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Why Italy’s media fixates on CasaPound, an extreme-right party with a racist agenda

This is a party that embraces Mussolini and Che Guevara — and cartoons and pop culture

- May 28, 2019

Earlier this month in Italy, angry protesters and members of the extreme-right party CasaPound Italia (CPI) tried to block a Roma family from accessing its assigned council apartment in the Casal Bruciato district of Rome. When riot police escorted a woman and her child back to the apartment, some protesters raised their arms in a fascist salute; others shouted racial insults and rape threats.

This was just one of a series of CPI-promoted anti-immigration actions in low-income neighborhoods in Italy. The Italian media also spotlighted the arrest this spring of a CasaPound town councilor for alleged gang rape, and the mounting controversy over the participation of the group’s semiofficial publisher in the Turin international book fair.

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Our forthcoming Routledge volume on CPI, co-written with Giorgia Bulli and Matteo Albanese, looks at how this fringe group has captivated large segments of Italy’s mass media. We argue that CPI’s visibility has little to do with the grievances of suburbs or with a renewed appeal of historical fascism in hard times.

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Instead, CPI benefits from a peculiar strategy of hybridization, which taps into commercial media demand for entertaining stories and simplified messages. CPI attracts media attention via agitprop actions — propaganda and demonstrations aimed at mobilizing public support. Its unconventional mix of extreme right, pop-culture and left-progressive styles helps ensure media coverage in both the protest and electoral arenas.

What is CasaPound?

CPI is an extreme-right organization that claims inspiration from American poet and fascist-regime sympathizer Ezra Pound, who championed the ideas of Benito Mussolini during World War II. Its members (up to 5,000 in 2013, according to the national leadership) are unabashed about their admiration for Mussolini and his nationalist social policies.

The group formed in 2003 when a group of young Italians occupied a state-owned building in Rome to hang out, listen to music and discuss politics. Over the years, CPI progressed into the electoral arena, extending its reach at the national level. There was a short collaboration with Matteo Salvini’s Lega (League) party between 2013 and 2015; however, CasaPound Italia claimed only 0.9 percent of the vote in Italy’s 2018 general elections.

CPI’s visibility in the mass media owes much to the group’s hybrid organizational configuration — formally, it has the structure of a political party, as well as the informal setup of a social movement. Like a political party, CPI has one central headquarters, a formal youth wing and several local branches organized hierarchically. To outsiders, any CPI actions or demonstrations are clearly identified. And all exchanges between the group and journalists are centralized and standardized.

Unlike most political parties, CPI goes beyond electoral campaigning, pursuing informal mobilization tactics, including subcultural and merchandising activities to recruit and fundraise. CPI has embedded itself in civil society, thanks to its network of thematic associations devoted to community services — for Italians only. This includes a humanitarian charity, civil protection volunteers and a set of project-based associations for environmental protection, disability assistance and health counseling.

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These associations help root CPI at the local level. These community-based projects and associations confer the benefits of NGO tax returns and facilitate funding via donations and public calls for tenders. And this network configuration helps legitimize the organization’s extreme-right messages, by drawing media attention to CPI’s social and civic engagement.

CPI mixes pop culture, Mussolini and Che Guevara

Our analysis shows that CPI’s success in attracting media attention also rests on the group’s hybrid communication style, which combines symbols borrowed from different political cultures and the sensational tactics of agitprop activism.

To forge the group’s image, CPI blends icons from Mussolini’s ventennio Italy’s name for the 20-year fascist regime, 1922 to 1943 — with figures from the left and from pop culture. CPI’s visual propaganda thus features Che Guevara and Karl Marx, alongside popular pirate cartoon characters Corto Maltese and Captain Harlock, and music by anarchist songwriter Fabrizio De André.

CPI activists favor hip symbols and neutral clothing — jeans and T-shirts — rather than stereotyped extreme-right styles, such as shaved heads and combat boots. This improbable mix of aesthetic influences has fascinated the Italian media, building the notion that CPI promotes a new, glamorous approach to extreme right politics.

Since its early days, CPI stood out for its highly theatrical political mobilization — the occupation of buildings destined to house migrants, smoke-bomb raids in high schools to protest education reforms and storming TV shows to denounce unfair coverage.

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With a low budget and few participants, these stunts have the primary goal of setting media agendas. CPI activists provide live-streaming coverage of their performances and semiprofessional press releases to broadcast specific points to news outlets and Internet sites. This hybrid communication style allowed CPI’s politics and fringe narratives to become part of mainstream public debates and media coverage.

Very few Italians actually support CPI

The reason the Italian media cannot get enough of CPI, therefore, has little to do with the idea of a resurgence of fascism in Italy. Despite the widespread attention in national and international mass media, just a tiny minority of Italians support CPI.

Our findings suggest that CPI’s hybridization strategy has produced contradictory results. CPI has not cleaned up the public image of extreme-right activism — as the recent controversies on anti-Roma protests and the Turin book fair suggest.

CasaPound won less than 1 percent of the vote in the 2018 Italian elections and has never won a seat in the national parliament — or the E.U. Parliament. But the group has successfully made extreme-right themes more routine in the public sphere, trivializing concerns about historical fascism and racial discrimination.

CPI’s visibility in the media may shed some light on broader changes in contemporary extreme-right politics in Italy and beyond. Through hybridization and media-savviness, fringe groups like CasaPound increasingly meet the commercial media appetite for sensational and polarizing news. Ultimately, in fact, these groups have realized that complying with the logistics of news production helps ensure that fringe or extreme ideas drift into the mainstream.

Pietro Castelli Gattinara (@PietroCastelliG) is assistant professor at C-REX, University of Oslo, where his research focuses on migration and the European far right.

Caterina Froio (@CaterinaFroio) is assistant professor at CEE, Sciences Po. Her research looks at political parties, extremism and e-politics.

They are co-authors of “CasaPound Italia: Contemporary extreme right politics,” a forthcoming title under the Routledge Studies in Fascism and the Far Right.