“The whole idea of emic and the native’s point of view is to try to see how you could think that way. Now that, of course, is always very dangerous. But that’s the spectacular thing about anthropology. That danger is the most important thing that we have as a tool. Now, if we end up being fascist in the end, that’s another problem. That’s another problem. It’s not the same problem. We shouldn’t not do it because of the risk. We have to take the risk, it seems to me.” (Green, Friedman, Gingrich and Eriksen, 2003, p. 572.)
With this assertion, Jonathan Friedman concluded a debate published in Ethnos in 2003 in which he discussed the emergence of the new right in Europe together with Andre Gingrich, Sarah Green and Thomas Hylland Eriksen. The question raised at the end of the article explores the potential for anthropologists to conduct ethnographies with new-right activists. The risk he evoked was mainly that of becoming fascist, and the scholars discussed the possibility, or impossibility, for ethnographers to establish an empathic relationship with activists of the new right. Twenty years later, we may question not only if “becoming native” is indeed “another problem”, as argued by Jonathan Friedman, but also if it is the only risk involved in such an ethnographic enterprise.
In previous analyses of fieldwork in dangerous contexts, authors have identified issues such as danger, violence, seduction, and the emotional engagement of fieldwork-based research (Nordstrom and Robben, 1995). Nonetheless, as Leibing and McLean (2007, p. 21) have argued when examining the shadows of fieldwork and ethnographic encounters, “taking risks is necessary if we wish to advance the epistemological possibilities of our discipline”. In this paper, I wish to shed light on those shadows, delving into the ethnographic process with neo-fascist activists both during the fieldwork and in its afterlife. This article is a contribution to this debate: comparing my experience with existing literature on the subject, I interrogate the consequences of collaborating, the dangers of encountering fascist violence, and the epistemological reflections social sciences face when agreeing to take the risk of fieldwork encounters.
Anthropologists and sociologists studying right-wing or xenophobic movements and parties over the last two decades have raised similar questions (Avanza, 2008; Bellé, 2016; Bizeul, 2003, 2007; Blee, 1998; Dematteo, 2011; Gingrich, 2006; Shoshan, 2015; Pasieka, 2019). Some have engaged with explicitly neo-fascist activists, such as Kathleen Blee in her work with Ku Klux Klan activists, while others have investigated xenophobic parties, such as Martina Avanza, Elisa Bellé and Lynda Dematteo in their investigations of Italy’s Northern League. Others have interacted with nationalist parties, such as Daniel Bizeul with France’s National Front or André Gingrich with the Austrian Freedom Party. Some of the issues these scholars have identified are similar to those I have encountered, while others differ. In narrating my own experience in dialogue with theirs, I raise questions about what happens when an anthropologist “takes the risk” of engaging an explicitly neo-fascist movement.
One point all these authors do share is the awareness of having carried out a kind of fieldwork that profoundly engaged the researcher’s personal life and subjectivity. Such intense engagement not only stems from the fact that “theory emerges from experience” (Nordstrom and Robben, 1995, p. 4), and “anthropological understanding is necessarily partial and is always hermeneutic” (Scheper-Hughes, 1992, p. 23) and, therefore, the personal and physical subject of the research is of prominent importance in the process of knowledge-formation (McLean and Leibing, 2007). There is more: such fieldwork also touches on the specificity of the researched subject as deeply entangled with European social, political and cultural history (Griffin 2018; Sternhell, 1989).
In this complex context, anthropologist Benjamin R. Teitelbaum has recently argued in favour of conducting “collaborative” ethnography with radical right-wing activists in Sweden or, to use author’s own words, his “friends” (Teitelbaum, 2019, p. 414). The author declares that: “My approach was a method, ethic, and immorality born of a radical devotion to the people studied and the social, moral, and intellectual entanglements that come with it. […] I regard nationalists’ interests as my ‘paramount’ concern. I grew chiefly interested with what they thought of my work and wanted to see them benefit in some way from participating in it.” (Teitelbaum, 2019, p. 419, 421).
Teitelbaum is not the first social scientist to decide to engage in collaborative ethnography with neo-fascist activists: in Italy, sociologists Daniele Di Nunzio and Emanuele Toscano presented a book in 2011 written together with the third- millennium fascist activists they had intended to study (Di Nunzio and Toscano, 2011). As with the Italian volume, my reading of Teitelbaum’s paper elicited deep empirical, theoretical and political misgivings.
