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.