Berlusconi is a Decoy
pubblicato da Francesca
In the last few years Italian politics has mainly featured in international media on the occasion of Silvio Berlusconi's countless gaffes, or the scandals about his procurement of escorts and promotion of glamour models and TV hostesses to political office. This low spectacle has repeated itself with the latest governmental crisis, in which the president of the chamber of deputies, Gianfranco Fini, and his followers broke away from the Casa delle Libertà (Freedom People) movement. Berlusconi's routine buffoonery and sexism have now been joined by blasphemy after he used the Italian language's most offensive religious oath – cue the insincere outrage of the opposition and the condemnation of the church, which he has long tried to woo with his views on euthanasia and abortion.
Berlusconi's persona, equal parts cruise-ship entertainer and megalomaniac company boss (his previous vocations), has monopolised Italian politics for more than 15 years. Drawing attention to his character rather than his policies, and forcing the opposition on to a media terrain he dominates, Berlusconi's faux pas could almost be seen as part of a decoy strategy, averting any real discussion of the country and its problems.
But one should resist the temptation – bolstered by his blatant use of political power to thwart numerous legal proceedings – to imagine that Berlusconi represents Italy's chief problem (the Economist magazine, for example, believes the Italian prime minister's conflicts of interests and endless buffoonery besmirch the honourable cause of free-market liberalism). This notion also lies behind the attempt to organise Italy's own "colour revolution" – the Popolo Viola (Purple People), an anti-political movement of disgruntled communists and social democrats forged around the comedian Beppe Grillo and the anti-corruption judge turned politician Antonio Di Pietro. This week it held a No B Day 2 (a no-to-Berlusconi protest), the use of English Twitter-speak a further sign of opposition disorientation.
Elections are likely in March, and with Berlusconi's star waning it is worth considering what may lie on the other side of Berlusconismo. The governing coalition, with its volatile blend of racist northern secessionism, postfascist authoritarian liberalism and Berlusconi's entrepreneurial populism, has deflected attention from the grim economic climate by persecuting migrants and catering to the propertied. Raw egotism – whether individual, corporate or regional – has been raised to the level of principle. The ubiquitous talk of "freedom" means licence for some, insecurity for the rest.
Unemployment among the young and women is rampant, labour precariousness widespread, and Italy has one of the worst records in Europe for deaths at work. The government, despite the massive burden of women's unpaid work (some statistics put their real working week at 60 hours), seeks to raise their retirement age. Legislation entrenching unpaid work for researchers and lecturers is yet another index of the utter disregard for social progress in any form. A country whose postwar constitution officially subordinated free markets to social welfare is now rife with forms of hyper-exploitation in which hunger for short-term profit translates into extreme inequality and a deplorable degeneration in civil and social rights – witness Fiat's latest attack on collective bargaining, in which the company's whole future in Italy is at stake.
These are some of the realities behind Berlusconi's obscene clowning. Previous centre-left governments are by no means innocent in this regard, having themselves promoted many of the "liberalising" policies that have created such a dismal outlook for ordinary people. A possible realignment of politics to the centre (bizarrely, this may include the postfascist Fini) is unlikely to tackle any of these problems. Removing Berlusconi, without radically addressing how far the whole society has regressed in the last two decades, will simply mean Italy will become, to borrow one of the centre-left's slogans, "a normal country" – that is to say, in the present European and global context, increasingly unequal, prejudiced and fearful.
Though they've yet to cohere into a unified platform, recent mobilisations against the privatisation of utilities and the dilapidation of education, together with union activism against the blackmail of "flexibility" threatened by Fiat, show that a social opposition to Berlusconi exists.
In this supposedly post-ideological age of the "centre ground", electoral expediency would seem to counsel against radicalism and for moderation. Yet the trajectory of the Italian left, losing conviction and consensus the more concessions it made to the idea that capitalism is the only game in town, is instructive. It is time to abandon the delusion that one can enact social-democratic ends with neoliberal means, and to find a contemporary vocabulary to address the often one-sided conflict between labour and capital which lies behind rising inequality and work "flexibility". Otherwise, Italy will simply continue on the same disastrous path with a more presentable face at its helm.