This is a wee bit like the ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg?’ story, only in this case, the chicken is Silvio Berlusconi and the egg is Italy, or vice versa, maybe. Anyway, there have been comments from high level observers of the Italy situation, people such as Alexander Stille and James Walston, which suggest that Berlusconi has created contemporary Italy.
But is this really the case? Not necessarily. Read on for an answer. Comments, and disagreement, welcome. By the way, Italy is a bus.
I’ve agreed that Berlusconi created today’s Italy, but after expressing my agreement, I started thinking. After all, Italy has been around for a lot longer than Silvio Berlusconi, and Italian politics was a mess long before Italy’s media mogul threw himself into the fray.
Reaching further back into Italy’s history we come across Mussolini and his band of fascists. Now it could be argued that Mussolini swept to power on a wave of discontentment, in much the same way as Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. In times of national unhappiness people often turn to those with the greatest charisma and who make the grandest promises, such people often happen to be extremists too. Both Hitler and Mussolini; rather good examples of the extremist genre; followed up their rabble-rousing speeches with actions, and both did some things which were positive for their countries. Both also did terrible things, and both ended up dead. Both were probably puppets too.
What’s this got to do with Silvio Berlusconi? Quite a lot actually. Prior to Berlusconi’s entry into politics in Italy back in the early 90s, Italy’s system had been messy politically to say the least – the ‘leaden years’ – ‘anni di piombo’, is but one example. Italy had been corrupt too. Very corrupt, so corrupt that a businessman I know of found himself spending so much time in the Eternal City paying backhanders that he bought an apartment in Rome. Rome, as you will know, is where Italy’s government has its seat, so you can probably gather to whom the businessman was paying bribes.
Just in case you were wondering, Silvio Berlusconi cannot be blamed for introducing corruption to Italy!
Before entering politics, Berlusconi was a businessman, indeed he kicked off his career with the development of land on the borders of Milan. How exactly he raised finance for these construction schemes has never been one hundred percent clear. Rumour has it that the mafia lent Berlusconi a helping hand. While, if true, this may be shocking, you have to understand that Berlusconi may have come up against Italy’s notoriously cautious banking system.
What follows are two scenarios which are purely hypothetical, but based on my having lived in and observed Italy for well over 10 years.
I can see it now, the young Silvio Berlusconi going from bank to bank presenting his sure-fire development scheme, asking for a loan and being turned down point blank. Yes, Italian banks do not like handing out money to anyone unless he or she already has relatives who own a small company like Fiat or suchlike. The situation has not changed much today. Back to Berlusconi.
While passing from one bank to another, the young Berlusconi receives a call.
The gentleman on the other end of the line in his Sicilian accent explains to Berlusconi that he knows of a group of ‘financiers’ who would be prepared to help Silvo get his development scheme off the ground, and this organisation has contacts in all the right places too. Disheartened after having been turned down once more but yet another cautious Italian bank that very morning, Silvio Berlusconi thinks, “What the heck”, and arranges a meeting with the man with the southern Italian accent. The ball has started rolling.
What you also need to know is that if this was the case and Berlusconi did receive funds from Italy’s number one criminal organisation, and this has never been proven, even if it is widely suspected here in Italy, he would not have been the first, nor was he the last. And having large globs of cash to throw around in a country so ridden with unnecessary bureaucracy as Italy can make a big difference in terms of being able to make a few ‘contributions’ here and there to help grease inefficient bureaucratic wheels. ‘Gifts’ can also be made to people in high places to ensure that the required permissions come through on time and in the way that is most beneficial to a project. To all intents and purposes Berlusconi, if this is what happened, had few alternatives. Either he jumped on the corruption bandwagon or he got nowhere, and for an ambitious budding entrepreneur who has spotted a golden opportunity, getting nowhere was not an option.
Of course the benefits of alternative funding become obvious – things get done and money gets made. It’s risky, but everybody is at it, and the more money you make, the easier it becomes to manage the risk. You hire a few good lawyers and play Italy’s inefficient legal system to your advantage – time barring laws and all. Berlusconi knows a little about such tactics.
But what you fear most of all is that the system should get its act together and start working, so you work to avoid this at all costs.
Stop reading, start speaking
Stop translating in your head and start speaking Italian for real with the only audio course that prompt you to speak.
