In the Shadow of Berlusconi

The Italian national elections in April of this year produced the closest result in the sixty-year history of the Italian Republic. In the elections for the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, a mere 25,000 votes separated the two sides. In those for the Senate, the outcome depended on the vote of Italians resident abroad, who for the first time had six senatorial seats reserved specially for them. No one expected them to vote against Berlusconi. They did precisely that—with four seats going to the center-left coalition led by Romano Prodi, one to an independent candidate, and only one to Berlusconi’s coalition of the center-right.

Only 42 percent of those eligible to vote abroad did so, and complicated procedures led to many invalid returns; the net result was that Romano Prodi’s unwieldy multiparty coalition scraped into power. Supporting him are members of the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) which includes much of the former Communist Party; the smaller independent (or “refounded”) Communists, Socialists, Radicals, and Greens; and various strands of the former Christian Democratic Party which was for most of the postwar era Italy’s dominant party. It is a bewildering coalition for those used to simpler political systems. Against them Silvio Berlusconi has lined up an opposition consisting of his own Forza Italia party, which remains, despite the election defeat, the largest single force in this very fragmented parliament (23.7 percent of the vote in the Chamber of Deputies); the post-Fascists of Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance (12.3 percent); the Northern League of Umberto Bossi (4.6 percent); and the moderate Catholic component of the center-right led by the independently minded Pierferdinando Casini (6.8 percent).

In the Chamber of Deputies, Prodi’s coalition has 348 seats to the center-left’s 281, thanks to a change in the election law in December 2005 that awards bonus seats to the winning coalition to ensure it has approximately a 54 percent majority. Prodi’s two-seat majority in the Senate has the additional support of most of the life senators, but even so he has fewer than ten votes to spare in the upper house. Governing in these conditions is a complex and tense matter. The new prime minister has made an uncertain start and questions have been raised about how long the current coalition can last. Most of his energies in the last few months have been dedicated to preparing a budget aimed at correcting the rapidly deteriorating situation in the country’s public finances, an unwelcome legacy bequeathed to him by the Berlusconi government. It is a thankless task, rendered more difficult by the weakness of the Italian economy, which has been less and less competitive in world markets.

In order to survive, Prodi needs to find one or two themes on which to unite the country. One could certainly be the question of secondary and higher education, an issue which touches every Italian family, since Italy lags far behind its European neighbors in the quality of its schools. Resources are scarce, but to invest them single-mindedly in education and research would gain the new government widespread support. Instead the new budget clearly reflects the lack of an overall strategy. In part this is due to the factional requirements of different political partners, in part to Prodi’s own uncertainty. The impression at the moment is of the Prodi government muddling through, hoping for better days, yet baffled by such developments as a particularly ferocious crime wave in Naples. The government is in many ways better than the one defeated in April 2006, but it is hardly good enough.

As for Silvio Berlusconi, he at first refused to leave office after the elections, claiming that the left had committed “thousands of voting irregularities.” But no evidence emerged to support his claim, with the result that the dispute over the outcome of the elections has been less prolonged than that in the United States in 2000, or, more recently, in Mexico.

This does not mean that the political career of Silvio Berlusconi is over. There is not the slightest indication that he intends to give up power gracefully, and indeed there are many reasons for him not to do so. More than ten years ago he confessed to the Italian journalists Indro Montanelli and Enzo Biagi, “I am forced to enter politics, otherwise they will put me in prison.” This argument does not have the force it had a decade ago, but it still counts. Cesare Previti, Berlusconi’s personal lawyer and very close friend, has already been found guilty for his part in corrupting Roman judges, and Berlusconi still faces a number of important criminal trials. One concerns illicit profiteering from the sale of film rights; another his activities as a media entrepreneur in Spain, now under the scrutiny of the formidable Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzón; a third his friendship with the British lawyer David Mills, an expert in tax havens and offshore companies, and the estranged husband of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s most faithful ministers. Mills is accused of giving false testimony in court in return for a large cash payment from the Berlusconi camp. On October 30 a Milan judge ruled that both Mills and Berlusconi must face corruption charges, and set a date of March 13, 2007, for their case to go to trial.

Still, it is now unlikely that Berlusconi will ever go to prison, if only because while in power he changed both the rules governing the duration of criminal trials and the penalties for the crimes charged against him. The new statute of limitations, for instance, make it much more difficult for courts to reach a final verdict before time runs out and a case is declared null and void. In addition, the Berlusconi government decreed that no one over the age of seventy should serve a prison sentence, and Berlusconi himself celebrated his seventieth birthday this autumn. Even so, in spite of all these measures, he still does not feel entirely safe, his own immunity to prosecution has now expired, and he does not trust his political allies to defend him.

