ITALY, ITALIANS AND SILVIO BERLUSCONI— A CASE OF ANYTHING FOR POWER

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By Gaither Stewart


The name Forza Italia chosen by Berlusconi for his party blends sports metaphors with political triumphs to come. A masterful propaganda choice.

“Rome is well worth a mass”

HOW MUCH LAUGHTER AND TEARS, consternation and gnashing of teeth Silvio Berlusconi has provoked in Italy, Europe and the world since he entered politics in 1994, or as he colorfully described it with the sports terminology he loves, “he entered the game.” He coined the quip, in Italian scendere in campo, with in mind his championship soccer club, Milan, “taking the field” to win another international cup. His nine-minute message to the nation telecast simultaneously by all of Italy’s TV networks in January of that year, followed by the creation of his own political party and a subsequent blitzkrieg campaign, swept him into the Premiership in elections held two months later.

Since then it has been an ugly, ugly voyage with Berlusconi. For a time it seemed a trip into the dark night with no return and at the cost—to Italians—of huge penalty fees.

Though Berlusconi had been aided enormously in his media activities—three top TV networks and a host of magazines and newspapers—by Socialist Premier Bettino Craxi, his public political activity had been limited to supporting the unsuccessful candidacy of the neo-Fascist Gianfranco Fini for the mayorship of Rome while trying to convince the political center to create another anti-Communist coalition. When both failed, the enterprising Berlusconi created the Forza Italia party (something like Let’s Go Italy, another sports expression) and entered the ring.

A majority of voters blithely ignored the immense conflict of interests in this regard, the power of his TV networks, justified suspicions concerning the source of his great wealth, and the widely held conviction that he was “entering the field” chiefly in order to defend his business empire, and enthusiastically voted him into office. That vote changed the face of Italy’s political map.

One might wonder why politically conscious Italians chose and continue to choose to vote for Silvio Berlusconi, widely considered at the most semi-legal, who acquired his wealth by highly questionable means.

At the outset it should be stressed that though the story of the relationship between Italians and Berlusconi is on one hand a very Italian story, it is also a universal story. The big Italian vote for a person thinking people and the magistracy consider a crook exemplifies the facility with which power manipulates the innocence and gullibility of electorates everywhere. For as we know political scoundrels and naïve voters thrive in every climate, from Kenya to Chile to the United States of America.

ROME TOO IS WELL WORTH A MASS

One reason Italians continue to vote for Berlusconi is his apparent lack of any kind of ideology. People are tired of political squabbles and the crowd of little men thronging for power. They like Silvio’s presentation of himself as someone from outside politics even though he brags that he entered politics … to save Italy. Not only did he enter the Rome political world, but he has also penetrated into every nook and cranny of the world of power. Silvio is always ready to bond with anyone, Fascists or mafia or the infamous P2 Masonic Lodge, and to the astonishment of some and the amusement of others, simultaneously with “my friend George” and “my friend Vladimir” as he called the two international leaders he preferred. No sacrifice has ever been too great for Berlusconi, no discrepancy too outrageous. He probably did utter during his sleepless nights or on his world travels in his private plane his version of the famous words of that French king that also “Roma vale bene una messa.”

Italians love the expression of Henri de Navarre who, in order to become Henri IV, King of Catholic France in the year 1590, renounced his Protestant faith and converted to Catholicism, and uttered the famous aphorism, Paris vaut bien une messe, Paris is well worth a mass. Recently Nicolas Sarkozy, the new Roi de France infuriated most of France, even the conservative Le Figaro, during a December visit to Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. The new French President emphasized his Catholic faith, the general role of the Church and the Christian roots of Europe precisely as advocated by the Roman Church, words which chilled secular France, probably even his conservative predecessor, George Chirac.. Trop et trop et trop. One of the nicest comments about l’affaire Sarkozy in letters to the French press was this:

“Monsieur Nicolas Sarkozy outrepasse ses droits, il a été élu Président d’une République Laique. Son contrat avec les Français qui l’ont élu est d’exercer ses fonctions dans le cadre de la laicité qui est le ciment de notre constitution”. (Monsieur Nicolas Sarkozy has surpassed his rights, he was elected President of a Secular Republic. His contract with the French who elected him is to exercise his functions in a framework of secularity that is the cement of our Constitution.) One notes that Blair at least converted after he left office; however, his religious situation is the reverse: Great Britain is not as Catholic as France.)

