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Berlusconism without Berlusconi

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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.


  1. Phil says:

    I like the “discourse of Berlusconi” – it identifies an important element of Berlusconi’s appeal. “Berlusconi’s success as a rogue capitalist makes him an icon of asocial individual freedom — and damns his opponents as envious or ungrateful,” as I wrote in a paper that was published in 2005(!). The paper went on:

    “In the long run, Berlusconi’s patrimonial populism may prove incompatible with the traditionalist conservatism of UDC and Alleanza Nazionale. Patrimonialism and populism may themselves diverge if Berlusconi is found guilty of corruption; either one may come into conflict with Forza Italia’s attachment to free-market liberalism. But Berlusconi has weathered many storms since 2001; his novel anti-democratic hybrid may prove capable of managing its own contradictions and withstanding opposition.”

    It says something about Berlusconi’s political skills that, five years later, we’re still waiting to see if his project is going to fall apart or not.

    But I think the poster is wrong, and lazily wrong, about Fini – and about the prospects of Berlusconism without Berlusconi (where are you going to get another billionaire lounge-singer?) Politically Fini is a fairly nasty piece of work, well over to the authoritarian right of the Christian Democrat spectrum; he’s not actually a racist, and he’s definitely not a fascist sympathiser, but that’s about as liberal as it gets. He’s also, I believe, the best hope for Italian democracy at the moment. And that’s not a sign that I’ve got illusions in Fini – it’s a sign of just how bad a state Italian democracy is in.

  2. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Wu Ming (“a band of novelists”) has (have?) a very interesting project going on and a blog.

  3. Wu Ming says:

    “Berlusconism without Berlusconi” means that Berlusconism is something bigger (and more complex) than Berlusconi. It is much more than simply having Berlusconi as prime minister. Thinking that “Berlusconism” means Berlusconi would be the really lazy assumption.

    Berlusconi is certainly not a cause of the current situation: he’s a consequence. He was *created* by cultural, social and political devices that pre-existed him.
    In a way, a potential for “Berlusconism” had been (and will be) there all the time. This has to do with the very peculiar condition of Italy during and immediately after the Cold War. Anti-communism is certainly a major key to understand the chemical reactions that took place in the country. Half of the country was ready to welcome whomever they saw as an alternative to an undefined, phantomatic “Communism” that threatened the nation during the 1992-93 crisis.

    In this context, “Communism” has little to do with actual Marxist parties or movements (they were reduced to irrelevancy long ago). “Communism” is more or less everything that contrasts the hegemony of “amoral familism” and the Italian middle class’ chronical lack of civic spirit. It isn’t by chance that Berlusconi was a product of Italian life and history, a catalyst for mass fantasies of boundless enjoyment and selfish conduct.
    It certainly isn’t by chance that Berlusconi keeps warning his constituency of sinister communist plots, accusing all his foes of being communists etc. He’s not a complete idiot, he knows what he’s doing.

    The “Discourse of Berlusconi” wouldn’t have been possible in any other context. It wouldn’t have been possible without a vast mass of citizens ready to accept such an uncanny forest of double binds. They are the same double binds of amoral familism and mafia thinking.

    Thus, “Berlusconism” in the broad sense is:
    – a peculiarly Italian ideological (and anthropological) synthesis of “anti-communism”, amoral familism and hyper-modern capitalism.
    – a populist movement that will certainly undergo some transformations after the demise of its eponymous leader, but this doesn’t mean that it will cease to exist. “Peronism” keeps existing in Argentina long after Peron’s death.
    – a view of the world that had Berlusconi as the perfect top representative and will not last long without new (albeit lesser) representatives.

    Fini is not a Berlusconist in the strictest sense (at least, he no longer is). But he is still a Berlusconist in the broader sense. If you don’t like the term, we might call him a “post-Berlusconist”. What must be clear in everyone’s mind is that, all over the country, there is no right-wing or centre-right politician who in the past 16 years wasn’t heavily compromised with Berlusconi’s politics and Berlusconism as a movement and an ideology. Wells have been poisoned for a long time, and these people can’t pretend to have been elsewhere. They were among the poisoners. They helped provide the poison and the map of wells.