In this peculiar kind of ethnographic relationship, it is not only a shared/contested memory that is at stake in revealing the subjective experience of the researcher. More importantly, what is at stake is the researcher’s capacity to develop empathy with people he/she does not necessarily like (Avanza, 2008): understanding the “other” may involve an effort to reach beyond what Arlie Hochschild coins the “empathy wall” (Hochschild, 2016; Bangstad et al., 2019). Nitzan Shoshan provides a keen description of the tension between experiencing an “uncomfortable proximity” during fieldwork and, on the contrary, feeling the need to signal an “unequivocal distance” in the writing phase (Shoshan, 2016, p. xiii) so as to avoid giving the impression of supporting or justifying the neo-Nazi activists he studied, in spite of his offering the reader a feeling of proximity with them. This may be uncomfortable, but it is also possible in that “empathy is a specific case of intuition, one that has to do with feeling for and with another person” (Csordas, 2007, p. 115). In order to understand the other, to feel what he/she feels, therefore, we need to focus on the relational dynamics between researcher and activists and, therefore, the emotional dynamics involved.
Studying right-wing or neo-fascist movements in this particular historical moment obliges scholars to come to terms with the peculiar history of the formation of the specific country they are studying and Europe more generally. It leads anthropologists to engage in one way or another with the memory of the Second World War, the narrative of this traumatic event, and the “emotion as memory” (Cappelletto, 2003) of that important period in the constitution of present-day democracies.
Following Didier Fassin (2013, 2015), I propose to take seriously the “afterlife of ethnography” and, especially, “how public reactions amplified the study and enriched it” (Fassin, 2015, p. 6). Fassin defines “public ethnography” as the “principle of bringing to multiple publics – by which I mean publics beyond the academic circles – the findings of an ethnography analysed in light of critical thinking, so that these findings can be apprehended, appropriated, debated, contested, and used” (Fassin, 2013, p. 628). How can anthropologists deal with the afterlife of this kind of ethnography and its particular risks? The risks in this case arise in different forms: social scientists may become involved in the movements they are studying (by way of collaboration, becoming friends, or fascists themselves) or, on the contrary, they may never develop affinity with the movement, a possibility which entails its own risks. The question brought up, therefore, originates in the role Fassin has defined as “public ethnography” in which social scientists address the important task of sharing their research results; at the same time, however, they must also ensure their personal safety.
This article seeks to contribute to the anthropological debate around these issues. In its first part, I describe the multi-faceted character of the difficulties and risks I encountered in conducting fieldwork with self-defined third millennium fascist activists in Italy. In this particular kind of ethnographic relationship, understanding the other unfolds through an “emotional negotiation between researcher and respondents” (Blee, 1998, p. 383) in which the emotion leading this negotiation is often fear (Blee, 1998; Green, 1994; Sehgal, 2009).
In its second part, I discuss the afterlife of the ethnography, address the experience of publishing and question what occurs when this kind of political ethnography lives on. I argue that the afterlife of ethnography speaks compellingly to the significance of engaged work (Sabloff, 2011, p. 412), and that such work is a space capable of enriching, deepening and clarifying our understanding of a phenomenon. I show how different methodological choices (collaborating or not, building friendship or not) engage with different perceptions of what is “public” in anthropology. The two parts are meant to dialogue, the latter section providing ethnographic evidence to support the discussion presented in the former section.
Based on my experiences and difficulties conducting fieldwork in Rome (in 2010) and in the wake of encountering the public while presenting my book around the country (2015-2018), I thus seek through this paper to shed ethnographic light on the dangers and risks involved by this kind of political ethnography.
I moved to Rome in 2010 to meet the neo-fascist movement CasaPound (hereafter CPI) for my PhD fieldwork in social anthropology, a movement whose activists define themselves as “third-millennium fascists”. The movement had emerged in 2003 with the occupation of a building in Rome. At the moment of my fieldwork, it enjoyed the official status of “association”. CPI has evolved since then, becoming a political party in 2013 with regular electoral participation and maintaining that form until the summer of 2019, when they declared that they relinquished the status of institutional party to return to being a movement active at the “cultural and social level” (Froio, 2020; Rosati, 2018).
