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The Italian Disaster
Perry Anderson
Europe is ill. How seriously, and why, are matters not always easy to judge. But among the
symptoms three are conspicuous, and inter-related. The first, and most familiar, is the
degenerative drift of democracy across the continent, of which the structure of the EU is at
once cause and consequence. The oligarchic cast of its constitutional arrangements, once
conceived as provisional scaffolding for a popular sovereignty of supranational scale to come,
has over time steadily hardened. Referendums are regularly overturned, if they cross the will
of rulers. Voters whose views are scorned by elites shun the assembly that nominally
represents them, turnout falling with each successive election. Bureaucrats who have never
been elected police the budgets of national parliaments dispossessed even of spending powers.
But the Union is not an excrescence on member states that might otherwise be healthy
enough. It reflects, as much as it deepens, long-term trends within them. At national level,
virtually everywhere, executives domesticate or manipulate legislatures with greater ease;
parties lose members; voters lose belief that they count, as political choices narrow and
promises of difference on the hustings dwindle or vanish in office.
With this generalised involution has come a pervasive corruption of the political class, a topic
on which political science, talkative enough on what in the language of accountants is
termed the democratic deficit of the Union, typically falls silent. The forms of this corruption
have yet to find a systematic taxonomy. There is pre-electoral corruption: the funding of
persons or parties from illegal sources – or legal ones – against the promise, explicit or tacit,
of future favours. There is post-electoral corruption: the use of office to obtain money by
malversation of revenues, or kickbacks on contracts. There is purchase of voices or votes in
legislatures. There is straightforward theft from the public purse. There is faking of
credentials for political gain. There is enrichment from public office after the event, as well as
during or before it. The panorama of this malavita is impressive. A fresco of it could start
with Helmut Kohl, ruler of Germany for sixteen years, who amassed some two million
Deutschmarks in slush funds from illegal donors whose names, once he was exposed, he
refused to reveal for fear of the favours they had received coming to light. Across the Rhine,
Jacques Chirac, president of the French Republic for twelve years, was convicted of
embezzling public funds, abuse of office and conflicts of interest, once his immunity came to
an end. Neither suffered any penalty. These were the two most powerful politicians of their
time in Europe. A glance at the scene since then is enough to dispel any illusion that they
were unusual.
In Germany, Gerhard Schröder’s government guaranteed a billion-euro loan to Gazprom for
the building of a Baltic pipeline within a few weeks of his stepping down as chancellor and
arriving on the Gazprom payroll at a salary larger than he received for governing the
country. Since his departure, Angela Merkel has seen two presidents of the Republic in
succession forced to resign under a cloud: Horst Köhler, a former chief of the IMF, for
explaining that the Bundeswehr contingent in Afghanistan was protecting German
commercial interests; and Christian Wulff, the former Christian Democrat chief in Lower
Saxony, over a questionable loan for his house from a friendly businessman. Two leading
ministers, one of defence, the other of education, had to go when they were stripped of their
doctorates – an important credential for a political career in the Federal Republic – for
intellectual theft. When the latter, Annette Schavan, an intimate of Merkel (who expressed
full confidence in her), was still clinging to office, the Bild-Zeitung remarked that to have a
minister for education who faked her research was like having a minister of finance with a
secret bank account in Switzerland.
No sooner said, than seen. In France, the Socialist minister for the budget, plastic surgeon
Jérôme Cahuzac, whose brief was to uphold fiscal probity and equity, was discovered to have
somewhere between €600,000 and €15 million in hidden deposits in Switzerland and
Singapore. Nicolas Sarkozy, meanwhile, stands accused by convergent witnesses of receiving
some $20 million from Gaddafi for the electoral campaign that took him to the presidency.
Christine Lagarde, his finance minister, who now heads the IMF, is under interrogation for
her role in the award of €420 million in ‘compensation’ to Bernard Tapie, a well-known
crook with a prison record, latterly a friend of Sarkozy. Nonchalant adjacency to crime is
bipartisan. François Hollande, current president of the Republic, sat pillion to trysts with his
mistress in the flat of a moll of a Corsican gangster killed in a shoot-out on the island last
year.
In Britain, at about the same time, former premier Blair was advising Rebekah Brooks,
facing jail on five counts of criminal conspiracy (‘Keep strong and definitely sleeping pills. It
will pass. Tough up’), and urging her to ‘publish a Hutton-style report’, as he had done to
sanitise any part his administration may have had in the death of a whistleblower on his war
in Iraq: an invasion from which he went on to net – of course, for his Faith Foundation –
assorted tips and deals around the world, prominent among them cash from a South Korean
oil company run by a convicted felon with interests in Iraq and the feudal dynasty of Kuwait.
What recompense he may have earned further east for profuse counsel to the Nazarbaev
dictatorship remains to be seen (‘Kazakhstan’s achievements are wonderful. However, Mr
President, you outlined new heights in your message to the nation.’ Ad litteram). At home, in
an exchange of favours about which he lied without compunction to Parliament, his palm
was greased with £1 million into party coffers from racing car magnate Bernie Ecclestone,
currently under indictment in Bavaria for bribes to the tune of €33 million. In the culture of
New Labour, leading figures in Blair’s circle, cabinet ministers one day – Byers, Hoon, Hewitt
– could offer themselves for sale the next. In the same years, indiscriminately of party, the
House of Commons was exposed as a cesspit of petty defalcations of taxpayers’ money.
In Ireland, meanwhile, the Fianna Fáil leader Bertie Ahern, having channelled more than
€400,000 in unexplained payments before becoming taioseach, voted himself the highest
salary of any premier in Europe – €310,000, more even than the US president – a year
before having to quit in obloquy for all-round dishonesty. In Spain, the current prime
minister, Mariano Rajoy, heading a government of the right, has been caught red-handed in
receipt of kickbacks on construction and other deals totalling a quarter of a million euros over
a decade, passed to him by Luis Bárcenas. His party’s treasurer for twenty years, Bárcenas is
now under arrest for accumulating a hoard of €48 million in undeclared Swiss accounts. The
handwritten ledgers detailing his transfers to Rajoy and other People’s Party notables –
including Rodrigo Rato, another former head of the IMF – have featured in abundant
facsimile in the Spanish press. Once the scandal broke, Rajoy texted Bárcenas in words
virtually identical to those of Blair to Brooks: ‘Luis, I understand. Stay strong. I’ll call you
tomorrow. A hug.’ Brazening out a scandal in which 85 per cent of the Spanish public
believes he is lying, he sits tight in the Moncloa Palace.
Over in Greece, Akis Tsochatzopoulos, successively minister of the interior, of defence and of
development for Pasok, who once came within a whisker of leading Greek social democracy,
was less lucky: condemned last autumn to twenty years in prison for a formidable career of
shakedowns and money-laundering. Across the water, Tayyip Erdoğan, long hailed by the
European media and intellectual establishment as Turkey’s greatest democratic statesman,
whose conduct virtually entitled the country to honorary membership of the EU ante diem,
has shown that he is worthy of inclusion in the ranks of Union leadership in another way: in
one taped conversation, instructing his son where to hide tens of millions in cash, in another
lifting the price of a hefty bribe on a construction contract. Three cabinet ministers fell after
similar disclosures, before Erdoğan purged the police force and judiciary to make sure
matters went no further. As he did so, the European Commission released its first official
report on corruption in the Union, whose extent the commissioner who authored it described
as ‘breath-taking’: at a low estimate, costing the EU as much as the entire Union budget,
some €120 billion a year – the real figure being ‘probably much higher’. Prudently, the report
covered only member states. The EU itself, its entire Commission within recent memory
forced to resign under a cloud, was excluded.
Commonplace in a Union that presents itself as a moral tutor to the world, the pollution of
power by money and fraud follows from the leaching of substance or involvement in
democracy. Elites freed from either real division above, or significant accountability below,
can afford to enrich themselves without distraction or retribution. Exposure ceases to matter
very much, as impunity becomes the rule. Like bankers, leading politicians do not go to
prison. Of the fauna above, only an elderly Greek has ever suffered that indignity. But
corruption is not just a function of the decline of the political order. It is also, of course, a
symptom of the economic regime that has taken hold of Europe since the 1980s. In a
neoliberal universe, where markets are the gauge of value, money becomes, more
straightforwardly than ever before, the measure of all things. If hospitals, schools and prisons
can be privatised as enterprises for profit, why not political office too?
Beyond the cultural fallout of neoliberalism, however, lies its impact as a socio-economic
system – the third and, in popular experience, much the most acute of the agues afflicting
Europe. That the economic crisis unleashed across the West in 2008 was the outcome of
decades of financial deregulation and credit expansion, even its architects now more or less
admit – see Alan Greenspan. Intertwined across the Atlantic, European banks and real estate
operations were as deeply involved in the debacle as their American counterparts. In the EU,
however, this general crisis was overdetermined by another peculiar to the Union, the
distortions created by a single currency imposed on widely differing national economies,
driving the most vulnerable of these to the edge of bankruptcy once the overall crisis struck.
The remedy for them? At the insistence of Berlin and Brussels, not just a classic stabilisation
regime of the interwar Churchill-Brüning type, cutting back public expenditure, but a fiscal
compact setting a uniform limit of 3 per cent to any deficit as a constitutional provision,
effectively enshrining a wall-eyed economic fixation as a basic principle of the Rechtsstaat,
on a par with freedom of expression, equality before the law, habeas corpus, division of
powers and the rest. Were it not for their share in renditions for torture yesterday, it would be
difficult to find a more pointed example of the regard in which these principles are held by the
oligarchies of the EU today.
Economically, the gains yielded by integration were from the start oversold. In the spring of
2008, the most careful estimate, by Andrea Boltho and Barry Eichengreen, two distinguished
economists of impeccably pro-European outlook, concluded that the Common Market may
have increased growth by 3 to 4 per cent of the GDP of the EEC across the whole period from
the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, and the Single European Act by another 1 per cent, while
the positive impact of monetary union had to date been negligible – making for a grand total
of perhaps a 5 per cent increment in GDP over half a century.[1] That was before the onset of
the crisis. What is the balance sheet since? By the end of 2013, five years into the crisis, the
GDP of the Eurozone had not yet recovered to the level of 2007. Nearly a quarter of its youth
are unemployed. In Spain and Greece, the figures are a catastrophic 57 and 58 per cent
respectively. Even in Germany, piling up trade surpluses year after year and widely touted as
the success story of the period, investment has been among the least in the G7 economies,
and the proportion of low-wage workers (those earning less than two-thirds of median
income) the highest of any state in Western Europe. Such are the latest readings of monetary
union. The quacks of austerity have bled the patient, not restored it to health.
*
In this setting, one country is widely viewed as the most acute of all cases of European
dysfunction. Since the introduction of the single currency, Italy has posted the worst
economic record of any state in the Union: twenty years of virtually unbroken stagnation, at
a growth rate well below that of Greece or Spain. Its public debt is over 130 per cent of GDP.
