Professor Gregory Milano presents Main Hall Forum lecture on award-winning article

How did Italian fascist ideology function? Why do its remnants live on in the present day? It was in the stands of an Italian soccer match that Visiting Professor of History Gregory Milano asked himself these questions. He studied abroad in Florence during his New York University undergraduate years and was attending a game when he noticed some ‘ultras’ — extreme Italian soccer fans, many of whom propogate neo-fascist ideologies — in certain teams’ fanbases. With piqued interest and concern, he decided to pursue the study of fascism, which eventually led to the publication of his award-winning article “The Class Without Consciousness: Fascism’s ‘New’ Workers and the 1924 World’s Fair in Rome.” 

Milano has always been intrigued by war and its politics; even as a child he recalled being interested in World War II, which his grandparents — first-generation Italian immigrants — had fought in on behalf of the United States. This background along with that fateful Florence soccer match was his springboard into intensive independent research on the subject.

Detailed archives kept by Mussolini’s regime (who maintained extensive documentation about their workers’ lives) in Rome held the bulk of Milano’s research materials. The archived documents he studied were kept in a building built for the 1942 World’s Fair in Rome. For context, a world’s fair is an international event highlighting nations’ achievements; such events are still held today. Italy began constructing the site of the 1942 World’s Fair in 1937 to be a celebration of 20 years of fascist rule in Italy. However, the fair never ended up taking place. Among the documents Milano studied in the regime archives were medical records of the single doctor available to the World’s Fair workers, police records, domestic and international news articles about the building of the site and a large swath of labor management records. 

Milano lecturing on his article. Photo by Katie Võ.

The final product of Milano’s article, “The Class Without Consciousness,” explores how the Italian fascist regime altered the consciousnesses of proletarian workers building the site for the World’s Fair. The party’s leaders wished to exploit the labor of these workers without addressing issues of class stratification and economic inequality within the population. Perceiving proletariat unity as a threat to the unquestioning society they sought to create, party leaders also had to work to keep the workers from unifying against them. 

Milano argues that the Italian elites sought to “recreate a fascist identity” within the working class’s psychology to maximize their intrinsic conformity to the party’s ideology without requiring methods of coercion. His thesis also analyzes similarities between the architectural “fascist aesthetic” of the World’s Fair buildings themselves and what the regime was trying to accomplish — a mix of modernity and traditionality. In the workers’ case, Milano explained that ‘modernity’ meant being paid a wage for their labor (a new prospect at the time) and ‘traditionality’ meant their goal of proletariat adherence to established hierarchies. 

Milano’s article was published in August of 2021. Not long after, he was awarded with the Society for Italian Historical Studies’ Article Prize for Modern Italian History. The award committee described his article as “broadly received, beautifully written, and meticulously researched” as well as an example of “innovative research.”

Some critics of “The Class Without Consciousness” claimed that they did not see the appeal in an article about the 1942 World’s Fair since the event never actually took place. Milano, however, responded that even though the fair itself never occurred, the site was built with the intention of being a “monument to fascism” and many buildings built remain standing in a bustling hub of commerce in present day Rome. 

Moreover, he points out the parallels between the fascist party’s ideals and prevalent modern-day popular and corporate cultures where members of a workplace imagine themselves as “part of a family” despite their “opposing class interests.” 

Milano delivered a lecture in Main Hall on Monday, Feb. 27 about the article as a part of the continuing Main Hall Forum lecture series. There, he accompanied a summary of his research findings with slideshow visuals of the building site, propaganda posters and other paraphernalia pertaining to the World Fair. The presentation was received well by the attendees, who asked for further information about Milano’s research and findings in the subsequent Q&A session. 

Among other projects, another article of Milano’s critiquing the fascist aesthetic is set for publication this coming fall.