Berlusconi is not just another rightwinger; he is a threat to democracy

The Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, may have been forced to apologise, albeit belatedly, for his extraordinary attack on Martin Schulz, the German MEP, but it seems likely that the bitter taste will remain to sour the next six months of the Italian presidency. More importantly, this incident could serve as a long overdue wake-up call to Europe’s politicians and opinion-formers about just what kind of political threat Berlusconi represents.

Some have described his suggestion that Schulz should play the part of commandant in a film about Nazi concentration camps as a gaffe by a gaffe-prone politician. This is entirely to miss the point. Just because Berlusconi says things that no other European prime minister would does not mean they are gaffes. They accurately describe the nature of the man and his politics.

Berlusconi is – and has been ever since his political emergence in 1994 – the most dangerous political figure in Europe. This has gone largely unrecognised. Tony Blair has been happy to consort with Berlusconi and offer him the cloak of respectability in his various attempts to build a pro-American axis against the French and Germans. The left, for its part, has been more preoccupied with the threat posed by the emergence of a racist far right in Europe, as epitomised by such figures as Jörg Haider, Jean-Marie Le Pen and Pim Fortyun.

Certainly the populist far-right has poisoned public discourse and shifted political debate to the right, especially on immigration and race. And in the many countries where it now enjoys some kind of governmental power, it has succeeded in pulling the main party of the right further to the right. But in no case – Le Pen and Haider included – have they ever looked like becoming a dominant national political force.
In contrast, Silvio Berlusconi is now serving his second term as prime minister; he is clearly the most powerful figure in Italian politics; and Forza Italia is overwhelmingly the main party of the government coalition. Berlusconi has succeeded in a way in which no other far-right politician has been able to. The nature of the threat he poses, though, goes way further than this.

Ever since 1945, democracy has been assumed as a given, as an eternal verity, of western societies. This is clearly mistaken. Nothing lasts for ever: more pertinently, there is plenty of evidence that western democracy is now under greater threat than at any time since the defeat of Nazism. But the nature of that threat is now importantly different. In the inter-war period it was from without; now it is from within.

There are three senses in which democracy, as we have come to know it, is under pressure. First, traditional politics and its institutions are losing ground to the culture of a rampant, market-driven, consumer society. Second, the rise of an enormously powerful media has transformed the balance of power between the media and politics. And finally, the triumph of market values across society, the erosion of alternative logics and the weakening of the unions has bestowed on those with money – be they corporations, celebrities or the super-rich – a quite new influence over the political process. These trends can be seen throughout the west, Britain included, but they can be found in their most advanced and malignant form in Italy.

The Berlusconi regime represents a degenerate form of democracy: a halfway state between democracy and a new form of totalitarianism that we have not witnessed before. The latter cannot be described as fascism even though the two share certain characteristics, and even though the Berlusconi phenomenon can be understood only in the context of a country that was fascist and still bears in its polity and mindset some of the traits of that period. But just as fascism was a completely novel form of politics when it first appeared, so the Berlusconi phenomenon must also be seen as new and distinct.

Berlusconi is by far and away the most powerful media owner in Italy as well as the country’s richest man. He has ruthlessly deployed his three TV channels and his newspapers as propaganda vehicles for his political objectives, and refused to divest himself of them in the face of a blatant conflict of interest. He has used his vast fortune to establish and fund his private political fiefdom, Forza Italia, whose culture and style reflects the values of the corporate, televisual and sporting worlds that Berlusconi inhabits and which have come increasingly to besiege the values of the more traditional political world.

But it is not just that the Berlusconi phenomenon, by the utilisation of huge personal wealth and the misuse of media control, undermines the division of powers on which a healthy democracy rests. He also seeks actively to undermine the various independent centres of power, outside his formal control, on which the very existence of a democracy depends.

Ever since his election in 2001, he has eroded the independence of the state broadcaster, Rai, and progressively transformed it into a vehicle for his own views. It is generally believed that he was behind the resignation of the editor of Corriere della Sera, Italy’s most independent newspaper.

Above all, he has sought to paint large parts of the judiciary – especially those who have been involved in prosecuting him – as engaged in some kind of leftwing political conspiracy. In so doing he has deliberately damaged the judiciary’s credibility and legitimacy, while at the same time presenting himself as above the law by introducing an act that grants him immunity from prosecution.
In seeking to constrain the power of institutions that are independent of him, Berlusconi has been pursuing a policy of creeping totalitarianism. His own style of political attack graphically illustrates the point. Just as he sought to damn Martin Schulz as a Nazi, so he is constantly seeking to denigrate, undermine and condemn opponents in the most extreme of terms.

He describes the left as “communists” under whom “there would be no freedom in Italy”. On two popular presenters that he got dismissed from Rai: “Public television, which is funded by everyone’s money, was put to criminal use by Santoro [and] Biagi.” On the judges: “A section of the judiciary is using its powers not to administer justice but to attack and eliminate those that it considers its political opponents.”

This kind of political style is a direct descendant of fascism, where the opposition is branded in the most lurid and extreme language, accorded no respect, and dismissed as outside the parameters of respectable and civilised society. Berlusconi has poisoned Italian politics and this week did the same to European politics. It was no gaffe: this is how Berlusconi customarily treats political opponents.

This is not to suggest that Berlusconi is now immoveable. Enough of democracy remains for the people to vote him out of office. But he has already revealed the extraordinary weakness and vulnerability of Italian democracy, not least the extent to which a large proportion of the population seems willing to turn a blind eye to blatant conflicts of interest and authoritarian excesses.

Even if he is voted out at the next election, the damage that has been done to Italian democracy will be difficult to repair. Should he remain in office, the prospects are grim indeed. It is time Europe woke up to the threat Berlusconi poses. He is not just another rightwing politician; he represents the greatest challenge to democracy anywhere in Europe.