Berlusconi: Still Doing Nothing, Still There

Silvio Berlusconi’s political success wasn’t unexpected: he didn’t land like an alien into a calm, efficient democracy or transparent economy. His success in fact represents the synthesis of Italy’s democratic and economic decline, to which he has contributed.

Since 1978, when the former prime minister Aldo Moro was murdered by the Red Brigades, Italy has lost political direction and momentum for reform. Community spirit has eroded as the fight against fascism, which was the republic’s founding principle, has been extinguished. Since the 1980s, the regulatory role of parliament and the justice system has given way to the demands of the economy – defined as “liberal”, but in fact corporatist and clientelist. Italy has become fragmented into warring interest groups, weak or powerful, which have abandoned any sense of society. It’s ruled not by the laws of the market or the state, but by privilege, exclusion, resentment and fear. (There are more civilized exceptions in the “red” centre and the north.)

It’s no surprise that insecurity affects a society that feels a decreasing need to adhere to norms in order to live together. Italians instinctively sense that this culture of lawlessness penalizes them all, but they would still rather get a free ride (and evade justice) than return to collective responsibility and respect for the rules. A culture of loyalty to family and insiders, and indifference to outsiders, has contributed to a rise in corruption, even at the heart of government . There is less space in public life for legality, transparency or idealism. Instead there is private interest and jostling for precedence. Society is now constructed around personal loyalties and clienteles: favouritism and doing deals have replaced law, rights and duties. We are not just in an economic, social and political crisis, but a moral one where trust is being wasted.

The collapse of the left has played a major role in Berlusconi’s success. When it was in power, the left was riven by doubts and division. It formed an alliance with a minority Catholic party and became the party of intellectuals (diminishing in number), public-sector workers and pensioners. It only retains a following in the central regions such as Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany; rightwing clientelism dominates the rest of the country.

The “clean hands” judicial investigation into political corruption in the 1990s brought about the end of the First Republic, and the disappearance of many political parties. Berlusconi managed to embody the popular disgust towards politics, culture and elites that followed, turning it to his own advantage. His strength is his populism, fed by the media, his personal charisma and his promise to cater to the interests, fears and passions of ordinary people. He offers his supporters a cynical political culture opposed to institutions, and a rhetoric of traditional, anti-intellectual, petit bourgeois values. His tirades against parliament (where he has a majority) and against judges (whom he wanted to grant him immunity from prosecution) show that he accepts no limits to his personal power.

Then there is his muscular interpretation of the role of prime minister. Berlusconi sees his election to the post as the direct expression of public favor, an investiture that confers upon him, the chosen one, the anointment of the Lord (his own words in 1994), and places him largely above the law. His authority is not the result of a rational electoral process but of a symbolic representation of the will of the people, who recognise themselves in the mythical figure of their leader. People love him because they understand him and feel secure with him. (They are encouraged to hate “communists”, a term used by the right to designate anyone who questions the value system of the majority.) For Berlusconi, the public sphere is not a forum for criticism but for publicity, propaganda and enthusiastic consensus.
Such authoritarian and charismatic leadership is the opposite of antifascism: none of the main parties from the National Liberation Committee (The political leadership of Italian partisans during the German occupation of the second world war, which included the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, Partito d’Azione and Christian Democracy) took part in Berlusconi’s first government in 1994.

And it has nothing in common with liberal democracy; this is clear from the attacks on the freedom of the press, the abandonment of any idea of secularism in politics (economic privileges given to the Catholic Church, and ostentatious respect for its directives on bioethics), and the stirring of xenophobia and fear. Power has been transferred from parties to individuals, or rather to one individual. And instead of the “constitutional arch”, we have a society divided down to its ethnic origins. The constant reference to “them and us” gives a false sense of unity in a fragmented society where economic and social inequalities have been deliberately maintained. (The “Arch” was a political term used in the 1960s and 70s to refer to the parties that had participated in drafting the 1948 constitution. These included communists and liberals, but excluded the Italian Social Movement (MSI), which was not anti-fascist.)

Impunity for all

Far from being the man of action he likes to portray himself as, Berlusconi is a man of inaction. His policy is laissez faire, not in the proto-liberal sense, but in the sense that he allows each power or interest group to preserve its privileges and to seek to increase them at the expense of weaker groups, including the tax man (the fight against capital flight has been lost). Berlusconi is the first to benefit from this policy: his own unresolved conflicts of interest have become part of the political landscape and now pass without comment. And his irregular status guarantees impunity for every citizen’s infringement of the rules, big or small.

Berlusconi’s position, and the consensus he enjoys, allows him to saturate public life with the thinking and practices of the private sector. This does not apply to public-sector workers: the ministry for public administration closely monitors their efficiency and adherence to the law . (On 25 June 2008 the government passed a law, drawn up by the minister of public administration, which punishes public-service workers for taking sick leave, docking their salaries for the first 10 days of absence, irrespective of the total length of sick leave.)It is not just the rich and powerful who vote for Berlusconi. His supporters include the middle classes, white-collar workers and a section of the working classes, who are disappointed with the left’s policy of collective security, the welfare state and even the principle of equality. They prefer to believe the hopes, illusions and resentment they are fed by the right. They trust in Berlusconi to help them, perhaps with the aid of the state.

The gulf between Berlusconi’s words and deeds show he is as unscrupulous as any professional politician. He reneged on his 2001 electoral promise to cut taxes for all, pursuing instead a policy that went against the interests of the poorest. As for the free-market anti-trust measures introduced by Romano Prodi’s government, or the right of consumers to bring class action lawsuits against private businesses, Berlusconi’s administration stripped them of any power by adding amendments benefiting big business.

Berlusconi may have inherited his supporters from the old Christian Democracy Party, but not its policies: these were taking votes from the right and recycling them to the centre-left, to promote democracy. Instead, he takes votes from the centre and uses them to maintain the status quo, and bolster his own power.

Short-termism only benefits the strong, and though many Italians think they are smart enough to survive, they are being fooled. Ignoring the crisis, as the right is doing, will not make it go away. Perhaps one day Italians will realize that Berlusconi’s policy of doing nothing has been a disaster, and they will break free from his spell and sever the pact they made with him.

In June, Berlusconi came through the worst scandal of his career, which would have destroyed any other western politician: it has been alleged that prostitutes were flown by government chartered planes to his villas in Rome and Sardinia for private parties. Despite this, opinion polls and elections show that the majority of Italians continue to trust him, if a little less than before. (Berlusconi’s party was successful in the European and regional elections of 20-21 June 2009 but did not reach the 40% threshold he had been aiming for.)

Berlusconi will leave the political stage one day. But has Italy changed so much under his leadership that it will no longer be able to return to the politics of the past?

Translated by Stephanie Irvine.

CARLO GALLI is professor of history of political thought at Bologna University and president of the Gramsci Institute, Emilia-Romagna.

This article appears in the October  edition of this excellent monthly, whose English language edition can be found at This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features one or two articles from LMD every month.