The Berlusconi Phenomenon — Gifted Demagogue or Lucky Buffoon?
by Gaither Stewart
Italians were again lost. No ideology to hold onto, wracked by alienation and indifference, living a false life of imitation. The sultry pop singer Patty Pravo’s song La Bambola (The Doll) of the post-World War II years expressed the confusion of the Italian puppet without strings:
Tu mi fai girar come fossi una bambola,
Poi mi butti giù,
Poi mi butti giù
Come fossi una bambola ….
(You play with me as if I were a doll,
then you throw me down,
you throw me down
as if I were a doll ….)
At this point the wealthy entrepreneur and TV magnate Silvio Berlusconi, entered the scene and has subsequently led three governments and changed for the worst the face of Italy. Where did it go, I asked. Italians still ask. The TV aspect should be clear at the start in this country where TV is a way of life. Italy that produced the neo-realism cinema that changed the world of film has become a TV land.
Berlusconi's multiple "weaknesses"--his constant philandering, innate opportunism, corruption, male chauvinism--are seen by many as endearing qualities. Like Pasqualino Settebellezze, Berlusconi is above all a professional survivor.
Italy has seven major TV chains, three belong to Berlusconi’s Mediaset Group and three to state RAI television which Berlusconi controls. Only one network remains relatively outside this group; owned by Telecom Italia, and it too however must walk the straight and narrow because of state influence and increasing indirect censorship. Television and Berlusconi’s expert use of it elevated him to power.
Silvio Berlusconi described his entrance into politics in 1994 with the sports terminology he loves, “he entered the game,” borrowing the Italian sorts expression, scendere in campo, with in mind his championship soccer club, Milan, “taking the field” to win another international cup. How much laughter and tears, consternation and gnashing of teeth Silvio Berlusconi has since provoked in Italy, in Europe and the world. In January of that first year his nine-minute message telecast simultaneously by all of Italy’s TV networks, followed by the creation of his own political party and a subsequent blitzkrieg campaign, swept him into the Premiership in elections two months later. Since then Italy has been on an ugly voyage with Berlusconi. A trip into the dark night with no sign of return and at the cost—to Italians—of huge penalty fees.
Berlusconi was aided in his media activities—the creation of three top TV commercial networks and a host of magazines and newspapers—by disgraced Socialist Premier Bettino Craxi. Berlusco’s political activity was at first limited to supporting the political aspirations of the neo-Fascists while campaigning for a political anti-Communist coalition, for which he then created “his” Forza Italia party (Let’s Go Italy).
Bizarre but true, voters blithely ignored the immense conflict of interests in his regard, the most likely criminal source of his wealth, the power of his TV networks, the conviction that he was “entering the field” chiefly in order to defend his business empire against judicial prosecution and enthusiastically voted him into office. That vote over a period of 15 years has changed the face of Italy, leading to the Italy of today that Radical Party leader Marco Pannella labels a “non-democracy.”
A very “Italian story” too, the relationship between Italians and Berlusconi. But at the same time it is a universal story. The big vote for a person whom both the magistracy and thinking people in general consider a crook exemplifies the facility with which power manipulates the innocence and gullibility of electorates. For as we know the deadly combination of political scoundrels and naïve voters thrive in every climate.
Italians continue to vote for Berlusconi precisely because of his lack of any kind of ostensible ideology—to favor capitalism is rarely seen as an ideology in a regime of bourgeois democracy—in this heretofore highly ideological land. People claim to be sick and tired of political squabbles and the crowd of little men thronging for power. They take to Silvio’s presentation of himself as someone from outside politics, even though at the same time he brags that he entered politics to save Italy from the Communists. Ready to bond with anyone, Silvio has penetrated into every nook and cranny of the world of power, Fascists or mafia or the infamous P2 Masonic Lodge. Part of his authority derived also from Bush, “my friend George”, and from Putin, “my friend Vladimir.” For Berlusconi no sacrifice is too great, no discrepancy too outrageous, no lie that can’t be denied the next day. Or the next hour. During his sleepless nights in one of his residences or on his world travels in his private plane he probably did utter his version of the famous words of that French king that also “Roma vale bene una messa.”
Italians love the expression of Henri de Navarre who, in order to become Henri IV, King of Catholic France in the year 1590, renounced his Protestant faith, converted to Catholicism and uttered the famous aphorism, Paris vaut bien une messe, Paris is well worth a mass. Berlusconi wants it all, religion and secularism, total authority and a façade of democracy. Though thin in ideology (even his anti-Communism, however fierce, is fundamentally shallow, as befits a businessman) TV magnate Silvio Berlusconi, at the most a crypto-Fascist and by any measure rogue capitalist, has become the face of modern authoritarianism as Mussolini himself would have defined it, and the force behind what may be defined as “Italian style neo-Fascism.” Berlusconi’s only sincere belief is opposition to any rules that limit his personal freedom to become richer and more powerful.
Not only did he start out with the support of part of Italy’s capitalist oligarchy, which tends to be more concealed than its American counterpart. But he promptly made neo-fascists again “acceptable” by forming a government coalition with them. Today, illogically, he stands to their right—not ideologically to which he is immune but in his conduct of government—to the right of the Right, and thus the leader of Italy’s anomalous Right, which for the political observer it is imperative to understand, has little or nothing to do with traditional European Conservatism.
Though defeated in 2006, tenacious Silvio remained at the helm of his party, omnipresent, shaking violently Rome’s marble columns to bring down the temple of more traditional power, capable of any misdeed, any lie, any alliance, any conversion in order to return to power. Which he did in 2008. For him Rome is truly worth a mass.
