Over the last four months Italy’s right-wing government has been increasingly threatened by the fallout from the sex scandals surrounding Prime Minster Silvio Berlusconi. Are we now seeing a serious political and constitutional crisis?
It all began with typically arrogant denials and outrageous lies about Berlusconi’s relationship with a 17-year-old model. Then one sordid detail followed another. A squalid bacchanalia furtively lived behind the walls of the baroque palaces of a government presided over by a man formally pledged to the public service of “God, Family, Country”.
Berlusconi has desperately tried to avoid any accountability either to parliament or to the press by ferociously attacking his critics by means of his media empire and initiating legal action and censorship against them. But now the issue of press freedom and censorship has now become of critical importance and has thrown the spotlight on the “conflict of interest” at the very heart of Berlusconi’s presence in political life.
The government’s staunchest and most powerful ally, the church, hit back after the publication by Berlusconi of a forged document blackening the name of the editor of L’Avvenire — a Vatican publication — that had written a critical article.
In mid October the Supreme Court ruled the Prime Minister did not have immunity from prosecution. Once again Berlusconi will face long-standing corruption charges, involving association with the mafia etc. Such accusations have plagued his business and political life.
Growing opposition is led by the liberal press and a section of the magistrates, rather than the left or trade union movement. Berlusconi has refused to bow.
He vilified the Supreme Court judgement as the work of a “red conspiracy”, a conspiracy involving Italy’s ex-Stalinist President Giorgio Napolitano, and the magistrates whose charter of autonomy and independence he now promises to reform completely.
The events unfolding in Italy deserve serious attention, all the more so because the characteristic buffoonery of the individual makes us overlook the truly ruthless and sinister nature of what he and his cronies are about. Some details from Berlusconi’s background can shed some light on this.
After the ignominious collapse of the parties that ruled (or misruled) Italy from 1948–1992, after their endemic corruption had been exposed by a group of magistrates — Operation Clean Hands — the Italian bourgeoisie had high hopes of a fresh political start under the banner of “Probity, Stability, Bipolarity”.
Public life was to be cleansed of corruption, governments were to be durable and modern and alternating between parties of the left and right. In this way they could restore the fortunes of an increasingly decrepit capitalism, which had been reduced to near bankruptcy by the crooks just the judges had just turfed out.
The election of 1994 saw the emergence of Berlusconi. Here was a man who had already raised considerable anxiety by his links to corruption scandals in the last days of the First Republic. And as a billionaire media magnate turned politician he controlled a private empire. If elected, he would have access to state power which he could exploit in pursuit of both his political and business interests. Such a scenario seemed to signal the sinister prospect of the return of a form of plebiscitary rule.
Berlusconi’s political formation didn’t take shape within the model of the Christian Democracy that dominated Italy for nearly 50 years — a movement with a powerful social base enveloped by the aura of the faith and spirit of Catholicism and a leadership defined within a network of counterbalancing factions, immune to the cult of personality or the charismatic chief.
Culturally Berlusconi comes from a different world. He is from Milan — few if any of the traditional Christian Democratic caste were from Lombardy! He is the son of a bank clerk and had a fanatical desire to gain access to the sophisticated world of the Milan high bourgeoisie.
His failure to do so brought him into contact with the leader of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) Bettino Craxi in 1976. Berlusconi’s relationship with Craxi (who is also from Milan) grew around a cosy arrangement, whereby Berlusconi’s first television stations were successfully financed by lavish help from Socialist Party-controlled banks.
Craxi, a charismatic, utterly ruthless party chief and shameless populist, sensed the potential in the nexus of mass media exploitation of mass consumption and electoral power provided by Berlsuconi. As a compulsive womaniser he enjoyed access to the regiments of models and showgirls liberally on sale at Berlusconi’s mansions across the country.
On becoming Premier in 1983 Craxi rescued Berlusconi’s national television network, broadcasting in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling to shut it down, and successfully passing a law that ensured Berlusconi had a permanent grip on the network. $12 million were deposited in a foreign bank as a mark of gratitude.
Craxi perished politically in the scandals of the early 90s, exiling himself in Tunisia and dying there rather than face the courts in Italy. Berlusconi is his heir.
Another influence drove Berlusconi into the political arena. Berlusconi was a member of a secret Masonic order called Propaganda 2 (P2). Its 950 members from the most wealthy and powerful included 52 senior members of the carabiniere, 37 from the Treasury police, five government ministers, 38 parliamentarians, 14 judges, 10 bank presidents, as well as senior editors and journalists from the major press, and noted figures from the world of popular culture. The head of the organisation was an ex-fascist, Licio Gelli.
In effect the cabal was a shadow government, created in the context of Italian political crisis of the late 60s and 70s. It aimed at the creation of a strongly authoritarian central power involving a major assault on the political, juridical, constitutional and trade-union freedoms and rights formally present in the Italian bourgeois state.
The situation is different today. But the experience of Berlusconi’s three periods in office — and especially now where he enjoys a comfortable majority — has provided clear evidence of the agenda that animates the mind, heart and spirit of this demagogue. It is very much in the hate-driven tradition of Mussolini and fascist Italy.
Like Mussolini, Berlusconi is seeking to exploit both the desperation and sense of impotence in a society deep in the throes of economic decline. He can also gamble on the cowardice and weakness of the various forces of opposition to him within and outside the country. In his 15 years of political life he has hardly had a serious blow landed on him, so politically disarmed have the liberal and radical left been.
It is only to be hoped that in the present flow of events, his acts of buffoonery, so much at the heart of the self-image as the key to his popularity, may make him overplay his hand. His opinion poll ratings have begun to fall.
Nothing could more starkly underline the state of Italian capitalist society, its bourgeoisie and its relentless decline, than the fact that its First Republic collapsed amidst popular outrage at stratospheric levels of political corruption in business and politics, only to see a Second Republic dominated by a man who is the very epitome of the illegality, greed, corruption and venality that pervades every part of the peninsula.
Cath Fletcher in Rome adds:
Around 10,0000 Italian teachers demonstrated in Rome on Saturday 3 October against job cuts. Fifty-seven thousand teachers employed on fixed-term contracts, many of whom have worked in the same job for years, have been sacked in a government “reform”. The total cuts are expected to increase to 150,000 jobs in the next two years.
The demo was organised by a network of co-ordinating committees of the sacked teachers. While some hostility to the major unions is understandable given their limited support for the teachers’ dispute, I suspect it also reflects some
anarcho-syndicalist influence. In the picture the cuts are described as a “fraud”.
A big demonstration for freedom of the press, supported by the mainstream “centre-left” Democratic Party, should have been held two weeks earlier, but was moved to the same day as the teachers’ protest. Unfortunately it had the effect of marginalising the teachers’ protest.