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Berlusconi’s Way

Travaglio suggests that the company is laundering dirty money. Clearly something suspicious is going on. What he never mentions is that whenever a piece of real estate changes hands in Italy at least a third of the total value is paid under the table, usually in cash. I know of no exceptions to this habit, at once illegal and tolerated, to the extent that when assessing a client for a mortgage the bank will politely inquire what price he is actually paying for a place as opposed to the price he is declaring for tax purposes. Hence companies dealing in real estate on the truly vast scale of the Berlusconi empire would have needed all kinds of ways of bringing cash amounting to a third of their income into useful circulation.

Travaglio, whose book is mainly an uneasy and inadequately analyzed weave of extended quotations from judicial sources, doesn’t do the work that would be required to give the reader a sense of the relationship of the mysterious sums of money to the size of Berlusconi’s operations overall and the sources of his income. It thus becomes hard to understand what kind or degree of illegality we are talking about. While for the puritan this may hardly seem relevant, for the Italian voter it is crucial.

The same sort of ambiguity hovers over the last and interminably long section of the book, which offers, with no analysis, 170 pages of extracts from the trial, one of the various trials, of Marcello Dell’Utri, to which Berlusconi was called as a prosecution witness. Questioned about a number of potentially illegal movements of huge sums of cash, Berlusconi again and again makes the same fascinating double gesture: on the one hand he assures the judge that back-handers and sweeteners are endemic in the world he moves in, and not only in Italy, but then insists that his companies are unique in never having been involved in such practices. He is clean. On the subject of tax evasion he gives the judge a little lecture that seems to come straight from the political campaign trail:

You know well enough how our tax system works, you know that the present system of high tax rates, the highest in Europe, is such that there is a presumption of systematic elusion and possible evasion. Hence the citizen responds with a certain attitude, on a moral level too that, well… look, a state that doesn’t give back in services what it takes in taxes and that has rates way above the general norm, above the level that our natural sense of justice tells us is right…. When the State asks of a citizen and of the fruit of his toil more than a third of that fruit, then the citizen feels, well… morally at loggerheads with the State.

Having made these appeals, which curiously use exactly the rhetoric of norms and innate morality deployed by those who consider him a scandalous anomaly, Berlusconi then goes on to deny that he or his company has been involved in any wrongdoing. The magistrates could legitimately have picked on anyone but him. I’m reminded of a conversation I recently had with Giambattista Pastorello, the owner of Hellas Verona, a soccer club in Italy’s top Serie A. I asked him whether there wasn’t a conflict of interest in his sons being the agents of some of the expensive players he has bought for the team. “People are just jealous,” he remarked. “The fact is that when an agent is your son he doesn’t ask for twenty thousand dollars under the table when you buy a player.” “Are you saying,” I inquired, “that other player transactions you have made involved illegal payments?” Pastorello smiled: “Of course not.” One of the many trials Berlu-sconi is involved in has to do with his purchase of the player Gianluigi Lentini for his soccer team A.C. Milan, one of the five biggest in Italy. He is accused of false accounting. The general public is not interested.

The comedy of these exchanges between Berlusconi and his judges brings us close to what is not so much the anomaly—for there is no universal norm for public behavior—as one of the main distinguishing features of Italian public life. That there is a gap between what is legal and what is common practice is not unusual anywhere. But a special psychology seems to govern people’s handling of that gap in Italy, with the result that however constantly exposed and alluded to, it never seems to be diminished. The irony of Travaglio’s book is that many of its readers, while suspecting that Berlusconi is guilty as charged, will nevertheless feel a certain sympathy with the man. It is not, they sense, or not only because he has broken the law that he is being put on trial. Behind this intuition lies all the Italian vocation for factionalism. However much one may appeal to national unity and the authority of the state, no institution, least of all the judiciary, is ultimately perceived as anything other than one more warring group in competition with one’s own.

2.

Social Identities and Political Cultures in Italy poses a dull and naive premise: in a “traditional” society people vote “passively,” according to family and community allegiances; in a modern society the individual emerges from family and community and votes “actively,” according to “rational choice.” The author, Anna Cento Bull, a lecturer in European Studies at the University of Bath, sets out to analyze Italy’s position in this presumed evolutionary process by conducting detailed questionnaires of voters in Sesto San Giovanni, an area of declining heavy industry in the suburbs of Milan that traditionally voted Communist; and in Erba, a small town near Lake Como that traditionally voted Christian Democrat.

