Tag Archives: Berlusconi

A personal memoir by Þóra Arnórsdóttir

My choice wasn’t very exotic, though. I had decided to go to Norway for the next two semesters. However, as I sat there in the tiny little loft apartment I rented downtown, I suddenly realized that winters in Oslo are oh, so much colder than Reykjavik. I knew that the philosophy department of the University of Iceland had a good relationship with an Italian university and it was on this moment I decided that Genova would be my destination, not Oslo.

Continue reading A personal memoir by Þóra Arnórsdóttir

Kristina Kappelin, Berlusconi – Italienaren (Stockholm: Brombergs, 2010)

Kappelin knows, and loves, Italy: there is no trace, in her work, of a superiority complex towards Italians – such folkloristic people! ? which is on the contrary a common feature of some foreign media when dealing with Italy. Rather, Kappelin tries to understand how came that a country with a unique cultural and historical heritage has let itself be bluffed by a man who has – perhaps irreparably – compromised Italy’s reputation in the world.

And the book is indeed not only about the founder of “Forza Italia”, but instead, as it is made clear by the meaningful title (Berlusconi. The Italian), about Berlusconi as embodiment of some national peculiarities, so to say.

Italy in the whole have not yet been able to reflect about Berlusconi’s almost twenty-year dominance over the country’s political and economic life, pressed as it is just now (February 2012) by a never-ending emergency – the risk of a financial collapse – which caused, in November 2011, the appointment of a “technical government” (i.e. voted by the Parliament but not resulting from the last general election) being charged with the task of crisis management. Furthermore, although “style” is significant – professor Mario Monti does not “peekaboo” the German chancellor (Kappelin reminds Berlusconi’s blunders in chapter seven, Tittut i världen) and seems not to be used to spend his nights with twenty- to thirty young girls at the same time – the common feeling is that there has not occurred any shift in economic and social policies, which remain unfair and not effective (at least in the view of re-launching the economy and not only balancing public finances). This sense of continuity prevents to look at “Berlusconism” as a close (?) period in Italian history.

What does Berlusconi’s success reveal of Italy, according to Kappelin’s book? Basically, three aspects: the power of organised crime; the Catholic Church’s influence upon domestic politics and culture; the well-grounded male chauvinism.

The first two points (which particularly chapter sex, Maffian, and eight, Klockorna i Peterskyrkan, focuse on, although they are recurring issues all over the book) are frequently cause of embarrassments to Italians when talking with foreigners.

And indeed it would be unthinkable in Sweden – Kappelin is not so explicit, but the starting sentence of her book is: how come that Italians vote for Berlusconi? ? to pervert justice in the way Berlusconi did in Italy (by the notorious ad hoc laws, described in their origin and content in the chapter five, Konflikten med rättväsandet), and to witness powerless to the connivance between politics and criminality. This is due probably to a political tradition in Nordic countries which Henrik Berggren and Lars Trägårdh have described as a high degree of social trust, meant both as trust in other people, including strangers, and confidence in common institutions due to their transparency[1].

However, Kappelin’s thesis is that what explains why  a politician, who from a Swedish point of view is completely incomprehensible, has been so successful is, besides his relationship with organised crime on one hand and with the Catholic Church on the other hand (at least until the last sex affaires), male chauvinism: a key factor, the Swedish journalist stresses already in the Introduction, in understanding Italy’s decline, from the economic stagnation (now recession) to the lack of trust in the future. And in chapter one (Italien och Italienarna. En introduktion) Kappelin points out indeed that the country is like a journey back in time, in a masculine and sensual world, where “l’apparenza” (look)[2] means all and where a downward compromise has been achieved between the individual and the State: as you (State) do not accomplish your duties towards me (citizen), I am not bound to accomplish mine towards you. It is the triumph of the “furbo” (cunning fellow)[3].

With such a background, it is quite obvious that women have no chance, with few exceptions, to establish themselves as political and economic independent actors. Their unhappy fortune in Berlusconi’s Italy is the subject of chapter three (Madonnan, horan och Silvio Berlusconi): those that are good looking are reduced to nothing more than ornamental elements in a society ruled by old and unappeasable men and therefore appointed as parliamentary members and even ministers exactly because of their “apparenza”; the others, the common women, who are not mistresses of some sultan, are mostly doomed to insignificance in the economy and in politics.

Berlusconi, Kappelin insists on this point, has not invented male chauvinism, which on the contrary is well-grounded in the country’s culture; his sin with no redemption is to have turned this national inclination into a rule and the “velina”[4] (young girls almost naked whose only task in Berlusconi’s TV programs is to shake their body in alluring ways) into the ideal model of womanhood.