Yet this is not a country of small or medium size in the recently acquired periphery of the
Union. It is a founder member of the Six, with a population comparable to that of Britain,
and an economy half as large again as that of Spain. After Germany, its manufacturing base
is the second biggest in Europe, where it is runner-up too in the export of capital goods. Its
treasury issues form the third largest sovereign bond market in the world. Nearly half of its
public debt is held abroad: the comparable figure for Japan is under 10 per cent. In its
combination of weight and fragility, Italy is the real weak link in the EU, at which it could
theoretically break.
So far it is also, not coincidentally, the one country where disillusionment with the voiding of
democratic forms has produced, not just numbed indifference, but an active revolt that has
shaken its establishment to the core, transforming the political landscape. Protest movements
of one kind or another have emerged in other states of the Union, but hitherto none
approaches the novelty or the success of the Five Star wave in Italy as a rebellion at the polls.
So too, in turn, Italy offers the most familiar spectacle of all the continent’s theatres of
corruption, and its most celebrated embodiment in the billionaire who has ruled the country
for nearly half the life of the Second Republic, about whom more words have been spilt than
about all his competitors put together. Reflections on the pass Italy has reached inevitably
start with Silvio Berlusconi. That he stands out among his peers in the interlocking of power
and money is beyond question. But the way in which he has done so can be obscured by the
clamour of the foreign press in pursuit of him, thunderous denunciations from the Economist
and Financial Times in the lead.
Two things have made Berlusconi unusual. The first is that he reversed the typical path from
office to profit by amassing a fortune before achieving office, which he then used not so
much to increase his wealth as to protect it, and himself, from multiple criminal charges for
the ways he acquired it. The second is that the principal, though far from only, source of his
wealth is a television and publicity empire that furnished him with an apparatus of power
independent of office, and which once he entered the electoral arena could be converted into
a propaganda machine and an instrument of government. Political connections – ties to the
Socialist Party in Milan, and its chieftain Craxi – were crucial to his economic ascent, and in
particular to his construction of a national network for his television channels. But while he
developed considerable skills, essentially of communication and manoeuvre, as a politician, in
outlook he remained first and last a businessman, for whom power meant safety and
glamour, rather than action or project. Although he expressed his admiration for Thatcher
and billed himself a champion of the market and economic freedom, the immobilism of his
centre-right coalitions never differed greatly from that of the centre-left coalitions of the
same period.
That this is the real grievance against him of neoliberal opinion in the Anglosphere can be
seen from its treatment of the two symmetrical emblems of corruption at the head of states
to the west and east of Italy. For years, Erdoğan – a close friend of Berlusconi – has been the
recipient of fulsome interviews, profiles and reports in the Financial Times and elsewhere,
presenting him as the enlightened architect of a new Turkish democracy and a vital bridge
between Europe and Asia, to be welcomed with all due speed into the Union. Unlike
Berlusconi, however, whose rule was anodyne in matters of civil liberties, Erdoğan was and is
a menace to these. Yet as a Turkish boom spiked with privatisations took off, the jailing of
journalists, killing of protesters, rigging of trials, brutal intimidation of opposition – not to
speak of wholesale peculation – of his regime counted for little. Even when the extent of its
thuggery and corruption could no longer be ignored, details of the scandals engulfing it have
generally been kept to a minimum, and blame quickly shifted to the EU for having failed to
extend a redemptive embrace with sufficient dispatch. After the Erdoğan tapes broke, the
Frankfurter Allgemeine remarked that, in any normally functioning democracy, there was
enough evidence ten times over to force the entire cabinet to go. Not a comparable whisper in
the FT. Much the same remark could be made of Rajoy and his confederates in Spain, where
the smoking gun is actually more obvious than in Berlusconi’s labyrinth of malfeasance. But
Rajoy, unlike Berlusconi, is a reliable intendant of the neoliberal regime: no call for special
supplements in the Economist to retail his misdoings, about which it takes care to say as little
as possible, along with Brussels and Berlin. ‘EU leaders and officials have been unusually
tight-mouthed over the scandal, given the importance of Spain to the Eurozone,’ comments
Gavin Hewitt, the BBC’s Europe editor. ‘German chancellor Angela Merkel and others have
placed a lot of faith in Mr Rajoy, who is regarded as a safe pair of hands for painful reforms
aimed at reviving Spain’s economy.’ Berlusconi would pay for lack of such confidence.
In the hour of Berlusconi’s triumph in the spring of 2008, when he won his third and most
decisive electoral victory, poor opinions of him abroad mattered little to him. The centre-right
front he had organised and reorganised since 1994 – now composed of the People of
Freedom, a merger of his previous party with that of his long-standing ally, the former fascist
Gianfranco Fini, plus the Northern League of Umberto Bossi, which maintained its separate
base and identity – held a commanding majority in both houses of Parliament. In its first
months of office, one step along Thatcher/Blair lines was taken, the initial instalment of a set
of changes, starting with primary schools and ending with universities, that cut expenditure
on the education system by some €8 billion in the interests of economy and competition:
reducing teacher numbers, imposing short-term contracts, bringing business onto boards,
quantifying research assessments. But this was the extent of the reforming zeal of the
government. Uppermost on its political agenda was ad personam legislation to shield
Berlusconi from the criminal charges still pending against him – many had been voided by
spinning them out to statutes of limitation, others by decriminalisation. In 2003, his
government had passed a law granting immunity from prosecution to the top five offices of
state, struck down by the Constitutional Court six months later. In the summer of 2008, he
returned to the attack with a law presented by his right-hand man at the Ministry of Justice,
the Sicilian lawyer Angelino Alfano, suspending trials for the top four offices of state.
A few months later, the financial tempest across the Atlantic hit Europe, first in Ireland, then
in Greece. In Italy, the Second Republic had from the beginning been an economic dud,
despite the best efforts of centre-left premiers to gin it (Giuliano Amato had cut and
privatised, Romano Prodi helped the country into the straitjacket of the Stability Pact).
Italian growth rates sank through the 1990s. After 2000, they stagnated at an average of
0.25 per cent of GDP a year. Within a year of Berlusconi’s re-election in 2008, spreads were
already starting to widen between German and Italian bond yields. By 2009 the recession
was deeper than in any other country in the Eurozone, GDP dropping more than five
percentage points. To keep financial markets at bay, successive emergency packages slashed
Italy’s budgetary deficit, but with interest rates rising on the third highest public debt in the
world, by late 2010 the government was nearing the end of its economic tether.
Politically, it had fared little better. From March to October 2009, headlines were dominated
by sensational revelations of Berlusconi’s sexual extravagances, giving garish colour to
Giovanni Sartori’s prophetic description of his rule – borrowing a term from Weber – as a
sultanate.[2] Always given to boasting of his prowess in the bedroom, with hubris now
inciting him to defy age too, he cast away elementary prudence, dotting party lists with
soubrettes and dallying with minors, to the point of provoking a public break with his wife,
Veronica Lario. Soon he was receiving prostitutes in his Roman residence. Disappointed at
not getting a building permit promised her in Bari, one of them recounted her visits. In his
palatial villa in Arcore outside Milan, orgies were staged in the style of updated 18th-century
fantasies, women dressed as nuns – also now nurses and policewomen – cavorting and
disrobing for collective possession. When one of the participants, a Moroccan youngster, was
subsequently arrested for theft in Milan, Berlusconi rang to secure her release as a niece of
Mubarak. Since she was under eighteen, judicial proceedings against Berlusconi followed.
Though not as damaging as the debacle which soon engulfed Dominique Strauss-Kahn,
president of the IMF and front-runner for the French presidency, Berlusconi was weakened
by the degradation of his image. But for the time being he survived.
A more serious threat to his position came from another direction. Out of over-confidence,
born of electoral success, he lost a sense of political limits, gratuitously humiliating Fini, who
had thought to be his successor and was now Speaker in Parliament. By the summer of 2010,
realising he could no longer expect to be the natural heir of the centre-right, and warming to
opposition flattery that he might even prove the best leader of a responsible centre-left, Fini
had defected. Taking with him enough deputies to deprive the government of a stable
majority, he narrowly failed to bring it down in the autumn. By the spring of 2011, voters too
were deserting the government, Berlusconi losing control even of such a stronghold as Milan.
Over that summer, as the crisis of the Eurozone intensified, with Greece approaching default,
the pressure on Italy from the bond markets increased. Germany, flanked by France and the
European Central Bank, now made little secret of its determination to break any resistance to
draconian austerity measures, and eliminate leaders who hesitated to implement them, in
Athens or Rome. In August, Trichet and Draghi – outgoing and incoming presidents of the
ECB – dispatched a virtual ultimatum to Berlusconi. Two months later, Papandreou was
forced at an EU summit to accept further savage cuts in public spending and to pledge
sweeping privatisation. Panicking at the tide of popular anger over these – the president of
Greece was driven from the viewing-stand in Thessalonika on National Day – he announced
a referendum on them, and was summoned to Cannes forthwith by Merkel and Sarkozy and
told to cancel any such thing. A week later, he was gone. Within three days, Berlusconi had
followed him.
The dynamics of Berlusconi’s fall were, however, not the same. In Greece, Papandreou was
presiding over widespread immiseration at the behest of Berlin, Paris and Frankfurt, which
had aroused massive social protest. Up until his sudden idea of a referendum, he had been a
perfectly acceptable instrument of the will of the Union – a disposition that the speed with
which he submitted to Merkel and Sarkozy and withdrew his proposal promptly confirmed.
He quit because his position had become untenable internally. In Italy, there was neither
ongoing pauperisation nor popular mobilisation. Berlusconi’s majority in the Chamber was
by now razor thin, and some of his deputies were getting cold feet at the rise in spreads. But
he remained in full control of the Senate, and had yet to be knocked out in the courts. His
internal position was substantially stronger than Papandreou’s. In the EU at large, however,
the hostility to him was much greater, as a long-standing embarrassment to its political class;
and the resolve of Berlin and Frankfurt to be rid of him, as an obstacle to the requisite
purging of the Italian economic and social order, more unrelenting.
*
For his ouster, however, a mechanism was needed to connect the erosion of his position at
home, still not complete, with the absolute aversion to him abroad. To his misfortune, this
was ready and primed. Less noticed than other mutations wrought by the Second Republic,
there had been a steady increase in the role of the presidency in the political affairs of Italy.
Under the reign of Christian Democracy in the First Republic, when one party always
dominated the legislature, this largely ceremonial office had rarely been of much
consequence. But once rival political coalitions jousted for power in the Second Republic, a
new space of manoeuvre opened up for the presidency. Scalfaro – the incumbent of the
Quirinale from 1992 to 1999 – had been the first to make use of this, refusing any dissolution
of Parliament when Berlusconi lost his first majority in 1994, instead easing a centre-left
patchwork into office, to give it time to assemble its forces for a victory at the polls under
Prodi the following year.
Now the president was, like Scalfaro, a former minister of the interior, Giorgio Napolitano.
