Messages from the Mafia

Federico Varese

  • Berlusconi’s Shadow: Crime, Justice and the Pursuit of Power by David Lane
    Allen Lane, 336 pp, £18.99, August 2004, ISBN 0 7139 9787 7
  • Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony by Paul Ginsborg
    Verso, 189 pp, £16.00, June 2004, ISBN 1 84467 000 7

A short film directed by Pasolini in 1966, La Terra Vista dalla Luna, opens with a caption printed over a fixed image: ‘Seen from the moon, this movie . . . is nothing and has not been created by anybody . . . But since we are on planet earth, it might be better to let you know that it is a fable written by Pier Paolo Pasolini.’ It is a fable about the power of neo-capitalism and consumerism over the minds and actions of its two protagonists. The American way of life had just reached Italy, and Pasolini had witnessed first-hand its homogenising force. He called it the ‘new Fascism’, ‘more insidious, elusive and destructive’ than the historical kind – which had failed completely to unify the country’s various cultures – because it both ‘assimilates and homogenises’. Two foreign observers of Italy, David Lane, the Economist correspondent in Rome, and Paul Ginsborg, who teaches at Florence University, are now also arguing that fascism has returned to the country.

Lane begins his book on the beaches of Lazio in January/February 1944: ‘That winter was among the coldest in Italian memory, which added to the terrible suffering of soldiers bivouacked in foxholes and trenches.’ The fighting at Anzio, after the Allied landings, was bitter, and Lane believes that the British and Commonwealth troops who were killed there died in vain. He believes this because, on first becoming prime minister in 1994, Silvio Berlusconi invited Mussolini’s political heirs into his government, and the country began to slide back into old habits. A commission was created to purge left-wing interpretations of 20th-century Italian history from school textbooks, and a senator from Forza Italia, Berlusconi’s party, proposed to mark 9 November as a national holiday: the day when, in 1926, ‘17 Communist members of parliament had been arrested and the Fascist-controlled parliament had taken measures to establish special tribunals.’

Ginsborg opens Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony with the story of a distinguished American historian who was asked what it was like to live in Italy under Fascism. ‘I didn’t really notice,’ he replied. According to Ginsborg, ‘it is even easier now not to notice.’ He thinks that Berlusconi and Mussolini ‘form a kind of commentary on one another’s character’.

How seriously should we take these recurring references to historical Fascism? Since Lane devotes significant portions of his book to the connections between Berlusconi and the Mafia, and draws on extensive judicial evidence as well as interviews with key prosecutors, we can best start in Palermo. In October 1925, Mussolini appointed Cesare Mori, a career functionary in the Ministry of the Interior, as prefect of Sicily’s regional capital. Not much interested in legality, Mori was a ruthless enforcer, his remit being to regain control of territories not fully under the sway of the increasingly totalitarian state. Between 1926 and 1928, 11,000 people were arrested in Sicily, 5,000 of them in Palermo province alone. Some 800 carabinieri were dispatched to join the Palermo force, and parts of the countryside came under military occupation. Despite offers from sections of the Sicilian aristocracy to find a mediated solution, the prefect went for total victory. Tonino Calderone, a Mafia boss, recalls in his memoirs that all the male members of his Catania family were arrested by Mori and shipped off to a prison island. When the prisoners threatened to revolt, the Fascist regime sent in the navy. The revolt subsided.

It was common for the police not only to arrest suspects but also to slaughter their animals, sell their property and deport their families. Charlotte Gower, an American anthropologist doing fieldwork in the village of Milocca in 1928, described the suffering brought about by Mori. Milocca was one of the remaining unpacified areas. ‘The police descended in force in the early hours of one morning in January 1928. The square was filled with bleating sheep, goats, horses and mules, the suspects and the bereft families of those who had escaped arrest.’ The police forced this assorted company to march across ten miles of difficult terrain to a nearby town, where the suspects were put in jail. The families of those who had evaded capture were not to be released until the men gave themselves up. By the autumn, a hundred villagers were sitting in jail out of a total population of 2500. Mori didn’t stop at villagers and peasants. The Palermo chapter of the Fascist Party was closed down in 1927 because of Mafia penetration, and a former member of Mussolini’s government was investigated. Mori dealt the Mafia a severe blow, but he did not eliminate the reasons for its existence.

