The Bordello State

Italy's descent under Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.


Ahi serva Italia, di dolore ostello, nave sanza nocchiero in gran tempesta, non donna di province, ma bordello!

Quoting Dante is, I admit, the last resort of a scoundrel or at least the indolent scribe. But this one, from Purgatorio,* is too apposite not to use. Roughly translated, it reads, "Alas enslaved Italy, inn of sorrow, a ship without a helmsman in a great storm, not a queen of her provinces, but a whorehouse." It was also the title of a book by Paolo Sylos Labini published posthumously in 2006; Sylos Labini was not only one of Italy’s most distinguished economists, but a man of absolute integrity who consistently and very openly refused to compromise with Power (even "power" with a small "p"). His last work described, analyzed and criticized the Italy of five years ago. "Why have we sunk so low?" he asked. "I exhort my fellow citizens to carry out an unflinching critical examination of our civic consciousness if we want to rise from the abyss." His appeal was more or less an economist’s defense of the market economy and its rules, which defend the community against unbridled economic and political power. Italian prime minister and billionaire Silvio Berlusconi’s massive conflicts of interest have made a mockery of these rules.

Today’s Italy has been battered by even more internal storms, as well as the obvious international economic ones; since then, the prime minister’s residences have become brothels — and not just metaphorically. Above all, the ship of state is close to being rudderless. So I am not the only person in Italy quoting Dante these days.

There has been a lack of clear leadership since the end of July, but over the last fortnight the lack of direction has become paroxysmal. For most of August, Berlusconi threatened elections in order to bring Gianfranco Fini, the rebellious former ally who broke with the prime minister in July and formed his own party, and his followers to heel. Then, as polls showed that the only real winner in an early vote would be Umberto Bossi and the Northern League, which favors autonomy for Italy’s north — and, worse, that there was a good chance that Berlusconi would not win a majority in the Senate — he started backpedaling. These last few days, his public statements once again refer to "three more years in order to carry out the Great Reforms." The immediate aim is to pass a motion supporting a five-point plan concerning the economy, the South, fiscal federalism, justice, and security. The most controversial issue is "justice," which for Berlusconi means giving the himself immunity from prosecution ("in order to get on with the job of governing," he says). Devolved spending powers are fundamental for the Northern League, but others in the center-right are worried that poorer parts of the country will lose support.

Berlusconi boasts constantly that his personally run foreign policy is the envy of Europe, but the reality is different and as counterproductive as much of his domestic policy. Last week, he used his presence at the Kremlin-organized Global Policy Forum in Yaroslavl, Russia, to take a swipe at Fini (without naming him), saying there were some who had created "little political businesses" (aziendine) in Italy; then he made the nth complaint that "communist judges" were stopping him and his people from governing; and finally, to cap his effusive welcome to Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi two weeks ago, came the remarkable statement that his hosts Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev were "God’s gift to democracy" (pity that the Economist had beat him to it with a cartoon showing Putin’s real love of democracy and the press). More embarrassing still was the news that one of Libya’s Italian-donated coast guard launches had machine-gunned an Italian fishing boat.

Meanwhile, Berlusconi’s domestic woes are multiplying. The editor of one of his own papers, Vittorio Feltri in Il Giornale, criticized the prime minister this week for being indecisive and lacking leadership. Worse, his personal approval ratings are at 37 percent (down 4.9 percentage points since June), with his People of Freedom Party below 30 percent (down from 33.2 percent in June and 37.4 percent in the 2008 elections), according to an early September Demos poll. We will know whether the "three more years" proposal has any chance whatsoever at the end of the month when the Chamber of Deputies, Italy’s lower house of Parliament, debates Berlusconi’s five-point plan and votes on it. In the meantime, the prime minister appears to be on a shopping spree, hoping to pick up independents to make up the loss of defectors to Fini — he needs 19 to have a secure majority.

If anyone can pull off this feat, it’s Berlusconi. Given his financial and media resources along with other forms of political patronage, there is little that he cannot offer. He has experience in convincing parliamentarians to come over to his side, as recent revelations about the so-called P3 are showing. (The P3 is an alleged secret cabal whose members were active three years ago in trying to promote Berlusconi’s public and private interests through underhanded means. One allegation holds that in, late 2007, in another political shopping spree, the P3 began throwing around money and favors in an effort to bring down the left-leaning government of Romano Prodi; his coalition duly fell apart in January 2008.) But the revelations of its moves to oust Prodi are themselves proof of the changes in Italian politics since then. Unlike on similar occasions, when indicted politicians were very tight-lipped, it seems that most of the accused are singing as if they were in La Scala — and suggest rats fleeing from a sinking ship.

It’s a shame Berlusconi is so preoccupied with his own survival, because his country is in big trouble. Italy’s relative decline began almost 20 years ago, when it became clear the economy was not able to face the new challenges of globalization, but every year production figures go down with respect to Europe, and of course China and the other emerging economies. Last week, the OECD — the developed world’s think tank — calculated that the country’s GDP would decline 0.3 percent in the third quarter (making Italy the only G-7 country with negative growth) and grow by a miserable 0.1 percent in the fourth quarter. The World Economic Forum reckons that a real recovery has not begun and puts Italy in 48th place for global competitiveness, just behind Lithuania and ahead of Montenegro. Youth unemployment grew to 29.2 percent in May, up 4.7 percentage points from May of last year. Berlusconi’s minister for economic development resigned four months ago and still has not been replaced. And as the school year begins, teachers are on the warpath over budget cuts, as are the police. There are plenty of real issues, but Italy is nave sanza nocchiero, "a ship without a helmsman."

So is Italy once again "enslaved," as Dante lamented 700 years ago? And is Italy a brothel instead of queen of her own provinces? A new book by a Princeton University scholar argues that Italy is very much the bordello. In La libertà dei servi, Maurizio Viroli writes that Italy has succeeded "in the political experiment of transforming, without violence, a democratic republic into a court which has at the centre a feudal
lord surrounded by a plethora of courtesans admired and envied by a multitude of people with a servile spirit."

In Verdi’s Rigoletto, the protagonist curses the courtesans with his wonderful aria "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata!" but today it is the courtesans who are in control. Even Fedele Confalonieri, probably Berlusconi’s best friend and closest associate, described him in 2004 as "an enlightened despot … a good Ceausescu, but decidedly anomalous as a democratic politician." Six years later, with a changed electoral system that makes all parliamentarians beholden to him and a new, enlarged party completely under his control, the quote is even more apt.

Last week, a center-right deputy in Fini’s group accused some of her fellow MPs of having prostituted themselves to get into Parliament. She withdrew the statement immediately (even though a deputy from Berlusconi’s party said that he saw nothing untoward if anyone had), but in any case Veronica Lario, Berlusconi’s second wife, and the Fini think tank FareFuturo had made the same point in April of last year. The real point, though, is that the problem is not that some women got into Parliament through a bedroom; it is that men and women, journalists and professionals, have given up their minds and principles rather than their bodies.

Dante is oft quoted here for good reason.

* The original version of this article stated that the quote at the top of this article was from Dante’s Inferno.

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