Cath Fletcher looks at two recent studies of Italy’s Prime Minister, and assesses the direction of Italian politics.
It’s very easy to make fun of Silvio Berlusconi. There’s his early career as a cruise-ship crooner (and recent release of a CD), the holiday snaps of his white bandana (to hide the hair transplant, it transpired), and the face-lift (or il lifting as it’s known in Italy). Then there was the time he told a German MEP he should take a movie role as a concentration camp guard. And the Spectator interview with Boris Johnson, when Berlusconi confided that, in fact: “Mussolini did not murder anyone.”
In a television comedy sketch last summer, Berlusconi was shown (in white bandana) sitting down with Tony Blair at his Sardinian holiday villa. Berlusconi asks Blair how much (in bribes) the Hutton report has cost him and Blair tries in vain to explain that in England it doesn’t work like that. There is a tendency to see Berlusconi as a peculiarly Italian phenomenon — with all the negative characteristics one can possible associate with that country (viz: vain, corrupt, overdressed, and probably linked to the Mafia).
Paul Ginsborg begins his study of Berlusconi, however, with the observation that “something important is happening in Italy, potentially quite sinister”. He asks “is history repeating itself, with Italy playing the same role as the precursor of Fascism as it did in the 1920s?” It is not Ginsborg’s case that Berlusconi is a fascist in any classic sense. His point is more general: to consider whether Berlusconi is pioneering a new type of populist politics and party that might subsequently be exported from Italy.
Silvio Berlusconi was born in 1936. In 1943 his father went into exile in Switzerland rather than choose to fight for either Mussolini or the Resistance, leaving the family with no strong allegiance to fascism, “but still less did it have the Resistance as its reference point”.
Ginsborg mentions this rather in passing: but it’s important because of the pervasiveness of that political divide still in Italian society. On the huge anti-war demonstration at the European Social Forum in Florence protesters sang partisan songs; recent attempts from the right to argue that those who died fighting for Mussolini’s republic should be honoured in the same way as members of the Resistance have provoked huge controversy.
(This subject is discussed extensively by Tobias Jones in The Dark Heart of Italy.) In short the Berlusconi family chose exit rather than loyalty (to either side).
Berlusconi graduated in law, then went into business as a construction entrepreneur in Milan. He began on a small scale, with credit from the bank his father managed, but quickly expanded. Ginsborg describes the financing of his first major development (Milano 2) in the 1970s as a “great mystery”, but cites two possible suspect sources: illegally exported capital (at the time there were strict export controls) or laundered Mafia money. The Economist magazine is facing a libel action in the Italian courts over its reporting of Berlusconi’s financial dealings. None of the allegations — reported extensively in Italy — seem to have affected Berlusconi’s political career. Perhaps this is partly because the practice of taking backhanders was common to all political sides.
Tobias Jones explains: “The kickbacks arising from contracts for work on the Milanese underground, for example, were subject to an exact mathematical division: 36% to the Socialist party, 18.5% to the Christian Democrats and the Communists/Democrats of the Left and so on.”
Ginsborg is much more interested in Berlusconi’s role as media magnate — and its relationship to his political power — than in the murky detail of his financial entanglements.
Berlusconi’s television interests began with a small cable station, Telemilano, set up for the benefit of residents of his Milano 2 development. He began buying up local commercial television stations across Italy. At the time national broadcasts were effectively outlawed. But by broadcasting the same material on the local stations at the same time Berlusconi created a national commercial television network. By 1984 he owned Italy’s three major private TV channels and by the time the government tried to regulate the broadcasting system they were too late. Viewers, threatened with withdrawal of the latest episode of Dallas or Dynasty, protested, and Berlusconi won.
The effect of such unregulated development was disastrous for the quality of Italian television. Ginsborg argues that this lack of planning leads to situation where no equivalent of the British Channel 4 could be created; and where the state RAI channels (reliant on advertising for income) were largely forced into competing for audiences with the Americanised, dumbed-down commercial sector. And that was before Berlusconi — as prime minister — gained the power to appoint the directors of state television too.
And this power over information is — potentially — power over votes. A recent study of Berlusconi’s 2001 election victory showed that “the more television women watched, the more they showed a propensity to vote for Silvio Berlusconi. 42.3% of those who watched more than three hours a day voted for Forza Italia, compared to 31.6% of those who watched only between one or two hours daily.” Of course, such a correlation is not proof of causation — but it is not insignificant.
