Berlusconi’s Way

L'odore dei soldi (The Smell of Money)

by Marco Travaglio
Rome: Editori Riuniti, 342 pp., L24,000

L'Italia che ho in mente (The Italy I Have in Mind)

by Silvio Berlusconi
Milan: Mondadori, 310 pp., L26,000

Italian Politics 1998: The Return of Politics

edited by David Hine and Salvatore Vassallo
Istituto Cattaneo/Berghahn, 278 pp., $59.95 (paper)

Italian Politics 1999: The Faltering Transition

edited by Mark Gilbert and Gianfranco Pasquino
Istituto Cattaneo/Berghahn, 276 pp., $49.95
Silvio Berlusconi
Silvio Berlusconi; drawing by David Levine


Over every debate about Italian politics hovers the tyranny of the model. Italy is out of line. “The Funding of Political Parties and Control of the Media: Another Italian Anomaly” proclaims the title of one essay in an annual roundup of developments in the bel paese produced by the Istituto Cattaneo, a private political think tank in Bologna. “The End of Italy’s Referendum Anomaly?” inquires another. And yet another: “Italy’s December 1998 ‘Social Pact for Development and Employment’: Towards a New Political Economy for a ‘Normal Country’?”

The model, or normality, that Italy falls short of has a moral value. It is the morality of the modern Western democracy. So Italy’s being an anomaly is also a scandal: “In any other country of the European Union,” claims Elio Veltri in the introduction to L’odore dei soldi (“The Smell of Money”), a book written to show that Silvio Berlusconi is a crook, “the facts we describe would lead to a political earthquake. At the very least those responsible would be forced to quit the political scene. But in Italy this is not the case.”

Fortunately, it turns out that our Western model is not merely abstract or invented, but a state of affairs that humanity naturally tends toward. Italy is thus frequently seen as on the way to, or even on the brink of, normality (sometimes revealingly described by the authoritative historian of Italy Denis Mack Smith, for example, as “maturity”). The decision of the Italian Communist Party, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, to change its name to the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (Democratic Party of the Left) and later just Democratici di Sinistra (Democrats of the Left) could thus be interpreted as part of a process of “normalization.” The world need no longer feel, as it had since 1948, that one of Italy’s major political groupings was unelectable. On the other hand, Tangentopoli, the network of political corruption whose unmasking in the early Nineties destroyed the main parties of the center right, was a step back from normality: no sooner had the left become legitimate than the groupings traditionally opposed to them vanished. “Italy’s ‘exceptionalism,'” Anna Cento Bull comments in her book Social Identities and Political Cultures in Italy, “which had been thrown out by political analysts, was thus fully reinstated by sociologists, historians and social anthropologists,” who put the blame on “a persisting culture of familism and particularism.”

In this Hegelian interpretation of the world, the scandal of any political anomaly is not, then, just its deviation from the proper model, but the extent to which it obstructs the beneficent historical process that will one day bring every country to have a parliamentary democracy with strong and morally admirable political groupings which alternate in honest government according to the sovereign will of the people. The most recent such obstacle in history’s path is Silvio Berlusconi. “Berlusconi,” wrote the respected…

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