The reality is that Sarkozy and Berlusconi are truly cousins, as Italians and French refer to each other. They both want it all, religion and secularism, Bush and Putin, total authority and a façade of democracy. Even though lacking in any kind of ideology, TV magnate Silvio Berlusconi, an apparent crypto-Fascist and by any measure rogue capitalist, has become the real face of, and the force behind, Italian neo-Fascism: he alone brought the Fascists out of the closet. Even his anti-Communism is phony; Berlusconi’s only sincere conviction is opposition to rules of any kind that limits his personal freedom to become richer and more powerful.

Not only did he start out with the support of part of Italy’s capitalist oligarchy, which tends to be more concealed than its American counterpart, but he promptly made neo-fascists again salonfähig by forming a government coalition with them. Today he stands illogically to their right, to the right of the Right so to speak. Thus he has become the major exponent of Italy’s anomalous Right, which has little to do with traditional European political or economic Conservatism. Italy’s real Right exists in the memory of Mussolini and loves the old Fascist salute.

As the French begin to turn up their noses at Sarkozy, referred to as a “Hungarian shopkeeper”, Italians of the Left now feel free to sneer back and say “They elected him but act like he dropped from heaven. Now they can keep him for five years as we did Silvio.” But, it is not at all the same. Though defeated in 2006, Silvio is still omnipresent, shaking violently Rome’s marble columns to bring down the temple of power, capable of anything, any alliance, any conversion in order to return to power. For him Rome is truly worth a mass.

YOUNG ITALY

More than other European countries Italy is split down the middle between an immoderate Right that calls itself moderate and Center Right in order to hold power, and a Left divided over practically every issue, traditionally keeping it out of national political power. The Right rejects rules; the Left makes many rules, rules that are then largely circumvented by both Left and Right. The result is ordinary daily chaos, which most Italians apparently prefer.

The birth of the Italian Communist Party in 1921, twenty years of Fascism, alliance with Nazi Germany, and defeat in World War II deepened the split between Right and Left: the Communist one-third of Italy was barred from power by the USA during the Cold War, while Fascism was shunned until Berlusconi unchained it. Meanwhile, for half a century the country was in the firm hands of the Christian Democrats staunchly backed by the USA.

For hundreds of years Italy was a romantic place to escape to, a haven for lovers or scoundrels, a land isolated from the rest of Europe. Separated geographically from the rest of the continent by the Alps, Italy was always a distant land. Right up until 1970 it took two days to drive from Munich across the Alps to Rome. Italy was thus the least known West European country, the most mysterious and in reality the most concealed. No rules in that Italy. Nothing verboten as in Germany or Switzerland. All my adult life I have heard people say, ah, to escape to Italy and live free like they do. North Europeans still today retain the image of an Italy of wine, women and song, of little work and all play. Nothing could be farther from reality.

Isolated and distant, Italy was truly different from the rest of Europe. Whether cause or effect, Italians too are different from other Europeans, who don’t know what to make of Italy. They have held onto their past longer even though they yearn to be a “normal country.” Most every political speech contains de rigueur a remark to the effect of, “If this were a normal country ….” In fact, until the advent of television many people hardly spoke proper Italian; they spoke their own dialects. Even today Sardinians speak five dialects incomprehensible to Italian speakers. Italians want to be like other people but in their hearts they know they are not. Perhaps because of that yearning they are the super-Europeans of the European Union, embracing Europe with one arm, and repulsing it with the other. Contradictorily but true to character they hate EU rules that force them to be what they are not. Berlusconi encourages that sentiment, but for the wrong reasons; he has little regard for the EU because of its rules.

Italians voted for Mussolini because of his promises of glory and empire in imitation of imperialistic France and England—and victory parades on the Via dei Fori Imperiali toward the coliseum. Today one hears mutterings that what Italy needs to get organized is another Duce. Silvio Berlusconi, who understands Italians and responds to such looking back and desire for old glories, incarnates many Mussolinian characteristics.

