Eight years have passed since my booklet about the age of Silvio Berlusconi came out, which I chose then to call the “era of authoritarian democracy,” after having discarded other equally fitting formulas such as “media populism” or “illiberal democracy.” At that time, the quote from Brecht’s Diary, which speaks of a possible “democratic fascism” in reference to the American context, in tune — as Luciano Canfora recalled in his valuable essay on Demagogy — with Thomas’s speech, had not occurred to me. Mann at the Hollywood Peace Group of 1848. If I had known maybe I would have preferred it.
The booklet was called Berlusconi passato alla storia (“Berlusconi down in history”), and it was unpretentious but had a not-too-hidden ambition: to dismiss the character. The title meant so many things. It could be equivalent to “having been consigned to history” and therefore treated, if we also want to be judged, with the tools of the historian.
Or it could have meant that for better or for worse, much more in the bad than in the good, Berlusconi had by then conquered a place in history and had managed to make himself an epoch. One could rightly speak of “Berlusconi’s age” precisely as we speak of the age of Crispina or Giolitti or the Wilhelminian age: an era to which a character gives the name, even if it does not end with that protagonist.
But above all it contained the hope, the wish, that the era was ending. It was the desire to get out of a nightmare that had lasted since January 1994, when the head of Fininvest had menacingly presented himself as an aspiring actor on the political scene, and especially since March of that year, when the threat was realized, assuming the his semblances and — it is a very vivid personal memory — those of the lawyer Previti appeared with him on television screens on victory night to be presented as the future minister of justice (a horrifying image of which I have not freed myself). It was also the illusion — perhaps a little naive — that he was destined sooner or later to leave the scene as he had entered, and the course of things could begin again.
Because every self-respecting story must have its beginning and its end, even if beginning and end are never sharp cuts but processes. Finding a start was easy enough. In narrow terms it could be placed between 1993 and 1994. Since Berlusconi had unexpectedly expressed his support for Fini in the runoff with Rutelli for the office of mayor of Rome (which cost him the appropriate qualification of Black Knight from this newspaper) when he won the elections.
Wanting to widen the periphery, we could go back to the crisis of the ‘90s, with the collapse of the communist system, the end of the Cold War and the scandals of Tangentopoli, which had crumbled the political system of the first Republic, the “Republic of parties.” Still further back it was possible to keep in mind the global economic, social and media phenomena that had marked the ‘70s.
But what about the end? Here the discourse — I admit — became more slippery and elusive. A question mark remained: end of an era? In fact, he titled the last chapter, expressing more doubts than certainties, more gloomy predictions than radiant expectations: “The future and the end of the Berlusconi age, both in terms of time and modalities, appear for now surrounded by a thick curtain of unpredictability. On the contrary, the pessimists fear the emergence of a slow agony, a harbinger of further, inexorable degeneration of the political and civil life of the country.”
In the course of two years it seemed that the situation suddenly intensified, prompting me to ask the editor (Donzelli) for a second updated edition of the book. Perhaps the era was in decline.
The hardly audible creaks that emanated from the Berlusconi office were leading to real landslides: the resounding break with Fini, the spread of sexual scandals and his inclination to subordinate the state administration to his interests and passions, the difficult holding of the parliamentary majority only thanks to the purchase and sale of deputies, and the alarm and the ultimatum of Europe for the degeneration of the country’s financial situation signaled by the growth of interest on the country’s debt.
Then there was the resignation, prepared by the head of State Mario Monti — a senator for life — and his subsequent call to preside over an emergency government.
Was it the end? Only within certain limits.
And we are now living the history of the last few years.
The Monti and Letta governments were based on broad understandings, designed to exit the tunnel painlessly, without trauma. Then there was the Renzian era, containing the illusion of a Berlusconi defeated with his own weapons by a leader who possessed equal energy, similar media skills and a quality that Berlusconi was inexorably escaping: youth.
But Berlusconi did not have his Hammamet. Struck by serious and definitive convictions (tax fraud), expelled from parliament by virtue of a law approved in the meantime, he served the sentence without abandoning his role as leader of the right. It has long seemed devoid of heirs capable of replacing him and of adversaries capable of destroying him.
In the 2013 elections, which had to play for him the de profundis, he regained the scene in the end, managing not to lose to but not to beat a faded Bersani. Consumed by time in his biological life, he used all the techniques of body conservation, even undergoing a sort of preventive mummification but did not completely lose his ability to perform his media duties.
Today, the perfect imitation and prosthesis of himself, although with certain views altered because of Lega Nord, he still holds the bench as in 1994 — offering himself as a guarantor of moderatism with respect to Lega Nord (which is often in fact the double-breasted version and the sounding board) and as a reserve card for a spurious alliance in the event of an election with no conclusive outcome.
In short, despite everything, the multi-headed monster was not crushed.
Almost a quarter of a century later, not only his personal affairs but the era began by his eruption into Italian politics has not yet ended. Indeed it has become a worldwide trend, culminating in the success of Donald Trump in the United States.
The symbiosis between anti-politics and mass media has gone from the videocracy phase to that of digital populism. Now that the crisis of the traditional parties has been consummated, we have arrived at a democracy without parties, or to the prominence of the corporate parties, Fininvest or Casaleggio & Associati, entrusted to powers that remain in the shadows, in which the leaders choose their followers instead of vice versa.
As Alessandro Dal Lago wrote, “In the virtual or digital dimension of politics, new actors can quickly rise to the fore thanks to their ability to influence via social media.” Today the erosion begins, the crushing of representative democracy by Berlusconi.
Although exceeded, he appears more like a progenitor than a meteor. More like a forerunner than an exceptional episode. He has passed into history, but it is a past that doesn’t seem to end.