About Geoff Andrews

Geoff Andrews is staff tutor in politics at the Open University. He is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005), published in Italian as Un Paese Anormale (Effepi Libri, 2007); and of The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure (Pluto Press / McGill-Queen's, 2008). Geoff Andrews is an associate editor of Soundings. His website is here

Articles by Geoff Andrews

This week's guest editors

Berlusconi's shadow: hope to fear

Silvio Berlusconi has survived ejection and scandal to return to the centre of Italian politics. But it is his opponents more than the man himself who carry the blame for his continuing influence, says Geoff Andrews.

Berlusconi's last stand

Italy's great survivor wants to become prime minister for the fourth time. The decision opens an intense electoral contest over the country's direction, says Geoff Andrews.

Hobsbawm’s legacy for Labour

Despite all the compliments, we are entitled to ask: what has Britain’s current Labour Party really learned from Eric Hobsbawm?

Brave New World reimagined

Aldous Huxley's dystopian novel Brave New World (1931) is acquiring fresh meanings in another era of crisis and pacifying solutions, says Geoff Andrews.

James Klugmann, a complex communist

An intellectual who spent his career inside Britain's communist party, and who was long regarded even by many of his comrades with a degree of pity, may seem an unlikely candidate for reappraisal. But the life of James Klugmann, who was born on 27 February 1912, was also intertwined with some of the 20th century's biggest themes and controversies: depression and fascism, war and communism, loyalty and betrayal, political commitment and moral courage. Geoff Andrews, who is writing Klugmann's biography, reflects on an influential yet haunted man.

Silvio Berlusconi's legacy

It is a month since Italy's long-term prime minister resigned. But his pervasive influence on Italy's public life and the infirmity of the country's political class mean that it is too early to call this the post-Berlusconi era, says Geoff Andrews.

August 1990: a very British coup

The slow implosion of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s was echoed in the internal divisions and crises that consumed its western associates. Indeed, the once influential Communist Party of Great Britain faced its own trauma exactly a year before the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. Geoff Andrews recalls the moment when new-times became end-times.  

Italy beyond Berlusconi: the "normal" solution

Italy’s opposition has wounded Silvio Berlusconi. But it is still far from removing the prime minister - and even further from healing Italian democracy. Here, the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn offers important lessons, says Geoff Andrews.

The new food movement: politics and pleasure

The emergent movements around the politics of food are a vital component of debates on the planet’s future, says Geoff Andrews.

Italy united, Italy divided: the nation at 150

Italy’s official celebration of its founding moment finds the country in a dark mood and a long way from home. Geoff Andrews marks the moment and looks for signs of hope.

Berlusconi - and Italy - on trial

The new legal case against Italy's prime minister is also a test for a divided nation at a critical stage in its history, says Geoff Andrews.

Silvio Berlusconi: endgame, prolonged

A narrow confidence vote in Italy’s chamber of deputies extends the turbulent career of Italy’s scandal-ridden prime minister. But the corrosion of Italian democracy under “Berlusconismo” goes wider than one man, says Geoff Andrews.

Silvio Berlusconi: the long goodbye

Italy's prime minister is under severe domestic pressure after a fallout with his closest political ally. But a great political survivor still has room to manage his exit strategy, says Geoff Andrews.

Silvio Berlusconi: culture bites politics

A successful, intimidating prime minister has moulded Italy’s public life in his own image. A fearful, supine opposition is paralysed by his achievement. But there is one source of hope, says Geoff Andrews.    

Beyond Berlusconi: ten questions to Italy’s opposition

Italy’s economy and polity are in perennial trouble, but its prime minister Silvio Berlusconi survives every blow. All the more reason to scrutinise Italy's opposition, says Geoff Andrews.

Bettino Craxi’s legacy, Italy's misery

The commemoration of a discredited Italian prime minister exemplifies the political decadence at the country’s heart, says Geoff Andrews.

Silvio Berlusconi: the last battle

 

The latest legal verdict on Silvio Berlusconi is - it would seem - a cause for cheer among democrats in Europe, and indeed all those who believe in press freedom, the rule of law, transparency and accountability. For in its ruling of 7 October 2009, Italy's constitutional court decided that that the law passed in 2008 by a simple parliamentary majority granting parliamentary immunity to the Italian prime minister is at odds with the country's constitution.

Among openDemocracy's articles on Italy's politics:

Giovanni Bachelet et al, "A manifesto from Italy" (30 May 2002)

Sarah Pozzoli & Mario Rossi, "The fall and rise of Silvio Berlusconi" (22 April 2005)

Sarah Pozzoli, "Who rules Italy?" (24 June 2005)

Marco Niada, "Italy's tragic democracy" (24 August 2005)

Pierleone Ottolenghi, "Dear Mr Bush!"(27 February 2006)

Marco Niada, "Is Silvio Berlusconi losing the plot?" (23 March 2006)

Marco Brazzoduro, "Italy's choice: risk from Roma vs Roma at risk" (24 June 2008)

Berlusconi's piece of legal-political chicanery had allowed him to avoid possible charges of bribery, corruption and tax-fraud (and of attempting to blackmail two centre-left senators during the previous, centre-left government of Romano Prodi). Now the prime minister - already under pressure from a mortifying scandal involving his relationships with young women, and over his harassment of media critical of him - is again in the frame. The political consequences of this legal decision could be significant; for the prospect of Berlusconi soon facing three court cases might lead to the break-up of his governing coalition, and thus elections.  

But it is also too early to celebrate. For the "heroes" of the moment, those who have sought to uphold Italy's constitution and the rule of law, are Italy's judges rather than its decayed political class. The political reverberations of the court's ruling are likely to involve not an open, healthy clash between Berlusconi's regime and forces of democratic renewal but secretive and tactical manoeuvring by seasoned members of Italy's political class in search of advantage from the premier's predicament. It is far from clear that the struggle for a dopo-Silvio form of governance among those who have been in Berlusconi's shadow since the mid-1990s (with only brief intermissions) can produce a regenerated Italian democracy.

A populist moment

Another way to make the same point is that whatever Silvio Berlusconi's legal and political fate, it will be very hard for Italy to work through the legacy of his long period of hegemony. For Berlusconi has combined the roles of politician, corporate tycoon and media showman to create a powerful vehicle - a postmodern form of populism - which has allowed him to dominate Italian public life and set the political agenda even during the years he has been out of office.

Berlusconi's control of much of the media is central to his achievement, allowing him a means to employ to the full a command of patronage, an ability to impose his values, and an instrument to shape political discourse. This establishment of new sources of power has also enabled him to sidestep many aspects of the constitutional structures and legal norms hitherto regarded as crucial foundations of a modern liberal democracy, but which Berlusconi appears to hold in contempt.  

It is typical of Berlusconi that his immediate response to the constitutional-court's verdict was to denounce Italy's judges as leftwing; to complain about the leftwing bias of the president of the republic, Giorgio Napolitano; and to insult a centre-left MP, Rosy Bindi. But such tactics can work to the extent they do only because they play well among significant numbers of Italians. The prime minister's view that judges, intellectuals and other professional experts are working to prevent him from getting the job done - even that he is a victim, the target of unfair plots and campaigns by a tyrannical leftist establishment - speaks to the fears and prejudices of many Italian citizens.