    • Phil says:

      What must be clear in everyone’s mind is that, all over the country, there is no right-wing or centre-right politician who in the past 16 years wasn’t heavily compromised with Berlusconi’s politics and Berlusconism as a movement and an ideology. Wells have been poisoned for a long time, and these people can’t pretend to have been elsewhere. They were among the poisoners.

      I find myself feeling both more and less pessimistic than you (plural). On one hand, I disagree with your dismissal of the possibilities opened up by the mere absence of Berlusconi, who I think is on any reading a very unusual individual – however general the tendencies he brings to perfection – and will be accordingly hard to replace. On the other, the point about well-poisoners is valid and well made, but why stop at the centre-right? What about Rutelli? D’Alema? Veltroni? Even Bersani is only a couple of degrees of separation from signor B – he’s compromised at one remove, or two at most. But if ‘left’ means Nichi Vendola and Beppe Grillo, it’ll be out in the cold for a long while yet.

      • Wu Ming says:

        You’re right, the centre-left sucks just as much. We think that the (strictly defined) political field has no potential for redemption in the short-medium term. And the comedian-turned-to-prophet Beppe Grillo is a despicable subject.

        In order to find real politics in Italy, we must look to what happens out of politics strict sense. Right now there are, from Aosta to Palermo, from Trieste to Gallipoli, hundreds of committees, associations, collectives, circles, networks that are mobilized on objectives that may look «particular» at first sight but are actually as strategically important as a struggle can get, they bear an universal value: defence of public education, public water supplies, immigrants’ rights (against the consequences of the Bossi-Fini Act), the dignity of workers, the environment, cultural institutions that resist financial cuts and downsizing, and they aren’t only struggles *against* something, but also *for* something: educational issues, redevelopment of urban wastelands or degraded, «biopolitics», lifestyle choices.

        All these energies, all this passion, suffer the absence of a narrative frame that unites rather than separating. And this, of course, is a clear strategy of concealment, but we cannot always blame others and never ourselves: we are victims of a certain rhetoric of differences, a certain «fear of universality». In recent years, such rhetoric has in fact «sectorialized» us all.

        Right now there’s struggle everywhere. Many instances are “only” defensive (rightly so, because there are things to be defended), but not all of them. Trouble is that, except in rare cases and noble efforts, these struggles are not connected to each other, neither by those who talk about them nor by those who promote and organise them. The media «lays them out» in such a way that they remain separate. A few days ago, many Italian cities were crossed by big demonstrations of students and teachers. In recent days we had intense struggle for the rights of migrants, a temp worker went on hunger strike, in the North-East people organised protests against Berlusconi’s visit on the sites of the recent big flood, firefighters went on strike in Sicily, Sardinian shepherds repeatedly clashed with the police. In the previous weeks, we had the self-organised struggle of citizens against landfills in Campania, factory workers went on a wildcat strike in Bologna (and they won!). And the great movement for public water, which managed to put on the national agenda a theme that was “invisible”… And those Southern mayors who fight against big corporate and mafia interests and are killed or ousted…

        If these struggles could find their «common multiple», if they managed to cross the paths of those who are trying not only to resist but to build something, and if they were enriched by the sharing of constructive, foundational knowledge and collective intelligence, this would have fruitful consequences, and consequences that would be a thousand times more political than all the «political» pseudo-events trumpeted in the TV news.

  4. Jon Day says:

    Thanks for this, and for Q. When did Luther Blissett become Wu Ming?

  5. Wu Ming says:

    @ Jon

    we dissolved the Luther Blissett Project in December 1999. The Wu Ming collective was born in January 2000.

  6. Geoff Roberts says:

    You have given us some interesting stuff on B’s secrets (I can’t bear to waste time typing his name) but isn’t the key to his longevity as pm is because the various Mafia families are doing very well in Italy and have supported him through all of the scandels? Won’t Fini be another puppet?