CPI’s kinship with historical fascism is symbolically exemplified by the group’s choice for the date of its first occupation, 26 December 2003. Indeed, it is the anniversary of the foundation of the MSI, the party inheriting Benito Mussolini’s legacy, founded in 1946. Elsewhere I have written a detailed analysis of the connections between historical and present-day fascism through the story of CPI (Cammelli, 2018). In 2010, CPI was a movement engaged outside the sphere of electoral politics, focused as it was on recruiting young activists through musical concert and events held in the buildings they occupied in Rome. It was characterised by a profound sense of belonging to a community – based mainly in Rome – and a specific hierarchy in terms of power and roles. It also ensured be visible in the streets. Not only were the walls of the capital covered with slogans and phrases conveying a textual battle between fascists and anti-fascists, but the daily life of the city at that time was affected by the presence of these new activists. Between 2014 and 2019, CPI activists were accountable for more than 70 assaults against migrants, left-wing students/activists, women, and others.1 Such episodes took place right from the beginning of the movement’s historical evolution.
When I decided to move to Rome to meet these activists, the first challenge I encountered was how to safely make contact with them. I was not a sympathiser, and in consultation with my supervisors I had decided not to conceal my personal and political identity. I did not wish to enact the “methodological cynicism” Avanza describes, that is, to hide my personal political views and constantly lie to the people I was meeting (Avanza, 2008). Driven by both ethical considerations and the need to ensure my personal safety, I decided not to conceal that my political convictions were not in line with fascist ideology. Moreover, I was not going to meet an institutionally recognised political party – as Avanza did – but a movement acting outside the main institutional system, and so I needed to navigate very carefully in order to avoid putting myself in a dangerous situation.
The first challenge was approaching these activists. When I tried to ask people I knew who might have contacts to introduce me, I encountered obstacles. My acquaintances could not imagine such a meeting might take place: “why do you want to go there?”; “Why do you want to put yourself in a dangerous situation?”; “You should not go and meet those people, it’s dangerous, they are fascists, they are monsters”. The reactions of those around me sounding the alarm around the dangers of such an encounter show the concrete faultline that has shaped Italian society since the end of the Second World War and its subsequent process of historical identification: the line between fascism and anti-fascism.
My fieldwork notes from that period testify to my fears as the moment of my first meeting approached. I had nightmares about violence, symbolically confirming the image I had of fascist cosmology. I felt anguish and fear of the other, but also fear for myself: I was scared of losing myself, of being contaminated. As I was walking down the streets of Rome, I felt my spine shiver and getting moist with the same fusion of spirit and body experienced by a boxer stepping onto the ring. As in the case of other scholars conducting similar fieldwork (Avanza, 2008; Bellé, 2016; Blee, 1998; Dematteo, 2011; Sehgal, 2009), this was an ethnography engaging with the innermost, deepest elements of the subjectivity of the researcher. After grappling with my own issues in order to overcome my fears, I finally understood that “the monsters do not fear those who have no fear” (Loperfido, 2011, p. 51). This allowed me to approach my informants calmly, like a boxer leaping onto the ring, confident in the effectiveness of her training.
Right from our first meeting, CPI participants asked me whether I supported the movement and identified with fascism. Similar to Gingrich (2006), I too made my position clear by specifying that I did not share the movement’s views or ideology. The goal was to “agree to disagree” (Gingrich, 2006, p. 209). I declared that I was not a fascist, but I also emphasised my intention to create a space for the kind of engagement and listening they themselves had often stated they longed for. The relationship I sought to establish was one of “empathy but not sympathy” (Gingrich and Banks, 2006, p. 11) in which disagreement on ideological and political issues and a certain worldview will not compromise the possibility of establishing a genuine relationship of dialogue and listening (see also Avanza, 2008, p. 56).
The first time I met a CPI militant was at a café in a vibrant Roman neighbourhood. The anguish and fears I had developed a priori quickly dissipated as I realised that the person across from me was, first and foremost, smiling and likeable. This woman belonged to the upper echelons of the movement. I was not allowed to speak with the “rank and file” or new activists; they instead proposed that I interview the leaders of the movement on the national scale.