In these circumstances, it would be very surprising if Berlusconi "left the pitch" (to use his own terminology) at this particular moment. He routinely claims that his election by the people gives him a legitimacy denied to unelected judges. Indeed, the fact that in liberal democracies political leaders have to abide by the same rules as others irrespective of their popularity with the electorate seems to have passed the prime minister by, as it has many of his supporters.

In short, the immediate impact of the constitutional-court verdict - and another reason to withhold cheers - has been to fuel a dangerous populism. Umberto Bossi, a crucial ally of Berlusconi and a populist of a more traditionalist genre, has already threatened to bring people on to the streets in opposition to the judges' verdict. The coming weeks will resemble a strategy of conflict, whereby the Italian premier uses all his available power and influence with the electorate to try to force a schism with the head of state, the judges and political opponents.  

A political vacuum

There is indeed no shortage of targets. Il Giornale, the newspaper owned by the Berlusconi family, has been waging a strong counterattack on Silvio's critics. A vicious campaign used revelations of private behaviour to force the resignation of Dino Boffo, the editor of the Catholic newspaper Avvenire. A follow-up assailed Gianfranco Fini, Berlusconi's closest ally for insufficient loyalty. The tight control of the news coverage of the public broadcaster RAI has included the postponement of Ballaro, a weekly current-affairs programme.

Berlusconi's most vigorous critics are undeterred. His decision to issue writs against selected media outlets provoked La Repubblica to initiate a petition in defence of press freedom, which now has nearly 500,000 signatures. La Repubblica has taken a brave stand against Berlusconi's excesses, marked by its publication of ten questions to Berlusconi over his relationship with the 18-year-old Noemi Letizia. (As I write, the clock on the paper's website confirms that 150 days have passed without any response). Its campaign has been widely reported abroad, including in openDemocracy, reflecting the way that Italy's troubles have acquired an international dimension. The day after the constitutional court made its judgment, the European parliament debated press freedom in Italy; and there is now a European Campaign for Press Freedom in Italy.  

However, La Repubblica (which Berlusconi on 12 October called on industrialists to boycott because of its criticism of his government) and the foreign press cannot bring change to Italy. Only politicians and civic leaders, together with Italian citizens, can accomplish this. As yet, there is no sign of a new reform agenda emerging. There was a well-attended demonstration in support of media freedom in Rome on 3 October; but with the exception of Antonio Di Pietro's small Italia dei Valori party and a group of critics and comedians, there is little foundation for a movement of genuine renovation.  

A suspended future

The crucial factor in deciding Silvio Berlusconi's fate may well be the stance of his leading political friends. Gianfranco Fini, his most senior ally and president of the chamber of deputies, has called on the premier to respect the constitution (and defended the state president from Berlusconi's attack). This may become a decisive split. Fini has tried to position himself as a statesman, ready to take the responsibility of the nation on his shoulders; though he has also made enemies among the party faithful and may choose to wait for a later opportunity (perhaps even the presidency).

The influential chairman of Fiat, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, is another candidate to succeed Berlusconi were the prime minister forced to resign. Di Montezemolo launched the Italia Futura think-tank on 7 October 2009, and clearly intends to remain at the centre of events.

Any such option - and some think that Berlusconi's closest allies will not risk breaking ranks in this populist moment - will fail to provide a quick or easy solution. There is no great demand for a government of technocrats; such a project was attempted with little success following the fall of Berlusconi's first government in 1994, and would again require barely democratic machinations and manoeuvres behind the scenes.

Moreover, the figures most likely to assume important roles in any such outcome would be experienced apparatchiks such as Massimo D'Alema from the centre-left, and Giulio Tremonti (the treasury minister) and Pierferdinando Casini from the Catholic centre - as well as Luca Cordero di Montezemolo. True, this would be one Italian solution to the crisis, but only a shift from an Orwellian leadership to a Machiavellian scenario.

Silvio Berlusconi still has cards to play. He has the option of calling a snap election (which on current polling evidence he would certainly win). He has already spent millions on lawyers to keep him from prosecution, and it will not be easy to bring him to court. Yet after many crises and scandals - and it is certain that Berlusconi will not go quietly - this does now look like his last battle.

The real debate on Italy's future has yet to start. But even at this stage, two things are clear. First, the last thing Italy needs now is more populism. Second, the next generation of leaders will have to push towards a new model of Italian governance: neither Orwellian nor Machiavellian, but democratic.

 

Geoff Andrews is staff tutor in politics at the Open University. He is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005), published in Italian as Un Paese Anormale (effepilibri, 2007); and of The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure (Pluto Press / McGill-Queen's, 2008). Geoff Andrews is also an associate editor of Soundings. His website is here

Among Geoff Andrews's articles on openDemocracy:

"The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (1 November 2005)

"Italy's election: no laughing matter" (1 February 2006)

"Berlusconi's bitter legacy" (29 March 2006)

"In search of a normal country" (6 April 2006)

"Italy between fear and hope" (11 April 2006)

"Romano Prodi's fragile centre" (27 February 2007)

"Walter Veltroni: Italy's man for all seasons" (3 July 2007)

"Italy: another false dawn" (22 October 2007)

"Italy's governing disorder" (31 January 2008)

"Italy: the ungovernable nation" (11 April 2008)

"Italy's hour of darkness" (17 April 2008)

"Roberto Saviano: an Italian dissident" (22 October 2008)

"Italy's creeping fascism" (19 February 2009)

"Silvio Berlusconi: ten more questions" (5 June 2009)

"Silvio Berlusconi: answers, please" (9 June 2009)

"Berlusconi's scandal, Italy's tragedy" (29 June 2009)

"Italy and the G8: voices from L'Aquila" (10 July 2009)

Who’s afraid of Silvio Berlusconi?

The exposure of Silvio Berlusconi's public-personal behaviour continues. The website of L'Espresso magazine has made available audio-tapes containing sordid details of the Italian prime minister's alleged overnight tryst with a prostitute on the very evening of Barack Obama's election as United States president, 4-5 November 2008. In a sense, however, it is the way such revelations have been handled in Italy as much as the evidence itself that is most telling.

Among openDemocracy's articles on Italy's politics:

Giovanni Bachelet et al, "A manifesto from Italy" (30 May 2002)

Sarah Pozzoli & Mario Rossi, "The fall and rise of Silvio Berlusconi" (22 April 2005)

Sarah Pozzoli, "Who rules Italy?" (24 June 2005)

Marco Niada, "Italy's tragic democracy" (24 August 2005)

Pierleone Ottolenghi, "Dear Mr Bush!"(27 February 2006)

Marco Niada, "Is Silvio Berlusconi losing the plot?" (23 March 2006)

Marco Brazzoduro, "Italy's choice: risk from Roma vs Roma at risk" (24 June 2008)

What the reception confirms is something that is now also becoming apparent to the wider world: that Silvio Berlusconi presides over a regime. The Italian public broadcaster Rai is directly under his control and refuses to discuss the scandal; Berlusconi himself owns most of the other TV stations. The consequences for Italian democracy, and for Italy's credibility within the European Union, are now matters of grave concern (see "Berlusconi's scandal, Italy's tragedy", 29 June 2009).  

