Italy: The burdensome legacy of Il Cavaliere

Following the vote to expel Berlusconi from the Senate there is a great temptation to consign to history the 20 years that Berlusconi, four times president of the Council since 1994, has been in power. It’s a temptation we know well: once the anomaly has been neutralised, one gets back to normality. As if the anomaly – a momentary digression – had never really existed.

In 1944, it was not an Italian but an American journalist, Herbert Matthews, who declared in the columns of the literary magazine Mercurio of Alba de Céspedes: ”You have not killed it! Far from being dead, fascism continues to live on in the minds of Italians. Of course, not in the same terms as yesterday, but in the way of thinking, of acting.”

The infection, our “disease of the century”, has lasted a long time. This also applies to the alleged fall of Berlusconi. It is a relief to know that he will no longer be a critical factor for the parliament and the government. But Berlusconism is still here. And it will be not easy to wean ourselves off this drug that has fascinated not only politicians and parties, but the entire society.

I say “the alleged fall” because even after his removal, Berlusconism will continue. This means the battle will also go on for those who aspire to rebuild democracy and not just to stabilise it. The two decades of Berlusconi should finally be assessed: how was Berlusconism born? How could it have taken root?

No toothless tiger

Once stripped of his office, sentenced to community service, the leader of Forza Italia will still have two formidable weapons: an intact media apparatus and “monstruous” financial resources – even more monstrous in lean times. Barred from the Senate, he will communicate with the Italians by interposed video messages.

More fundamentally, though, it is his cultural and political heritage – his ways of thinking, acting, the “disease of the century” – that will persist. Without a profound look deep into our conscience, this legacy will continue to intoxicate Italy. To start with, the conflict of interest, then the incestuous relationship between politics and racketeering: the two endure as the modus vivendi of politics. Berlusconi’s expulsion absolutely does not delegitimise them.

Another legacy is the total separation of politics from morality, or even opposition to the latter. It has become a habit, a creed that has turned into a plague. [The poet] Giacomo Leopardi has already called Italians cynics, because they are more cunning, more careless and less romantic than the peoples of the North. Nothing has changed. One still clings to Machiavelli, who distinguished politics from morality and is used to argue that the end justifies the means. But this outrageousness embodies our deepest vices: the means become the end (power for the sake of power) and change that end.

The myth of a civil society is another legacy of the last two decades: the notion that the people is better than its leader, that its verdicts overrule those of the courts. Made sovereign by democracy, civil society embodies the general will, which never errs. What’s more, wrote Salvatore Settis, an art historian and Italian intellectual, civil society is ”often regarded not only as distinct from the State, but as its adversary, almost as if the State (embodied by temporary governments) was by its nature destined to be the enemy of the common good”.

*Continue reading at Presseurop.

**Cartoon by Mario Biani.

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