Berlusconi had backed Napolitano’s election to the post in 2006, and had reason to think he
had made a sensible choice in helping this veteran of the traditional political class into the
Quirinale. An Italian Vicar of Bray, Napolitano had over a long career exhibited one fixed
principle, adhesion to whatever world-political trend appeared to be a winner at the time. The
incipit of a long sequence came in his student days, when he joined the Gruppo Universitario
Fascista, at a time when Italy was dispatching troops to join the Nazi attack on Russia.[3]
Once fascism fell, the young Napolitano opted for the coming force of communism. Joining
the PCI in late 1945, he rose rapidly through its ranks, reaching the Central Committee in
just over a decade. When Russian troops and tanks crushed the Hungarian Revolt in 1956, he
applauded. ‘The Soviet intervention has made a decisive contribution, not only to preventing
Hungary from collapsing into chaos and counter-revolution, and defending the military and
strategic interests of the USSR, but to saving the peace of the world,’ he told the Party
Congress that November. Greeting the expulsion of Solzhenitsyn from Russia in 1964, he
declared: ‘Only foolish and factious commentators can evoke the spectre of Stalinism,
overlooking the way Solzhenitsyn pushed matters to a breaking-point.’ By this time, he was
the right-hand man of Giorgio Amendola, after the death of Togliatti the most formidable
figure in the PCI. Like his patron, he was a firm disciplinarian of dissent within it, voting
without hesitation for the eradication from the party of the Manifesto group for speaking out
of turn against the invasion of Czechoslovakia. With slots in both the secretariat and political
bureau, he was widely viewed as the next leader of the PCI.
In the event, the post went to Enrico Berlinguer as a less divisive figure. But Napolitano
remained a leading ornament of the party as it shifted towards Eurocommunism. In the late
1970s, he was picked as the PCI’s first envoy to reassure the United States of its Atlantic
reliability, in due course becoming ‘Kissinger’s favourite Communist’, in the satisfied words of
the New York Times. By the 1980s, the transfer of allegiance to a new suzerain was
complete. The Third Reich a bad memory, the USSR in decline, the US was now the power to
cultivate. Responsible for foreign relations of the PCI, he would take care to massage
relations with Washington long after the party had vanished. Once president, he went out of
his way to ingratiate himself with Bush and Obama alike.
At home, the failure of the PCI’s bid to reach a ‘historic compromise’ with Christian
Democracy that would have given it entrance into government, and the rise instead – amid
increasingly flagrant corruption – of Craxi’s Socialist Party as the key partner of the DC, led
Berlinguer to make a turn to the left. Denouncing the monetised degeneration of the political
system, he issued a ringing call for public life to be cleaned up. Napolitano responded angrily,
attacking him for sectarian isolationism and ‘empty invective’. Relations had always been
cool between the two men. But more than personal rivalry was stake. Napolitano headed the
most right-wing current in the PCI of the time, miglioristi who felt a certain affinity to Craxi
and did not want to see hostilities with him. Their principal base was Milan, where Craxi’s
machine dominated the city. There in the mid-1980s they published a journal, Il Moderno,
not only subsidised by Berlusconi, but hailing his revolutionary achievement in modernising
the media and making Milan the television capital of Italy. This was in 1986, when Craxi was
prime minister. A court would later find Berlusconi’s holding company Fininvest guilty of
illegally financing the miglioristi. In February, in the run-up to an anti-nuclear referendum
in Italy, the PCI newspaper declined a pro-nuclear article by Giovanni Battista Zorzoli, one of
Napolitano’s followers. Furious, Napolitano demanded the head of the editor. By 1993 Zorzoli
was in handcuffs, sentenced to four and a half years in prison for corruption when he was a
senior executive of Italy’s state energy company.
Not long afterwards, Napolitano became minister of the interior in the centre-left
government of 1996. It was the first time anyone from the left had ever been in charge of this
department. The involvement of the Italian police and intelligence apparatuses in the so-
called strategia della tensione – a series of bombings from the massacre of Piazza Fontana in
Milan in 1969 to that of Bologna railway station in 1980 – had long been attested, but never
investigated. Any nervousness that the arrival of a one-time Communist at the ministry
might have caused was soon dispelled. Napolitano assured his subordinates he was not ‘going
to look for skeletons in the cupboard’. No untoward disclosures marred his incumbency. He
was made a life senator in 2005. Becoming president of the Republic a year later, he would
publicly lament that Craxi – who died in Tunisian exile, after being condemned in absentia to
27 years in prison for monumental corruption – had been treated so unfairly, going out of his
way to praise his constructive role as a statesman.
He did not have the same regard for Berlusconi, viewing him with benign condescension – if
also some justice – as not really a politician at all, in the sense that the eminences of the First
Republic had been. The two men could anyway not have been more opposed in style,
Napolitano’s ceremonious propriety a studied contrast to Berlusconi’s off-colour swagger. But
they shared a common background in the nexus of ties and sympathies around Craxi in
Milan, and a common interest in stabilising what each saw as the potential gains of the
Second Republic: a bipolar political system along Anglo-Saxon lines, confined to a centre-
right and a centre-left, cleansed of hostility to the market and its transatlantic guardian. For
their own reasons each, too, feared the persistence of prosecutors in dredging up charges
against the most popular leader in the country, and the ressentiment of irresponsible
minorities in harping on these.
For Berlusconi these were, of course, existential threats. For Napolitano they were simply
divisive, just as Berlinguer’s moralism had been, recklessly rocking the boat of the moderate
consensus that the country required. He was more than willing to help Berlusconi protect
himself from such troubles, signing into law without hesitation the Lodo Alfano of 2008
granting Berlusconi as prime minister and himself as president immunity from prosecution;
and when this was ruled unconstitutional, rubber-stamping with equal speed the substitute
passed in 2010, legittimo impedimento allowing ministers to avoid trials by invoking their
pressing duties as public servants, which was ruled in its turn unconstitutional in 2011.
Napolitano was publicly criticised for his unseemly approval of the first by Ciampi, his
predecessor in the presidency, and was under no obligation to wave through either: rather the
reverse, as the legal outcome of each was to show. Napolitano’s actions, however, accorded
with Berlusconi’s expectations of the modus vivendi between them, on which basis he had
backed him for president. A further pointed expression of that understanding came when
Fini’s defection deprived Berlusconi’s government of a majority in the Chamber, and the
opposition tabled a vote of no confidence, with the votes in hand to bring the government
down. In 2008 Prodi had been in a similar situation after Berlusconi had bought enough
votes in the Senate to topple him, an episode for which he is currently under indictment for
paying just one senator €3 million to turn his coat, a bribe to which the recipient has
confessed. Then, Napolitano lost little time – less than a fortnight – in using his presidential
prerogative to dissolve Parliament and call new elections, which produced an avalanche for
Berlusconi. Now, however, Napolitano persuaded Fini to stay his hand for more than a
month while a budgetary law was passed, allowing Berlusconi time to purchase the handful
of deputies needed to restore his majority.
*
This was, however, the last favour Napolitano would grant. He was preparing to take matters
into his own hands. In the spring of 2011, the government announced that it was not joining
the American-powered attack on Libya, to which the Northern League was flatly opposed,
threatening to bring it down if it did so. Napolitano knew better: expectations in Washington
were more important than niceties of the constitution. Without any vote in Parliament, or
even any debate in it, he bounced Italy into war by extracting ex-Communist support for the
dispatch of its air force to bomb a neighbour with which it had signed a Treaty of Friendship,
Co-operation and Military Alliance, ratified by an overwhelming majority in the Chamber –
including the ex-Communists – just two years previously.
By the summer, emboldened by increasing flattery of himself in the media as the rock of the
Republic, and with the encouragement of Berlin, Brussels and Frankfurt, he had decided to
dispose of Berlusconi. The key to removing him smoothly was finding a replacement to
satisfy these decisive partners, and the business establishment in Italy. Happily, the ideal
figure was to hand: Mario Monti, the former EU commissioner, member of the Bilderberg
Group and Trilateral Commission, senior adviser to Goldman Sachs and now president of
Bocconi University. Monti had for some time been looking forward to just the situation
which now presented itself. ‘Italian governments can take tough decisions,’ he confided to the
Economist in 2005, ‘only if two conditions are met: there must be both a visible emergency
and strong pressure from outside.’ At the time, he lamented, ‘such a moment of truth is
lacking.’ Now it had come.
As early as June or July, in complete secrecy, Napolitano readied Monti to take over the
government. In the same period, he commissioned the head of Italy’s largest banking group,
Corrado Passera, to produce a confidential economic plan for the country. Passera was a
former aide to Berlusconi’s arch political enemy and business rival Carlo De Benedetti, owner
of La Repubblica and L’Espresso, who was privy to Napolitano’s moves. In urgent italics,
Passera’s 196-page document proposed shock therapy: €100 billion worth of privatisations,
housing tax, capital levies, a hike in VAT. Napolitano, on the phone to Merkel and no doubt
Draghi, now had the man and the plan to eject Berlusconi ready. Monti had never run for
election, and though a seat in Parliament was not required for investiture as prime minister,
it would help to have one.
There was no time to waste: on 9 November, plucking him from Bocconi, Napolitano
appointed Monti a senator for life, to the applause of the world’s financial press. Under threat
of destruction by the bond markets should he resist, Berlusconi capitulated, and within a
week Monti was sworn in as the country’s new ruler, at the head of an unelected cabinet of
bankers, businessmen and technocrats. The operation that had installed him is an expressive
illustration of what democratic procedures and the rule of law can mean in today’s Europe. It
was entirely unconstitutional. The Italian president is supposed to be the impartial guardian
of a parliamentary order, who does not interfere with its decisions save where they breach the
constitution – as this one had signally failed to do. He is not empowered to conspire, behind
the back of an elected premier, with individuals of his choice, not even in Parliament, to form
a government to his liking. The corruption of business, bureaucracy and politics in Italy was
now compounded by corruption of the constitution.
At the time, what had taken place that summer behind the presidential arras remained
hidden. It would come to light only this year from the mouth of Monti himself, a naif in such
matters, to the spluttering denials of Napolitano.[4] Meanwhile, establishment reaction to the
new government ranged from relief to elation. Here at last – in the widespread view of
commentators in and beyond the country – was a second chance for Italy to turn over the
new leaf that had been missed after the fall of the First Republic. Finally, an honest and
competent government was at the helm, not only committed to serious reform of so much
that was wrong in Italy – rigid labour markets, unaffordable pensions, nepotistic universities,
corporative restrictions on services, lack of industrial competition, insufficient privatisation,
legal gridlock, fiscal evasion – but capable of mastering the financial storms now buffeting it.
A new Second Republic, the real thing, could now arise after twenty years of masquerade.
Steep cuts in public expenditure, tough tax measures and the beginnings of changes to the
disastrous labour law of the 1970s were first, welcome steps to restore confidence in the
country.
