Whatever Happened to Berlusconism?


Silvio Berlusconi. Photograph by Downing Street

by Giorgio Fontana

“Sorry for being a bore,” is the comment Silvio Berlusconi made at the end of his dull speech at his party’s congress in Milan, some months ago. Was this a trick or a sincere acknowledgment? Whatever it is, it’s true: Berlusconi doesn’t make the news like he used to do. Even the conclusion of the Mills trial inflamed many less souls than he would have done before; not to mention his recent, extremely dubious steps towards a possible new candidacy. The indignation he seemed to collect as Prime Minister has disappeared shortly after his retirement from political life: it’s as if the “Mario Monti era” had cut him off from Italy’s collective imagination in a blink of an eye.

Sure, he may set a surprising comeback for the next year’s elections — don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched — but at the moment he looks old, confused, “a bore.”

But what about Berlusconism? What about this conceptual monster that has provoked interpretations and counter-interpretations for the past fifteen years? Nobody speaks about that anymore, either. Is it possible that it has ended up the very same way?

For people — like myself — who think it’s necessary to separate the man Silvio Berlusconi and the ‘-ism’ inspired to him, things are not so straightforward. The behavioral style which has unified Italy for all this time cannot just be excreted in a matter of a few months. The cooling that the so-called “technical government” has brought to the main parties doesn’t suffice. Nor it does the linguistic counter-reformation (caution in picking words, frugal, bourgeoisie irony etc.). It helps immensely, for sure, but it’s not enough.

I have previously urged against the assimilation of Berlusconism to Berlusconi’s own political ideas — and suggested to think of it as a broader issue, namely as an attack against the ideas of truth, public ethics and sound argumentation. (An attack, it’s important to underline, which is highly cross-party: a cognitive one more than a political one).

The question now is: are we eventually immune from this germ? I don’t think so. The fact that the most ridiculous or grotesque aspects of Berlusconism appear to have gone is not a conclusive reason to assume that the recovery has happened.

It’s more reasonable to say, on the contrary, that we are now facing a narrative abyss. The Berlusconism/Antiberlusconism dialectic is now deprived of its meaning: the stage appears empty.

This is good news. The ways of reading reality will have to escape from the cage that glued them together for years. However, a new path to illuminate the present state of Italy is still to be found and again, it’s not just a matter of politics (even though the political situation itself is more than unclear at the moment). It’s a matter of culture.

The toxins of Berlusconism that are most notably hard to get rid of stems from the unconcern for truth: the way of boiling down all the most important principles of public discourse — argumentation, real dialogue, rationality — to facile gut-level reactions and hyperbole at any cost, and the creeping legitimation of egoism. That did not disappear in November 2011, when Silvio Berlusconi handed in his own resignation. It’s still here. Maybe it is partly hidden by fear, by the rhetoric of crisis management or whatever — but it’s still here. We haven’t suddenly turned into a responsible, self-conscious nation, ready to put the common good before the private one.

We still live in a country that has had an authentic catastrophe of collective imagination, and the rising populism of the comedian and politican Beppe Grillo is a son of all that: not a solution, just another symptom.

The singer Giorgio Gaber once said that he wasn’t afraid of “Berlusconi in itself, but of the Berlusconi in myself”. Even if I may sound a bit pessimistic, I am now afraid of the allegedly easy disappearance of that “Berlusconi in myself” from our collective souls. The act of the political removal of the man (ah, but will this be really the case?) has not corresponded to a liberation in terms of symbology and cultural atmosphere. These last months are not an automatic absolution for what Berlusconism — a rather more complex issue than Silvio Berlusconi — has determined.

So, in order to fight a linguistic and moral virus such as this, we need a big effort. Downplaying it, and saying that it’s all over, is simply and again a lack of rigor that Italy has shown too many times in the course of its own history: forgetting a tough past as soon as possible, instead of coming to terms with it. The battle needs to be fought, no matter how complex or painful it may be.

Cover image by vas vas

About the Author:

Giorgio Fontana (1981) is an Italian writer and contributor; his last book is Per legge superiore (Sellerio 2011). He works as Editor in Chief at Web Target, a magazine about digital marketing and the flow of online information.