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Ambivalent Berlusconi: Ambivalent Italy

Self-interested Silvio Berlusconi is perfectly suited to lead crisis-mired Italy

With the collapse of hands-off capitalism in the Western World, it’s nice to live in a country where the leader has his hands on everything. That, at least, seems to be the mood in Italy, where Berlusconi’s approval rating has soared to seventy per cent as the markets have plunged.

The key to understanding the phenomenon that is Silvio Berlusconi, three-time Prime Minister of Italy, is to appreciate that he is driven by a sense of self-interest offset by a powerfully paternalistic impulse. He sees himself as a magnanimous baron, or, to use his own phrase, “the Anointed One”. If anyone – magistrates, students, journalists, other political parties, unions, local governments – challenges his good intentions, he feels as might a father towards an ingrate child.

Against the sound of crashing world markets, Berlusconi has skillfully synthesised his paternalistic and selfish impulses to achieve a harmonic style all his own. The falling markets may well constitute exceptional circumstances for the rest of the world, but the way Berlusconi has handled them here epitomises his style of leadership. The old saw that in Italy things are always in crisis but never serious seems to hold true even when the crisis is global.

How has Berlusconi arrived at an approval rating of seventy percent? Rather than return to the well-worn theme of his domination of the media, let us consider another sector in which he has considerable interests: banking. Berlusconi is the majority shareholder of Mediolanum SpA, a banking and financial services company (the current England manager, Fabio Capello, used to work in its insurance division). Capello, used to work in its insurance division). On 22 October, it was reported that Berlusconi and Ennio Doris – the bank’s two main shareholders – had decided personally to reimburse Mediolanum SpA’s customers in full for losses incurred by the collapse of Lehman Brothers – to the tune of €120 million. That’s called putting your money where your mouth is.

But whatever Berlusconi does, he usually manages to manoeuvre himself into a position where he cannot lose. If he uses his own funds, he seems generous. If he declares a state of emergency and uses public funds, he saves himself some money but, far more important, he extends his political power deeper into the world of finance.

The two largest retail banks in Italy are Unicredit and Intesa Sanpaolo. Both of them have seen their stocks take a real hammering during the banking crisis. Neither appears to have serious liquidity or solvency problems, but they are vulnerable. Even so, neither is asking for public funds. Unicredit announced a capital increase on October 5, effectively passing on the risk to its own shareholders rather than running to the taxpayer. Although Intesa Sanpaolo continues to look wobbly, it is valiantly resisting state intervention.

Alessandro Profumo, the CEO of Unicredit, and Corrado Passera, of Intesa-San Paolo, are aligned with the centre-left – which goes some way to explaining their heroism. The last thing they want is a government bail-out and the arrival of Berlusconi appointees on their board. They know that no real difference exists between the institution of government and the person of Berlusconi. Italians easily accept the idea that a bank is also a centre of political power. It may well be true of banks everywhere, but in Italy a bank’s political function is overt.

Mediobanca is a case in point. It was founded in 1946 as a central pillar of the “Italian miracle” of post-War reconstruction. It enforced its own industrial and financial policy, which remained fixed as various governments formed and fell. In Italian, the word for policy – politica – is the same as the word for politics.

Mediobanca’s role has been not just to allocate funds to major industries, but to build networks of cross-holdings among Italian industries. In the old days (until 1993), when the Christian Democrats reigned supreme, Berlusconi was kept out of this salotto buono (posh club) of Mediobanca shareholders. Nowadays, he is at the very heart of it. His Mediolanum bank and insurance group holds a stake of around 3.3% in Mediobanca, while Fininvest, his personal holding company, holds around 2%. With two spokes stuck into this hub of power, he is more influential than Gianni Agnelli ever was. But he is still outgunned by the major shareholder Unicredit (9%); the bank that is resisting the idea of state assistance.

The foreign press universally disapproves not just of Berlusconi, but of the Italian people for having elected him. More interesting than the censure itself is the difficulty that many foreign commentators seem to have in explaining why the Italians should have elected Berlusconi to office so many times.

Underlying these declarations of disappointment at how Italy has been behaving itself lately is the notion – spearheaded by publications such as The Economist – that Berlusconi’s blatant self-interest is his primary vice. Wilfully blind, Italians have got the government they deserve. All this may very well be true, but what if we consider Berlusconi’s primary vice as also his greatest, perhaps his only, saving grace?