SILVIO’S HOUSE OF FREEDOM

Berlusconi organized Forza Italia using the business tactics and staff of his huge company, FININVEST. He too promised glory and riches, the respect and admiration of Europe and the world, which was to be achieved by running Italy like a company and eliminating or obviating rules while leaving intact the chaos schizophrenic Italians thrive in.

I due capi. Though adapted for national consumption, Berlusconi’s political formulas resemble Bush’s (and now Sarkozy’s) with uncanny persistence: the visceral anticommunism; the neoliberal agenda; the calls to blind jingoism; the strong opportunism and the ubiquitous protofascist demagoguery riding on terror and other bogeymen. It’s probably fair to say that the propaganda platform propping up most modern capitalist nations issues from the same playbook.

As Germans in a historical moment of desperation permitted Hitler’s legal access to power, Italians three-quarters of a century ago had voted for and supported Benito Mussolini for the glory of the still relatively new unified state of Italy. Forty-five years later a majority of Italians flocked to the polls and voted for TV magnate Silvio Berlusconi who so recalled the former dictator.

In the aftermath of World War II Italy began turning its back on its particular past in search of new realities in Europe. Yet it is hard for Italians to put aside their Italianità, their Italianness. In dozens of films, the actor Alberto Sordi portrayed the false American, singing a popular song “vuoi fare l’americano, l’americano, ma sei nato in Italy.” Berlusconi personifies both the old and the new, his daily behavior underlining that this is a nation of playacting, a people aware that their trying so hard to act and look American back then was comical, even if their act was endearing to non-Italians. Those times have passed.

Exuberant Berlusconi has the backslapping bonhomie of a salesman and an unbearable ego but Italians chose him anyway in the hope that as Prime Minister he would continue his run of successes as in business and with his soccer team, modernizing and enriching Italy. To many he seemed a more exciting prospect than the austere Center-Left, eternally divided since the diaspora of the Italian Communist Party, the PCI.

BERLUSCONI UNDERSTANDS ITALIANS

Outrageous Silvio! Capable of anything to win elections, any lie, any alliance. Besides his promise of modernity, his second most potent message is anti-Communism, which appeals to one half of Italy. Once, before the 2006 elections he said publicly that Chinese Communists under Mao boiled babies and used them as fertilizer, causing an uproar in Beijing. Italy had to apologize and explain that Berlusconi’s polemics were directed against Italy’s Center-Left, not China. He also once boasted to a Milan daily that he had rung four porno chat lines to ask which candidate they favored and seven of ten declared in his favor.

italians
Despite the nation’s innumerable gifts and matchless cultural heritage, far too many modern Italians remain vulnerable to ideas of inferiority absorbed during long decades of obsessive comparison with other nations, particularly France, England, Germany and the US. Mussolini, and now Berlusconi, have successfully tapped into that reservoir.

In or out of office Berlusconi keeps himself in the limelight with his clownish antics and by behaving as an anti-politician despite his having created his own party, forming his House of Freedom (Casa della Libertà) coalition and serving twice as Prime Minister. Play the piano at international conferences. Sing bawdy songs in public. His style is the regular guy who cracks jokes and does a lot of backslapping. Traditionally more reserved Italians like this behavior because it seems worldly. Many like to see him arm-in-arm with Bush or Putin. Berlusoni-Prime Minister liked nothing better than getting the two world leaders together, standing between them and drawing them near as if he were creating peace in the world.

Berlusconi unabashedly exploited the Italians’ natural sense of humor. They say the more a people suffers, the more they need to laugh and find things to laugh at. By that standard the Italians must have suffered a lot because their sense of humor is remarkable within their ordinary chaos. Whether people realize it or not, there is a level of comicality in their hyperbolic actions—Italians are definitely, even today, more theatrical than other peoples, although most Mediterranean cultures have that trait. Luciana Bohne, of Italian origin, a professor of literature and film at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania, admires the treatment of the subject of Italians and their vicissitudes in the genial work of film director Federico Fellini: “It’s all about the fantasies, hopes, and delusions of a little people who had been innocent enough to trust fascism. It’s about the pathetic Epicureanism of the boom. About Italy’s sad inability to be anything but an occupied country—the Vatican and Washington today, the Hapsburgs, Bourbons, before. It’s about the tragicomic destiny of a people who make too much noise at the wrong time, and sleep when they should wake.”

