Silvio Berlusconi
Silvio Berlusconi; drawing by David Levine

Silvio Berlusconi has turned Italian politics inside out like a rubber glove. The old Italian politics of the First Republic, established in 1946, were based on the assumption that what was publicly visible, or audible, had no intrinsic significance. What mattered was what lay behind the speaker’s words. Hence the peculiarly Italian discipline of dietrologia, or the science of “what’s behind it all.” The greatest master of the political techniques of oblique suggestion and implication was Giulio Andreotti, the Christian Democrat who dominated Italian politics for some thirty years; in a short, enigmatic phrase he could conjure up vast visions of power and secrecy, like a Piranesi dungeon. On a lower plane, the dense obscurity of more ordinary political discourse conveyed the correct impression that politics was a game for initiates.

In the meantime, however, Italians themselves became ever more concerned with appearances—a strong national trait in any event. Now we have in Berlusconi a prime minister with “the sun in his pocket,” 1 a salesman of dreams and miracles. With the crumbling of the old political class under the blows of Mani Pulite (“Clean Hands”), and the arrest and prosecution of more than a thousand politicians and businessmen for corruption, government has become, at least temporarily, more open. But the reign of illusions has replaced the reign of secrecy. The purgatory of tangentopoli—bribe city—has been replaced by an artificial paradise.

The left-wing coalition—the ex-Communists of the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (PDS) and their allies—was widely expected to win the March elections, but they underrated the threat presented by Silvio Berlusconi. To many commentators last January, the left’s victory seemed certain because the various parties of the right were unable to form a coalition. The federalism of Umberto Bossi’s Northern League was diametrically opposed to the nationalism of the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), led by Gianfranco Fini. At the congress of the Northern League in February, Bossi promised his supporters, “With the Fascists, never!” Berlusconi solved this problem through a brilliant sleight of hand. Since his potential allies flatly refused to join a single electoral coalition, he formed separate alliances with each, which he called “poles,” the Polo delle Libertà with the League and the Polo del Buongoverno with Alleanza Nazionale, the right-wing front whose core of support was the MSI. This was a workable solution because the MSI’s strength was concentrated in Rome and the surrounding Lazio region, and in the South, where the League vote was negligible.

Berlusconi was too easily dismissed when he announced in January that he would organize a new national party, Forza Italia. His vast holdings in real estate, department stores, publishing, and television stations had been built up with the help of the old regime. In particular, many commentators assumed that his involvement with the corrupt Socialist leader Bettino Craxi would be enough to discredit him. Several leading members of Berlusconi’s entourage were under investigation for corruption, particularly in connection with the passage of the notorious law which allowed Berlusconi’s holding company Fininvest to retain all three of his private television channels. Why did the general assumption prove false, and why, in fact, did the accusations against Berlusconi turn out to provoke a reaction in his favor?

The answer, I think, lies partly in a shift in public opinion in reaction to the extraordinary burst of prosecutions by the magistrates in Milan, Rome, and elsewhere. Antonio Di Pietro, the Milan magistrate who began and continued the Clean Hands prosecutions, has remained a national hero, but the attacks on the prosecutors made by well-known public figures on Berlusconi’s payroll—which began well before the election campaign—have had an effect. The much-publicized former art critic Vittorio Sgarbi made use of his peculiar talent for near-hysterical abuse when he criticized the magistrates for their excessive rigor in arresting suspects. Oceans of crocodile tears were shed on behalf of the victims of the magistrates’ alleged persecution. Di Pietro’s colleagues on the prosecution team were charged with protecting the ex-Communists of the PDS. While the leaders of almost all other major parties, including even the Northern League’s Umberto Bossi, were implicated in one form of corruption or another by the magistrates, the leaders of the PDS, Achille Occhetto and Massimo D’Alema, were left alone. One of the Milan magistrates, the attractive red-haired Tiziana Parenti, resigned after disagreements with what she saw as her colleagues’ reluctance to press forward with the investigation of the PDS. She later became a candidate for Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

