Tuesday, 8 March 2011
Italy and the Dirty Don
Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s sleazy and priapic prime minister, is a puzzle. This shady, corrupt, dirty old sexual predator, ever preying on young girls, should have been ejected from office long since. He would have been…in any other country but Italy. But the Dirty Don is a product, a product of history, a product of the Risorgimento, the nineteenth century ‘resurgence’, which saw the creation of the modern state, the imperfect end of an imperfect process.
There is a very interesting piece by Alexander Lee in the History Matters section of the March issue of History Today, in which he argues that Berlusconi type – yes, he is a type – is a direct consequence of Italy’s democratic deficit. It’s a timely article, coming on the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the country’s unification, which falls on 17 March.
The thing is, you see, Italy emerged as a state before it became a nation. I would go further: Italy is the nation that never was. Unification was only a partial process, a political process unaccompanied by any deep-rooted sense of common identity. Even today one of the strongest forces in Italian politics, the Northern League, is committed to separation from the south, the old Kingdom of Naples, frogmarched into Italy by Garibaldi and his Red Shirts in 1860.
So there it was: the new nation thrown up on the European shores. But while there may have been some enthusiasm for the ideal of Italy, at least among the educated classes (peasants in Sicily thought it was the name of the king of Piedmont's wife!), there was little or none for democratic accountability. Garibaldi himself saw the individual as less important than the state. The old bone-head and his Red Shirts; Mussolini and his Black Shirts - there is really no difference, just so long as there is a shirt!
Cynicism over democratic accountability was compounded by the style of parliamentary politics that emerged after unification: one of cronyism, localism, corruption and naked self-interest. As Lee says, even for leading figures of the Risorgimento parliament was no more than a market place for sinecures, jobs and contracts. The kickback culture was king; it remains king.
Parliament, then, was simply a theatre of organised abuse, which explains why Italian ‘democracy’ died so readily in 1922, typically in a backstage deal, not in Mussolini’s ludicrously theatrical March on Rome. After the end of the fascist dictatorship it was back to business as usual, with the post-war Christian Democrats retaining a prolonged hold on power by a mixture of cronyism and patronage. Prime ministers Giulio Andreotti and Amintore Fanfani even made government contracts dependant on support of the party, a situation that would not have been tolerated elsewhere.
Politics was just about manipulation and management, not transparency and accountability, and management was about largess and bribes. This culture was aided by the failures of unification, which left people with a local rather than a national consciousness. Italy, Prince Metternich once said, is no more than a geographical expression. Really, once the dust of Garibaldi had settled, once he had taken off his shirt, that’s exactly what it remained, even so far as today. Fragmentation effectively means that politicians can get way with all sorts of chicanery and malfeasance.
Berlusconi is not the antithesis of the Risorgimento, a bogus ‘rebirth’ which never valued liberty and accountability. In so many ways he is its modern representative, the inheritor of a long tradition of corruption and democratic abuses. He continues to hold power not by the will of the people, assuming it’s possible to identify such a thing in Italy, but by the will of a cabal; by deals done behind doors, by offers made that could not be refused. Hey, chase those girls and cue the music. :-)