The biggest scandal in Italian politics

Never mind Tessa Jowell's husband David Mills; it's the Italian magistrates hunting him that we should be worried about.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

The British press is biting the heels of another New Labour government minister, Tessa Jowell, whose husband’s convoluted financial affairs are believed to hide bribes from ‘Mr B’ – Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Little has been proved against Jowell’s husband David Mills, who is, after all, a lawyer who worked for Berlusconi at one point, and then later gave evidence against him in an Italian court. However, the UK cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell’s judgement clearing culture secretary Tessa Jowell has not stopped the media feeding-frenzy.

The Milan prosecutors, Fabio de Pasquale and Alfredo Robeldo, are the ones throwing blood into the water. De Pasquale was forced to deny that their probe into Berlusconi was politically motivated and timed to coincide with the start of the election campaign in which former EU Commissioner Romano Prodi challenges the Italian premier.

For David Mills, it is enough that he is associated with Berlusconi for him to smell fishy to British noses. In Britain, the arriviste media-mogul turned premier is a byword for corruption, the King of Tangentopoli. But for all his faults, Berlusconi is not the real danger to democracy in Italy. Odd as it sounds, the magistrates are the greater threat to democracy. Their record serves as a warning of what happens when unelected officials gain authority over elected representatives, claiming to be cleaning up corruption.

Mills’ prosecutor de Pasquale first came to public attention as one of the most militant in the Milan magistrates’ pool prosecuting supposedly corrupt officials in the ‘clean hands’ campaign that gripped Italy between 1992 and 1994. De Pasquale was condemned by the chamber of deputies for his persecutory use of avvisi de garanzia – arrest warrants for detaining witnesses – after he sent Gabriele Cagliari, head of the state holding company ENI, back to prison for another indeterminate detention while his case was investigated. Demoralised by the magistrates’ cat-and-mouse game, Cagliari, who had served successive terms in jail without ever being prosecuted, suffocated himself (1).

The magistrates’ extraordinary powers of detention pending investigation, and of open-ended investigations, date back to the Mussolini-era. But it was the violent political struggles of the 1970s that really saw them establish a unique role in Italian life. Principally it was the failure of the monolithic Italian Communist Party (PCI) to contain radical popular militancy – militancy that later descended into terrorism – which first saw the magistrates assert their power.

In particular, Magistrate Pietro Calogero, a PCI supporter, developed the ‘Calogero theorem’, effectively ‘guilt by association’, to prosecute the far-left intellectual Antonio Negri on terrorism charges (2). In fact, the ‘autonomist’ groups that Negri was a part of, though they did in the end provide many recruits to the Red Brigades, were divided over the use of terrorism, with Negri clearly opposing. That did not matter to the PCI-affiliated Calogero, for whom the opportunity to frame Negri on terrorism charges was too tempting. Negri’s ultra-leftism was seducing the younger militants away from the PCI, and for this crime he had to be jailed.

‘The left entered the criminal justice system through the struggle against terrorism’, explained Antonio Negri from the prison cell Calogero put him in. ‘It is the left that led the enterprise of political repression in the late 1970s.’ ‘Which left are you talking about?’, he was asked. ‘The Communists.’ (3)

The influence of the Italian Communist Party seems remarkable, except that it was a fiercely conservative organisation, defending the state and the family against the attacks of the new left radicals. What is more, the Italian state was so weak that it had to rely on the PCI to defend it from popular expectations. The ruling class had been fatally compromised by their enthusiastic embrace of Mussolini’s fascism, and only managed to rule with the support of America on the one hand and the PCI on the other.

Italy’s corporatist structure, led by industrial giants like Gianni Agnelli of the Fiat car combine and Carlo de Benedetti of Olivetti, relied on massive state support through government bodies like the ENI, and hid behind a small clique of so-called Christian Democrats (DC) who had read the signs and broken with fascism in September 1942 (4). The DC would have had no impact if it had not had the support of the PCI, who were under instructions from Moscow to make a broad alliance with the ‘non-fascist’ bourgeoisie. They were also dependent upon The Mob, reintroduced to Sicily by the American army, who recruited Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano to organise supplies and provide muscle to put down the partisans.