As I spent time with this woman, I was surprised to realise that she was friendly and was offering her time to take me around and explain her relationship with the CPI movement and fascist ideology. Indeed, I had the impression of being able to effectively break the “empathy wall” (Hochschild, 2016) with a third millennium fascist activist. In one way, I was able to grasp the emotional continuity that may give rise to an understanding of the “deep story” of the other (Hochschild, 2016), by finding some meaning to her fondness for the CPI movement, her activism and her fascist identity. She suggested that fascists may be completely “normal” people and that the caricatured image I had developed of them as exclusively nasty people was mistaken. As Douglas Holmes has suggested more recently, “now the fascist is very much a normal kind of figure that need not have a kind of extravagant behavior or comportment of the fascism we imagined in the past” (Bangstad et al., 2019, p. 110). The boundary between fascism and anti-fascism was not so clear after all, as the important volume by Jonathan Littell (2007) has shown. Perhaps – and this was a truly uncomfortable thought – I might even be able to “like” some of the activists I was studying (Sehgal, 2009, p. 342; Shoshan, 2016).
This realization was inherently troubling and represented a risk in and of itself. Might I fall in love with them? For me, it implied that fascists were not monstrous people entirely separated from our society but a deeper and more internal presence, an intrinsic part of Italian and European culture and historical evolution as a whole (Sternhell, 1989, 2007; Griffin, 2018). They should not be portrayed as scapegoats goading us into hell: instead, they could act as a mirror revealing an inner component of our cultural beliefs, attitude and practices.
Fascists might play a role like that of the abyss in Fredrick Nietzsche’s metaphoric image: “if you look at the abyss, then the abyss looks at you”, suggested a journalist paraphrasing Nietzsche. If so, what would this abyss show me?
As a militant showed me the photographs decorating the walls of the large CPI staircase in Esquilino depicting fascist women during the fascist era, he glimpsed at a piece of my work that he found slightly disturbing. He broke out laughing, realising that, if I was the anthropologist, they were the “natives under investigation”. However, it was not the fear of being considered exotic natives that conditioned my fieldwork. The fear of CPI activists created obstacles and undermined the possibility of such a relationship. As Bensa (2008) has argued, if we forget to position the ethnographic relationship as part of a reality in which “our informants pursue their own interests”, all narratives end up detached from their proper temporality (Bensa, 2008, p. 33). Avanza builds on this idea when she asserts that “the respondents [...] try to define the ethnographic relationship in their own terms, turning it to their advantage”2 (Avanza, 2008, p. 44). Teitelbaum likewise admits there was fear in his fieldwork context when he describes some neo-Nazis he wanted to interview by stating: “He’s safe to talk to. He’s not interested in anything serious. Just music.” (Teitelbaum, 2017, p. 12). Unlike Teitelbaum and other Italian researchers (Albanese et al., 2014; Castelli Gattinara and Froio, 2014; Froio et al., 2020), my proposed research was not circumscribed to a specific aspect of CPI organisation or culture. Instead, I explicitly informed them of my intention to conduct research on the CPI group more broadly. The emotional negotiation in this case was driven by fear (Blee, 1998; Green, 1994; Sehgal, 2009), and fear had to be understood in relational terms (Blee, 1998, p. 389).
First, they asked me to show them my notes before handing them over to my supervisors. One activist made an apparently trivial comment to the effect that they would love to collaborate with me on my dissertation, but only if they felt I displayed a “collaborative approach”. When I expressed my surprise at this request, he tried to clarify his suggestion that they read my notes: “it’s for a better comprehension, from the inside, of our thoughts, so that if something is not clear we can make it clearer”. In my case, however, the proposition went beyond a simple concern for clarity: they suggested not only that they read my notes, but that they explicitly collaborate in the process of writing up the research results.
When Di Nunzio and Toscano’s book was published (2011), I realised that they had received the same proposition from the CPI. In their chapter on methodology, they reveal that the text was written together with the CPI activists. They explain that they decided to “allow the people who had volunteered to be investigated participants in the research” (Di Nunzio, Toscano, 2011, p. 124, translation mine), a process that entailed “constant feedback and evaluation with some of the people involved in the investigation” (p. 124, translation mine). Although the two authors assert that this was a “methodological decision” deriving from a sociological perspective referred to as “member validation […] or member verification […], or member test of validity […].” (Di Nunzio, Toscano 2011, p. 124, emphasis in the original), it struck me as a situation very similar to the CPI activist proposing that they write my dissertation together with me in order “to make it clearer”. I will return below on the epistemological implications of Di Nunzio and Toscano’s writing; for now the point I want to make is that if I had not agreed to “collaborate” with CPI members in the process of writing up my results, the door to ethnographic data would have been shut on me. While I had hoped to become an interlocutor in the same way as Kathleen Blee with the KKK, gaining access so as to collect their stories, the fact that the movement did not need its stories collected meant that activists were instead driven to question what benefit they might gain from opening up to me. Unlike the racist militants of the Ku Klux Klan in the United States, these third-millennium fascists in Italy were not marginalised as a result of being labelled “lunatics” or excluded from the public debate. My presence – as an anthropologist, a woman, and a declared non-fascist – was thus perceived as a threat rather than an opportunity.
