The politics of spectacle (11 April 2006)
Will this Italian election really be the final stake through Berlusconi’s heart?
Italy has gone backwards in the last 2,000 years. It used to be a cynical motto of Roman Senate elections that bread and circuses were what determined the outcome. In 2006, Berlusconi managed to get 49 per cent on circuses alone – his management has made Italy Europe’s basket-case economy, but hey, the man could put on a show.
It is said that Italy values beauty over truth, and it is possible to see the election in that light. Romano Prodi – serious, intelligent, technocratic – represented truth. The left’s last time in power in 1996-2001 was dourly faithful to orthodox finance (by Italian standards) and managed to pass the economic tests to get into the euro. While not exactly beautiful, Berlusconi offered the politics of spectacle. His outbursts of vulgar abuse, his campaign rallies featuring attractive women in revealing costumes (the Mussolini flags fluttering among the crowd), all distracted from his failure in government and his grotesque conflicts of interest.
While Italian democracy has long been a strange creature, in which the surface display disguises subtle movements within the elite and a conspiratorial undertow to public life, this election may just show that Italy is just a more advanced case of the decomposition of democracy than its neighbours.
Italy’s post-democratic politics share something with the politics of the United States. In both countries the formal mechanisms of democracy remain in place, but there is a vast imbalance between one side and the other. The Republicans and Berlusconi control the apparatus of state and steadily extend their control over the media and the terms of public debate. The other side are allowed a shot at power every four or five years, but the odds are skewed not only by the power of money and the media but by shameless gerrymandering. And if the other side win, they face a subtle web of power operating against them – the courts, damaging leaks from the civil service, the assumptions about the way business is done.
Berlusconi’s career is like that of a vampire in a horror film – he rises again after damage that would kill an ordinary mortal, and this election does not look like the final stake through the heart. There are parallels in eastern and central Europe, where parties are weak and dependent on strong personalities and financial backing, and sometimes cruder forms of influence. Post-democracy in the west is a subtler business than post-dictatorship in the east, but is there really a clear divide between Berlusconi’s contempt for due process and the manipulated “democracy” in places like Belarus and pre-revolution Ukraine?
Even in Britain there have been signs of the mood that leads to the rise of a chancer like Berlusconi. His political career was born in 1994, when he emerged from the shadowy world of the P-2 Masonic lodge, and what passes for free enterprise in Italy. The existing party system had collapsed under the weight of its own corruption and public disgust for politics as usual, but this revolt did not produce honest government. Berlusconi, who had profited so handsomely from the corrupt old order, used his billions to form his own party, Forza Italia, and has dominated politics since. Without strong political parties, politics is prone to ambitious plutocrats. James Goldsmith’s venture failed in Britain in 1997 – but with weaker parties and a cynical electorate who is to say that someone is not going to emerge as Britain’s Berlusconi in the future? To misquote GK Chesterton, when people stop believing in party politics, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything.
Political cynicism and disaffection cannot produce a better society. All it does is abandon the public sphere to the well-organised, self-interested and loud-mouthed. Without vigorous party politics, there are more dirty deals done in the shadows, not fewer. If lazy cynicism takes over among the electorate, why should anyone in public life bother to do the right thing? In the current fashionable disparagement of politics and the parties, Britain risks losing a vital part of what it means to be a proper democracy.
Ill-directed, universal cynicism among the electorate is what the truly self-interested and ruthless political operator like Berlusconi loves. If all politicians are all as bad as each other, why not vote for the most interesting one, the one who puts on a show with dancing girls and crude talk? Why bother to listen to the argument when you can make your mind up on the visuals, the “personality”, as if you were voting for a Big Brother eviction? And Berlusconi, and his ilk, laugh all the way to the bank.