Swans Commentary » swans.com August 9, 2010  



It's A Berlusconi World: Part I


by Fabio De Propris





(Swans - August 9, 2010)   L'Aquila is the principal city of the Abruzzo region of central Italy. On July 7, 2010, 5,000 citizens of L'Aquila, led by their mayor, came to Rome. Fifteen months before, on April 6, 2009, an earthquake all but destroyed their city and killed 308 citizens. Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi visited L'Aquila several times in the days after the catastrophe. On each visit he presented himself not only as a friend, but as a father and even as a savior of the 1,600 injured and the 65,000 homeless. By descending on Rome, the mayor and people of L'Aquila were telling Berlusconi that he failed to keep his promises. Though new homes had been built far from the city center for 20,000 of the homeless, the rest were still waiting for proper accommodation. L'Aquila remains a dead city covered with rubble and debris.

Berlusconi's huge conflict of interest was demonstrated during 2009 by RAI and Mediaset, Italian public and principal private television broadcasters, both controlled by the prime minister. The news programs repeatedly showed Berlusconi kissing babies and giving comfort and aid to the inhabitants of L'Aquila. But it was these same men and women that on July 7 went to Rome to protest the absence of the help that had been promised. Police stopped them from reaching the headquarters of the government, injured two protestors, and roughed up the mayor of L'Aquila himself. The following day, TV news reported only Berlusconi's version of events: His enemies, the parties of the left, had exploited the demonstration after preventing his real commitment to the relief of L'Aquila from being known.

Berlusconi's party candidate won the local elections held in L'Aquila last March to choose the area governor (not the city mayor). In these elections, right-wing parties triumphed in many areas of Italy. Such is the state of the nation in 2010. People lose their jobs and vital social services like education, medical care, and public transportation are cut. Berlusconi insists that everything is fine, and that, while the world economy may be in dire straits, the Italian situation isn't at all bad. The city of L'Aquila may have tumbled down, he says, but a new town has gone up quickly and the level of satisfaction will soon follow. The sad truth is that many Italians, though beginning to doubt, still have faith in their premier.

What really frightens the Italian prime minister is the fact that journalists and judges -- two classes of "leftists" that Berlusconi insists are his worst enemies -- will not stop investigating and writing about his earlier incarnation as an unscrupulous entrepreneur and philandering husband. That explains why since 1994 he has been trying to solve two key problems: How to cut public spending in the manner of Mrs. Thatcher and how to keep hostile eyes off his real life. During his last election campaign in 2008, he vowed to promote a new law that would limit the tapping of telephones and stop the leaking of information from the courts. It's noteworthy that both these practices have damaged his reputation more than once in the past. On July 9, 90% of Italian journalists of all political affiliations went on strike to protest against the proposed law, which is promised for the end of the summer.

Italians knew very well that Berlusconi wished to hide his shady past and yet that knowledge never kept them from voting for him. The truth is surely that some voters strongly dislike Berlusconi without having any liking for the post-Communist left or center-left parties. They vote reluctantly for the Democratic Party (which has absorbed most of the left) or prefer not to vote at all. Others voters, the majority, are perhaps not proud of their prime minister, but vote for him anyway because they feel he is someone like themselves. If American voters felt like drinking a beer in the company of George W. Bush, many Italians would like to eat spaghetti with Berlusconi, and talk of women or soccer with their mouths full. This being so, there are two questions I'd like to find answers to. 1) What exactly have Italians let themselves become in the past two decades? 2) Seeing that they traditionally have a knack for the arts, has any creator among them given life to Berlusconi's Italy in a novel, poem, or opera, or even in a work of non-fiction? This second question touches me personally. Having written several novels, I'm very interested in the relationship between life, history, and art.

The first question could have one simple answer: Italians haven't changed since medieval times. With cynicism they consider the whole world a comedy and act according to their desires, while at the same time pretending to submit to religious or political authorities. They love family and hallowed traditions, (the Mafia and Masonry being two of them), but they always split into Montagues and Capulets as well, fighting and even killing each other.

These are long standing features of the national character, but centuries can't pass without also leaving a trace. Italy has in fact dramatically changed twice during the 20th century, first at the end of WWII and second after 1989. In April 1945, a dictator of twenty years, Benito Mussolini, was hanged in the center of Milan by the partisans who had resisted him. After the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, in November 1989, an Italian political party of 40 years standing, the Christian Democrats, was swept away along with its principal ally, the Italian Socialist Party.

