The Berlusconi’s Legacy

An Interview with Paolo Flores d’Arcais by Maciej Nowicki

Because of corruption and tax evasion the national budget loses 150–180 billion euro a year—says the Italian philosopher and essayist Paolo Flores d’Arcais interviewed by Maciej Nowicki.

Can Silvio Berlusconi return to power?

Berlusconi is convinced that he can but this is only his delusion of omnipotence. He has no chance of winning, although he will get a good result and guarantees in the matters which really interest him. He will remain untouchable and keep his economic empire, which is a kind of a parallel state.

The era of Post-Berlusconism has not really begun yet. Berlusconi is present in our political life like a cancer capable of spreading. The downfall of Italy, which was caused by his political actions and visible in every area—moral, economic, social, institutional and cultural—is evident even for the social groups that used to support him. Everyone sees how much poorer our country has become. But we should remember that Berlusconi was already finished twice: in 1996 and 2006. And he has risen from the dead twice, owing to the stupidity of the Left, which did not want to finish him off, although it was a very easy thing to do. But the third resurrection will be exceedingly difficult.

In December 2012 he engineered the resignation of Prime Minister Mario Monti…

Monti’s government was very highly regarded in Europe but it was preoccupied exclusively with debt, it did not touch other matters. Laws guaranteeing immunity to politicians were not changed. Nothing was done to fight against tax fraud, which has assumed a truly incredible scale.

In the context of corruption the situation is in a sense even worse than under Berlusconi. Until recently political corruption was punished with four to 12 years in prison and now it is two to eight years. If the crime carries the minimum penalty of two years in prison, evidence from phone tapping cannot be used in court. And in this type of crime phone tapping usually is the only available form of evidence. So the new regulations are an almost foolproof guarantee that corruption will never be punished.

Also on the issue of television nothing has changed; Berlusconi retained his monopoly. Monti has not forced Berlusconi the businessman to pay for the TV stations gifted to him by Berlusconi the Prime Minister. Only the style has changed. Berlusconi’s vulgarity and his boundless populism are no longer there.

Alexander Stille wrote once that Italy was “a European laboratory of disastrous ideas.” It is here that Fascism was invented as well as the policy based on manipulation through the media Berlusconi-style, copied in other countries of Europe. Monti created the first technocratic government in Europe ravaged by the crisis. To what extent will this government serve as an example to follow?

Let us begin with what you said about Berlusconi: I don’t think his model is widely copied. Although some people say that Sarkozy is Berlusconi a la francaise, there is a huge difference between them. Sarkozy could not even dream about total control of the information and imagination of the voters. In no other democracy has anything like that been seen. Ninety percent of Italians get their information from television, only 10% read newspapers. The species called an “informed citizen” is on the brink of extinction. Berlusconi’s policy might be considered an attempt at copying Putin. It could be called “Occidental Putinism.” And no wonder that the “Tsar of Russia” was the only foreign politician who supported Berlusconi to the end.

And as for Monti… In Europe we are observing the growing impact of financial markets on sovereign states. The EU no longer exists as a democratic reality, only the financial apparatus is there. Monti represents the future of the establishment, he is a prophet of the European Right, which is saying repeatedly: all changes are impossible. In fact, as Max Weber wrote, if we don’t aspire to the impossible, achieving the possible will never be possible. Besides, invoking impossibility is only a pretext for politicians which allows them to pursue exactly the kind of policy that suits them, embodying their values and interests. Monti pursues his own policy, just like Donald Tusk or Angela Merkel.

You present Monti as a total opportunist. But it is him, rather than Francois Hollande, who stubbornly says “no” to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

These are only appearances. No other country has benefited from the introduction of the euro as much as Germany. They still profit from it, while Italy, Spain and even France have lost. So we should not be surprised that there are clashes between Monti and Merkel. It is normal that conflicts of interests appear between various national establishments, even if they share the same ideology. But if we look at politics in Europe, what do we see? A homogenous camp of the European Right, very strong, with a distinct policy. And an absence of the Left. The Right is still growing, while the tiers etat, the third estate, has no political representation.

Bepe Grillo is the only Italian politician still enjoying increasing support. And this increase is spectacular: from 6% of the vote until quite recently to a current 20%. What are the sources of this great success?

The anger directed at politicians is intensifying and there are no important differences between the political parties. Casting your vote for Grillo is the only way of expressing your discontent, of saying, “Enough! We want a radical change. Away with thieves, lies and corruption.” Other politicians are pushing the votes his way on a daily basis, Grillo could say nothing and still be gaining in the polls. And he did decide that neither he himself nor his people would appear on television. And yet the support for him is still growing.

