The Whole of Italy in His Hands: Silvio Berlusconi Has Become the Most Dangerous Man in Europe, the Harbinger of a New Style of Political Control

Article excerpt

Silvio Berlusconi's leadership of Italy has ushered in a new phenomenon of the media age: the power of the media, unmedia-ted by politics. Italy, which is inventive in politics -- it pioneered fascism in the early 20th century, and Euro-communism in the century's latter half -- is again creative in the 21st century. It is rehearsing a new political act -- that of mediacracy.

Berlusconi's actions in government make one value once more professional politicians and establishments. Alone among the leaders of the Group of Seven advanced industrial democracies, Berlusconi is not a professional politician. Tony Blair, George Bush, Jacques Chirac, Lionel Jospin, Jean Chretien, Junichiro Koizumi and Gerhard Schroder have all practised politics at some level for decades. Where they pose as "outsiders" (as do Bush and Koizumi), it is within limits, and is seen as something of a game.

But Berlusconi is a real political outsider. From the 1970s, he built huge wealth: first in property in Milan; then in the media, taking his Mediaset company from nothing to three channels--thus ensuring a virtual monopoly of the non-state TV sector. In both of these careers, he was hugely assisted by Bettino Craxi, the talented and corrupt leader of the Socialist Party, whose government fashioned a media law made to measure for Berlusconi's expanding TV empire. Berlusconi's career has been that of a mogul: he came to politics a decade ago, when he was already in his fifties, to be a mogul in politics.

Berlusconi succeeded in a third feat of managerial and personal efficiency: the creation of his party Forza Italia and, simultaneously, the rebuilding of a fragmented and factionalised right. He was elected prime minister at the head of a right-wing coalition in 1994, but was soon thrown out of power after a series of gross blunders. Within two years, he had united the parties once more, putting Forza Italia ahead in the polls. It was a unique recovery, which meant that the spectre of Berlusconi, his media power and wealth loomed over the political landscape during the last three years of the Ulivo centre-left government.

Berlusconi came to government last year on one slogan: that the business of Italian government was business. It was a bourgeois Leninism: Lenin believed that the communist state could be run like a giant factory; Berlusconi believes that it can be run as a giant service company with -- as the La Repubblica journalist Antonio Polito wrote earlier this month--"ambassadors more like directors of company branches, consuls more like commercial representatives, and a foreign ministry more like Publitalia [an Italian promotion company]".

He became notorious with his speech, delivered in Berlin a few weeks after 11 September, to the effect that western civilisation was superior to Islam; and with his fit of temper that Italy did not get the Food Standards Institute in a Euro carve-up of agencies. (It went to the Finns, "who do not know what prosciutto is".)

These incidents show a man who grandstands on the international stage with outbursts that play well at home. The "civilisation" speech said what many thought, but no politician dared to say; according to the polls, it proved very popular. Later, he denied any intent to wound or offend. In the media, the bold offence is the important thing--the apology is always in small print, or at the end of the news bulletin.

But this posturing is less important than a consistent policy of downgrading the state by reducing its institutions. Even in opposition, he was waging war on a judiciary that was surrounding him and his companies with a thickening skein of allegations of corruption. Elio Veltri, a centre-left MP who co-wrote the bestselling book on Berlusconi, The Smell of Money (L'odore dei soldi), says that, "at a time [the latter half of the 1990s] when all the international organisations were raising the alarm against corruption, the favourite ally of organised crime and of the recycling of dirty money, Berlusconi convinced politicians, intellectuals and citizens that, in all, our country was no different from others and that corruption is an invention of a handful of magistrates thirsting for power". …