OUTRAGEOUS BERLUSCONI UNDERSTANDS ITALIANS
Berlusconian ideology does not exist. He has none. He has a personal credo and guidelines. Money is the guide. Power and control and the firm belief that anyone can be bought. He has proved it. You want a certain woman? You’re the Premier and the boss: you just promise her she can be a TV starlet, a deputy to the European Parliament or even cabinet minister. She will gladly creep under your desk on her knees. That is pure Berlusconism in practice.
In the beginning Berlusconi organized Forza Italia using the business tactics and even the staff of his huge company, Fininvest. He promised Italians the same glory and riches, the respect and admiration of Europe and the world which was to be achieved by running Italy like a company and obviating rules, while leaving intact the chaos schizophrenic Italians thrive in.
Sarkozy may have his Carla Bruni, but Berlusco is not exactly deprived. (Photo: Noemi Letizia, his current protegé.)
Despite exuberant Berlusconi’s backslapping bonhomie of a salesman and the jokes about his unbearable ego, Italians chose him, convinced that as Prime Minister he would continue his run of successes as in business and his soccer team, modernizing and enriching Italy. He seemed a more exciting prospect than the austere Center-Left, eternally divided since the diaspora of the Italian Communist Party.
Incidents of Berlusconi’s antics are legion: Happy-go-lucky Silvio making the cuckold sign behind the head of a politician from another European nation as they posed for a commemorative photo. Or in response to the German Socialist, Martin Schulz, who criticized him in the European parliament, Berlusconi suggested that Schulz would be perfect as an SS guard in a film on a Nazi concentration camp. For many people this was too much simply because Italians don’t want to be the laughing stock of Europe. As Prime Minister he has compared himself to Napoleon and then Christ because no other politician has achieved as much and no other has been so persecuted. A corresponding joke is that on the dashboard of Silvio’s car is a plaque with the message that “the only difference between God and Berlusconi is that God doesn’t think he is Berlusconi.” Before the 2006 elections outrageous Silvio said publicly that Chinese Communists under Mao “boiled babies and used them as fertilizer,” causing an uproar in Beijing. Italy had to apologize and explain that Berlusconi’s polemics were directed against Italy’s Center-Left, not China. He once boasted to a Milan daily that he had rung four porno chat lines to ask which candidate they favored and seven of ten declared in his favor.
Nonetheless it is because of such unprecedented and boorish behavior that some electors consider him more real than run-of-the-mill politicians. With a man of his vulgarity at the helm, it is no surprise the traditional and romantic nation of Italy was transformed into one of Europe’s most vulgar nations during his 1994-95 Premiership. Capable of anything to win elections, any lie, any alliance, besides his promise of modernity, Silvio’s second most potent message is anti-Communism which appeals to well over one-half of Italy.
Berlusconi’s constant alarms of the Communist threat continue to swing center voters to his side. He refers to the anti-Berlusconi Economist magazine as Ecommunist and suggests that the Milanese investigating magistrates who have been on his trail for years are sexual perverts. Although he finds the hated Communists under every bed, he bends over backwards for the former KGB chief, Vladimir Putin. He allegedly personally coached a cheer squad to chant VLA- DI-MIR; VLA-DI-MIR, outside one of his Sardinian villas where he hosted Putin. He accuses one and all of Communism, even the Industrialists’ Confederation of allying against him with the Center-Left, the Trade Unions, Italy’s five major dailies and most of the magistracy. Conspiracy is his favorite accusation: even the banks are in cahoots with the cooperative movement against him. His preferred stance is as victim. His conspiracy theories, his divisive tactics and his eternal optimism convince voters—he is resilient, energetic and probably forever bordering on desperation. Failure is his nightmare, conviction of a crime his nemesis.
Despite having created his own party, forming and re-forming his own government coalition, called first the House of Freedom, now the People of Freedom, despite serving four times as Prime Minister, Berlusconi keeps himself in the limelight with such clownish antics and his anti-politician behavior. Play the piano at international conferences. Sing bawdy songs in public. His style is the regular guy who cracks jokes and does a lot of backslapping. More reserved Italians like this behavior because it seems worldly. They liked seeing him arm-in-arm with Bush and Putin. Premier Berlusconi liked nothing better than getting the two world leaders together, standing between them and drawing them near as if he were creating peace in the world.
Berlusconi unabashedly exploits the Italian’s natural sense of humor. They say the more a people suffers, the more they need to laugh and find things to laugh at. By that standard the Italians must have suffered a lot because the endurance of their sense of humor is remarkable considering their usual chaos. Whether people realize it or not, there is a level of comicality in their hyperbolic actions. Film director Federico Fellini used to show the Italian nature in his films: “It’s all about the fantasies, hopes, and delusions of a little people who were innocent enough to trust fascism. It’s about the pathetic Epicureanism of the boom. About Italy’s sad inability to be anything but an occupied country—the Vatican and Washington today, the Hapsburgs, Bourbons, before. It’s about the tragicomic destiny of a people who make too much noise at the wrong time, and sleep when they should wake.”Go figure!
As a result of the national ingenuity it is a piece of cake for manipulative politicians to convince Italians that they are the most fortunate people on the planet. For naïve non-Italians too Italy is the mother of all and its peoples the most special, even when for anyone with eyes to see that Italy no longer exists and what remains is in a precipitous fall. From year to year, from crisis to crisis, the divide between rich and poor deepens. Class bitterness is rampant since workers' wages lag dreadfully behind the rest of Europe. Cheapness pervades society as mirrored in a degenerate television led by Berlusconi’s TV empire. In short, Berlusconism has changed Italians into a mean-spirited people.