Viewed from another angle, there were indeed similarities between the conjuncture of the
early 1990s when Ciampi, then governor of the Bank of Italy, was summoned to hold the fort
as premier at the height of the Tangentopoli crisis. But they were not all reassuring. Monti’s
administration resembled Ciampi’s in composition and intention. But much had changed in
the interim, not least in the milieu from which leading figures of the new order – Monti and
his guarantor in Frankfurt, Draghi – came. In 1994 Berlusconi had presented himself as an
innovator from a business background whose victory would bury the corruption and disorder
of the political class of the First Republic, while in reality he owed his fortune
overwhelmingly to it. In 2011 the crisis gripping Italy and the Eurozone had been triggered
by a massive wave of financial speculation and derivative manipulation on both sides of the
Atlantic. No operator was more notorious for its part in these than the very company on
whose payroll both Monti and Draghi had figured. Goldman Sachs, amply earning its
sobriquet in America of the ‘vampire squid’, had seconded the falsification of Greek public
accounts, and been charged with fraud by the US Securities and Exchange Commission,
paying half a billion dollars to settle the case out of court. To expect a clean break with the
past from its functionaries was only a little more realistic than to believe the patronage of
Craxi would leave no mark on Berlusconi.
Other reminders of the past were no less striking. In the summer of 2012 it emerged that
Napolitano was intervening to block potential interrogation of Nicola Mancino, Christian
Democrat minister of the interior in 1992 when the Palermo magistrate Paolo Borsellino was
assassinated by the mafia. Mancino was one of four ministers of the interior – Scalfaro had
been another – in monthly receipt of slush funds from the secret service, SISDE. Mancino’s
denial that he had met Borsellino shortly before his death, despite evidence to the contrary,
had never been cleared up, and a new official investigation into links between the state and
the mafia was underway, which threatened to confront him with two other ministers of the
period who gave him the lie. In great agitation, he telephoned the Quirinale and pleaded with
Napolitano’s right-hand man on legal affairs, Loris D’Ambrosio, for protection. Far from
being rebuffed, he was told the president was very concerned for him. In due course
Napolitano himself rang Mancino, unaware that the latter’s phone was being tapped as part
of the investigation.
When transcripts of the exchanges between Mancino and D’Ambrosio were published in the
press, together with news that tapes of the president’s own conversations wth Mancino were
in the possession of the investigating magistrate, Napolitano invoked absolute immunity for
his office and, Nixon-style, demanded that the tapes be destroyed. Borsellino’s brother
Salvatore called for his impeachment; since an obstruction of justice was patently involved, in
the United States there would have been grounds for that. In Italy such an outcome was
unthinkable. The political class and media closed ranks immediately around the president, as
it had done when Scalfaro used his major-domo to stifle the SISDE scandal. Napolitano’s
aide, the Ehrlichman of the affair, expired of a heart attack at the height of the uproar. As so
often, Marco Travaglio, arguably Europe’s greatest journalist, was the only one to call the
facts by name; in his book Viva il Re!, published last year, he drew up a comprehensive
indictment of Napolitano’s record in office, across six hundred pages of damning
documentation. Elsewhere, in face of the danger to his position, the chorus of sycophancy
around the president – whose volume had been building for some time – reached a near
hysterical crescendo.
Meanwhile Monti – greeted with enthusiasm at the outset, the FT gushing over ‘Super Mario’
– was proving a disappointment. Installed with the reluctant assent of the centre-right and
centre-left alike, his room for initiative was limited, since neither bloc was committed to him
and the base of each restive with the arrangement. But it soon became clear his remedies
were not bringing any recovery. Under what an Italian critic would dub his ‘austeritarian’
regime, Monti’s combination of higher taxes and lower spending could reduce the deficit and
bring down spreads, but it intensified the recession. Consumption fell, youth unemployment
soared. Structural reforms, as the European Commisson and ECB understand them, fizzled.
In 2012, GDP shrank by 2.4 per cent. Politically, there was little to be gained by continuing to
prop up what had become a thoroughly unpopular government. At the end of the year the
centre-right pulled out and Napolitano was reluctantly forced to dissolve Parliament,
maintaining Monti in office as placeholder until elections were held.
*
Polls had for some time indicated that the centre-left held a steady lead in voter intentions
and was poised to avenge its humiliation in 2008. Monti had proved a flop. Berlusconi was
increasingly discredited and the centre-right coalition had split three ways. Not only had Fini
broken with Berlusconi, but Bossi had also parted company with him, refusing to lend
support to the Monti government before himself being engulfed in a corruption scandal and
sidelined in a much weakened League. By the autumn, the three scattered parts of the former
coalition were attracting scarcely more than a quarter of the electorate.
The centre-left, though itself far from flourishing, was in better shape. The renamed
Democratic Party, born from a merger between the remnants of what had once been Italian
Communism and a wing of Christian Democracy, had performed disastrously in 2008 under
its picayune leader Walter Veltroni – in Napolitano’s fond eyes, ‘Obama ante litteram’. After
Veltroni stepped down, the PD acquired a new leader, Pierluigi Bersani, from the ranks of the
Emilian administrators of the former PCI, and a change of image for the better, from the
vapid to the stolid. Without being inspiring, Bersani’s leadership at least prevented any further
fall in support for the party, leaving it at a fairly stable level in the opinion polls, well ahead of
the centre-right. In the autumn of 2012, challenged by the youthful mayor of Florence,
Matteo Renzi, who had made a name for himself by calling for the entire older generation of
politicians to be broken up in the junkyard, Bersani comfortably defeated him in the party
primaries, on a substantial turnout that raised the standing of the PD, increasing its lead in
the polls.
A wild card remained. Three years earlier, the comedian Beppe Grillo had launched a
movement against the political establishment which had scored some successes in local
elections. It was not clear how seriously it should be taken. But since nothing like it existed
anywhere else in Europe, and there was no precedent to judge it by, it could not be
discounted. Grillo had started as a stand-up comic in cabarets of the 1970s, graduating to
popular television shows whose political edge gradually sharpened. In 1986, after joking that
at a banquet for Craxi in Beijing one of his lieutenants asked him in bewilderment, ‘If
everyone here is a socialist, who can they be stealing from?’, Grillo was taken off the public
channels. It was not his only prevision of what was to come. In the 1990s, he increasingly
took to theatres and squares for monologues with a strong environmental cast, raking the
innumerable scandals of the period with a combination of crude profanity and blistering wit.
His audiences grew, and then leapt when he started to use the internet as an alternative
medium for scathing demolitions of the ruling order and its personnel – centre-right and
centre-left, television and press alike. His blog became a wild-fire success. Modern Slaves, a
book drawing on readers’ responses to it, broadened his targets to the fate of casual labour in
Italy. By this time he was working closely with a software specialist, Gianroberto Casaleggio,
and in 2009 the two launched the Five Star Movement as an uprising against the political
system. The stars stood for the key issues they intended to raise: water (under threat of
privatisation), environment, transport, connectivity and development. Candidates of the M5S
who ran for election had to pledge themselves – uniquely anywhere in the world – not to
appear on television, and if they were elected, to reduce their parliamentary salaries to the
median wage, assigning the rest to public purposes. Grillo himself was disqualified from
standing for Parliament by a conviction for manslaughter in his early thirties, when his jeep
slid off an icy road into a ravine, killing three of his passengers. But he was not disqualified
from campaigning. Travelling round the country on a Tsunami Tour of some eighty cities,
his pugnacious grizzled mane now familiar to all, he attacked not only the ‘two castes’ –
politicians and journalists – of Italy, but the European bureaucratic and banking
establishment at large, and its order of neoliberal austerity and single currency. Large crowds,
of the curious or committed, flocked to his meetings.
When the returns came in, the PD had a double shock. Though Berlusconi’s residual coalition
dropped seven million votes, his resilience as a campaigner had brought the centre-right,
which at the outset had seemed a lost cause, to within an inch of victory: only 0.35 per cent
behind the centre-left, itself down more than three million, neither bloc reaching even 30 per
cent of the total cast. The M5S, on the other hand, had gone from zero to 25 per cent,
becoming – if expatriates were excluded – the largest single party in the country, drawing
voters from both conventional camps. Grillo’s three-step motto for raising a popular revolt –
laughter, information, political action – had proved stunningly effective. The grillini took
more votes than either centre-left or centre-right from manual workers, small entrepreneurs,
self-employed, students and jobless; the centre-right prevailed only among housewives, the
centre-left among pensioners and white-collar workers.
Such was the electoral arithmetic. Parliamentary numbers were another matter. Central to
the Second Republic had been, at its inception in 1993, a change in the electoral system – the
abolition of proportional representation in favour of a largely Anglo-Saxon-style simple
plurality system. No change was more passionately demanded, as the key to responsible and
efficient government, by the pensée unique of the time. Nothing of the kind ensued. A decade
later, in 2005, the centre-right coalition in office, fearing defeat under this system – from
which it had earlier benefited – changed it to a nominally proportional one, but assorted with
a premium giving whichever coalition did best, no matter what percentage of the vote it
received, an automatic majority of 54 per cent of seats in the Chamber. Described
contemptuously as a pigsty even by the minister responsible for designing it, the Northern
League stalwart Roberto Calderoli, the Porcellum, as it became known, was a descendant of
two other notorious distortions of the popular will in Italy: the Acerbo Law of 1923, pushed
through by Mussolini to consolidate his rule, which awarded two-thirds of the seats to
Parliament to whichever party had the largest vote above a threshold of 25 per cent; and
Scelba’s Legge Truffa of 1953, which awarded 65 per cent of seats to any coalition that got
over 50 per cent of the vote, and was so unpopular that it had to be abrogated after the ruling
DC coalition failed to win the requisite 50 per cent plus one vote in the only election held
under it. The Porcellum was less generous than its Fascist and Christian Democratic
precedents in the size of its premium – 54 as against 65/66 per cent of deputies – but also less
demanding in the requirement for getting it, not even a quarter of the vote being necessary to
take more than half the seats in the Chamber.
In 2013, this meant that the centre-left – which even in its own eyes had performed
calamitously at the polls – nevertheless, by virtue of its tiny margin of advantage, was
handed a crushing majority of deputies: 345 to 125 for the centre-right and 109 for M5S, out
of 630. But this did not clear a path to government. For under the constitution, the Senate –
whose powers are of equal standing – requires a regional basis of election. The premium
awarded by the Porcellum on a national basis could therefore not be applied to it, as Ciampi,
who was president at the time the Porcellum was introduced, pointed out. It had to go
instead to the coalition with most votes inside each region. The result was far less favourable
to the PD, which gained no more than 123 out of 315 seats. To form a government required a
vote of confidence in both houses.
