Berlusconi’s politics of an eternal present

Berlusconi dictates an idea of the eternal present based upon a model of eternal youth and embodied in the narcissistic cult of the self. But there is a democratic affirmation of the individual that can replace this with a narrative that builds our collective future

In Italy, an interesting debate regarding the political, social and cultural decay of our country started quite some time ago: a debate that, while it is fascinating, can worry its audience too. It is fascinating because it enables us to face important questions, including thinking about the deepest meaning of the word ‘democracy’. This line of thought can lead in creative and innovative directions. At one and the same moment it restores the word to its original meaning and in the process, begins to rediscover the thread that keeps the different sections of the social, cultural and political life of this country hanging together.

Alternatively, it can lead to restlessness and perplexity, because in all its drama, this debate is also starting to reveal the depth of the crisis that is crossing like a shadow all of the western countries, Italy among them. The pessimism of this second interpretation is associated with the hypothesis - whether one subscribes to it or not - that it is no longer possible to build a different world. That is where the Thatcherite slogan came in: TINA -There Is No Alternative.

I’ll start from an obvious statement: Berlusconi is a fungus. This designation aptly describes the way that Berlusconi takes root in a specific social and cultural milieu, made up of superficiality, mediocrity, slyness, and the contempt of others, that he simultaneously draws upon and feeds. He is the interpreter of a late modern feeling; the feeling of individuality affirming itself over collective systems, an individuality which, above all, is dedicated to a boundless egoism. Francois Dubet describes this kind of wild individualism as a ‘place’ where the affirmation of the self has won out over the affirmation of subjectivity. It is a wild individualism where, according to Zygmunt Bauman, conformism triumphs over a progress that is unable to produce anything, since it is based on nothing.

Berlusconi dug deeply into our country’s soul, exposing its worst dimensions. He freed these dimensions and surfed on the success of this strategy. He created a kind of upside-down-revolution: the pettiness of the television schedule - used as a form of mass-diversion - winning out over the idea of a social ransom, respect for other people, and a more just society. In the meantime, the welfare state has been dismantled, the affirmation of individual human rights shut down, the expression of dissent erased from view - or brutally repressed - political debate debased, the earth poisoned and exploited as the commons is privatized.

Berlusconian Italy is a country boxed into an eternal present, a blocked here and now that has crystallized Berlusconi’s image and the political and cultural model that goes with it, turning it into the only possible option. Berlusconi is the prophet-owner that can do everything and can solve any problem. He protects us by caring for our problems just as he would tend to his own. The solutions that he proposes/imposes satisfy the social expectations of the common people, the political expectations of a conservative post-middle class, and the economic expectations of the big finance groups. Berlusconi dictates an idea of the eternal present that is embodied in the narcissistic cult of the self, built upon the denial of ageing: a model of eternal youth. Christopher Lasch, in his well-known book of 1979 - where he foresaw the analysis of the phenomenon we’re living through nowadays - defines the narcissist as someone who finds shelter in the cult of the self, who is manipulating other people’s emotions as tools for their own gratification and who, at the same time, is constantly in need of people’s approval and worship.

Italy is not the only country suffering from the social and financial crisis that is afflicting the globalized world. As Nouriel Roubini recently stated during the Economy Festival held in Trento, Italy, the crisis is profound, especially in Europe, where the situation will need a long time to recover and the social costs will be extremely high. Together with this worrying global situation, Italy is also suffering a terrible crisis in its democracy unparalleled in any of the big western democracies. This democratic crisis is deepening by the day. Every time that we try to condemn the facts, the behaviour and the political choices as the lowest  of low points in Italian democracy, we ultimately have to alter our assessment because something worse has happened, some even more authoritarian choice has prevailed.