However, I believe that the growing reaction against the severity of the prosecuting magistrates had deeper causes. The Italian public found the spectacle of Mani Pulite fascinating but also disturbing. It reached its climax in the televised trial of Sergio Cusani, the manager of the huge Ferruzzi business group who was accused of distributing over $100 million to various political parties. No doubt it was satisfying to see one leading politician after another squirm on the witness stand under the relentless interrogation of Antonio Di Pietro; the normally expressionless Arnaldo Forlani, the former secretary of the Christian Democrat Party, literally foamed at the mouth while being questioned. But the activism of the magistrates had consequences that were less pleasing to the average Italian. Italy is, after all, a society in which obeying the law is often virtually impossible and in which rights have been largely replaced by privileges, dispensed by the parties.2 (For example, sickness and disability pensions have been used on a vast scale to reward political supporters.) Fear of being prosecuted paralyzed the public administration; for many officials the alternative to political favoritism and corruption was inaction. Since the campaign against corruption coincided with a period of economic recession, the prosecutors were blamed for the recession’s effects.3 Not all the reactions against them can be put down to cynicism or the lack of civic sense; one of the blind spots of the left, in fact, was its failure to appreciate the legitimate anxiety produced by a system in which the uncontrolled proliferation of laws and regulations is only matched by the arbitrary way in which they are applied. The comments in the right-wing press on this arbitrariness were telling:


The bank cashier will never be certain, at the end of the day, that he has not violated some new, obscure norm against riciclaggio [the laundering of illegal profits]…

The public official, when he signs a document, will always be afraid of being accused of some presumed omission or abuse… In every action, in fact, we risk the violation of a norm of whose existence we do not have the faintest idea.4

In such a situation, demands for aggressive enforcement of the law were bound to provoke unease as well as approval. Popular resentment was concentrated against politicians such as Craxi, who were identified simply as “thieves.” There was much less indignation against the businessmen who gave bribes.

Against this background, one can understand why Forza Italia’s attacks on the undue harshness and political bias of the prosecuting magistrates were surprisingly well received, and why, conversely, the left’s attempts to make charges of corruption and Mafia involvement against Berlusconi’s entourage were seen as unjust persecution. Of course many civic-minded Italians have been reluctant to criticize magistrates who have, almost single-handedly, for the first time succeeded in making leading politicians accountable before the law. But the argument that it was not possible to halt the regular processes of investigation just because there was an electoral campaign underway is not really convincing. In fact, in 1992 Di Pietro admitted that he had deliberately held up the original Mani Pulite investigations until after the elections so as not to be accused of trying to influence the result. During the 1994 campaign he stayed conspicuously quiet while stories of impending prosecutions continued to circulate. A few days before the elections, a journalist of the daily La Stampa quoted the head of the anti-Mafia parliamentary commission, Luciano Violante, a former magistrate and PDS deputy, as confirming the current rumors that one of Berlusconi’s closest aides, the managing director of Publitalia, was under investigation by the Catania prosecutor’s office. When he was attacked by Berlusconi’s TV channels and the right-wing press for a gross breach of confidence, Violante felt that he had no alternative but to resign, although he denied strongly that he had ever made the statement attributed to him. He said that he was resigning because he did not wish to prejudice the work of the anti-Mafia commission. He also seems to have felt that his own party gave him insufficient support.5

This error was immediately followed by another episode which allowed Berlusconi to protest that he was the victim of a deliberate campaign of intimidation by the prosecutors. On the orders of a Calabrian magistrate, Maria Grazia Omboni, the police searched the Rome headquarters of Forza Italia to investigate alleged links between its local organizations and the secret Freemason lodges that are often mentioned in accounts of Italian intrigue. The magistrate protested that she had never ordered the search, but only requested information, and it is possible that the special branch of the police, Digos, exceeded its instructions; but this excuse was, to say the least, naive. The president of Italy, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro, sensibly commented that the magistracy, as a power of the state, could not ignore questions of political timing.6 According to Berlusconi’s pollster, Gianni Pilo, the Violante affair and its aftermath were decisive in determining a last-minute swing of votes in Berlusconi’s favor.