I do not think these limits apply only to the specific political and ideological position of this particular movement. Instead, this situation illustrated the kind of difficulties an anthropologist may encounter when studying a political movement active in the present and in her own country. What is probably peculiar about conducting an ethnography with a self-proclaimed fascist movement is how they chose to communicate to me the impossibility of my conducting fieldwork in the manner I had hoped to. Here again, it is the relational contexts that provide information.
My potential informant and myself were sitting in a café and, flashing a smile still, he began to tell me about all the trials the movement had put on journalists and other people seeking to represent them. One after the other he described lawsuits and the reasons CPI felt compelled to sue. Surprisingly, he told me that they had even sued the authors of a book they were publicising in their own bookstore (I had seen it a few weeks earlier). Then he fished his phone out of his pocket and, in plain view, wrote my full name into the Google search bar, to see what would come up. He grinned, he scanned my face and asked, “you had a piercing [back] then?” In reality I did have a facial piercing once, but that was ten years earlier and I only kept it for a few months. As I listened to him talking about my piercing I felt a profound state of confusion. How could he know I had a piercing ten years earlier? This man, a professional and adult figure with his crisp white shirt and casual jeans, was sitting across from me smiling as he explicitly sought to destabilise me. I was scared and unsettled. I tried to shift the discussion to his life and activism, and for a while he told me the story of his family. He described the prominent position his family held during the fascist era, his father’s later participation in the MSI party and finally his own career, initially with FUAN3 and later with CPI, where he had found his “home”.
Suddenly, however, he began to tell me a fictional story, one he said he was using as the plot for a novel he was writing. As the narrative unfolded, however, I felt more and more uncomfortable. It was a story about a woman of my age who was training in a Thai boxing gym where she met a man she was intensely attracted to; only later did she discover that he was a fascist. However, the woman made this discovery while taking off his clothes to have sex, and the man across from me continued to narrate the story in detail, lingering on the sweat, the sex and the smell of their bodies. I was disturbed, but I was unable to stop him; his narration was swift even though he was providing a wealth of detail. The story went on and on, a romance between a left-wing woman and fascist man in which she gave up everything to follow him, and my male informant was indulging in details of sweat, sex and death. At the end of the account, a row broke out between the woman’s family and the fascist and his friend. And, eventually, someone died.
When he finally finished, I told him I had to go, but he insisted on giving me a ride to the metro station, and again I felt helpless and obliged to accept. I climbed into his car, where the radio blasted the music of the movement’s main band, Zeta Zero Alfa. The man continued to grin at me and suggested that we go to the movies or do something else together. In an effort to escape from the situation, my answer was: “We’ll see.”
Once I had entered the subway station, alone, I was finally able to breathe. I had a strange feeling about the meeting. After more than a week of the same recurrent nightmares that would wake me up in the middle of the night, I understood that something was not right. This was no silence that would have required additional words, I realized, but rather a story that needed to be heard. I had imagined I might have to deal with physical struggle deployed as a tool of squadrist4 violence but instead I was being subjected to a psychological assault, which engendered much deeper consequences. I had been paralyzed that day (Nordstrom and Robben, 1995, p. 17). This case involved not the risk of “perturbation intérieure” (Bizeul, 2003, p. 8), but a threat to my personal safety. This episode made me realise the importance of “seduction as a dimension of fieldwork” (Robben, 1995, p. 83). In this case, however, “seduction” was not a tool to persuade me to believe in a political programme or theory of the movement. Seduction in this case was a tool the activist used in an attempt to strengthen his position of power, to counter-balance what he believed to be my role and position. If we look at “when and where things are said” (Visweswaran, 1994, p. 50), moreover, different identities and roles emerge in specific intersections of time and space. The activist was a man with an important and respectable profession that endowed him with a significant status in Italian society, in the CPI movement, and in relation to me, in our fieldwork relationship. I, on the other hand, was young, a woman, and a self-declared non-fascist.
