Only Loyal to Himself

Silvio Berlusconi and L’Etat Pour Moi

There’s an old Doonesbury comic strip about a group of rich people attending a seminar to overcome their guilt about being rich.

Never made president. Mobile advert, Milano.

Their trainer tells them that their remorse resulted from the political landscape of the 1960s and 1970s, where being “a bourgeois” meant being bad or irrelevant.

Like a lot of vintage Doonesbury, it hasn’t aged well, but I could not stop thinking about it when reading the titles of the Italian centre-right media in the wake of Silvio Berlusconi’s death.

In particular, La Verità, a nondescript, trashy daily, titled its feature on Berlusconi’s funeral in Milano “Un Borghese Grande Grande” (A Big Big Bourgeois), with evident pride.

This title is not just hyperbole, and it’s more subtle than probably intended.

Un Borghese Piccolo Piccolo (A Petty Petty Bourgeois) is one of the most intelligent and least-known films by Mario Monicelli (1915-2010), the brilliant director who achieved international fame in 1959 with his Oscar-nominated comedy I Soliti Ignoti (The Usual Unknown).

Borghese is still a comedy, but it’s incredibly dark and ominous.

The film tells the story of Giovanni, a modest public clerk, who does everything in his power, no matter how ridiculous or humiliating, to ensure his not-so-bright son Mario has a solid financial future and the right connections.

However, Mario is killed by a stray bullet during a bank robbery, and Giovanni’s life is ruined. Bitter and overcome by hatred, he kidnaps the robbery’s perpetrator and slowly tortures him to death.

The film ends with Giovanni, who, having enjoyed the taste of violence, seems ready to continue avenging his humiliation with more killings.

In the minds of many Italian Giovannis, Silvio Berlusconi was the avenger of the Italian middle and upper classes who spent the 1960s and 1970s feeling besieged by political turmoil, increasing city violence and financial uncertainty.

But unlike Borghese’s Giovanni, Berlusconi never played the political vigilante part.

On the contrary, he designed his political vision as though it were a surreal and reassuring TV show, where everyone was invited except those stupid or envious enough not to join the party. And those who did were “the communists”, of course.

Silvio Berlusconi’s ascent took place in two stages.

Born in 1936 to a well-to-do family (his father was a banker), Berlusconi refused to follow in his dad’s footsteps, pursuing real estate and music (he played upright bass and piano), alternating between lucrative development deals (the legendary Milano Due gated community) and socialising.

Il Cavaliere, as he became known (The Knight), used his real estate earnings to pursue his other speciality, media advertising. He invested in the then-new cable TV business and kept an overall eye on the evolution of the media landscape worldwide.

Up until 1977, Berlusconi was very rich but not a household name or political powerhouse, and he would remain that way if, in 1978, he had not begun to receive billions in investment funds through an amazingly complicated network of “Chinese” boxes.

The origin of this money has never been entirely ascertained. But, over the years, enough evidence has been gathered to conclude that some of it was recycled mafia money.

Another event was the founding of Fininvest, the holding company and media group that will become synonymous with his growing media empire,

Meanwhile, and in secret, Berlusconi had joined the Propaganda Due (P2) Masonic lodge, run by Licio Gelli, a criminal and financier.

A fascist with close links to far-right governments in South America and Europe, Gelli was at the centre of the complex web of terrorists responsible for the Bologna Massacre in 1980, which killed 85 people, and the murder of investigative journalist Mino Pecorelli.

Licio Gelli transformed P2 into a semi-clandestine organisation collecting funds for a “conservative revolution” whose scope was to stop the rise of communism in Italy.

In Italy’s 1976 election, the Communist Party (PCI) received the second-highest number of votes and was on the verge of entering government in an “external support” role, but was cut short by Prime Minister Aldo Moro’s kidnapping and murder by the Red Brigades.

For Gelli and his cohorts and for the Western intelligence agencies that supported them, this was unthinkable. The communists had to be stopped.

Joining P2 was, however, a bit out of character for Berlusconi. Most of P2’s members were ageing right-wing and conservative personalities, many in the military.

While openly anti-communist, in 1978, Silvio Berlusconi was only 42 and not considered a traditional right-winger.

He had close ties to Bettino Craxi, the erstwhile head of the Socialist Party who would lead Italy during the 1980s, and Berlusconi became one of Craxi’s main sponsors.