To secure one, Bersani had to secure a deal – coalition or tolerance – with Berlusconi or
Grillo. The former was anathema to the PD base, so he tried the latter. But Grillo was not
interested. For the M5S, the ideal outcome of the post-electoral impasse was a joint
Berlusconi-Bersani government, proving its claim that centre-right and centre-left were two
sides of the same coin (the acronym for Berlusconi’s party being PDL, Grillo would refer to
Bersani’s as ‘PD minus L’) to which it was the only authentic opposition. That left the option
of a minority centre-left cabinet relying on ad hoc tolerance for its measures. Napolitano,
whose invitation was needed to present a government for investiture in parliament, rejected
this. Unhappy that the Monti regime he had put together, supported by both centre-left and
centre-right, had come to a premature end, he wanted a second edition of it. Consistent with
a career of adhering to whatever were the pouvoirs forts of the hour, for him it was now the
EU whose directives were the touchstone of responsibility. So the imperative was a bipartisan
government which would shield the stability and austerity Frankfurt and Brussels required
from populist unrest. At this prospect, Bersani dug in his heels. No resolution of the impasse
was in sight when – after six weeks of post-electoral tractations – the end of Napolitano’s
mandate as president fell due. Editorials beseeching him to accept a second term as the only
sea-wall against chaos filled the press. But it was an unwritten rule that no Italian president
served more than one term, and Napolitano categorically, and repeatedly, disavowed any
such notion. He had done his duty and was packing his bags.
One last service he performed, as he did so. On April 5, he pardoned the American colonel
Joseph Romano, sentenced in absentia to seven years for his part in the kidnapping in Milan
of an Egyptian cleric, who was then delivered in a US military aircraft to Cairo for months of
torture at the hands of Mubarak’s police. Constitutionally, a presidential pardon can only be
granted for ‘humanitarian’, not ‘political’ reasons. Romano had spent not a day in prison,
having fled the country. But Obama had personally requested that his bagatelle be
overlooked, and Napolitano did not hesitate, as so often before, to flout the constitution,
explaining that he had pardoned Romano ‘to obviate a situation of evident delicacy with a
friendly country’. The suzerain had changed, so too the crimes. The attitude to higher power
had not.
An Italian president is elected by a joint session of the two houses of Parliament, plus
representatives of the regions, by secret ballot. A two-thirds majority is necessary for election
in the first three ballots, subsequently a simple majority. Because votes are secret, party
discipline is weak, and many rounds may be needed to produce a successful candidate. In
2006 Napolitano got through on the fourth ballot. In 2013 the electors numbered 1007,
requiring 672 votes in the first set of rounds, and 504 thereafter. The centre-left had 493 of
these, a starting position of unprecedented strength. But since the president is supposed to be
super partes, convention holds that a successful candidate should enjoy a degree of cross-
party consensus. The PD therefore sought the agreement of the centre-right for a figure both
could support. Franco Marini, a veteran Christian Democrat and former president of the
Senate, was picked. Promptly attacked as a discredited fossil by Renzi, whose faction in the
PD defected, he scored 521 votes, far short of two-thirds, but sufficient for a simple majority.
Unnerved by this setback, instead of holding steady through to the fourth round, the PD
abandoned Marini, and in disarray voted blank in the next two ballots, in which the jurist
Stefano Rodotà, proposed by the M5S, came top with 230-250 votes. Grillo, dropping his
refusal to have anything to do with the PD, appealed to it to join forces with the M5S to elect
Rodotà on the next round, hinting that if this were done, co-operation between the two with
a view to agreement on a government was possible. Rodotà was not a sectarian choice;
widely respected, he was himself a former president of the previous incarnation of the PD.
But a stickler for constitutional legality, he was not acceptable to the party it had become,
which feared he might prevent institutional alterations it had in mind, not to speak of
destroying any understanding with Berlusconi, for whom he was anathema.
Rallying his troops, Bersani proposed instead Romano Prodi, whose name received a standing
ovation from his party. Now only a simple majority was needed. The centre-right deserted
the ballot. Yet when the votes were counted, Prodi had received only 395 – a hundred fewer
than the centre-left possessed. This time it was not so much Renzi’s faction, but followers of
his arch-opponent D’Alema, still bearing a grudge against Prodi from the time of their rivalry
in the 1990s, who were the saboteurs. The PD stood exposed as a demoralised rabble,
apparently incapable of a modicum of political loyalty and unity. In tears, Bersani quit as
leader, and amid deafening ululations in the press over the dangers of ungovernability facing
the country, the party rushed to join Berlusconi in begging Napolitano to save Italy with a
second term. With many a protestation that it was against his will, he graciously acceded and
on the sixth ballot slid smoothly back into the palace he had just ostensibly vacated. At the
age of 87, pipped only by Mugabe, Peres and the moribund Saudi king.
A government had still to be formed, but with Bersani – too straightforward a figure to be
congenial – out of the way, Napolitano could proceed to re-create the governissimo of his
wishes, centre-left interlocked with centre-right. This time he could do so more openly,
summoning leaders to confer with him, and dictating their choices. As premier he picked the
deputy leader of the PD, Enrico Letta, a former Christian Democrat whose uncle Gianni Letta
was the most urbane of Berlusconi’s counsellors. Alfano, responsible for the legislation
conferring immunity on Berlusconi and Napolitano, became vice-premier. A functionary
from the Central Bank was installed at the Treasury as a guarantee of continuity with
Monti’s policies, and compliance with the Fiscal Compact. Berlusconi, however, who owed
much of his electoral recovery to pledges that he would rescind Monti’s housing tax and block
any further increase in VAT, made implementation of these promises a condition of assent to
the coalition. The result was a government zig-zagging ineffectually between incompatible
commitments. By the end of the year, the economy had contracted a further 1.9 per cent and
public debt risen to 133 per cent of GDP. Its economic record aside, the Letta government
was rapidly stained by two scandals of a familiar sort. Alfano, who was also minister of the
interior, colluded in the conveyance of the wife and daughter of a Kazakh dissident into the
clutches of Nazarbaev, while the minister of justice, Anna Maria Cancellieri, was caught
telling the jailed daughter of a construction magnate widely thought to have mafia
connections (in times gone by, a backer of Il Moderno) that as a friend of the family she
would do what she could for her, in due course springing her for anorexia. Though there was
uproar in both cases, neither minister fell, Napolitano and Letta standing by them. In
Parliament, the cult of the president reached such a grotesque point that the Speakers in both
houses formally forbade so much as a mention of Napolitano from the floor, as an affront to
the dignity of the Republic. Naturally, l’innominabile himself deprecated such excessive
protection.
The other main objective of the government was electoral reform to do away with the
Porcellum, and alteration of the constitution to do away with the Senate. Since according to
existing rules the latter would be a protracted process, draft legislation was introduced to
curtail it. Public attention, however, was rapidly deflected by the drama of Berlusconi’s
misfortunes. In June he was found guilty of prostituting a minor, and sentenced to seven
years in prison. No help to his image, the verdict affected him little in the short run:
successive appeals against it were capable of delaying final judgment for years. But in August
came just such a judgment: four years in prison (three of them waived) for personal tax
evasion – €7.3 million underpaid – and a two-year ban on holding public office. The prison
sentence, in turn, triggered the provision of a law passed in the final months of Monti’s
government excluding anyone so judged from office for six years. Its execution meant
Berlusconi’s expulsion from the Senate.
Aware that this risked a rebellion by the centre-right that would bring down his government,
Letta was in no hurry to force the issue, while Berlusconi made increasingly frantic appeals to
Napolitano to rescue him, in the hope, or belief, that their past understanding would extend
to this solidarity. Napolitano was willing to hint that if Berlusconi asked for a pardon,
admitting his guilt (he was protesting his innocence), he might receive one in view of his
importance to the political life of the country. But there was no chance of Napolitano going
further. He was not sentimental: Berlusconi was no longer to be reckoned with as of old.
Furious at this cold shoulder, Berlusconi demanded that his party’s ministers resign from the
government, preparatory to bringing it down. They initially complied; then thought of their
jobs and of the probable fate of the centre-right if there were fresh elections in these
circumstances. The result was an open split, Alfano leading enough parliamentarians out of
Berlusconi’s control to form a new centre-right party, giving the government a stable
majority no longer subject to his whims. Ten days later, Berlusconi was ousted from the
Senate.
Letta’s victory appeared complete. His diplomatic skills, honed in a Christian Democratic
tradition, had played a key role in detaching Alfano and his followers from their leader. Fini
had been an outsider. Alfano was a true insider, the heir apparent: his defection was the first
real split in the party Berlusconi had built around himself. But Letta’s triumph proved brief.
Within days, Renzi had swept the primaries for the PD leadership vacated by Bersani and
cleaned out the old guard of the party, packing the directorate in charge of its apparatus with
adepts and fans of his own generation. Still mayor of Florence and not even in Parliament,
but now in command of its largest contingent of deputies, he had more real power than
Letta, and wasted no time demonstrating it.
Berlusconi might be a convicted criminal, but he was no pariah – rather, the natural
interlocutor of the new leader, a politician who had withdrawn to opposition but not been
knocked out of the ring, at the head of the second largest party in the country. The way
forward was to cut a deal with him. In short order Renzi was holding confidential discussions
with Berlusconi, and the two men had reached agreement on constitutional and electoral
changes to be rammed through a Parliament of which neither was a member, in a pact
cutting across Letta’s majority in it. What of the prime minister? In tweets like an adolescent
cooling out a girlfriend about to be ditched, Renzi wrote to him: ‘Enrico stai sereno nessuno ti
vuol prendere il posto’ (‘Keep calm Enrico no one wants to take your job’). A month later, he
had ejected Letta and installed himself as Italy’s youngest prime minister.
Like his victim, Renzi comes from a Christian Democratic background – his father was a DC
councillor in their home town outside Florence – though by reason of age he grew up
through the Catholic scout movement, not, as Letta did, the DC youth organisation. The
family ran a marketing business that employed him till his entry into full-time politics;
among its accounts was the local newspaper La Nazione. Joining one of the residues of the
DC after it had dissolved, Renzi followed this into the centrist ‘Daisy’ party that in due course
merged with the remnants of Italian Communism to form a right wing of the PD, and at the
age of 29 was picked by it to become president of the Province of Florence: the kind of post he
would later denounce as a waste of money and seek to abolish. At the time he made the most
of it, swiftly building up an apparatus of aides and dependants, and projecting himself with a
series of media events orchestrated by a company created and controlled by him as a
propaganda organ of the province, whose debts increased under him and whose accounts
would be questioned by state auditors.
After five years, he won the PD nomination for mayor of Florence, one of the bastions of the
centre-left in Italy. To much acclaim, his administration pedestrianised its historic centre and
burnished its tourist image: citizens could take pride in their city once more. Little progress,
however, was made in cutting pollution. Outside the centre, traffic got worse, buses were
privatised over union opposition. After initially securing plaudits as the best mayor in the
country, Renzi’s standing fell, in part because too many achievements of which he boasted
proved hollow. But from the start he was looking outwards. Municipal activities were
conceived not so much as an arena of local performance but as a trampoline for the national
stage. The priority was high-visibility shows, starring celebrities from across the country in
multimedia events, with a series of politico-cultural jamborees in the converted Leopolda
railway station, blazoning ‘Next Stop Italy’, ‘Big Bang’ and so forth: rock music and videos at
full blast while assorted entrepreneurs, actors, philosophers, musicians, writers delivered
soundbites to the crowds, with a rousing finale from the mayor himself. The premium was
always on image.