Both communities, like so many in Italy, have recently changed their voting patterns, with DS (the erstwhile Communist Party) losing their majority in Sesto and the Christian Democrats all but disappearing in Erba. Nevertheless, the author’s findings, diligently collected and reviewed with an admirably open mind, do not indicate a move to the vision of the sovereign individual deciding how to vote on the basis of rational self-interest mediated by conscience. In particular, the huge 1996 vote in Erba for the federalist, if not separatist, Northern League suggests a renewal of localism, with people consistently voting in line with community and family. The phenomenon obliges the author to consider the notion that the future of a sense of identity does not reside entirely with the freewheeling individual. On the contrary, where such an individual exists, he or she may actually choose to join the fold of a collective identity, which, far from being trapped in the past, can be dynamic and forward-looking. But such qualities do not necessarily mean that all is sweetness and light. Bull concludes with a reflection that gets closer than anything else I have read to what one senses is happening in Italian society:

…Whereas traditionally the Catholic and communist subcultures exercised a pervasive influence upon and successfully appeared to encompass the entire territorial community, nowadays a political subculture…seems to represent the interests and needs of specific groups within a territory. The exclusionary aspect of a political subculture (“Us” versus the “Others”) has become more in evidence than its inclusionary one.

In the light, then, of what seems to be an exacerbation of factionalism, rather than the reverse, let us try to understand the story of Berlusconi’s new party, Forza Italia, now by far the largest political party nationwide in Italy, and the prospects for the new government it has formed in coalition with the Northern League and the contrastingly nationalist National Alliance (a party descended from the Movimento Sociale Italiano, which in turn was descended from the Italian Fascist Party).

Born in 1936, the son of a bank clerk who became a bank director, the exemplary young Silvio Berlusconi pays for his university education by singing to tourists on summer cruise ships. In his early twenties he invests his father’s retirement fund in real estate development. In very short order he wins the right to develop Milano 2, a complex of four thousand homes in an eastern suburb of Milan. Generous with space and greenery and including all possible services, the project is recognized as a model development. By the early Seventies Berlusconi’s real estate development company becomes the largest in Italy. Father Luigi and brother Paolo are ever beside him. This is a clan in the making.

With the removal of the state monopoly on TV broadcasting in 1976, Berlusconi begins a cable TV channel for Milano 2 which is rapidly transformed into a local channel for the whole of Lombardy. Hindered by a state monopoly on national broadcasts, he purchases local channels across the country and has them broadcast pre-recorded programs simultaneously. Taken to court, he claims he is fighting for liberty: the image of the modern entrepreneur embattled against the forces of an obtuse and entrenched status quo is born. Certainly the general public is on his side. Berlusconi’s large contributions to the Socialist Party of Bettino Craxi, a key player in the coalition government of the time, guarantee Berlusconi protection and eventually lead to a made-to-measure law that legalizes his position.

Exploiting a consumer-boom thirst for advertising space, Berlusconi’s TV channels rapidly produce huge incomes. He establishes two more national networks and thus commands more than 40 percent of viewing time with a near monopoly in the private sector. In 1991 he is able to offer the first national news program that can compete with the public television channels still largely following the dictates of the old political parties. Italy does not have a strong tradition of independent TV journalism.

Married with two children, Berlu-sconi falls in love with a young actress, divorces, and remarries. This does not prevent him from presenting himself, ad nauseam, as a family man. Three more children, all of them enviably handsome, will follow. The older children take their places in the business. The younger attend a Steiner School which forbids them to watch TV. Meantime, Berlusconi purchases one of Italy’s major book and magazine publishers, Mondadori, and the highly popular A.C. Milan team. His commercial successes seem endless; his largesse to family and friends is huge. With 30,000 employees, he is now the second-largest employer in Italy.

In 1992, the “Clean Hands” investigation into Tangentopoli takes a heavy toll on Berlusconi’s political connections, leaving him without protection. Craxi flees the country to avoid prison. When elections are announced for the spring of 1994, it seems inevitable that the left will at last take power. Berlusconi joins those who speak of “Clean Hands” as an example of one faction’s use of the judicial process to destroy another, not an impartial application of the law. Apparently terrified by the prospect of a left-wing government, he does everything to persuade what players remain in the center and right of Italian politics to form some kind of coalition capable of winning with the country’s new majority voting system. The various fragments will not agree. Advised to the contrary by his closest associates and family, Berlusconi nevertheless forms his own movement, Forza Italia, in February 1993. His instinct is to make it a center party but his market research tells him to stay to the right: a liberal ticket of fewer taxes and radical deregulation is the thing. Bringing together an improbable coalition of the country’s two political pariahs, the Northern League and the National Alliance, he, amazingly, wins the elections of March 28.

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