Lane believes that strong financial and political connections exist between Berlusconi and the Mafia. Drawing on a wealth of circumstantial evidence, he argues that Cosa Nostra, having regained its strength after the Second World War, laundered drug money from the mid-1970s through a small bank in Milan, Banca Rasini, where Berlusconi’s father had worked all his life and which lent substantial sums to Silvio’s real estate business. Despite the best efforts of prosecutors, it has proved impossible to trace the origins of 94 billion lire that made its way into Berlusconi’s coffers between 1978 and 1985 (£40 million, by my calculations), 29.7 billion of which was in cash or cash equivalents. Considering also that a reputed Mafioso and drug trafficker lived in the future prime minister’s Arcore villa for almost two years (1974-76), that a top manager and friend of Berlusconi, Marcello Dell’Utri, has proven links with Sicilian criminals (on 11 December, a court in Palermo sentenced him to nine years for being the representative of the Mafia in Berlusconi’s conglomerate), and that prominent Mafiosi have been instrumental in setting up the first Forza Italia clubs in Sicily, the time has surely gone when it can all be put down to coincidence. Berlusconi’s judicial reforms – the newly approved Cirami law, for example, which gives a defendant the right to challenge the court if there is a ‘legitimate suspicion’ that the judge is biased, and the various attempts to curb judicial independence – seem likely to help the Mafia.

Lane glosses over some elements of the chronology, which emerge more clearly in Ginsborg’s shorter account. The Banca Rasini started financing Berlusconi as early as 1962, while the Mafia has needed to launder its proceeds from the drug trade only since the mid-1970s. It’s possible that some drug money was directed to Berlusconi’s Fininvest through Banca Rasini in the 1970s but, however good the grounds for suspicion, we don’t know for sure. An alternative account would say that Berlusconi’s empire was built up in the 1960s using money that the Italian middle and upper classes had been exporting illegally to Switzerland, in defiance of restrictive regulations in the capital market that a neoliberal should anyway oppose.

More significantly, by arguing for a close alliance between Berlusconi’s businesses and the Mafia, Lane misses the opportunity to explore the idea of conflict between the two, and so fails to expose the unstable nature of any such alliance and to write more generally about the nature of criminal protection. In the early 1970s, Berlusconi was afraid that his children would be kidnapped for ransom by petty criminals, and asked his Sicilian friend Dell’Utri to arrange for effective protection. In an act of hubris, probably dictated by his ignorance of the real workings of the Mafia, Berlusconi agreed to hire the man suggested by Dell’Utri, the Mafia boss Vittorio Mangano. Threats from petty criminals now stopped, but coded messages began arriving from the Mafia. Most ominously, after a dinner party in 1975 at Arcore, a guest of Berlusconi’s was kidnapped as he was leaving the villa, but allowed to escape after a few hours. Both the police and Berlusconi himself immediately suspected this had been set up by Mangano, who was briefly arrested. Was this the Mafia’s way of telling Berlusconi how it saw their relationship?

A more nuanced story than the one that emerges from Lane can be pieced together. In a phone conversation that investigators interpreted as referring to the Mafia, Berlusconi confided to a friend in February 1988: ‘You know, they told me that if I do not do that certain thing [in the next six days] they will chop off the head of my son and mail it to me, and will hang his body in Piazza Duomo in Milan.’ In the same exchange, he refers to similar threats he had received a decade earlier.

In November 1986, a bomb exploded in front of the headquarters of Fininvest in Milan. Berlusconi immediately phoned Dell’Utri: ‘This is surely from Mangano: it has the hallmark of the 1975 warnings.’ The message was indeed from Cosa Nostra, but from the family led by Totò Riina, a ruthless boss even by Mafia standards, who ordered – among other things – the killing of the prosecutors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in 1992 and the bombing campaign in Rome, Florence and Milan in 1993. But as for the meaning of the message, it is fair to say that we don’t know. A mafioso turned state witness has suggested that the Mafia was trying to signal to Berlusconi that it was ready to ditch its traditional political allies and turn to his political patron, the Socialist Party (PSI) leader Bettino Craxi. One might wonder why they had to detonate a bomb rather than simply pick up the phone, but it is a fact that in 1987 the deputy leader of the Socialist Party, Claudio Martelli, stood for election in Palermo and the PSI increased its share of the vote by 6 per cent.

Dell’Utri himself, who appears in Lane’s account as a loyal friend of Berlusconi, is a complex figure. A top manager in Berlusconi’s group, a founder of Forza Italia and known to Berlusconi since his university years, he has long-standing ties with Sicilian criminals, including Calderone. At the time of the 1988 conversation about the threats against Berlusconi’s son, he had been complaining that Berlusconi had stopped inviting him to the New Year’s Eve party traditionally organised at Arcore and attended by many grandees, including Craxi. Being excluded from such a symbolic event had significant implications. ‘I could have left Berlusconi [in 1994], as I did in 1978,’ Dell’Utri said in the course of a court deposition in Turin in 1996. Since Dell’Utri has been the trait d’union with Cosa Nostra, dines with the likes of Calderone, and was found guilty, in April 2004, of attempted extortion in Palermo, his words can now be read not just as the remarks of another disgruntled employee but as a veiled threat to withdraw a very special type of protection. Dell’Utri even sued Berlusconi in 1994, although the matter was settled before the hearing. Dell’Utri was allowed to stand for Forza Italia and was elected to the Lower House in 1996, then to the Senate and, twice, to the European Parliament. Now he is on his way to jail.