But still, Berlusconi joined P2 and is said to have been fully aware of what was happening there.

It’s also almost certain that his lodge membership was sought for his ability to funnel money and his budding media influence (but not yet an empire).

Much has been made of Silvio Berlusconi’s relationships with Vladimir Putin, Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafi, and his political alliance with national populist Matteo Salvini.

However, from the start, Berlusconi sold himself as much as an Atlanticist as a Eurosceptic.

It’s true that from Barack Obama onwards, his relationship with the White House cooled down. Nonetheless, Berlusconi saw America as a strategic ally, and the US saw him as a helpful asset.

Considering how the CIA appeared to have infiltrated the P2 lodge, Berlusconi’s presence there was unsurprising. However construed, it was a win-win situation for him politically and financially.

From 1978 to 1983, Berlusconi’s importance and influence explodes.

Through extensive political lobbying and outright corruption, he can make sure his new private television stations get the broadcasting space that Italian law would then (in theory) reserve to the RAI (Italy’s public broadcaster) monopoly.

For Silvio Berlusconi, it’s not just an entrepreneurial battle. His rivalry with RAI is ideological too. He wants to give Italians the kind of lowbrow, flashy entertainment he believes Italians (especially the young) desperately seek and that RAI, in his view, doesn’t provide.

This is the mythology, but in retrospect, the reality was different. By 1983 RAI programs were all but stuffy or unpopular. Today, RAI has a parallel business rebroadcasting and recycling material from that era, which has remained unwaveringly popular.

However, for Berlusconi, in RAI’s programming, there was too much politics (the kind he didn’t like), not enough advertising (which Berlusconi saw as an entertainment genre ) and most crucially, not enough America, the kind of Reagan-era television he loved.

Fininvest filled Silvio Berlusconi’s privately owned channels with formats and series taken straight from American television.

Berlusconi didn’t introduce Italy to evening talk shows. RAI beat him to it in 1977. But he designed his media offerings in a way that was a massive departure from the past, which stuck a chord with a public eager for novelty.

He also filled his shows with plenty of sexual innuendoes (often crude but effective) and, crucially, political manipulation.

During the mid-1980s, when there was a concerted attempt to stop his takeover of the airwaves and reaffirm RAI’s monopoly, Berlusconi addressed his constituency by playing the victimised entrepreneur, something new to Italy that was to become one of his trademarks.

However, Berlusconi’s trajectory was to change again in 1994, when he “entered the fray” (his trademark term), founding the Forza Italia party and winning the elections in a matter of months.

The reasons for this turn have been discussed to death. Still, the most important one was that all political sponsors Berlusconi had were swept away by the Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) anti-corruption judicial investigation, which was partly politically motivated.

Most importantly, the Socialist Party, until then Berlusconi’s main ally, was gutted. And without sponsors, Berlusconi’s overextended, financially overexposed empire was soon to be dismantled.

Il Cavaliere decided to become his own protector. And he did it with the same aggressive, creative way he had used to build Fininvest.  Right from the start, “Forza Italia” (Hurray for Italy) was a clear throwback to Berlusconi’s role as a soccer mogul after buying the Milan Football Club.

The branding was intended to make Forza Italia seem modern and popular and, at the same time, make the old political parties (already ailing because of Mani Pulite) seem stuffy and conservative.

But it’s important to note that Berlusconi’s campaign was not generically against “old politics”. His movement was an explicitly neoliberal right-wing one, and his enemies were overwhelmingly labelled communists.

In fact, Silvio Berlusconi invented a whole new mythical category of communist, which included anyone who didn’t side with him. Leftists, of course, were a part, along with judges who investigated him, government regulators, and liberals.

Berlusconi was unwavering in his denunciation of communism throughout his career, and, curiously, long after there were none left in Italy’s parliament.

This worked well with his voters, who wanted a readymade label to demonise anyone begging to differ and blame communists for any evil which had befallen Italy since 1945.

At the same time, Berlusconi began a subtle but relentless campaign to rehabilitate the Italian post-fascist right, downplaying Mussolini’s crimes (often comparing him favourably to Hitler or Stalin) and making the twenty years of fascist rule seem like a benign parenthesis.