The sole channels of serious information for Italian citizens are La Repubblica and L'Espresso (both owned by the same publishing house), along with one or two other broadsheets. The foreign press - most notably the British - has by contrast provided sustained discussion of the issue. Silvio Berlusconi's response has been that the attacks on him are part of a "subversive plot" organised in collaboration with the Italian left.

This is nonsense, on two grounds: there is no plot, and the foreign press's effective and appropriate critical examination of Berlusconi's conduct is of a kind that the Italian left is quite unable of producing. Indeed, part of the reason why Silvio Berlusconi's regime has consolidated its power in recent times has been the absence of any real opposition. Dario Franceschini, the present leader of the main centre-left force Partito Democratico (Democratic Party), claims that Berlusconi will be replaced by autumn 2009; but it is clear that his own party is in no shape to take over.

A deeper vacuum

Two recent events highlight the non-existence of a proper opposition in Italy. The first is a full-page appeal-advertisement placed on 9 July 2009 in the respected International Herald Tribune newspaper by Antonio Di Pietro, who in the early 1990s led the mane pulite (clean hands) investigation into political corruption and now heads the Italia dei Valori (Italy of Values) party. "Italian democracy is in danger" the appeal declared. The commitment of Di Pietro's party to a firm and progressive agenda - constitutional government and the rule of law, transparency and anti-mafia reform - should make it a shaping force, and in a more normal country it surely would be. But at under 10% of the vote it remains marginalised.

The second is an announcement on 12 July by the comic blogger Beppe Grillo - an acerbic and relentless critic of the corruption at the heart of Italy's political class - of his candidature for the primary stage of elections to choose a new leader of the Democratic Party. This "provocation" was ridiculed by some of the party's apparatchiks, who nonetheless made immediate efforts to prevent Grillo acquiring a party card.

Beppe Grillo's criticisms, both of the power of Berlusconi and of the impotence of the opposition, strike a chord with many Italians. Many others may not see him as a serious figure, but his very influence is a sign of a deeper vacuum in the body-politic.

Together, these developments illuminate the long decline of the Italian left - since the end of the cold war, and notably after the tangentopoli crisis - to lead Italy towards the democratic settlement which the "second republic" had promised.

Indeed, by a cruel twist the main beneficiary of tangentopoli was the close friend and part-protégé of Bettino Craxi, the (socialist) Italian premier whom the corruption scandal toppled and then drove to seek exile: Silvio Berlusconi himself (see Perry Anderson's magisterial analysis of this period and its consequences in the London Review of Books: "An Entire Order Converted into What It Was Intended to End" [12 February 2009] and "An Invertebrate Left" [12 March 2009]). 

The Italian left seems - the first of the L'Ulivo (Olive Tree) governments of 1996-2001 apart - to have learned nothing from a series of defeats. The "transformation" of the majority of the old Partito Comunista Italiano (Italian Communist Party) - a mass-membership party widely respected for its wise leadership, long-standing opposition to fascism and ability to implant itself into the popular culture - into (successively) the Partito Democratico della Sinistra (Democratic Party of the Left) and the Democratic Party has been an incoherent process beset by identity-crises and endless infighting. The past is a shackle and the future a fog; all that remains is the "morbid symptoms". 

A phantom opposition

The most persistent failure of the centre-left has been the unwillingness to carry through the legal and democratic reforms Antonio Di Pietro and others argued for. Above all, the centre-left missed numerous opportunities to pass legislation which would have prevented Silvio Berlusconi's "conflicts of interest"; it even accepted the parliamentary-immunity law which has effectively kept the three-time Italian prime minister out of jail.

The leaders who presided over this enduring infirmity are still there. Some even retain respect amounting to reverence among the centre-left's followers. They include Massimo D'Alema, who abandoned the "conflicts-of-interest" legal effort in an attempt to reach agreement over bicameral reform (which didn't even succeed) contributed greatly to Berlusconi's initial rise to power. Even today elements of the centre-left regard D'Alema as the "greatest politician of the last twenty years"; yet he has done nothing significant and in most serious democratic countries would have been removed a long time ago. 

There are worse than D'Alema. Walter Veltroni, the first leader of the Democratic Party, embarked upon a disastrous strategy of appeasing Berlusconi's excesses by opposing what he called "anti-Berlusconism" as a prerequisite to negotiating constitutional and electoral reform. It was a crucial misjudgment of the kind of adversary he and the centre-left were dealing with.

Veltroni had begun his new political project by raising expectations of a genuine breakthrough, but his preference for portentous statements over measurable political advance soon undermined his credibility; the contrast between his embrace of Barack Obama's presidential-election slogan (Si Puo Fare [yes we can]) and his lack of any of the American leader's vision or courage was stark.

The arc of Veltroni's rise and fall was swift: in the election of April 2008, he became the seventh centre-left leader to fall before the Silvio Berlusconi steamroller (and one of the most ineffective, which is saying a lot). The impact of Walter Veltroni's approach was, as the Economist rightly said, to make his side of the political divide a "phantom opposition". 

A clear danger

The emergence in Italy of vigorous civil-society opposition to Berlusconi (including the girotondi) makes the non-appearance of any strong reformist political movement since the days of tangentopoli even more disturbing.  What Perry Anderson calls the "invertebrate left" bears much of the blame, for its absence of principle and courage. The Democratic Party's current preoccupation with electing a new leader shows no sign of breaking the pattern at a time when offering a clear alternative agenda to Silvio Berlusconi's is vital.

Silvio Berlusconi is increasingly reliant for his continuation in power on the crony-filled networks he has established in key institutions and positions. His patronage extends to his rightwing political allies; a process consolidated by the merger of his Forza Italia with the Alleanza Nazionale (National Alliance) in 2008, and a further incorporation in March 2009. The most recent scandals have begun to erode some of his popular support and encourage his critics. But it is important to recognise that - after La Repubblica's questions and openDemocracy's challenge, after criticism from Catholic leaders and foreign media, after revelations of shocking public-personal behaviour - the underlying political reality is unchanged: there is no alternative to Silvio Berlusconi.

The plight of Italian democracy offers much to worry about. The lack of serious and effective political opposition is one of the most worrying factors of all. It's time to lay aside the fear, and rise to a clear and present danger. 

 

Geoff Andrews is staff tutor in politics at the Open University. He is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005), published in Italian as Un Paese Anormale (effepilibri, 2007); and of The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure (Pluto Press / McGill-Queen's, 2008). Geoff Andrews is also an associate editor of Soundings. His website is here

Among Geoff Andrews's articles on openDemocracy:

"The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (1 November 2005)

"Italy's election: no laughing matter" (1 February 2006)

"Berlusconi's bitter legacy" (29 March 2006)

"In search of a normal country" (6 April 2006)

"Italy between fear and hope" (11 April 2006)

"Romano Prodi's fragile centre" (27 February 2007)

"Walter Veltroni: Italy's man for all seasons" (3 July 2007)

"Italy: another false dawn" (22 October 2007)

"Italy's governing disorder" (31 January 2008)

"Italy: the ungovernable nation" (11 April 2008)

"Italy's hour of darkness" (17 April 2008)

"Roberto Saviano: an Italian dissident" (22 October 2008)

"Italy's creeping fascism" (19 February 2009)

"Silvio Berlusconi: ten more questions" (5 June 2009)

"Silvio Berlusconi: answers, please" (9 June 2009)

"Berlusconi's scandal, Italy's tragedy" (29 June 2009)

"Italy and the G8: voices from L'Aquila" (10 July 2009)

Italy and the G8: voices from L'Aquila

The location for the Group of Eight (G8) summit of 8-10 July 2009 - the town of L'Aquila, in the region of Abruzzo, devastated by an earthquake on 6 April which killed around 300 people - was intended to be a showpiece political opportunity for its host, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. But his opponents too were never going to miss the chance for a high-profile display of their own agenda and ambitions.

