Something from the Italian press, following on from Liam. This is taken from a column by Curzio Maltese in today’s Repubblica. ‘Il Caimano’ – ‘the caiman‘ – is a popular and well-deserved nickname for Berlusconi.
It’s a bit naive – no, extremely naive – to profess to be astonished that Berlusconi the statesman has turned back into Berlusconi the Caiman. If there’s anyone who’s true to their own nature, far removed from the human weaknesses of fatigue and self-doubt, it’s Berlusconi. Long before he entered politics, he was what he is now: an authoritarian paternalist, subversive of democracy by nature, fond of the demagogue’s shortcuts and cheerfully contemptuous of any democratic counter-power (from the judiciary to the independent media), and exhibiting the intolerance of constitutional rules that he learned in the school of P2.
The question has never been how much and in what ways Berlusconi could change – he never changes. Rather, it’s how much and in what ways Italy has changed – for it’s changed an awful lot in the last fifteen years, thanks in part to the huge media influence of Berlusconi himself.
Berlusconi has entered government three times now. Each time, he has tried to bend the Italian constitution to his will, starting with violent attacks on the judiciary. He did it in 1994, when the Biondi decree [releasing corruption suspects from bail] was his government’s first act. He did it in 2001, when emergency decrees on the law were put forward even before the government had been inaugurated. And he’s doing it now. The language used is more violent each time – and so is the content of the legislation.
But, while Berlusconi has pushed harder and harder against the democratic system, the reaction by public opinion has been weaker and weaker. In 1994 the revolt against the Biondi “thieves’ charter” weakened the Berlusconi government from day one – and that government only lasted a few months. In 2001 the “girotondi” began a wave of social movement protest, with millions in the streets, which would lead to a series of heavy electoral defeats for the centre-right alliance, even though it had a huge majority in parliament. The third time round, faced with an even more blatant attempt to tear the independent judiciary off its hinges, the reaction is all too weak. The opposition, setting aside the illusion of a dialogue with the government, has announced the beginning of a new wave of struggle – in Autumn, not now. The forces of ‘civil society’ seem to have left the scene.
In the last 25 years, while Berlusconi has not changed, Italy has changed a lot – and for the worse. The fabric of civic and social society has worn away; the common sense of society has been reworked around authoritarian themes. In casual conversation, in offices and bars and on beaches, you can hear opinions voiced which would have been unthinkable in the Italy of 1994 – on immigration or the law, civil rights or religion, Europe or the unions. “Berlusconism” began in the belly of a country where democracy was never fully established, for a thousand different reasons (Left as well as Right reasons); it has now spread to all the organs of the nation, ending up with its brain.
The question is whether public opinion still includes those democratic antibodies which, in 1994 and in 2001, hindered the more or less gentle drift towards the establishment of an authoritarian regime. The signs are contradictory; everything is still to play for. Certainly, in the last two decades the brute strength of Berlusconian populism has only grown, along with its purchase on increasingly large areas of society. This isn’t only a question of the power of TV and publishing: we’re looking at outright cultural hegemony. Among the opposition, it’s surprising that, even after all this time, the former pupils of Gramsci still fail to grasp the mechanics – and the scale – of the strategy that’s being put into action. Sadly, they never change either. They were fooling themselves (still!) that they could turn Berlusconi into a statesman by offering him a seat at their negotiating table. Now, they’re fooling themselves (still!) that they can put up resistance with tired slogans beginning “Hands Off” or by entrenching themselves in their “red regions” – regions which are already pale pink and threatening, sooner or later, to turn grey or black [the colour of Fascism].
They’re waiting for better times – but for the opposition there never will be a better time than this.
We’ve always thought (those of us with any interest in electoral politics under capitalism, which excludes (for instance) this bunch) – we’ve always thought that tactical manoeuvring and upholding socialist principle were opposites, or at least mutually exclusive. What the continuing disaster of the 2008 Italian elections suggests to me is that, when the Right knows what it’s doing, there’s no real contradiction between the two. Hoist the red flag and you’ll be trampled; give away your principles in the name of self-preservation, and you’ll still be trampled – but you’ll cut away the ground you could have built on in the process. The tragedy of Walter Veltroni – shared, let’s not personalise this too much, with the entire centre-Right of the old PCI – is that he seems genuinely to have believed that Berlusconi had excluded the centre-left from political legitimacy because he believed they were Communists. In fact it was, always, the other way round. If Berlusconi called the centre-left Communists, it was because he wanted to exclude them – more precisely, he didn’t want them to get in his way. By splitting the centre-left, destroying its Left component and redefining what remains on, effectively, anti-Communist lines, Veltroni has ensured that they won’t.