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Berlusconi's theatre of scandal

In any other democratic country, and maybe in some semi-democratic ones, Berlusconi's puerile defence would be considered science fiction. Not in Italy. But it is fair to say that that he is the product of a trend, as was Fascism in the ‘20s, which already existed - and not just in Italy
Michele Monni
4 February 2011

In Italian politics, mere reality always surpasses fantasy. The insightful investigation that prosecutors in Milan are courageously carrying out in fulfilling their constitutional function of judicial review pierces the veil that covered the amusements of the emperor, Silvio Berlusconi, and his court of dwarfs and dancers.

Since the veil has been pierced many “tailors” have been put to work to mask the lies and erase any trace of truth from public discourse and common sense. A fierce competition has started amongst the servants of the emperor to restore and recreate the aura of invulnerability around the king - offended and violated by criminal investigations - in order to please “Il Cavaliere” and hoping to receive a payoff or career advantage. In the last few days Berlusconi’s servants have been occupying any available space in TV programming, parroting what they have been taught to say: what Italians and the world are witnessing is merely another attempt by magistrates and subversive communists to delegitimize a rightful leader guilty only of enjoying his spare time as a private citizen. In any other democratic country, and maybe in some semi-democratic ones, this puerile defence would be considered science fiction. Not in Italy.  

The events involving the Prime Minister have not only unveiled his pornographic side in the infamous rituals of “bunga bunga”, where dozens of naked or half naked prostitutes, wannabe celebrities and some female civil servants would dance lasciviously, touching and caressing the Prime Minister or simulating lesbian sex, dressed up as nurses or policewomen. More importantly, they have also shown, once and for all, his authoritarian and scornful disposition towards civil society, reinforcing the idea that rules, ethics and, above all, the law don’t apply to him.  The scandal has also sharply exposed his unscrupulous attempt to subjugate the judiciary to his will.  But more terrifyingly, it has revealed the real fabric of which Berlusconi is made. In a feuilleton-like plot, the desires and private vices of the last Italian emperor have been thrown over the public piazza, transforming the protagonists of the public discourse into low budget soap opera characters.

There is no doubt, at least among those who possess a spark of intelligence and decency, that Berlusconi is betraying his constitutional obligation as Prime Minister to perform his duties with discipline and honour. He has turned into a 74 year-old Viagra-addicted satrap and,  placing himself above the law, he refuses to accept the authority of magistrates. By rejecting any form of accountability he is continually undermining the justice system and the foundations of a democratic state.

Unable to tell the truth about his alleged relationship with a flock of call girls, the Prime Minister is forced to lie perpetually: he speaks of judicial persecution, he invents a violation of his privacy, and he accuses the police of having mistreated his “female friends”. His self-defence brooks no evidence. "I don't have to feel ashamed," stated Berlusconi in a recent video-conference. “I work hard, almost fifteen hours a day, and I enjoy the company of young and beautiful girls at dinner. Everything you have heard about the investigations carried out by the magistrates in Milan is pure rubbish and it is the product of the sick bond between the judiciary and the Left in an attempt to overturn the elections results.” 

In what country is a Prime Minister allowed to throw such ghastly accusations at the judicial system while being under investigation for abetting prostitution and for having pressurized the Police chief Constable of Milan to release a minor (Ruby Rubacuori – Stealhearts) accused of theft from state custody? Are we witnessing a reversal of reality? The accused becomes prosecutor and the magistrates are attacked and mocked without any restraint by the second highest authority of the State. Is this the idea of a functioning democracy that Italians have in mind? I do not think so.

Berlusconi may not feel ashamed about what he has been doing. What it is certain is that the Italian people, surely the majority of them, feel ashamed for him and are deeply disgusted by his behaviour. The opposition though, instead of leading a moral crusade as in the “1924-25 Aventine Secession”, seems to be absent. Weakened by internal struggles, it is incapable of finding the strength and unity to speak up for its voters. The Church, always ready to interfere in matters concerning morality and ethics, has feebly waved the Bible, calling for moderation and morality in politics.

In a way Silvio Berlusconi is the new Benito Mussolini. Or what Mussolini would have been if he had lived today. “The postmodern fascism” (as Paolo Flores D’Arcais defined it on the pages of MicroMega) of Berlusconi is very different in form from that of Duce’s, but very similar in terms of content. Instead of police state control and pantagruelic public gatherings, in order to establish the “legalization of the privilege and the domain of the image” and to reinforce the public consensus (one of the prominent aspects of the fascist propaganda model), Berlusconi exploits his huge media empire turning television, the sanitized contemporary piazza, into a perpetual reality show, in which the border between reality and fiction is blurred and where only one civil, cultural and political model is allowed and fostered. 

Moreover, if we take into consideration that 70 to 80 % of the Italian public gets its news from television and that Mr Berlusconi controls directly (Mediaset) or indirectly (RAI, the public broadcaster) 90% of the information content, you may wonder why a civil war has not yet broken out in Italy. 

However, Berlusconism is not just a fetishist mass cult, an ideological current in Italian life and a certain (and sadly, effective) way of using the media. It is all of us, not just Italians. It exploits the deep hidden illiberal and authoritarian part of our personality (of course to varying extents). If massively disseminated and underpinned it is able to lure a consistent part of society, especially in such an already suspicious, disenchanted and dissatisfied society as the Italian one. It is fair to say that Berlusconi and Berlusconism are not just the cause of the current situation, but the consequence. He is the product of a cultural, social and political arena, as was Fascism in the ’20s, which existed ex-ante. In a way Italy is a sort of laboratory for understanding political trends in Europe and what sort of new leadership could emerge from modern politics.

Berlusconi has undoubtedly understood the underbelly of the Italian character better than any other politician, and has been able to shape it in his own image through his media empire.

Thanks to television, Berlusconi has created, using the words of the great Italian writer Andrea Camilleri, “a regression of the Homo sapiens (Homo Berlusconensis) in his perfect image and likeness: a human being who rejects culture and intelligence, a man who hails the virtues of the boss and envies his lifestyle”.

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