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Italy: More Public Servants Than France, Spain, UK, Germany together

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An Entire Order Converted into What It Was Intended to End


Perry Anderson



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In 1992-94 Italy was widely held to have been reborn. The parties that had long ruled – latterly misruled – the country were all but wiped out, after their corruption had been exposed by a fearless group of magistrates, in an election under a new and, so it was felt, more functional system, even if the government that emerged from the polls was a surprise to many who celebrated the end of the old regime. The country could now make a fresh start, in its way comparable to that of 1945. Today the Second Republic, as it has come to be called, is 15 years old, equivalent to the span of time stretching from Liberation to the arrival of the centre-left in the First Republic. An era has elapsed. What is there to show for it? For its promoters, who commanded an overwhelming consensus in the media and public opinion in the early 1990s, Italy required a comprehensive political reconstruction, to give the country government worthy of a contemporary Western society. Probity, stability, bipolarity were the watchwords. Public life was to be cleansed of the corruptions of the old order. Cabinets were not to fall every few months. Alternation of two moderate parties – or at worst, coalitions – in office, one inclining to the right and the other to the left, would be the norm. Once the political system was overhauled along these lines, the reforms needed to modernise Italian society, bringing it up to standards taken for granted elsewhere in the Atlantic community, could at long last be enacted.

A decade after the earthquake of Operation Clean Hands, the balance sheet of the new republic was, for its champions, a mixed one – frustrating in many ways, but not definitively disappointing. On the positive side, the political landscape had been transformed, with the extinction of all the parties that had populated the First Republic and the distribution of their successors into two competing blocs seesawing in office. A great economic change had followed with Italy’s entry into the Eurozone, barring henceforward the country’s traditional primrose path of devaluation, inflation and mounting public debt. On the negative side, two developments were disturbing. The first, decried across the board by polite opinion, was the failure of the electoral reform of 1993 to purge the political system of lesser parties, of more radical persuasion, on the flanks of the competing coalitions now ranged against each other, and capable of extracting concessions from these in return for their support. The work of the new republic would not be complete until such blackmail – the term invariably used – was eliminated.

The second cause for concern was, in the nature of things, less universally pressed. But the prominence of Berlusconi, as the most spectacular newcomer on the political scene, aroused anxieties that were not confined to those most averse to him. Not only was he deeply implicated in the corruption of the last phase of the First Republic, but as a media magnate turned politician he embodied a conflict of interests felt to be intolerable in other democracies, controlling at once a private empire and public power, each at the service of the other. Fears were repeatedly expressed that here could be the makings of an authoritarian system of rule distinct from, but genetically related to, the nation’s previous experience of plebiscitary power. Still, in the opening years of the Second Republic, these remained more notional than actual, since between 1994 and 2001 Berlusconi was only in office for seven months.

When, in the spring of 2001, he finally won a full term of office, warnings were widespread on the left of the danger not only of a semi-dictatorial development, but of a harsh regime of social reaction, an Italian version of the radical right. The reality, however, proved otherwise. The social and economic record of the Berlusconi government was anodyne. There was no significant attack on the welfare state. Social expenditure was not cut, pensions were raised, and employment increased. Measures to loosen the labour market and raise the legal retirement age remained ginger, and tax cuts were less significant than in social democratic Germany. Privatisations, abundant under the centre-left coalition of 1996 to 2001, led before his departure for Brussels by Romano Prodi, when Italy held the European record for selling off public assets, were minimal. The main advantage of the regime for the rich lay in the amnesties it granted for illegal stacking of wealth abroad, and flouting of building controls at home. Ostensibly tougher legislation on immigration was passed, but to little practical effect. Externally, Berlusconi joined Blair and Aznar in sending troops to Iraq, a contribution to the American occupation that the centre-left did not oppose. A package of constitutional reforms giving a more federal shape to the state, with greater powers for the regions – the top priority for the Northern League headed by Umberto Bossi – was pushed through parliament, but came to nothing in a subsequent referendum. No great drive or application was displayed by Berlusconi in any of this.

The principal energies of his government lay, starkly, elsewhere. Berlusconi’s overriding concern was to protect himself from prosecution, amid the thicket of cases pending against him for different kinds of corruption. At top speed, three successive laws were rammed through parliament: to block evidence of illegal transactions abroad, to decriminalise the falsification of accounts, and to enable defendants in a trial to change judges by shifting the case to another jurisdiction. When the first and third of these were voided as unconstitutional by the courts, Berlusconi reacted with a fourth, more drastic law, designed to wipe the board clean of any possibility of charges against him by granting himself immunity from prosecution as premier, along with the president, the speakers of the two chambers and the head of the Constitutional Court as four fig-leaves. Amid widespread uproar, this too was challenged by magistrates in Milan, where the major trials in which he was implicated were under way, and was ruled unconstitutional six months later. But the barrage of ad personam laws, patently the government’s most urgent agenda, had immediate, if not yet definitive effect. No sooner was Berlusconi in office than he was absolved by an appeals court of bribing judges to acquire the Mondadori publishing conglomerate – not for want of evidence, but for ‘extenuating circumstances’, defined in a memorable précis of Italian justice as ‘the prominence of the defendant’s current social and individual condition, judged by the court to be decisive’. Before formal immunity against prosecution was struck down, it had closed another leading case against Berlusconi, and when the case was reopened, a new court delivered the requisite judgment, absolving him.

After protecting his person, came protecting his empire. By law Mediaset was due to relinquish one of its TV channels in 2003. Legislation was quickly rushed through to allow it not only to retain the channel, but to enjoy a massive indirect subsidy for its entry into digital television. Since Berlusconi now commanded his own private stations and controlled state broadcasting as well, his dominance of the visual media came close to saturation. But it failed to deliver any stable sway over public opinion. By 2005, when he was forced to reshuffle his cabinet, the popularity of the government had plummeted. In part, this was due to the unseemly spectacle of the ad personam laws, denounced not only in the streets but by most of the press. More fundamentally, it was a reaction to the economic stagnation of the country, where average incomes had grown at a mere 1 per cent a year since 2001, the lowest figure anywhere in the EU.

Full article: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v31/n04/ande01_.html

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