There was a political plan behind this, in part to attract the disenfranchised post-fascist electorate, in part to favour the ascent of his erstwhile ally Gianfranco Fini at the helm of Alleanza Nazionale, the movement that succeeded the fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI).

Fini proceeded to denounce the fascist past, made a very much-publicised visit to Israel, and acted as if the Italian far-right was becoming a modern conservative force.

Meanwhile, Berlusconi attracted the newly-born Lega Nord movement into his orbit. The original Lega was wildly regionalist and called for the wealthy, industrialised north to secede from the “bureaucracy-ridden” Rome and the “welfare queens” of the south.

These goals didn’t necessarily align with Berlusconi’s strategy. Still, the Lega was very market-friendly and provided the Forza Italia-led coalition with a crucial base of voters, freeing Berlusconi from forming alliances with older centrist parties.

However, part of this strategy’s success was due not to Berlusconi but to his opposition. Who were, in retrospect, fooled into playing Forza Italia’s tune.

The post-Cold War left was in disarray, the formerly powerful Partito Comunista had self-detonated, but there was still a large part of Italy that could not buy Berlusconi’s rhetoric and “Berlusconism”, as it was beginning to be called.

But from the start, the opposition concentrated not on Berlusconi’s politics but on Berlusconi himself, which was precisely what Berlusconi wanted.

Being a very good live performer and character actor, Berlusconi quickly turned every bit of personal attack and political satire aimed at him into advertising for his role as Italy’s saviour, alternating between playing victim to Barnum-like tactics (“There’s no such a thing as bad publicity.”)

It worked like a charm for years and still worked when Berlusconi died. A surreal competition started on social media between mourners trumpeting his mythical achievement against communism and detractors, for whom the most egregious thing was not giving Berlusconi the state funeral the Italian law allowed him to receive.

More than anything else, the left’s cultural tactics against Berlusconi were often limited to insulting Il Cavaliere and his voters without creating a communication strategy that proposed a realistic alternative.

As has often been said, if there was one thing Silvio Berlusconi was good at, it was choosing his enemies.

From 1994 to 2011, Silvio Berlusconi ran four separate governments for more than ten years of rule. He always promised sweeping reforms during his campaigns and invariably failed to implement any of them once elected.

Berlusconi used dozens of laws to enrich himself and his allies, divert judicial attempts against him, and improve his popularity with right-wing voters using short-lived and sometimes inept (but hugely publicised) laws on controversial issues, often against migrants or minorities.

At the same time, he went on eroding state services such as welfare and healthcare and weakened labour rights, following a neoliberal agenda that has often been downplayed or belittled by some of his liberal opponents, who usually just wanted to copy him.

This ability to do nothing (or do just what he was personally interested in) and simultaneously appear to be a successful, charismatic and competent politician to his followers is the key to understanding Berlusconi’s political success.

In foreign policy, Berlusconi’s record was way more mixed. He was unwavering in his vocal support of the United States. The White House found him helpful, but he was not universally liked in Washington, except for George Bush Jr.

Silvio Berlusconi often found himself at odds with the rest of the European leadership, who seemed to dislike his offhand manners and legendary “gaffes” more than his political views.

As mentioned earlier, he had cordial relationships with Vladimir Putin and Muammar Gaddafi, motivated more by personal reasons than politics, and that would later haunt him.

Berlusconi was popular with conservative Israelis and hostile to Palestinians, but he never antagonised Italy’s longstanding policy of playing the two sides while collaborating with Israel on security matters.

He became one of the main sponsors of Turkey’s accession to the European Union. Initially, he had a friendly relationship with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, which fell apart over Israel-related issues.

“Berlusconism” made many converts abroad, and it has been claimed with some justification that populists like Donald Trump, Erdoğan, Jair Bolsonaro and Viktor Orbán copied his recipe.

This is only partially true. Berlusconi used populism as a tool but did not believe in populist rule. He remained a committed and aggressive conservative neoliberal to the end, seeing everything through the lens of “what’s good for business is good for Italy”.

In such a guise, he avoided antagonising forces that could ally to crush him – centrist parties and the military. Berlusconi’s efforts to remain in power were almost always by manipulating the political system and corruption, not necessarily with the crude methods used by Donald Trump.

Over time, this extended Silvio Berlusconi’s political resilience, which would be significantly damaged by what happened in 2011.

(To be continued)

Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.