His Friends in the South

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Review of 'Silvio Berlusconi', Paul Ginsborg, Verso £16

It would be all too easy to see Italy's prime minister and former cruise ship crooner, Silvio Berlusconi, as a bit of a buffoon and a dodgy geezer. There is often a smack of racist stereotyping when Berlusconi is under discussion. Paul Ginsborg, one of the most eminent historians of postwar Italy, takes Berlusconi very seriously. He is right to. He has written what must be the definitive English (and probably Italian) biography of the Italian mega-magnate and politician.

Four years ago this July the Italian police clearly felt the election of a Berlusconi-led government had let them off the leash and went berserk against those protesting the G8 summit in Genoa. After they killed a young protester, Carlo Giuliani, they stormed the Diaz school in the early hours following the final demonstration. They subjected prisoners held in illegal jails to severe beatings, forced them to sing fascist-era songs and chanted fascist slogans as they swung their batons. There was a genuine whiff of the interwar fascist dictatorship of Mussolini.

Berlusconi is not a fascist. He does not have tens of thousands of paramilitaries as Mussolini did in 1921 when he unleashed them on the Italian left and trade union movement. What Berlusconi does have is almost total control of Italian television. That control was central to his access to office and once there he has used that position to pass laws, as Ginsborg explains, 'tailored precisely to foster his own political programme and the economic interests of his family'.

Berlusconi's rise from a building speculator in Milan to a media magnate is a fascinating one that is well charted here. It owed much to the dominant figure in Italian politics in the 1980s, the Socialist Party leader Bettino Craxi. Berlusconi's rise also relied on something else. Some years ago British television ran a drama centred on political corruption in Newcastle called Our Friends in the North. Any similar drama about Berlusconi's rise might be called Our Friends in the South - the south being of course Sicily.

From 1948 until 1992 Italian politics remained frozen. The pro-American, Cold War warriors of the Christian Democrats held office year on year, sometimes in alliance, sometimes not. The main opposition, the Communist Party, was frozen out. Both parties played a ritual dance but tended to accept this state of affairs.

So the state-run television channels were divided up, with the Christian Democrats controlling the main station, their effective allies the Socialists another and the Communists the third minority one. Would-be advertisers had to queue outside the office of a Christian Democrat apparatchik in Milan. Advertising space was granted in return for political favours. The whole system was corrupt.

But in a series of earthquakes in 1992 it was swept away, as were the Christian Democrats, the Socialists and the Communists as widespread corruption was brought to light. Berlusconi's friend Craxi fled to his villa in Tunisia. The Christian Democrat leader, Andreotti, has only recently escaped justice for murder and membership of the Mafia (Sicily was his party fiefdom). The heroes of the hour were the judges, from the right and left, who pursued corruption and the Mafia, some paying with their lives.

What Berlusconi grasped was an opportunity to rally the Christian Democrats' lost voters by launching a new 'party', Forza Italia. Its name was adopted from a football chant, 'Come on Italy', and its launch owed everything to Berlusconi's TV empire.

But it wasn't simply an extension of this empire. Ginsborg explains the use Berlusconi made of Thatcherite-style neoliberalism with all its talk about 'liberty' - meaning economic not political liberty - washed down with anti-communism. What he is weaker on is explaining that Berlusconi regrouped a right that has a real base in Italian society after a century dominated by working class insurgency, fascism and the Cold War.

What he does brilliantly is chart Berlusconi's political career, the tensions within the alliance he created with the 'post-fascists' and the xenophobic Northern Leagues (laughably titled the House of Liberty) and the sheer self aggrandisement of Berlusconi's time in office.

Berlusconi is not Mussolini, but neither is he Margaret Thatcher. He was chased from office after he was elected the first time. When it came to the first European Social Forum in Florence in November 2002 the Berlusconi-controlled media whipped up a similar scare to Genoa, saying that crowds of anarchists were going to destroy the jewel of the Renaissance. But it did not work. Instead the Italian police stood off and let the social forum proceeded culminating in a 1 million strong march for peace.

Here, as in his histories of postwar Italy, Ginsborg sees the working class as a largely spent force. His hopes for resistance to a one party state lie with the judiciary, even the president of the republic, and above all the 'reflexive middle class'. The Genoa and Florence mobilisations plus the mighty marches against the war are attributed largely to them.

But there is another reading - that all this is part of the creation of a new working class. The growth of shopfloor resistance in Italy is left uncharted. Whether the left can capitalise on this remains to be seen. Berlusconi looks vulnerable. This book explains that. How he can be toppled though is a question left largely in the air.