As a result it has been surprisingly easy for manipulative politicians to convince Italians that they are the most fortunate people on the planet. For non-Italians too Italy is the mother of all and its peoples the most special. That Italy however is in precipitous decline. The divide between rich and poor is deep. Class bitterness is rampant today since workers wages lag dreadfully behind the rest of Europe. Cheapness pervades society as mirrored in a degenerate television that emerged with Berlusconi’s commercial TV empire. Berlusconism has done much to change Italians into a more mean-spirited people.

Nonetheless the transformation of the delicate 20th century Italian we once knew remains no less mysterious than the transformation of fierce Romans into the gentle post-Risorgimento peoples. Berlusconi did not create the chaos in Italy, but he played up to it. He encouraged and exploited it. Because of the chaos visitors from the north feel a beguiling sense of freedom here, to do things forbidden at home, to dive into fountains, dress outrageously and drive recklessly, things Italians either scorn or are forbidden to do. In theory they truly want things to work; they want Italy to be a “normal country”.

That desire however is pure unadulterated theory. For Italians an expression of Utopia. For the Italian’s natural inclination is anarchy. No rules. No limits. For fifteen years Berlusconi has promised Italians the order they know they need but don’t want any more than he intends creating it. In theory things should again work as Mussolini’s trains did. In theory Berlusconi would eliminate the plagues of the chaotic multi-party system, without however eliminating the parties. At best he would change everything albeit without changing anything, according to the expression coined by Tomasi di Lampedusa in his Sicilian novel, Il Gattopardo: “cambiare tutto, affinché non cambi niente.” (Change everything so that nothing changes.)

OUTRAGEOUS SILVIO

Incidents of Berlusconi’s antics are legion: Happy-go-lucky Silvio making the cuckold sign behind the head of a politician from another European nation as they posed for a commemorative photo. Or in response to the German Socialist, Martin Schulz, who criticized him in the European parliament, Berlusconi suggested that Schulz would be perfect as an SS guard in a film on a Nazi concentration camp. Berlusconi shrugged it off as ‘irony.’ For most people this was too much. Italians don’t want to be the laughing stock of Europe.

He refers to the anti-Berlusconi Economist magazine as The Ecommunist and suggests that the Milanese investigating magistrates who have been on his trail for years are sexual perverts. Although he finds the hated Communists under every bed, he bends over backwards for the former KGB chief, Vladimir Putin. He allegedly coached a cheer squad to chant VLA- DI-MIR; VLA-DI-MIR, outside one of his Sardinian villas where he hosted Putin. As Prime Minister he compared himself to Napoleon and then Christ because no other politician has achieved as much and no other has been so persecuted. One of his schoolteachers disclosed that young and enterprising Silvio used to sell his homework to schoolmates.

A corresponding Italian joke is that on the dashboard of Silvio’s car is a plaque with the message that “the only difference between God and Berlusconi is that God doesn’t think he is Berlusconi.” Nonetheless it is because of such unpredictable and boorish behavior that some electors consider him more real than run-of-the-mill politicians. It is no surprise then that with a man of his vulgarity at the helm, the traditional and romantic nation of Italy was transformed into one of Europe’s most vulgar nations during his Premiership from 1991-96.


Mussolini’s carefully cultivated virile image [“uomo di combatte”] also appealed to many Italians fed up with the defeats of Italy ascribed by many to its “feminine nature.”

