Berlusconi, the man who ruined Italy?

The death of Forza Italia’s leader is an opportunity to demystify the narrative on which the political debate of recent years has been based, that of a healthy country ruined by the TV channels of an amoral, unscrupulous man, a friend of criminals and dictators, whom today, however, everyone, including many of his detractors, celebrate as if they are already nostalgic of him. 

Berlusconi’s death allows us to draw a balance sheet of the political period that began with the end of the Cold War and ended at the end of 2010s, debunking some of the myths on which the political debate of these thirty years of Italian history has been based. First of all, the myth according to which Berlusconi is the man who ruined Italy thanks to the venefic influence of his TV channels on the population and handed the country over to an anti-democratic and parafascist right-wing, removing it from the loving care of progressive parties and the benevolent influence that a market not dominated by his personal interests would have had. The spectacle we have witnessed in the days following his death –on the one hand the state funeral (provided for by law), the national mourning and the honeyed celebration by the media, and on the other hand the indignant reaction of a section of the centre-left electorate against him– is the fruit of the unresolved contradiction that has marked Italian politics in recent years.

A man from the First Republic

When the Berlin Wall fell and the Mani Pulite (“clean hands”) investigation swept through the Italian political parties and economic system, Berlusconi was still a self-made man who had adventurously entered the business of real estate, advertising, television, publishing and football. Those successes were linked to his solid relations not only with Bettino Craxi’s Socialist Party, but with the entire Italian political system, including those Communists against whom he entered the political arena in 1994 and who were, at least until the arrival of the Five Star Movement, the favourite target of his invectives and the bogeyman used to distract a boiling middle class.

In the 1980s, his companies financed the magazine of the Milanese Communist Party’s “migliorista” current, in short the most pro-Western wing of the Italian Communists, of which Giorgio Napolitano, the first CP leader to go on an official visit to the USA, was a leading exponent. At the same time, however, Berlusconi concluded an agreement with the Soviet state TV and became its European dealer. He also entrusted a cooperative close to Armando Cossutta, the CP’s most pro-Soviet leader, with the porterage and transport services for the sets of his television studios. Yet no one has ever spoken in depth about this chapter, even though it would be useful to understand the ambiguous attitude, harsh in words but soft in deeds, that the heir parties of the Italian Communist Party have always had towards him, particularly on the problem of the conflict of interest between the politician Berlusconi and the Berlusconi owner of three national TV channels.

Even the narrative of Berlusconi founding a party and going to government thanks to his TV channels hides a much more banal truth: the head of Fininvest holding company came to power because the Italian bourgeoisie, after the collapse of the parties of the First Republic (1946 to 1994), decided to invest in him. A choice condensed masterfully in the words of Gianni Agnelli, head of FIAT and of the Italian industrialists: 

‘If he wins, we have all won, if he loses, only he has lost’. 

In 1994, Agnelli himself, a senator for life, with his decisive vote of confidence gave birth to Berlusconi’s first government. Berlusconi assembled his party, Forza Italia, by putting together men taken from his companies and long-standing collaborators such as Fedele Confalonieri, Gianni Letta, Ennio Doris, Cesare Previti; the curator of the Sicilian mafia’s interests in the north, Marcello dell’Utri; and a handful of survivors from all the major parties of the First Republic: former Christian Democrats like Scajola and Pisanu; former socialists like Brunetta and Cicchitto; former Communists like Bondi and Ferrara; former liberals like Biondi and Costa; even former CGIL trade unionists like Maurizio Sacconi, minister of labour in the Berlusconi 4 government, or Giuliano Cazzola, who in 2008 would join the Popolo delle Libertà, the aborted attempt to merge Forza Italia and Alleanza Nazionale, heir of the fascist MSI (Italian Social Movement). After founding a party of escapees from the Mani Pulite investigation, Berlusconi even tried to recruit Tonino Di Pietro, the magistrate symbol of that investigation, as Minister of Justice in his first government and almost succeeded.

Berlusconi’s social pact

Above all, the founder of Forza Italia proved capable of federating the main potentates of Italian capitalism –bankers and industrialists, the Catholic Church, organised crime– and at the same time of bewitching another fundamental component of Italian society: the hypertrophic petit-bourgeoisie of the thousands of small companies, often family-run, where employees can be counted on the fingers of one hand, pampered by politicians deluding them into believing that they are the backbone of Italian capitalism. Berlusconi has also won the sympathy of an electorate that, after 50 years of bigoted politicians, regardless of their political colour, found itself faced with an over-the-top character, who condensed the merits and faults of the average Italian in current iconography: likeable and chauvinist, enterprising and smart, sick with football and a bit of a charlatan.