Berlusconi did not create the chaos in Italy. But he exploited it. Precisely because of the chaos, visitors in Italy from north and south, east and west, feel a beguiling sense of freedom to do things forbidden at home, to dive into fountains , dress outrageously and drive recklessly, things Italians either scorn or are forbidden to do. In theory, Italians truly want things to work; they want Italy to be a “normal country”. That desire, however, is unadulterated theory. In theory, things should again work as Mussolini’s trains did. In theory, Berlusconi would eliminate the plagues of the chaotic multi-party system without eliminating the parties. For many Italians, Berlusconism is an expression of Utopia. To repeat, the Italian’s natural inclination is anarchy. No rules. No limits. For fifteen years Berlusconi has promised Italians the order they know they need but don’t want any more than he intends creating it. At best he would change everything albeit without changing anything, according to the expression coined by Tomasi di Lampedusa in his Sicilian novel, Il Gattopardo: “cambiare tutto, affinché non cambi niente.” (Change everything so that nothing changes: The Leopard.)
Nonetheless the transformation of the delicate 20th century Italian some of us once knew—let’s say since 1980—is no less mysterious than the transformation of the once fierce Romans into the gentle post-Risorgimento peoples.
Among many books about Silvio Berlusconi, two pose the question: Is Silvio Berlusconi a threat to democracy, a Mussolini-in-the-making? “Silvio Berlusconi: television, power and patrimony” by Paul Ginsborg and “Berlusconi’s Shadow: crime, justice and the pursuit of power” by David Lane. Among the reasons for the authors’ harsh criticism is that despite his pre-electoral promise to divest himself of his three national commercial television stations, he never did it.
At the outset this point should be clear and manifest, and sufficient to ban him from politics as it would in any “normal country.” He owns the three networks of his Mediaset company and controls the three state channels as chief of government; his TV monopoly is total in that another of his companies controls most TV advertising.
However, even in the reality of that travesty of democracy, today’s most sensitive point is that his government has introduced laws to protect him personally in various legal proceedings against him for crimes committed in the creation of his TV empire. On the agenda in these days is again the question of immunity. This time immunity for all parliamentarians which includes him, widely understood as a law tailor-made for Silvio Berlusconi. Moreover because he is the richest Italian, with multiple business interests apart from television, many of his government measures are liable to charges of conflict of interest. But old boy Silvio is heedless of institutional niceties in his purported attempt to reshape Italy.
So how did such a man ever become Prime Minister in the first place? Initially a Milanese builder, with the help of the then Socialist Prime Minister, Bettino Craxi, Berlusconi obtained a monopoly of the then emergent commercial television industry via bribery. When Craxi and other politicians were swept aside on corruption counts and the Communist Party split in the aftermath of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, the Communist-hating Right had a boulevard wide open before them.
The Economist, emphasizing Berlusconi’s alleged links with the Mafia and its money to found his empire, insists that Italians must be either particularly cynical or stupid to vote for Berlusconi. Reporters like David Lane pursue meticulously Berlusconi’s business transactions and legal travails and have no empathy whatsoever with his supporters. Paul Ginsborg, an Englishman who teaches contemporary Italian history at Florence University and has written several books about the phenomenon, treats Berlusconi as but one more example of the worldwide melding of personality politics, great wealth and media control which poses problems for all democracies.
Berlusconi has been Prime Minister (or Premier as he prefers to be called since it doesn’t refer to other ministers) four times: 1994-95, 2001-2005, 2005-2006, and now 2008 until today. Once elected Berlusconi immediately charges that an ongoing conspiracy of Communists of the magistracy and the press hobbles his government and blocks the renovations and reforms he aims at. He is forever the populist revolutionary opposed by the establishment. In the end he delivers on few promises in his “pact with the nation.” In the international sphere he aligns closely with the United States at the expense of European Union ties and Italy’s traditional pro-Arab policy. .
WHY DO ITALIANS VOTE FOR A BUFOON LIKE BERLUSCONI?
The mythical catch phrase “now we have to make Italians,” attributed to the 19th century conservative nationalist, Massimo D’Azeglio, has been much cited in debates over the question of Italian national identity and the movement toward Italy’s Unification. The question was of what those newly made Italian subjects were constituted, and of what consisted their “Italian” specificity so different from their ancient Roman ancestors. Literary and academic figures, educators and scientists have long reflected on the nature of the social bond of the diverse peoples on the Italic peninsula.
As per Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg in “The Pinocchio Effect: On Making Italians 1860-1920”, Pinocchio, the puppet without strings, provides the master metaphor for meditation on the nature of attachment itself. How are we to understand the play between a submission exacted by the Law and a submission freely chosen, between external determination and internal compulsion, in the form and functioning of the social bond?
The Italian example is a scintillating socio-political study in itself, a major contribution to our thinking about ideology and its workings. One has dealt with fin-de-siècle obsessions with the ways that bodies were measured and disciplined, attached to apparatuses and made to move autonomously. That is, like the mechanical puppet Pinocchio. Much discussed is the emergence of a male masochistic subject from the traumatic rift opened up by the radical separation between Church and State wrought by the Unification of Italy, and its effect on the male citizen leading to the Italian vulnerability to dictatorship. Recent work on Italian modernity, combined with a reflection on ideology, has therefore focused on the Fascist period.
