Is Italy going fascist? Is Berlusconi like Mussolini? Will the past repeat itself - this time, unquestionably, as farce?
The signs are ominous, and as Silvio Berlusconi emerged victorious in Italy's elections in April, the international press reached for the history books. The triumphant coalition included, along with a "party" financed almost entirely by Berlusconi's media empire, a "post-fascist" party (the National Alliance, which merged its list with that of Berlusconi) and the xenophobic Northern League, still led by Umberto Bossi despite a stroke that has left him semi-paralysed and his voice a barely audible croak. Two weeks later Rome had a new mayor, Gianni Alemanno, a post-fascist elected on an anti-immigrant platform.
To add insult to injury, Berlusconi appointed as minister for equal opportunities a 33-year-old former glamour model and Miss Italy aspirant, Mara Car fagna, who is, apparently, deeply committed to "family values".
This Italian saga may be distressing, demoralising and upsetting. But fascism - a word that some use to signal their indignation and mortification - is the wrong diagnosis. The opposition will still be able to regroup and go on fighting without being threatened by black-shirted bullies or anti-democratic legislation. There will still be elections, a few strikes, and the odd demonstration. On the other hand, broadcasting will be more servile, because Berlusconi, owner of almost the entire media private sector, will, by appointing cronies, also control the state sector. Yet even 20 years ago a Jeremy Paxman would not have lasted five minutes. The daily press remains relatively free from Berlusconi's control.
There is no denying that Berlusconi's victory was stunning. His coalition obtained almost 47 per cent of the vote - far better than any British government since 1966. He triumphed throughout Italy with the exception of the centre, the left's last redoubt. The various radical and unreconstructed communist parties that had made life difficult for Ro mano Prodi's short-lived centre-left coalition were wiped out.
The Italian electorate was not in search of novelty. Berlusconi is no longer "new". He is now a seasoned poli tician who won in 1994 and 2001. When he lost in April 2006, it was by only 25,000 votes.
Nor is it accurate to suggest that the electorate was punishing Prodi. Considering his tiny majority and the absurdly fractious behaviour of some of his partners, he could never have been a great success. Yet it was not a disaster. In his two years in office, Prodi abolished a host of petty bureaucratic restrictions, took decisive measures to counter tax evasion and succeeded in reducing the budget deficit to less than 3 per cent of GDP (to plaudits from the European Union but the dismay of Italy's taxpayers, who had to pay for this feat).
Not much unites the victorious coalition save an appetite for power, but that is usually enough. The Northern League is in favour of regional devolution to ensure that the wealth generated in the north will stay there instead of subsidising the south. More recently, the League has refocused its target, toning down its usual verbal abuse of southerners. The main enemies now are immigrants to Italy, accused of being behind a recent spate of serious crimes - a new pinnacle of chutzpah in a country where the Mafia, the world's best-known criminal organisation, is entirely home-grown.
Vigilantes now prowl among the Roma and burn their camps down. The post-fascists, too, are keen on their law and order, but they cannot share the anti-southern mindset of the Northern League because they are strongest in the south. Berlusconi is supposed to be a neoliberal; his past rhetoric was conventionally demagogic, however: lower taxes and more public spending. His liberalism stops where his business starts. Monopolies are fine if you happen to own them.
Why did Berlusconi win? One obvious reason is that he was the leading conservative candidate in a country in which the majority will vote for whoever is to the right of the left. In the early 1990s the bribery scandals that wiped out the Christian Democracy party (DC), the linchpin of Italian politics since 1945, created a vacuum. Berlusconi stepped in, legitimising at a stroke Gianfranco Fini's neofascists, hitherto confined to pariah status. Then he made a deal with Bossi's Northern League. No other force, not even a somewhat reconstituted Catholic party, has managed to dent this fierce trio. The three hate each other, but they also need one another - the solid foundation of many political partnerships.
The fascist past no longer bothers voters. They do not ask themselves why Fini, born in 1952, decided to join the neo-fascists when there were so many parties to choose from. Fini once described Mussolini as "the greatest statesman of the century". Now he knows better and presides over the Chamber of Deputies. Success is a great teacher. It is the communists who are expected to show contrition. Once, they could proudly claim the mantle of the heroic struggle against fascism. Now to have been a Red is a political embarrassment, as anti-communist pundits have taken up disparagement of the Resistance with enthusiasm. A spate of books and articles on postwar revenge killings by partisans against former fascists has helped to put communism and fascism on the same level.
In search of political virginity, the post-communists keep on changing their name. In 1991 they were the Democratic Party of the Left. In 1998 they dropped "party" and the hammer and sickle, becoming the Democrats of the Left, with a rose as a symbol. In 2007 they dropped "left" (turning themselves into the Democratic Party), discarded the rose and adopted olive leaves.
Many Italians feared not communism as an ideology, but what the communists or the post-communists might bring about: honest government. They might have to pay taxes. If you have spent your entire life cultivating personal relationships with those who have power and influence and who can protect you and help you with the endless bureaucratic tasks that plague your life; if you know that no one will investigate too closely if you have built an extension to your home, or built a home where one cannot be built (as is the case with so many houses constructed in Italy); if you know that your fiscal evasions and frauds will be overlooked because "everyone does it" - then, of course, you will be afraid of "the communists", that is to say, of those puritanical, holier-than-thou characters who threatened the foundations of Italian civic culture. To many Italians, nothing, not even the Red Army, is more frightening than good governance or "il buon governo".
Then there is the enormous weight of small enterprises in the country, coupled with the very large number of self-employed workers (three times the ratios of Germany and Japan). Compare a high street in Italy with one in Britain, let alone a shopping mall in the United States, and you will see the difference between a country whose economy is dominated by large companies and supermarkets and one that is at an earlier stage of development.
This makes Italy a much nicer place to shop in, especially if you are a tourist and have time to shop, but these shopkeepers have been protected and featherbedded by the state and they know it. The political masterpiece of the old Christian Dem ocracy party was that it protected this huge petty bourgeoisie while modernising the country. Berlusconi is the DC's natural successor.
His problem is that he does not have the margins the old DC had. Italy's manufacturing system - the production of machine tools, shoes, handbags, tiles, cheap furniture, ready-made clothes - is being steadily wiped out, above all by China. Between 2001 and 2005, under Berlusconi, Italy dropped from 14th to 53rd place in the global competitiveness index.
The phenomenon of Italy's small enterprises is at the root both of Italy's past successes and of its present political and economic predicament. This petty bourgeoisie is naturally "neoliberal", but in a very peculiar sense: it does not want an efficient, minimalist state, because this would annihilate the petty bourgeois class. They want things to remain as they are, even including the terrible bureaucracy so universally hated and so obviously absurd that it is reasonable for everyone to do everything possible to bypass it.
Berlusconi is the expression of this petty bourgeoisie. He thinks like them. He acts like them. He does, almost instinctively, what they do. He has the same tastes, the same sense of humour. The only difference between him and them is that he has more money. This is why Berlusconi has done little to cut down on the red tape and restrictive practices that plague Italians. Meanwhile, an economy which 15 years ago overtook that of the UK is now on a par with Spain and may soon be overtaken by Greece. What lies ahead is not fascist resurgence, but the economy's decay.
Donald Sassoon is professor of comparative European history at Queen Mary, University of London and author of "Mussolini and the Rise of Fascism" (2008), published by HarperPress (£14.99)
ITALY BY NUMBERS
- 62 governments since the end of the Second World War
- 80% of voters turned out for the April general
- 5 major TV stations are now controlled by Berlusconi
- 7% of the economy is generated by organised crime
- £15,000 average income
Research by Owen Vanspall