It is possible that having grown up in dysfunctional Italy, Berlusconi made a conscious decision from the start to bypass normality and to play the Italian game to the maximum. He may have sought finance from illicit sources from day one – simply because he realised that if he did not, either someone else would, or he would get nowhere fast. Only Berlusconi went one step further, he put in place, and this is no mean feat, the mechanisms he needed to ensure that he can keep working the Italian system – and ensure that the system never becomes too efficient or honest.
Paying a few bribes here and there builds a form of crooked loyalty, in that once you’ve accepted a backhander you are in the ‘gang’ so you will do everything in your power to ensure you and your contacts are not caught.
Get a few, or in Berlusconi’s case, a lot, of politicians on your payroll and the rest is relatively plain sailing. Only a bad example is set to one and all, and the problem becomes self-perpetuating. Never ending. Corruption almost becomes an acceptable aspect of life, and for some, is seen as the only way things can get done. These people become so entrenched in this web of corruption that they work to ensure, as in scenario one, that institutions never become too efficient, or else they will be found out.
This is interesting in itself – this fear of being discovered – as it indicates that those in the ‘gang’ know that they are doing something which is unsavoury and dishonest, even if they try their level best to convince themselves and others that they way they operate is perfectly normal and respectable.
The Point of No Return
Yes, there are honest businessmen in Italy and they are to be lauded because they have done well against all the odds, but the easy way must have great appeal too. Indeed it does, hence the existence of Berlusconi, mass tax evasion, dodgy politicians and a situation which certain people simply do not want to change. It is possible that the point of no return has been reached. Actually, that point of no return may have been hit many years ago, possibly long before Silvio Berlusconi came on the scene.
Justice Hampers the Italian Way
In some ways, one can understand Berlusconi’s frustration with Italy’s judiciary which effectively gets in the way in Italy. Italy’s judiciary tries to enforce the law in a county in which few respect the law. Why do few respect the law in Italy? Because laws are made by people who spend much of their time lining their pockets and, probably, creating laws to help them do this. The resulting laws are badly constructed and half-heartedly enforced because it is not in the interests of those creating laws to make them work, as mentioned in Scenario’s One and Two previously. To such people, those who enforce the law are seen as obstacles to the way things are done in Italy.
Ideally, of course, Italy’s institutions and systems need sorting out. Politicians who take backhanders should be sent to prison for 30 year jail terms on the grounds that they have betrayed their country by stealing from it. Tax evasion should be punished with an iron rod. But these things won’t happen. The problems have penetrated so deeply into Italian society, and have, perhaps, become part of Italian mentality and culture. Maybe the problems created Italy’s lawless mentality or led to them becoming part of a self-perpetuating vicious circle, I’m not sure.
What I am sure of though, is that Berlusconi is part of the circle. He is the archetypal Italian who tailors his modus operandi to the way Italy works, or does not, depending upon your point of view. Can he be blamed for this? In part yes, but by criticising Berlusconi Italians are really criticising themselves. Yes, Berlusconi has reinforced the cycle, but he cannot be accused of starting the wheel turning. All he is doing is controlling the steering wheel, and he may have a few back seat drivers too.
Italy is a Bus
It’s almost as if Italy is rickety old bus which took the wrong turn years ago, and has never been able to find the right road once more. Italy keeps going round in a perpetual circle.
Berlusconi is now driving the Italy bus and it is not in his interest to steer it in the right direction. The bus is now full of like-minded passengers and back seat drivers who are not keen on finding the right direction either. This assumes that such people know what the right direction is. In fact, the ‘right’ direction is difficult to identify, and only institutions with very sharp teeth stand any chance of pointing the Italy bus in a more acceptable direction, but Berlusconi and quite a number of other powerful and rich Italians do not want to sharpen the teeth of Italy’s institutions. Quite the opposite, as that would be the same as shooting themselves in the foot.
Berlusconi is, it could perhaps be argued, the culmination of a what has long been a fragile and disunited society which is out of control and has been for decades.
While Berlusconi may have helped shape contemporary Italy, he himself has been shaped by the Italy of the past. Italy created Berlusconi.
The Italy bus is likely to keep following its bumpy circular route until it disappears up its own backside. Berlusconi needs to keep the bus from doing this, hence his struggle to pass legislation to ensure the bus neither accelerates nor decelerates.
Italy as a result of its past vices, is going nowhere fast, even if some are becoming very rich in the process.
And that champion of moral standards: the Roman Catholic Church? Well, it seems to be one of the back-seat passengers.