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Fascist Biopolitics: 'Empty Cribs' and Full Prisons
“If we shrink, gentlemen, we won’t make the Empire, we’ll become a colony!” Italian dictator Benito Mussolini told Fascist parliamentarians in 1927, reminding them with a wink to do their demographic duty. From the start, Fascism was a project of White racial rescue. Years before Hitler came to power, Il Duce warned of a racial emergency, contrasting fertile African and Asian populations with Europeans who risked extinction.
“Cradles are empty and cemeteries are expanding," he declared. "The entire White race, the Western race, could be submerged by other races of color that multiply with a rhythm unknown to our own.” A Fascist “Battle for Babies” followed, as did extensive social welfare assistance for new mothers, ceremonies for prolific procreators, bans on abortion and contraception, and a tax on bachelors over 25 years old.
Today’s autocratic states continue this Fascist rhetoric about White demise and replacement, and promulgate some similar “corrective” policies. Thanks to Tucker Carlson's week-long Fox News infomercial for autocrat Viktor Orbán, millions of Americans now know about Hungary's "solution" to demographic decline: a "pro-family" state, as Carlson terms it, family being defined as White, Christian, and heterosexual.
“Europe has become the continent of the empty crib,” said Katalin Novák, Hungary’s minister for family and youth affairs, in 2019, reprising Mussolini’s words. And just as during Fascism, only certain people are encouraged to procreate. "We don't just want numbers, we want Hungarian children," Orbán makes clear.
Welcome to the world of biopolitics, or the investment of modern states in social engineering and population management to further ideological and military goals. Biopolitics provides a window on a century of authoritarian actions. For example, strongman states have persecuted the same groups for generations, labelling them as non-(re)productive members of society or as “degenerate” and thus harmful to the nation's purity. Migrants, nomadic peoples, the homeless, Jews, Muslims, and other ethnic and religious minorities, the disabled, and the LBGTQ+ community are common targets. A 2020 Hungarian law that ended legal recognition of intersex and transgender individuals and defined marriage as between a man and a woman is in this tradition.
Mussolini provided the blueprint for Fascist biopolitics, although the Nazis’ use of it is better known. Il Duce coined the term "totalitarian" in 1925 to express his vision of a state that would intervene in all areas of life to create ideal Fascist subjects and rid the nation of all pathology. The concept of bonifica, or reclamation, first referred to Mussolini's "drain the swamps" campaign (getting rid of malaria to create arable land south of Rome and in Sicily and Sardinia). It soon came to stand for a more sinister process of reshaping the population to fit the regime’s political needs, including by quarantining or eradicating “diseased” elements. This was human reclamation, or bonifica umana.
In his landmark 1927 Ascension Day speech, Il Duce cast himself as a “clinician” who undertook “necessary hygienic actions” to defend Italian people from criminals, alcoholics, Slavs, homosexuals, and leftists and other political dissidents. “We remove these individuals from circulation just like a doctor does with an infected person,” he concluded chillingly.
That meant locking up and killing state enemies, which took them out of the procreative pool and protected the healthy from contagion. "An enormous and disordered development of some individuals and groups would be for society what an enormous and disordered development of cells is for an animal organism: a fatal disease,” said Mussolini's Minister of Justice, Alfredo Rocco, explaining such actions.
This “therapeutic” approach to governance had a genocidal outcome long before World War Two. Italy had occupied Libya since 1912 but had been unable to dominate the interior. In 1930-1931, to break longstanding resistance in the eastern Cyrenaica region, the Fascists deported over 100,000 Bedouin and semi-nomads to concentration camps in the desert; 40,000 died of execution, starvation, and disease. For the commander of this operation, General Rodolfo Graziani, who saw nomadic society as a “poisoned organism” infecting Italian Libya, this was a positive outcome.
Inside Italy, a vast network of penal colonies, confinement zones, and prisons appeared to quarantine the "abnormal." Islands like Ponza turned into torture sites. When Mussolini went after the Italian Jews in 1938 with anti-Semitic legislation, modeled loosely on the Nazi Nuremberg Laws, the Fascist press justified it as a "surgical operation” that removed pathogens to improve the body's overall health.
We can keep this tragic history in mind today as we witness the actions of far-right politicians like Orbán, who are fixated on curtailing "mixed-race populations" and reprise Fascist rhetoric and policies. For the lesson of biopolitics is that some must be repressed to allow others to thrive. When "empty cribs" become a state preoccupation, full prisons are not far behind.
Benito Mussolini, preface to Riccardo Korherr, Regresso delle nascite: Morte dei popoli (Rome, 1928), 10, 19.
Alfredo Rocco, "La dottrina politica del fascismo," Scritti e discorsi politici (Milan, 1925), 3:1103.
Rodolfo Graziani, Cirenaica pacificata (Milan, 1932).
“Come coprire I vuoti,” Vita universitaria, October 5, 1938, for anti-Semitic measures as a surgical operation.