A few years later, Silvio Berlusconi loomed up on the national scene. His success in private national television broadcasting and home banking, with soccer teams, newspapers, publishing houses, and movie production and distribution, had been largely due to political aid offered by the Socialist Party leader Bettino Craxi. More help had come from individuals with close ties to the Mafia like Marcello Dell'Utri and from powerful and notorious Masons like Licio Gelli. Berlusconi decided to create a new political party, Forza Italia. ("Strength of Italy," but also "Go Italy!")

In 1994 Berlusconi won his first political election and became the new chief of Italian government. One ally was the National Alliance, a party of the right founded in the same year by Gianfranco Fini, salvaging what was still respectable in the defunct neo-Fascist Italian Social Movement. Berlusconi's other ally was the Lombard League, a party guided by Umberto Bossi, whose aim was to transform Italy into a federation, if not to separate the busy and rich north from the poor and (according to him) lazy south. Fini, Bossi, and Berlusconi are still allied in 2010, even if they cannot be said to be faithful friends. Bossi still threatens to split the nation in two, while Berlusconi complains because, now that Forza Italia and the National Alliance have merged in a new single party (Freedom People), Fini has begun to speak and act like a leftist (not complying all the time to Berlusconi's orders).

In a sense, it all began in 1994. The Christian Democrats, the party Italians loved to hate, collapsed under allegations of bribery. The Socialist Party shared its fate and its leader Craxi exiled himself to Tunisia to avoid going to jail. Italy had lost its international role as a rampart against invasion from Russian and the east. It was a dramatic change in geopolitics that the center and center-left parties could not survive. (They had created a welfare system that, though burdened with nepotism and excessive red tape, was reasonably effective.) A handful of heroic public servants went after the Mafia, but found victory would be long in coming. Nineteen ninety-two to three had seen a reaction that shook the country in the form of bomb outrages and attempts on the lives of judges.

Italians realized their politicians were immoral, but in their inner selves they felt that their faults were not too different from those of ordinary people: going after easy money, not paying taxes nor acting within the law. Some judges who had fought the Mafia, like Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, had been killed in retaliation. But others stood almost alone and unsupported in their struggle against political corruption. The Italian Communist Party, which after WWII was the strongest national Communist party in Western Europe and in 1991 became the Democratic Left Party, fully supported the judges. The Communists had criticized the Socialist Party's alliance with the Christian Democrats, calling it a betrayal of true Socialist principles, and now they could present themselves as a party with clean hands that had nothing to fear from investigations even though they were Communists, or former Communists, and it was only few months since the Berlin Wall had been torn down.

The Christian Democrats and their allies, who had been ruling Italy since 1948, were out of the running because they had flouted the law and been caught. Former Communists, who could have replaced them, were also out of the running simply because they had been Communists. All over the country public and private tenders were stopped and re-examined. The courts were finally able to put politicians and entrepreneurs who had broken the law on trial. But there was no agreement on a new departure. No one seemed to know how to get out of this political and social predicament -- no one except Berlusconi.

In 1994 Italians voted for him; they took for real the fantasy he spun for them. Through his newspapers and his three TV networks, he told them that gloomy Communists had in effect run Italy since the end of WWII and the time had come for change. According to him, Communism was a terrible menace to Italy in 1994. Moreover, the left, the trade unions, the judges, and the pessimistic intellectuals had too much power. He spoke as the most successful tycoon in Italy and a thoroughly self-made man. In the early 1970s he had built a new residential complex near Milan. Then he began his brilliant career in the media world. Finally he bought and transformed a burnt-out soccer team into one of the best in the Italian league.

Berlusconi offered his Midas touch to turn Italy into one of his TV shows, full of color, optimism, and beautiful half-naked girls. "One million jobs more," was one of his advertising claims. Stand up comedians, anchormen, actors, and singers working in his TV networks asked the audience to vote for their beloved boss. Even his soccer team, Milan AC, in 1994 triumphed in the national league and seemed to be a part of his political campaign. Italians fell in love with his spiel. "Let him rule," they said, "he's already rich, he won't steal a penny." And the more cynical -- always a majority in Italy -- added, "Let him rule, he has already stolen, he won't steal anymore."

Observations on the present state of the customs of Italians, a brief essay written by the great Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi in 1824 (but published only in 1906), puts the case clearly. Because Italians have no public opinion, Leopardi wrote, they have not developed a true sense of honor. Perhaps in the sunny weather they enjoy, Italians fail to discuss their own behavior sufficiently. Discussion takes place at home and they prefer walking in the sun and going to the theatre or to church. Italians laugh life off. Any stain on a reputation is soon wiped clean. Memory of such a stain remains in public opinion, but in Italy there is no public opinion, no "constricting society."