And thus we come to another valuable contribution of Kappelin’s book, after the effective part on women’s role as mirror of Italy’s decadence (and again here we could remind that on the contrary Nordic countries are on the top in the world’s gender equality ratios): to the huge concentration of media power achieved by Berlusconi much attention is drawn upon (see particularly chapter four, Makten over medierna), but this problem is not presented at all as an Italian peculiarity. Rather, Kappelin warns that also countries which have repeatedly condemned Berlusconi for his conflict of interest have no safe defence against such a risk.

The final part of the book focuses on how Berlusconi has changed Italian political style, turning electoral campaigns into sales where even the promise of one million – and not half a million, as Kappelin writes – new jobs can be sold to people in search of an encouraging fairy-tale, with immigrants welcomed as scapegoats (chapter nine, Dragkampen i Italien – resultat och misslyckanden), and on the dangerous meeting between authoritarian democracy and media populism (chapter ten, Auktoritär demokrati och medial populism). No one before Berlusconi, Kappelin points out, had dared to draw a comparison between Mussolini and himself with a kind of self-congratulation. But what the author argues is not that the founder of “Forza Italia” is the new Mussolini: the difference is that the latter aimed at building a new Italian,  whilst the former is satisfied with the existing one. The point is rather that the centre-right parties, with Berlusconi in the forefront, have taken over and reverted the “cultural hegemony” based since 1945 on antifascism as the key-source of national identity, and have systematically put down liberal institutions (starting from parliamentary and judicial powers) – and politics itself.

In this perspective, Berlusconi’s Italy appears as a political laboratory for the whole Europe. This is the somehow not expected conclusion from a non-Italian author, which enables the book to be not only a commented review of stereotypes about Italians (and about differences between Northern and Southern Europe), but a more demanding reflection about possible future developments of democracy at an international level. Out of Italy many have laughed when seeing Berlusconi’s blunders and listening to his hymn (“Meno male che Silvio c’è”), but – Kappelin warns – his “style” has become a model for a new generation of right-wing politicians, starting from David Cameron in the UK.

Thus it is not easy to get rid of Berlusconism as though it were a mere interlude in Italian history, perhaps cherishing the always comfortable thesis that it has been a further demonstration of the Gattopardo’s core idea: in Italy everything is to be changed so that nothing changes. On the contrary, Berlusconi, this is Kappelin’s conclusion, has substantially changed the way Italians look at themselves – and at the the others – as well as the ways of contemporary politics. And it will take time to go back to previous ones – or to find something new.

[1] See H. Berggren, L. Trägårdh, Social Trust and Radical Individualism. The Paradox at the Heart of Nordic Capitalism, in The Nordic Way, Stockholm, Global Utmaning, 2010, pp. 18-19.

[2] In Italian in the book, see p. 18.

[3] In Italian in the book, see p. 29.

[4] The book has been written before the “Ruby affaire”.

Giulio Santagata, Il braccio destro. Quindici anni di politica con Romano Prodi (Bologna: Pendragon, 2010)

Perhaps, the nearly three dozens of foreign citizens–British, Canadian, American, Icelandic, German, Mexican, Taiwanese and Scandinavian–who asked me this question were simply devoid of the knowledge, the economic interests, the political background, or the spiritual attitudes that have led millions of Italians to choose Berlusconi as their national leader and international representative. On the contrary, far from being a neutral question, all of these inquisitive foreign citizens displayed invariantly their genuine astonishment at Berlusconi’s electoral success, for they were unable to perceive in his public persona anything positive or appealing.

Most commonly, their negative perception of Berlusconi was associated with sad, stereotypical notions about Italy and the Italians, such as being lecherously over-sexed, endemically corrupt, and in bed with the Mafia. Sometimes, however, their negative perception was more sophisticated. In particular, there appeared to be recurrent concerns that billionaires or media moguls à la Berlusconi could establish new parties and seize self-servingly the democratic processes of their own native countries. In this perspective, my interlocutors seemed worried that some sort of “Berlusconism” could cross Italy’s boundaries and take over the rest of Europe, analogously to the historical experience of fascism, which emerged in Italy and was later adopted in as different countries as Portugal and Germany.

