While Cath Fletcher (Solidarity 3/162) is absolutely correct to point out how any evaluation of an individual or a political situation requires rounded, balanced assessment in order to form as concrete a picture as possible, the evidence she offers in her article “Berlusconi: some further questions” do little to convince me that her image of Berlusconi and of contemporary Italy come anywhere near the reality I sought to convey (in Solidarity 3/161).
Taking her points in reverse order. Cath says that the idea of an Italy “deep in the throes of economic decline” (a major point in my article) “is a popular image” in contemporary politics. Well, it certainly isn’t in the newspapers, journals and television media controlled by Berlusconi – i.e. 95% or so of the communication industry!
On the contrary, all of that is dedicated to hide the reality, and present to the world a picture of a forever sunny, smiling Italy beset temporarily by a few transient problems in the economy, among which are lazy public service workers, immigrants, etc.
Berlusconi incarnates this shameless appeal to the deepest prejudices of large sections of the still comfortably-off petty bourgeoisie from whom the pillars of his political support are founded – those whom Brecht described as “the scum of the earth who want above all to feel the cockles of their heart warmed”.
There is, and has been for years, a serious and informed literature about Italy’s economic decline which takes its starting point from the fundamental historical structural weaknesses of both economy and society. Cath makes no reference to this, instead referring to the present conjunctural “credit-crunch” crisis and correctly points out that Italy, like France and Germany, is statistically out of recession – just!
But there are underlying roots to Italy’s declining economic position vis a vis its major competitors – an economy dominated by five and a half million small- and medium-size businesses whose average is 10 and under employees. There is underinvestment in research, development and technical innovation, with a consequent barely growing productivity of labour in both public and private sectors. A concentration of exports in traditional areas of strength, now under threat from Asia and elsewhere. A marked absence of foreign investment, deterred by fear of the mafia. And maladministration as well as the still incestuously closed defences of Italian big business and the banks.
All of this guarantees that the decade-long trends of both the slowest pace of GDP growth in the EU and a virtually stationary per capita income will continue.
Of course, Italy is still a rich country, but it is one where its profound historic internal contradictions are becoming manifestly sharper.
Berlusconi represents, from the point of view of the governing classes, one response to this, mediated through his own highly idiosyncratic personal life story. He is neither a Mussolini nor a fascist (nor a “simple” demagogic populist as Cath avers!) but one who seeks to embody dramatically (melodramatically?) in his own person a reconstituted central authoritarian power so far proscribed by the norms of bourgeois democratic practice in Italy. His is a Bonapartist project.
As to the sex scandal engulfing Berlusconi and his government – Cath claims that whether he frequents prostitutes, and the events surrounding his relationship with a 16-year-old girl, are private matters, so the campaign against him is reactionary. This is essentially the view of the radical left in Italy, with added variants to the point that the liberal-led campaign was an attempt to divert attention from the effects of the economic crisis!
What is the nub of the argument for revolutionary socialists? Berlusconi’s wife, in a letter to the liberal newspaper La Repubblica, announced that she was seeking a divorce from her husband because, among other things, he had systematically begun to offer to a group of showgirls, in return for sex, the opportunity to become candidates for political office in local, regional, national and European assemblies.
She also stated that he was having sex with under-age girls. At the same time, the journal of the think- tank of Fini, number two in the government and President of the parliament, carried the former of these stories.
Subsequently it emerged that Berlusconi, courtesy of a businessman pimp, had been “availing himself” of prostitutes at organised orgies across his many palaces in Italy, and in many cases offering them the chance of political office.
Berlusconi is not a private individual, but the head of a government which has based a principal part of its electoral support on its de facto alliance with the Catholic church, championing every reactionary part of that organisation’s hypocritical, pro-family, anti-women, anti-gay, anti-science programme, while fuelling its schools and hospitals with billions of public money and at the same time cutting the public education, health and welfare system to the bone.
The obscene hypocrisy and cynical sexism of Berlusconi and his cronies ought to have been in the forefront of exposure and attack by any revolutionary, serious feminist or democrat worthy of the name.
This is a country where female unemployment is proportionally higher, discrimination stronger, than any other major European power. And where for millions of young women the highest aspiration is to become a showgirl in one of Berlusconi’s programmes.
There should have been a defence against the degradation of public life and the principles of public representation, all the better to underline the limited, partial and corrupting nature of all bourgeois democracy.
La Repubblica, alone, called Berlusconi to account before the parliament for the hypocrisy and the blatant contradictions (Maria Carfagna, his minister of equal opportunity, had been on the point of introducing a bill to punish more severely men who were found with prostitutes!). It was certainly not enough, and inevitably blurred the line with those in the leadership of the Catholic church who belatedly entered the scene under the pressure of sections of the laity.
Not for the first time the radical Italian left had failed to grasp the political heart of the question. But that is another story.