The liberal commentariat seems to be completely unable to resist the allure of the far-right. The latest example: an article on Literary Hub that portrays violent neo-fascist gang Casa Pound as some sort of edgy poetry club.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Daniel Swift’s piece, Hanging Out With the Italian Neo-Fascists Who Idolise Ezra Pound, is appalling. It is the careless journalism of someone who, knowing little Italian and even less about Italian politics, has conversed with fascists and regurgitated whatever they told him. The result is a completely distorted representation of what the group is about and how they operate.
The building in which Swift's interview takes place, which Casa Pound militant Adriano Scianca's claims they are 'occupying', was in fact bought for them in 2012 by none other than the Mayor of Rome, using €11.8 million of local government money. The Mayor at the time was Gianni Alemanno, a man steeped in the history of Italian fascism: a leading member of the Italian Social Movement (MSI - the postwar reformation of Mussolini’s Fascist Party) and later the far-right National Alliance; even his wife, Isabella Rauti, was the daughter Pino Rauti, ex-leader of the MSI whose name crops up in relation to numerous cases of far-right terrorism, including the 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing.
Gianni Alemanno’s son, Manfredi, would follow in his father’s far-right footsteps: in 2011, he put himself forward as a candidate for student elections at his college for Blocco Studentesco, the youth wing of Casa Pound. Two years previously, after throwing Roman salutes and getting into a fight at a party, Manfredi was protected from prosecution by police with connections to his dad.
So the idea of these guys as a plucky, if rough-round-the-edges, group of rebels doing their bit for the community against all odds is laughable. They’re a far-right gang with links to both fascist terrorists and the highest echelons of Italian politics.
More interestingly, however, is how Swift depicts the group’s activity: they “arrange conferences” on Ezra Pound, the modernist poet they are named after; they house “20 homeless families”; “they collect used syringes from parks in poor neighborhoods”; “they clean bike paths”. The only mention of violence comes from a “Casa Pound supporter” who, in 2011, killed two Senegalese traders in Florence. From this description, the impression is of a group engaged in cultural activities and local volunteering albeit with the odd wayward sympathiser.
And yet, the reality could not be further from the truth. To cite some examples from this year alone: in February, a group of at least 15 Casa Pound militants attacked one young man after he posted a meme mocking the group on Facebook. Over the summer, uniformed Casa Pound members prowled the Central Italian seaside, harassing migrant beach vendors and forcing them to leave. And even last Tuesday, the very day Swift’s article went on the Lit Hub website, Roberto Spada, related to the Spada crime family thought to control Ostia, on the outskirts of Rome, brutally assaulted a journalist who had been asking him about his support for Casa Pound.
So it’s curious that for an organisation for which racism and violence are such frequent features of their activity, that so little mention would be made of that racism and violence. When Swift mentions Casa Pound are housing “20 homeless families who have nowhere else to go,” he neglects to mention the proviso on which that charity is based: whites only. The ethno-nationalist underpinnings don’t get a mention and it is (to be charitable) frankly bizarre why this is so.
Even more bizarrely, Swift spends less time talking about the violence and racism of a notoriously violent racist group than he does talking about how much he enjoyed their restaurant.
At a corner we meet a couple of other men—beards, clipped hair, grins—and we duck into the shade of an open-fronted restaurant. It looks like any other in Rome—white tablecloths, photos of minor celebrities who have eaten here—except all the waiters have tattoos up their forearms, and except that at the end, after cold antipasti, a heavy tagliatelle all’Amatriciana with fat nuggets of bacon swimming in the sauce, red wine from a carafe, bitter brown digestivo, and coffee, no bill ever came. What we are doing, Seb tells me as we eat, is not connected to money.
Waiters with tattoos, fabulous food, fine wine. And what’s this? No bill? These fascists are generous as well as cultured! Il Duce, you're really spoiling us!
Reading the article, it seems Swift is bending over backwards to sanitise the reputations of as many fascists as he can. Swift discusses Pound's Canto 72, written as the Nazi-backed Republic of Salò was in a state of collapse and where a dead fascist general says "I don't want to go to paradise, I want to continue to fight. I want your body, with which I could still make war". While noting Canto 72 has often been seen as the "smoking gun" of Pound's fascism (with good reason, in my opinion), Swift is "not sure", claiming to see "odd hesitations" in the poem. What these are, he doesn't say. But it's worth highlighting Mark Ford's point that as late as 1956 Pound was still spewing fascist bile, writing that “the fuss about ‘de‑segregation’ in the United States has been started by Jews”. Of course, Swift knows this. What's utterly baffling is why he doesn't point this out in his article.
And yet, you can’t help but feel Swift's article is based around what he feels is the ‘novelty’ of the situation; but that novelty is actually based on two entirely false premises. First, the idea that fascists are the working class, the downtrodden masses. And second, that the working class lack the culture to read (let alone write) literature.
Both premises are obviously and demonstrably false. Swift says he wasn’t expecting Casa Pound’s “high-mindedness”; yet, fascists have always found support among artists and intellectuals. Gabriele D’Annunzio and Luigi Pirandello, two of the most famous Italian writers of the twentieth century, were both fascists from wealthy backgrounds.
Equally, the idea of the working class as some uncultured blob is also false. Working-class people not only appreciate literature but have produced a wealth of it; whether Elio Vittorini, anti-fascist resistance fighter and son of a rail worker, or the Proletarian Literature movement in Britain which produced writers like James Barke, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, James Hanley and George Garrett.
So what we have with Swift’s article is an academic who was pleasantly surprised by the "high-mindedness" of some fascists when he should know that the 'high-minded' (or at least a section of them) have always been drawn to fascism.
And when he imagined their 'low-mindedness', who do you think he was expecting? Not posh students with links to Rome's political elite (a very real element of Casa Pound’s demographic). No, he was expecting working-class men with sloping brows and dragging knuckles who could hardly string a sentence together let alone have opinions about poetry.
Ultimately, Swift seems to have really taken to Casa Pound. He “warmly” shakes hands with Scianca after their interview and they agree to exchange copies of their books. Later, describing the farewells at end of his meal, he says,
As we stand to leave I offer to shake hands with the waiter and he reaches out his right hand, with the tortoise on the forearm, and he grasps my arm just above the wrist, and smiles. We are close, this waiter and I; and for that instant bound in a frozen gesture, and even as it was strange and abrupt, it was also familiar. This is the Roman handshake I had read about.
It’s clear from these quotes that Casa Pound’s activists are supposed to be sympathetic characters in Swift’s story; their benevolence has been amplified, their vices turned all the way down. The absolute wanton irresponsibility of an article like this when far-right nationalism is seeing a surge in popularity across Europe and North America is abundantly clear but perhaps some people need it spelt out for them: fascists are in a coalition government in Austria; they have entered German parliament for the first time since the war; they are killing people on trains and at demonstrations and have set up militias in America; their extremism is increasingly turning into the talking points and policies of mainstream politics. Now is not the time to be writing puff pieces about how charming they are and how interesting their take on Ezra Pound is.
At one point Swift declares, “I wanted them to like me.” After his glowing write up, I have absolutely no doubt they will.