While Hugh Edwards’ article (Solidarity 161) gives a useful account of Berlusconi’s history, there are a few further points that should be made about the current state of Italian politics.
Much of the current furore around Berlusconi, at least in the British press, has centred on the sex scandal. He has been criticised for an alleged affair with a much younger woman and over whether or not he paid for sex. But frankly, none of this is very relevant to our judgement of Berlusconi.
At most we might observe that it could create problems for him with some of his more Catholic-minded right-wing milieu, but we should be very clear that we do not judge politicians on the basis of their private sexual activity. In recent days, the president of the Lazio region, Piero Marrazzo, a member of the centre-left Democratic Party, resigned after claims he had been associating with a transgender sex worker. As with Berlusconi, the scandal is largely reactionary, and we should have no truck with it.
On the more positive side, the Berlusconi scandal does seem to have prompted some discussion in feminist circles about broader issues of sexism in Italian society. An internet film by Lorella Zanardo, a journalist, reflecting on sexism on Italian TV, has attracted considerable attention with public screenings in a number of cities. (A version with English subtitles is at http://www.ilcorpodelledonne.net/ — the title means “The Body of Women”.) The politics of the discussion are, as yet, limited, focusing heavily around the question of body image, but the existence of a debate is certainly to be welcomed.
On Berlusconi’s position more broadly, the likely impact of the revived corruption trials is hard to judge. He has said that, even if found guilty in the Mills case, he will not resign. The sad truth, though, is that he is more likely to be brought down by right-wing rivals deciding his position is untenable than by any serious campaign of the left.
There is plenty of unhappiness within the Italian bourgeoisie at Berlusconi’s failure to tackle organised crime and at his undermining of the judiciary. Yet, despite the impact of the economic crisis, the left remains in disarray following the collapse of the Prodi government. The major unions, tied into the project for a new Democratic Party, have managed to staff a series of street stalls in Rome as a protest against job losses. That’s about it. Some of the small rank-and-file unions called a general strike on 23 October, but without winning over substantial sections of the big federations it was never likely to have much impact.
Finally, I would take issue with a couple of points made by Hugh Edwards in the conclusion to his article. The idea of an Italy “deep in the throes of economic decline” is a popular image in Italian politics, but we should remember that Italy, unlike the UK, is out of recession. Its relatively conservative banking sector survived the credit crunch far better than Britain’s, and its manufacturing industry also held up pretty well.
Italy is still one of the top ten richest countries in the world: indeed, it’s only in the last few years that China has overtaken it in terms of GDP, and think of the vast difference in population.
I’m also a little sceptical about comparisons between Berlusconi and Mussolini. Berlusconi is, essentially, a populist demagogue. That doesn’t make him a fascist. The various ex-fascists in his political party seem, for the most part, to be happily making their careers in bourgeois politics. In a real political crisis that might change but for now I think our assessment should be a little more measured.