Among openDemocracy's articles on Italy's politics:

Giovanni Bachelet et al, A manifesto from Italy (30 May 2002)

Pierleone Ottolenghi, "Dear Mr Bush!"(27 February 2006)

Sarah Pozzoli & Mario Rossi, "The fall and rise of Silvio Berlusconi" (21 April 2005)

Sarah Pozzoli, "Who rules Italy?" (23 June 2005)

Marco Niada, "Italy's tragic democracy" (23 August 2005)

Marco Niada, "Is Silvio Berlusconi losing the plot?" (23 March 2006)

Marco Brazzoduro, "Italy's choice: risk from Roma vs Roma at risk" (24 June 2008)

So it has proved. Barack Obama's journey by car through the medieval centre of L'Aquila on the opening day of the summit would have brought him in sight of the banners decorating the town and its environs - most graphically on the nearby Roio hillside - emblazoned with the slogan: "Yes We Camp". The inventive phrase was adopted by local citizens among the town's 68,000 population to draw visiting leaders' attention to the plight of the thousands of people still affected by the earthquake - the 23,000 who are still living in 180 tent-cities, and the 30,000 who have been temporarily relocated along the coast. "Yes We Camp" is more than a clever play on  the United States president's campaign cry: it is also a timely reminder to Silvio Berlusconi that "we, the people of L'Aquila" will pursue their goal of having their houses rebuilt and their town restored.

The slogan was adopted by the Comitato 3e32, the grassroots citizens-action group set up days after the earthquake, its name taken from the time of day the disaster struck. It represents those at the sharp end of a terrible natural calamity, and is an inconvenient reminder to Silvio Berlusconi that the claims of the Aquilani will not go away. More widely, 3e32 is a local, grassroots organisation that also reflects the best of Italian civic movements. Its story - part of a mosaic that has become familiar to me over the last eight years as I have travelled across Italy - tells us much about contemporary Italy: the hopes and fears, the fight against corruption, a real sense of tragedy, and - above all else - a profound failure of political leadership.

The event

The hastily arranged G8 summit took place a few kilometres from the centre of L'Aquila in a place called Coppito; more precisely, in a training school for the Guardia di Finanza (Italy's financial police). It seems an appropriate venue, given the list of financial crimes allegedly associated with the Italian prime minister.

The facilities - artificial lawns, an ad-hoc basketball court, and (of course) extreme security measures - are also typical of Berlusconi's attempts to present an image of Italian strength and authority. His own TV channels and newspapers have been showing a succession of eulogies and images of Berlusconi the statesman. Barack Obama's praise of Giorgio Napolitano, the president of the Italian republic, was quickly converted into an endorsement of their own padrone.

The core agenda of the G8 - the world economic crisis, international aid, Iran and climate change - is both important and international. But many in Italy believe that the whole event, including the decision to move it from Sardinia to L'Aquila, has for Silvio Berlusconi a narrow political purpose: to put on a "show" that will restore the Italian premier's flagging leadership and declining credibility among his international partner. Some have compared his current predicament to that of Benito Mussolini, as satirised by Pier Paolo Pasolini in The Last Days of Salò. There is no Pasolini to make the connection between the current Italian leader's sexual perversions and his obsession with power - but there are citizens' movements committed to the pursuit of truth and justice.

The committee

To travel through L'Aquila three months after the earthquake is a difficult and sobering experience. The ruins of the city resemble a mixture of war-zone and ghost-town. Everywhere there are dilapidated buildings, holes in the tarmac, frequent road-blocks, areas cordoned off by the civil-protection units - and tents. The constant sound of drilling is an optimistic reminder that urgent efforts are being made to restore some sense of normality. Several local citizens have set up makeshift shops and bars in tents.

At the Genoa summit of the G8 in 2001, we were prevented from entering the city-centre "red zones". In L'Aquila, too, these zones have reappeared. This time, however, it is not the "no global" forces that have been denied entry, but the local aquilani who are forbidden from entering the heart of their town. It seems another confirmation that the decision to move the summit here was made less in the interests of the local citizens and more as part of a characteristic media spectacle designed for the aggrandisement of Silvio Berlusconi.

It is lunchtime at Parco Unicef, on the middle day of the summit. This is the headquarters of Comitato 3e32. A band plays in the central marquee; people join the queue for pasta; a  couple throw a Frisbee back and forth. There is a spirit of optimism, defiance and solidarity among the mainly young people here. Regular meetings decide on tactics and strategy, and how to pursue their goal of reconstructing damaged houses in the city as well as the general rules of living together. There are no leaders and many people contribute to the discussion.

The ideal

One of the activists is Claudia Pajewski, born in L'Aquila, who was involved in setting up 3e32 along with friends and people she remembered only by face from her early years. It started days after the earthquake, from a series of sms exchanges. "We said to each other: ‘This is terrible. We have to do something'". She is dismissive of Silvio Berlusconi's promises. "He took a long time to come and visit after the earthquake, though during the [European parliament] elections he came many times". She believes that he is using L'Aquila to revive his faltering leadership, yet offers only "false" promises.

"The day of the funeral was one of the worst days", Claudia told me. "Everything was organised for the TV. They didn't even read out all the names of those who died, but instead the list of dignitaries who attended".

Claudia Pajewski and her colleagues in 3e32 have a simple demand: to reconstruct the damaged homes, including those in the centre of the city. Instead she fears that Berlusconi's hollow promise to "build better homes" will result only in some cheap new houses on the outskirts of the city, and that the claims of the citizens for a proper restoration will soon be forgotten. Like many others, she is also convinced that the contracts for rebuilding will go to the new building work will go to the mafia. For Claudia, this is because "the problem of the mafia is the problem of Italy".

In many ways L'Aquila is indeed a true reflection on the way Italy has been governed in recent years. "I am ashamed to be Italian", a phrase repeated to me by Claudia, is now a frequent comment from Italians living under Silvio Berlusconi. When people talk of the mafia being involved in building contracts in L'Aquila, they do so with resignation. A short time before the G8 summit began, Massimo Cialente - the mayor of L'Aquila - led a torchlight procession through the shattered town. It was a dignified protest from citizens whose underlying objective was, in the mayor's words, the pursuit of truth and justice. In the Italy of Silvio Berlusconi, before and after the G8 summit, such an ideal remains a long way off.