Even more striking, and less excusable, than the assumptions made by his opponents about Berlusconi’s vulnerability was the failure to recognize the devastating impact of his new style of campaigning. Indeed, it hardly seemed possible that an improvised political movement would win the largest share of the vote only two months after it was founded. In fact, the initial popular support generated by Berlusconi’s “entry into the field”7 was so strong that, on all the evidence, it was in the first weeks, before the election campaign was officially under way, that he achieved his commanding lead. During this time, the forces of the progressisti—the PDS and the smaller leftist parties allied with it—were preoccupied by their internal disputes and hardly seem to have woken up to what was happening. As an Argentinian political scientist said on another occasion, it was not that the political commentators’ predictions were wrong; it was just that reality had changed. Like the French generals in 1940, the politicians on the left were fighting the last war, and they were powerless to stem the impact of Berlusconi’s coordinated media blitzkrieg—televised press conferences and speeches and high-powered advertising campaigns, all shown at length on Berlusconi’s three nationwide television stations.

Intellectuals, particularly in Italy, tend to distrust obvious explanations, and it has become fashionable to say that television does not explain Berlusconi’s success. This is at best a half-truth. Without his command of television, Berlusconi would not even have existed as a significant political figure. It was his control of the media—along with the financial resources to maintain that control—that made him an attractive ally for the Northern League and the Alleanza Nazionale. They were strong in organization, but had relatively little access to television and the other mass media. It is true that both parties had, in a way, derived a paradoxical benefit from being largely excluded from television. It made them more credible as “anti-system” parties. But this was a waning asset. Bossi probably believed that he, rather than Berlusconi, would be the main beneficiary of their electoral alliance. In parliamentary strength, this was true. Owing to the new electoral system, the League became the single largest party in the governing coalition; but in votes, with 8.4 percent, it was quite outclassed by Forza Italia’s 21 percent, and even by Alleanza Nazionale’s 13.5 percent.8 In fact, the League finished fifth, the PDS coming second and the Popolari—the party of the former Christian Democrats—fourth.

The reformed Communists and the other parties on the left were right to insist on the dangers presented by the enormous concentration of private power in Berlusconi’s Fininvest empire and on the dubious methods by which it had been consolidated. But they were wrong to see the problem only as one of resources. Berlusconi’s mastery of television and the other media was decisive, but only because he and his staff knew how to use them. Back in the 1980s, Berlusconi had defeated his competitors in commercial television because he appreciated that control over advertising was the key to success. His own advertising agency, Publitalia, which now controls 60 percent of all TV commercials, is the true heart of Fininvest, and it also served as the general staff of his political campaign. The choice of Forza Italia’s candidates and the “targeting” of specific issues and sectors of the public were determined by sophisticated marketing experts.9 This is not the first time that a media tycoon has competed for high political office (the precedents—William Randolph Hearst, and Collor de Mello in Brazil—are hardly encouraging), but it may be the first time that an entire political movement has been created and run by a business firm. Approximately one million people have joined the Forza Italia clubs, but they do not make up a true political party, and since the elections there have been frequent complaints from the rank and file about the lack of internal democracy. Berlusconi, it appears, wishes to centralize control in the hands of his experts from Publitalia and his other close advisers.

The political role of Forza Italia, like its name (Go Italy!), recalls the world of football; essentially, it is a collection of supporters’ clubs, whose task it is to show the team’s colors and to cheer it on. Football, of course, is another sphere in which Berlusconi is a master, since he is the owner of the AC Milan soccer team. In the fifteenth century a rich man could become the signore of his city and win glory by hiring the best condottieri; in the late twentieth century, civic primacy and glory are won by buying up the best soccer players. In doing so Berlusconi made AC Milan into Italy’s indisputably leading club, displacing Gianni Agnelli’s Juventus. In retrospect, this may be seen to have been a truly epoch-making shift in hegemony, from the old monarch to the new Prince.10

The rise of the Northern League, with its threats of secession, has inspired a series of reflections in the press and among intellectuals on the historic weakness of Italy’s national identity, its causes and consequences. In the absence of any strong attachment to the institutions of the nation-state, the decline of the old mass parties—the Christian Democrats, the Socialists, and the Communists—provoked a crisis of political identity. The League provided an answer, even if the relationship was never clear between, on the one hand, reinventing the identity of Lombardy, Piedmont, and other historic regions and, on the other, the political project for a single “macro-region” or “canton” of Northern Italy. Some have suggested that the success of the PDS in holding on to its support in the traditional “red zones” of Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, and Umbria can be linked to the promotion of a “new regionalism,” which has helped to fill the gap left by the decline of Communist internationalism.11 The neo-Fascist MSI, though it proclaimed its nationalism, did so in the interests of the South, advocating continued state assistance to such needy and backward regions as Campania, Calabria, and Sicily.

