In 1994, when Berlusconi launched his political party Forza Italia, I was 12 years old. At the time, the last thing I was interested in was politics, and yet Il Cavaliere, as he was known, soon became a part of my life — for the simple fact that, along with every other kid of my generation, I spent my afternoons watching Japanese anime cartoons on the Mediaset channels he founded. In the three months leading up to the general election, which Berlusconi won, Mediaset ran Forza Italia ads around the clock. I soon knew the party’s cheesy jingle by heart.
Many of the elements of Berlusconismo were already present in that first campaign to become prime minister: Berlusconi’s larger-than-life persona, his unscrupulous use of his media empire to propel himself onto the political stage, his proto-populist marketing-style approach to politics. Yet, for several years, as far I was concerned, Berlusconi was little more than an annoying interruption between episodes of my favourite TV shows.
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This changed in the final years of high school, when I became involved in Left-wing politics. One of the first things I learned was that being Left-wing in late-Nineties Italy meant being against Berlusconi. Even though I didn’t realise it at the time, what I was being exposed to was perhaps one Berlusconi’s most toxic legacies: the fact that, by then, the Italian Left had come to define itself almost exclusively in opposition to Berlusconi — as anti-Berlusconismo.
This changed, briefly, with the advent of the anti-globalisation movement. The horizon of Left-wing politics was extended beyond national borders (and beyond Berlusconi) to embrace — in our naïve vision at least — the entire planet. There were much bigger threats than Berlusconi looming out there: neoliberal globalisation, transnational corporations, free-trade agreements, and global financial institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO.
That movement culminated in the massive demonstrations that were held against the G8 summit in Genoa in July 2001 — one of the largest protests in Western Europe’s recent history, and one of the bloodiest. It culminated in violent clashes with, and brutal repression by, the security forces, and in the fatal shooting of 23-year old anarchist Carlo Giuliani by the police. For everyone on the Left, and especially for those who had witnessed first-hand the violence in Genoa — including myself — the blame for those tragic events fell on one person: Silvio Berlusconi, who had won the elections for the second time just a few months earlier.
As the anti-globalisation movement waned during Berlusconi’s second term in office between 2001 and 2006 — the longest served by any Italian leader since the Second World War — Italian Left-wing politics once again came to be defined by anti-Berlusconismo, though for a few years the latter overlapped with opposition to the war in Iraq (for several years, Italy was the third-largest contingent of the US-led coalition). In 2008, after a two-year centre-left government led by Romano Prodi, Berlusconi was elected as prime minister again. By the time the euro crisis hit in 2010, he had been in power for almost a decade. Meanwhile, anti-Berlusconismo had metastasised into a political obsession: if only he could be removed from the equation, everything would be fine.
This came to a head in late 2011, when a financial crisis forced Berlusconi to resign. Within hours, a large crowd had gathered in front of the Quirinal Palace — the official residence of the President of Italy, where Berlusconi went to tender his resignation — to celebrate his departure. As someone who had grown estranged with Italian Left-wing politics in the previous years, the whole thing struck me as odd. I was no fan of the man. But even accepting the official narrative of events — that the crisis had been the result of financial markets punishing Berlusconi for his poor handling of the economic crisis — I couldn’t see how an elected government being forced to step down by financial speculators could be a cause for celebration — especially for those on the Left.
The short-sightedness of the celebrations became tragically obvious when Italian president Giorgio Napolitano appointed Mario Monti, a former European Union commissioner and international adviser to Goldman Sachs, to form a “technical government”, which proceeded to administer a devastating austerity “cure”. In a way, the whole affair exposed the myopia of anti-Berlusconismo. By obsessively focusing on Berlusconi and his threat to democracy, the Italian Left had ended up ignoring — or worse, embracing — the more significant structural trends that had been weakening Italian democracy for the past 20 years and more: the gradual erosion of sovereignty at the hands of the EU and later the euro; the growing power of the technocratic apparatuses of the state, such as the Bank of Italy and the President of the Republic; the undermining of Italy’s strategic interests by its supposed allies, exemplified by the Nato-led attack on Libya in 2011.
