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Italy: The Family Business

underestimates drastically the degree to which other forces were at work in Italian modernity, forces which ran counter to any idea of a facile manipulation of the individual. More Italians than ever before had access to a richly varied series of cultural instruments. The effects of the electronic media were complex and far from unilinear. Education, halting and insufficient, distant light years from providing a real equality of opportunity, nonetheless provided an ever greater minority with the means to make their own, informed decisions, whatever they were…. Fifty years of democracy, imperfect but still democratic, had rubbed off in many unexpected ways.

Ginsborg points out that the old Italy, dominated by two “churches,” the Catholic Church and the Italian Communist Party, was in many ways a more closed society. As the old parties and ideologies have splintered there has been, he notes, an explosion of small civic associations, economic cooperatives, and nongovernmental organizations and charitable groups. “Gone for the most part were the over-dominant ideologies, the old certainties and fanaticisms, as well as the international context which gave rise to them,” he writes. “In their place was a universe of small groups, often concentrating on single issues, pragmatic rather than ideological, inclusive rather than exclusive, non-violent.”

Ginsborg sees much continuity in the rise of Berlusconi through political interference in the mass media. In the 1950s, there was only one television network, RAI 1, dominated by the Christian Democratic Party. In the 1960s a second network, which was strongly influenced by the Socialist Party, was added. In the 1970s, the Communists got their own network. Privately owned TV was introduced in 1976. Ginsborg stresses that the gradual expansion of radio and television as well as the greater access to education has done much to loosen up Italian society. Unfortunately, the old monopoly was replaced by a duopolio composed of RAI and Berlusconi’s three channels.

For Ginsborg, a central quality of Italian life is “amoral familism,” a term coined in 1958 by an American anthropologist to describe the behavior of the citizens of a small, impoverished Italian town where he did fieldwork. He defined it as “the inability of the villagers to act together for their common good, or indeed, for any good transcending the immediate, material interest of the nuclear family.” As Ginsborg points out, an extraordinarily high percentage of Italians live with their parents until marriage, and within the same building or within a few blocks of their mothers after marriage. The divorce rate, about 16 percent, is less than half that of France or Britain and less than a third of that in the US. Eighty-three percent of Italian businesses are family-owned, with fewer than fifty employees; in most of them family loyalty, patriarchal control, and distrust of government are central.

Seen in this light, Berlusconi’s cronyism and acquisitiveness make more sense. In a recent interview with Frank Bruni of The New York Times, Berlusconi was asked why he didn’t simply resolve his conflicts of interest by selling Mediaset. “I wanted to do it,” he replied, “but my children won’t let me. They are in love with my companies. They want to continue to manage what their father constructed. I wanted to sell everything to Rupert Murdoch.” Italian political life is paralyzed by Berlusconi’s conflicts of interest, but, he claims, he can’t sell the family business because he doesn’t want to displease his children. While absurd to outsiders, his reply makes a certain sense to the millions of Italians who own their own businesses and whose primary obsession is passing them on to their children.

Family businesses—even on a large scale—are the most important component of the Italian economy, both a blessing and a curse. The people who run them may be extraordinarily nimble and hard-working, but the tiny number of publicly traded companies means that Italy has lagged way behind in such fields as computers and biotech research, which require significant investment. Italy’s clannish businesses also find ways to outwit the country’s legislature. Because it is virtually impossible to fire anyone in Italy, small-business owners routinely hire and fire people off the books. Italy leads Europe (and perhaps the world) in having some 90,000 laws in force (compared with 7,325 in France and 5,587 in Germany), as well as in lawlessness and tax evasion. Concealing their wealth, the owners of car dealerships, appliance shops, and many other stores routinely pay their assistants and cashiers less than the owners declare on their taxes. These figures, Ginsborg writes, “allowed small shop-owners to survive and to prosper, but created a central block in Italian society, composed of self-employed professionals, small entrepreneurs and shopkeepers who defrauded the state on a massive and habitual basis.”

A huge number of Italians are shopkeepers and self-employed professionals, and they are Berlusconi’s principal supporters, giving him a much larger percentage of votes than the rest of the population. Because they routinely cheat the state and cook their company books, they view the much vaster wrongdoing of the Berlusconi empire with some tolerance. In fact, there is a huge split in Italy between the self-employed, who evade taxes, and salaried employees who, as a result, pay some of the highest rates in the world. Although most Italians in the 1980s cheered when police began arresting corrupt politicians in the Milan investigation known as Operation Clean Hands, much of the population was less thrilled when prosecutors and the government tried to apply the law to the general public with new severity. (As a result of a major crackdown on tax evasion in 1993, family consumption dropped by 2.5 percent.)