Berlusconi’s appeal, however, has been genuinely national in scope and patriotic in content. This was not the least of the reasons for his success. At a time when there was a genuine fear of national disintegration, Berlusconi was able, I think, to draw on hidden reserves of patriotic sentiment because he was uniquely well placed to manipulate the most powerful symbols of national identification. Football is the true civil religion of Italy; it alone reconciles the existence of strong local rivalries with a superior national institution, visible in the national team assembled for the World Cup.

As for television, its importance in Italy cannot be accurately appreciated unless one remembers that it has created a truly national mass culture for the first time. It was not until the age of television that Italian (instead of local dialects) became the language of current speech for most Italians.12 When one assesses the importance of television for Berlusconi’s success, it is not enough to consider its immediate impact during the last months. During the last decade, his channels have broadcast new images of consumption, new styles of imported entertainment (Dallas, Brazilian telenovelas, and Japanese karaoke sing-alongs), and new techniques of packaging and promotion. In this way, Berlusconi created his own public, or perhaps one should say audience.

As the intolerance of the Italians for the corruption and inefficiency of the old political class increased, so did their impatience with its in-comprehensible jargon, known as “politichese.” The language of left-wing intellectual discourse (sinistrese), was frequently even more impenetrable. During the election campaign, the members of the progressisti alliance too often gave the impression that they were talking among themselves rather than addressing the public. Their failure to create a consistent and effective political language reflected a more fundamental reluctance to recognize the need for a break with the habits, the practices, and the forms of organization of the postwar Republic. The first person effectively to breach the wall of incommunicability was Umberto Bossi. Here, for the first time in many years, was a leader who spoke the language of ordinary, uncultured Italians. Berlusconi learned Bossi’s lesson, and improved upon it.

Bossi’s vulgarity and constant verbal aggression were an indispensable part of his populist appeal, and yet he made many people uneasy. Berlusconi, instead, used a rhetoric of reassurance and respectability. Common sense, balance, and confidence were his watchwords. Through his exploitation of the myth of the successful entrepreneur, Berlusconi could appeal to popular, widely held values while presenting himself as the leader of a “natural” social elite: “respectable people, with good sense, capable, who have passed their examinations in firms, in work,”13 as he put it. While his spokesmen made fun of “the government of the professors,” as the cabinet of the outgoing caretaker government of Carlo Ciampi was known, Berlusconi was careful to acknowledge the universities as a source of competence in Italian life. But he derided the intellectuals of the left for their pessimism; “confidence,” in himself and in Italy’s future, was the magic word which, he implied, would unlock the door to the new Italian economic miracle.

The promise of a new miracle seems to have been particularly effective among young voters, who have suffered most from high unemployment, about 25 percent this year. The MSI which, in line with Fascist tradition, has always had a particularly active youth organization, also did well among young people. But the party’s national chauvinism, like Bossi’s male chauvinism, tended to alienate female voters. Instead, Berlusconi’s blander style and his well-advertised respect for Catholic values went down well; it has been estimated that 55 percent of his voters were women. He has gone out of his way to court the powerful Federation of Housewives; in a recent speech to them he portrayed himself as a “houseman,” handy with a feather duster.14

In a strongly polarized political campaign, however, reassurance is not enough. An enemy is needed, and Berlusconi had no difficulty in finding one. It was, of course, the Communist threat. It mattered little that the PDS had renounced Leninism and changed its name; Berlusconi insisted that the Communist tiger had not changed its spots. The continued reference to communism, while all reference to the Fascist past was exorcised, was one of the more remarkable features of Forza Italia’s campaign. But it has to be said that, here again, the left played into Berlusconi’s hands. The national alliance of the PDS with Rifondazione Comunista—the “old” Communists, who continue to espouse statist policies—was bound to revive the suspicion that the PDS’s repudiation of the Communist legacy had been superficial and incomplete. There is, however, a more fundamental problem which the left will find it hard to overcome. The PDS is too weak to win without allies, but too strong not to dominate them. In the elections, with the exception of the Rifondazione, the smaller parties of the progressive coalition, including the Greens and the anti-Mafia Rete, put up a miserable performance. Their self-importance was in inverse proportion to their ability to win votes.