While Berlusconi didn’t explicitly push back against any of these things — he was, after all, staunchly Atlanticist and pro-European — he did try, though never with enough conviction, to strike a balance between Italy’s international obligations and his vision of the national interest. This was particularly apparent in his foreign policy, through which Berlusconi tried to assert a relative degree of autonomy and independence. Aware of Italy’s dependency on foreign energy imports, Berlusconi won favourable gas and oil deals by cultivating strong friendships with the leaders of energy-producing countries: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and, most notably, Vladimir Putin.
In 2008, for example, Berlusconi signed a “friendship treaty” with Libya, promising $5 billion over 20 years to compensate for Italy’s colonial occupation in the early 20th century; in exchange, Libya agreed to sign off on lucrative energy contracts and to prevent unauthorised immigrants from travelling to Italy. Before that, he had tried to talk Bush, with whom he was on good terms, out of invading Iraq. Similarly, he backed joint energy projects between Gazprom in Russia and the Italian energy company Eni at a time when the EU was pushing for less dependence on Russian gas. Berlusconi also criticised the American missile defence project, the eastward expansion of Nato, and the West’s support for Kosovo’s independence for being “provocations of Russia”.
“Our relationship with Berlusconi is complex,” wrote Elizabeth Dibble, the deputy chief of mission at the United States Embassy in Rome, in a 2009 cable. “He is vocally pro-American and has helped address our interest on many levels in a manner and to a degree that the previous government was unwilling or unable to do.” Yet, the diplomat noted, there were other areas where Berlusconi “seems determined to be best friends with Russia, sometimes in direct opposition to American, and even European Union, policy”. Once the euro crisis hit, Berlusconi also tried to resist, to a degree, the aggressive austerity policies demanded by the EU and Germany, locking horns with Merkel, Sarkozy and Brussels on more than one occasion.
All of which meant that, by 2011, a consensus had formed on both sides of the Atlantic that Berlusconi had to go. In 2015, former Spanish prime minister José Luis Zapatero recounted to the Italian daily La Stampa the events that took place at the G20 in 2011, just a few days before Berlusconi’s resignation: “I will never forget what I saw at the G20 meeting in Cannes… Berlusconi and Tremonti [Berlusconi’s finance minister] were under immense pressure to accept an IMF bailout. But they staunchly refused. Shortly afterwards, I heard Monti’s name mentioned in the corridors. I found it very strange. Was it a coup d’état? I don’t know, all I can say is that the proponents of austerity wanted to decide Italy’s economic policies in place of the government.”
Indeed, over the years, it has become apparent that the financial crisis behind Berlusconi’s fall wasn’t simply caused by financial markets — but by the European Union itself. As even the Financial Times acknowledged, the ECB under Mario Draghi “forced Silvio Berlusconi to leave office in favour of unelected Mario Monti”, by discontinuing the central bank’s Italian bond purchases — thus deliberately causing interest rates to rise above safety levels — and by making the ousting of Berlusconi the precondition for further ECB support.
Regardless of what one thinks of Berlusconi, it’s hard to imagine a more disturbing scenario than a supposedly “independent” and “apolitical” central bank resorting to monetary blackmail in order to expel an elected government from office and impose its own political agenda. Yet the evidence suggests that it was a monetary coup d’état that took place in Italy in 2011. The consequences would become tragically apparent in the following years: Italy has essentially been put into “controlled administration” by Brussels and Frankfurt — and, increasingly, Washington. The kind of relative autonomy that Berlusconi had succeeded in carving out for his country is today a distant memory. Today, blind obedience to the Euro-Atlantic status quo is firmly expected of Italy’s governments, lest they want to face the consequences of stepping out of line — a point that Meloni understands all too well.
None of this means that we should glorify Berlusconi, of course. All the charges laid against him over the years — his murky business deals with shady characters tied to the Mafia, his sex scandals, his patronage of the country’s political elites, his unscrupulous use of his media empire, his use of politics to advance his own economic interests — are, after all, true, and very serious. And whenever he had to choose between the country’s interests and his personal ones — over Libya, for example — he always ended up choosing the latter. Yet, there is little doubt that Berlusconi, for better or worse, was Italy’s last statesman. Despite being dismissed as a threat to democracy, it was his departure that really opened the door to Italy’s post-democratic, and therefore post-political, turn. Since he left office, our elected governments have morphed into mere implementers of foreign diktats — and anti-Berlusconismo did nothing to stop it.