What Berlusconi leaves behind

November 9, 2011

He called himself the best leader in Europe, even in the world: but he was, by quite a way, the worst (in Europe at least: the rest of the world offers more competition). In part, this was due to the sheer force of his personality: if, to adapt his favored slogan, he gave little Forza to Italia, there was much Forza in Silvio.

Prime Minister (still) Berlusconi was the Boss, in every sense. He commanded his party, his coalition of the right and his governments through the power of his money and his media – but also because he had the strength of will to project himself, unceasingly, on his country and the theatrical chutzpah to make of his private life a fascinating public spectacle. He refused to bow to the customary rules of protocol, decorum or correctness of any kind. He was a man in full in the sense the novelist Tom Wolfe used it in his novel of that name: having achieved great success, he gloried in it, and wished others to see his glory.

Let us not say that the woes of Italy are due only to him, for that would be to believe that his promised resignation would end the crisis – in Italy, in Europe and the world. The productive base of the country had been, unusually for a West European economy, too long bound up in textiles, furniture, footwear and other medium technology goods which the Eastern powerhouses often do as well and more cheaply.

Its northern engineering companies often remain world class, but with increasing difficulty. Even Fiat, greatly re-energized by the forza of Sergio Marchionne, the Canadian-Italian chief executive, has a huge challenge to turn its Chrysler subsidiary around in the U.S., and to raise efficiency in its remaining plants in Italy – where its large market share depends heavily on the brilliantly-designed, but low profit, Pandas and Cinquecentos.

Its wealth has always lain very much with its creative and lively people; but their numbers are declining fast, and immigration, about which many Italians are at best ambiguous, hasn’t made up for the loss. Organized crime hasn’t been substantially reduced; on the contrary, according to its bold chronicler, Roberto Saviano, author of Gomorrah now living under constant police guard, it is spreading from south to north.

Berlusconi offered, after all, to lead, and brought together the disorganized and demoralized right wing forces after the party which had ruled Italy since the war until the late eighties, the Christian Democrats, collapsed. Together with the quite separate collapse of the Communist Party at around the same time, the political tectonic shifts of that period had political leaderships floundering, unsure of their base and their beliefs. And if the left remains splintered and at times unconvincing in what it offers the country in the way of an alternative, that may have benefitted him – yet he is not its cause.

But if the woes are not due only to him, he has deepened them, made the bad chronic, the disturbing threatening. The conflict of interests are vast – with the control of three commercial TV channels, the largest publishing house, national and regional papers, the largest advertising agency and the largest insurance company all retained in his family. More than any other figure in the 20th/21st century, he is a capitalist in power. In the course of governing, he has brought the state broadcaster, RAI, more closely under his command than before – with the result that RAI 1, the most popular channel, now broadcasts news which is at times near to propaganda.

He has sought to weaken or suborn every other center of power but his own – especially the judiciary, which he charges with being communist, and the parliament, which at one time he proposed should cease to vote. At the same time, he has so cowed and /or flattered his party’s deputies and his allies that they have, until recently, acted as echo chambers – or, in the case of Umberto Bossi, leader of the Northern League, his major ally, make wild charges and level gross insults at his enemies.

He has had some twenty serious charges against him, usually for one form or another of corruption. Four cases are presently pending, one for bribing the British lawyer David Mills. He has beaten the previous charges by technical means – usually by dragging them out so long that they breach the statute of limitations. He retains a team of some fifty lawyers, many of whom he has made MPs by placing them high on the party lists. Corruption in government – which he pledged himself to end when first elected – has probably worsened.

That which he seemed most fit to effect has been all but wholly ignored or botched. His claim was that his success as an entrepreneur made him the fittest among all contenders to turn round Italy’s sluggish economy, and that he would govern in the spirit and with the conviction of Margaret Thatcher in the eighties. Nothing of the sort. Italy’s bloated state sector has been a little – but only a little – cut; the state pensions have been a little – but only a little – reformed; the labor laws remain discouraging to employers and the unemployed alike. Above all, his governments have allowed the government debt to rise to close to 2 trillion euros.

He has been less a man for all seasons as a man for the holiday season. His constant, implicit pitch to the Italian people was – “don’t worry: be happy – see, I am.” A little too old to be a sixties man, he nevertheless embodies some of the elements of that era – sexual license, a determination to have a good time, a vague benevolence to all. Many thought of him as a nice guy: he was, to be sure, always smiling, often witty, sometimes impulsively generous. As Tony Blair, one of the few European leaders who would confess to an affection for him, said: it’s never boring when Silvio is around. And since boredom is one of the modern world’s great antipathies, his dramatic, sometimes farcical, always intriguing passage through life made for a stimulating reality show.

But reality is now a two-trillion euro debt burden. It is the consistently lowest growth in Europe. It is a near seven per cent yield on government bonds – a sign that there is great skepticism in the market over Italy’s ability to service its debt. It is the fact that Italy’s fate is the largest single threat facing the Eurozone. And it is the even more alarming fact that there is no guarantee that the absence of Berlusconi guarantees the coming of a solution.

Italy remains a vibrant and creative country still. Silvio Berlusconi, among his other sins, has played into the stereotype common of Italians – fun-loving, sex-mad, irresponsible – a kind of aging Latin lover on steroids and under a transplant. There are many other Italys: one is a group of men and women, of left and right, concerned for their country’s future. It is that group which must now step forward, willing to make sacrifices – including of their own popularity – to put the truth before a people starved of it, and harsh solutions to an electorate used to honeyed falsehoods. Italy surely needs them now.

PHOTO: Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (L) holds League North Party leader Umberto Bossi’s hand during a finance vote at the parliament in Rome November 8, 2011. REUTERS/Tony Gentile

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