This did not always work out well. Typical of Renzi’s operation were two bids to cash in on
the city’s brand-name artists. Beneath one of Vasari’s frescoes in the Palazzo Vecchio, he
assured the world, still lay Leonardo’s Battle of Anghiari, and with modern technology it
would be recovered, if donors could be found to finance the necessary research, in search of
which – in a blaze of publicity, at municipal expense – he travelled several times to America.
After months of media attention, nothing came of it. In an even emptier bluff, he announced
plans to cover the basilica of San Lorenzo with the marble façade that Michelangelo had
designed for it, but that had never been built. That too was worth yards of coverage in the
press and features on television, before it fell to ridicule by art historians, and disappeared
from view.
Matteo Renzi on the cover of ‘Vanity Fair’, November 2013,
and in Parliament before a vote of confidence, February 2014.
From his time as head of the province, Renzi had been building a network of connections
with local business. There his key financial backer was a local construction boss, Marco
Carrai, whose interests stretched across the Atlantic, and links extended into Opus Dei. Once
Renzi was in the Palazzo Vecchio, Carrai was put in charge of the city’s lucrative parking
complex and airport, while Renzi installed himself rent-free in an apartment at the disposal
of Carrai – an arrangement currently under judicial investigation. Running for leader of the
PD three years later, his campaign bankrolled to the tune of €600,000 by the Big Bang
Foundation, many of whose donors remained secret, Renzi spared no expense. One of the
biggest contributions came from Italy’s top hedge-fund manager, Davide Serra, whose
Algebris Investments includes a lair in the Cayman Islands. Resident in London, Serra has
become Renzi’s point-man in the wider world of finance, where a banquet in the candidate’s
honour assembled the elite of Milanese banking during the campaign. In Florence, the
municipal Savings Institute has – no doubt pure coincidence – invested in Algebris bonds.
Carrai’s fiancée, meanwhile, a 26-year-old philosophy graduate, has been made one of the
curators of this year’s major exhibition in Florence, a publicity stunt touting factitious
connections between Michelangelo and Jackson Pollock at a price-tag of €375,000. One of
Renzi’s most popular slogans is his call for a country where ‘you get a job because of what
you know, not whom you know.’
Business might enjoy an exchange of favours at municipal level, but on a broader front it was
Renzi’s ideological message that won him the smiles of big money. Calling for his elders in
the PD to be thrown in the garbage-truck played well with the press and a public disillusioned
with the political class. For bankers and industrialists, his appeal was more pointedly
economic. The woes of Italy stemmed from a spendthrift state and corporatist obstructions of
the market, notably – if not exclusively – selfish trade unions. They had to be dismantled.
Liberismo – free trade in commodities, including land and labour – was a doctrine not of the
right, but of the enlightened left. Its watchword should be innovation rather than equality,
however worthy an ideal the latter might be, if properly understood as a career open to
talents, above all entrepreneurial. Blair was the leader who had understood all this, setting an
inspiring example of the kind of politics of which Italy had urgent need.
Renzi’s cult of Blair reflects, in one sense, the provincial limitations of his culture: he is
plainly unaware that the object of his admiration scarcely dare show his face in public in the
country he once ruled. But in another, it has served as a calling card to Blair’s greatest friend
in Italy. Informal contacts with the centre-right existed from the beginning of Renzi’s ascent
in Florence, where his victory over a better-known candidate in a PD primary requiring no
registration with the party is often attributed to votes coming from it. From around this
period, he was on terms with a Florentine banker, Denis Verdini, whose Credito Cooperativo
Fiorentino would collapse amid criminal charges against him, but who as a leading figure in
Berlusconi’s organisation in Tuscany would in due course become a key interlocutor on the
centre-right. While he was mayor, Renzi travelled to Berlusconi’s villa in Arcore for a discreet
dinner with him, a pilgrimage taboo in the PD at the time, only later revealed. Not just a
common liking for Blair and appreciation of the value of the entrepreneur, however, drew the
two together. Berlusconi has often explained that he sees in Renzi a younger version of
himself: the same flair, audacity and charm with which he had captivated the nation twenty
years before.
Plainly, in political style the two indeed have much in common. First and foremost,
undentable self-assurance in their unique ability to lead the country. Berlusconi’s
personalisation of politics is legendary. Renzi’s projection of himself is delivered in a different
register, but matches it. Plastered on posters along the route of his tour around Italy, the
slogan of his campaign to win command of his party dispensed with any agenda for it other
than his person. It read simply: ‘Matteo Renzi Now!’ As with Silvio, that was enough. Such
self-confidence lifts each above the doubts or scruples of their peers. Their forms of tactical
ruthlessness differ. But as politicians they share a stop-at-nothing quality whose justification
comes from two convictions: that only they can accomplish what the hour requires, and only
they enjoy a rapport with voters – not all Italians, but the better sort, who form a majority of
the nation – that invests what they do with an unanswerable legitimacy. Both too, of course,
shot to prominence in conjunctures of crisis, promising the country a fresh start when the
political order had fallen into widespread discredit.
Such are the obvious parallels. There are also obvious differences. Of these, four are most
significant. Berlusconi entered politics at the head of a business empire, using his vast fortune
to win a power that could protect his interests. He was approaching sixty when he did so. His
principal instrument in gaining and retaining power was control of television as a medium.
His skills in communication were those of a professional of the small screen who knew its
rituals and resources intimately, as a marketer and proprietor of the channels on which he
appeared in carefully staged addresses to the nation.
Renzi, by contrast, is a creature of pure politics. His rise may have left a faint waft of fetor
behind it – pecunia non olet scarcely applies. But funds, dubious or above board, have been
merely a means to his ambition: wealth is not an end. The objective is power. Possession of it
– this is the second major difference – has been taken by an individual hitting forty, not
sixty: a generation younger. Berlusconi based much of his initial appeal on the claim, not just
that he was an outsider to the political system, but one who had proved his abilities in
creating wealth as an entrepreneur and a manager: he could run Italy as well as he had done
his television stations and his football club. Renzi’s appeal is to age, not experience. In itself,
jeunisme is a banal card played by rising politicians everywhere in postmodern societies. But
Renzi has made of his youth something far more than a mere individual attribute: the
emblematic sword of a collective rejuvenation to come, slashing through the geriatric
dysfunctions of the political system and its detritus in social and economic life at large. This
kind of promise lacks the tangible credentials of material success to which Berlusconi laid
claim, but in connecting directly with the frustrations of the two generations of Italians
stifled by the immobility and decay of the Second Republic, is fully as potent an appeal.
Along with the contrast in message, there is a variation in medium. Renzi first came to public
attention as the winner of a popular quiz show, and has never lost his zest for appearances of
all kinds on television, where his chubby good looks and cocky manner made him a natural
attraction once he entered politics. But in time his real forte became the web. Facebook to
project his image and cultivate his support in ways much fleeter than the television studio
could offer, and under much more complete control (even if he was still liable to the
occasional gaffe, like the eager posting of an image of himself at Mandela’s bedside in
hospital, a split second after the news of Mandela’s death came through); Twitter to supply a
continuous flow of his sayings and opinions on affairs of the hour. Berlusconi, though fond of
telling bar-room jokes in informal settings, tended to formal bombast in his set-piece political
speeches, delivered in double-breasted suits in a grand book-lined study at Arcore. Renzi, by
contrast, is ostentatiously casual in dress and speech. On taking power, he addressed the
Senate with his hands in his pockets. That was not well received. But in general he is far
superior to Berlusconi as a communicator, much quicker on his political feet, with an
exceptional knack for lightning one-liners and stinging repartee. By comparison, his role
models Blair and Obama are lumbering creatures of their speech-writers. Renzi is not only
much faster on the verbal draw. As his best portraitist has noted, unlike virtually any other
leader in the West today, he needs no spin-doctor.[5] He is effortlessly his own. His danger
lies in a too visible arrogance, inviting mockery. On his way up, he knew how to turn
parodies of himself into a cheerful self-irony. Whether that will continue now he is at the top,
where too many of his throwaway barbs and put-downs risk grating, remains to be seen.
*
For the moment, he is on a roll. For twenty years, the descendants of Italian Communism
sought in vain what with a handshake from Berlusconi he obtained in a couple of weeks. For
the PD, like its predecessors, the bane of every poll in Italy was the presence, allowed
representation by the electoral system, of smaller rivals to its left, or – a lesser headache –
allies a little to the right. If only, the party longed, it could eliminate such competitors with a
French-style double tour, in which after a show of proportionality on the first round, victory
by simple majority kicked in on the second, it would enter unhampered into its natural
birthright as a governing party of the centre-left in a political system safely restricted to itself
and a homologue on the centre-right. This had always remained out of reach, partly due to
the natural reluctance of parties scheduled for impotence or extinction under such a system
to vote for it in Parliament. It was also – more critically – because Berlusconi, though often
making similar noises, was not only better than the centre-left at holding a broad coalition of
forces behind him with less to gain from a drastic reduction in the range of these, but also
required the support of one particular force, the Northern League, which had a strong
identity and organised base that could not be so easily folded into a Gleichschaltung of the
kind envisaged by former Communists.
Fair representation of political opinion in Italy, a feature of the First Republic, had been
jettisoned in the founding act of the Second. But the hybrid electoral systems installed
thereafter were satisfactory to none. Of these, the Porcellum was widely regarded as the
worst. Napolitano, once firmly in his ultra-presidential saddle, pressed Parliament to do away
with it. Like the party to which he had once belonged, and for the same reasons, it was no
secret he thought a double tour the ideal arrangement. The upshot of the election of 2013,
and outcry at the institutional impasse that followed, made calls for electoral reform – for
years a King Charles’s head of the media – ever louder and more urgent. Such was the
situation when in the first week of December last year the Constitutional Court at length
pronounced the Porcellum unconstitutional, on two grounds. The premium of an absolute
majority awarded to the party with most votes, no matter how few, was a distortion of the
democratic will. The closed lists presented by each party, fixing its candidates in a hierarchy
of importance in each electoral district, denied voters freedom of choice in selecting their
representatives.
The ruling of the court came as a sudden chill to the PD. If it were allowed to stand as it was,
the next elections would have to be fought on a proportional system, without any premium,
and voters would be able to pick and choose among candidates of the list they preferred –
abhorrent to party bonzes of any description, as weakening their power over their troops.
Such a scenario was what the PD had most reason to dread. It was vital to banish it.