Regarding the puppet image I have cited pertinent words about “false consciousness” from Patrice Greanville’s review of Joel C. Magnuson’s Mindful Economics: Understanding American Capitalism, Its Consequences & Alternatives. “Conditioned behavior injected from above, or false consciousness,” Greanville writes, “has always worked to prop up the status quo. In the 14th century, for example, embedded in fanatical religiosity and ignorance, it justified feudalism. [The Vatican was among the first to use political propaganda, per se.] In our time, it props up capitalism and its offshoot, imperialism. As such, it presents true democrats with a tough challenge: systemic propaganda in pursuit of false political consciousness is not just annoying; it’s lethal to the survival of democracy, and its advance inevitably eviscerates every single feature of democracy that make its functioning worth fighting for.
“It’s fairly obvious that from the ruling orders’ perspective the wages of propaganda are substantial. False consciousness among the masses allows the upper classes to run society in their own narrow self-interest while pretending to do so in the interest of all. Enormous, mind-boggling wealth and power are thus rapidly accumulated by the tip of the social pyramid in all societies riddled with inequality.
“Outright repression can ensure a level of compliance, sometimes for a generation or two, but in the long run it cannot guarantee political stability or legitimacy. Only covert mind control can deliver that. Thus by far the most efficient solution is when we are made to carry the chains and prisons right inside our heads. Policing our own actions while still believing in our total freedom is simply a diabolically effective formula ensuring perpetual bondage.
“The drift toward authoritarianism cannot be arrested, only slowed down or momentarily interrupted, given the essentially undemocratic nature of the system. Living with capitalism is like living with a sociopath in the room, a maniac who bears constant watching. Yet that is exactly what we continue to observe among broad segments of the population of many nations, most notably the U.S. (think of “the red state syndrome”), where such “irrational” voting patterns have become so scandalously common as to make the American electorate something of an enigma if not a laughingstock to many observers around the globe. So how do we explain this? The short answer is false political consciousness.”
One answer to our query about Italians is that contrary to a diffused conception of them Italians are not more politically sophisticated than others in the world of the Occident. The historical reality is they are gullible, easily swayed and maneuverable, a nation of Pinocchio’s, especially when firmly entrenched in their trusted ideologies of Left or Right. Despite their innate skepticism and cynicism—qualities utterly lacking in the great American heartland—the Italian masses do not think any more than do their American counterparts. They react to what fills, or seems to fill, their everyday lives. Though Italians still go to the polls massively, they too are learning that voting is not enough. Electoral laws seem to mutate from one year to the next. New laws are passed but the candidates and the rhetoric remain the same. Inhabitants of the Italian peninsula, in a setting of changing kings and popes and invaders and occupiers, have been changed by the times, by bad politics, by a growing lack of ideals, a lack of adequate political leadership, positive example and political instruction. The historic chaos of Italy and growing indifference to reality of its peoples provided vast space for the likes of Silvio Berlusconi.
CHANGE OR NOT TO CHANGE, THAT IS THE QUESTION.
My Italian wife, skeptic, anarchic and representative of many Italian people, refuses categorically, even theoretically, to consider the idea of discontinuity in Italy between the so-called First Republic to the Second Republic of say, the period between 1992-94. According to her, nothing really happened. No change of direction. No change in politics. No change is the manner of government. The same things only got worse:
The European Union (EU) in Brussels and the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt rank Italy at the tail end in almost every socio-economic category. Real inflation is among the highest in the West, and Italy is, along with Great Britain, Europe’s most expensive country. Meanwhile workers’ salaries are 20% lower than in France and 30% lower than Germany. According to a popular slogan, Italians earn Greek wages and pay German prices.
Anarchic Italians regularly declare they will not vote in elections always just around the corner. “The caste” doesn’t take the threat seriously, for Italians never disappoint them. Meanwhile political platforms resemble each other more each time. The parties resemble each other, the Democratic Party (named, ironically, for the American party and only ever so slightly center-left) and Berlusconi’s new-old right wing People of Freedom Party. (Berlusconi believes he has the same monopoly on freedom as his “friend George Bush” had on God). In any case, each political contender promises to change Italy. People generally accept that the real aim of both sides is “to change things so that nothing changes.”Sounds familiar?
It is a truism that Italians are “ungovernable.” Lest any observer arriving in Italy foolishly try to speak Spanish or French with Italians and seek similarities between them and their Latin brothers, it should be clear that no such similarity exists. The Spanish want to be governed, the French demand to be governed but history shows that Italians sneer at any form of government less than authoritarianism or dictatorship. As per Stewart-Steinberg, the history of Italy since its unification in 1861 and the rise of Fascism in 1922 “is the history of a state in search of a nation,” a cloudy period when an optimistic leader of Italian unity remarked: “We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians.” Actually neither claim was ever realized.
Since then Italians have in fact surrendered their dream of a nation, their dream of a “normal country.” It should not be forgotten that Italy is NOT and has never been a normal country. Freedom in Italy will always mean anarchy and lawlessness. Since unity in 1861, since the twenty years of Fascism, the famous Ventennio, and World War II, Italians have preferred a society without rules. They prefer chaos to order. Every man for himself. Rules for everyone but me as at my local trash bins. Here, however, one precaution: I exclude from these generalizations the new generation swiftly becoming more European and more exigent of what even the most facetious politicians label a “normal country.”