While in government, Berlusconi did all he could to curb the autonomy of Italian prosecuting magistrates and to bring the legal system more tightly under government control. He did a great deal of damage to those who might prosecute him, but he failed to deliver a decisive blow. That was one of the reasons why winning again was so important for him. Now his dream of ending his career as president of the Republic, Italy’s highest political office, has faded rapidly. After he fainted while addressing a rally in Montecatini Terme in Tuscany on November 26, there was speculation whether he might step aside and about who might succeed him. But Berlusconi soon left the hospital and on December 2 was the principal speaker at a vast Roman rally of the center-right’s supporters.

He is still the leader of the opposition, and the political representative of exactly half of Italy’s voters. No one has emerged to replace him as the charismatic leader of Forza Italia, which is unchallenged as the dominant force in the center-right coalition. He hopes that the internal contradictions of Prodi’s coalition will soon blow it apart, forcing new elections, and that he will come back for a third and final term. It is far from an impossible sequence of events. He tightly controls the purse strings of the opposition coalition and is a great fighter who will not give way easily.

We have therefore been treated to the daily spectacle of the little man in the double-breasted suit, one of the forty richest persons in the world, consumed by anger and ambition, tired but defiant, constantly agitating for the fall of Prodi’s government, new elections, and his own return to power. In some ways he is an embarrassment to his allies of the center-right, but he also appears indispensable to them. After all, last spring it was his popularity, tenacity, and control of television channels that did most to overcome a deficit of some eight to ten electoral points, and to bring the center-right coalition very close to a victory. Many on the center-right, especially Pierferdinando Casini’s moderate Christian Democrats, would like to escape from Berlusconi’s suffocating paternalism. The UDC, Casini’s party, staged a separate demonstration at Palermo on December 2 to air its own grievances against the Prodi government, and Casini, who once appeared to be Berlusconi’s most obvious successor, is now claiming autonomy for himself and his party. But we must distinguish the rhetoric of the moment from longer-term considerations. Short of joining Prodi—an unlikely possibility at the moment—Casini has few alternatives to a new pact with his center-right colleagues. Twelve years ago all the parties of the center-right hitched their fortunes to the Berlusconi express, thrilled by its speed and not much concerned with where it was going. It will not be easy to break with him now.

Alexander Stille, in The Sack of Rome, his excellent and highly readable political biography of Silvio Berlusconi, gives us a thorough account, both fascinating and appalling, of what he rightly calls “the Berlusconi era.” His is not the first biography of Berlusconi, either in English or in Italian, but it is certainly one of the best, and even those familiar with many of the incidents recounted here will appreciate the narrative rhythm of his book and the quality of its investigative journalism.

One of the great problems in writing about Berlusconi is that of finding evidence. At first sight, there is a great deal of it. Stille owes a significant debt, amply acknowledged, to Marco Travaglio, a young and courageous Italian journalist who writes for both La Repubblica and L’Unità. He has consistently braved Berlusconi’s wrath and libel suits in order to collect and publish as much as he can on the man and his entourage—trial transcripts, telephone conversations tapped by prosecuting magistrates, speeches, interviews, and so on. His work now amounts to many volumes. What is striking about it, as Travaglio would be the first to admit, is how much is missing, how much we continue not to know and probably never will know about Berlusconi.

In part this has to do with the nature of historical evidence at the end of the twentieth century. Where once transactions were meticulously recorded on paper, they are now much harder to trace, especially if you are expert or hire experts—offshore lawyers, for instance. Indeed, David Mills’s letter to his accountant in 1997 giving details of a “gift” to him from the Berlusconi camp was so remarkable because he actually described what others kept tightly to themselves. Until now, Berlusconi has not slipped up in the same way. His biographers, and Stille is no exception, come to a series of investigatory dead ends. Did the initial capital for his building-trade empire come from the Mafia, as some have alleged? Who precisely have been the recipients of his innumerable gifts? We will probably never know the answers to these and similar questions.

Stille’s biography is written from an American perspective, and this makes it all the more valuable. “I’m in favor of everything American before even knowing what it is,” Berlusconi told The New York Times in 2001. A great deal of Berlusconi’s revolutionary use of television was quintessentially American—around-the-clock advertising, the creation of a seamless web between programs and advertisements, the television newscaster as a political promoter. Among Berlusconi’s most important assets was a vast stock of movies bought up at bargain price for the Italian market.