Providentially, the man to do so had arrived. Five days after the court’s decision, Renzi took
over the PD. In a few hurried sessions behind closed doors, Renzi and Berlusconi, each
seconded by an aide with technical expertise – the political scientist Roberto D’Alimonte, long
at the University of Florence, for Renzi; his Florentine fixer Verdini, for Berlusconi – cut a
deal to divide the electoral cake between them. Together they would ram through Parliament
a system designed to guarantee them the lion’s share of political representation in the future.
After minor alterations, the provisions of the law to come into effect would give a premium of
15 per cent of the seats in the Chamber to any party that achieved 37 per cent or above of the
vote in a first ballot, with an upper limit of 55 per cent of seats; and if no party reached 37 per
cent, a total of 52 per cent of the seats to whichever of the two parties with the largest vote in
the first ballot came ahead on a second. In each electoral district, of which there would be
many more, there would still be closed party lists, but these would be shorter – three to six
candidates – making it easier for voters to choose among them. The purpose of this scheme
was to get round the court’s objections to the Porcellum, by specifying a limit below which
the premium would not kick in, while preserving the essence of the Porcellum – a blatant
distortion of electoral opinion, tricked out with a token gesture towards greater freedom of
choice between candidates. Rounding out the package – grandly entitled the Italicum by its
architects; dubbed the Renzusconi by its critics – was a further insurance against wayward
temptations among the electorate. Three separate thresholds for political representation of
any kind were laid down: a party standing on its own would have to clear an 8 per cent
hurdle to win any seats at all, a party within a coalition 4.5 per cent and any coalition 12 per
cent.
The pact between the two leaders, however, also stipulated that the Senate would in due
course be abolished as an elected body tout court, giving way to a powerless assembly of
regional notables – in effect a fig-leaf for a monocameral legislature. But while a new
electoral system can be passed by a simple majority in both houses, the upper house cannot
be altered without changing the Italian constitution. Letta had tried to short-circuit
procedures for that, but had failed. Article 138 of the charter remains in force, unimpaired: it
lays down that changes to the constitution require two successive deliberations by each
house, with an interval of not less than three months between them, and on the second
occasion the changes must gain the approval of an absolute majority in each house, and
must then be subject to a popular referendum within three months of their publication, if
either a fifth of the members of any one house, or half a million citizens, demands one – a
provision that only a two-thirds majority in both houses can avert, of which there is currently
no chance. The electoral law could be rushed through within a matter of days. Abolition of
the Senate would take at least a year, with the certainty of a referendum at the end of the
process.
*
The lack of synchrony between the two procedures allowed the lesser parties in the ruling
centre-left coalition, and a minority in the PD itself, to put a small spoke in the wheels of the
bandwagon behind the Renzusconi. If the electoral law went through as proposed, covering
both houses before the Senate was abolished, there was nothing to prevent Renzi calling a
snap election forthwith, in which the smaller parties would be destroyed and that part of the
PD whose allegiance had been to Bersani or D’Alema, over whose bodies he had sped to
power, swept away too. But if it were confined to the Chamber, while the lengthy business of
altering the constitution to abolish the Senate went through, there would be at least a year’s
grace before these groups faced the tumbrils, and in the interval something might turn up to
save them. Though diminishing in number, as one-time opponents began to cluster around
the new leader, the cold feet of a minority inside the PD could not be completely ignored. So
overnight the new electoral system was restricted to the Chamber, effectively precluding
recourse to the polls until the Senate was put down, since the latter would otherwise be
elected on the Porcellum, now cleansed of the premium and closed lists, all but guaranteeing
an outcome asymmetrical with that of the Chamber, as in 2013.
Renzi’s calculation in reaching his pact with Berlusconi was two-fold. He had a short-term
aim. In securing such a fundamental deal with the largest party opposing the government,
he showed that Letta was now irrelevant, and could be ousted without further ado. Of much
greater and more lasting importance was the clear-cut advantage the deal handed the PD,
allowing it to move much further to the centre, encroaching on Berlusconi’s electorate,
without having to fear losses to its left. The double tour had long been its holy grail: the party
had now got it.
With Renzi far ahead of him in opinion polls, why did Berlusconi accept an arrangement
from which he had so little to gain, and all but certainly so much to lose? Three
circumstances pushed him towards the snare. Since Bossi’s disgrace, the Northern League –
which in the past had always been needed to win an election, and for obvious reasons vetoed
any such deal – was in eclipse. Berlusconi reckoned he could now discount it. Moreover, he
was himself now a convicted criminal, barred from office for two and perhaps more years to
come, who had tried and failed to bring down the government, at the cost of a split in his
party. By sealing a pact with Renzi to transform the electoral and constitutional system, he
could put himself back at the centre of political life, not only regardless of the judicial verdicts
against him, but in the hope that he might be appropriately compensated for his disinterested
service to Italy as a responsible statesman by having these set aside. Some of the elements of
the package, strengthening the powers of the executive at the expense of the legislature, were
after all ones he had himself often advocated, if never succeeded in doing much about. He
could feel entitled to a share in the inspiration of the deal, and commensurate reward as co-
architect of a new and better order.
Lastly, and critically, from the spring of 2012 onwards, when the ring of prosecutions started
to close around him, Berlusconi’s political judgment had become increasingly erratic.
Removed from power by Napolitano without ever becoming fully aware of what had
happened to him, he became increasingly distant from his most experienced advisers,
surrounding himself with a couple of semi-literate showgirls from the south, one of them his
current companion, who began to call the shots in his party, plus his poodle and a
nondescript journalist from television. Illusions that it would be easy to wipe the North clear
of the League, and escape more or less scot-free from the sentences against him, were bred in
this petticoat bunker. Even Verdini, risking exile from Arcore, has indicated dismay. In such
conditions Renzi, seeing how weakened Berlusconi had become, could essentially dictate the
outlines of a bargain favourable to the PD.
Manipulation of electoral systems to tilt outcomes is no rarity in liberal democracies: if
anything, the rule rather than the exception. In England and America, first-past-the-post
systems date from the premodern arrangements of a hierarchical gentry society, scarcely
emergent from its feudal origins, in which few polls were even contested. In the early 17th
century, only 5 to 6 per cent of constituencies had more than one candidate; even in the Long
Parliament, no more than 15 per cent. Their retention into modern times speaks volumes for
the nature of Anglo-Saxon democracy. The Fifth Republic in France and the restored
monarchy in Spain offer other familiar examples of electoral systems rigged to keep out
unwelcome competition from the left. In Italy, the oligarchic regime that followed the
Risorgimento – in 1909, the electorate was three million out of a population of 33 million –
borrowed a modified first-past-the-post system from England. After the First World War,
universal male suffrage and proportional representation arrived together, as logical
complements of democratisation. Fascism, no less logically, voided the latter with the Acerbo
law. When democracy was restored after the Second World War, the Italian constitution that
came out of the Resistance was designed to prevent any return to authoritarian rule. In the
First Republic, a honorific presidency of strictly limited compass, two legislative houses of
equal weight balancing each other, no right of the premier to dismiss ministers, secret voting
on parliamentary bills, popular referendums on petition of citizens – and proportional
representation – went together.
With the Second Republic, this configuration started to be twisted out of shape, at two ends.
Below, proportional representation was first cut down to a residue of the electoral system,
then negated altogether with the introduction of a premium along Acerbo lines. Above, the
presidency eventually became the most powerful office in the land, making and unmaking
governments. The pact between Renzi and Berlusconi will introduce a Third Republic,
concentrating power in the executive and reducing voter choice much more drastically. By
any standards, the new electoral system, which has passed its first hearing, is a monstrum.
Not content with a premium awarding the winner nearly half as many seats again as votes
obtained, it goes further even than Mussolini’s regime in the obstacles it puts in the way of
any lesser party or coalition securing seats at all. In the words of the lawyer Aldo Bozzi –
acting as a private citizen – whose suit eventually got a verdict of the Constitutional Court
against the Porcellum, the Renzusconi is a Super-Porcellum. Even D’Alimonte, one of its own
architects, has publicly doubted whether its thresholds are constitutional.
Does that mean it will, like its predecessor, be struck down? Such an assumption would be
ingenuous. In Europe, constitutional courts are rarely deaf to the requirements of the
government of the day – the ductility of the Bundesverfassungsgericht in Germany is typical
enough – and the Italian least of all. Ten of its fifteen judges are directly political
appointments, half picked by the president and half by Parliament. To get a sense of the
effect, it is enough to note that Napolitano’s most recent pick has been Craxi’s consigliere,
Amato, while its current vice-president, Mazzella – picked by Parliament under Berlusconi –
was host to Alfano, Berlusconi and the elder Letta at a private dinner a few months before the
court was due to pronounce on the Lodo Alfano. After striking down the blocked party lists of
the Porcellum in December, when the court published the reasoning for its decision in
January, it left open – ‘after informal consultations’ – their permissibility, after all, in smaller
constituencies. Three days later Renzi and Berlusconi, having squared the court in advance,
announced their package with just that minor modification of the Porcellum in it.
Judicial performances like this are far from peculiar to Italy. In Britain, we have only to
think of justices Denning, Widgery or Hutton. Unique, however, is the spectacle of an
assembly composed of deputies whose seats are owed to legislation struck down as an
unconstitutional abuse of the rights of the citizen, not merely continuing to sit and legislate
imperturbably, but to rewrite the constitution itself. In the annals of public law, nothing
comparable has ever been seen before. But in Italy the Constitutional Court is unruffled.
Explaining that ‘the continuity of the state’ would be in jeopardy if the illegality of the
Porcellum were to call into question the legitimacy of the Parliament elected on it, the court
has already entitled Parliament to change the constitution. According to this Alice in
Wonderland logic, if tomorrow a government rigged elections wholesale, or proclaimed a
state of emergency suspending civil liberties, it would have done wrong, but should keep on
trucking, since otherwise the continuous existence of the Republic would be at risk – the
doctrine of the king’s two bodies updated for postmoderns.
During the 1848 Revolution, at the dawn of principles of democratic proportionality – the
first scheme for equitable political representation had been proposed by a follower of Fourier
two years earlier – Lamartine remarked: ‘electoral laws are the dynasties of national
sovereignty.’ Quite how pointed, and prophetic, the analogy would prove to be, he was not to
know. The dynasty now to be foisted on the people of Italy is retrograde even among its
peers: Bourbon of the Neapolitan variety, one might say. But its maker can legitimately
exult. With it, the momentum Renzi currently enjoys could be locked in for quite a while.
Overnight, his party has become a largely submissive phalanx behind him. Too pleased with
himself and dismissive of others beyond his Florentine coterie to be much liked at close range,
Renzi nevertheless promises to deliver a power the PD has never enjoyed. The party has at
last found a winner, and for the time being frondes will be few. Its cabinet members are
lightweights incapable of crossing him, whose function is to project youth and gender parity,
and throw his pre-eminence into relief. The mainstream press is supportive across the board,
when not lyrical. But if its enthusiasm recalls the euphoria of the British media around the
early Blair, the context has changed. Then neoliberalism was cresting. Today its tide is still
coming in, but white horses are thinning out – the exuberance is gone. Cameron and Clegg
may be pressing beyond Thatcher, but there is no popular buoyancy to their agenda. Under
Hollande or Rajoy, Kenny or Passos Coelho, not to speak of Samaras, spending cuts and
labour deregulation proceed, but in a spirit of dour necessity, not zestful emancipation.