On the other side of the fence 

The Italian left (which inherited the tradition of the big mass parties), has become an orphan of the social projects and of the mobilizations that made up its basis of support. The Italian left is incapable of finding a new language in which to give voice to the new social projects pressing to emerge. It is not brave enough to act as their spokesman. The Italian left is stuck, to use the psychoanalytic metaphor proposed by Michel Wieviorka, between melancholy towards a past that it wants to get rid of, and a sense of oblivion towards the future. On the one hand it risks total loss of identity: on the other hand, it is suffering a bereavement. It feels compelled to elaborate the past, constantly gathering up its most noble achievements in order to retrieve its own sense of initiative (the valorization of local specificities, the self regulation of territories), clawing them back from the neo-populist parties in order to rekindle the hope for a credible alternative to this cultural, political and developmental model. The only result is the immobilism of the Italian left, which becomes just another tool for the continuous reaffirmation of the Berlusconian eternal present.

What the political Italian left lacks, if it is to give expression to the common yearning for renovation of the political and cultural dimension of our country, is the capacity to free itself from the liberal neutrality that has governed its political activities for so long. The concept of the public realm held by the Italian left over the last twenty years was inspired by the idea of liberal neutrality that has driven the politics of the American Democratic party since the days of the Kennedy presidency. This was seen as the best approach to reconcile dissent between the different interests that criss-crossed US society on ethical issues concerning justice and human rights.

As Michel Sandel points out, when Barack Obama broke with this tradition, he enriched his political dialectic with an ethical and spiritual dimension that allowed him to create consensus, and that created the political credibility necessary for his election. Obama thinks about what his electors - American citizens - are lacking; in their jobs, in their political engagements, in everyday life and in its wider aspirations, day after day. What is lacking, he noticed, is the feeling that you are part of a bigger picture, a sense that pursuit of your own personal goals is also the pursuit of something which is collective. To be concise, what is lacking, is the inscription of one’s own life in a narrative path which has some meaning.

The last twenty years of left politics have been characterized by continuous vacillations between various ethical, cultural and social themes. These dimensions were wedded both to the liberal neutrality I mentioned before, and to the actual incapacity of the left’s leadership to manage a big, leftwing party in the fragile epoch of post-ideologism. Left parties simply didn’t understand that it was necessary to offer the people a wider public rationality, made up of clear-cut positions under some crucial headings such as ethics and the affirmation of human rights. Left parties didn’t understand that it was necessary to be able to track the political narrative of the life paths of every individual person, pathways needing to connect in some way to a collectivity that shares values and a common vision of the world. 

Had they been fearless in the face of change, they could have oriented that process whilst skirting around various forms of contamination.
So what do we conclude? - That a different starting point is needed. The affirmation of individualism has no need to be confined to an exasperating cult of the self. There is available a progressive idea of individual freedom not connected to the interest of capitalist power. Movements - the expression of an emergent politics - have from Seattle onwards proved capable of drawing a contrast between themselves and dominant cultural orientations. They have been successful in resisting the dictatorship of ignorance thanks to the creation and diffusion of other ways of knowing. And they have been able to cultivate specific knowledges, together with the subversive practices that allowed their diffusion and wide dissemination. These have been made up of individual acts of  resistance to dominance that have become collective, in the very discovery that there can be no individual affirmation of rights that is not the acknowledgement of everyone’s right to have rights, as Alain Touraine puts it.

A responsible concept of individualism must acknowledge that the true foundation of democracy lies in the affirmation and widening of cultural, social and political rights. Everyday practice and everyday individual experience is inherently subversive, since these will modify, re-use and subvert the communicative codes that power deploys in order to impose itself - as De Certau maintains. But in themselves these are not enough to change society.

These actions become efficient when they’re no longer isolated, but gathered together into a common and shared path.  Technological evolution can supply the hardware that makes this possible. The internet enables what Manuel Castells defines as mass self-communication: a communication that can potentially reach a global public, but that is self-determined at the same time, that has self-created contents, contents that are defined starting from the self, from one’s own vision of the world and one’s own subjectivity. Third millennium movements, after removing the ideological obstacles that constrained them for decades, need to be capable of shifting their practices onto a concrete, collective and shared path. They need to stimulate awareness in everyone of the chance we all have to influence the future.

About the author

Emanuele Toscano is a researcher at “Sapienza” University in Rome and associate fellow at Centre for Research in Ethnic Relations (CRER) at the University of Warwick, UK. He teaches Sociology at University l’Aquila and is editor of New Cultural Frontiers