Among many books about Silvio Berlusconi, two pose the question: Is Silvio Berlusconi a threat to democracy, a Mussolini-in-the-making? Silvio Berlusconi: television, power and patrimony by Paul Ginsborg and Berlusconi’s Shadow: crime, justice and the pursuit of power by David Lane. Among the reasons for their harsh criticism is that despite his pre-electoral promise to divest himself of his three national commercial television stations, he has not done so. As Prime Minister he could also influence the three state channels so he had a virtual monopoly of television, particularly as one of his companies controls also most television advertising. Another sensitive point is that his government introduced laws to protect him personally in various trials on charges of business misdemeanors before he entered politics, and even of bribing judges. A third reason is that because he is the richest Italian, with multiple business interests apart from television, many government measures are liable to charges of conflict of interest. Moreover he is heedless of institutional niceties in his purported attempt to reshape Italy.

Both authors ask pointblank how such a man ever became Prime Minister? Initially a Milanese builder, with the help of the then Prime Minister, Bettino Craxi, he obtained a near-monopoly of commercial television once it was authorized. When Craxi and other politicians were swept aside because guilty of corruption, it seemed to the Right that the hated Communists would come to power. But Berlusconi quickly created his party, formed a coalition with the Fascists and surprisingly won the 1994 elections. The coalition fell apart after seven months but he put it together again to win in 2001.

Lane, of The Economist, emphasizes Berlusconi’s alleged links with the Mafia and his criticism of the magistrates who investigated him. For Lane, Italians must be particularly cynical or stupid to have voted for Berlusconi. Lane pursues meticulously Berlusconi’s business transactions and trials and has no empathy with his supporters. Ginsborg, an Englishman who at Florence University teaches contemporary Italian history and has written several books about it, is more attentive to the social factors behind Berlusconi’s success. Moreover he treats Berlusconi as but one example of the worldwide melding of personality politics, great wealth and media control, which pose problems for democracies.

Berlusconi’s promises of tax cuts and constant alarms of the Communist threat swung center voters over to his side. He accused one and all, even the Industrialists’ Confederation of allying against him together with the Center-Left, the Trade Unions, Italy’s five major dailies and a section of the judiciary. Still today he includes also the banks and the cooperative movement in the conspiracy against him. His preferred stance is as victim. He convinced voters with his conspiracy theories, his divisive tactics and his eternal optimism—he is resilient, energetic and probably forever bordering on desperation. Failure, I believe, is his nightmare and nemesis.

Once elected Berlusconi claimed that the ongoing conspiracy hobbled his government and blocked the renovation he aimed at. In other words, he is forever a populist revolutionary opposed by the establishment. Because his coalition was regularly beaten in local administrative elections, he began losing the allure of a winner. It has been often said that Italians found that Berlusconi is an efficient cure against Berlusconi.

In the end Berlusconi delivered on few of his many promises in his “pact with the nation.” He made the labor laws less rigid, introduced pension reform and a controversial version of federalism. He promised to reduce taxes and reform the justice system but Italy continues to be ever less competitive and has scant innovation or research. In the international sphere he aligned closely with the United States at the expense of European Union ties and Italy’s traditional pro-Arab policy. Berlusconi has found it much more difficult to govern than to run a business. He failed at re-election in 2006. Yet, today, like a modern Napoleon, he is battling to return.

WHY DID ITALIANS VOTE FOR A BUFOON LIKE BERLUSCONI IN THE FIRST PLACE?

The mythical catch phrase “now we have to make Italians,” supposedly uttered by the 19th century conservative nationalist, Massimo D’Azeglio, has been much cited in debates over the question of Italian national identity and the movement toward Italy’s Unification. The question was of what those newly made Italian subjects were constituted, and in what consisted their “Italian” specificity so different from their ancient Roman ancestors. Literary and academic figures, educators and scientists have long reflected on the nature of the social bond of the diverse peoples on the Italic peninsula.

Pinocchio, the puppet without strings, provides the master metaphor for meditation on the nature of attachment itself. How are we to understand the play between a submission exacted by the Law and a submission freely chosen, between external determination and internal compulsion, in the form and functioning of the social bond? The Italian example is a scintillating study in itself, a major contribution to our thinking about ideology and its workings. One has also dealt with fin-de-siècle obsessions with the ways that bodies were measured and disciplined, attached to apparatuses, and made to move autonomously. That is, like mechanical puppet Pinocchio. Much discussed is the emergence of a male masochistic subject from the traumatic rift opened up by the radical separation between Church and State wrought by the Unification of Italy, and its effect on the male citizen leading to the Italian vulnerability to dictatorship. Recent work on Italian modernity, combined with a reflection on ideology, has therefore focused on the Fascist period.