Geoff Andrews is staff tutor in politics at the Open University. He is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005), published in Italian as Un Paese Anormale (effepilibri, 2007); and of The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure (Pluto Press / McGill-Queen's, 2008). Geoff Andrews is also an associate editor of Soundings

His website is here

Among Geoff Andrews's articles on openDemocracy:

The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini (November 2005)

"Italy's election: no laughing matter" (1 February 2006)

"Berlusconi's bitter legacy" (29 March 2006)

"In search of a normal country" (6 April 2006)

"Italy between fear and hope" (11 April 2006)

"Romano Prodi's fragile centre" (27 February 2007)

"Walter Veltroni: Italy's man for all seasons" (3 July 2007)

"Italy: another false dawn" (22 October 2007)

"Italy's governing disorder" (31 January 2008)

"Italy: the ungovernable nation" (11 April 2008)

"Italy's hour of darkness" (17 April 2008)

"Roberto Saviano: an Italian dissident" (22 October 2008)

"Italy's creeping fascism" (19 February 2009)

"Silvio Berlusconi: ten more questions" (1 June 2009)

"Silvio Berlusconi: answers, please" (9 June 2009)

"Berlusconi's scandal, Italy's tragedy" (29 June 2009)

 

Berlusconi’s scandal, Italy’s tragedy

Silvio Berlusconi, the most successful populist politician of modern times, has long mastered the art of appealing over the heads of professional politicians to reach the "bellies" rather than the "brains" of ordinary Italians. In his three periods as Italy's prime minister (May 1994-January 1995, June 2001-May 2006, and from May 2008) he has seen off seven centre-left leaders to remain the dominant figure in Italy's political landscape. Berlusconi's ability to dominate the media and turn even critical attention to his advantage have been invaluable assets in this regard.

Could this pattern of domination now be changing? Is Berlusconi's long hegemony approaching its end? The most recent flurry of stories and scandals - concerning his relations with young women, beginning with Noemi Letizia, his 18-year-old friend from Naples who calls him "Papi" - are certainly among the most damaging he has faced; and there is great significance in the fact that he is no longer in control of events.

Among openDemocracy's articles on Italy's politics:

Giovanni Bachelet et al, A manifesto from Italy (30 May 2002)

Pierleone Ottolenghi, "Dear Mr Bush!"(27 February 2006)

Sarah Pozzoli & Mario Rossi, "The fall and rise of Silvio Berlusconi" (21 April 2005)

Sarah Pozzoli, "Who rules Italy?" (23 June 2005)

Marco Niada, "Italy's tragic democracy" (23 August 2005)

Marco Niada, "Is Silvio Berlusconi losing the plot?" (23 March 2006)

Marco Brazzoduro, "Italy's choice: risk from Roma vs Roma at risk" (24 June 2008)

But there is a sense in which even Silvio Berlusconi's own fate has already become a secondary factor in what is happening. For the series of events which have engulfed the 72-year-old premier and which now dominate large sections of the press inside and outside Italy can no longer be reduced - if they ever could - to a question of his own personal behaviour. Rather, Berlusconi's crisis has become the peculiar tragedy of modern Italy itself.

The media-political storm

Silvio Berlusconi has attracted negative media coverage in the past. What looks different this time is that the near-daily exposures from young women, alleging that he paid for sex, reveal a web of deceit at the heart of Italian politics. True, the private and the public domains have - the prime minister's denials to the contrary - rarely been distinct in his career. What recent events reveal most vividly is the extent to which Silvio Berlusconi's own values have become embedded in Italian public life.

The manner of Berlusconi's contemptuous response to the claims from various women -  that he paid for sex with them, or offered them jobs for his TV network or as candidates for his party - reveals a lack of transparency in the Italian political system as well as threats to media freedom that would be unacceptable in any other western democracy. Berlusconi ignored these claims for several weeks, and refused to answer any of the questions posed to him (including in open Democracy - see "Silvio Berlusconi: ten more questions" [5 June 2009] and "Silvio Berlusconi: answers, please" [9 June 2009]).

It was typical that the prime minister should then ignore normal channels of democratic accountability and turn to the gossip magazine, Chi, which he owns, to state his denials. His behaviour suggests that in Italy politics has been replaced by the display of personal omnipotence. How much further will Italy's decrepit political culture and degenerate body-politic be allowed to sink?

Italy hosts the Group of Eight (G8) summit in L'Aquila on 8-10 July 2009, and the performance of the Italian premier will be the primary focus. Berlusconi is more isolated than ever within the international community; he counts only the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, as a close ally. The signs that his diminishing status is further tarnishing Italy's own reputation are widespread, from the embarrassed responses of other leaders to his behaviour to the effort by a group of academics to persuade the G8 "first ladies" to boycott the L'Aquila summit. Even his relations with the Catholic church are strained: after a brief rapprochement when he tried to push through a decree to keep Eluana Englaro alive, his latest indiscretions have caused a series of leading clergy to reproach him (Archbishop Angelo Bagnasco of Genoa pointedly condemned "men drunk on a delirium of their own greatness...").

The crisis goes deeper than his relations with young women. On 21 May 2009, Berlusconi described, a court ruled that he had the Italian parliament as "useless", saying that only 100 MPs were necessary to get the business done and contrasting legislators unfavourably with businessmen. In February 2009bribed the British lawyer David Mills to provide false testimony, even as he himself is protected from prosecution by parliamentary-immunity legislation passed by his own government. Berlusconi has offered no explanation for this. The pattern here of an absence of any commitment to democratic accountability by the country's elected leader has led La Repubblica - which has done an exemplary job in pursuing the truth of Berlusconi's actions - to issue a further ten questions for him to answer (see "Le dieci domande mai poste al Cavaliere" [14 May 2009] and "Le dieci nuove domande al Cavaliere" [La Repubblica, 26 June 2009].

At the same time, the government's own attitudes to the media its does not control are problematic. Berlusconi has urged companies not to advertise in the weekly L'Espresso (a publication from the same media group as La Repubblica). His minister for culture and close ally Sandro Bondi has described La Repubblica as a "threat to democracy" - an extraordinary way to characterise the normal functioning of a newspaper in a free society. In addition, the director of the public broadcaster RAI - part of Berlusconi's media empire - has declined to broadcast details of the claims against Berlusconi (something equivalent to the BBC refusing to cover the parliamentary-expenses scandal in Britain).

Berlusconi and after

Italy is a very divided country, and the adverse international press coverage of its leader - even now - influences only part of the population. Yet, what it has created is a climate of shame and embarrassment amongst Italians within and beyond Italy; that their identity is now bound up with the persona of Silvio Berlusconi. There is growing recognition that things cannot continue as they are. As foreign press criticism has increased, more Italians have been stirred to vent their anger and to call on allies in the west to continue their investigations.

Indeed, some of Silvio Berlusconi's closest allies have suggested to Guy Dinmore, Rome correspondent for the Financial Times, that they are preparing for life without him (see Berlusconi whispers grow louder", Financial Times, 25 June 2009). They are clearly very worried where the current web of dubious and perhaps criminal actions will lead.

Giuliano Ferrara, editor of Il Foglio and one of Berlusconi's most astute intellectual allies, has warned that Italy could have another "24 July" on its hands; a reference to the date in 1943 when Mussolini was dismissed by King Victor Emmanuel III and subsequently set up the Republic of Salo`. Once again, Italy finds itself with a leader obsessed with power, who, having positioned himself above the law and believing himself invincible, may be predisposed to bring others down with him in a last gesture of defiance.

These are worrying times for all who care about Italy, irrespective of their political views. Silvio Berlusconi will not resign easily. If he does relinquish power voluntarily or as the result of pressure, he will lose parliamentary immunity and could face further prosecution. There is no obvious successor from his party who has wide appeal. Yet the opposition remains very weak. There is no prospect for much needed reforms to the Italian constitutional system and, so far, no sign of a popular groundswell for change.

