Even while the bodies of the drowned were being retrieved from the wreck of the Costa Concordia, the stricken cruise ship was being freighted with allegorical significance by the Italian and international media. On the most obvious reading, the role of Silvio Berlusconi at the helm of the Italian ship of state is taken by Francesco Schettino, the hapless captain who says he didn’t mean to abandon ship mid-evacuation – he tripped into a lifeboat, your honour – and denies that he was indulging in some low-level bunga bunga when the ship ran aground. On the other hand, Schettino is under house arrest, facing charges of manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and abandoning ship, while Berlusconi still struts free, declaring his willingness to return to office. It seems there’s nothing he’d like more than a phone call from the harbour master (a cameo performance from President Napolitano) telling him to get the fuck back on board (‘vada a bordo, cazzo!’).

The salvage operation is being run by Mario Monti, an academic economist, former adviser to Goldman Sachs and old Brussels hand, parachuted into office in November to calm the bond markets. With Berlusconi unable or unwilling to push through the measures demanded by the EU and IMF to rein in Italy’s deficit, government ten-year bond yields pushed above 7 per cent, the level at which Ireland, Portugal and Greece required bail-outs – and Italy’s economy is too big to be bailed out. The only solution seemed to be a technical government (Italy’s third in twenty years), run by someone as unlike Berlusconi as possible – which Monti appears to be. No bunga bunga for il Professore. In the days following his appointment, the paparazzi snapped him in such compromising situations as meeting his wife of forty years at the railway station and going to mass on Sunday morning. ‘Have you seen what a lovely day it is?’ he said.

He doesn’t crack jokes – though he claimed in 2005 to find Berlusconi’s funny – and has a gift for blandly and unapologetically stating the obvious. He said that the Costa Concordia disaster was the kind of accident that ‘could and should be avoided’. He also said, in an interview with the Financial Times, that ‘growth and not austerity should be the focus of eurozone policymaking,’ but that didn’t stop him passing a €20 billion austerity package in December. For all his talk of equality, VAT went up to 21 per cent, with a possible further increase to 23 per cent ‘if necessary’. Inheritance tax and levies on property owned by the church, both abolished by Berlusconi’s government, have not been reintroduced.

As for growth, the tried and tested method of spending his way out of recession wouldn’t be available to Monti even if he wanted it, so he is reduced to the nostrums of liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation. As well as opening up the gas distribution market – an area in which he has plenty of experience, having been the European competition commissioner from 1999 to 2004, earning the nickname Super Mario for facing up to Microsoft and winning – the government is taking on such notorious vested interests and agents of stagnation as notaries, taxi-drivers and pharmacists, all of whom have either gone on strike or are about to. Striking lorry drivers have paralysed the country, protesting against the rising cost of diesel, motorway tolls and insurance, and forced Fiat’s factories to close for several days. Fishermen demonstrating outside parliament against a plan to introduce VAT on boat fuel persuaded the government to drop the idea. One of their banners compared Monti to Schettino.

In terms of economic policy, it’s not clear there’s much real distance between Monti and Berlusconi, however different their temperaments. Monti is the finance minister as well as premier, and if he doesn’t look much like Berlusconi, he looks quite a lot like his predecessor at the ministry, Giulio Tremonti, another grey-haired, bespectacled university professor in his sixties, whom serious men take seriously – ‘internationally respected’, the Economist says. Reuters says the same of Monti. When Tremonti stepped down briefly in 2004 – he returned to office nine months later – Berlusconi offered his job to Monti. And it’s worth remembering that it was Berlusconi who sent Monti to Brussels as a European commissioner in 1994.

Denouncing Berlusconi as a crypto-fascist as some of his opponents on the left are inclined to has always been wide of the mark; pseudo-fascist would be more like it, a bent businessman dressed in a Mussolini clown suit for the sake of electoral support from the far right. Most of his energies in office were directed towards keeping himself out of jail and holding onto his personal fortune (it’s more than plausible that he was finally persuaded to step down by Mediaset’s plunging share price: ruining Italy was one thing – ruining himself quite another). Otherwise, he followed a neoliberal programme not so very different from – and in many ways less extreme than – his outwardly more sober ‘centrist’ counterparts across the rest of Europe. The damage done by his toxic media empire is another matter, but that would have been achieved even if he’d never personally entered politics: look at Rupert Murdoch.

Schettino says that sailing too close to Giglio wasn’t his idea: he was merely following the orders of his paymasters at Costa Cruises, a line of defence that Berlusconi would never fall back on. In that sense the shipwreck may yet come to be seen not as an echo of Berlusconi’s premiership, but as a foreshadowing of Monti’s, as he carries out the wishes of the EU, the IMF and the bond markets – if he stays in power long enough to do their bidding. Monti governs only by Berlusconi’s consent. The cabinet may be technocratic, but everything still has to go through parliament, where it relies on the votes of Berlusconi’s ‘centre-right’ MPs (along with those of the ‘centre-left’ Partito Democratico, though both parties deny that they’re in any kind of political coalition). And Berlusconi, despite insisting on his support for the government (‘we are responsible, there’s no turning back’), has also said that if he’s found guilty of bribing David Mills – a verdict is promised before the statute of limitations expires later this month, unless Berlusconi can derail the trial – he’ll ‘pull the plug’ on Monti’s administration.

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Vol. 34 No. 4 · 23 February 2012

Thomas Jones uses the Costa Concordia disaster to shed a sidelight on Italian politics (LRB, 9 February). He doesn’t register that the ship was itself a reflection of Italian politics: shipbuilding subsidies allowed Berlusconi’s cronies to launch the largest liner ever designed, built and wrecked in Italy.

In 1992 a vessel just as enormous and travelling just as quickly struck an equally immovable granite object. The impact tore a 74-foot gash in her hull, but instead of sinking like the Costa Concordia, the QE2 sailed serenely on to the nearest port and discharged her passengers uninjured. To oblige a friend aboard QE2 that day who asked me to find out why he was still alive, I visited Boston’s dry dock and looked up at what appeared to be a cathedral-ceilinged tunnel in the ship’s bottom. The Corten steel plating of the outer hull was smashed upwards into a hundred-foot-long nave where the ballast and fresh-water tanks had been. The bill for repairing this vast ding in the Blohm & Voss shipyard in Hamburg was comparable to the cost of constructing the 114,000-tonne Costa Concordia’s entire hull.

The risks of allowing so vast a ship to be built so cheaply were made plain when she rolled over. Instead of crumpling stoically inward on itself, her tinfoil-thin hull split open like a sardine can, leaving only the providential proximity of Isola di Giglio to prevent a downmarket replay of the Titanic.

Russell Seitz
Harvard University

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