I spent the night after Berlusconi won his first election working until the smallest hours to meet a deadline. I remember listening to Radio Popolare in my headphones while Justine slept, and hearing Northern League leader and ally Umberto Bossi trash Berlusconi in an interview at 3 am.
Neither of these details is casual, my working through the night or Bossi’s intemperance. I have been a freelance worker all my life. Freelance is an upbeat, empowering word, but it comes with little or no bargaining power, little or no legal protection, the more or less permanent worry about where the next job will come from, fretting about when you’re going to get paid, and occasionally not getting paid at all – which, back when I started, wasn’t at all infrequent. Justine and I had moved in together six months before that 1994 election, and money was tight. When I asked our local bank about the possibility of a personal loan, the manager said he couldn’t help me but kindly directed me towards a private firm. I discovered some time later that this was a loan shark outfit.
I’ve always been a freelance worker, even during the 18-month stint when I kept regular office hours in a regular office and I was expected to turn up every day, like a regular employee. I am unexceptional in this: Italians of my generation quickly learned not to expect from the private sector the offer of an open-ended employment contract, which most businesses regard as too costly and inflexible. When I moved to New Zealand, I found that there was very little difference between being a casual and a permanent employee, for here precarity had been enshrined in legislation by a decade of reforms, and the cost of labour had been brought into line with the realities of the global marketplace and the needs of business. A nice word for this is modernisation. Whereas while successive governments in Italy gave various names to the aleatory contracts under which I operated (the wonderfully onomatopoeic co.co.co. being the most popular one), a substantial separation was maintained between the country as it worked on paper and the erosion of workers’ rights in the real world.
|The Liberation Day demonstration in Milan of 1994 photographed by Nanni Moretti for his film Aprile|
Berlusconi seized power in 1994 promising a ‘new Italian miracle’. It was obvious even then that his miracle act was to stay out of jail, something that once his friends in politics had been routed by the corruption scandals uncovered in 1992 and 1993 he could only hope to achieve via Parliamentary immunity and writing his own laws. Accordingly, his was a regime based on illegality, or rather a-legality: a suspension of various laws, and a suspension of judgments more generally, including moral judgments concerning how various centres of power – the mafia, the Church, nodes of concentrated capital relying on quasi-feudal relations – operated in the country. This particular form of literal conservation (as opposed to the more commonly inflected political conservatism) was the singular objective of the nearly seventeen years he spent as a politician, eleven of which as Prime Minister. Only conservation could allow Berlusconi to reactivate the consensus machine of the old Christian Democrats and hold together a coalition of heterogeneous and in many respects antithetical forces; only conservation could allow him to keep painting the Left, grotesquely, as ‘communists’, at the same time as he legitimised the archaic, visceral attachment to the land of the Northern League and gave new respectability to Gianfranco Fini’s fascist party. None of this would be possible in a ‘modern’ Western country, which is what perplexed foreigners so greatly about Berlusconi’s Italy, alongside his failure to reform the country according to the prevailing free-market models.
This is the failure that The Economist will forever begrudge him. To be fair he made something of an attempt in 1994, only to provoke a massive popular backlash culminating in the million-strong march in Rome that helped bring about the early collapse of his first government. In his subsequent terms as Prime Minister, in spite of commanding large majorities, he opted instead to occupy power, cement his populism and surround himself with vassals hand-picked for their mediocrity who would depend on him entirely for their political survival, thus ensuring their loyalty.
As well as leveraging a near-total control over the nation’s media, his populism was predicated on a revisionist approach to history and a radical degradation of political discourse. The immediate and repeated attempts by Berlusconi and his allies to commemorate the veterans of Mussolini's Salò Republic alongside the victims of Nazism and Fascism, far from reflecting a pointless fixation, were instrumental to the weakening of our Republican institutions and to the systematic attacks against our public education system and the teachers, whom he accused of inflicting their anti-government propaganda upon the nation’s children; while the name of the party with which Berlusconi hastily entered politics – Forza Italia (Go Italy!) – was the perfect expression of the kind of language that was to dominate the second Republic inaugurated by his government. He had succeeded in reducing politics to a slogan, because politics had been emptied of historical and social articulation and was thus ripe for a takeover by marketing professionals.
Throughout all this, Dorian Gray-like, Berlusconi never aged. Time for him truly seemed to pass differently. While his lawyer, Cesare Previti, was jailed for corrupting judges to favour the sale to Berlusconi of the country’s largest publishing house, he himself was acquitted from instigating the crime because the terms of his prosecution had lapsed. Endless deferral tactics allowed him to stave off many more trials. But keeping time still so fiercely for so long eventually took its toll on the leader, and towards the end of his regime political power, cosmetic surgery and pharmacology no longer sufficed to ensure his longevity. He turned to young blood instead. Having been divorced by his second wife, he housed a large contingent of young prostitutes at an apartment complex in Milano 2, the suburb named like a sequel that he had built in the Seventies, and whence his business empire had sprung forth. It was an all too literal return to youth that would play a significant role in his unravelling. Yet those excesses also signified, alongside a troubled and troubling conception of the female body that continues to mark Italian culture very profoundly, the full depth of national anxieties concerning historical transitions and the passing of time itself.
The schedule of repayments of our sovereign debt is one inexorable external measure of this passing, made starker by the inability of our economy – at least the legal economy that sits atop the vast area known as “il sommerso”, that is to say its underground, literally “submerged” counterpart – to keep pace with it. That is the timeline that is catching up with Italy now, demanding a reckoning with the economic pact known as Europe, a pact that we signed up for in the hope that it would force modernity upon us. Now it demands of us that we modernise the country according not to a system of shared values, but to the needs of the bond markets.
This is what makes these days of celebrations hollow: the knowledge that Berlusconi’s fall is not a victory of democracy, quite the contrary. He will be replaced for a time – precisely how long, we don’t know – by Mario Monti, former European Commissioner, former chancellor of Università Bocconi – call it the Milan School of Economics if you like – current president of the Trilateral Commission, advisor to the likes of Goldman Sachs and Coca-Cola, and whom nobody elected. This technocrat is now being asked to form a cabinet of other technocrats and make from outside of politics some of the most political decisions that the country has had to make for decades, and to effectively restart our history. You may be surprised to hear that I don’t greatly begrudge him this role, and that I don’t think that economic shock therapy along the lines of Greece’s proposed reforms or the Portuguese re-entry plan is the inevitable outcome of his tenure (although of course it’s far from unlikely); but above all I am genuinely saddened that it has come to this, and that our exhausted institutions couldn’t produce a democratic response to the nation’s protracted economic and political crisis other than an almost heroic deferral of the demand for change and reform.
The body of the leader will serve as one of the enduring symbols of these two lost decades. Carefully and surgically preserved, mythologised for its virile strength (he reckoned he could go for hours, although the recorded conversations amongst his protégés suggest otherwise), airbrushed, the face frozen in a permanent smirk: this was our transubstantiated political body, the vessel in which we projected one last time the belief that our post-war economic miracle was for real, and lived on. But no more. As of today we wake up in a different body, which may not even be male, with a different skin, which may not even be white, and we’ll have to learn again what it means to look after it.