Here, regarding the puppet image I will cite some pertinent words about “false consciousness” from Patrice Greanville’s review of Joel C. Magnuson’s Mindful Economics: Understanding American Capitalism, Its Consequences & Alternatives.

“Conditioned behavior injected from above, or false consciousness,” Greanville writes, “has always worked to prop up the status quo. In the 14th century, for example, embedded in fanatical religiosity and ignorance, it justified feudalism. In our time, it props up capitalism and its offshoot, imperialism. As such, it presents true democrats with a tough challenge: systemic propaganda in pursuit of false political consciousness is not just annoying; it’s lethal to the survival of democracy, and its advance inevitably eviscerates every single feature of democracy that make its functioning worth fighting for.” And then this:

It’s fairly obvious that from the ruling orders’ perspective the wages of propaganda are substantial. False consciousness among the masses allows the upper classes to run society in their own narrow self-interest while pretending to do so in the interest of all. Enormous, mind-boggling wealth and power are thus rapidly accumulated by the tip of the social pyramid in all societies riddled with inequality…<>

Outright repression can ensure a level of compliance, sometimes for a generation or two, but in the long run it cannot guarantee political stability or legitimacy. Only covert mind control can deliver that. Thus by far the most efficient solution is when we are made to carry the chains and prisons right inside our heads. Policing our own actions while still believing in our total freedom is simply a diabolically effective formula ensuring perpetual bondage.

[Under capitalism] the drift toward authoritarianism cannot be arrested, only slowed down or momentarily interrupted, given the essentially undemocratic nature of the system. Living with capitalism is like living with a sociopath in the room, a maniac who bears constant watching. Yet that is exactly what we continue to observe among broad segments of the population of many nations, most notably the U.S. (think of ‘the red state syndrome’), where such ‘irrational’ voting patterns have become so scandalously common as to make the American electorate something of an enigma if not a laughingstock to many observers around the globe. So how do we explain this? The short answer is false political consciousness.

One answer to our query about Italians is that contrary to a diffused conception of them Italians are not more politically sophisticated than others in the world of the Occident. In fact they are gullible, easily swayed and maneuverable, a nation of Pinocchios, especially when firmly entrenched in their trusted ideologies of Left or Right. Despite their innate skepticism and cynicism—qualities lacking in the great American heartland—the Italian masses do not think any more than do their American counterparts. They react to what fills, or seems to fill, their everyday lives.

Yet, they too are learning that voting is not enough. Electoral laws seem to mutate from one year to the next. New laws are passed but the candidates and the rhetoric remain the same. Inhabitants of the Italian peninsula, in a setting of changing kings and popes and invaders and occupiers, have been changed by the times, by bad politics, by a growing lack of ideals and a lack of adequate political leadership and positive example and political instruction.

The historic chaos of Italy and growing indifference to reality of its peoples provided vast space for the likes of Silvio Berlusconi.

ALBERTO MORAVIA ON THE SENSE OF REALITY

Alberto Moravia (né Pincherle) understood Italians well, because he shared so many of their love-hate conflicts with their own identity.

As the Rome writer Alberto Moravia emphasized in his sizable literature the sad fact is that Italians of the post-World War II era have lost their identity, provoking a gradual departure from their sense of reality. In Moravia’s interpretation this enormous change in Italian temperament occurred during the passage from the Fascist bourgeoisie to the neo-capitalist bourgeoisie of the post-war. To pinpoint the change, the mutation took place precisely in the era of US tutelage of Italy, considered “the weak underbelly of West Europe” during the Cold War, when propaganda depicting Cossacks watering their horses in the fountains of Vatican City created a new “false consciousness” that was continued by Silvio Berlusconi. [For a good treatment of this phenomenon, see in this journal How the CIA Meddled in Italy’s Postwar Elections]

