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.    
Geoff Andrews
8 June 2010

It has been clear for a long time that Silvio Berlusconi is a leader very far from the classic professional politician of the western liberal-democratic mould. Rather, Italy’s premier is a postmodern populist who employs a highly personalised style of leadership in which television plays a central part. His rule during three periods in office (1994-95, 2001-06, 2008-) has been a celebration of image and power fuelled by a constant appeal to the gut instincts of the people. His wealth is at once the source of his route to power, a measure of his invincibility, and a constant reminder to Italians of his entrepreneurial success and ability to get things done.

In all this, Berlusconi draws a winning symbolic contrast with the older type of political leader - locked in the world of newspaper columns and council-chamber meetings. driven to explain policy by reference to ideology, constrained (however grudgingly) by claims of accountability and transparency. No wonder Italy’s official opposition is afraid of him. 

Indeed, Berlusconi’s current period in office (since his victory in the elections of April 2008) has seen fear acquire increasing political importance. The prime minister regularly uses his media influence to remove dissidents from the main public-broadcasting channels; assails his opponents as communists or conspirators; harasses his critics with legal writs; denounces judges (whom he sees as his main adversaries); and even speaks out against the president of the republic. 

This aggressive stance has paralysed Italy’s official opposition. Its main representative, the Partito Democratico (Democratic Party) - itself relatively new, but led by ex-communists and ex-Christian Democrats shaped by the political failures of an earlier era - has been unable either to confront the source of Silvio Berlusconi’s political power during its brief period in government or to begin to construct a plausible vision of a post-Berlusconi world. Italy’s opposition has yet answer the big questions surrounding Italy’s future in any credible way.  

The overall result is that a kind of fatalism now pervades Italian public life. Almost every week brings fresh allegations about Berlusconi’s behaviour (of mafia associations or corruption scandals, for example), which are widely reported in a foreign media fixated on the idea of “Berlusconi in crisis”; yet these continue to have little effect on those that matter - the Italian people. In another notable departure from the norms of everyday European politics, many Italians even perceive the prime minister’s human frailties (as others see them) as virtues of his leadership. An almost incredible aspect of this bizarre political situation is that amid a morass of condemnation and vitriol, Berlusconi - one of the wealthiest and most powerful figures in modern Europe - has been able successfully to present himself as a victim. 

The artists’ answer

This questions that arise from this situation are obvious: how can it be understood, and - if the leader is so commanding and the opposition so stultified - where will real challenge come from?

Italy’s artists offer answers to both. The filmmaker Erik Gandini has created an extraordinary social document called Videocracy which in effect argues that Silvio Berlusconi has (mainly through the vehicle of television) initiated a cultural revolution that has moulded Italians in his own image. In this perspective Berlusconismo’s drenching celebrity culture has a sinister twist - consolidating the leader’s almost unassailable personal power by creating a public culture in his own image. As a result what the Italian think-tank Vision refers to as the “B-factor” continues to dominate Italy and set the terms of political debate.

Italy’s public broadcaster RAI banned trailers for Gandini’s film being shown, part of a now familiar pattern of threats and censorship in response to artists’ interventions. The same scorn was poured on Sabina Guzzanti’s new film Draquila: L’Italia Che Trema (Draquila: Italy Trembles), which the Italian culture minister Sandro Bondi dismissed as a “propaganda film..that insults the truth and the Italian people”. The film, whose title combines Dracula and L’Aquila (the Abruzzo town devastated by an earthquake in April 2009 which killed almost 300 people and made 60,000 homeless), is a courageous attempt to address the plight of these citizens who feel abandoned by their government. Guzzanti, one of Italy’s leading satirists, has through this work engaged directly with citizens and local movements, such as the “Yes We Camp” group I met when I visited L’Aquila (see “Italy and the G8: voices from L’Aquila”, 10 July 2009). Draquila won a standing ovation at the 2010 Cannes film festival. 

An earlier example of an artistic effort to make sense of Italy’s predicament under Berlusconi is Nanni Moretti’s Il Caimano, released just before the 2006 election. Moretti had already played a major role in civil-society movements such as the girotondi, which campaigned against Berlusconi’s conflicts of interests in the absence of any leadership from the official opposition. “With these leaders we will never win”, he famously told a crowd in Piazza Navona in Rome in 2002, with the centre-left functionaries behind him – largely the same crowd which leads the Democratic Party today.

More recently, the comic blogger Beppe Grillo - a constant critic of the corrupt nature of Italy’s political class - has moved from marginal dissident to serious political opponent; in the regional elections of March 2010 his Movimento a 5 Stelle (Five-Star Movement) captured half a million votes. His challenge extends beyond Berlusconi to the timid and compromised politicians of the official opposition, among which only Antonio Di Pietro’s Italia dei Valori (Italy of Values) Party offers an exception. Beppe Grillo’s imaginative use of new media has helped him to establish an extraordinary political network.

On their own, these “cultural critics” cannot end Berlusconismo and change Italy. But in two ways they can provide a new opposition and revitalise Italy’s public life. First, they use a language which enables them to reach beyond the restrictions of the orthodox politicians and can help galvanise rather than alienate other dissentingl voices in civil society. Second, they interrogate in a courageous and creative way the darker sides of the Berlusconi phenomenon.

Above all, they understand the nature of Silvio Berlusconi’s power as well as its limits. They do not retreat from difficult questions. They have gone where the official opposition has feared to tread. They provide hope, if not yet a vision, of a different Italy.  


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