Berlusconi: Social “Delinquent” or Key Symbol of a Fragile Polity?

1938_regJohn Agnew, co-author (with Michael Shin) of Berlusconi’s Italy, provides his thoughts on how the Italian Prime Minister is weathering his lastest political scandal.

Einaudi, the Turin publisher owned by Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, has rejected the famous Portuguese writer Jose Saramago’s latest book of literary texts and political analysis on all accounts because it is heavily critical of Berlusconi as a person and politician as well as condemnatory of Italians for their “moral indifference” in the face of Berlusconi’s multiple conflicts of interest.  Long Saramago’s publisher in Italy, Einaudi’s decision has suggested to many commentators that Berlusconi is very much the “delinquent” that Saramago describes him as: that the concentration of so much power in the hands of one man undermines the pluralism of institutions and society that lies at the heart of a presumably democratic political order.

Saramago’s charges were made long before the recent brouhaha over Berlusconi’s (age 72) notorious consorting with an eighteen-year old Neapolitan girl which was the prima facie reason that Berlusconi’s wife (herself a former “topless performer”) publicly announced that she was divorcing him. Berlusconi has long marketed himself as a “manly man” who flirts openly with whichever attractive woman is currently available.  Yet, he is also Italy’s leading proponent of family values and the “right to life” (except seemingly for immigrants). Few Italian clerics seem to take exception, at least in public, to his lothario image.  They share his genetic hostility to the atheistic “communists” he constantly invokes as the source of criticism of his performance as Italian “premier,” as he likes to call himself.  He is also, of course, one of Italy’s wealthiest men with a fortune based initially and finally on his political connections.  It was through state licensing from his close friend, former Prime Minister (and convicted blackmailer) Bettino Craxi that he gained control over the private television networks.  It has been through his subsequent political career since 1994 that he has protected his business empire.  Saramago couldn’t make this stuff up.

The Borgia Popes long ago set the standard for an idiosyncratic norm of public behavior.  Recall the bloody machinations of various offspring of the officially celibate.  Berlusconi is thus in a long line of all-too-human men who have occupied high office without much local public approbation.  Mussolini, to remember another iconic figure in more recent Italian history, was assassinated and displayed publicly when captured by anti-Fascist partisans in April 1945 not with his wife but with his lover Claretta Petacci.  She, at least, was loyal to the end.  Sergio Luzzatto’s fascinating history of the trajectory of Mussolini’s body and its image over the course of the dictator’s life and beyond (The Body of Il Duce, 2005) makes clear how much the post-mortem story of Mussolini involved removing Petacci from prior events so as to re-invent the leader as a more sober and serious figure than he had been in life. With a nod and a wink, though, Italians know the truth.  Mussolini too was a “manly man.”

A simple official “delinquency” doesn’t seem to do credit to this historic behavioral pattern of manly transgression all-too-easily forgiven by an understanding public. More centrally is the importance of a polity that puts so much emphasis on recruiting a decisive leader rather than on establishing reliable institutional checks and balances.  Berlusconi is the first such leader since Mussolini. The extreme political immobilism of the postwar years produced a series of compromises and compromised governments that never produced fruitful decisions but endless obfuscation and fudging.  Nevertheless this did provide a propitious setting for the growth of a “real” Italy which actually worked by operating around the “official” governmental version. Since Berlusconi’s arrival on the political scene many Italians have been impressed by the way in which the new leader has essentially provided both a model and an endorsement of the radical particularism, by which individuals can make their own private deals with government, that has long served as the main barrier to successful transparent government in Italy. It is not that Berlusconi has ever actually achieved anything as the Prime Minister.  But Berlusconi effectively has united real with official Italy.  This is the secret of his political success, along with his ability to win over crucial political allies by his singular promise as a political entrepreneur.  Together these make Berlusconi’s delinquency possible.

In other words, Saramago’s version of Italian moral indifference has cause and effect the wrong way round.  It is not Berlusconi himself but what makes him possible that deserves emphasis. Now, as the film director Marco Bellocchio has pointed out, when asked about the parallels between his new film about the 1920s, Vincere, and present-day Italy, “the comparison Mussolini-Berlusconi is forced, but in Italy today conformism and resignation also prevail.”  In this context, Berlusconi’s continued popularity in the face of his scandalous behavior and burlesque performativity is readily understood.  Soap operas always follow the same script.

For more infomation on John Agnew and Michael Shin’s Berlusconi’s Italy, visit:

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