The end of the Berlusconi show?

Guy Rundle reports from Rome on how the disarray of the left has helped to keep the man they love to hate in power.

Guy Rundle

Topics World

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It was early March and Rome was plastered with posters for the upcoming regional elections. The polls were of great importance, not only in relation to issues of health, education and transport, but also for the prestige of the parties themselves and for the the future of the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Some people are very keen to remove him from power.

‘I hope you won’t be portraying Italians as some sort of crazy people.’ Marco Fedi, a member of parliament for Partida Democratica (PD), the now thrice-removed descendant of the Italian Communist Party, eyed me with mild suspicion. ‘No, not at all’, I say, head spinning from the rocket-strong espresso I just downed. ‘I’m really here to get beyond the stereotypes.’ ‘Good’, Fedi replies, ‘because the campaign to remove Berlusconi is a serious one’.

I really was trying to look beyond the stereotypes, but Italy was not making it easy. A few days after meeting Fedi, operatives for Berlusconi’s People of Liberty party (PDL) had failed to get their nomination forms in for the all-important elections in Lazio (the Rome region) and Lombardy (centred on Milan). The incompetence was farcical.

In Rome, a hapless PDL operative had first arrived too early to submit the forms, and then returned too late. He first claimed that an emergency had befallen his young daughter, and then that he had slipped out for a panini, desperately invoking the two great Italian passions: family and sandwiches. In Milan, the scandal was a more predictable matter of several hundred dodgy signatures among the 5,000 required for nomination. ‘Friends in Rome who called me about it were laughing so hard they couldn’t speak’, Emilio, a veteran leftist told me. While big scandals tend to be similar everywhere, small scandals really do reflect the national culture. In the UK it’s MPs claiming expenses for duck houses and bath plugs, in Italy it’s sandwiches and showgirls, whom Berlusconi is known to entertain.

For many outside commentators, the end of the Berlusconi era will represent the closing of a bizarre chapter in Italian life. Across the board, commentators tell a similar narrative: after the years of the first republic (1948-1992), the constant conflicts, the tenuous coalitions and the lethal ‘years of lead’, Italians got sick of politics. The so-called ‘operation clean hands’, or mani pulite, nationwide judicial investigation into political corruption in the 1990s made visible the intricate system of corruption embracing all but the Communist Party of Italy (PCI) and the further left parties. It led to the collapse of the party system, and left a void into which entered property developer and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi.

Italians, so the story goes, previously unused to vapid US-style feelgood presidential sales campaigns, fell for Berlusconi and he has dominated politics ever since. Although there is some truth to this tale, it is exaggerated by outsiders to portray Italy (and the whole of southern Europe) as emotional, passionate and foolish, in contrast to the cool and rational north. In the wake of 2008’s financial crash this cultural model has even been deployed to explain the diverging fortunes of north and south. But while Berlusconi took showmanship to a new level, the trend, some say, predates him. ‘It wasn’t Berlusconi who started this, it was [the former, Socialist Italian prime minister] Bettino Craxi’, Emilio, a sociologist, tells me. ‘Craxi really learnt how to use TV, to appear like a US leader, to make it about him. He taught Berlusconi everything.’

In this view, the transition to a new type of politics in Italy began not with the cataclysmic events of the 1990s – the end of the Cold War, ‘clean hands’ and the collapse of Italy’s old political order – but with the effective defeat of any sort of left alternative in the 1970s. It was then that Emilio, a key autonomist theorist forced into exile by the crackdown on the left in the late 1970s, observed an emerging political vacuum. ‘How can you leaflet at a factory when the Red Brigades have shot two people there the week before?’ he says. The subsequent years, during which thousands of leftist activists were forced into exile, gave way to a ‘historic compromise’, sealed by the PCI’s firm support for the state’s move against the far left.

If the collapse of a radical alternative created the conditions for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to emerge in the Anglosphere, in Italy it led to an economic-cultural re-engineering of society, driven by the political imperative to remove the conditions that had initially given rise to the far left. The large-scale factories that had created autonomism as a political practice, not to mention a theory of Fordism itself, were successively replaced in the north by smaller, interconnected workshops increasingly refocused on smaller consumer goods, with mass manufacturing subsequently outsourced to Eastern Europe and China. It was this era that saw the growth and spread of the Northern League in Italy’s north, and its largely confected notion of a ‘Padanian’ homeland. Post-industrial restructuring and northern identity politics reinforced each other. This wasn’t just the work of the right. In ‘Red Bologna’ for example, protection was extended by the ruling Communist Party to small shops and businesses, preserving ways of life that have now made the city a tourist attraction in its own right.

Despite the restructuring of Italy’s social and industrial framework, a sense of left and right as embattled camps remained – even after the ‘clean hands’ investigations, usually seen as marking the dawn of a new politics. ‘Berlusconi’, explains Emilio, ‘went to the Christian Democrats first and he said “my God the left are going to win – we have to do something”, and they offered him a Senate seat, which is like being buried. So he started his own party.’

Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, taking its name from a terrace football chant, was simultaneously political party, fad movement, and media simulation, with its own song and ‘club colours’. Yet these lurid elements have attracted more focus than the rush of professional politicians from all parties to become part of Forza Italia, from technocratic Christian Democrats to the so-called rapanelli (radishes) – conservatives pretending to be communists. The populism and colour of Forza Italia have provided useful cover for technocrats of all parties to institute a centre-right politics in key areas of the Italian state.

Yet for many voters, Forza Italia represented not a transcendence of politics, but another version of a venerable process: that of keeping the left out of power at all costs. It is here that the image of Berlusconi as a plutocrat clown appears to be read in completely the wrong way outside of Italy. Through his wealth, his flagrant rule-breaking (while in office he announced that anyone who paid more than 20 per cent tax was ‘an idiot’) and his cheekiness, Berlusconi was for a certain type of (usually male) voter very simpatico. People were well aware of the dangers of concentrating so much power in the hands of one man, but he was still, at the very worst, preferable to the left. And of course, today, Italians’ political choice is restricted: Berlusconi controls three major TV stations, runs his own publishing company, popular football teams and much more besides.

Two tactics in particular appear to have entered Italian politics along with Berlusconi: repeating single-word slogans over and over, such as ‘freedom’, as a response to every conceivable question, and, allied to this, a sort of Dada craziness which kept political discourse perpetually off-balance. One day Berlusconi is complimenting Barack Obama on his tan, the next he tells L’Aquila earthquake victims that they should treat homelessness as a ‘camping holiday’.

Giuliano Santoro, a journalist at the independent left magazine Carta, notes that the left has long had a problem finding a way to respond to Berlusconi’s style. ‘The left I think has an obsession at the moment with truth telling, and that doesn’t really counter Berlusconi.’ Yet whatever Berlusconi’s undoubted political acumen, the idea that he has somehow hypnotised and bamboozled the whole of Italy is silly. In a post-ideological period, he has undoubtedly attracted a section of the populace that would have voted PCI on the grounds that he represents an idealised identity, the guy who gets away with it. But the anti-left, anti-communist vote in various combinations has dominated Italian politics since 1948, and much of that support has simply passed over to Berlusconi. Ultimately, allied with the former neo-fascist Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance and the Northern League, Berlusconi’s success rests on the disunity of the Left, and as Emilio noted in frustration, ‘because the PD doesn’t stand for anything’ that could be supported. Little wonder Marco Fedi urges his own party ‘to make clear what we stand for’.

That Berlusconi’s support is faltering in the wake of the panini affair is a measure of how late the transition to post-left/right politics was in Italy. It is only now that a section of the electorate feels that they can begin to factor in the farcical and corrupt nature of Berlusconi, and finally cut loose. Yet, tellingly, his popularity survived to a reasonable degree until very recently – even after the surfacing of the most squalid prostitute revelations and his interest in teenage girls. In addition, there have been charges of tax evasion, a separate trial over alleged illegalities in selling film rights in his Mediaset company, and most recently an attempt to keep the critical commentary/satire TV show Anno Zero off the air in the lead-up to the elections. Yet what the panini affair really revealed was not corruption but hopeless inefficiency, an inability to get things done, which had been his selling point.

Many Italians of progressive bent have spent years coming to terms with the success of Berlusconi. In a country that had theorised first the autonomous nature of labour, and then the wider notion of ‘the social factory’, the success of Berlusconi was troubling. He had made his initial fortune by building a wholly self-contained suburb – Milano 2 – outside Milan, and then he started the local TV station that broadcast to it. The result was essentially a microcosm of the Italy he promised, one of freedom – freedom to watch bad TV, to buy stuff… In terms of ‘social factory’ notions, it looked like alienation raised to the highest degree.

That spectacular transition gave the impression that something entirely new had happened in Italy with Berlusconi’s rise. In fact, he may well be the last of an old politics. The emerging politics pits faceless and technocratic leaders of the left against Fini, who has transformed explicit chauvinistic notions of national identity into a more abstract idea of managed social cohesion. Suffice to say that a comparison of Fini’s programme with Gordon Brown’s appeal to ‘Britishness’ would deeply unsettle many a Labour true believer.

The Berlusconi show was a diverting political interlude, but the real political and social transformations may be ahead. Nothing symbolised better the strange reversals of the Berlusconi period than a sequence at the end of the recent BBC documentary The Berlusconi Show, in which the satirist Beppo Grillo performed a song about the period. Impeccably witty and well-made, it was nevertheless far less disruptive, transgressive or funny than its target – the old cruise ship crooner, mugging for the camera, blowing kisses and hurling insults, staying on for as long as an audience was there for the extravaganza.

Guy Rundle is an Arena (Australia) Publications Editor. He is the author of Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 Presidential Election. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

Previously on spiked:

Dominc Standish criticised the illiberal reaction to December’s attack on Berlusconi. He also explained why Berlusconi beat the ‘Italian Obama’ and took a critical view of Italy’s pantomime politics. Elsewhere, he criticised the European press coverage of Italy’s 2001 elections. He also explained why we should save Venice. Or read more at spiked issue Europe.

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

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