It took me some time to understand what I had been going through. Since I had not recorded the conversation, I was not able to report that he was threatening me and trying to intimidate me as a woman. This was not the same kind of sexual provocation Dematteo describes in relation to the Lega Nord party, where “instances of sexual provocation always have a playful aspect” (Dematteo, 2011, p. 147, translation mine). In this case, the activist was saying that if I did not collaborate with them (becoming a fascist/falling in love/having sex with them), there would be consequences (death). This was more than just “gender incredibility” (Huggins and Glebbeek, 2009, p. 1): it was my personal encounter with the fascist wall, and I could not break it through to the other side. It was not simply a matter of empathy, however. The obstacle had to do with an ethnographic understanding of violence and the impossibility of understanding such violence without feeling it first-hand (Nordstrom and Robben, 1995). By looking into the mirror of the abyss, I was able to see the hierarchy of power hidden behind this specific way of structuring gender relations within fascist ideology.
Taking the risk is not only about falling in love with fascism and “going native”. When dealing with fascist activists – known for their violent acts – the risk also extends to what might happen if you do not become a fascist yourself, if fear performs its main task of defending and protecting. Studying a political movement that uses violence entails having to deal with that violence. Neutrality is not possible in these cases (Sluka, 1995).
I am not the only Italian researcher who chose to study this movement. The year after my fieldwork in Rome, the book by Di Nunzio and Toscano (2011) was published in Italian. I soon acquired a copy, and reading it I was surprised to find, page after page, a description of the movement that was extremely similar to the way the activists present themselves on their own web page. In the first pages of the introduction, the authors describe CPI as a “political and cultural movement”, with no reference to its fascist connection. Since CPI defines itself as a third-millennium fascist movement, how can a sociological study not mention this emic perspective at the outset of the book?
I would like to interrogate the methodological tools sociologists Di Nunzio and Toscano employed in writing up their results. As outlined above, they evidently agreed to collaborate with their research participants in the process of writing, and indeed they disclose their choice at the very end of the book. What are the implications of specific choices of ethnographic collaboration in the process of knowledge production? Who is the “public” the social sciences are writing for? Teitelbaum declared his “paramount concern” to be the activists he was studying. We find a similar positioning in Di Nunzio and Toscano’s book, when they describe the relationship they were able to build with CPI activists as the essential element that provided them with the instruments to work together on the book (Di Nunzio and Toscano, 2011, p. 124). Moreover, the two sociologists criticise Martina Avanza and her decision not to publish in Italian, thus denying Lega Nord activists easy access to the results of her research. On the contrary, Di Nunzio and Toscano argue in favour of sociology as a “critique of ideology and a subjectivating and emancipating tool for both researchers and their objects of study” (p. 125, translation mine), thus implying that they consider sociological knowledge key for promoting the empowerment of the object of sociological investigation, CPI activists in this case. What happens when the researcher falls in love with the movement, when he or she “goes native” without realising it?
Teitelbaum’s paper in Current Anthropology seems to reply to this question by discussing the AAA’s ethical code and claiming to carry out an “immoral anthropology”. I would suggest, however, that the stakes in this case go beyond mere ethics or morality: they speak to scholars’ responsibility in relation to concrete political issues. As Maurice Godelier has very clearly stated, “the anthropologist must be aware of the historical and sociological context in which they conduct their work and in which they will communicate the results of their work in the form of books, films, conferences, exhibitions, etc.” 5 (Godelier, 2016, p. 37.)
In my experience, refusing to collaborate with CPI activists in writing my research notes and resulting dissertation led to concrete consequences. I had to face threats during fieldwork and stop my ethnographic data collection due to my refusal to accept the conditions they imposed. I did not return to Rome after that episode. My dissertation (Cammelli, 2014) is based on the material I managed to collect in the period of time I was “negotiating” access to the field, supplemented with secondary sources and daily press reviews.
At this point, let me turn to the afterlife of my ethnography with the CPI movement, and especially my choice to encounter the “public” through book presentations and discussions (Cammelli, 2015, 2017a) held across Italy. My aim here is to explore what this choice of engaging with the public may reveal both in defining the kind of public we speak to as anthropologists and, on the other hand, in exploring how the afterlife of ethnography may enrich our understanding of contemporary fascism.