The authority of the political class was always weak, but by the 1980s all political options seemed to have been tried, from Christian Democrat to an ‘historic compromise’ that put the PCI into government with the DC, to a coalition between the DC and the Socialists. The DC could no longer rally its troops in the struggle against Godless Communism and the Communists stood revealed as the least radical force in Italian politics. Popular support for the political class was collapsing, and fringe movements, first the Red Brigades on the far left and then the Northern League on the far right, were flourishing.

Voters who had turned a blind eye to corruption in the past, ignoring the crime links of the DC in the South, or the PCI’s dependency on Moscow’s support, suddenly began to see corruption everywhere – even when there was not any. Having failed to gain political influence directly, the left-wing drifted from political to judicial activism. Organised as Magistratura Democratica, magistrates seized on the anti-political mood and started jailing politicians to make them talk. Ten years after the prosecutions of the far-left, said Antonio Negri from his cell, ‘using the same instruments’ the PCI ‘attacked the socialists and the Christian Democrats’ (5). They were led by Milan magistrate and former policeman Antonio di Pietro, in a campaign called mani pulite, or clean hands. People could bargain their way out of jail by giving evidence against others – the same deal that the prosecutors are offering David Mills if he agrees to testify against Berlusconi.

From outside Italy, all reporting has tended to take the magistrates’ allegations as read, while revelling in the humiliation of the politicians. But it is rarely recorded that despite the thousands of months of detention that these politicians have faced, many of the key prosecutions have collapsed. Most notably, Giulio Andreotti, seven times prime minister of Italy, was charged with Mafia links and, incredibly, ordering the death of the reporter Mino Pecorelli. Andreotti’s conviction, resting entirely on the evidence of ‘penitenti‘ Mafia member Tommaso Buscetta in 2002 was widely reported, but his subsequent appeal and acquittal of the murder on 30 October 2003, and then of all Mafia links, was barely reported.

Despite his established innocence, the magistrates succeeded in overthrowing Andreotti’s government, and helped to destroy the Christian Democratic Party. But they were not the only ones leading a populist campaign against the old political system. As a part of the new media-based business elite, Silvio Berlusconi had no love of the Christian Democrats. His Forza Italia movement grew up overnight, boosted by his business organisation Fininvest, promoted on his television channels, incorporating the Northern League, and promising an end to the old political class. In 1994, Berlusconi won the elections with a party that had been formed only months before.

The Democratic Magistrates were appalled at what they had done: they let the right-wing populist Berlusconi seize political power while they were chasing the details of corruption scandals in the courts. Not surprisingly, they attacked Berlusconi with the one weapon they had to hand: prosecution. A dizzying array of corruption charges were laid against him, which succeeded in damaging his coalition with the Northern League, forcing him out of government in December 1994. But in 2001 Berlusconi won again, this time with a mandate to stop the judiciary from interfering in politics. In the same election, former magistrate Antonio di Pietro, the champion of the mani pulite campaign, won just four per cent of the vote.

This time around, the anti-Berlusconi candidate is the bloodless Eurocrat Romano Prodi. Incapable of winning an election under his own steam he depends on the growing unpopularity of Berlusconi’s government – much of it expressed in opposition to his support for the war in Iraq. To help him on his way, the Milan magistrates have sent in one of their most experienced attack dogs, Fabio de Pasquale. The allegations against David Mills are a side-show to that campaign – little more than an attempt to force him to give evidence against his former boss.

No doubt Berlusconi’s government has done a great deal to undermine democracy, both by its abuse of power and the way that it has made a mockery of the political system. But as big a buffoon as Berlusconi is, he is at least willing to put himself before the electorate to get their support. The magistrates, by contrast, thought that they could make the country more to their liking by judicial power. But all they succeeded in doing is making Italy more repressive, overthrowing elected governments, without ever having the courage to put an alternative before the people.

(1) Burnett and Mantovani, The Italian Guillotine, 1998, 128-35

(2) Interview with Sergio Bologna, Libcom

(3) In conversation with Anne Dufourmantelle in Negri on Negri, Routledge, 2004, 55-6

(4) Ginsborg, A History of Contemporary Italy 1943-1988, p 49

(5) In conversation with Anne Dufourmantelle in Negri on Negri, Routledge, 2004, 55-6

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today