Until the rise of Silvio Berlusconi in 1994, few would have thought that a major western European country could once again fall under something resembling the spell of fascism. Fifteen years later, Italy is unrecognisable, home to a process of political change that should be watched – and feared – by everyone in Europe. It is a warning of how the fabric of democracy can be progressively undermined from within, and that, far from being external and alien, the seeds of authoritarianism lie within the body politic.
The term fascism is so defined by powerful historical imagery that the phenomenon itself seems to be of historical relevance only; yet Berlusconi is an extremely modern figure, reflecting the worst and most insidious features of contemporary western and, in particular, Italian culture. Nor should our concerns be lessened or diluted by what might be described as the more superficial and comical aspects of Italian culture: non-Italians generally see both Mussolini and Berlusconi, to some degree, as figures of fun and ridicule. Every nation has its specificities.
Berlusconi enjoys ever-growing power. In a country which, by way of a deliberate response to the Mussolini experience, has had weak and short-lived governments since the Second World War, there seems little doubt that he will see out his full five-year term. His party, the self-styled People of Freedom, dominates the government majority in a way quite different from the rancorous divisions of his previous administrations. The opposition left, which, ever since the rise of Berlusconi, has been a story of miserable failure – a patent inability to grasp what he represented and how he needed to be fought, outwitted at almost every stage – is ineffectual and rudderless, in desperate need of a latter-day Gramsci or Togliatti to give it a sense of direction. But neither of these features – the unity of the right and the ineffectuality of the left – is the key to understanding Berlusconi as a totalitarian and anti-democratic political phenomenon.
That lies in two other characteristics: the erosion of independent centres of power and authority, combined with Berlusconi’s ownership and control of large sections of the media; and the steady moulding of a new, popular common sense. That Berlusconi owns three of the major TV channels in Italy and controls another three in his capacity as prime minister, as well as having a major stake in newspapers, magazines and publishing (not forgetting the football club he owns, AC Milan), has been crucial, from the outset, to
his ability to influence public opinion. There is no other European country where there is such a coincidence of personal, political and media power.
Meanwhile, he has systematically fought to discredit the judiciary, accusing the judges of being agents of the left, to the point where, from being heroes of the “Tangentopoli” scandal in the early 1990s, they are now widely discredited. Or, to put it another way, bit by bit the separation of powers, so crucial to the well-being of any democracy, is being undermined and replaced by an extraordinary concentration of power in the hands of one man.
It is the shaping of a new, popular common sense, the usurping of old values and their replacement with other norms, that is ultimately the most important characteristic of the new authoritarian regime, because this is what provides it with its popular support and credibility. As with fascism, so with Berlusconism, or however we might describe it – populism is fundamental to its success.
A new mood is transforming Italy. There is a belief that Berlusconi will be in power for many years to come; that there is no alternative; that he embodies the true spirit and nature of Italy (including its sexual proclivity); that he has been the victim of a conspiracy by communist judges; that only he can save the country from communism. It is no accident that his party is called the People of Freedom, given that Berlusconi seeks to equate the people with the party, so that the party becomes the people. In similar vein, he has suggested that Liberation Day, commemorating the defeat of fascism, should be called Freedom Day.
The country is the subject of a steady process of Berlusconisation in which Italy, from its history to its state, from the representation of women to the legal system, is redrawn in his image. Berlusconi has already made it clear that when his prime ministerial term finishes he intends to become president,
though only once the presidency has been refashioned by constitutional reform into the overriding and dominant institution within the political system.
One might ask: what is all of this in aid of? What is Berlusconi’s project? In grand terms, one could say very little. There is no Thatcher-style economic revolution. There is no great national project to restore Italy as a great power. On the contrary, it would seem to have been motivated from the outset by his desire to protect his media empire from the numerous charges of corruption, some proven, which threatened him with a lengthy prison sentence. In time-honoured Italian style, he used the state as a means of securing his own interests and, having achieved that, proceeded to broaden his political ambitions.
The prospect now facing Europe is that one of the founder members of the Common Market, a signatory of the Treaty of Rome, will over the next decade become an increasingly totalitarian state, subject to a kind of creeping fascism. Hitherto, Europe has remained quiet about Italy’s turn away from democracy, treating Berlusconi as a kind of recalcitrant child (though our former prime minister Tony Blair went rather further, and befriended him). With Berlusconi now set to remain in office for the next four years, enjoying ever fewer constraints on his power, Italy is headed down the road to becoming western Europe’s first postwar authoritarian state since the defeat of fascism on the Iberian Peninsula.
Isn’t it time for Europe to speak out? Hasn’t the moment arrived when Labour should express its concerns about Berlusconi? The democratic forces in Italy are becoming increasingly beleaguered: more and more they will need our help and solidarity, not our silence and implicit consent.
Martin Jacques writes fortnightly in the New Statesman