The only political beneficiaries to date from Berlusconi's troubles have been the xenophobic Northern League, which performed well in Italy's elections to the European parliament on 6-7 June. The league can still prove an awkward government partner, as it did in December 1994 when the first Berlusconi government fell. The demise of Silvio Berlusconi's reign, if it is coming, could be protracted and painful; and it could leave Italy's long-term prospects remaining bleak. A tragedy indeed.


Geoff Andrews is staff tutor in politics at the Open University. He is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005), published in Italian as Un Paese Anormale (effepilibri, 2007); and of The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure (Pluto Press / McGill-Queen's, 2008). Geoff Andrews is also an associate editor of Soundings

His website is here

Among Geoff Andrews's articles on openDemocracy:

The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini (November 2005)

"Italy's election: no laughing matter" (1 February 2006)

"Berlusconi's bitter legacy" (29 March 2006)

"In search of a normal country" (6 April 2006)

"Italy between fear and hope" (11 April 2006)

"Romano Prodi's fragile centre" (27 February 2007)

"Walter Veltroni: Italy's man for all seasons" (3 July 2007)

"Italy: another false dawn" (22 October 2007)

"Italy's governing disorder" (31 January 2008)

"Italy: the ungovernable nation" (11 April 2008)

"Italy's hour of darkness" (17 April 2008)

"Roberto Saviano: an Italian dissident" (22 October 2008)

"Italy's creeping fascism" (19 February 2009)

"Silvio Berlusconi: ten more questions" (1 June 2009)

"Silvio Berlusconi: answers, please" (9 June 2009)

 

Silvio Berlusconi: answers, please

The response from Italians to my article on openDemocracy posing ten questions to Silvio Berlusconi has been overwhelming. Many have expressed their deep anger at the Italian prime minister's public and private behaviour, which provoked the questions in the first place (see "Silvio Berlusconi: ten more questions", 1 June 2009 - and the many comments from Italian citizens, inside and outside the country, that follow).

Among openDemocracy's articles on Italy's politics:

Sarah Pozzoli & Mario Rossi, "The fall and rise of Silvio Berlusconi" (21 April 2005)

Sarah Pozzoli, "Who rules Italy?" (23 June 2005)

Marco Niada, "Italy's tragic democracy" (23 August 2005)

Marco Brazzoduro, "Italy's choice: risk from Roma vs Roma at risk" (24 June 2008)

I have been very moved by what La Repubblica - the Italian newspaper which began the interrogation of Berlusconi with its own dieci domande on 14 May - called the valanga (avalanche) of responses on the openDemocracy site.

Many of these comments indicate a hunger for civic engagement, for further discussion of Italy's problems, and for action to restore democracy and public life in the country

There is also embarrassment, even shame, at the image Berlusconi has imposed on Italy. Some respondents have further highlighted the real dangers to democracy; others call on their compatriots to "wake up". Almost all share deep fears over the direction he is taking Italy, in the face of declining international credibility.

A few correspondents have pointed to the sheer desperation of the current situation. Leoluca Orlando, the former mayor of Palermo and a member of the Italia dei Valori (Italy of Values), wrote to thank me for my efforts. He described the situation in which public institutions in Italy have degenerated under Berlusconi as a "climate of tragedy" that has similarities with Russia in the time of the Tsars.

The Portuguese author Jose Saramago, a Nobel literature laureate, published a scathing article on Berlusconi in the leading Spanish daily newspaper, El País. He described current events in Italy as indicative of a "virus (which) threatens to cause the moral death" of a country whose values of "liberty and dignity" pervade "the music of Verdi and the political action of Garibaldi" (see "La cosa Berlusconi", El País, 7 June 2009).

Saramago even uses the term delincuencia (delinquency) to describe Berlusconi's recent behaviour; he glosses this as the "act of committing crimes, disobeying laws or moral codes". El País has also been printing daily photographs - whose publication is banned in Italy - of scantily dressed young women attending a party at Berlusconi's Villa Certosa in Sardinia.

The world's voice

The scandals and excesses that have marked Silvio Berlusconi's leadership of an Italian government - including the conflict of interests over the vast media networks he owns or controls - have never been fully investigated or resolved. For example, an Italian court ruled on 19 May that the prime minister bribed his British lawyer David Mills by paying him to give false testimony. Berlusconi, however, refuses even to answer serious questions about his conduct. It is impossible to imagine such a situation existing in any other modern European democracy. There is security in the holding of power. Sergio Rizzo & Gian Antonio Stella's best-selling La Casta (2007) offered a devastating critique of the political elite, yet there was zero effect in terms of resignations.

Silvio Berlusconi has stated that the growing criticism of him in the international press has been orchestrated by left-wing opponents. But many of his biggest critics are on the right. In Britain, for example, it is the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Economist - establishment or centre-right newspapers - that are among the most persistent in examining his record.

Berlusconi's claim that the criticism has been fuelled by the rival media empire of Rupert Murdoch is equally skewed. The reports published in the foreign press should be measured against the evidence they cite. In any event, Berlusconi's own media outlets are vehicles of his own interests and prejudices - so he can hardly scold others on these grounds, even were it true (and he has yet to produce evidence either of left-wing conspiracy or corporate rivalry as a source of attacks on him).

Silvio Berlusconi's refusal to answer important questions over his conduct is now a matter of wide public interest. The results of the elections to the European parliament on 6-7 June suggest that the criticism is having an effect: in a worse-than-expected outcome, Berlusconi's Il Popolo della Libertà (PdL) party won 35% of the vote, a fall from the 37.3% it won the general election of April 2008.

The conduct of this Italian prime minister has important international repercussions. Silvio Berlusconi jets to the White House to meet Barack Obama on 15 June. He hosts the G8 summit in L'Aquila on 8-10 July. The summer heat is rising, and so is the political pressure. Now is the time for some answers. 

 

Geoff Andrews is staff tutor in politics at the Open University. He is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005), published in Italian as Un Paese Anormale (effepilibri, 2007); and of The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure (Pluto Press / McGill-Queen's, 2008). Geoff Andrews is also an associate editor of Soundings. His website is here

Among Geoff Andrews's articles on openDemocracy:

"The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (November 2005)

"Italy's election: no laughing matter" (1 February 2006)

"Berlusconi's bitter legacy" (29 March 2006)

"In search of a normal country" (6 April 2006)

"Italy between fear and hope" (11 April 2006)

"Romano Prodi's fragile centre" (27 February 2007)

"Walter Veltroni: Italy's man for all seasons" (3 July 2007)

"Italy: another false dawn" (22 October 2007)

"Italy's governing disorder" (31 January 2008)

"Italy: the ungovernable nation" (11 April 2008)

"Italy's hour of darkness" (17 April 2008)

"Roberto Saviano: an Italian dissident" (22 October 2008)

"Italy's creeping fascism" (19 February 2009)

"Silvio Berlusconi: ten more questions" (1 June 2009)

Silvio Berlusconi: ten more questions

Dear Signor Berlusconi,

Italy’s creeping fascism

The death of a young woman after seventeen years in a coma, following a decision by doctors on legal advice not to continue feeding her, is a public as well as a private event. In a mature democratic society, it would merit dignified ethical debate of a kind that might be expected to balance differing views and cut across party-political boundaries.