Stille is particularly good at drawing American comparisons for various stages of Berlusconi’s political career. He notes that just as Ronald Reagan developed what became his standard stump speech while traveling around the US making speeches for General Electric, so Berlusconi worked out the essential features of his political message during his frequent talks to advertisers. Stille observes that both George W. Bush and Berlusconi have benefited politically from being “enormously polarizing figures.”

Berlusconi is too often dismissed as merely an Italian anomaly. In one of the best sections of his book, entitled “We Are All Berlusconi,” Stille makes comparisons with more than one contemporary American politician, and not just obvious candidates like Ross Perot and Michael Bloomberg, but also with the New Jersey Democrat Jon Corzine, a former Goldman Sachs executive who spent $60 million of his own money to get himself elected to the Senate. He also points out how highly partisan broadcast companies in the US—Fox News, Sinclair broadcasting, and many of the twenty-four-hour cable news programs—have been presenting an American version of what Berlusconi’s channels were doing for years. Stille argues convincingly that Berlusconi is not “an example of typically Italian craziness” but is rather a national version of an increasingly global trend, in which private riches, media control, ownership of popular sporting teams, and consequent celebrity status find their natural outlet in political power.

At the heart of this pattern lies the manipulation of truth by the press and television. Stille’s understanding of how this is done is another of his strengths. Recalling a talk he had with Berlusconi in 1996, he writes: “I had never before interviewed anyone who told so many obvious untruths with such enthusiastic conviction.” After a while, he writes,

It began to dawn on me that what I was encountering was a deep anthropological difference. My obsession with factual accuracy, documentation, objective truth was all part of my baggage as a print journalist, the quaint and naïve and old-fashioned credo of the age of Gutenberg and the Enlightenment, while Berlusconi is a man of a different age,…of the post-modern world where it doesn’t matter what actually happened, but what people think happened.

It is uncanny to observe the manipulation of facts by Berlusconi’s many media outlets, which include the three major commercial television channels, a popular national magazine, Panorama, and Mondadori, Italy’s largest publishing house. A good example is the myth of the “red togas,” which runs as follows: the Milanese magistrates who investigated Berlusconi’s business activities are a part of a vast “Communist” plot to unseat him, a plot that spreads from the international press to Italian big business and to the judicial system. In the face of this conspiracy, the champion of free enterprise and freedom of speech, the self-made man par excellence, has had to defend himself as best he can. And even if, so the argument continues, Berlusconi was guilty of fixing his company books, or bribing the financial police, or not paying taxes, he was only doing what practically everyone in similar positions was doing at the same time.

Living in Italy, it can be disconcerting to witness how difficult, even impossible, it has become to question this version of recent history, which is accepted by at least half of the Italian population. It is useless to point out that the Milanese magistrates who prosecuted Berlusconi and his associates had a variety of political opinions, or that the Italian judges on the whole have been extraordinarily lenient with him. Or that The Economist, one of Berlusconi’s strongest critics, is not known for its Communist convictions. But now “Berluscspeak” has become recognizable as a variant of the “doublespeak” of Orwell’s 1984. Examples of it abound in daily conversation: “Berlusconi is preferable to other politicians because he is so rich that he does not need to steal”; and “Rupert Murdoch makes us pay for SKY television, the RAI for public television through the license fee, but Berlusconi’s is the only really free television service.”

A third strength of Stille’s new biography lies in his deep knowledge of Mafia affairs. One of his previous books, Excellent Cadavers, is an account of the battle waged in the 1980s and 1990s against the Mafia by such magistrates as Giovanni Falcone, Paolo Borsellino, Antonino Caponnetto, and Giancarlo Caselli—often at great personal cost. Western Sicily and the world of leading mafiosi like Totò Riina seem at first sight to be a very long way away from the sleek business environment of Berlusconi’s Milan. Stille shows these affinities with considerable skill, making intelligible what is often a very complicated story. The key player, he makes clear, is another of Berlusconi’s closest friends, Marcello Dell’Utri, a highly cultured bibliophile of Sicilian origin who, in December of 2004, was found guilty by a Palermo court of aiding and abetting the Mafia, and sentenced to nine years in prison (his appeal has yet to be heard). As Stille writes:

At least thirty-seven former Mafia members have given testimony that Dell’Utri was the Mafia’s main contact person in Berlusconi’s financial empire and that the Mafia both extorted money from the business as well as invested millions of dollars in Berlusconi’s business ventures during its early years.

Stille’s knowledge of Sicilian realities is particularly illuminating, for the island is one of Berlusconi’s greatest political strongholds.

