Attacking Berlusconi for all the wrong reasons

His bank balance, foul language, rumoured plastic surgery: the left focused on Berlusconi's personal foibles because politically they aren't that different to him.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

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Italy’s premier, on-and-off, since 1994, Silvio Berlusconi was a no-holds barred champion of the propertied classes. He regaled his opponents as closet Stalins, and made unfeasible promises of abolishing taxes in a last-ditch attempt to rally the right. But despite the all-too real problems with Berlusconi’s politics, the opposing Union coalition of Romano Prodi always managed to attack him for the wrong thing – which is why they failed to win a decisive mandate. As things stand, Prodi’s Union has won the lower chamber with less than one per cent majority and seems to have won the Senate.

Most pointedly, the left were transfixed by Berlusconi’s personality. As much as his Forza Italia party was a one-man show with a personality cult that itself seemed modelled on Stalin, Berlusconi’s left-wing opponents managed to be even more fixated on his personal characteristics, his smile, his plastic surgery, and his personal wealth. The preoccupation with character was indicative of the central problem with their campaign.

The left is characterised by its lack of political differentiation from Berlusconi’s free market politics, so they are obliged to make an issue out of his personality. It was a strategy that only showed up the essential blandness of their preferred candidate, Romano Prodi, the former bureaucrat and European Commissioner.

Allied to the issue of personality is the left’s preoccupation with Berlusconi’s allegedly crooked business dealings. But despite 15 separate investigations into his empire, the over-zealous magistrates have only managed to find against him on one relatively minor perjury charge.

Of course Berlusconi is a businessman, and a wealthy one at that. It would be remarkable if there were no questionable deals in his past. But the attempt to paint him as uniquely crooked is the left’s way of keeping up the rhetorical character of attacking big business when in truth they have wholly accommodated themselves to market capitalism.

More problematically, the radicals have accustomed themselves, and wider society, to letting the magistrates decide the questions of who rules – a power that they will find can work against them as well as for them (see The biggest scandal in Italian politics, by James Heartfield).

The radicals’ other fixation is with Berlusconi’s media empire. Struggling to explain their own inability to win over the electors in 1994 and 2001, the left blamed Berlusconi’s grip over the media – though in fairness the main Italian newspapers remain hostile to him.

It is an argument that tends to cast the electorate as morons, programmed to vote Forza Italia at the flick of a switch, or the call of a football chant. Paul Ginsborg, an otherwise sensible writer on Italy’s politics, drifts off into just such a confusion, in his desire to explain away the left’s failure to gain ground among women voters:

‘The connection between housework and the advertising of commodities, between the consumption of goods and the formation of subjectivities, between female viewing and the packaged messages of the charismatic male political figure, are here to be found in striking form.’ (Silvio Berlusconi, Verso, 2005, p98-9.)

The furore over Berlusconi’s ‘vulgar language’ in seeming to call the voters coglioni – essentially, bollock-brains – has found the left protesting that the prime minister holds the electorate in contempt. But it is a contempt that they have felt for the electorate for a decade.

Throughout Berlusconi’s premiership the evasions of the Italian left have married with the prejudices of Europe’s political elite to construct a great caricature of the one-time variety singer Berlusconi. In Britain, the left demonstrated against what they seriously argued to be the restoration of fascism in Italy. Even The Economist railed that Berlusconi was not fit to be premier in 2001 – a judgement the Italian people did not share.

Throughout, the British media failed to get the measure of Berlusconi’s success in rallying his supporters to prevent a rout, because they have no insight into the aspirations that he appeals to. Berlusconi’s tax-cutting measures were reported as though it was unfair to appeal to people’s bank balances instead of their willingness for self-sacrifice. A reliance on polls repeated the media’s failure in the 1992 British General Election when people told (mostly educated, middle-class) pollsters what they thought they wanted to hear – and in the current situation in Italy, that meant the voters saying they would make the respectable choice, Prodi, over the wild man, Berlusconi.

The strengths of Berlusconi’s campaign were all those things for which he was criticised. The demotic raising of the temperature was needed to maintain a sense of something at stake. The vulgar language was a way of signalling to the voters that he was one of them, not speaking in political officialese or respecting the conventions of polite society. Prodi’s Union coalition affected to be outraged, which only confirmed the perception that they were the fastidious fusspots, while Berlusconi was ‘just like us’ – quite an achievement given the difference in wealth that separates Berlusconi from the greater share of the electorate.

Europe and Italy’s educated classes seem to have got their wish in seeing the back of Berlusconi. But it is a loss that will only make explicit the lack of vision guiding the left. Their chosen candidate staked his ground so firmly in the centre that there is no mandate for any radical action, despite the support of the far left for Prodi’s coalition.

Prodi’s message to the voters has been to promise stability – to argue that Italy should live within its means, that the state should be strong (especially the maverick magistrates), and that more authority should be devolved to the European Union. In reaction to Berlusconi’s coglioni comment, Prodi’s supporters appeared on the streets with posters reading ‘proud to be a bollock’. It is a useful summation of their programme.

James Heartfield is a writer based in London. Visit his website here.

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Topics Politics


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