Berlusconi, the anti-statist

Lorenzo Alfano

6 mins - 19 de Junio de 2023, 07:00

Anyone born in Italy after 1970 experienced a childhood and adolescence radically influenced by the aesthetic-ideological paradigms imposed by Silvio Berlusconi’s television. Almost all of us were young during the never-ending Berlusconi era, and this is no minor political drama. Precisely these days the intergenerational omnipresence of the Cavaliere is showing how every analysis, every memory, every biographical reconstruction is affected by the strong reflex that most citizens feel towards the cultural symbols produced by that multimedia propaganda system with which Berlusconi has saturated the national public debate for years. Moreover, the fact that Berlusconi died at the age of 86 in the descending phase of his political parabola makes the current public narrative even more slippery. And so we find ourselves in this surreal situation in which, 48 hours after the death of the most controversial former prime minister in Italian history, the obituaries melt into a sweet treacle that unites the clear majority of Italians and almost all the media, because where political support does not reach, other factors of “national pacification” intervene: the pietistic attitude towards an already old man, the admiration for the successful millionaire and, finally, the mechanism of idealisation of youth, for almost everyone a youth mixed with reality shows, football epics, scantily clad women, ‘innocent’ machismo and cartoons watched after lunch at grandma’s house.

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But how did Silvio Berlusconi become Italy’s richest man in twenty years? Where did this businessman, capable of holding key positions in multiple economic sectors and at the same time adept at presenting himself as the perfect synthesis between an average man and a superman, come from? Born in Milan to a housewife mother and a banking executive father, he began his business career in the early 1960s in the construction sector. Having thus accumulated substantial start-up capital, Berlusconi went on to ride the growing private television industry by founding Canale 5 in 1979 and acquiring Italia 1 and Rete 4 in 1982 and 1984. With three national channels, Berlusconi found himself competing on equal terms with the public broadcaster RAI, which also had three channels. This situation created a very strong conflict with some of the state institutions, a conflict that was resolved thanks to the excellent relations between Berlusconi and the then socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi, who, with three decree laws, remedied the situation, allowing Berlusconi to consolidate his media dominance. The rise did not stop there, however, for as early as 1982 Berlusconi entered the insurance sector and subsequently set up the still existing Banca Mediolanum. In 1986 he bought AC Milan, quickly leading it to national and international success, in 1988 he bought Standa, a major supermarket chain, and in 1991 he took over the very important Mondadori publishing house, eventually controlling a large number of specialised magazines, news weeklies, gossip magazines and the daily Il Giornale. Berlusconi was also a member of the P2 Masonic lodge since 1978, an association with subversive aims, dissolved by Parliament by law in 1982.

Therefore, the Berlusconi era did not begin in 1994 with the founding of Forza Italia (the Cavaliere’s personal party) or with his first electoral victory. On the contrary, the Berlusconi era began in the previous fifteen years, a period in which Berlusconi developed his communicative repertoire within the television circuit, a repertoire that he would use extensively in politics, systematically preferring unmediated communication of the advertising type, a choice made possible by the enormous media power that allowed Berlusconi to avoid having to resort either to the party organisation or to state structures to communicate with the citizenry. This attitude was intimately related to Berlusconi’s anti-statist obsession, well-illustrated by his continuous use of the word “communist” as an insult, an anti-communism that very soon became simply a visceral and violent hatred of any rule, however minimal, that the state might impose on the private citizen or businessman. The Italian left lent itself to this game quite guiltily, eventually buying into Berlusconi’s narrative and shamefully disavowing all traces of its own past, not realising that Berlusconi’s anti-communism was not a precondition for a consummate liberalism, but rather for generic ultra-individualistic impulses aimed at ideologically justifying tax evasion, illegal construction, and parasitic small businesses that pay their employees under the table. In the meantime, however, the Italian left, in order to adapt to Berlusconi’s new course, not only became anti-communist but ended up largely abandoning the social-democratic culture, proposing, between 1994 and 2013, a political discourse articulated almost entirely on the new real fault line of Italian politics: Berlusconism vs. anti-Berlusconism. In such a dramatically impolitic context, Berlusconi was thus able to give the worst of himself often with impunity, because while bringing the fascists into government, while winking at the ecclesiastical hierarchies, while implementing the biggest cuts ever seen in education, and while flaunting his virile manliness, Berlusconi was able to give the worst of himself often with impunity, while flaunting his nauseating virility while permanently making the labour market more precarious, and while telephoning TV broadcasts to threaten journalists by insulting them on air. And while Berlusconi was doing all this, much of the political debate was saturated with a moralistic and scandalous critique of Berlusconi, a critique centred on gossip as Berlusconi himself wanted it to be.

And now that father padrone is gone, what will happen to Forza Italia? As far removed as Berlusconi’s party is from the electoral splendour of the early 2000s, it makes sense to ask what will happen to the web of power and connections that has been structured around Italy’s most powerful man for the past forty years. The feeling is that at the relational level Berlusconi leaves a vacuum on the right that is difficult to fill, partly because of the leadership character that undoubtedly characterised him and partly because of his despotic and narcissistic attitudes that over time have not been conducive to the development of a circle of potential heirs to the throne. At the party level, on the other hand, the possibilities are varied, from a merger with the post-fascists of Fratelli d’Italia (the party of the current Prime Minister Meloni) to a rapprochement with the centrist conglomerate of Calenda and Renzi, which will seem a far-fetched hypothesis to those who remember Renzi a few years ago as secretary of the Partito Democratico, today the main opposition party, but anything can be expected from Renzi, the political and personal attitudes that bind him to Berlusconi are certainly not lacking, and more than once he has shown signs of wanting to adopt Berlusconi’s orphans. 

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