The television and newspaper baron Silvio Berlusconi officially entered Italian politics in January 1994. Exploiting the convulsions among the political class caused by a nationwide corruption investigation known as mani pulite (clean hands), Berlusconi introduced himself to Italians as a self-made man who would end double-dealing and modernize Italy’s economy. Three months later voters gave his Forza Italia party a majority in government, making him prime minister.

But before long, Berlusconi’s image as a courageous reformer suffered one setback after another. There were his glaring conflicts of interest (as prime minister, he had considerable power over public television, his networks’ sole competitor). There were his ongoing troubles with the law (allegations of bribery, false accounting, tax fraud, embezzlement and child prostitution) and his brazen sex scandals. There was, too, the fact that the three governments over which he presided—1994 to 1995, 2001 to 2006, 2008 to 2011—fell spectacularly short of the lavish promises he made. When Berlusconi first became prime minister, Italy had the sixth largest economy in the world. Its GDP per capita was comparable to that of Britain. Today, even though its economy is struggling, Britain is far richer than Italy, where the GDP per capita is roughly on par with Spain’s. Nor is an end to Italy’s economic misery in sight. Even if Mario Monti’s government of technocrats can somehow defuse the sovereign debt crisis it inherited when a faltering parliamentary majority and unprecedented unpopularity forced Berlusconi to resign in November, the country’s structural problems have become so grave that the Italian economy is unlikely to return to healthy levels of growth for years.

Given the depths of Italy’s stagnation, Berlusconi’s long hold over the country is truly puzzling. How, despite his poor track record, could Berlusconi have persuaded Italians to make him prime minister three times? And what are the defining features of Berlusconiland, the bizarre country he created during nearly two decades of unrivaled power and cultural influence? In The Liberty of Servants, Maurizio Viroli, an Italian political theorist who teaches at Princeton University, offers a surprising answer to these questions: Berlusconi was able to stay in power because he transformed Italy from a republic into a kind of royal court.

The royal court seems to be a strange metaphor for the country Italy has become. Our image of royalty is shaped by some mixture of Elizabeth II, Frederick the Great and Louis XIV; Berlusconi hasn’t a regal bone in his body. Viroli is aware of these differences of style and lineage, but his definition of court life doesn’t grant them much relevance. For him, a court system, far from being defined by the traditional trappings of royalty, is any arrangement of power whereby “one man is placed above and at the center of a relatively large number of individuals—his courtiers—who depend on him to gain and preserve wealth, status, and reputation.” Viroli calls the person at the center of the court system the signore. Even if it weren’t for the uncanny association with the droit du seigneur, it is clear why the label fits Berlusconi. Viroli is hardly exaggerating when he states that over the past few decades, “all of Italy’s political life has rotated around Silvio Berlusconi: all eyes turn to him, all thoughts, hopes, and fears.” He quickly became such a polarizing figure that the gulf between Italy’s left and right, which had been huge and vicious during much of Italy’s postwar history, has shrunk. What mattered most for Italians during his reign was whether one was for or against Berlusconi. In the summer of 2010, for example, several politicians on the left were prepared to fawn over Gianfranco Fini, a longtime fascist with center-right views, simply because he had broken with Berlusconi and spoken in public about his opposition to the prime minister.

Berlusconi not only made himself the Sun King of Italian politics; he acted like a Mafia don. At his word, pretty teenage girls became TV presenters, TV presenters ascended to the rank of government ministers and government ministers were offered lucrative jobs in various industries once they left office. As Viroli’s description of court life suggests, Berlusconi tried to persuade Italians of his superiority by using every possible opportunity to flaunt his vast private fortune or to compare himself to historical figures such as Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ.

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For Viroli, Berlusconiland was more than a corrupt court. Drawing on republicanism, a long-neglected tradition of political thought that has recently been revived by intellectual historians and political theorists like John Pocock, Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit, Viroli argues that Berlusconi’s corrosive influence has deprived Italians of their liberty. On Viroli’s account, philosophers who stand in the liberal tradition worry only about actual interference with a person’s actions. “A Free-Man,” wrote Thomas Hobbes with his characteristic crispness, “is he that, in those things, which by his strength and wit he is able to do, is not hindered to doe what he has a will to.” The subjects of a benevolent despot remain perfectly free so long as he does not inhibit their actions. Viroli argues that according to such a liberal conception of freedom, Berlusconi’s Italy remained a free country: “If we can rightly point to violations of liberty only in cases where fundamental civil and political rights are suppressed by force, then we Italians are, generally speaking, a free people.”

