Berlusconi built a country in which the entire political class, from right to left, seems to share a goal — the brain flattening of its voters
Silvio Berlusconi’s death will not change the political right-wing reality of the Italian government in office, but it still has an effect on the national imagination because his entry into politics in January 1994 changed the country.
That transformation appeared clear a few years later, in 2001 when, in Genova, his government legalised practices that in Italy had only been heard of during the internationalist support for Latin American political exiles in the 1970s. There is a pre and post-Genova political participation for some of us.
His debut in politics happened as a continuity of his business — with a videotape delivered to the media. It contained his “descent into the field” speech in which, from his Fininvest television networks, he promised a “new Italian miracle” to the country he loved. Berlusconi has done many deplorable things but he certainly knew how to use communication to his advantage. He adopted a simplified language, attentive to myths and mass passions, such as football, which he shared with that mass.
He made a brilliant debut, presenting himself as a man of the masses, the model to follow: “The man who made himself alone, the rich Italian who everyone can dream of becoming, who owns everything and has no need to steal from the people.”
With this rhetoric he managed to deceive the initial part of the country, the simpler, less cultured one. The following years of scrupulous work of eliminating any instrument of criticism, using all the means in his power, mainly the media and politics, allowed him to widen his electorate, through the widening the ignorance that is reflected in contemporary Italy. This is a country in which the entire political class, from right to left, seems to share a goal: the brain flattening of its voters. While ignorance does not meet resistance, it is instead increasingly widespread and normalised, and fed from every front. Just think of La Buona Scuola (The Good School) introduced by the Democratic Party in 2015.
While RAI, the state broadcasting company under either Christian Democrats or the Communists, tried to push Italians towards high school with sermons and meatloaves, Berlusconi’s Fininvest — his family communication group that brings together his television and publishing media empire, as well as other businesses — always came with the offer of leisure, idiocy and vulgar entertainment. It was a scam, but faith is blind. From the beginning of his national commitment, in politics as in the media, Berlusconi’s cultural heritage remains the exhortation to Fininvest, his powerful instrument of domestication: “Remember that a part of our audience did the seventh grade and was not even among the top of the class,” as recalled by the Italian journalist Massimo Gramellini. According to the Istat — the national statistical agency — in 2021, Italy was in the penultimate position in the European Union for the share of 25 to 34-year-olds with a tertiary qualification (higher technician diploma, academic diploma, degree or research doctorate). It registered 26.8% versus a European average of 41.6%.
Berlusconi’s political project from the outset expressed a clear centralising, oligarchic and populist mark. He founded his own corporate-based party which he called Forza Italia, as a supporter of the national football team in international competitions. As has been said by many, he was the wizard of simplification, despite having a depravedly cunning brain.
The basis of his actions was the idea that there was a direct relationship between being in office in the government and the will of the people. And it is on this that, for years, he clashed with an Italian parliamentary democratic order, which instead provides that the people exercise sovereignty “in the forms and within the limits” as stated in the Constitution itself. A similar desire is today expressed by the nationalism of the government in office, even if with a markedly fascist historical background not so clearly associated with Berlusconi’s politics.
His personalistic vision of politics has been expressed countless times, but found its climax in justice, clearing an impunity never seen before in such a blatant form. Among allegations of corruption, extortion, child prostitution, tax fraud, corruption in judicial documents, complicity in massacres — in his collusion with the Mafia or with the Gaddafi regime — judicial investigations have seen him so frequently that it simply became “ordinary administration, normal news”, just white noise. Many acquittals are thanks to the so-called ad personam laws that Berlusconi, as head of the government and of the political majority, had the parliament vote on for the occasion. Examples are those that have shielded the high offices of state from investigations by the judicial authority and that have changed the rules on limitation. It was something that had never been seen in the history of republican Italy. Although the last years of his government, which fell in 2011, were characterised by a fierce battle with the opposition, which divided the country, the only definitive sentence Berlusconi received was that of 2013, after a 10-year trial: four years for a tax fraud linked to the sale of television rights. Even then he managed to make the situation grotesque.
Berlusconi and everything he embodied — his slimy connection between the first and second republics, the commodification of everything, the misogyny reflecting a patriarchalism still closely rooted in society, the loss of all kinds of shame, ethics and decency — at a certain point, became tolerable, it became normal and lead to the sad decline of the country he loved.
In the years of the first republic, from the post-war period 1946 to 1994, Italians were divided between competing political cultures, the communist and the Christian. In the so-called second republic, which opened with the victory of Forza Italia in the general elections of 1994, everything changed. Politics was replaced by a personal management of power. The old parties were replaced by organisations built more and more around the figure of a leader and less and less on an idea of society.
While retaining the appearance of a parliamentary democracy, the parliament ends up occupying an increasingly residual position and Italians begin to divide, following the leaders and no longer their political convictions. In short, the parties become like football teams. It is the realisation of Berlusconi’s dream. The master father who succeeded, as he had declared even before entering politics in the late 1980s: “One day I would like to make Italy like Milan!” (the football team he owned).
