The Second Version

19/12/10

The Italy of Silvio Berlusconi

My blog-friend Kevin asked if I can provide a translation of the previous post. But I do not think that would be very interesting for foreign readers.

Rather, I'll try to provide a brief explanation of who Berlusconi is, why he rose to power and why he is at the same time so hated – to the point that serious rioting in Rome followed the government's victory in a no-confidence vote.

All the bad and weird things you have heard about Berlusconi are to a large extent true. He has parties with young prostitutes, yes. He went through a lot of shady business deals, yes. He is cunning and ruthless and his governments passed a few laws that helped him greatly with his judiciary adventures.

But the Italian people know that. In fact, all these facts and more fancyful flourish are shouted from the rooftops every day. Those who vote Berlusconi do not do so because they are misinformed, but because they still appreciate the man, at least in part.

Berlusconi is the expression of an unique social and political environment; there is no equivalent elsewhere in the world.

He is the expression of a part of the Italian society as it came to be since the end of WW2: the entrepreneurs, the artisans and traders. Which make up a majority of the middle-high class in Northern Italy.

Those are the people who struggle almost daily against restrictive laws, and even worse bureaucracy and bureaucrats. The ones who'd like less taxes, and less red tape, and less scraping and bowing in front of the local politicians only to obtain what should be theirs by right.

Berlusconi was one who overcame the odds and became rich and powerful from a rather humble start. He found ways to circumvent laws that prohibited private televisions from broadcasting all over the national territory; later he forged alliances with the politician Bettino Craxi but when his TVs where already up and running.

And Berlusconi managed AC Milan when it was one of the strongest football clubs in Europe, and won many important competitions.

Also a lot of the good things one can hear about Berlusconi are true: he is an excellent communicator, he's hospitable and entertaining (if in a lowbrow fashion) to foreign leaders; and he at least promised to cut statalism a little bit. Then he didn't deliver; that is the main reason his age is closing to an end, in my opinion.

But reducing the privileges and power of the ruling class is no easy task for anyone; despite his popularity Berlusconi did not have absolute power – far from it.

The success of Berlusconi is strictly linked to the rise of the Northern League (Lega Nord) party. That movement is also difficult to describe to foreigners: it is a nationalist party, but the nation the have in mind is not Italy; rather a poorly-defined entity composed of most of the northern regions.

In practice now Northern League is a federalist party asking for more local governance rather than a heavily centralized state; for tax money to remain where it is collected rather than to be amassed in the central coffers in Rome; for italian citizens to be given priority rather than immigrants, and for immigrants to integrate rather than Italian society to satisfy all their needs. Northern League is the main party of the mid-lower class, these days.

Some depict that party as a racist far-right movement, but that is not true; the ideology of Northern League has nothing to do with Nazism or Fascism; true racists there are few and far between – while they are common among the ranks of Forza Nuova (New Force) and other explicitly neo-fascist groups.

Now, for the opposition to Berlusconi. Those most adverse to him are generally public sector workers, students, intellectuals and members of the judiciary. And from the leftist political scene, yes.

Except for the judiciary, which is a case apart, all those categories above have something in common: they do not need to work hard, produce results and manage complex activities in order to survive. I won't call them all parasites because they are not, but it's clear that the life of an university student financed by parents and/or grants, or the life of a public-funded film director are way easier and secure than the life of a tradesman.

The judiciary is different. After the corruption scandals (complete with severe judicial abuses, but history is written by the winners so those are rarely mentioned) that brought the end of the traditional parties in the early 90's, the Italian judiciary disposed with idea of separation of power and started regarding itself as the supreme power with the right and duty to remake Italy into a Better Place. Of course, according to their own definition of it, and other opinions be damned.

The struggle between Berlusconi and the judiciary is about power, not rule of law or morality. But with a key difference between the two parties: Berlusconi is willing to let other people do as they please – at least as long as his own interests are not threatened; the judiciary instead is made of True Believers, and they allow no room for dissent.

The Italian left is in disarray. The far left is almost non-existent now; the mainstream, centre-left parties have been unable to produce a stable and charismatic leadership since 1994 and no improvement is in sight. The last center-left government was born dead, zombied around for a couple of years producing little more than a state of fiscal inquisition and fell miserably due to internal divisions and lack of a overarching strategy.

The left is still mired in ideologies from the 70's when they are recent; they keep offering the same old stuff which has produced nothing so far; yet they expect people to believe that this time it will work.

Berlusconi is running circles around the leftist leaders without any effort: one of his stupid jokes will make more headlines than the entire political program of the left.

For years, the only and entire message of the Left has been that Berlusconi and his cronies are ruining Italy and have to go – in a political sense, but some have admitted in public that they'd like to see a more physical destruction. And after that Italy will magically become a heavenly land, in which the cultural and systemic and institutional flaws will disappear leaving only the noblest Italian nature to triumph. What should happen to that tainted and wretched 50% at least of Italians who supported Berlusconi is not clear; they will either see the light or be ignored.

It is a fantasy, and many can see through right this bullshit. Berlusconi is the only one who tried to introduce at least a bit of meritocracy, to make superior instruction half-serious; to fight parasites in the public sector and to bring the judiciary back under control.
The age of Berlusconi may very well be near its end, but the left is not in the position to take power. Rather, the party poised to step in is Northern League: they are the second party at the national level and have absolute majority in vast areas of the North. And they will keep doing many of the same things this government has done, but a local rather than national level.

Now, despite twelve hundred words this post still gives only a very sketchy picture of the situation and how it came to be. Please bear with me if I didn't write a whole tome.

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