In November 2016, I was invited to Pordenone and Portogruaro, two cities in North-East Italy, to give presentations in public libraries located in the two city centres. For the first time since the publication of my book, the CPI page had “liked” the event on Facebook, suggesting that they definitely knew about the presentations. I decided to attend the event regardless, wondering “What will a ‘like’ on Facebook look like in real life?”
When I arrived at the public library, it appeared that a violent demonstration was taking place. There was a police jeep, four police air squads and the head of the local police department along with several officers from Italy’s political police force. They were all there – in their words – to “protect the author”. And yet none of them came to speak with me. I went inside the library while some of the organisers (a local anti-fascist collective that had rented the public library spaces for the two presentations) remained at the door. On both occasions, the rooms were soon filled to capacity. The debate commenced. While I was speaking, I saw some people roaming around, and I later heard from the organisers that there was a group of 30 to 50 third-millennium fascists staging a demonstration (not authorised by the authorities) in front of the library. They were blocking traffic but the police did not force the protesters to move away. The demonstrators wished to participate in the debate, but they were lining up military style along the street, a few metres from the entrance to the library. On both these occasions, I found myself speaking in front of 60 or 100 people while this militarised drama unfolded outside.
At the end of the presentation there was the usual question and answer time, and people in the audience started to raise their hands to asks questions or make comments. The context was eerie: we felt the tension seeping in from outside, but at the same time the room where we were assembled was full of people of all ages, people who had crossed – or more precisely, walked along – the fascist line to enter the library. They were sincerely interested people driven by personal and collective reasons. This is the kind of “public” I consider to be my “paramount concern”.
A man in his 50s raised his hand and started to share his experience. One of the men standing outside military-style to intimidate and discourage participation in the debate was his son, he said. He was asking me for suggestions and advice about how to behave with his son. I did not have any suggestions, however. I was unable to relieve the father’s pain for having a fascist son. Nonetheless, I could though show him that fascism was a widespread phenomenon in the third millennium, attracting more and more young men with specific affective and emotional needs. His son’s militancy could be understood as the expression of a need for a community to engage with, as such sense of community belonging represents one of the main features of fascism as a style of life in the present historical moment (Cammelli, 2017b). Understanding fascist activists and their involvement and in some way humanising their desire and needs does not imply overlooking or downplaying the seriousness of this movement’s violence, as those 50 men lined up like soldiers along the street for the whole evening illustrated. Nonetheless, I feel that the book presentation’s audience was the right public to be speaking to. And the father’s tears remind me both of the key place violence plays in fascist stances even today, and the important role public ethnography can play in sharing the questions and insights developed during research with the public.
It is worth noting that, prior to that presentation, I had already given many other public presentations at universities, public bookstores or other public places that any CPI activist could have accessed. In the approximately 15 months after the book was published I gave more than 30 public presentations and discussions around Italy, and I suppose they did indeed attend some of them. On that day as well, if any of them had come as individuals to attend the presentation, they would have been offered a seat. It is quite a different approach to deploy 50 activists, all of them sturdy men, lined up military-style and demanding that they be let into a hall which they would have filled to the brim.
This example epitomises what happens when a social scientist decides to meet the public (Fassin, 2015, p. 607). On the other hand, the afterlife itself represents a tool for comprehending this political phenomenon and the possibilities and dangers involved in engaging with it. In this case, this episode also reveals the attitude police forces and authorities adopt when facing CPI, for instance allowing them to hold a non-authorised demonstration in front of a public library. And, lastly, it illustrates the compliance mainstream media and press outlets display in relation to this movement: the day after, CPI activists were invited to local television networks and were quoted in the main local newspaper claiming that they were being “excluded from the democratic debate”. No journalists thought to call the author of the book, however.
This episode indicates how widely fascism as a style of life and political culture has spread through the Italian society. However, it also raises some important questions about the freedom to conduct research and disseminate knowledge in contemporary Italy, as the Monitor on the Freedom of Research on fascism of yesterday and today has reported6 . Nonetheless, my case is not isolated. Historians specialising in fascist history, Mussolini’s life or squadrist violence are accustomed to being confronted by historical fascists or their relatives and sued for defamation or involved in similar legal disputes (Cammelli and Franzinelli, 2016).
The “failure” of an ethnographic relationship does not mean the failure of the ethnography. On the contrary, the ethnography appears to continually take on new life, enriched by new materials and elements further attesting to the importance of taking the risk to understand “what the hell is going on” (Green, Friedman, Gingrich and Eriksen, 2003).
