The last days of the Berlusconi empire

  On Tuesday evening, at the end of another day of petty parliamentary bargaining, the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi announced that he will resign once the Italian budget is approved by the Parliament. This step has allegedly been made to comply with the requests “of the European Commission” (this should probably read the BCE, the IMF, and the financial markets).

After almost twenty years, it seems that the political trajectory of Berlusconi is about to come to an end. In truth, his political career ended at least one year ago, when his parliamentary majority was saved by “persuading” a handful of MPs from the benches of the opposition to change sides.

Having lost the favour of the Catholic Church and the Italian economic elites, and being completely unable to give an answer to the economic distress experienced by the country, Berlusconi managed to buy -no word could be more appropriate- some more months at the helm of the government.

His fate, however, was already written. Regrettably, the final blow was struck not by a genuine mass movement demanding change -such as those who emerged last spring during the campaign against nuclear power and for water as a common good- but by the technocrats of the BCE and IMF.

As his last act as Prime Minister, Berlusconi will propose (and have approved, with the disgraceful support of most of the parliamentary opposition) a set of devastating measures of “reform and liberalization” foisted upon by Brussels. Berlusconi’s designated successor, Mario Monti, is a member of the Bilderberg Group, and has worked as an advisor for Goldman Sachs – in other words, he is an organic representative of the international neoliberal elite. The Italian people will soon find out that they were freed from Berlusconi’s yoke, just to be strangled by transnational capital.

Given the great media coverage that has been given to the “man from Arcore”, it is important to analyse the “meaning of Berlusconi” in the history of Italy (and the Italian Left) in the last twenty years.


The opium of the Left: the anti-berlusconismo

Since 1994, when he first “took to the field” to fight against “the Communists”, tons of articles, pamphlets and books have been devoted to the “Berlusconi phenomenon”. Berlusconi has been depicted as a populist leader and a pathetic clown, a proto-dictator and a sexual pervert. Abroad, many have seen him as the embodiment of the most stereotypical aspects of the “Italian national character”: machismo, coarseness, buffoonery.

In Italy, many have hated him, many have been ashamed of him, and many others have voted for him. Berlusconi has been able to become the centre of the public debate – his political incorrectness, his provocative attitude, and in the last years even his sexual behaviour have turned into the main matter of concern for most of the Italian “Left”.

A number of journalists, pamphleteers and comedians have built their fortunes on writing about Berlusconi’s antics, and ridiculing him- this is the so called “anti-berlusconismo”. It is important to stress that for a long time Berlusconi (who has a first-class degree in law with a final dissertation on advertisement) has deliberately behaved in a provocative manner, as part of a PR campaign to turn Italian politics into a permanent plebiscite on his public persona – until the most recent “bunga bunga” scandals, which are probably the sign of incipient senile dementia.

However disgusting Berlusconi and his behaviour is (and it really is disgusting), it is difficult not to note how this obsession with “the President” has dulled a significant section of the Italian Left. At its best, anti-berlusconismo has taken the shape of an investigation of the ties between Berlusconi and Italian organised crime, in particular through his friend and political advisor Marcello Dell’Utri, who in 2004 was sentenced to 9 years of prison because of “external association” with the Sicilian mafia.

Important too was the scrutiny of Berlusconi’s involvement with the right-wing free-masonry organization P2, which in the late 1970s aimed to bring about an authoritarian turn in Italian politics (Berlusconi’s name figured in the lists of the organization, as the cardholder n. 1816).

There is no doubt that the many bills ad personam that the Berlusconi governments have introduced to keep him safe from prosecution and to protect his media empire are an outrageous, shameless example of public corruption – in practice, Berlusconi has privatized the parliament, making of it an instrument to pursue his own interests.

Nonetheless significant parts of the opposition -with the notable exception of parts of the radical, now extra-parliamentary Left- have started focussing mainly on issues such as legality and “public morality”, sometimes degenerating into justicialist, “law-and-order” views. The anti-Berlusconi hysteria went so far that Alberto Asor Rosa, one of the most distinguished left-wing intellectuals in the country, pleaded for an anti-Berlusconi coup d’état at the hands of the police and the carabinieri -those who massacred the anti-G8 protesters, bear in mind!- to “rescue” Italy from its Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, the transformations of Italian economy and society have been overlooked. First and foremost, the increase in the number of non-Italian people living and working in the country, who are discriminated against and deprived of the most basic rights, and the concurrent explosion of racism and Islamophobia, which have made the fortune of Berlusconi’s main ally, the Northern League. But also overlooked was the emergence of a new generation of young precarious workers and unemployed, and the concurrent assault on workers’ rights at the hands of the employers- in particular, the manager of the car manufacturer FIAT Sergio Marchionne.