Among openDemocracy articles on Italy's politics:

Sarah Pozzoli & Mario Rossi, "The fall and rise of Silvio Berlusconi" (21 April 2005)

Sarah Pozzoli, "Who rules Italy?" (23 June 2005)

Marco Niada, "Italy's tragic democracy" (23 August 2005)

Marco Brazzoduro, "Italy's choice: risk from Roma vs Roma at risk" (24 June 2008)

Italy, however, is different. The country is at present dominated by intolerant public discourses and veering towards authoritarian solutions; in this febrile atmosphere, such an event threatens to become a serious constitutional crisis. As the prime minister blames the president of the republic for the young woman's death, and as leading politicians and Vatican representatives indulge in feverish rhetoric and stoke paranoia, what Pier Paolo Pasolini once called "clerical fascism" feels like apt social critique (see "The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini", 1 November 2005).

Eluana Englaro was just 21 when she fell into a coma in January 1992 after a car accident. Her father and her friends always testified that her wish would have been to end her life rather than prolong it in a vegetative state. In November 2008, the court of cassation ruled that her feeding-tubes could be removed.  On 3 February 2009 she was transferred to a clinic in Udine, northeast Italy, where she died on 9 February. Her father, Beppino, who is also currently nursing his seriously ill wife, was relieved that this particular journey had come to an end; he asked to be left alone in his grief.

In contemporary Italy, this proved a vain hope. The prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, is as populist and opportunist as ever; he has used the occasion to refuel his political ambitions, revealing in the process his contempt for the rule of law and constitutional processes. The Vatican has exploited the case to reinforce its conservative agenda, castigating the voices of liberal and secular opinion.

Berlusconi had attempted to pass an emergency decree instructing doctors to continue feeding Englaro. The president of the republic, Giorgio Napolitano, rejected this; he asked that the law be respected and that changes to the legal and constitutional process could not be amended in such an arbitrary way and needed full consideration and the consent of both chambers of parliament.

Berlusconi and his allies responded by turning their fire on Napolitano for the president's "serious mistake", as well as on the judges for their temerity in upholding and protecting constitutional procedures. The prime minister attempted to rush through a new law that could be used to keep Eluana Englaro alive, something rendered null by the young woman's death. There followed uproar in the Italian parliament, with right-wing politicians shouting "murderers" at the opposition; Berlusconi fed the pack by accusing the president of responsibility for her death.

Geoff Andrews is staff tutor in politics at the Open University. He is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005), published in Italian as Un Paese Anormale (effepilibri, 2007); and of The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure (Pluto Press/McGill-Queen's, 2008).
Geoff Andrews is also an associate editor of Soundings. His website is here

Among Geoff Andrews's articles on openDemocracy: "The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (November 2005)

"Italy's election: no laughing matter" (1 February 2006)

"Berlusconi's bitter legacy" (29 March 2006)

"In search of a normal country" (6 April 2006)

"Italy: another false dawn" (22 October 2007)

"Italy's governing disorder" (31 January 2008)

"Italy: the ungovernable nation" (11 April 2008)

"Roberto Saviano, an Italian dissident" (22 October 2008)

The pope's battalion

Pope Benedict XVI also entered the fray. Since his election in 2005, the pope has advanced a very traditional Catholic doctrine, condemning many features of modern living; free unions and trial marriages were the result of "anarchic freedoms" and "moral relativism", while homosexuality was "an intrinsic moral evil". His time in office has been marked with a series of controversial acts that have alienated a host of constituencies - the lecture at Regensburg in September 2006; the planned speech at Rome's La Sapienza University in January 2008, which was cancelled after protests over comments made in 1990 about the trial of Galileo in 1633; criticism of Barack Obama for his views on abortion; and most recently the astonishing rehabilitation of four ultra-conservative bishops, including a holocaust-denier (see Maurice Walsh, "The Vatican's debacle", 16 February 2009).

In the Englaro case, the Vatican has revealed its full force as an unrestrained power with little respect for constitutional procedures or individual liberty. The pope's spokesmen whipped up such frenzy in the wake of Englaro's death that her funeral shrine was turned into a site of moral outrage directed towards those who had followed Italian law and her father's wishes. "May the Lord embrace and forgive those who brought her to this point", as Javier Lozano Barragan, the Vatican's equivalent of health minister, put it. 

Berlusconi had not previously shown much interest in defending Catholic morality, and indeed his multiple private interests have not always met with Vatican approval. However many believe his interventions reflect his ambition to assume the presidency at a later date. His hostility to Napolitano is not a surprise: he always opposed the latter's election as head of state. But his rapprochement with the Vatican is a truly unholy alliance (see "Death in Udine", Economist, 12 February 2009). 

A dark return

Indeed, the alliance between the Vatican and Silvio Berlusconi reveals an older, threatening undercurrent in Italian politics. This is characterised by the arrogance of power and an unyielding belief that there are higher values capable of rendering liberal constitutional norms and democratic procedures irrelevant (see Sarah Pozzoli, "Who rules Italy?" 23 June 2005).

In recent times there seems to be a growing convergence between Berlusconi's attacks on legality and constitutionalism and the Vatican's hostility to secular society. Pier Paolo Pasolini's stark description of the way in which the Vatican provided the legitimacy for the Christian Democrats' (DC) long and manipulative hold on power and repression of dissident voices has acquired fresh relevance, even if the DC is no more.

Both Berlusconi and the Vatican have significant interests to defend. For the Vatican it is a declining authority over its subjects - opinion polls show that even many lay Catholics regard the Englaro affair as a private family matter. The Vatican has in the past been prepared to make dubious compromises in order to preserve its interests and power; the 1929 concordat with fascism is an example.

For Berlusconi, it is a further opportunity to berate and subdue his critics. Martin Jacques has compared him to Benito Mussolini - both have displayed a similar contempt for democracy, used parliament to protect their own interests, manipulated laws and attacks on anyone who got in their way (see "New Labour must recognise that Berlusconi is the devil", Guardian, 16 March 2006). In the recent controversy, the links with the Vatican has provided legitimacy for the shift towards authoritarianism and intolerance, further apparent in the increasing restrictions on immigration and the demand that doctors and other public-sector professionals report anyone they suspect is an illegal immigrant.

Against the tide

Italy's creeping fascism has been aided by the opposition's disarray. The new Democratic Party should be well placed to defend the integrity of the constitution, the supremacy of the rule of law and transparent democracy. Yet even the conviction on 17 February 2009 of the British tax lawyer David Mills for giving false evidence in return for a payment from Berlusconi seems to leave the prime minister himself untarnished, and the opposition unable to persuade the electorate of the dangers he poses - even if the fact that Berlusconi changed the law to avoid prosecution while he remains in office makes his opponents' job harder.

The Democratic Party leader, Walter Veltroni, may have made constant favourable references to Barack Obama and aspired to create a modern European social-democratic movement. But the rhetoric cannot disguise the reality of a top-down party led by sectional interests, which is disabled by the contradiction between its Christian-democratic conservatism and its ambitions to escape from the old left. This "phantom opposition" has wasted the hopes it once raised, an outcome that has culminated in Veltroni's announcement of his resignation on the evening of 17 February 2009 after an embarrassing election defeat in Sardinia. 