The loss of both identity and sense of reality generated the alienation of individuals and society as depicted in Antonioni’s stark cinema settings. Moravia had first preceded the French existentialists with his novel, The Time of Indifference, 1929. In the post-war he paved the way for French sociologists like Jean Baudrillard with his depictions of the transformation of man into an object to be bought and sold, as if his life were an investment which must produce profit. In his collection of short essays, Mots de Passe, published in the year 2000 by Pauvert, Baudrillard repeats word for word Alberto Moravia’s views on man as an object of exchange. The fundamental idea is that when material success—that is possession—is considered the highest value, relationships between men will also follow the same patterns of exchange controlling consumer goods and labor.

“In this sense, resistance is the key response. Resistance to being possessed. A person’s real value then is proportional to the resistance one puts up against being possessed.” (Giuliano Dego, in Moravia, Oliver and Boyd, London and Edinburgh.)

Once in his apartment for an interview, Moravia, to underline that the crisis of the relationship with reality, said that “reality can be that table” and whacked it with the knob of his cane and knocked the microphone of my recorder to the floor, which we had trouble adjusting. Then, after pondering his own statement, he repeated, “Yes, reality is this table. I’m not speaking here of our relationship with the social world. It is more philosophical than that. I mean our relationship with an object. The problem emerges from the idea that there exists something outside ourselves, despite the idealistic philosophy according to which nothing exists outside ourselves. The thing is people don’t realize this crisis but they suffer from it anyway.”

The fundamental theme of Moravia’s work became revolt and the difficulty of relationships with reality, admittedly, he said, an obsession. Communication, in his view, was the basic problem of man. “Sex is the most primitive means of communication,” the writer said of the incommunicability infecting his characters. “Psychiatrists call this defect of our relationships with reality ‘de-realization.’ It’s a sickness. But there are various mediations between us and reality—like sex. We can relate to reality with our bodies. Like the woman asked if she preferred to masturbate or make love? ‘Make love,’ she answered. ‘That way you at least get acquainted with someone.’ In fact, sex in my literature is for communication.

Moravia’s literary milieu is the bourgeoisie, which he hated with a passion … although he himself was part of it. In his work the proletariat and the intellectuals hovering around the fringes of his bourgeois world are his instruments for dissecting and analyzing that world, which is Italy. The working class yearns for the Eden of the bourgeoisie while the intellectuals like Moravia and his invented characters who live within that milieu are suffering in their alienation. Since there is no escape, their anguish can only grow.

Moravia’s bourgeoisie must be understood in moral terms, not economic. It is a life style. Moravia said clearly that it is better to be rich than poor. Moreover, his bourgeoisie must be understood in European terms. It is not the American Middle Class. The term originated in a century of social revolution in Europe terminating in the Russian Revolution. Uncertain in his artificial idolization of the proletariat as the natural opponent of the hated bourgeoisie, Moravia gravitated toward Communism, as did most of his liberal generation in Europe. I have dwelled on Moravia because he showed in his fiction that the bored indifference of the Italian people as a whole facilitated the birth and twenty-year survival of Fascism, the same political indifference that marks Italian society today in the face of the modern form of reactionary extremism that is Silvio Berlusconi. Indifference, I might add, is not only an Italian story.

Gaither Stewart is a Senior Contributing Editor at Cyrano’s Journal Online, and a cultural political essayist whose subjects of inquiry range from Europe to Mexico, Argentina, and the United States. An American expatriate hailing, like Thomas Wolfe, from Asheville, N.C., these days he makes his home in the eternal hills of Rome.
8 comments on “ITALY, ITALIANS AND SILVIO BERLUSCONI— A CASE OF ANYTHING FOR POWER
  1. A truly superb portrait of Italy’s “malaise”, certainly one helluva diagnosis. Berlusconi reminds me in so many ways of Argentina’ Menem, more than any other thug or bourgeois politician: both are crude, corrupt to the core, extremely lucky and their appeal is certainly that of a sanitized semi-open fascism. By rights, both should be in jail by now.

