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Exit Berlusconi

“All political lives end in failure,” said Enoch Powell, but few fail as comprehensively as Silvio Berlusconi.  He leaves office with his personal reputation in a shambles; bunga bunga parties at which septuagenarians courted the favor of under-aged prostitutes will be the most vivid image indelibly linked to his name.  Criminal and civil court actions he staved off for years by shamelessly abusing the powers of his office will now crowd around him, poisoning his final years.  His country is headed for international receivership, its influence, prestige and even independence fundamentally in question.

Yet for all that, he was the most successful Italian politician of modern times; only Benito Mussolini held the reins longer or more tightly.  Since World War Two no Italian was able to stay in office longer, fight off more rivals, overcome more crises or play a more prominent personal role in world affairs.  He was memorable, as few Italian leaders have been for hundreds of years. He invented a new style of Italian political leadership and imprinted his personality on Italian affairs in a way no democratic statesman had ever done.

What on first glance is both astounding and sad is that having achieved so much and amassed so much power, he did so very little with it.  His only real accomplishments were sordid: he managed to pervert the course of Italian justice to protect his private interests and to insulate himself and his enormous economic interests from various charges and assaults.

On deeper reflection, I am not sure that this is entirely fair to Berlusconi.  Not that his determined efforts to insulate himself from various legal cases was anything but sad and disgusting, but I don’t think we are right to blame him for somehow squandering a great opportunity to change Italy for the better.  His political genius was more to recognize that Italy didn’t want change and then to give the people what they wanted, with enough razzle dazzle and style to conceal the deathly inertia and paralysis at the heart of the political system.

Aesop has the story of the frogs who asked Jupiter for a king to rule them.  He sent a log down from the sky; King Log floated inertly in the pond.  After time passed, the frogs were dissatisfied and they asked Jupiter to send them a more active and vigorous leader.  Jupiter sent them a new king, King Stork, who proceeded to gobble up the frogs.

Berlusconi was King Log; he filled the office but did not act.  He floated on the surface of Italian politics — and he floated supremely well, with a near-perfect sense of the currents and the ripples around him.  But he made no effort to change anything that did not affect his own comfort.  He had no goal beyond staying on top.

Had he tried to make changes, he likely would have lost his support much more quickly.  There was no coalition for real change in Italy during his era; there may not be one even now.  Many people are dissatisfied with the state of affairs in a country that has seen no growth for ten years, but they are dissatisfied in such different ways and want such different things that it is difficult and perhaps impossible to put together a coherent program for change that could command the necessary support.  The north and the south in Italy, for example, are both unhappy with the status quo — but the north is angry that it sends so much money south, and the south is angry that it isn’t getting enough.  Berlusconi’s coalition included reform minded northerners and patronage seeking southerners; to float like a log was the only thing he could do.

Berlusconi’s fall from power doesn’t mean that an opportunity was lost.  There was no opportunity for comprehensive Italian reform.  It means that an era is ending; the dam has broken and the pond on whose surface he floated is draining away.  The Italians haven’t asked for King Stork; if the system weren’t falling apart King Log could have floated on for another ten years.

Berlusconi was perfectly matched to his era; that era has come to a close.  The question now is whether Italy can find a real government to take a clear line of policy and to follow through on it, or will it respond characteristically to its latest foreign overlords: listening attentively to the diktats from Brussels and Frankfurt, looking busy and determined but in fact doing nothing at all?

Berlusconi was the consummate Italian politician because he understood the dynamics of Italy so well.  The Risorgimento or the unification of Italy is 150 years old; much to the frustration of generations of Italian leaders the resulting country has never been able to agree on very much or get much done.  It seems unlikely that this basic fact of Italian life is going to change to suit the convenience of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, but we will see.

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  • Eurydice

    A major reason Italy has managed to maintain stability through its 60 or governments in the post-war period (and a major selling point made to nervous international investors) is that Italy has an embedded class of bureaucrats that continues to manage things regardless of who’s at the top. Think of it as the Italian version of “Yes, Minister” (Si, Ministro?). So yes, Italy is difficult to change, but the world changed for them when they gave up the lira and lower level bureaucracy is not the place to deal with such changes.

    Compared to other Italian prime ministers, Berlusconi has lasted the longest, but his reign hasn’t been continuous (his 9-10 years have been split into 3 pieces). A couple of years here and there are not enough to effect anything, even if Belusconi wanted to, which I don’t think he did. I’d say that Berlusconi’s goals were more to use the political system to augment his fortune and to protect himself from criminal prosecution rather than any desire to change anything for the Italian people. And for this I will blame him for squandering an opportunity and for wasting the Italian public’s time.

  • Kenny

    1. Excellent analysis on Berlusconi, especially the alalogy of him being King Log.

    2. Eurydice says that Italy maintained its stability for 60-years because of its bureaucrats. Perhaps so, but I think a much bigger reason was America’s security blanket.

  • Corlyss

    “Yet for all that, he was the most successful Italian politician of modern times; only Benito Mussolini held the reins longer or more tightly.”

    Steve Grasso, a CNBC Fast Money trader, whose skepticism of the Eurozone knows no bounds, has offered a word of caution about Berlusconi’s ouster: Berlusconi was pro-growth and pro-business in a way that no other Italian PM has been in many decades. Grasso claims that while Italy coming to grips with their financial reality is crucial to the survival of the Eurozone, the growth on which the success of the austerity measures depends will not come easily at the hands of any other PM, nor will the stability that Berlusconi has mastered. It may turn out to be impossible to deliver fiscal medicine to a dependent, resentful, and easily violent citizenry without the tools to ensure their acceptance and national stability as well.

  • Jack

    This is an excellent post; it’s really an essay.

    Maybe with impending economic collapse, the Italians will finally recognize that the Risorgimento has ultimately been a failure. The disparate parts of Italy were unnaturally welded together in a wave of nineteenth century nationalism that seems rather old fashioned and quaint today.

    Italy ought to be broken up into three parts so as to let local authorities be more responsive to parochial concerns. There would be a Northern Italy, with its capital in Milan; a revival of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in the Mezzogiorno, with its capital in Naples; and, finally, a revival of the Papal States in central Italy, with its capital in Rome.

    Harsh economic necessity might push the Italians into some radical political and social change.

  • Eurydice

    @Kenny – a US security blanket has nothing to do with keeping Italian government offices open and working. My point about stability is that the Italians have developed a system that divorces day-to-day functions from volatile political antics.

  • http://TerraNetworksBrasil felipe schroeder franke

    I was in Germany when Berlusconi was reelected in 2008. I and several oder ones (there were many Italians in my town) were amazed: how could the Cavaliere be back?

    I remembered this feeling when I read this post my Mr Mead. “Berlusconi’s fall from power doesn’t mean that an opportunity was lost. There was no opportunity for comprehensive Italian reform.”

    Maybe Berlusconi’s failure is rather an national than a personal one. He was there because the Italians, for some obscure, freudian reason, wanted him there. Even if for achieving nothing at all.

    Which makes everything much harder now.

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