Renzi’s style does not permit that. His message of hope and excitement requires measures
that are something more than belt-tightening. Coming to power by an inner-party coup,
without a popular mandate, he needs validation at the polls, and the European elections are
looming. In the past, centre-left variants of neoliberalism were typically compensatory,
offering side-payments to strategic constituencies to numb their social impact. With the crisis,
the margin for such concessions has shrunk. For Renzi, it is critical it be widened again. The
side-payments must come up front, without delay, before electors become disillusioned. So
his opening package of social measures combines legislation making it so easy for new
workers to be fired that even the Economist has raised its eyebrows, with a handout of €1000
in tax-cuts to the least well-paid, unabashedly presented as a plum for the polls.
To pay for these and further expenditures to induce growth, Renzi has made plain that the
corset of the fiscal compact will have to be loosened. Italy, he has informed Brussels, is no
longer to be lectured like a schoolchild in front of a blackboard. Since the calculations of the
EU Commission, like those of the European Central Bank, and not least the regime in Berlin
– the three authorities that matter – are ultimately always more political than technical, he
is likely to get his way. Renzi’s zeal for structural reforms can be trusted, as Berlusconi’s could
not, so there is no point in making life difficult for him by being too literal-minded about the
permissible ceiling on deficits. Rules in the EU, should they prove inconvenient, are there to
be sensibly bent, not mechanically followed. Much the same will apply to Manuel Valls in
France, hailed no less eagerly in the business press, the FT editorialising on the spot: ‘Europe’s
New Boys on the Block – Brussels should consider looser budgets for Valls and Renzi.’ How
far such adjustments will provide life-blood to the Italian economy in any longer run remains
to be seen. What counts in the short run is electoral oxygen for its new ruler. For the
moment, Renzi has every reason to be confident.
*
What of the winter of the patriarch? In a farce typical of Italian justice, his conviction for
multi-million tax evasion has ended with the prosecutor waiving any demand for his house
arrest and the court – moved by his change of heart – assigning him an onerous four hours a
week community service in an old people’s home near his palace in Arcore: just the outcome
needed to keep him on board the Renzusconi, which he had threatened to scupper if any
worse punishment was imposed – but who could suspect rulers of the land of a line to officers
of the law? Yet though he has so far preserved his personal freedom, Berlusconi faces much
severer penalties once his sentence last June to seven years’ imprisonment for prostitution of
a minor becomes definitive in a higher court, and it is likely that his political life is nearing its
end. His party, Forza Italia, already low in the water in the polls, will sink still further, or
capsize, should he no longer be able to run it day to day. His name being its only real asset,
there will be pressure within its ranks to bring on one of his children as standard-bearer. A
wastrel son is unpresentable. Of his daughters, he is much closer to the eldest by his first
marriage, Marina, who fronts the Fininvest and Mondadori parts of his empire. But she is
rather retiring, and shows no great sign of wanting to pick up the baton. Barbara, his middle
daughter, who is 29, helps run Berlusconi’s football club, AC Milan. She is glamorous,
outgoing and reputed to be much sharper. Her mother, Veronica Lario, now deeply alienated
from her father, took care to bring her up as shielded from him as possible, so relations
between them are more distant. Less popular than her half-sister, she has more appetite for
politics. In due course, a Barbara Berlusconi ticket is not inconceivable.
The biological heirs will, however, be the least important part of Berlusconi’s historical legacy.
For the twenty years of the Second Republic, Italy marked time, in something like a
peninsular equivalent of the ‘period of stagnation’ in the USSR. Corruption scarcely abated,
and the country went into economic and social decline. Berlusconi’s governments were worse
than those of his opponents, but not by a great margin, since neither left much legislative
imprint. The principal change of the period came with Italy’s entry into monetary union
under Prodi, but it was ambiguous, lowering the country’s borrowing costs, but undermining
its exports. Apart from this, the ledger is largely blank, and since Berlusconi ruled for a bit
longer than the centre-left, his responsibility is somewhat larger.
But it would be wrong to conclude that he achieved nothing, in the end not even the
immunity for which he had entered politics. Berlusconi’s great accomplishment was to
transform his opponents in his image. Italy has long had a tradition of high quality political
science. Last year one of its best minds, Mauro Calise, published a book entitled Fuorigioco –
‘Out of the Game’. In it, he argued that the personalisation of politics was not an anti-
democratic spectre recalling the temptations of a discredited past, as the Italian left had long
feared, but the hegemonic form of rule in every Atlantic democracy save Italy. Weber had
thought that patrimonial or charismatic leadership was historically in decline in the West.
But in fact it was legal-rational authority, which he believed characteristic of modern forms
of rule, that was out of date. Video-politics has recreated charismatic leadership. That is not a
danger. For today macro-personalisation of power is public, accountable and criticisable. It
answers to a world in which communication is no longer an instrument of politics, but its
essence, of which there is no reason to be afraid. For video-politics are self-limiting,
producing leaders who are at once very powerful and very fragile – vulnerable to opinion
polls and the ballot box. What such politics raise up, they can as quickly pull down. The truth
is that macro-personalisation is not an antithesis of democracy, but its condition, in a time
when parties have lost their force. The Italian left had refused to grasp this, mistakenly
associating the liberal norm of a ‘monocratic presidentialism’ with memories of fascism, and
then stigmatising it as berlusconismo. Retreating into introverted collective forms of
leadership, lacking any charisma, it had handed over the field of relevant competition to
Berlusconi, a master of it.
Calise published his book a couple of months before Renzi’s capture of the PD, and it can be
read as programme notes of exemplary lucidity for what would ensue, as the centre-left
found a leader capable of trumping Berlusconi on his own ground. What is bracketed, of
course, in his sanguine diagnosis of the necessary forms of democratic life today is any
reflection on its substance. Macro-personalisation is not ideologically neutral. To adopt
Calise’s terms, it answers to a world in which personalities become grotesquely magnified –
Super Mario and the rest – as partisan differences, and therewith voter choices, pari passu
shrink. Berlusconi’s lasting achievement, of which he is aware, is to have reproduced in Renzi
not simply a style of leadership, but a brand of politics comparable to his own, much as
Thatcher did with Blair. It is thanks to himself, he has repeatedly said, that Renzi has turned
the PD inside out, burying once and for all any vestige of a socialist-communist past. It is a
legitimate claim.
But Italy, which since the war has known more political rebellions of one kind or another
against the established order than any other European society, is not yet quite scoured of
these. While Berlusconi and Renzi parlay with each other, their latest form remains at large.
The M5S scarcely escapes Calise’s aetiology, though video-politics it is not. Grillo personifies
the Five Stars Movement, as its larger than life founder and leader. An autocrat who tolerates
no dissent, he too operates outside Parliament, keeping close tabs on his followers within it,
and proceeding to summary expulsion of those who break rank; while the number of those
who vote in the online deliberations of the movement remains small, not more than thirty
thousand or so. The coarseness of many of Grillo’s interventions repels as much as it attracts;
likewise the ideological indeterminacy of much of his appeal, allowing for inflexions to the
right as well as the left. His general – it is not quite invariable – refusal to have any dealings
with other parties has also been self-defeating. Had he been willing, after the success of the
M5S in last year’s election, to lend external support to Bersani in exchange for an agreement
on political reform, today the Quirinale would be rid of Napolitano, Renzi would still be
fretting in the Palazzo Vecchio and Italy would have averted a Neo-Porcellum.
If it is to be effective, protest requires manoeuvre of the intelligence, along with intransigence
of the will. Maybe Grillo, learning from experience, will prove more adept, and less
commandist, in future, and the movement he has created more than a passing eddy of
turbulence. Italians must hope so, for with the disappearance of any meaningful left, for
which it is no substitute, the M5S might well emerge as the sole opposition of significance in
the country, and with all its flaws and paradoxes, still represents the only sketch anywhere in
Europe of a counter-force to what has overtaken representative democracy. Fortunately,
amid a desert of media conformism – with cynical benevolence, a centre-left senator once
privately described La Repubblica, the nation’s leading daily, as ‘our Pravda’ – Italy possesses
one newspaper, Il Fatto Quotidiano, founded four years ago by a group of independent
journalists, that fears no one and breaks every taboo: a single such case from one end of the
continent to the other. Generally friendly to the M5S, Il Fatto is often sharply critical of it too:
just what is needed.
Talk of the Italian Miracle, current in the age of Fellini and the Vespa, has long reversed into
its opposite. For decades, Italians have outdone foreigners in bemoaning the Italian Disaster,
with at best a few brave spirits upholding some redemptive pockets of excellence here and
there: fashion, the Ferrari, the Central Bank. There is no doubt that the country occupies a
special place in the set of West European states today. But that is typically misconstrued.
Italy is not an average member of the Union. But nor is it a deviant from any standard to
which it could be adjusted. There is a consecrated phrase to describe its position, much used
within and outside the country, but it is wrong. Italy is not an anomaly within Europe. It is
much closer to a concentrate of it.
[1] ‘The Economic Impact of European Integration’ (Discussion Paper 6820, Centre for
Economic Policy Research, 2008). The explanation of these findings no doubt lies in the
similarity – rather than complementarity – of the output structures of the national
economics so joined.
[2] Giovanni Sartori’s book Il Sultinato appeared in 2009. Sartori seems to have first used the
term on 5 July 2008, shortly after Berlusconi’s re-election.
[3] On the internet and in print, there has long circulated in Italy the attribution to
Napolitano of a fervent encomium to Operation Barbarossa, supposedly published in the
summer of 1941 in Il Bò, the fortnightly publication of the GUF at the University of Padua,
which now possesses the most complete holding of the journal, where this piece is not to be
found, though two issues from the autumn are missing. At that point Napolitano, just about
to matriculate, was too junior to be a plausible contributor to Il Bò, though appearing in due
course in the GUF periodical in Naples. Oddly, the apocryphal quotation has never been
denied by the Quirinale.
[4] For Monti’s revelations, confirmed by De Benedetti, see ‘Il piano del presidente’ in Alan
Friedman’s Ammaziamo Il Gattopardo (2004), an account all the more painful to the
Quirinale for the warm agreement of its American author with the objectives of the Passera
plan.
[5] Chi commanda Firenze. La metamorfosi dei poteri e i suoi retroscena attraverso la
figura di Matteo Renzi by Duccio Tronci (Castelvecchi, 139 pp., £14, May 2013, 978 8 87615
741 7): much the best study of its subject.
Vol. 36 No. 10 · 22 May 2014 » Perry Anderson » The Italian Disaster
pages 3-16 | 17686 words
ISSN 0260-9592 Copyright © LRB Limited 2014 ^ Top

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