Berlusconi has gone, for the moment. There has been a lot of celebrating in Italy and that was understandable, albeit nobody is going to like what comes next. There seems to be scarce understanding of this, but let us not go there for now. The darkest page of post World War II Italy having temporarily been turned, we should for a moment take a good look at what we have been through.
When it comes to authoritarian (and totalitarian) ideologies, we Italians were there first. Sure, it took the Germans to implement and to bring to lethal perfection something like Fascism. Nonetheless it was us who gave that to the world. It is our greatest original contribution to the XXth Century (and nasty one, should I really stress that). Now we are perceived as something of a (large, third largest actually) burden to the EU due to our chronic inability to let go of politics and finally surrender to management. In fact, such inability is indeed superficial. Deep down, by letting someone like Berlusconi taking over, the Italian left did indeed surrender to management: only, one of a populist, instead of technocratic, breed. This is the most enduring legacy of berlusconism.
Berlusconi and Mussolini are similar not in their qualities but in their functions: they both paved the way for the acceptance of until then unpalatable (and partly unprecedented) ideologies. The latter copyrighted right wing totalitarianism. The former, a man with an ego of Hollywoodian proportions who probably likes to think of himself as some sort of Napoleon (at best, he barely makes it into the league of the way more mediocre Napoleon III), is ushering Europe and indeed the West into a period in which televised leaders of clownesque behaviour and extra-political qualities will be increasingly chosen by the electorate to represent them in Parliament.
This has been long in the making and is barely evitable: the watering down of the political discourse of liberal democracy leaves a void which cannot be filled other than by recurring to elements like fame, beauty, riches to be used as a fetish. Politicians are more and more being recruited amongst footballers, movie stars, billionaires and pop stars rather than from their traditional breeding ground. So it was not invented by Berlusconi, who was preceded by Reagan, Schwarzenegger etc. (the USA require a different analysis, their political universe being of an entirely different sort). Berlusconi original contribution lies rather in his particular blend of populism, little care, if not complete disrespect – for the idea of State, family, international prestige etc., something to which Thatcherism, still a completely orthodox neoliberal stance in comparison, remains firmly committed.
He is, in other words, a symptom of a transnational virus that could flourish particularly well in a country devoid of the required antibodies (a strong national identity, an imperial[istic] past, Protestantism, etc.), such as republican Italy. He is the crack in the dam of European politics, one through which an increasingly commodified tidal wave of postpolitical chatter will flood the political debate and praxis.
Behold, here is the leader of the future. He has all that it takes: media appeal (and, of course, media themselves) and charisma, which make up for the otherwise dismaying blandness of ideas. Until his incompetence accelerates (only) the unfolding of desperate situations, like the present Italian one, and so-called technocrats are thrown in. People, that is, who just do their job: patching up something that has broken down instead of fixing what caused it.
Let’s have a look around: isn’t Sarkozy France’s closest match to Berlusconi? Has anyone ever considered the almost Italian quality of Spanish television? Sure, the patina of respectability still presiding over UK and Germany leaders is enduring in comparison, this being arguably due to the post-imperial prestige of the former and the historical burden haunting the latter, alongside their Protestantism – but there is a good chance that, not too far in the future, they will join their Mediterranean catholic counterparts into a common quest for the next populist leader. Not as crass as Berlusconi maybe, and yet not too far removed from his ultimate goal: filling Parliament with the toxic chitchat of TV shows. Nicholas Sarkozy parading his ersatz gaullism works as a pale dismissal for the grande peur that French banks, and with them the whole country’s long gone grandeur – are going to go down. Other than that, he is made of the same, if only less coarse, clay. Himself a media savvy, he knows all too well that laughing about Berlusconi with Merkel is an excellent way to distance himself by the sinisterly similar object of his derision, a guy behind whom he is trailing.
As with Fascism, I’m afraid Italy will soon be seen as having got there first. Only, this time with berlusconism, the new post-political ideology capable of morphing into different physiognomies, according to the culture it will grow into; a way to speed up and clumsily adjust to the Italian specific situation the entering of Europe in the realm of early third millennium media-driven late capitalist sameness.
He seems to be gone for now, but his legacy will stay. He might have changed Europe for ever. Do expect more of him, in every sense.