Berlusconi won, then, because he conveyed the message that most of the voters wanted to hear in a readily understandable form. But this does not mean that his exceptional advantages can be discounted, or seen as part of the normal and healthy workings of democracy. Other parties did not have an equal opportunity to put their messages before the public, and the publicity bombardment which preceded and accompanied the launching of Forza Italia was unprecedented in its intensity. Some of the ineffectiveness of Berlusconi’s opponents in replying to his onslaught may be owing to their financial weakness. If the old parties have only themselves to blame for their troubles, it is nonetheless true that Berlusconi had enormous and unfair financial superiority. He virtually got his publicity free, while other parties had to pay for it, and indeed to pay Fininvest itself if they wanted time on the private networks. Berlusconi ran an American-style campaign without any of the American checks and balances.

As a result, the election was to an extraordinary degree not only conducted through television but was also about television. The duel between the publicly owned television stations—the RAI—and the Fininvest channels was superimposed on the duel between Berlusconi and the left. The traditional Catholic center, although still well represented in the RAI organization, seems to have been the main loser in the television battle. It has been calculated that four million voters switched to the right after watching the Berlusconi channels, whereas two million switched to the left after watching the programs of the RAI. The RAI in general aroused greater skepticism, which is explicable by its long past history of subservience to the political parties; yet during the 1980s the much-abused principle of lottizzazione—dividing up power over public television, and other bureaucracies, among the main political parties—at least ensured a certain pluralism, while Berlusconi’s channels put themselves unreservedly at the service of Bettino Craxi.

During and after the electoral campaign Berlusconi made many assurances that he could be trusted to avoid a conflict of interests. Since the elections, however, his rhetorical attacks against the dreaded monsters of lottizzazione and consociativismo (the habit of compromise between government and opposition) have served as the camouflage for Berlusconi’s unashamed drive to extend his monopoly of television from the private to the public sector. His statements and those of his spokesmen seem to imply that public broadcasting must be in line with the policies of the government, while private broadcasting cannot be bound by any externally imposed set of rules, following the principle of free enterprise. Only the resistance of the president, Scalfaro, has prevented Berlusconi’s government from acquiring the power to appoint and dismiss the board of the RAI, which at present lies with the presidents of the two chambers of Parliament. Berlusconi has spared no efforts to place reliable supporters in the positions that can influence policy toward broadcasting. The tough and experienced vice-prime minister from the MSI, Giuseppe Tatarella, is minister of the Post and Communications, and the former radical Marco Taradash, known for his obsessive hostility to the public broadcasting service, heads the parliamentary Committee for Vigilance over the RAI.

What is particularly troubling about the Berlusconi government is its curious mixture of weakness and strength, indecision and determination. So far, its economic policy has been hesitant. The non-party experts, the treasury minister, Lamberto Dini (formerly of the Bank of Italy), and the finance minister, Giulio Tremonti, are in favor of restraints on state expenditure, and they have the backing of the Northern League. On the other hand, the ministers of Alleanza Nazionale defend assistance for the South, and the former Christian Democrats in the coalition are reluctant to abandon the old patterns of patronage. Berlusconi himself, in spite of his much-advertised entrepreneurial liberalism, seems reluc-tant to take decisions that might damage his popularity. In a gesture of regal benevolence, he promised continued state assistance to a delegation of miners from Sardinia. This pleased Fini and infuriated the Northern League; Bossi sarcastically asked if making such a promise some days before the elections to the European Parliament was a sample of the new politics.

On the other hand, Berlusconi is showing signs of growing impatience with restraints on his power. The Northern League, although it has been severely weakened by its poor showing in the European elections, in which Berlusconi triumphed, is an awkward ally. Bossi and other leading figures in the party continue to demand an anti-trust law to control Berlusconi’s excessive power over the media. Elated by his success, Berlusconi may see new elections as a way to reduce the League’s pretensions. But Scalfaro is known to be hostile to the idea, and relations between the government and the president are tense.