Yet for Viroli, the liberal definition of freedom, with its exclusive emphasis on freedom from interference, is too anemic. He worries that a ruler with vast, arbitrary power would have a chilling effect on the freedoms of his subjects even if he never chose to exercise his power. To emphasize this point, republicans such as Viroli like to cite the example of Tranio, the protagonist of a comedy by the Roman playwright Plautus. Tranio is a slave. But because his master is often absent, and because he is so wily, no one ever interferes with his actions. As long as he continues to flatter and manipulate his master, he is free to do as he pleases. And yet, the republicans point out, a slave is surely the very opposite of a “free man.”

While slavery is now officially banned throughout the world, Viroli argues that the most salient characteristic of slavery—the relation of domination and dependence between master and slave—persists in a milder form in our societies. “Citizens who can be tossed into prison arbitrarily by the police,” for example, stand in just such a relation of dependence to an oppressive, dominating power. Even if, for now, they nominally remain at liberty, they lack real freedom. In the case of Italy, though Berlusconi never used his vast power to interfere with the lives of Italian citizens, they knew that he could, at any moment, choose to do so. This lack of real freedom, Viroli argues, limited the things Italians dared to do as well as the words they dared to say.

Viroli’s account of the theory of republican liberty is attractive, but his argument that Italians were, in his own sense, unfree is not convincing. Some Italians did find themselves in a true position of dependence on Berlusconi’s whims. Journalists at the networks and newspapers he controlled knew that one honest sentence could make the difference between a lucrative job and the dole. In a country where even many junior positions in business, government and academia have long been reserved for insiders and their children, many young people knew that their career prospects depended as much on their willingness to flatter Berlusconi or his cronies as on their ability to get the job done.

Nevertheless, even on a republican conception of liberty, most Italians remained free during Berlusconi’s rule. The reason is not just that Berlusconi never chose to interfere with the lives of his adversaries by, say, throwing a member of the opposition in jail for a rude op-ed; it’s that Italians knew perfectly well that Berlusconi had no more power to do such a thing than does Barack Obama. The price that opponents of Berlusconi were afraid of paying was not, as Viroli thinks, that Berlusconi might decide to interfere in their lives in an arbitrary manner but rather that he would choose not to tempt them with favors. For all the signore’s power and influence, ordinary Italians hardly lived in fear of his wrath.

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The weakness of Viroli’s central assumption, that only the language of liberty can adequately express the horrors of Berlusconi’s rule, may explain why his account of Berlusconiland is not fully persuasive. Other critics of Berlusconi have written damning accounts of his reign, but instead of going so far as to claim that Berlusconi made Italians unfree, they have demonstrated that his government violated the equal treatment of citizens before the law, neglected the government’s duties to further the economic interests of its citizens and condoned corruption (failings that liberals as well as republicans condemn). In The Sack of Rome (2006), for example, Alexander Stille explains that Berlusconi’s business empire was, from its first days, built on political favors and rent-seeking. A true modernization of Italy’s economy would have given his companies unwanted competition and deprived them of crucial state subsidies. Berlusconi chose instead to preserve arcane rules and bureaucratic roadblocks, or even to create new ones, to protect his business interests. He sacrificed the country’s economic well-being for his own.

Berlusconi’s influence on the judicial system was equally disastrous. Whereas in many countries the statute of limitations cannot expire after a defendant has been indicted, in Italy defendants go free if the highest court of appeals has not upheld their convictions within the allotted time. Knowing this, Berlusconi’s attorneys, whom, in a rare instance of efficiency, he made members of Parliament, shortened the statute of limitations for the most troublesome white-collar crimes and devised rules to strengthen legal tactics for delaying trials. This change had the desired effect of aiding Berlusconi’s defense in his trials for false accounting and embezzlement. It also had the unintended effect of making it more difficult to jail members of the Mafia.

Stille and others have described the disastrous economic and legal fallout of Berlusconi’s rule in much greater detail than Viroli. But Viroli, in his own way, paints an even more memorable portrait of Italy’s new ruling class. His description of Berlusconi as a signore is on the money. And while the servility of Berlusconi’s hangers-on may have been self-imposed, it still raises the central paradox of Berlusconiland. Absolute monarchs are able to cow their courtiers into submission by wielding the implicit threat of pain, imprisonment or execution. Berlusconi never had such tyrannical powers. Even so, his underlings acted as if they were mere courtiers—apparently, the hope of getting rich was quite enough to keep them in line. This makes the Italian case all the more relevant at a time when the superrich and their political enablers seek to wield ever more influence over democracies in a climate of austerity. It seems that to achieve their purposes, our would-be masters need not impede our rights or liberties: the promise of a farthing of their vast riches might be quite enough to turn many of us into docile servants.