In 1992, the ‘Clean Hands’ (Mani Pulite) campaign began. This was a systematic targeting of corrupt politicians by a group of Milanese magistrates. “Heads fell,” says Ginsborg, “with great regularity.” The most famous was former prime minister Bettino Craxi of the Socialist party, a former patron of Berlusconi the businessman. The 1992 elections saw big losses for both Socialists and Christian Democrats, and big gains for the Northern League, calling for an autonomous northern Italy (against the corrupt and poor south).
By this time, Berlusconi’s businesses (by now encompassing advertising and publishing as well as television) were in some trouble. He had made an ill-advised venture into retailing, and attempts to develop pay-TV were faltering. But the political power vacuum offered an opportunity. At the beginning of 1994 he announced the formation of a new political party.
The name Forza Italia derives from a football chant. Berlusconi’s new party is a triumph of marketing. It is a partito-azienda or party-firm, with little to no internal democracy (certainly there was none to start with).
It is to politics roughly what the “manufactured group” (Spice Girls, etc) is to music.
It benefited from supportive reporting on Berlusconi’s television channels, and in the 1994 general election the ‘Pole of Liberty’ coalition — comprising Forza, the Northern League and the ex-fascist National Alliance — won 42.9% of the vote for the lower house (and 58.1% of the seats). Berlusconi became prime minister.
This first venture into politics was not to last long. In November 1994 the Clean Hands magistrates announced that Berlusconi was under investigation for corruption. The Northern League (aware that many of its supporters backed the magistrates) decided to withdraw its support and the government fell in December.
After a brief government of technocrats, the centre-left took power, and retained it (albeit uncertainly at times) until 2001. It ran a tight fiscal policy in order to take Italy into the euro, raising taxes and cutting services. It did little to endear voters to itself, complacent that Berlusconi — under investigation in several cases of corruption and his aides accused of association with the Mafia — was no serious opponent.
Ginsborg comments that the centre-left “seems incapable of transforming the tired and partially discredited nature of its politics”. In 2001 Berlusconi — having rebuilt relations with the Northern League — won a landslide. He has been in power ever since.
In office, Berlusconi continues to wage a battle with what he calls “communist judges” — the magistrates investigating him over a series of corruption allegations. He has changed the media ownership rules to allow his company to retain control of all three terrestrial commercial stations; the head of the state television corporation RAI resigned in 2004 in protest at the politically-biased board the government wanted to appoint. Likewise he is in the process of changing the judicial system.
In December 2004 Berlusconi was cleared of two corruption charges — one of them, of bribing a judge, was thrown out only on the basis of the statute of limitations (i.e. too much time had expired since the alleged offence). In another trial his aide Cesare Previti and the judge in question, Renato Squillante, were found guilty (although they remain free pending appeals). The Forza Italia senator, Marcello dell’Utri, was convicted of association with the mafia the day after Berlusconi was cleared — but he too remains free and continues to hold office until the appeal process is exhausted.
What of the opposition to Berlusconi? Ginsborg discusses the anti-globalisation movement and the protests at Genoa; the millions who demonstrated in defence of Article 18 (which protected workers from dismissal); the role of the social forums and the more recent, more middle-class protests in defence of democracy and a free judiciary (the magistrates themselves have been on strike against Berlusconi’s judicial ‘reforms’). All of these have potential — but they are badly co-ordinated and lacking leadership. The left-wing party Rifondazione Comunista (Communist Refoundation), he concludes, is “too sectarian and too small” to make a difference.
In a speech last year, referring once again to the “communist judges”, Berlusconi said: “Better fascism… than the bureaucratic tyranny of the judiciary.” However, as
Ginsborg observes, the individualistic ideology expounded by Berlusconi is very different from the traditions of Italian fascism. He contrasts Berlusconi — “Individuals are their own best guides to what is good for them” — with the words of Giovanni Gentile and Mussolini, who defined fascism as “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.”
These days the Italian state is very much for one individual — Silvio Berlusconi.
Ginsborg’s book, although a useful and detailed account of Berlusconi’s career, has less long-term historical analysis than is to be found in Tobias Jones’s The Dark Heart of Italy (Faber & Faber, 2003). This is ostensibly a travel book, and tedious both for its heavy-handed “innocent abroad” style and Jones’s eternal political fence-sitting.
However, if you can get past comments like “on the train to Parma I read Shelley”, Jones does have an interesting take on Italian culture and psyche; he offers the reader more explanation of why Italians might choose to vote Berlusconi into power, and an interesting argument on the importance of Italy’s war-time division in contemporary politics.