  7. Wu Ming says:

    Berlusconism has lasted in power (and in culture) for so long precisely because it represents a good, stable synthesis of all the interests and tendencies in Italian capitalism (both “legal” and “illegal”). Italian capitalism, even in cases where illegality is not blatant and the bosses aren’t *directly* linked to organised crime, is generally founded either on the legacy of “amoral familism” or a very flexible attitude towards the law (that is to say: towards limits, rules, workers’ rights, the environment, and paying taxes).
    None of the next leaders will transcend this situation.

  8. outofdate says:

    Typical Italians, blaming some irresistible quasi-metaphysical force instead of pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and then dodging such facile criticism by saying, ah, it is a peculiarly Italian phenomenon, you don’t understand…

  9. Wu Ming says:

    1. All forces playing in Italian society are *very concrete*, brutally material forces, embodied and represented by people with names and surnames. Most of these people are unknown abroad and naming them wouldn’t ring any bell in your mind.

    2. Berlusconism is both a peculiarly Italian interpretation of a more general trend *and* the most advanced interpretation of such trend, as Italy has always been an important laboratory “forewarning the world of what was around the corner” (as we wrote in the linked essay on “Pimp Power in Italy”). Wherever you live, watch your arse, because some re-elaborated, partially de-italianized version of “Berlusconism” is may be awaiting you up the road.

    3. We wrote that “half of Italy” succumbs to the capitalist imperative “Enjoy!” (in its peculiar Berlusconist interpretation), it means that the other half doesn’t, or at least tries to resist. In fact, there are struggles all over the country. Listing them would have been beyond the scope of this short article, whose aim was merely to dispel illusions on Berlusconi’s decline.
    In our everyday practice (both literary and political in the broad sense) we do all we can to help that other half (the “good side of Italy”, as stated in our website’s header) to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”. By “pulling up”, we don’t mean pretending that Gianfranco Fini or other politicians who stayed in alliance with Berlusconi for 16 years may be the solution. They are still the problem.

    • outofdate says:

      ‘Short article’ my foot. At any rate, now that you’ve pretended to take me seriously of course I wish I could erase the xenophobic sneer from my comment, but look at it my way: it’s very difficult to take the purported utterances of a sort of hive mind as anything but pedantic clowning…

      • Wu Ming says:

        I understand your position. There were people who used to talk like you about 11 years ago, when detractors expected us to be a flash in the pan. Anyway:

        – The fact that an article was written by more than one person, or written by one person and edited/approved/signed by a group should hardly take readers by surprise. Sounds like a very common practice to me.
        – Wu Ming is a collective of only four people, our noms de plume and actual names are here.
        Each member has a distinct style, personality and solo career, which our readers are perfectly aware of.
        – This LRB account was opened by the staff under the band’s name, which is consistent, since the article was collectively edited. I’m Wu Ming 1, by the way. I’m following this conversation because I’m the one who speaks and writes English most fluently, but the opinions I’m expressing are shared by my pals.
        – It would be slightly more useful to discuss the subject matter of the article than focusing on the byline we may choose or not choose.
        – Don’t worry, I didn’t regard your remark as particularly “xenophobic”. Unfortunately, we “sentient Italians” have gotten used to be instinctively dismissed because of our country’s gloomy condition. We don’t blame people from instantly applying stereotypes to us. We know that, in order to be taken seriously, we have to invest twice the energies a Brit would need to invest.

        • A.J.P. Crown says:

          It would be slightly more useful to discuss the subject matter of the article than focusing on the byline we may choose or not choose.

          It’s true you can get your comments disappeared by Thomas if you don’t stick to the writer’s topic, but I’m very interested in OutOf’s point that what Wu Ming does can be taken as “clowning”. There is some clowning, as there was with Blissett; Wu Ming must enjoy humour, but don’t you run the risk that people are going to perceive you as lightweights? The joke can’t help your serious discussion of Berlusconi, for example, can it? (Please say “Yes, it can”.)