Giulio Santagata’s new book offers a different answer to this frequent, value-laden question that I was put so often over the past fifteen years. It does so by recounting with great analytical skill, vivid personal participation and significant intellectual honesty his own experience as Romano Prodi’s “right hand” over the past two decades of Italian political life—Romano Prodi being the one and only left-wing candidate to ever beat, twice, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy’s general elections.

The book comprises three sections, which are devoted respectively to: the history of the political alliance called “the Olive tree” (13-46); Santagata’s organisation of numerous electoral campaigns (49-87); and Romano Prodi’s two short-lived governments (91-146). Together, these three sections reveal the inner frailty and the limited outreach of the political coalition that supported Prodi’s candidacy and governments.

The main factor at play with regard to the coalition’s inner frailty would appear to have been the sheer number and variability of the political parties that formed it. Many, short-lived, endlessly reinventing themselves in search for an invariably evanescent appeal, these parties shared a common fear and a common fault. First of all, they were all afraid of a strong leadership, whether Prodi’s or anyone else’s. Secondly, they regarded each other not much as allies, but as competitors. Eventually, the need for visibility of so many parties and party leaders worked against Romano Prodi, given that his alleged supporters were busier attacking each other than striking jointly at Berlusconi and at his right-wing agenda.

The limited outreach of the same parties was due in primis to the limited resources and media connections available to them. In this respect, Berlusconi’s being a media mogul and billionaire running for office who, more or less manifestly, told newspapers and TV broadcasters what to say, did make a difference. Still, the obstinately self-referential aims of left-wing professional politicians does strike Santagata as equally relevant, for these quarrelsome political leaders claimed incessantly to know better than their own voters, who clearly liked the notion of a unified Italian left. Inevitably, such better-knowing strategists were shown to be tragically out of touch with their potential voters’ hopes and demands.

It must be realised that some of the hopes and demands of the Italian voters were likely to be the result of cunningly induced dreams and fears, which right-wing politicians were better able to exploit. After all, these politicians had contributed decisively to give shape to them, thanks to Berlusconi’s tight grip on Italy’s mass media. Similarly, some hopes and demands were clearly the expression of the vocal plethora of small- and medium-scale interest groups that Prodi’s government was trying to overcome in the name of liberal “modernity” and ever-useful “national interest”. Others could be even the desiderata of Italy’s organised crime and endemic corruption—sad stereotypes are not necessarily off the mark all the time.

Yet, a third element should be considered as well. Santagata hints at it in the final section of the book, in which he discusses the disastrous effects of the ongoing global economic crisis. The recipes that were proposed in the fifteen years of Prodi’s political career were very much in tune with those of, say, Britain’s New Labour or Germany’s social-democrats. Prodi’s governments were eager to liberalise the economy, privatise what little was left of public banks and State-owned industrial concerns, and, to a significant extent, ride the wave of rampant financial activities. Like Blair and Schroeder, Prodi was willing to embrace globalisation as a positive force. In this economic perspective, the difference between his novel “post-communist” left and Berlusconi’s right was not so pronounced.

On the contrary, the only voices to criticise left-wing liberalisations, privatisations and the embrace of globalisation were a handful of so-called “radicals” on the left of Prodi’s left, and even fewer old-fashioned nationalists on the right. Everybody else, the “moderate” and “right-thinking” majority, had taken aboard the “univocally liberal and free-market thought” that had once characterised staunchly right-wing politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (144).

In brief, a monolithic faith in the correctness of free trade and free-market economics was established in Italy too, both left and right of the political spectrum, soon after the collapse of the USSR. Certainly, there were the few exceptions noted above, but they were marginalised as a nostalgic leftover of the Cold War era. The seventy-year-old Soviet alternative to liberal capitalism had been proven utopian by the collapse of the Eastern bloc and, with it, any serious challenge to free trade and free-market economics. As a result, liberal capitalism was glorified not solely as the only path ahead, but also as the right one, as though the failure of the Soviet remedy meant that there had never been any pathology to begin with. Yet, after twenty years of “moderate” and “right-thinking” Thatcherism, the global economy entered in 2008 such a dramatic global crisis that even Berlusconi’s own minister of financial affairs was heard calling for “more public intervention” in the economy and “the unspeakable communist word ‘nationalisation’.” (144)

Possibly, as Santagata suggests, the result of this global crisis is that the left will stop being ashamed of its traditional socialist lexicon and reformist aims, thus rediscovering “ethics, equality, welfare, labour, solidarity… capitalism, sustainability, redistribution of wealth.” (144) Whether Romani Prodi will be the most credible Italian political leader to be at the helm of this counter-counter-reformation, though, is far from clear.