The centre-right, Berlusconi’s great invention, was the container capable of holding together the big companies and the big banks of the north, of which Berlusconi is, albeit in a contradictory way, an expression; the bosses of Veneto and Emilia-Romagna represented by the Northern League; sectors of state bureaucracy and civil service in the centre and south, linked to the right wing of the Alleanza Nazionale (now Fratelli d’Italia). A balance that held until the great recession of 2007-2008 broke into Europe as well, reducing the financial space for maneuvering of the national governments. Big capital was forced to pass on the costs of the crisis not only to the workers, but also to the petty bourgeoisie that in Italy, since the days of the First Republic, has enjoyed a special protection by all governments, especially through that undeclared subsidy that is tolerant of tax evasion, of which Berlusconi has been a champion.

At the same time, the recession and the rise of China pushed the two current great powers, heirs of the Cold War blocs, onto a collision course with each other. This called into question the relative autonomy that had long characterised Italian foreign policy, that, for example, was expressed by Andreotti and Craxi maintaining friendly relations with the Arab world and, under the table, with the USSR itself. In the name of this autonomy, in 1985, Italian carabinieri and airmen surrounded American Delta Force soldiers at the NATO base at Sigonella and prevented them from arresting the Palestinian hijackers of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, who had killed an American citizen of Jewish origin during that action. Berlusconi is the son and heir of that political tradition and maintained friendly relations with Putin and Gaddafi, who provided Italian capitalism with considerable advantages, for example in terms of energy supplies.

To a section of big national and international capital, a president who uses public finances and taxation to keep alive a myriad of small and often unproductive Italian companies, maintains relations with leaders increasingly disliked by Washington, and competes for oil and gas supplies with France and Britain, became at some point indigestible. Berlusconi’s resistance to sending Italian bombers over Libya, which was only thwarted by the direct intervention of Napolitano, who became president of the Republic in the meantime, is perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back and the great opportunity missed by Berlusconi. Part of the business world also reproaches him for looking after the interests of family businesses rather than the general, class interests of the Italian bourgeoisie.

The decline

The bunga bunga scandal (Berlusconi’s sex parties with prostitutes) was the propitious occasion, if not the perfect expedient (but I don’t want to seem a conspiracy theorist), to unleash a moralistic crusade against him, accusing him of libertine conduct, an argument that is always effective in a country that is Catholic to the core and hosts the Vatican. And so in the end, the Cavaliere is forced to resign and give way to Monti, an exponent of big capital and a European technocrat. Two years later, the judiciary inflicts on him one of the rare convictions suffered in a very long series of trials, almost all of which ended either with an acquittal or because the crime was statute barred.

Everything that comes next is just a long series of tail twists by a political figure whose demise is being heralded by all, but who, even with a party reduced to its lowest percentages, and faced with the rise first of Salvini and then of Meloni, remains always in the saddle and able to condition the political balance. He succeeds in doing so by leveraging one of his main gifts: the ability to grasp the mood of public opinion and tune into it, as we saw in the last national election campaign, when he let his criticism of Italian and European policy in Ukraine slip in public. The national mourning decided by Giorgia Meloni appears to be a celebration of the definitive elimination of one of the government’s biggest potential long-term problems.  

In conclusion, then, who was Silvio Berlusconi? He has been a boss, expressing the interests of Italian bosses, but often above all his own, the latter being one of his original sins. An entrepreneur who became a politician on the investiture of a broad array of forces within Italian capitalism in order to seal the end of the First Republic, building a sort of Noah’s ark in which a large part of the political personnel coming out of Mani Pulite could embark. This ark was used to defend the old interests of the Italian bourgeoisie in the new political and social framework determined by the end of the “Communist” nightmare, making Italians believe that in reality the Communists were always around the corner and in disguise.

Within this framework, the offensive against the Italian workers was one of the cornerstones of his governments’ actions, an offensive always conducted in competition with the centre-left. It should be remembered, for example, that the mother of all Berlusconi’s battles against the trade unions, the abolition of Article 18 of the Workers’ Statute, which protects workers against illegitimate dismissals, was prepared by the declarations of a former Communist, D’Alema, carried on for twenty years by Berlusconi without ever being won, and concluded by the technocrat Monti and the former Christian Democrat Renzi. And that the centre-left in thirty years has managed to govern longer than Berlusconi on the one hand by wresting votes from its ever-dwindling electorate in the name of defending democracy and legality, and on the other by trying to accredit itself in the eyes of the Italian and international bourgeoisie as the coalition capable of implementing the same policies as Berlusconi with less fuss and without privileging his companies. The sorrowful emotion with which even the leaders of the Democratic Party, with the new secretary Elly Schlein in the forefront, greeted their adversary’s passing is perfectly understandable: for thirty years Berlusconi, like Giorgia Meloni today, was the one who kept a moribund centre-left alive. In their shoes, who wouldn’t thank him?

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