The word “class” has disappeared from the public debate, just to be replaced by “Berlusconi”. One of the most successful demos organised in the last years was the so-called “No-Berlusconi Day” – a mass gathering to protest against the corruption of the Prime Minister that was held in December 2009. The platform for the event focussed entirely on Berlusconi, talked about the Prime Minister as “an extremely serious anomaly among Western democracies”, and did not mention any social or economic issues – and this more than one year after the outbreak of the financial crisis!

While the curtain is drawn over Berlusconi’s nauseating one-man-show, the real question is how it has been possible that one person reduced the politics of a country to a debate on his public persona.


One “strong” man and a “weak” ruling class

According to Antonio Gramsci, in Western societies the power of the ruling classes is grounded not just on coercion, but also on hegemony, or leadership. Hegemony is primarily achieved, not through State institutions, but within civil society. A key role is played by intellectuals, those who exert organizational, managerial functions.

To an extent, it seems possible to argue that, in the last thirty years, Western societies have been ruled by neoliberal elites that controlled mainstream parties and governments, and established their cultural hegemony through the mass media – first and foremost, commercial television.

In most of the Anglophone world, there has been a clear distinction between those who have held the political power implementing neoliberal policies (whatever party they belonged to) and those who have worked to maintain neoliberal hegemony in civil society.

The organic linkages between different components of the ruling class (economic, political, and media) have mainly been forged in institutions such as Oxbridge or the Ivy League. These are the sites for the reproduction of the ruling class (and the cooption into it). The neoliberal ruling class is then structured in a cohesive way.

In Italy, the economic ruling class has traditionally been weak and unable to create a mass “liberal” movement germane to it, as Gramsci already highlighted in his Lyon Theses. This weakness was mainly due to the deep divide in the socio-economic structures of the different parts of the country (mainly the North and the South, the urban areas and the countryside).

As a result, heterogeneous social elites (mainly industrialists and landowners) were able to rule the country through shaky alliances, but never really achieved a “moral and ideal” leadership over the population. To stave off the proto-revolutionary uprisings that followed the First World War, the economic elites gave their support to the coercive (rather than hegemonic) Fascist movement.

This weakness (or lack of “moral and ideal” leadership) continued after the fall of Mussolini’s regime. The economic elites accepted leaving the government of the country in the hands of the political arm of the Catholic movement, the Christian Democrats.

Differently from lay conservatives, the Christian Democrats could rely on a powerful, hegemonic mass movement that had deep roots in Italian society. As a result, they were able to rule the country for more than forty years. In the early 1990s, the end of Communism and the evident corruption of the Christian Democrats contributed to the collapse of the party. It was thus that Berlusconi – at the time best known as the owner of the Champions-League-winner football club AC Milan – decided to go into politics, allegedly in order to rescue the country from “the Communists”, and created his own party, Forza Italia (Forward Italy).

Berlusconi was able to temporarily gain the support of different social groups; the industrial elite in the North-West; the small businessmen in the North-East; large parts of the Catholic Church and some of the murkiest sections of society in the South, without establishing a new, cohesive, organic ruling class. Interestingly enough, a substantial share of the personnel in Berlusconi’s party was recruited among the managers of his own companies- in particular, people working in publicity).

Instead of a cohesive neoliberal ruling class, Italy saw the ascendance of one man who was supported by a heterogeneous coalition. Berlusconi summed up in his persona the three different social functions of the neoliberal elites: the economic, as one of the richest entrepreneurs in the country; the media, as the owner of all the commercial TV channels; and the political, as Prime Minister.

This situation has led Italian liberals to talk about Berlusconi’s “conflict of interests” and an “Italian anomaly”, drawing comparisons with the separation between the three different spheres (economy, media, politics) that would be typical of the Anglophone world. In reality, the difference is not that in the United Kingdom there is no organic linkage between mainstream media, economic elites and mainstream politicians -one has just to think about the News of the world scandal, or the massive funding that the City of London gives to the Tories. Rather, these organic linkages are instead hidden through the ‘division of labour’ within the ruling class, whereas in Italy they were manifest, albeit just as part of the populist one-man-show of Berlusconi.