To the question of what Berlusconi represents, the answer is simple: Berlusconi. There is no such political creed as Berlusconism. Quite the contrary: he has always presented himself as all things to all people, and was elected thanks mainly to his essential disinterest in ideology.

True, he is opportunistically anti-Communist, but that only means he is opposed to any ideology that would take away his companies. He does not have one of his own to put in its place. When his political mentor Bettino Craxi (in theory a Socialist) was hounded from the country, Berlusconi simply assumed direct control of his political as well as business interests. It is this directness that so annoys the Pearson Group and Murdoch press. Berlusconi makes the plutocracy that they defend too explicit. Clowning about on the international stage, while openly catering to his own interests through legislation, Berlusconi has cast off the cloak of invisibility beneath which capitalism traditionally hides.

Yet if Berlusconi represents nothing more than Berlusconi, the question remains why anyone would want to vote for him. One reason, perhaps, is that he represents untrammelled, as opposed to enlightened, self interest. If he can do as he pleases, so can we all, and to hell with Jurgen Habermas and his public sphere.

That, however, still does not explain how Berlusconi came to be elected also by voters who like to see themselves as moderates. They support Berlusconi because he embodies what was once the defining characteristic of the Christian Democrats: ambivalence. Whether it be the advisability of industrial subsidies, embryo research, saving Alitalia, participation in American missions abroad, the EU, the euro, free trade, pension reform, infrastructure projects or local government power; Berlusconi remains ambivalent. His ambivalence acts as a brake on the ideological ambitions of the two rightwing parties with which he shares (some) power. The threat they pose to democracy is overstated, since Berlusconi subordinates their policies to his own business affairs. Further, in spite of their rhetoric, the two right-wing parties are themselves ambivalent in many areas, including in their attitude towards Berlusconi. It may not be much of a system of checks and balances, but it works up to a point.

Ambivalence has a hallowed tradition in Italy. It lies at the heart of the living magisterium of the most powerful institution in Italy – the Catholic Church. The Church holds that authoritative teaching is not directly dependent on Holy Scripture as its source, because the Bible is ambivalent (Christ sensibly made spoken promises without writing them down) and must be interpreted. Dogmatic theological texts have tended to reflect an awareness that different times may bring different interpretative needs, and have a certain open-endedness about them precisely to avoid the literalism of Protestants.

Italian laws are often ambivalent. In part this is because they are codified precepts that strive to be comprehensive and must therefore refer both backwards and forwards to past and future laws. They are always open to interpretation. The Italian Constitution is very ambivalent, too, distributing the system of checks and balances widely and rather haphazardly.

When it comes to organised crime, this ambivalence suddenly seems pernicious, and indeed it is. But ambivalence has its moral claims, too. Fascism was a totalising ideology that, unlike Nazism, was tempered by the Italian tradition of ambivalence. The Italians were ambivalent about killing Jews. Famously, and unforgiveably for the British, they were rather ambivalent about whose side they were on after 1942. Italian Communists were ambivalent not only about the USSR, but also about Marxism itself. In introducing the notion of cultural hegemony – ie the observation that traditional culture and layered social structures can capture, waylay and defeat the revolutionary drive – Antonio Gramsci rejected the most unambivalent part of Marxism, namely that its fulfilment was historically pre-ordained.

The Northern League, which is ambivalent about the very idea of Italy as a state, is often depicted in the foreign press as if it were a strongly ideological movement. It is rightwing and xenophobic; it sometimes sounds like a separatist movement, and it is definitely anti-EU; but it is not a party that follows any ideological Ur-text, be it Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Milton Friedman or Friedrich Hayek. It is not fascist, not nationalist, not religious. For all its racism, it is essentially ambivalent.

Similarly, the other party in Berlusconi’s coalition is the National Alliance, often described for rhetorical effect as “neo”-fascist. It is nothing of the sort. It is post-Fascist – essentially the opposite, since it implies a rejection of their founding principles. In short, the Northern League and Berlusconi are all post-ideological.

It is possible that, thanks also to the sudden implosion of the laissez-faire system, Italy is now slightly ahead of the political curve in Europe. What this country is doing now: concentrating political power in the hands of a business elite; equating national wellbeing with the success of a selected group of enterprises, and blurring the differences between the public and private spheres is also now beginning in other western countries. The difference is that at least the Italians have been looking where they are going.