi's television is a sort of electronic babysitter that keeps the populace quiet while he goes off to cut a deal in another room. Ominously, one of the favourite topics for his politicians is the rewriting of certain history books and syllabuses.
That is why Roger Griffin, author of Modernism and Fascism, believes Berlusconi to be in some ways the opposite of Mussolini. "Berlusconi," he says, "is an illiberal manipulator of democracy, but he needs a democracy to manipulate, whereas true fascism wants to replace liberal democracy with a new order. Berlusconi struts around like a spider in the middle of a gargantuan web of power networks. His is a sort of crypto-government, and historically has more parallels with the corruption of state power under [Giovanni] Giolitti between 1900 and 1922 than with Mussolini's regime."
There are, at least, reasons to hope that the resurgence of the far right in Italy is not as worrying as it might appear. One resides in the Italian national character. Just as Italian communism was light years away from the gulags and Stalinism, so Italian fascism was - say its defenders - light years away from the Nazism with which it is so often confused. Mussolini had been in power for 16 years before, under German pressure, he passed the Race Laws. Italians are so humane, say the sanguine, that they present any -ism with a human face.
There are, paradoxically, also political reasons for optimism. Berlusconi's government is very far from a one-party state. Funnily enough, the rightwingers he has gathered around him are mutually self-contradictory. The National Alliance is a nationalistic party draped in the tricolour. The Northern League, the other major force in Berlusconi's coalition, abhors the very notion of the Italian state. It constantly invokes, instead, the country of Padania and its green and white flag (Padus was the Latin name for the river Po and so Padania implies the north of the country from Turin to Venice, the very top of the Italian boot). Add to that the fact that, in the south, Berlusconi relied on the support of the Movement for Autonomies, a sort of coalition of devolutionists. It is all a far cry from the fatherland as symbolised by a fascis, a bundle of birch rods and an axe wrapped in a ribbon. If anything, Bossi is desperately trying to undo the ribbon and chuck the sticks asunder.
Many Italians think that foreigners getting uppity about a return of fascism are missing the point. Mussolini, they say, has been Disneyfied. It might not be very tasteful, but the cottage industry surrounding the il mascellone (Big Jaw) is just that. It is small fry. To equate the survival of the DVX Duce forest north of Rome with living fascism is as absurd as a foreigner seeing the club-wielding Cerne Abbas giant and assuming that all Brits were cavemen. Architecture from the Ventennio, Mussolini's two-decade rule, is everywhere. It is simply a part of the topography, nothing more.
There was a rather beautiful cartoon published in the leftwing Liberazione newspaper a few days ago. It showed a woman draped in a tricolour walking around a ring. "Italy goes right" said the punchline, implying that Italy goes right so regularly that it actually just goes round in circles. It is not very optimistic, but it might be the best image of what is happening today in Italy.
· Tobias Jones is the author of The Dark Heart of Italy and of Utopian Dreams, both published by Faber & Faber.