People ask us: Is this the end for Berlusconi? And we answer: No, it isn’t. Not necessarily. And even if it were, it wouldn’t be the end of Berlusconism as a fetishistic mass cult, an ideological current in Italian life and a certain way of using the media.
The most likely outcome is Berlusconism without Berlusconi. His former allies who are strong-arming him into resigning as prime minister are preparing a continuation of Berlusconism by other means. Gianfranco Fini, the former neo-fascist who is now being idolised even by some left-wing amnesiacs, is yet another Man of Destiny pretending to have come to town this morning. People seem to forget that Fini is still the man who was in alliance with Berlusconi for 16 years; who took advantage of Berlusconi’s conflict of interests; who voted for every shameful bill on employment, the environment, the judiciary and so on; who supported the police in every case of brutality against demonstrators, strikers or prison inmates; and who personally devised two very repressive pieces of legislation: the Bossi-Fini Act on immigration and the Fini-Giovanardi Act on drugs. In Italy, amnesia rules.
And even if Berlusconi were to disappear, that wouldn’t be the end of his multimedia empire: his son Piersilvio is the vice-chairman of Mediaset and his daughter Marina is the chairman of the Mondadori publishing group. They’ll throw their weight into defending their family’s interests, their father’s impunity and what they see as the ‘legacy’ of these sad years. Berlusconism will be with us for a long time to come.
However, there is little doubt that Berlusconi himself (and thus Berlusconism in the strict sense of the word) is in a crisis that will not leave him unhurt. To be precise, there are two crises.
The first has to do with Berlusconi’s body. Facelifts, blepharoplasty, injections of hyaluronic acid, hidden heels, a perennial emphasis on physical prowess, delusional claims that he’ll live to be 120: all this has the opposite effect of the one intended, making him look like the old man he is, not the younger man he pretends to be. And sometimes his body tells the truth: he passes out and has to be carried away, or appears in public with a swollen, puffy face, or vanishes for days – though we tend not to notice because his image is always everywhere – and when he reappears he’s said to have had ‘a cold’, like Andropov or Chernenko in the early 1980s. His virtual body cannot escape the decay of his actual body. The masquerade of eternal youth, of the father who pretends to be the same age as his children (now that they’re in their forties he rarely appears with them in photographs, because if they’re middle-aged, then he must be old), is put under ever increasing pressure, even if it’s still working for now. You can’t dispel a fetish simply by pointing it out. For many Italians, Berlusconi, even in his most grotesque, powdered and swollen version, is still better than the other guys.
The second crisis has to do with with what we recently called the ‘Discourse of Berlusconi’, which goes more or less like this:
If you vote for me you can do whatever you want to, as long as you don’t damage the interests of the rich. You can extend your house without worrying about permits. You can evade taxes. You can break speed limits – who cares about them? You can hire workers off the books. You can chase young pussy. You can fuck around as much as you want, as long as you don’t question the Real (i.e. property, class privileges and so on). By voting for me, you’ll keep in power someone who shares your intolerance for rules and limits. I’ll authorise you to do as you please, and you in turn will let me use the state to pursue my own private interests. You know it, I know that you know it, and you know that I know that you know it, and you know you’d better not fuck with me because I know it.
This is the peculiar, Berlusconist interpretation of today’s main capitalist imperative: ‘Enjoy!’ If Berlusconi’s coalition is crumbling, it’s because too few people have access to such ‘enjoyment’. In plain words: too many people now find themselves penniless. Berlusconi spent three years doing nothing about the financial crisis. Instead, he went around saying that there was no crisis, that Italy was doing fine; then he announced that whatever crisis there had been, it was over anyway. This, more than any ‘bunga bunga’, was what sealed his fate. The country is exhausted. Small and medium-sized businesses are closing one after another, workers are losing their jobs in every sector.
‘Do as you please’ has been Berlusconi’s trump card for many years, but the imperative isn’t working anymore. Vicarious ‘enjoyment’ only lasts so long. The parties with hookers, the buckets of champagne, the mansions in Sardinia and the Caribbean, the continuous gourmandising while the country is collapsing: this can’t go on much longer. Italians may continue to admire Berlusconi’s ruthlessness and alleged sexual vitality, but there’s now a more urgent need to make ends meet and feed their families.
This doesn’t mean that the frustration will lead to revolt, or to any meaningful change in politics. It just means that the old narrative is no longer working and must be replaced by something else. Many of Berlusconi’s former allies have realised this and are leaving the sinking ship one after another. The trouble is, they’re taking refuge on a boat that’s heading on exactly the same course.