Reliance by politicians on public opinion polls as a guide for their strategy is certainly nothing new or shocking; but Berlusconi’s use of them goes beyond what is normal. It suggests a dangerous confusion about majority rule; according to Berlusconi’s spokesmen, to contest the verdict of the majority, as expressed by the latest public opinion poll (commissioned by Berlusconi’s own agency), is anti-democratic. It is remarkable to find the “liberal” right adopting Rousseau’s version of the unmediated obligation imposed by the General Will. In the words of Umberto Eco, replying to pro-Berlusconi critics of an interview he gave to the Argentinian press: “The law compels me to obey the decrees of a new government, but not to love it.”15

It is less appropriate to ask whether democracy is in danger in Italy than to ask: How is a Berlusconi-style democracy supposed to work? Is it something else from what we have seen in other Western democracies? It is the quality of democracy, rather than its existence, that is at stake. Of course, it is notorious that the First Republic left a lot to be desired. The principle of accountability, for one thing, was in practice almost wholly lacking in the coalition dominated since 1948 by the Christian Democrats. But at least no one was likely to take Italy’s postwar government as a model. With Berlusconi we are in the presence of a new design for governing which could be contagious. It combines an American-style personalizing of politics and professionalization of political techniques with a total absence of the checks and balances that could hold even the “imperial presidency” in check. Berlusconi’s government in practice endangers the distinction between the public and the private spheres that is the foundation of a free society. Berlusconi is essentially a man of the present and, indeed, of the ephemeral; this has its evident advantages, but a mass entertainment culture is no substitute for genuine convictions. Berlusconi’s most faithful allies, Gianfranco Fini and his Alleanza Nazionale, have much deeper roots, but they are in the culture of fascism, not that of the Resistance or democracy. It is true that Fini now finds the collective memories of Mussolini’s dictatorship an embarrassment; but it is far from clear that his movement can abandon them without losing its identity.

International criticism of the Berlusconi government has, of course, been focused on the presence of ministers from the MSI.16 But the role of the neo-Fascists needs to be understood within the broader perspective of Berlusconi’s temptation to adopt a plebiscitarian version of democracy. Certainly, one cannot take Fini’s repudiation of fascism at face value. At the moment, Alleanza Nazionale is little more than a front for the MSI, which provided the election workers, the organization, and the overwhelming majority of the Alleanza’s parliamentary candidates. No doubt, Fini would like to transform the movement into something like an Italian version of the Gaullist Party. But history is still a formidable obstacle. The identity of the MSI is still bound up with its Fascist heritage, and if he is to avoid a damaging split among his following, Fini has to speak with two voices. During the D-Day celebrations he made a speech which contained three significant statements: (1) “It is difficult to give an overall negative judgment on the performance of fascism down to 1938; (2) “there are phases of history in which liberty is not among the pre-eminent values”; (3) D-Day was “the day on which Europe lost a part of its cultural identity.”

The last claim is particularly revealing of the anti-Americanism which has tended to emerge in Italy as anticommunism has lost relevance, at least internationally. The official foreign policy program of the MSI demands that “Italy must be reunified, just as Germany has been reunified,” and that “the territories of Istria, Fiume and Dalmatia must return, by international agreement, to Italian sovereignty.” For a “post-Fascist” to call for Italian control of the Adriatic coast is, in historical terms, roughly equivalent to a “post-Communist” demanding the collectivization of the land, and in the present climate, it is considerably more dangerous.17 One of the odder cultural events of the last few months was the celebration of Italy’s entry into the First World War, attended by the minister for Cultural Affairs, Domenico Fisichella, a member of the Alleanza, and by representatives of the Dalmatian and Istrian refugees. At least in Istria, the MSI’s flag-waving has already significantly increased tension between the Italian minority and the Croat and Slovene governments.

Yet, perhaps, the greatest importance of such positions is that they show the persistence of a culture which has remained aggressively nationalist, just as it has remained instinctively antidemocratic. Mature democracies usually celebrate the outbreak of peace, not war. It would be hysterical to talk of the danger of a new fascism, in the classic sense of the term. Fini is a realistic politician in search of respectability. He is not out to challenge Berlusconi’s leadership. It is Berlusconi’s style of government that is the major problem—as exemplified by his July 14 decree limiting the powers of the “Clean Hands” magistrates, who have dramatically resigned. But the presence of the neo-Fascists in the government may nonetheless have an important influence on the cultural and political climate. The winds of change that are blowing through Italy today are also winds of intolerance.

—July 14, 1994

This Issue

August 11, 1994