It is no wonder that the Italy of the Berlusconi era has reached the peak of absurdity, and its leader is the laughing stock of Europe. Deaf, dumb and blind Italy, where authenticity has morphed into stupidity. Where imitation reigns and the genuine is futile. The near absence in Italy of any clean-cut national direction underlines the futility, the hopelessness and the ultimate nothingness of the Italian idea, the absence of which Italians themselves are aware but largely ignore because the nation is still unformed. Nothing but seeming to be what they are not and imitation count, while anarchy reigns.
Roma Ladrona, one says in north Italy! Rome thief! Rome is described as a whore, a whore who takes on one and all. A boisterous, aggressive and vulgar puttana, generous, haughty and impenetrable who embraces and absorbs everyone and everything in her embrace. Sinful and angelic, devilish and beatific, impertinent and condescending, ironic and naïve, uncompromising and malleable, superficial and philosophical, clownish and Mediterranean melancholy, she is the Italian dream. At a time when I have become standoffish toward Rome, I have come to understand that in contrast to Paris or New York, Rome makes few explicit demands; she simply engulfs all. The dissatisfied may slip out of her arms and she will never miss them. Majestically oblivious, Rome makes no compromises.. She is herself. She the city has few false airs. Her values are earthy. She knows many things and only occasionally dons her silk finery and high-heeled black shoes for a mocking stroll past the comical figures at Parliament playing the game of politics. Change in Rome comes slowly. Welcome, Roma says, opening her arms. Come in … and do it my way. It is seduction. An imperceptible rape of the senses. Some realize it and flee. Most acclimate and end up doing it the Roman way. The ravished thrash around and beat their chests but the 2500-year old whore smiles and pulls them back into a comfortable corner of her soft wide bosom and ignores their cries. What remains then is love and hate, fascination and repugnance.
POLITICAL ITALY-EITHER RIGHT OR LEFT
I visited the tomb of Antonio Gramsci in the Poets’ Cemetery in Rome, a final resting place for artists, poets, writers and illustrious foreigners and lovers of Italy. An inconspicuous urn resting in the center of the mound contains the ashes of the philosopher, Marxist thinker and founder of the Italian Communist Party. The tombstone bears only his name and his dates—1891-1937. Fresh red flowers indicate that the site is regularly tended.
I visited the tomb of Gramsci because I wanted to speak of one of the men most representative of the better side of tormented Twentieth century Italy, an advocate of a new social-political-economic structure and a major figure in shaping progressive thought from the early XX century. I wanted to speak of Gramsci because the Italy that many people still love is today in danger, threatened by a Right which has carried Italy to depths of reaction that would cause Gramsci’s progressive spirit to wing its way to other worlds. I wanted to speak of the man who contrasted so totally, so dramatically with Benito Mussolini, who instead led Italy to ruin.
The figure of Antonio Gramsci is emblematic of the profound dichotomy between progress and reaction marking Europe since the end of the Nineteenth century, which I will discuss here in order to show what Italy could have become a century ago. To show also that Left or Right does matter.
I imagine that the Marxist Gramsci would have ambivalent feelings about his neighbors in the Poets’ Cemetery: lying near him are dozens of “White Russians,” the adversaries of the Bolshevik revolution in Tsarist Russia in 1917, which Gramsci supported. At the same time, the culture of the Russian exiles was dedicated to maintaining the hegemony of the Russian upper class over the masses, which Gramsci opposed. Yet, Gramsci must have felt sympathy for the progressive English poets, John Keats and Percy Byshe Shelley, who lie under two pines in a distant corner of the same cemetery. Keats (“I saw pale kings, and princes too” from his La Belle Dame san merci) wrote, as Gramsci must have at some point, “I am ambitious to do the world some good.”
Keats arrived in Rome a sick man—as Gramsci was all his life—and died at age twenty-six after choosing the Poets’ Cemetery for his resting place. Shelley, who preferred “painful pleasures to easier ones”, also lived his last years in Italy where he died in a Mediterranean storm near Lerici and joined his friend Keats a year later in the same Rome cemetery. As much as he appreciated their culture and admired Keats’ universal words, ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ Antonio Gramsci, did not worship all the names of the Western literary canon. In his Selections from the Prison Notebooks he writes of the difficulty of intellectuals to be free of the dominant social group; he was mistrustful of the esprit de corps and the compromises running through the intellectual community.
Like many great men Gramsci too hoped to change the world. His point of departure was the idea that everything in life is determined by capital. His reasoning was simple and eternal: the class that controls capital is the dominant class. The capitalist class formulates its ideology to secure its control—or, in Gramscian language, its hegemony—over the people. Class struggle results when the people try to change the rules and take power. The task of intellectuals is to lead and act politically in order to change the world. “Let men be judged by what they do, not what they say.”
In the first five years of the Third Millennium right wing Italy more than other West European countries imitated the USA in an effort to convert Italy’s social state into a cold, market economy. Some of Italy’s social system was dismantled but the conversion did not work and economic growth was 0.0 %. As in the USA, the inequalities between rich and poor in Italy, as in much of Europe, have never been greater. The richest five per cent of Italy controls a disproportionate part of the nation’s wealth.
While the gap between the rich and poor is widening everywhere, free market exponents cry for more and more “freedom”, that is more freedom to become richer. But everywhere there is a missing factor in the equation: equality. Equality is out. Equality! exclaim alarmed free marketers. “An infringement on my freedom!” European free marketers cry and wring their hands and point out the “American way of life.”
