Courtesy Reuters

The Veiled Tyranny of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi

How the Prime Minister Clings to Power

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's system of power has no precedent and no equal in the history of liberal and democratic countries. The most unsavory aspects of his regime are well known. He is continually embroiled in political corruption scandals: His longtime political partner Cesare Previti has been found guilty of bribery and sentenced to six years in prison. There are allegations of his connections to organized crime: His other partner in business and politics, Marcello Dell'Utri, has been sentenced to eight years in prison for his ties to the Sicilian Mafia. Berlusconi displays an open contempt for the judiciary and the constitutional court, as he regards both as unacceptable limitations on his power. Accordingly, his cabinets have passed laws to shield him from the judiciary. The numerous sex scandals during his rule have prompted commentators to call Italy a "bordello state" that is run by a "whoreocracy."

On Friday, Berlusconi again demonstrated his political staying power as he survived a no-confidence vote by Italy's parliament. The news serves as a reminder that Berlusconi's new, ambiguous, protean type of political power was born not against but within democratic institutions. Some scholars have suggested an analogy with fascism. Others have called it despotism, a kind of sultanate. Neither interpretation suffices. Fascism seized power in Italy through the systematic use of violence, including the assassination of political opponents, and kept it through the demolition of civil liberties. Berlusconi has used various forms of pressures against his opponents, but he has never commissioned assassinations. Nor has he jailed anyone on political grounds. Political liberty and civil rights are still in place. Newspapers and televisions (those not owned or controlled by Berlusconi) can print or broadcast harsh criticism against the government, citizens can freely organize rallies, and the opposition can raise its voice in the parliament. The concept of despotism, too, fails to capture the core of Berlusconi's regime -- the term "sultanate" evokes an exotic and distant regime sustained by tradition. Berlusconi would surely like to be considered a sultan (and many of his supporters regard him as such), but he is as indigenous as one can be and lacks the aura of tradition. Also, he has explicit support from religious institutions, as the Vatican has, on many occasions, overlooked his questionable moral behavior and offered him help.

Berlusconi's regime exemplifies, instead, a degeneration of democracy into the power of a demagogue who controls a corrupt electorate. Like classic demagogues, Berlusconi has displayed, since the beginning of his political career, a remarkable ability to fascinate the masses with political theater that exalts his image. At the same time, he has an impressive ability to win over the Italian public by telling them exactly what they want to hear. His speeches are skillfully crafted to exploit the electorate's beliefs and offer a comforting and simplified vision of reality. 

Unlike almost all demagogues, however, Berlusconi is immensely rich, and he uses his fortune to obtain and consolidate political power. With his money he buys people, and more often he uses his money to distribute favors of various sorts and value, from presents to jobs. In turn, he gets, as has always been the case with this kind of politics, the loyalty of a large number of supporters. One could say that Berlusconi has established an oligarchy within a democratic system.

Berlusconi's regime possesses traits that classical political philosophers described as characteristic of tyranny. But rather than tyranny in the sense of a power imposed and maintained through violence, Berlusconi's regime is more of a veiled tyranny, a concept that was first forged by the fourteenth-century jurist Bartolo da Sassoferrato. Veiled tyranny is a political regime that has not established itself illegally, nor does it resort to the use of massive coercion to remain in power. It can effectively attain its goals under the shadow of republican or democratic institutions. The best historical example was the Medici regime in fifteenth-century Florence. Like any other type, veiled tyranny is the use of power by one man to serve his interest, against that of the common good. 

Italy has a long history of veiled tyrannies. Free city republics of the late Middle Ages did not succeed in defending themselves from internal corruption or foreign domination, and all became open or veiled tyrannies. The liberal regime established by the Risorgimento in 1861 was dismantled 50 years later by fascism. The democratic republic born on June 2, 1946, on the ashes of fascism, has degenerated into Berlusconi's system. A country of fragile liberty, this is Italy's distinctive feature.

A man with enormous power such as Berlusconi creates beneath him a court composed of a large number of individuals who depend on him to obtain favors, power, and fame. With the court, come the habits of servility: flattery, simulation, obsession with appearances, and complete identification with the feelings, thoughts, and will of the signore, not to mention the presence of women ready to offer their services to magnify his splendor. Unlike early-modern and modern princely and imperial courts that affected hundreds or thousands of individuals, Berlusconi's court system influences practically the whole country, largely through the power of media. A servile mentality and corruption reach even the remotest areas of Italian social life. While authoritarian regimes control bodies, the new court system governs the minds. Incredible as it might appear, the regime has been able to produce an anthropological transformation of Italian society on a large scale.

Why do Italians so easily succumb? Because the country suffers from a moral malaise that has been present for centuries. With the exception of a few elites that have dignified the country's history, Italy lacks a sense of moral liberty, as Carlo Rosselli, back in 1929, powerfully wrote in Liberal Socialism: "It is a sad thing but true, that the education of man in Italy, the formation of the basic moral cell -- i.e., the individual -- is in large part still to be done. Most people lack the jealous and profound sense of autonomy and responsibility, because of misery, indifference, secular renunciation." Berlusconi is surely unfit to govern a democratic republic, but Italians are unfit for liberty.

In the specific case of Berlusconi's ascent, however, there is also a visible and serious responsibility of the political and intellectual elite. Political judgments must be based on deeds, and the fact is that these elites have failed to prevent the formation of Berlusconi's enormous power and have not yet been able to defeat it. A significant part of the current political elite that opposes Berlusconi, with various degrees of consistency and determination, has failed. A new one must come forth if Italians want to entertain some hope for a civic rebirth.

One way out of this servitude would be a sustained effort of civic education designed to form a new and different political leadership guided by constitutional principles. Berlusconi's ultimate goal is to dismantle the republican constitution in order to institutionalize his control. He wants to reduce the power of all existing institutions -- the presidency of the republic, the constitutional court, the independence of the judiciary -- that somehow still limit his domination. The emancipation from the liberty of the servants must, on the contrary, take the constitution as its guiding principle.

International public opinion might think that Berlusconi is just an Italian extravagance. Improbable as it might appear, however, Berlusconi's methods and language could find imitators in other countries. No democratic society is immune to the combined power of media and money. The media persuade and seduce the electorate. Money buys consent and loyalty. In political matters, caution is preferable to excessive self-confidence. Citizens of democratic countries should therefore learn from Italy's mistakes and prepare ahead of time the appropriate defenses against the rise of enormous power.

Adapted from The Liberty of Servants by Maurizio Viroli, translated by Antony Shugaar. English translation copyright © 2012 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission. (Original edition published under the title La libertà dei servi. Copyright © 2010 by Guis, Laterza & Figli. All rights reserved.)

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