          • Wu Ming says:

            “Yes, it can”. :-) However, at least in Italy, we’re usually (and correctly) perceived as *dead serious* about what we do. Our occasional piece of humour is perceived as “black” (even bleak) humour. And our non-fiction writings may contain a few jokes, but this happens in many strands of radical theory or activist literature. An America guy who is studying our ouput described the dominant tone in our non-fiction as “mournful”, e.g. the tone of this piece here:
            Anyway, really: why talk about *us* instead of analyzing the dangers of “undead Berlusconism”? — WM1

            • A.J.P. Crown says:

              Regarding Berlusconi & Berlusconism, you certainly make the man sound like the Devil. As for his legacy, once the discussion is less focused on the man and his morals there’s more chance of addressing the political problems of which he seems to be a symptom rather than a cause. This was also the case with Bush in the USA (though Bush was clearly not as vile a man), but no change happened there, for the reasons we all know, and you’re probably right that nothing will change in Italy. From a selfish point of view, I’m not sure there’s much for Britain or the country where I live (Norway) to learn from this. Or perhaps there is: you must tell us.

              • Wu Ming says:

                But it’s quite the opposite. We’re saying that Berlusconi himself is not the problem, at least not anymore, and even if he lefts the scene, “Berlusconism” will still be there for a long time to come. Because Berlusconi was a product of the Italian situation, not some kind of satanic cause, a demon showing up all of a sudden to corrupt the country. In the Italian site there was already a potential for that negative event (the coming of Berlusconi), long before it took place. If we don’t address the nature of Italian capitalism, the way it was shaped by the country’s history, we’ll be condemned to amnesia and repetition compulsion, ie to always focus on the “newcomer”.

                • A.J.P. Crown says:

                  It’s not the opposite, it’s precisely what I said: Berlusconi is a symptom not a cause, as Bush was in the US.

                  I’m not sure “the nature of Italian capitalism” is the thing to address — unless you mean corruption, in which case go ahead. But “addressing the nature of capitalism” sounds like some old-fashioned socialist knee-jerk reaction that probably won’t get you anywhere except back where you started. Why not address specific problems that even foreigners know about Italy: the north-south divide, corruption, the economy, the bureaucracy… ?

                  • Wu Ming says:

                    I meant to say: we didn’t describe Berlusconi as the Devil.
                    As to the “north-south divide, corruption, the economy, the bureaucracy”…

                    (and I would add: the legacy of a 20-year-long dictatorship, strong organised crime, amoral familism, the heavy presence of the Catholic church and its ruthless lobbying groups, the existence for more than 40 years of the biggest Communist Party in the Western world, and, perhaps above all, the strategic, geo-political importance of Italy in the Cold War)

                    …this *is* Italian capitalism. Italian capitalism is the synthesis of all those forces and tendencies. Tendencies which can’t be considered separately, because what makes Italy a laboratory is the precarious synthesis of all the elements.

                    And when I say that Italy is a laboratory, I mean to say that many things tested in Italy found applications elsewhere: Fascism, the Mafia, the Strategy of Tension, P2 had a key role in Argentina etc.
                    Of course, this “singular universality” of Italy doesn’t concern only bad things, but also good ones. Because it caused phenomena of political and cultural resistance which in turn were “singularly universal”: Gramsci’s thought, cinematic neo-realism, post-operaismo, what we called the “New Italian Epic” etc.

              • eFFe says:

                A.J.P. Crown, on what grounds do you reckon that Bush (I suppose you refer to G.W.Bush) was less a vile man than Berlusconi? I guess there is an interesting perception décalage here…

                • A.J.P. Crown says:

                  Of course worldwide Bush’s actions & legacy are much worse than Berlusconi’s, and not just because the scale is larger. He started two wars, did nothing to contain the US’s damage to the climate, partly responsible for the international financial meltdown etc. But nobody thinks he’s the Devil. In fact he’s not much different from half the men you might meet on a trip across the the US: a dumb but jolly buffoon, a guy with right-wing views who used to drink too much until he quit.

                  Berlusconi is more of a lounge lizard who pinches girls’ bottoms, is that the perception décalage you mean? Well, it’s not what I’m referring to. What is vile is the cynicism and amorality of the Discourse of Berlusconi. Even if it outlasts the man, as Wu Ming 1 suggests, it is the product of a personality in a way that Bush’s legacy isn’t.