So it is purely a voice of protest?

Absolutely. To understand how angry Italy is it suffices to look at the figures. When I was young, 85% of those entitled to vote took part in the elections. In recent years it was 70–75%. Only half of the population intends to go to the polls in the coming elections. And among them almost one in four will vote for Grillo. Contempt for politics has become an overwhelming phenomenon.

Today Italy is an equally corrupt country as Rwanda. Parties have become machines for pursuing their own interests. So this reaction is quite understandable. But why can no one change the situation?

One reason is that politicians have become the greatest enemies of politics. For twenty years elections have been won by those who presented themselves as anti-politicians.

It was that way with Berlusconi in 1994. Christian Democracy, continuously ruling the country before, collapsed under the weight of corruption. And Berlusconi had all the things a modern political party must have—huge money and the media. And he presented himself as an anti-politician: a representative of civil society fighting against the rotten party system. He told the Italians that on one side there are people like us, people of action. And on the other side there are people of empty words—that is, politicians. This was, of course, a great manipulation. Berlusconi made his fortune thanks to his friendship with Bruno Craxi and other politicians.

Later, this scenario was repeated. First the Left fielded Mario Prodi, who was not a politician. Today we have Grillo, an embodiment of anti- politics. And Monti, who is walking professionalism and common sense. The only thing we don’t have is what we really need: a genuine force for reform. In Italy, everybody is calling themselves reformers but they are always reformers without reforms. I can see no solution to this situation.

Pier Luigi Bersani, head of the Democratic Party, spoke recently about “17 years of Berlusconism”, as if he forgot that the Left held power for almost half of this period. This is a Freudian slip; the Left was so lacking in initiative that its rule could simply have gone unnoticed. Now the Democratic Party leads in the polls. What do you anticipate?

The Left was unnoticeable, for it accepted all the laws aimed at guaranteeing immunity to Berlusconi. It was in its interest to do so. The public morals of many left-wing politicians left much to be desired. The deputies didn’t want their colleagues to land in prison.

Bersani is a dyed-in-the-wool representative of the old apparatus, a party bureaucrat. He has nothing in common with left-wing values however you understand them. And this is what explains the success of the Right in most European countries: when people have to choose between two versions of the Right, they elect the genuine one. Bersani’s rival in the primaries, Matteo Renzi, was also a representative of the “non-left” but at least he offered hope for the breakdown of the rotten structures, divorced from the social reality.

What would the break-up of the euro zone mean for Italy? Many observers think that Italians would be the main beneficiaries of this development. They could devalue their currency and recapture the markets taken over by the Germans. The French would be worse off, for in their case deindustrialization has gone too far.

Such calculations are rather naive. Of course, Italy could devalue its currency, which would be a boost for its exports. But devaluation also means lowering the purchasing power of the earnings and hence, increased social tensions. Imagining the future exclusively in the economic context is pure fantasy. And the economic downfall of Italy began with Berlusconi, not the euro.

When he came to power, Italian GDP was equal to that of Great Britain and now it is a dozen percent lower. So the main reason for his failure was economic rather than political?

Absolutely. And I can’t bring myself to believe that the break-up of the eurozone could lead to our country’s recovery. For it is our politics that is sick.

Today, Italy can’t count on its politicians. What could save the country?

The biggest problem is the complete lack of respect for the law. Therefore, we need very severe laws with drastic consequences for breaking them, as in America. We would have to change all these regulations thanks to which corruption goes unpunished, taxes are not paid and the mafia is extending its influence. The Calabrian Ndrangheta has become a potent player in Lombardy and it is growing in power in Germany and Spain. It is turning into a crime international, appropriating the legal economy. The question of legality is not only an ethical and political problem but also a huge economic problem.

We are constantly hearing that there are few foreign investors willing to come to Italy and that the reason behind it is the high cost of labor. But it is not true. Investors usually name legal issues as the biggest obstacle. You never know what the law is, we have thousands of mutually contradictory regulations, so many people come to the conclusion that the decision depends only on the bribe for the bureaucrat.

The Italian chamber of industry calculated that because of corruption and tax evasion the national budget loses 150–180 billion euro a year. This a huge pile of money, which could solve the problem of the budget deficit, as well as boost consumption and put additional resources into the welfare state. Instead we hear today that we need more austerity measures and less welfare state, while that missing money would allow us to have something much better: A return to a balanced budget and more welfare state. Instead of the policy of cuts we would at last get a promise of a better future.

Maciej Nowicki

Maciej Nowicki is Deputy Editor In Chief of Aspen Review.

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