In the darkest days of the Berlusconian era there was a myth that circulated among Italian journalists: that in foreign press rooms, the name of the legendary Italian tycoon was on some sort of “black list” of topics to be avoided at all costs. It was not a matter of chauvinist dislike – newspapers report about way more evil figures – but rather a consideration of trust. During his twenty years of on-and-off rule, the end of Berlusconi seemed near at regular intervals (usually every three years), yet Super Silvio would resurface again and again and reclaim his crown (to be placed on an ever-changing hairline). Foreign editors did not want to lose credibility by publishing columns about the end of an _époque_ just to be discredited a few months later.
The end of an era
Berlusconi has always seemed to have a rather low political center of gravity, appearing to be the most stubborn tilting doll ever made. In Italy, such a doll goes by the name of “Misirizzi”: pull it down; it will tilt a little while, and then stand up again. So, given the infamous “black list” and Mr. Berlusconi’s unusual physical characteristics, the reader can well understand the risk I am taking by saying: This is the end of an era.
Yes, pardon me: You may have read this before! But allow me – for some sort of column about Italy, and eventually about Rome, must begin with some general consideration of this point. We shall suffer now to extract the tooth of the-end-of-Berlusconi to dive later into more appealing details of a country famous as “a geographic expression” (von Metternich), a “Paradise of exiles” (Shelley), and a place where, for some yet unclear reason, Christian Louboutin does not drink tea (although he reportedly enjoys cappuccino).
It is also the place where Welsh striker Ian Rush failed with Juventus, claiming that he could not get used to life in Italy as it was “like living in a foreign country”. And now – to stick with soccer – Italy is also a country where the soccer tradition is decaying: a mere 43% of “Serie A” players were born in Italy, compared to 55% of German-born players in the Bundesliga. When Italy won the World Cup in 2006 (some people in Germany remember this), Italian players in Serie A comprised 60% of the total.
Want some more surprising facts about Italy? Here you go: Italy’s north enjoys productivity levels comparable to the most advanced areas in Europe, whereas the south counts among the poorest. Italy has been de facto not growing for twenty years. Yet this information is rather deceiving: The south has been collapsing, with factories closing down and creating ghost towns around them, but the north has been more or less growing, with some industries getting larger due to international trade.
And if you think that Italians are not good at business, you may want to consider some additional facts about business in Italy. Most notably, entrepreneurs must face the following data: a tax rate of almost 70% on commercial profits (Germany is not even at 50%), the 56th place in the World Bank “ease of doing business” country index (ahem, Rwanda is higher), and the “investment” of 269 hours each year for companies to prepare and pay their taxes (excluding former communist countries, only Portugal here rivals Italy in Europe). You really need guts to face all this.
Berlusconi was a symptom, not the disease
The reason for Italy’s decay? I know what you are thinking, and it starts with a B. Yet in order to better understand the country, we must first take a step to focus on the real problem. It does not start with a B, but rather an I. That’s right: Italy is the problem, and Berlusconi has been merely a symptom of a malaise. Just consider this: The twenty years during which Italy has not “been growing” have been exactly the moment at which the world has been transitioning from a post-industrial age to a digital age. Means of communicating and producing have been revolutionized – and Italy has decided to react conservatively. Italy is a very, very conservative country – more conservative than the Vatican (that place, by the way, is way more open to international stimuli).
The love for Berlusconi can be explained only through the sense of calm that he was able to embody. When costly reforms were needed, when sacrifices were necessary, his government promoted an embellished and calming picture of Italy. All the bad news was the result of “pessimism from the left”. Internet? China? Pension reform? Yes, but not now, and surely not during my term of office, Berlusconi would suggest (but not say).
Of course it is impossible to ask a population to make sacrifices by itself – I love “the people”, yet I believe that the people often do not possess the gift of a long-term perspective. The main problem is that Italy has not been able to produce leadership capable of driving the country to face the challenges ahead of it. Berlusconi is a symptom, not a cause; yet this symptom has been elected by the people, and there has not been a credible opponent for years.
Is the symptom gone? I invite press rooms to delete Berlusconi’s name from the black list (if such a thing even exists) for various reasons. The first is that his political career is finished. Such consideration does not derive from an observation of Berlusconi as such, but rather from what has been going on around him.
The entire system has changed. Berlusconi’s TV programs look tired, as the “cultural zenith” of colorful superficiality is now long gone. Moreover, the Mediaset group is losing money – and lots of it. The constellation of small screen stars, faithful journalists, and the surviving contingent of intellectuals is decayed, aging, bored, and boring.
A new generation is in power
During the ascent of Berlusconi as political hero, Italians were presented with the opinions of carefully sustained “polemists” with a mission to rebel against a leftist monopoly on culture. Somehow, this attempt at cultural reform through loud intellectuals is reminiscent of the rise of figures like Carmelo Bene in the late 1960s: Besides some expression of real intellectual virtue, they served the purpose of abating the old cultural system.
Forty years ago, leftist cultural nihilism in Italy led to a dead end: It merely aided the collapse of tradition and opened the way to the rampant 1980s. Again, the new rightist nihilism brought about nothing but the collapse of the previous system. You can tell that Berlusconi’s era is finished by the situation of the Italian left. Berlusconi and the “new-old left” of the 1990s and 2000s were like political lichen living off one another’s energy, a pernicious ying-yang that swirled around the body of a fatally ill economy.
The new Italian Prime Minister, Renzi, promoted a reform of the main center-left party through the adoption of a new political agenda, updated – at least – to Tony Blair’s left. Some in Italy termed this process the “death of the left”, and this may very well be, given what Italy still believes “left” to be. Different from Northern European social democracy, not to mention the U.S. Democratic Party, in Italy “left” still maintains its connection to the late communist system. Entrepreneurs and companies are still largely seen as subjects, whose aims are merely exploiting other people. Pro-business reforms are still met with criticism of being “neoliberal” – whereas, given the abovementioned tax rate, any pro-business reform should be considered more correctly as “anti-communist”.
And yet the Renzi revolution is also a demonstration of the fact that the new left absorbed Berlusconi’s mission, countering the old left. Berlusconi will still linger on in the Italian Parliament, with the establishment of a new low-cost party of “fedelissimi” (“super-faithful”) just to make his claims heard every now and then. The Italian leadership – and, more specifically, the new forty-something generation – has finally taken power.
Will it succeed? We will explore it together in the coming months, column by column, but for now one thing is certain: The new generation cannot fail.