  2. The main pillar of these dangerous politicians continues to be anti-communism. The system’s propaganda would be seriously weakened without it. Since the “fall” of the Soviet Union, and the supposed triumph of capitalism, the West lost its main bogeyman: a superpower bent on spreading the hateful philosophy. That’s where this endless war on terror comes in. It’s an useful replacement for the vacuum left by the disappearance of the former prop.

    I’m glad you mentioned Antonioni: he was one of my favorite directors. In L’Avventura he captured vividly the emptiness of purpose of the Italian postwar bourgeoisie. Not that they were filled with valuable purpose before.

    Thanks for a great read.

  3. I think that fascism always finds fertile soil in a traumatized people and in deeply-rooted ignorance. That’s why most revolutionary governments aim to stamp out formal illiteracy as soon as possible. Naturally, knowing just how to read and write is no guarantee of anything. Americans have a relatively acceptable rate of formal literacy (if not real functional literacy) and still manage to perpetuate a terribly corrupt system. But reading at least affords a person a measure of self-defense –the possibility—of fighting back against blatant lies inculcated when young. In this sense, it’s always a battle of propagandas. From that I question a bit the totality of this assertion:

    “bored indifference of the Italian people as a whole facilitated the birth and twenty-year survival of Fascism…”

    “Bored indifference”? Yes, I think I see where the author perceives this. Italy is a very old culture in which even peasants—rusticity aside— have a certain sense of class: 2500 years of surrounding history must have some effect. But only certain segments of Italian society fell for that “indifference.” Precisely the sectors that always come last to the revolutionary table, if at all: the lower and middle classes. The shopkeepers and the petty bourgeois.

    At the time of Mussolini’s rise, most workers, especially in larger industries, and the North, were part of the left. The south—il Meridione—was more into the Mussolini message, despite its anarchic character, and even there the Church played a huge role in delivering the noses. The countryside of course is always more conservative in social outlook, but in Italy not necessarily nationalistic, especially in regions like Naples and Sicily where the concept of regional chauvinism may apply, or subnationality. After all, while America became a formal new nation in 1776, Italy was unified as a self-conscious nation only after a protracted process that lasted almost the entire 19th century.

    Fascism in Italy I believe occurred as a result of the same combination of forces we saw in Germany a few years later (Hitler borrowed many things from his acknowledged teacher, Mussolini: a decisive move by the reigning bourgeoisie with the remnants of the feudal order (representing the Italian state) to outflank and smash the left and its organizations. It was the partiality of the state, the active use of decommissioned soldiers and offduty police, and the ensuing “permissible thuggery” of the blackshirts that opened the road for the fascists. The battle was won in the streets, and only later at the institutional level.

    —tw.sarno-British Columbia

  4. The Germans in defeat never doubted themselves as the Italians did, in semi-victory alongside the allies. Maybe it’s a tribute to a race of people that easily see too many viewpoints to the same issue, and that applies scepticism to its own self-image—at least half of the time! In the 1950s, as a young GI, I wondered why the Italians were so ready to admire American civilization, and to listen with endless fascination to tales about the corner drugstore, rock & roll (just beginning to cut it across all strata even in America), and life in small-town America while in a nation so crammed with historical riches. For me, besides the Italian neorealists, and Visconti, Fellini and Antonioni, it’s Wertmuller that captures the quintessential Italian in her Seven Beauties, which was artistic and good enough to still merit the definition of great cinema. Her hero is a survival artist, at any cost. Some have derided the vision as a caricature of Italians; northerners especially scoffed at it as merely a Neapolitan concoction. But there’s enough truth in there to stick to the wall.

  5. The decline of Italian life, a certain inherent quality Italy always had, suggested in this piece is found in the fact that today, instead of producing the irresistible satire and humor of a Monicelli (Big Deal on Madonna Street) or a Germi (Divorzio All’Italiana) we have a third-rate talent like Benigni and his sacharine bullshit (has anyone seen La vita e’ bella?) hailed by critics on both sides of the Atlantic as the work of a new maestro. I guess the total decadence we see is everywhere in bourgeois society.

  6. Painfull to read vision of Italiy by someone who lacks the personal investment in wearing blinders and dark glasses. Berlusconi e il nostro “ugly Italian”.

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