In discussing the tools that might foster our understanding of the diffusion of fascist ideology today, Douglas Holmes recently argued that ethnography “can provide a sustainable analytical approach: one that treats fascism as a heuristic device – rather than an all-encompassing definition – capturing this phenomenon as it is taking form with all its fugitive features and contradictory elements intact” (2019, p. 66).
In this paper, looking at the specific difficulties, dangers, risks and opportunities of fieldwork with a self-declared third millennium fascist movement, I have tried to give some insights into the dangers of ethnographic research on such a subject.
I have explored the possibilities of crossing the empathy wall in order to develop an emic look at what is involved in feeling like a third-millennium fascist activist. This narration of the difficulties and risks of my fieldwork reveals the community-based feeling of belonging that grants sense and direction to the actions of activists, in line with the politics of affect as a specific element of more widespread array of integralist and neo-nationalist political activities in Europe (Bangstad et al., 2019; Holmes, 2000). It suggests how the emotion of fear may play a central role in the ethnographic relationship and process of knowledge-formation. On the one hand there is the fear of CPI activists that they will not be represented as they wish, and on the other hand there is my own fear as a researcher of the dangers and potential for violence in this fieldwork context. At the same time, my fear also points to the way to escape.
Getting to know third-millennium fascists, trying to understand and establish proximity with them may entail breaking through the empathy wall, thus exposing oneself to the concrete violence of activists – be it physical, psychological, gender-oriented or structural (Scheper-Hughes and Bourgois, 2003). Taking the risk of conducting fieldwork with neo-fascist activists may be less “fancy” than it could appear in Teitelbaum’s problematic paper (2019). Furthermore, it raises questions about the reality of violence as a concrete dimension of living (Nordstrom and Robben, 1995, p. 9) in our world and, at the same time, the responsibility of anthropologists and social scientists to take this risk of witnessing the continuity of such violence over time and through space. I believe the practice of violence in this third-millennium fascist movement represents the fundamental difference between investigating generally xenophobic or nationalist political parties and seeking to conduct research on those that explicitly self-identify as fascist. Such violence directly influences the fieldwork relationship.
Taking the risk is thus an invitation for the anthropological community to consider the political consequences of “collaborating with the radical right” (Teitelbaum, 2019), as such collaboration provokes issues which may go beyond the “immoral anthropology” Teitelbaum provocatively outlines. One of these consequences is evident when we focus on the question: what kind of public do social scientists consider their “paramount concern” outside of academia? Should it be the activists themselves? Or citizens interested in working for democracy and peace? Neutrality does not exist, neither as a quality of the ethnographic relationship, nor as a quality of ethnographic writing. The fact that neither Teitelbaum’s nor Di Nunzio and Toscano’s publications mention a single episode of aggression committed by the groups they study is a proof that objectivity – in the sense of neutrality – does not exist in the process of knowledge-production. Silenced or supressed episodes may be very important for understanding a phenomenon. Teitelbaum’s paper is potentially quite dangerous when he views “solidarity as synonymous with intimacy as a scholarly knowledge practice”, to use the words of Professor Kirsten Bell in the debate (2019, p. 424), and when he forgets to situate the subjects of his research as active actors in the European and Swedish political arena.
“Going native”, in this case, may be a risk the anthropological community could decide not to take, as it is not “another risk”, as argued by Jonathan Friedman. In this specific fieldwork, maintaining the right “distance” and retaining the freedom to exit the field is a challenge of primary importance for the anthropological community and in ensuring that freedom of research and writing continue to stand as cornerstones of the process of knowledge-production.
The fieldwork in Rome was part of my PhD research in anthropology, jointly carried out at EHESS, Paris, and the University of Bergamo, Italy. I wish to thank my three supervisors – Jonathan Friedman, Bruno Riccio and Enrico Giannetto – for their support in that period. The afterlife of ethnography was possible thanks to the debates organised in Italy by many individuals and collectives. I wish to especially thank the collectives of Pordenone and Portogruaro for their exemplary humanity: I hope this paper may contribute to shedding light on the difficult context they face everyday. Finally, I wish to especially thank Bruno Riccio, who supported me over this entire decade, pushing me to find the strength to put pen to paper.
Je remercie Émilie Lecoulant pour la traduction du résumé de cet article de l’anglais vers le français.