            • outofdate says:

              If you click on AJP’s name, you’ll find there a blog that positively encourages deviation from the subject, or if you like conversational freefall, with invariably interesting, and entertaining, results. Lacking in serious purpose to some, the essence of civilisation to others…

              I’m no evangelist, but you may want to give more consideration in the collective mind to the tangents, for might it not be argued that everything that’s wrong with the world can be traced back to this awful big-swinging-dick linear thrust?

  10. eFFe says:

    The effort of defining Berlusconism for a non-Italian audience is indeed a precious and fertile tool for Italians as well, for it pushes us to look at ourselves and our country also from a foreign perspective. Indeed, as proved also by one of the comments above, the situation in Italy is so peculiar (and I mean it in a neutral way) that non-Italians really have a hard time trying to understand what’s going on.
    Being an Italian abroad I see this everyday: themes like the nature of capitalism, the perils for democracy represented by the Berlusconi-like regimes, the gender issues as expressed in mainstream media, the distortion of labour and the lack of perspectives for the younger generations are sometimes not even perceived as issues. Most people simply rely on stereotypes or easy labels.
    I suppose that Wu Ming’s translation effort (“how do I explain the current situation to a non-Italian audience?”) does already represent a sort of new narrative of contemporary (Italian) times, in so far it does not escape complexity and at the same time it provides a clear-cut vision on which it could be easier to build consent. I realize that this a personal view, due to the fact that I (but of course I’m not the only one) can speak a different language; yet a believe that here a very interesting methodological indication is taking place.

    • Geoff Roberts says:

      So we’re all concerned about the state of politics in Italy, which is good, but doesn’t help much. Wu Ming: I accept much of your analysis, but I would very much like to know who these mysterious figures are who lurk in the background. I’d like to bounce them off an Italian friend or two.

      • Wu Ming says:

        @ Geoff

        Certainly there are “(not so) mysterious figures”, as we’ve had something called the “Strategy of Tension” and a secret agency (of which Berlusconi was a member) called “P2”:

        This is no conspiracy theory, it’s all sanctioned by official findings, there have been parliamentary committees investigating and discovering secret manoeuvres on part of P2, and there have been judiciary trials unveiling the involvement of official intelligence services in the 1970s bombings and massacres related to the Strategy of Tension.

        Now there are inquiries going on on an alleged negotiation between the Sicilian mafia and Berlusconi’s party, which took place in 1992-93, while the Clean Hands investigation
        was rocking the national political boat, and the mafia was putting bombs in streets and museums.
        The hypothesis (strenghened by testimonies of “repentant” mafiosi) is that those bombings aimed at obliging a new political party to empty the void of power created by the Clean Hands investigation which was destroying the old parties. The mafia needed a new political interlocutor, and chose terror to hasten the process which would make Berlusconi enter the field of politics.
        The key witness in this investigation is Massimo Ciancimino, the son of the late Vito Ciancimino, the mafia-connected mayor of Palermo:

        These are just a few examples of concrete forces operating in Italian politics and society.

        • Wu Ming says:

          Sorry, of course it was “to fill the voide of power”, not “to empty the void of power”. Emptying a void is a nice, Zen-like concept though.

          • Geoff Roberts says:

            Yes, the term has its merits when we talk about Italy though! I was refering to your earlier comment – “Most of these people are unknown abroad and naming them wouldn’t ring any bell in your mind.” – Berlusconi (I’ve manged to type it) was a a member of the P2 Lodge, or was he simply an honoured guest, and many of these characters have gone on to bigger things in the business world. I accept that B. has a certain seedy charisma for many Italians and the whole system works like, well, a Napoli trash syndicate. As you mentioned, the old generation was eradicated out by the Clean Hands movement (didn’t one Socialist pm escape to Libya?) What I’d like to know is why the rest of Europe puts up with the farce of Berlocracy.

          • LupinP says:

            “Emptying a void is a nice, Zen-like concept though.” Like converging parallels, perhaps?

  11. A.J.P. Crown says:

    WM1: Four. We’re four people.

    I’m guessing you’re John. Which one of you is Ringo?

  12. dude says:

    Where’s Jeffrey Archer these days? What an amateur that was!

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