The Grumbling Hive
Three hundred years Bernard de Mandeville looked at English society and argued that its corruption was in fact beneficial; greed and self-interest generated public benefits according to Mandeville and the sub-title to his satire, The Grumbling Hive was Knaves turned honest.
At the moment, the hive that is Italy grumbles loudly despite the exceptional heat and the prospects of the imminent August break. There are even some indications of a knave or two being forced to turn honest. But there the comparison ends; far from producing public benefits, the corruption is more akin to a very present and very practical problem. It is like the Gulf oil spill – neverending, inchoate and polluting in ways which even hardened observers find difficult to manage and understand. And despite the continuous protestations by the authorities that everything is under control, the ugly mess spews out relentlessly.
Meanwhile, of course, life goes on. On Tuesday a group of University of Minnesota students asked me the two key questions that foreigners and Italians alike have been asking from more than 16 years: why is Berlusconi in power? And how long is he going to last? I will try and answer both, but first the week.
In April 2009, the L’Aquila earthquake provided Berlusconi with a perfect opportunity to show his real organisational qualities. The survivors were given shelter, food and clothing in a way which Italian emergency authorities had seldom done before. Apart from the immediate response, Berlusconi made great promises about rebuilding L’Aquila; he revelled in the media coverage and crowd adulation. He added the futuristic fireman’s helmet to his already wide repertory of headgear. With every visit, the Aquilani and the rest of the world were told that it was Berlusconi who was responsible for the reconstruction. A year and a half later, that concentration on one man as L’Aquila’s saviour has come back to haunt him. A highly critical documentary Draquila by Berlusconi’s best impersonator, Sabina Guzzanti is doing the rounds showing how incompetence, corruption and lack of direction are still the rule. The head of the Civil Protection authority, Guido Bertolaso, is under investigation for giving contracts to his friends and the Aquilani themselves are on the warpath. The tax exemptions which in other earthquakes went on for years until the economic fabric had been rebuilt, were stopped on 1st. July as part of the austerity package and the centre of L’Aquila is still a ghost town and likely to remain so. Last week saw 5,000 Aquilani demonstrating in Rome led by the mayor; because of Berlusconi’s personal involvement they went to his residence in Palazzo Grazioli as well as the Prime Minister’s office in Palazzo Chigi but were stopped by large numbers of police in riot gear. The images of earthquake victims bloodied by police preventing a demonstration in front of the PM’s home was not the sort of media coverage that Berlusconi expected from the earthquake.
The fight between Berlusconi and Chamber of Deputies President Gianfranco Fini twists and turns with Fini ably exploiting his agenda-setting position in the Chamber. An economics undersecretary and regional coordinator of Berlusconi and Fini’s party, the Popolo della Libertà, (PdL), Nicola Cosentino has been accused of links with the most violent camorra gang (the Casalesi) and of setting up a secret pressure group similar to the secret masonic lodge Propaganda 2 (or P2 – the new one has immediately been dubbed “P3”. The new group is alleged to include judges as well as politicians. Fini has not said anything about the merits of the Cosentino case but he challenged Berlusconi by allowing the opposition to table a no confidence motion on Cosentino for next week. His own deputies were threatening to vote with the opposition against Cosentino which would have made the PdL division very, very visible and numerical as well. Fini and Berlusconi were eyeball to eyeball and it was Berlusconi who blinked. Yesterday, Cosentino resigned as undersecretary.
The P3 story is still unclear but Berlusconi considers it dangerous enough to have called it a story about “four retired loosers” (quattro pensionati sfigati) and to return to his old anathema “Jacobins and justicists” meaning prosecutors and journalists who apply the law overzealously. The language is that of the early ‘90s and we seem poised for a re-run of the corruption trials which brought down the DC and PSI.
But much is very different. The government has a huge majority even if Fini’s people are wavering and for the moment at least there is little serious opposition either in Parliament or among the people.
The austerity budget will go through the Senate today with a vote of confidence (to stop the debate and prevent further amendments) and is due in the Chamber on 26th or 27th. The main opposition comes from the regional governments but they are divided both by party and north/south. The northern regions both left and right are unhappy to have to cut services when they think they have been thrifty but they will not bring the government down. Nor will Fini’s supporters.
The other major bone of contention is the intercept bill, now also criticised by the UN in Geneva’s human rights expert Frank La Rue. At the same time as the Interior Minister, Roberto Maroni was boasting of the government’s success in arresting Calabrian mafiosi, using phone taps, his own government is trying to limit intercepts. The senior antimafia investigator, Piero Grasso, pointed out sarcastically that “the mafiosi’s privacy has been violated”; I will look at Italy’s schizophrenia over organised crime next week.
Berlusconi has said he wants the bill through Parliament before the summer recess but with mounting opposition to it and Fini’s delaying tactics, this is unlikely. So this is another challenge put off.
So what did I tell the Minnesotans on the first question and them and others on the second?
Berlusconi was elected and stays in power first of all because he has succeeded in selling a dream and has been able to renew that dream constantly over the last 16 years. In the early days he played on an exaggerated fear of “communism” whatever that meant then and to a lesser extent he still does. His image endears him to large numbers of Italians who not only forgive him his crude jokes, his verbal and physical groping of young women and his plastic surgery but they admire him for it. And many admire him for his success even if it might be based on recycled mafia money (more on that next week too). And finally, and obviously, in a country where most people get their news from television news (not even the investigations and talk shows), Berlusconi’s control of five of the seven news programmes, as well as three newspapers, one news weekly and the country’s biggest publisher is crucial in presenting his message and reducing negative coverage.
For the second question, is he on his way out? Indeed there are cracks in his edifice; he has lost two ministers and an undersecretary in the last two months and the national party coordinator is wobbling. These are the “knaves turned honest”. Fini showed his power by forcing the Cosentino resignation but he is still a long way from making a bid for power. The Northern League are unhappy as Berlusconi makes overtures to the centrist UDC and cuts the regions’ spending power but again, they are not going to bring th house down. So the austerity package will pass but as always happens its effects will be muted in the (non) implementation. The intercept bill will probably not come to a vote before the recess but if does, there will be enough amendments for Fini’s people to accept the fudge.
All of which leaves B in power. Either god almighty or his physician have a better idea of when he will leave it – and I do not have contact with either. But the hive will continue to grumble.