If there is a criticism to be made of The Sack of Rome, it is that Stille has little to say about some other works on the same subject. David Lane’s Berlusconi’s Shadow,1 the painstaking result of his investigative journalism while serving as business and finance correspondent for The Economist in Rome, would certainly have been worth some comment. Indeed, The Economist had an important part in exposing Berlusconi. Stille mentions its famous cover story on Berlusconi of April 2001, entitled “Fit to Run Italy?” (to which the editorial answer was a resounding “No”), but he probably underestimates the international importance of the weekly’s courageous investigations into Berlusconi’s businesses in the following years; the magazine still faces a libel suit for millions of dollars in the Italian courts. No other major journal or newspaper I know of took such a strong stand. In April 2006, as we have just seen, Prodi scraped his way to victory thanks to the vote from Italians resident abroad, many of whom were influenced by a climate of international opinion that The Economist and its journalists helped to create.

However, the important question is a rather wider one. We have a pretty good idea by now of who Berlusconi is, but little idea of how to understand him politically and historically. Can he be linked, analytically, to fascism, and if so in what way? Or is he more of a populist, like Perón? Stille calls Berlusconi “a troubling avant-guard figure, a sort of Citizen Kane on steroids.” But he hardly takes account of wider debate about his appeal. In my book Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony2 I suggested that Max Weber’s concept of “patrimonialism” was important for interpreting Berlusconi’s success. “Populism” seems to me to have become a catch-all term, lacking in specificity. On the other hand, an updated version of patrimonialism includes many, if not all, of the main aspects of Berlusconi’s exercise of power. Paternalistic authority over a devoted clan; unlimited acquisitive ambitions and enrichment; the arbitrary whims of the patron prevailing as the rule of law is weakened; the reciprocity of gifts and favors—these are all central both to Max Weber’s conception and to Berlusconi’s project. In one of Stille’s many revealing interviews, a Milanese businessman told him: “The thing you need to understand about Berlusconi is that he has made all of the people around him rich. I don’t just mean well-off, I mean really, reallyrich.” And Eugenio Scalfari, the founder of the newspaper La Repubblica, once wrote that Berlusconi’s “greatest and most generous desire would be that his clan comes to comprise the whole of Italy.”

When talking to an audience of Dutch students at the University of Amsterdam a few years ago, I argued that Berlusconi’s political aims could not easily be fitted into a Fascist frame. They reacted indignantly. “He’s just a modern Fascist, using different, updated methods, but still a Fascist,” said one of them. But Mussolini, unlike Berlusconi, was not patrimonial in his use of power. His entire early career as a militant Socialist and journalist, as well as his path to personal power, were strikingly different from those of Berlusconi. Mussolini had little interest in wealth itself, whereas its acquisition and use are among Berlusconi’s most deep-rooted and driving instincts.

In addition, Berlusconi’s refusal to distinguish between private and public interests, his concept of liberty as the individual’s freedom from government interference, and his championing of private interests in matters previously the prerogative of the state are all at odds with Mussolini’s approach to power. In a famous joint entry on “Fascismo” in the 1932 Enciclopedia italiana, Mussolini and the philosopher Giovanni Gentile wrote: “Anti-individualistic, the Fascist conception of power is for the State; and it is for the individual only in so far as his interests coincide with those of the State.” In contrast, Berlusconi wrote in 1999: “Individuals are their own best guides to what is good for them.” These are obviously two very different concepts of political power.

It has to be said that in Italy there is hardly any debate on such analytical questions—a failure that seems to me particularly unfortunate. Comparisons with fascism, which are both legitimate and necessary, are often greeted with cries of horror: “Oh how could you be so crude!” Not a single major conference of scholars and other experts has been organized to analyze the nature of Berlusconi’s power. The truth is that the politicians of the center-left, and a great many Italian intellectuals, remain in a state of denial about Berlusconi. They keep hoping that when they open their eyes he will have gone away. They keep postulating that he is finished, only to find that he has bounced back to popularity and power. At least until the first week of April of this year, many of them claimed that television had limited influence upon electoral results, only to find that Berlusconi’s large-scale television campaign had nearly decided another election in his favor.

These ostrich-like attitudes can lead to crucial political mistakes. Some on the center-left have tried to make deals with Berlusconi, pretending to themselves and others that he is an entirely normal politician, easily tamed. Alexander Stille recounts the case of Massimo D’Alema, the then secretary of the Democratic Party of the Left, who in 1996 and 1997 tried to work out an arrangement with Berlusconi by which the two of them would collaborate on a bipartisan commission on constitutional reform. Stille’s judgment here is quite uncompromising: “The negotiations between D’Alema and Berlusconi, called the inciucio by many Italians, a slang term for a dirty deal, were an unmitigated disaster for the left and the beginning of Berlusconi’s return to power.” There will be a strong temptation to repeat something of the same sort in the coming months, though Prodi emphatically insists that he will tolerate nothing of the kind.