An inexplicable mystery for free marketers is that Social Democratic countries in Scandinavia enjoy the world’s highest standard of living. Their mixed economies, part social, part capitalist, work. There, the rich pay dear. They grumble and dodge taxes but in the end a majority of them accept higher taxes in the knowledge that future generations will be the better for it.
Inequality is incompatible with freedom. Freedom has become one of the most complex words in our vocabulary. It is often an evil word. For what kind of freedom does one mean? Freedom for whom? At whose expense? Who represents the poor one-party systems in countries where the social state does not exist or is dying? There is little evidence of infringements on the rights of the rich anywhere; but as far as the poor are concerned the minimum wage is not a sign of equality.
The social economy recognizes the existence of inequalities and places limits on them. Market economy theoreticians, on the other hand, explain that inequality is quite a good thing; it is a stimulus to improve one’s position by hard work or innovation; success is a hope for all, an aspiration, something to strive for; it makes a society more vital. I do not believe that social and economic inequalities are a necessary price to pay for the economic freedom of a few. First, let’s redistribute wealth dramatically. Then we can talk about acceptance of inequalities as a boast to economic progress.
Following World War I Italy became a country divided by the political right or the left. The Italian Communist Party (PCI) was formed in 1921 and Fascism emerged in 1922. Left and Right have been at each other’s throats since. Fascism in its time needed Communism as both its internal and external enemy. Rightwing regimes today adore the word Communism. The word “Communist” sets their hearts a flutter.
Communism in Berlusconian Italy today is the scarecrow that terrorism is in America. In countries with less solid democratic traditions, the threat of Communism-Socialism has been exploited by reactionary forces to establish dictatorial regimes. Like terrorism, Communism was the excuse for emergency laws in the Philippines and Peru as it was in Chile and Argentina. Though Communism in East Europe failed long ago and those states disappeared, the European Right—in Italy, France, Spain, Greece— continues to raise the specter of the “Communist” threat to “family” and “our values.”
Communist parties born last century from the European Socialist movement called themselves Marxist. Though the totalitarian parties of East Europe called their states Socialist republics. Since the dissolution of the USSR, Communist slogans sound more utopian than threatening. Today nearly a myth, Communism is abstract even in Communist China.
With the broadening of the European Union toward the East the question of Communism is however recurrent today since the EU is formed by peoples with opposite perceptions of it. For many East Europeans, Communism was a nightmare. But the end of the totalitarian regimes in East Europe led some of those countries to blind faith in a savage market economy and abandonment of the spirit of social solidarity.
For many people in the world the word Communism is not a dirty word. The question of Communism has not been settled. Though Communist regimes vanished and Communist parties everywhere are marginalized, for the 450,000,000 people of the twenty-seven nations of the European Union the memory of Communism is alive. Though Communism in practice is no longer a credible alternative to free market democracy, though it no longer aims at revolution and though it is crushed by its Soviet past [whose truth due to constant and overwhelming anti-communist propaganda is still a matter of debate], its memory is alive.
In West Europe, Communists led the resistance against Nazism. In post-WWII, Communism was at the center of the political opposition. After the fall of East European Communism, the anti-Communist Pole, Pope John Paul II, wrote that Communism was necessary to combat unbridled Capitalism. In the year before his death, Pope Karol Wojtyla made his pronouncement concerning the evils of our times: “Nazism,” he wrote, “was the absolute evil, and Communism the necessary evil,” with the emphasis on “necessary.”
Reformed Communist parties abound in modern Europe. In Italy, Communist parties are integrated into progressive forces and have over ten per cent of the national vote. Communist parties play political roles in France, Spain and other countries, scandalizing only the extreme Right. The original ideas of Communism survive chiefly as a promise and a theoretical alternative—a lodestar as it were in the political desert— to rampant capitalism. It is a brake on the dismantling of the social state.
Communism has always had multiple faces—political, social, economic, and cultural. In some places its roots were deep in society; in some it still enters into traditional political parties as in Italy and France. Its very complexity, its undeniable Christian ideals on one hand and its economic promises on the other, explain why the idea is still alive. Residues of Communist culture, the spark of utopia that all men desire, partially explain the spirit of anti-capitalism in the world and hostility toward the United States (a fact aided by America’s implacably wrongheaded and often criminal policies). The memory of Communism also explains the resistance of the social state to an unfettered market economy. It offers an alternative view of history, another approach to the present, and for some a vision of the future. Karl Marx wrote in 1848 that the ghost of Communism haunted Europe. Today, it is chiefly the memory of that ghost that resists. The ghost however is so powerful that the political Right regularly dangles its threat before the eyes of voters each time they go to the polls.
In the post-World War II era when many European writers were of the Left, nearly the entire Left in Italy adhered to the Italian Communist Party (PCI), which, like CPs in other West European countries, did not break with the Soviet Union until after its troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. Though Hungary 1956 had shaken the faith of Italy’s intellectuals, the final blow of Prague was still a year away in 1967 when articles in the New York Times, Saturday Evening Post, Ramparts and The Nation revealed that the Congress For Cultural Freedom and its magazines, including the Rome magazine Tempo Presente, published by the writer Ignazio Silone, were financed by the CIA.
Silone’s story reflects that of many European intellectuals of the 20th century. Although he quit the Italian Communist Party in 1929 of which he was among the founders, Silone remained a Socialist all his life. His far-sightedness irritated fellow intellectuals who in the ideological tumult of the century had gone either to the extreme Right or Left. Not only isolated, Silone was also accused of being a Fascist agent and informer. As a side effect, the revelations of CIA interference in the cultural field in the West was justification for the widespread mistrust of America that continues today.