The peculiar role played by Berlusconi in Italy has led too many people on the Left to identify what is in fact a socio-economic system and an ideology – neoliberal capitalism – with an individual, and to think that by getting rid of the individual, all the flaws inherent in the system would be mended. The recent statements of the leader of the main opposition party, according to which the debt crisis in Italy is due not to the bankruptcy of global neoliberalism, but to Berlusconi’s mishandling of Italian economy, are the best example of the parochialism and superficiality inherent in anti-berlusconismo.

The anti-Berlusconi hysteria has become such that, even after that Berlusconi’s incipient resignation has become official, the real concern of many self-claimed leftwingers is not what will happen next to Italian people, but rather the uncontrolled fear that Berlusconi is preparing a trap and might not actually go in the end.

From an outside perspective, the pasdaran of anti-berlusconismo look like passengers sitting on the backbench of a car with broken brakes driven by a drunken person, who think that simply by replacing the drunken driver, the broken car will not crash.


Beyond Berlusconi, toward the Abyss?

In the months of the Eurozone crisis, Berlusconi has been completely powerless. Without any internal and international backing, he was not just a lame duck, but a dead politician walking. For him, the priority now is not his political survival, but rather to forestall the ruin of his media empire and his own criminal prosecution.

It is also clear that Berlusconi’s resignation will lead to a new, technocratic government led by Mario Monti. A Yale graduate, Monti embodies the desire of the Italian ruling class to overcome its “Mediterranean” sense of inferiority and to look more “European” and “civilized”. Rather than recognizing that neoliberalism is in its death throes, he will try to implement in the country a more extreme version of it.

It is already clear that Monti will get wide support in Parliament among former Berlusconi MPs, “moderate” Catholics and the opposition - with the notable exception of the racist Northern League, that now will eventually be able to give vent to its visceral anti-Europeanism. No elections will take place in the short run: the financial markets, the transnational neoliberal elites and the President of the Italian Republic (who has been the real master of puppets throughout the crisis, playing a role that goes far beyond his powers) do not want Italian people to have a say in deciding what the answer to the current crisis should be.

Their argument is that elections would mean further “instability”, implying that ordinary people are not able to decide for themselves. Nothing could demonstrate better how impudently transnational capital and its political cronies can trample on people’s will.

To guarantee what they call stability -and that will be, given the structural nature of this crisis, just a delay, until the entire system eventually collapses- in the next days the technocrats will impose first round of measures, including another reform of pensions, the privatisation of services provided by local authorities (in glaring contrast with the will of Italian people, that in May voted in large majority to defend water as a common good), and the possibility to sack workers in the public administration: this is the bit that will become most crucial once austerity will really kick off.

The ideological, authoritarian essence of the bill is proven by the fact that it includes a paragraph introducing tougher sentences for those demonstrating against the construction of the high-speed railway between Turin and Lyon, which is defined as an infrastructure “of national strategic interest”. One can really wonder what this has to do with the Italian public debt. And this is just the beginning. In all likelihood, the BCE and the IMF inspectors will ask soon for a second round of harsher austerity measures.

As in Britain, the burden of these measures will fall on Italian workers, women and young people; the neoliberal ruling class, however, will be at pains to mask the classist nature of austerity beyond the rhetoric of “national unity” and the safeguard of the common interest.

In a country were anger at institutional politics and politicians is already widespread (according to a recent survey, only 5% of the population said they trusted political parties and a staggering 33% expressed disbelief in democracy), and the ruling class is traditionally weak, it is by no means obvious that the project will succeed. With 2.2 million young people out of work and training, and a tradition of radicalism that has never completely faded away, in today’s Italy there is considerable potential for resistance and fight-back.

However, to turn this dormant energy into action, the radical left has to quickly unite and put forward an alternative, anti-austerity programme. What has to be stressed is the refusal to play by the rules of the financial markets, and a desire to fight for and with the Italian working-classes, women, young people and migrants.

Lacking a strong anti-austerity response from the Left, the resentment of Italian people might turn into support for populist, xenophobic policies, such as those of the Northern League. In an age of deep crisis and renewed hope for change, the time has come for the Italian left to free itself from the Berlusconi obsession, and to look at what the real living conditions and demands of Italian people are.