Mafia protection is a double-edged sword. In some instances, the Mafia does come to the rescue of corrupt entrepreneurs, enforces cartels of producers and punishes defectors from illegal agreements. But in the world it runs, there is no such thing as a right to the protection one has paid for. Mafiosi can ask for more favours or more money, turn against their dutifully paying clients or, on a whim, fail to deliver what they promised. (Although Berlusconi had been paying protection money for his business interests in Sicily from at least 1988, the Berlusconi-owned shopping outlet Standa in Catania was bombed in 1990, resulting in 4 billion lire worth of damage.) In 1992, two Christian Democrat politicians close to the former prime minister Giulio Andreotti were killed in Palermo by the Mafia, the most credible explanation of their death being that they failed to deliver what they had promised. The story of Berlusconi’s relationship with the Mafia is emblematic for those entrepreneurs and politicians who think they can use the Mafia for their own purposes and, years later, find themselves in its clutches.

Is it still possible to equate Berlusconi with Mussolini? Sending in the fleet to shell a Mafia prison-camp and keeping the families of suspects as hostages is a far cry from being terrified at the prospect of losing the Honoured Society’s support, and hence possibly granting it favours. Berlusconi is perhaps no less detestable than Mussolini, but for different reasons, which should not be obscured for the sake of damning him further. Contrasting attitudes towards the Mafia reveal a key difference between the two regimes. Mussolini’s aim was to build a Fascist state, and anyone who stood in the way – including the Mafia – had to be destroyed. Berlusconi is not interested in the state except insofar as he can use it to serve his business interests. Not surprisingly, the national debt has escalated during his time in government.

To deal with the Mafia, Lane advocates granting more power to prosecutors, but this purely punitive approach has clearly failed to eradicate the organisation in Sicily. Until we understand fully why entrepreneurs turn to it for protection, we will not be able to devise a successful strategy to curb corruption and the demand for Mafia services. At the heart of the problem is a deeply ingrained lack of trust in institutions of authority. In other words, it is the outcome of many encounters with people in positions of authority, rather than the product of some impalpable ‘Mediterranean’ culture.

Seen from Pasolini’s lunar perspective, Berlusconi may represent a new sort of power. This, broadly, is the view of Paul Ginsborg, whose book deserves to be read and argued over as widely as possible. For Ginsborg, Berlusconi’s brand of fascism involves creating a way of life centred on the need to acquire consumer goods. In satisfying this need, Berlusconi’s TV channels smuggle in behavioural models that are reflected in his party’s political promises. His TV stations offer the model of a ‘normal’ family, acquisitive and self-interested, ‘surrounded by a multiplicity of commodities . . . tolerantly Catholic, vaguely inclined towards gender equality but with mothers still playing a central role as providers of services’. Ginsborg links public exposure to Berlusconi’s programmes and adverts to support for him at the polls: housewives bombarded with seductive ads vote for Berlusconi in large numbers, as do young people partying in the night clubs of Rimini, who vote Forza Italia because, as they told a journalist, ‘his TV stations show lots of young people, his party is a young one, and he makes them dream of success.’ Just a few miles away from the clubs – as Ginsborg notes – you will find forty hypermarkets along a ten-kilometre stretch of road, a proximity suggesting a causal relationship between consumption and voting. Not surprisingly, Ginsborg’s book ends on a note of defeat.

Had Berlusconi never existed, how different would the values promoted by commercial television and dished out to the Italian public have been? Ginsborg, I suspect, gives his subject too much credit. Berlusconi is the owner of a business that operates across a market in the same way and to the same ends as other businesses. Consumerism is part of the project of capitalist modernity and the product of the many people who profit from it, not of one man. Not surprisingly, when his TV channels were partially blacked out in October 1984 for being in breach of Italian laws against commercial television, their programmes for the day included The Smurfs, Dallas, Dynasty and High Noon.

Italian consumerism predates Berlusconi. In 1974, Pasolini wrote of a ‘faceless’ power associated with television transforming peasants and workers into a new middle class, fuelling further production and consumption. This power promoted ‘moderate’ values by ruthlessly eliminating the alternatives, thereby appearing to Pasolini even more totalitarian than historical Fascism. Thirty years ago, the efforts made by Enrico Berlinguer, secretary general of the Communist Party, to convince Italians of the virtues of limiting consumption to essential goods represented a genuine attempt at mitigating, if not preventing, the coming of American consumerism to Italy. Although green movements across the globe expressed similar concerns and embraced some of his suggestions, Berlinguer was going against the grain of Italian society.