The life stories of Silone and fellow writer Nicola Chiaromonte reflect the qualms and temptations, the convictions and aberrations, the commitments and the compromises of Italian and European intellectuals in general of the period that Chiaromonte in an essay of the same title labeled “the time of bad faith.” Chiaromonte fought in the Spanish Civil War in André Malraux’s air squadron, lived in exile in Paris where he was linked to Albert Camus, and in New York where he wrote for The Partisan Review, The New Republic, The Nation and Politics of Dwight Macdonald. Outside Italy, Chiaromonte was a cult figure. Albeit after his return to Italy in 1953 he became an authoritative essayist and took a place on the European anti-Communist Left, he never enjoyed the same respect at home as abroad. Chiaromonte presented essays from his collection, To Believe and Not To Believe (Credere e Non credere), at Princeton in 1966 when he held the Christian Gauss Seminars On Literary Criticism, essays written while he co-edited Tempo Presente in Rome.
The case of Ignazio Silone was more complex. His life path and his turning points brought him to the depths of suffering, dedication to the Cause, repentance and search for redemption, the themes of his greatest novels: Fontamara and Bread and Wine. Silone had the tragic flaw, the hamartia, that ancient Greeks found so necessary to be a man. In his search for social justice for the rural people of the Abruzzi Mountains near Rome, Silone joined the new Italian Communist Party in 1921. In his times in Europe, Communists were everything from died-in-the wool Stalinists to leftwing Socialists to workers and farmers desirous of Socialism in their struggle against injustice. He participated in the work of the young party, in the underground against the Fascist state and finally in the Comintern. By 1929 he had had enough of Stalinism and began his withdrawal, an experience he describes in detail in his book, Emergency Exit. The number of ex-Communists in Europe in those years was legion. And all of them were marked for life, so much so that the Exes formed a unique category. Silone however remained faithful to the Socialist ideals he began with. “Every sincere Socialist,” he wrote, “remains Socialist forever.”
I believe Left and Right are still meaningful terms today. Social-political maturity should be movement toward, not away from progress and Left. Though exes are a dangerous species, history shows that when one abandons one faith for another, dogmatism always threatens. Romantic dispositions! Rebellious inclinations! Given all the penuries and frustrations of inhabiting the left, the more frequent shift in life is from Left to Right. But that is retrocession, immaturity, or downright betrayal of an ideal which, however flawed in practice due to the ebb and flow of history’s forces, is still far nobler and superior to anything the conservative side may pretend to offer. It is to go socially and intellectually backwards. Distasteful and loathsome, a degrading personal development. Besides, the results are usually disastrous.
Four decades of the great lie — the lies spread about by the usual comfortable apologists for capitalism — sufficed to generate a new morality. A morality of evil that has filtered down into society today. The CIA, whatever its true power today, is emblematic of the new immorality-amorality. It has nothing to do with ideas or ideology; only power … and evil. A way of viewing the world. A cold manner, amoral and immoral at the same time. This evil power is also an American spirit, an evil spirit that has always lurked in America. America was never innocent, only naive. Evil lurked in the Blue Ridge Mountains of my boyhood. At the same time the entire guileless American nation has been and was duped, wanted to be duped, by the great new lie, and by reflex, the whole post-war world was duped.
After World War II, the choice of America and its ex-Nazi cohorts fell on the “menace” posed by the USSR and world Communism: the Soviet putative thirst for conquest of the world. The secret Sino-Soviet pact to conquer the world. Communist subversion of Africa and Latin America. The internal threat by America’s own Communists, while Italy, Spain, France and Greece were falling victim to their powerful, Moscow-supported Communist parties, the whole of Europe falling into the hands of advancing Soviet armies.
Until 1989-1991 Communism was the bugaboo of the capitalist, anti-communist. The subsequent creation of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan and other, changing “rogue nations” was the natural course of things. The necessary enemy of Power could have been something else: for example, after the defeat of East Europe the new enemy could have become the European Union, perhaps in the minds of some American leaders still a reasonable enemy.
An abyss has opened in Italy’s good old society. Italy has entered the European Union, sends its troops to Iraq and Afghanistan and exports its fashion and its countless made-in-Italys, yet it perceives what Harvard’s Francesco Erspamer calls an “ Italian rhetoric of nostalgia” for its archaic society. Perhaps in the same way that Europe as a whole, some places more, some less, continues to be the Old World. In the sense that kings and emperors, kingdoms and empires, vanish but Europe’s common culture that distinguishes Europe and sets it apart still survives, and, often unrecognized, has been the cement that holds the European Union together. For to the chagrin of Europe’s neo-liberals, their multinational, globalization-oriented economic and political institutions cannot unite the continent alone. The Italian, generous, salt-of-the-earth individual stands in opposition to a mean and selfish collective the people of the peninsula have become, each individual struggling to imitate their corrupt mendacious leaders. This is not to suggest that culture predominates or that political-economic power does not call the shots but the enduring wide role of culture differentiates Europe from America. Yet, limited by the growing lack of depth and sentiment and compassion of its economic-political system, Old Europe remains capitalist, imperialistic, greedy and avaricious. Or rather, its ruling orders, which set the moral tone, do.