Jonathan Safran Foer wrote recently, "If nothing matters, there is nothing to save." It sums up Leopardi's 1824 portrait of Italians, a picture hardly to be proud of. But Berlusconi worked a miracle and turned this national cynicism into a national anthem. It goes like this: I am as you all desire to be in your wildest dreams. I am rich; I have stolen; I did everything I wanted to because I love success, women and power: because I love to be loved. Of course Mussolini was a great statesman. I'm not a Communist and my mama used to go to church. I have a winning smile, too. Nonetheless, I am a victim.

This is extremely important, because Berlusconi never stops complaining. He says leftists hate him out of pure envy, and judges and journalists hate him because they are leftists. Americans watched Homer Simpson on TV, found Homer was like them and ordered a couple of Duff beers. Italians watched Berlusconi on TV, thought that he was what they dreamed of being, and voted for him. They closed their eyes to the real problems of how to get rid of corruption: cancel the south/north divide, fight the Mafia, and boost the economy. In the 1980s they used their vote to send Ilona Staller to parliament. She was a clever Hungarian porno actress known professionally as Cicciolina. In the 1990s they made the cunning Berlusconi their premier. Only when you make a bitter joke of your life can you do anything similar.

Now maybe I can try to answer the first question. Italians in the last two decades have become increasingly what they have always been. They are still as Leopardi depicted them, with the difference that in the past they felt ashamed of themselves. Berlusconi has taught them to be proud of their vices. In the old Italian character recipe there is a new ingredient, desperation, camouflaged in a joie de vivre no more real than a TV advertisement.

After 1989 Italians could have changed dramatically but they preferred not to. To keep business going as usual, they had to tell themselves a pair of lies. First, that Berlusconi was a solution, while in fact he was just a colorful curtain that hid the problem. Second, that a vote for Berlusconi was an expression of confidence in the future, while instead it was a sign of despair. In nearly 20 years Italy has lost 1 million jobs, just the contrary of what Berlusconi promised in 1994. The birth rate remains one the lowest in the world. Corruption is as widespread and deep as before.

Why didn't Italians change? In the first place because parties of the left after 1989 came up with no vision of the future. Voters preferred the real thing to blurred copies. They admitted Communism had failed and began to find capitalism acceptable if it offered a tad of welfare. Secondly, they didn't change because what Umberto Saba wrote in 1946 was true:

Have you ever asked yourself why Italy in all its history -- from ancient Rome until now -- has never had a real revolution? [...] Italians are the only people (I think) who have at the beginning of their history (or their legend) a fratricide. But only with a parricide (killing the old) does a revolution begin. Italians want to give themselves to the father, to get, as a reward, the permission to kill their brothers.

Saba (1883-1957) was mainly a poet. His mother was a Jew and soon after WWII he wrote this note in Scorciatoie e raccontini (Shortcuts and Briefer Stories), a sort of scrapbook whose models were Nietzsche and Freud. The forgotten, wonderful little book contains one of the first denunciations of Nazi extermination camps. When he wrote it, anti-Fascist Partisans and Fascists had just been killing each other. It was natural for Saba to think back not only to Romeo and Juliet's families in fair Verona, but to Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome, who killed his maverick brother Remus. In this perspective, we can say that Italians in 1994, children incapable of growing, found a new, easy-going father who gave them once more the permission to hate each other.

Will 2010 be the year in which Italians finally start to grow? To my mind, a description of the Berlusconi era is a fundamental task, a necessary stage of that growth. Italians often boast of their artistic masterpieces, which they generally situate in the past. Very well. Nineteen ninety-four and the arrival of Berlusconi is now part of the past. It's time to seek out, to read, watch, and listen to the art Italians have made of their recent history. These paradoxical and strange years are full of interest. Surely the best of the country's creators will have found inspiration in them.


Thanks to Peter Byrne for his cooperation.


[ Read Part II]


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About the Author

Fabio De Propris is a Roman writer who has also lived in Istanbul. He has published three novels (Brenda e Plotino, Se mi chiami Amore, Nero Istanbul) and translated books from English (Markheim of R. L. Stevenson, Paradoxes and Problems of John Donne, An Anthology of William Hazlitt's Essays) and from Turkish (Two Girls of Perihan Magden, translated with Mehmet S. Bermek, The Clown and His Daughter of Halide Edip Adivar.) Fabio teaches in Rome and writes occasionally in Il Manifesto. He is presently at work on his fourth novel. His poems appear in the paintings of the group Artisti di Fortebraccio.   (back)


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Published August 9, 2010