At least the "old left", in the form of the Italian Communist Party, sustained a strong defence of Italy's anti-fascist tradition embodied in the post-war constitution. It is a mark of Italy's decline that in the current dispute it has been the "post-fascist" speaker of the Italian lower house, Gianfranco Fini, and the leader of the secessionist Northern League, Umberto Bossi, who have intervened to defend the "integrity" of the constitution. 

Those democratic parliamentarians able to offer a coherent and stringent defence of the Italian constitution have been reduced to a declining minority of dissenters. They include Italy's former president, Oscar Luigi Scalfaro; Giorgio Napolitano himself, an aged dignitary who in his later years has assumed the role of a beleaguered representative of the anti-fascist constitution, and Antonio Di Pietro, the reforming judge whose earlier attempts to clean up Italian politics in the early 1990s have been largely forgotten by the Italian public and is generally regarded with disdain by Italy's political class. But these in any case are marginalised voices in what is becoming a decayed and intolerant state.

Roberto Saviano: an Italian dissident

The phenomenon of the Italian mafia has been depicted by many writers and filmmakers. Roberto Saviano's book Gomorrah - a gripping, unsentimental expose of the mafia in the southern city of Napoli, first published in May 2006 - is one of the very best. Its literary success, and the great acclaim which the film based on it has received, is also a measure of the Italian public's serious concern about the corrosion of much of the country's public life in bleak political times.


Also in openDemocracy on new mafia networks:

Isabel Hilton, "Álvaro Uribe's gift: Colombia's mafia goes legit" (25 October 2005)

Ilija Trojanow, "Bulgaria: the mafia's dance to Europe" (16 August 2006)

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski, "New Russia, old Russia" (5 April 2007)

Li Datong, "The root of slave labour in China" (26 June 2007)

Emmanuelle Bernard, "Guinea-Bissau: drug boom, lost hope" (13 September 2008)

Gomorrah is groundbreaking in five respects:

* it is written by someone brought up in the Casal di Principe neighbourhood of the Casalesi, one of the most violent of the clans making up the Camorra - the mafia in this region of Italy

* it is uncompromising in its denunciation of the Camorra's brutality

* it makes clear the global reach of the Camorra, an organisation with business interests now extend across many industries and several continents

* it provides a cutting, critical insight into deep-rooted problems in Naples (Napoli) and the inability of the Italian state to address them

* it is the most significant  of a growing number of examples in modern Italy of an artist leading the way in challenging power and exposing corruption - by an author still under 30, now facing threats to his life and under twenty-four-hour police protection.

Roberto Saviano's book fuses the genres of documentary, autobiography and investigative journalism to provide true insight into the nature of a modern business-criminal network. In this it moves decisively beyond the often shallow and anachronistic (even comforting) "Cosa Nostra" portraits of the mafia that still feature prominently in sections of the media. Saviano's research into the Camorra's dense inner culture reveals the vast and increasing reach of an agency that accumulates annual revenues of £130 billion.

The faces of this modern mafia are graphically revealed: its "post-Fordist" horizontal authority-structure, its presence in the new global markets in China and eastern Europe, the involvement of women as active participants in some of its business interests rather than just passive victims of their husband's crimes. There is imagination as well close-hand knowledge here: Saviano understands that teenagers who join the organisation as the only realistic route of escape from a menial, low-income life see the flamboyant tycoon Flavio Briatore (and not gangsters of the Al Capone type) as the image of success to aspire to.

The hard realities

In recalling his early life in Casal di Principe, Roberto Saviano argues that the activities and interests of the Casalesi are imprinted on the daily lives of the community. As a small child, he had to witness his father receive a severe beating for helping a dying victim of the clans. Saviano captures particularly well the fears and limited career "choices" of his teenage contemporaries, who become inducted to a life of crime only to find that it often proves to be "nasty, brutish and short".

Geoff Andrews is staff tutor in politics at the Open University.

He is the author of Not a Normal Country: Italy After Berlusconi (Pluto, 2005), published in Italian as Un Paese Anormale (effepilibri, 2007); and of The Slow Food Story: Politics and Pleasure (Pluto Press/McGill-Queen's, 2008).

Geoff Andrews is also an associate editor of Soundings. His website is here

Among Geoff Andrews's articles on openDemocracy:

"The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini" (November 2005)

"Italy's election: no laughing matter" (1 February 2006)

"Berlusconi's bitter legacy" (29 March 2006)

"In search of a normal country" (6 April 2006)

"Italy: another false dawn" (22 October 2007)

"Italy's governing disorder" (31 January 2008)

"Italy: the ungovernable nation" (11 April 2008)

On so many levels, the Camorra is impossible to escape. Saviano's careful dissection of the language and culture of the clans - both the "system" (as Camorristi call their organisation) and the "directory" (its organising group of bosses and businessmen) -  makes him a penetrating and, to the Camorra, dangerous anatomist.

The local feuds, responsible for most of the violence on the streets of the Naples hinterlands, are described in raw, terrifying detail and offer a very different impression of mafia methods than dominant, much-recycled stereotypes. The links between the Camorra's global reach and urban power are also conveyed: a network that has massive interests in drugs, arms-dealing, designer clothing, the building industry and toxic waste can also ensure that the long-running refuse-landfill crisis in Naples which came to a head in spring 2008 cannot be solved by the Italian state.  

Matteo Garrone's award-winning film adaptation of Gomorrah was made on location in the housing-complexes and narrow alleys of the Camorra heartlands. Garrone's film also avoids the romanticised Godfather depiction of the Sicilian mafia (see "Sicily's other story", 31 May 2006). Its closeness to reality can be gauged by the revelation that three of the non-professional actors in the film (of whom two played clan bosses and one a hitman) had been arrested on extortion and drugs charges. The murder of six Africans by the Casalesi clan in the very area shown in the film - which caused the army to be deployed there - further emphasises the hard realities of life there.

The dissident voice

In his opposition to the power of organised crime, Roberto Saviano joins other artists, writers and intellectuals who have spoken out where others - even though better placed - have lacked the same courage and conviction. In recent times, however, the film director Nanni Moretti, the blogger Beppe Grillo and the comedian Sabina Guzzanti have all used the power of their art to make political interventions on several topics that much of the media ignores: Silvio Berlusconi's conflicts of interests, the Vatican's hypocrisies, and the criminality at the heart of Italy's political class.

Saviano's deepest affinity, however, may be with the filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who in the 1970s also spoke fearlessly against the dark forces at work in Italy's "system" of power - which many believe cost him his life (see "The life and death of Pier Paolo Pasolini", 1 November 2005). 

Saviano describes an inspirational visit to Pasolini's tomb and draws parallels with Italy's greatest dissident when describing his own predicament:

"The possibility of writing about the mechanisms of power, beyond the stories and details. To reflect on whether it is still possible to name names, one by one, to point out the faces, strip the bodies of their crimes, and reveal them as elements of the architecture of authority. To reflect on whether it is still possible to snuff out, like truffle pigs, the dynamics of the real, the affirmation of power, without metaphors, without mediation, with nothing but the cutting edge of the word." 

Roberto Saviano has said that he will have to leave Italy as he feels that he is no longer safe in his own country and will never be able to lead a normal life. Italians - including its decrepit and defeated politicians - owe him a huge debt, as do all those fighting the mafia.

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