As journalist Alessandro Calvi wrote, “While Mussolini would have liked to make Italians peasant-soldiers like the ancient Romans, the Christian Democrats of honest and industrious citizens, and even the Communists had a pedagogical and moralistic foundation, Berlusconi exhorted Italians to be proud of their defects, considering them symptoms of freedom […]
If Berlusconi changed the history of Italy as a politician, this was possible above all because of what he had built in the 20 years preceding 1994, and therefore well before founding Forza Italia. These are the years of Milano 2 (a 3km square residential area built by Berlusconi in the 1970s on the outskirts of Milan), of the AC Milan presidency, of commercial television, of the construction of a publishing group. With the pervasive force of his media empire, and in particular of television, Berlusconi created in those years the conditions that accompanied a sort of anthropological mutation that in the 1980s made Italians what they are today.”
It was because of his communication system that Berlusconi was able to deprive the world of politics of dignity, imposing the ideology of anti-politics, thus baptising Italian populism, in which the content is replaced by the performance that has the intention of distracting the listener. He lived in a world that suited him perfectly. The political class that he had partly helped to forge fit him perfectly. Politics is now done on Facebook. Matteo Salvini speaks to Italians through emojis.
What we are witnessing in Italy now is the legacy of this long process of degradation of the Italian political class that has been leading the country for years. So, Augusto Illuminati draws his conclusion: “The consumerist-patriarchal Berlusconi 20 years has produced the political and precarious Italy that [Prime Minister Giorgia] Meloni has now taken over and will worsen in an identity and racist sense.”
As a pathetic service for Berlusconi was celebrated in Milan, hundreds more people died in the Mediterranean. These are also the deaths for which this man is responsible, together with other Italian and European leaders.
The Chamber of Deputies closed for two days and the government proclaimed a day of national mourning, which includes flags at half-mast on the facades of all public buildings and two strips of black cloth for internal flags. During the day of mourning, government officials were forced to cancel public engagements while shop owners could decide to keep their shutters down throughout the day. While state funerals have occurred on several occasions, it has never happened that the government proclaimed a day of national mourning for a former prime minister who had not also held the position of president of the republic.
A number of public figures and citizens expressed their non-compliance with the government’s decision, among them the rector of the Universitá per Stranieri (Unistrasi, the University for Foreigners) of Siena, Tomaso Montanari, full professor of history of modern art.
In his official announcement, the rector states: “I am writing to the whole community to take responsibility for a choice, evidently against the tide, on the occasion of the death of Silvio Berlusconi. Naturally, one cannot feel any joy in the face of this news, rather the sadness one feels in the face of every death. But judgment, yes, is necessary, because it is true that Berlusconi has marked history, but he did so, leaving the world and Italy much worse than he had found them. In this, and in so much more, Berlusconi was the exact opposite of a statesman, indeed the grotesque reversal of the Constitution.
“From P2 [an Italian Masonic lodge] to relations with the Mafia […], from contempt for justice to the commodification of everything (starting from the bodies of women in his television stations), from the proud customs clearance of the fascists in government to the lie as systematic method, from personal interest as the only yardstick to real estate speculation as the destruction of nature. In this, and in so much more, Berlusconi was the exact opposite of a statesman, indeed the grotesque reversal of the draft Constitution. No hate, but no self-righteous sanctification.
“Remembering who he was, it’s today a civil duty. For these reasons, despite the fact that the Presidency of the Council has placed the flags at half-mast on all public buildings from today to Wednesday [the day of the state funeral and national mourning], I personally assume the responsibility of ordering that the flags of Unistrasi do not go down. Everyone ultimately obeys their conscience, and a university that bows to a story like that is not a university. The students of the Normale Superiore University of Pisa joined this dissent by hanging a banner on the facade of their university, which instead lowered the flags.”
Government representatives reacted to the rector’s decision by saying the rector should be “impartial” and “above all, respectful of the indications coming from the central government which, in this case, has ordered that the flags at half-mast on all public buildings until the day of Silvio Berlusconi’s state funeral”.
“Berlusconi was one of the most important protagonists in the recent history of our country. He revolutionised the way of doing politics, of communicating, of doing business. With his companies he gave work to tens of thousands of families — all things that deserve objective recognition, beyond one’s own ideas. And, above all, they deserve respect. That respect which, with his gesture, Montanari has shown he does not want to have.”
Several demonstrations of solidarity with the rector appeared online, among them the campaign launched on Change.org that registered 14 686 signatures in a few hours. While Milan was under ostensible military control, in Rome a group of activists displayed a banner in front of the Altare della Patria, a large national monument in the square where Mussolini delivered some of his speeches, which read: “Today we are not in mourning, we are in struggle,” signed by Transfemminist Antifà and Antifascist Rome.
They declare: “We live in a country that has 15 work-related deaths a week. A country where there were 41 femicides in 2023 alone, 14 deaths from a climate disaster in Emilia Romagna and almost 500 deaths at sea … A country with 85 suicides in prison in 2022. Very little attention is paid to these deaths, for which the state is primarily responsible, in public and symbolic form. National mourning is instead proclaimed for a person who has caused incalculable damage to our country. It is almost impossible to make a complete list of them […] Today we are not in mourning, we are in struggle.”
Laura Burocco is an Italian researcher based at the University of Lisbon