Where does all this leave Italy? In a considerable state of uncertainty, I would suggest. One of the lessons that emerges most clearly from Stille’s fascinating book is that adventurers like Berlusconi prosper to the extent that their respective democracies allow them to do so. If conflict-of-interest laws are not passed, if legal authorities remain impotent and most telecommunications deregulated, then a clever predatory figure such as Berlusconi can often have his way. If, in addition, the political culture of a country has been dominated by deep-rooted patterns of patron–client relations, based on personal loyalties rather than democratic procedures—as well as by a Church whose democratic credentials have not always been impeccable, and by uncertainty about the rule of law—then the chances of success for such a figure are greater still. And if, finally, political parties of whatever tendency fail to recognize the danger such a political demagogue poses and belittle those who try to point it out, while at the same time trying to make deals with him, then his success is practically assured. All these conditions accurately describe Italy in the Berlusconi era.

However, it should also be said that Italy’s history is not just that of easy accommodation to charismatic and dictatorial figures. Often in conflict with such accommodation is a different set of Italian traditions and practices, which can perhaps best be called “republican virtues.” We can see these at work in the recent constitutional referendum of June 2006, in which a decisive majority voted to preserve the progressive constitution of 1948, a product of the anti-Fascist resistance and the immediate postwar period. Indeed, in the early days of the Republic some of the members of the resistance generation, represented by political philosopher Norberto Bobbio and the Socialist leader Sandro Pertini, put forth an alternative and powerful vision of public ethics—a vision in which the public administration responds with speed and transparency to citizens’ needs, the state ceases its long-standing practice of being first punitive and then lackadaisical, and citizens cease to regard the institutions of the country with suspicion and contempt. This alternative view of Italian democracy has far from disappeared.

Moreover, in recent times dissenting minorities within the state apparatus have made their presence felt—magistrates, teachers, and civil servants of one kind or another. A variety of associations and cooperatives, which grew rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s, have given new vigor and independence to civil society. Among them, for example, are anti-Mafia associations in the South, ecological and fair-trade groups throughout the country, and local committees that mobilize to deal with specific issues concerning health and the environment. In 2002 and 2003, citizens’ groups organized themselves all over Italy against Berlusconi’s monopoly of media power and his attacks on the judiciary. In January 2002, for example, 12,000 citizens marched in Florence behind a banner bearing a quotation from Tocqueville’s Democracy in America; and in September of that year as many as 800,000 people gathered in protest in Piazza San Giovanni, one of Rome’s largest squares. Many of the protesters were women. Changes in the condition of women both within the family (the result of the new family law of 1975) and outside of it (women occupying increasingly important positions in the public sphere and in business) have made a breach in a heavily patriarchal society.

Finally, Italy’s experience as part of the European Union since its foundation in the 1950s has had a positive effect. In the EU Italy has had to measure its political practice against that of other European nations; it has had, often unwillingly, to conform to ways very different from its habitual ones, as in accountable tax collection and work policies concerning gender and equal opportunities for women. Partly because of its position in the EU, the international setting for Italy’s actions as a nation-state changed dramatically for the better in the second half of the twentieth century. And overall, though with some important and unpleasant exceptions like Tony Blair, Europe’s profound distaste for Silvio Berlusconi has been clear enough.

The key question for the immediate future, then, is whether Romano Prodi’s government can succeed in giving voice and political coherence to at least some of these “republican virtues.” His first months in power have not been marked by any great sense of dynamism. Plans to create a new democratic party to unite the various strands of the moderate left are proceeding very slowly. His budget proposals, aimed at reducing Italy’s large budget deficit by a combination of painful spending cuts and new taxes, as we have seen, have been widely criticized, in both the national and international press. Above all, Prodi seems unable to give voice to a very widespread feeling of the need for a new start, which was so tangible in the citizen protests of 2002 and 2003.

When it was last in power between 1996 and 2001 the center-left as a whole failed to provide a clear direction for the country. It cannot afford to make the same mistake a second time around. The little man in the double-breasted suit will still be waiting in the wings, and the great majority of his government’s legislation is as yet unrepealed.

—December 13, 2006

  1. 1

    London: Allen Lane, 2004.

  2. 2

    Verso, 2004.