The investigation lost popular support not, as Berlusconi claims, because he was singled out for persecution, but because the new moralizing trend started to affect the middle class. Each time he has taken office, Berlusconi has immediately declared amnesties on both tax evasion and illegal building construction—a source of relief for tens of millions of Italians living in a condition of habitual illegality.

In “The Patrimonial Ambitions of Silvio B,” published in the New Left Review earlier this year, Ginsborg observes that Berlusconi speaks very little about democracy but a great deal about liberty. “The liberty that Berlusconi has in mind is prevalently ‘negative,’ a classic freeing from interference or impediment,” he writes. In a campaign speech Berlusconi said, “Every limitation to competition is equivalent to the violation of the freedom and rights of everyone.” This is essentially the code of the Italian shopkeeper who fears the tax and building inspectors.

It is also a disaster for Italy’s environment as well as a gift to organized crime in southern Italy, where building without permits and against zoning laws is a very big business for mafia-owned construction firms. “Illegal constructions, which had reached a peak of 125,000 per year in 1984, had diminished to less than 30,000 by 2001,” Ginsborg writes. “Their numbers have now begun to rise rapidly again, above all in Sicily.”

But Berlusconi has little serious interest in genuine economic competition, which would threaten his own monopolistic positions as well as threaten too much of his electorate. Shopkeepers, for example, depend on government regulations that have guaranteed that Italy has the highest number of shops and the lowest number of supermarkets of any country in Western Europe. Thus Berlusconi, while highly energetic in defending his own interests, has been surprisingly indecisive and ineffective in carrying out economic reforms.

Berlusconi is at home in an Italian economy with a high degree of government involvement and patronage, hence opportunities to reward friends and punish enemies, which allow him to act as a kind of national paterfamilias. He is known for his lavish generosity and his followers like to say, “he is too good.” He has given his top managers—many of whom are also potential witnesses against him—millions of dollars in personal gifts rather than company bonuses. But Berlusconi’s generosity is that of patron to protégé, not something between equals. Berlusconi has established “amoral familism” on a national and even planetary scale.


It would be a mistake to dismiss Berlusconi as a vaguely comical product of an Italian subculture. Italy has a remarkable record in the twentieth century as a kind of laboratory of bad ideas that have then spread to other parts of the world. Fascism was invented in Italy, so was the mafia; and left-wing terrorism went further in Italy than in any other European country. All three were byproducts of a weak democracy with few checks and balances. As a country that was late to unify and industrialize, Italy is a place where all the strains and problems of modern life are present, but with few of the safeguards that exist in older, more stable nations; ideas get taken to their logical extreme. The increasingly close relations between big money, politics, and television are important everywhere, but in Italy, thanks to Berlusconi’s domination of the networks and the press, they have achieved a kind of apotheosis. He has now introduced a law that will make it legal for him to own newspapers as well.

Personalizing politics through television and the decline of traditional political parties; the rise of billionaire politicians (Ross Perot, Steve Forbes, Jon Corzine, and Mike Bloomberg to name only a few) who circumvent party organizations by purchasing vast amounts of television time—all this has become familiar in the US. Moreover, the deregulation and politicizing of American broadcasting—the elimination under Reagan of the “fairness doctrine” and the loosening of public interest requirements and of restrictions on monopoly—all have counterparts in recent Italian history, although Reagan was certainly not following Italy’s example. The aggressive, partisan style of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and of Rush Limbaugh’s talk show is eerily reminiscent of the highly slanted Berlusconi channels.

Television, like industrialization and democracy, was slow to arrive in Italy, coming in 1954, several years after it was introduced in the US. It was a stodgy, government-cotrolled medium until 1976, when the Italian high court allowed for private broadcasts on a limited, local basis. Berlusconi jumped into the market, with powerful political backing, particularly from the Socialists. He created a national network in defiance of court orders. While state TV broadcast old-fashioned public interest programs, Berlusconi made his mark by buying up American movies, soap operas, and game shows, most notably Dallas and General Hospital. His own programming was even worse—in one program after another the viewer sees a procession of scantily clad girls wiggling their bottoms. His most original contribution to the history of television may have been the world’s first nude game show.

The explosive growth of Berlusconi’s TV empire during the 1980s was part of Italy’s version of the Reagan boom. Berlusconi often asserts that by convincing many companies to advertise for the first time on TV, he created a surge of economic growth in Italy. Berlusconi’s TV stations represented the triumph of an American-style model of success—the Dallas model—the celebration of wealth and its trappings. For a country that was tired of political ideology after the terrorist attacks of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Berlusconi filled the void left by the passing of the cold war.

In many ways, the real problem with Mediaset isn’t that it’s political in the purest sense, it’s that it’s not political at all,” Jones writes.

It has seduced a society to the extent that politics and ideas don’t seem to exist…. The only thing on offer are bosoms, football and money. Even someone who enjoys all three eventually finds it all boring.