Paradoxically and for the wrong reasons Berlusconi agrees: reason is “cold” and inhuman, he instructs, faith (in him) is “warm and human.” Therefore he hammers home the message that Italians should ignore reason and guide ourselves by faith in “Papi” Silvio and sing with him his hymn: Thank God for Silvio. In his rhetoric, all politicians except himself and his men are by nature false gods. He instead claims to speak in the name of “Italians”: Italians want this, Italians want that. His interviews, his talk shows, his public speeches are performances staged for the credulous who still believe. His mellifluous words are theater. Dishonest theatre. The reward for his followers is arrival. Parvenus at the pinnacle they have the right to vote in parliamentary immunity for themselves. Parliamentary immunity for two reasons: first of all to save their leader, Premier Berlusconi, from prosecution of crimes he committed to reach the top and to protect their brothers, the many deputies and senators already on trial or under judicial investigation for criminal offences.
Italy is truly where everyman’s home is truly his castle—“It’s my house and I can do what I please here … and the collective be damned!”—while the outside world is a great garbage dump. Where a major political accomplishment after Berlusconi was re-elected the last time was to clean the burning and smoking and stinking garbage from the streets of Naples before cholera broke out in order to fulfill at least one electoral campaign promise.
ITALY TODAY: THE END OF AN EPOCH
According to my Rizzoli Enciclopedia Universale the word “epoch” corresponds to a specific historical moment limited by certain important events, particular moments of human life, such as the epoch of Charlemagne or the epoch of the Crusades.
Italy is the object of this study, I, the subject. The procurator, the latter, the accused, the first. What, where, when, how, why, are the questions. Italy is Europe. But a “certain Europe,” partially concealed, garbled and grossly misrepresented on its lonely peninsula south of the protective Alps. If, as one says, Europe is not Europe without Italy, many Italians still believe that Italy, that archaic Italy, could somehow exist without Europe. Italy, my object is peculiar and forever different.
As Fascism and Silvio Berlusconi and the Vatican prove, the easy-to-control Italy, the land where lemon trees bloom, the beloved Italy of music and laughter and good food, has morphed into a land of bitter, skeptical people. Things have indeed changed in order to remain the same.
Italians find difficulty in thinking of themselves and their life in the abstract. Especially not their history. Because of their unruly rebellious nature, since the achievement of national unity 150 years ago they have required a powerful, visible and physical power to subject and govern them. Stewart-Steinberg writes about making Italians: “Whether this national trait has been understood critically or uncritically, whether it has even been conceived as a strategic necessity, has mattered less than the fact that it nevertheless has the effectiveness of a stereotype….It also dominates the analyses of contemporary critics who seek in the Italian propensity to visual, spectacular forms of power an explanation for Italy’s failed modernization, failed political revolution, and collapse into authoritarian, fascist solutions.”
The heroic seeker of the enigma Italy, the seeker of the authentic, is more often than not bound for the shark-infested reefs of failure. Disillusionment awaits him, the disillusionment that lies in a no longer existent object, dissolved and disintegrated in a paroxysm of vanity, confusion and madness. For the tenacious seeker inevitably discovers that the object of his search is absent. And if not absent, then what remains is only a pale reflection of the original.
MEDIOCRITY IS BEAUTIFUL.
As much as Mastroianni, Gassman, the Carotenutos, and
many other great actors of the neorealist classic period masterfully reflected the reality of Italy's postwar, Roberto Begnini and his cloying middlebrow manipulative sentimentality is the "Italian" comic of today, beloved by many in the undiscerning American middle classes.
Scene from "Life is Beautiful"
The Bel Paese of yore is today an imitation, a distorted reflection of itself. A reflection seen in a broken dirty mirror, in which left is right and right is left. The fun-loving, hospitable, sociable, affable, easy-going Italiano the world once loved is an extinct creature. What remains is a simulacrum. An imitation of himself of another epoch. A self that he himself detests.
A SAD HISTORY, A SAD DISCONTINUITY
After periods of mal-government, democratic people in democratic nations hope for socio-political discontinuity. Discontinuity in aims and means. Discontinuity in leadership. After war we hope for peace. After crisis we hope for stability. After corruption we hope for transparency. The contrary has happened in Italy, erasing the last vestiges of that lingering positive image of an Italy that perhaps never really existed.
This very Italian story is a long and different story, of a different land and different people. By the way, one might keep in mind that one Italian word for “story” is the same as the word for history: storia. Thus this Italian story is also Italian history. Italy is a strange, curious and sad land whose story is its own history. Its recent, politically young democracy staggers along mountain roads and totters on gaping precipices forever on the point of hurling itself headlong into the chasm. Its democracy is in question today. Its democracy has always been in question because it has never been clear where political power lies: in the legislature, in the magistracy or in the hands of the executive? Since the concept of the separation and balance of powers that coexist escapes typical Italian mentality, that very doubt casts a web of never-ending uncertainty and instability over the land. Each power charges that democracy itself is endangered if its power is threatened. If executive power is limited in Italy, the tendency is to accuse the other two powers of conspiracy and betrayal of democracy. The real danger is when one of the three powers does NOT perform its duty. If the executive succeeds in crushing the other two powers, the struggle ends and he becomes a dictator. That in a nutshell is the dream of Premier Silvio Berlusconi.
Laws of the Second Republic provide for virtual election by the people of its executive. In Italy that is extremely dangerous. For a populist executive elected by the people believes he is ordained to command. Threatened by legal proceedings for crimes ranging from bribery to corruption, Berlusconi constantly refers back to the people who elected him. To accuse him is to accuse Italy itself. His whole defense is built on the will of the people.
Gaither Stewart is European Correspondent, based in Rome, for Cyrano’s Journal Online and Senior Editor with THE GREANVILLE POST. His career as a journalist and chronicler of our times spans several continents.