Maybe things are different

Following another thread in another place, here are a couple of reviews of books about Silvio Berlusconi, currently Prime Minister of Italy for the third time. As you can see, these reviews predate the 2006 elections, won by a united Left under Prodi (perhaps not quite the gran tessitore Aldo Moro was, but certainly a tessitore to be reckoned with). Consequently they also predate the 2008 elections, lost by a divided Left under Veltroni (who was either stupid enough to believe his own publicity or naive enough to believe that Berlusconi would reward him for his moderation after the inevitable defeat).

If my book (see next post down) has any relevance to contemporary Italy, it’s that all this could have been avoided if the Communist Party hadn’t got stuck in a groove of principled centre-right ‘moderation’ – of defining themselves as The Left That Wants To Be Loved By The Right. Veltroni’s act of electoral suicide suggests that they still haven’t learnt the lesson of the 1970s.

Paul Ginsborg, Silvio Berlusconi: Television, power and patrimony

Printed in Red Pepper, February 2005

In March 2001, a 128-page book was mailed to millions of Italian households. Titled Una storia italiana (“An Italian Story”), the book told the story of Silvio Berlusconi: a man from a poor background who had grown rich through hard work and loyalty to his friends, and who now wanted to serve his country. In May 2001, Cinderella went to the ball: Berlusconi became Prime Minister for the second time, leading a coalition which received nearly 50% of the vote. Berlusconi’s own party took nearly 30% – almost twice the vote of its nearest rival, the post-Communist Left Democrats.

Berlusconi faced several charges of corruption and fraud arising from his business career. His government acted promptly, passing laws which annulled some of Berlusconi’s court cases and obstructed others. Berlusconi still faces one charge of bribing a judge, but the court is likely to run out of time under the statute of limitation. Meanwhile, 90% of the television watched in Italy is broadcast either on the state RAI network – subject to heavy government pressure – or on Berlusconi’s Mediaset channels. In 1994 Italy’s supreme court ruled that Berlusconi’s share of terrestrial broadcasting was excessive and ordered one of his channels to transfer to satellite. In 2003, as the final deadline loomed, a decree overriding the ruling was signed by the Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

Berlusconi’s attitude to the Italian legal system is not so much cavalier as openly hostile. In the early 1990s Italy’s post-war ruling class disappeared under an avalanche of corruption trials. For Berlusconi, this judicial onslaught has a simple explanation: it was a Communist plot. Communists are behind his own trials; they have also occupied positions of power in RAI, the education system and the culture industry, from which they must now be extirpated. Some intellectuals now argue that the ‘First Republic’ of 1948-92 was characterised by a ‘cultural hegemony of the left’; more bluntly, Berlusconi proposes to rescue Italy from ‘fifty years of Communism’.

As well as being a leading writer of contemporary Italian history, Paul Ginsborg is active in the opposition to Berlusconi; he has criticised the ‘self referential’ politics of the Left Democrats, urging a new relationship with the forces of radical and ethical protest. This brief but valuable book shows a deep understanding of the Berlusconi phenomenon, pinpointing both his populism and his patrimonialism – an oddly feudal belief in loyalty, largesse and reciprocal favours, given greater scope by access to the assets of the Italian state. Ginsborg’s partisanship is unmistakable but does not cloud his judgment; if anything it has a positive effect, bringing the gravity of his charges against Berlusconi into sharp focus.

Unfortunately, Ginsborg says little about the background to Berlusconi’s apparent paranoia. Italy’s stagnant and corrupt political class, whose heir Berlusconi is, was rooted in a diffuse culture of illegality; for many Italians under the First Republic, giving and receiving bribes was a way of life. Opposition to this situation came largely from the Left, which built a thriving and influential sub-culture out of its exclusion from political power; left-wing judges, in particular, were staunch defenders of the Italian Constitution and of ethics in public life. The two coalitions which faced off in 2001 were an imperfect but genuine reflection of two conflicting cultures; one of them has won its most decisive victory in over forty years, and now intends to make it permanent. The Italian Left urgently needs to combine unity with radicalism and a renewed commitment to ethical politics; it’s a challenging combination, but this is a challenging conjuncture. In the British press, Berlusconi is too often presented as comical, ludicrous or merely contemptible. Ginsborg gives him his due, taking the threat that he presents entirely seriously.

David Lane, Berlusconi’s Shadow: Crime, justice and the pursuit of power

Printed in the Independent, 14/9/2004

Italy’s vocation for political turmoil is matched by the sluggishness of its courts: cases continue for months or years; charges are annulled to cut the backlog; sentences only take effect after appeal, by which time the original charge may have expired under the statute of limitations.

Under another system, the Italian prime minister might now be a convicted criminal. Silvio Berlusconi has been found guilty of corruption and false accounting (verdicts reversed on appeal) and illegally financing Bettino Craxi’s Socialist Party (charge expired during appeal). A conviction for perjury was annulled. An associate was jailed for bribing a judge; another was convicted for extortion and faces charges of Mafia involvement.

For Berlusconi and his party, Forza Italia, this judicial onslaught is a Communist conspiracy to deprive the Italian people of their chosen leader. This allegation intimidates Berlusconi’s critics. Since Forza Italia and its allies came to power in May 2001, a more direct – and dangerous – approach has become available. A series of measures have been passed that hamper magistrates investigating false accounting, cases using Mafia informers, and those involving high-ranking politicians.

David Lane writes for The Economist, which Berlusconi sued for libel after it suggested he was unfit to lead Italy. Berlusconi’s Shadow is a withering indictment of crony capitalism, executive thuggery and government incompetence. For Lane, Berlusconi is a shrewd but amoral businessman who entered politics to safeguard his interests and is now out of his depth. This contrasts with the picture presented by writers such as Paul Ginsborg, for whom Berlusconi’s combination of anti-political populism and media power makes him a real threat to democracy.

The test will come in the 2006 elections. Italy’s governing coalition looks fragile; the ex-Fascists of Alleanza Nazionale are bizarrely emerging as standard-bearers of principled conservatism. But neither the strength of Forza Italia nor Berlusconi’s will to power should be underestimated. With the left in long-term disarray, and court cases still hanging over the prime minister, Italy faces several more years of political instability.

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