In his nearly twenty years as the TV magnate, Berlusconi’s greatest success was in shaping thoughts and values of what became his electorate. “An extraordinary 44.8 per cent of housewives…voted not just for the centre-right but specifically for Forza Italia,” Ginsborg writes.

Furthermore, the more television women watched, the more they showed a propensity to vote for Silvio Berlusconi. 42.3 per cent of those who watched more than three hours a day voted for Forza Italia, compared to 31.6 per cent of those who only watched between one or two hours daily.

Berlusconi favors the kind of democracy in which the supreme leader is anointed by the electorate every several years, and faithfully interprets what he sees as the popular will. He once said that “there is something divine in having been chosen by the people” and this causes him to regard the checks and balances of democratic practice—rule of law, parliamentary votes, and commissions of inquiry—as annoying encumbrances. At one point, Berlusconi announced that because polls (taken by his own polling company) showed that most Italians did not consider the acts of which he was accused to be crimes, they were not, in fact, crimes. If he were to be convicted, he has said, it would ipso facto prove that Italy was not a democracy.

In Berlusconi’s center-right, there is an astonishing degree of unanimity, especially on matters of personal interest to the leader himself. Many of the employee-parliamentarians don’t even bother to show up for votes; the chore is sometimes done by worker-drones known as “piano players,” who surreptitiously press several vote buttons at the same time. This was actually seen on Italian TV during the vote on one of Berlusconi’s more controversial measures meant to help him avoid trials in Milan, but nothing was done about it. Thus the practice of representative democracy has been reduced to an empty ritual.


Berlusconi and his followers like to say that the influence of TV on political life is negligible. But any voice singing out of tune is quickly silenced. When a satire show on RAI ran a skit making fun of the minister of communications, Maurizio Gasparri, the minister picked up the phone and interrupted the broadcast; viewers heard him denounce the program. “We simply don’t publish satire anymore,” an editor at one of Italy’s leading papers told me. “We know that we can’t make fun of the right, but it’s one-sided to make fun only of the left.”

In nearly ten years Italian television has failed to present a single in-depth examination or debate on the underlying facts in the numerous corruption cases facing Berlusconi or of the documented ties between some of Berlusconi’s associates and the Sicilian mafia. Most of this information is available in books, but it is part of Berlusconi’s genius to understand that if something does not appear on television, it does not exist. This pact of silence was broken only briefly, for a couple of weeks, at the end of the 2001 election campaign. For several months before the election, a book describing the relation between Berlusconi’s interests and the mafia had been at the top of the best-seller list, but no major television station had seen fit to interview the authors. A scurrilous low-level comedy show broke the taboo and featured a long interview with one of them. Two other RAI programs also ran critical programs on Berlusconi. Berlusconi maintained that he lost twelve points because of these programs. After the election, Berlusconi condemned the “criminal use” of the media and named the three offending broadcasters. All three were taken off the air.

If there had been a truly free television press—with entire shows reporting the evidence against Berlusconi & Company instead of simply broadcasting his angry tirades against the allegedly Communist judges who he claims are out to get him—it is quite possible that Berlusconi would have been unable to survive in public life.

Still, in recent local elections the center-left made a surprisingly strong showing, despite its own divisions. This, along with a decline in support for the government coalition in August polls, is one of many signs that the conservative Italian electorate may be getting impatient with a leader who has promised much and has, as usual, been largely preoccupied with his personal business. On September 9, Berlusconi’s opponents said they had secured 500,000 signatures on a petition calling for a referendum to overturn the laws giving him immunity to prosecution. More than a few Italians were embarrassed when Berlusconi, just installed as president of the European Union, said that a German Green politician who had been critical of him should play the part of a Nazi camp commander in a film. Many Italians suddenly became aware from his angry reaction how unused Berlusconi was to any hostile questioning in public.

While European politicians may regard Berlusconi as a kind of Italian exception to the new Europe, he already has numerous interlocking deals in European markets with his fellow tycoons Rupert Murdoch and Leo Kirch of Germany. Berlusconi is reportedly interested in acquiring Kirch’s bankrupt TV empire. He controls one of Spain’s main television stations, and although Spain has a rigid antitrust law that limits anyone from owning more than 25 percent of a national network, Berlusconi, through his system of off-shore accounts and dummy companies, owns much more. Spanish prosecutors have charged him with fraud and tax evasion but they have been stymied in their attempts to bring the case to trial, reportedly because the conservative government of Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar has been very slow in passing on international requests for evidence.

Now that Berlusconi is president of the EU for the next year, and a favorite guest at Bush’s Crawford ranch, it seems unlikely that other European nations will accuse him of violating the basic norms that make democracy possible. That will be up to the Italians, most of whom so far have been very willing to let him have his way.

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