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Brightness at Midnight? | The Nation

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Brightness at Midnight?

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Climatically hot, it is politically a very strange summer on this side of the ocean. The sudden troubles of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, while in no way removing the authoritarian danger, revealed the vulnerability of the new regime when faced with real resistance. Milan's prosecutors have forced the triumphant tycoon to give ground, and their undisputed victory may well open an entirely new chapter in the saga of tangentopoli (or "bribe city"). Hitherto the extraordinarily revelations of official corruption concerned kickbacks being paid to get public contracts; now comes news of bribes offered to avoid or minimize taxes, touching Berlusconi's own interests. All this raises the question of whether the legal machine, set in motion with the idea of changing the political system, has not acquired a momentum of its own. As the Italian disease spreads, still tentatively, beyond the country's frontiers (I shall deal below with the beginnings of contagion in France), the issue widens as well. Does the corruption at the heart of the system correspond to the economic calamities in Western Europe, foreshadowing a major institutional crisis in the region, with Italy merely a pioneer?

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Daniel Singer
Daniel Singer, for many years The Nation's Paris-based Europe correspondent, was born on September 26, 1926, in...

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It is a battle royal, and it foreshadows many more like it in the struggle for the economic mastery of Europe.

Such and similar speculations were put in an altogether different perspective by the vision of death on our TV screens, by the horror movies from Rwanda. The very figures were staggering. Half a million people killed within three months in a country with a population of about 7 million already seemed unbelievable when the representative of the Red Cross in Rwanda doubled the casualties, putting them at 1 million. Whatever the figures, the images--like scenes from Dante's Inferno--were unbearable. They provoke not only pleas for immediate help but also arguments for an international organization that would prevent the repetition of such horrors. The images may also silence for a time the smug, Pangloss-like proclamations about the virtues of the New World Order, so common since the fall of the Berlin wall nearly five years ago. Indeed, confronted with a system so obviously rotten to the core, the question that dominates all others, and that links the domestic with the international, is whether we can imagine something better in its place.

Bother With Big Brother. When Berlusconi issued a decree limiting the circumstances in which preventive detention is allowed,thus forcing the magistrates of Milan examining the mani pulite corruption cases to release most of their suspects, the first conclusion was that success had gone to his head. The media-mogul-turned-politician had reason to feel intoxicated. He himself had openly entered politics only this year, and had been going from triumph to triumph: He won the parliamentary election in March, consolidated his position in the European poll in June and paraded in Naples as one of the masters of the world in July. He was also quick to extend his newly won power, moving boldly to gain control of the country's public television, the RAI, and then of the Bank of Italy. Was this not the moment, particularly with public attention focused on the World Cup in the States, to take on the men who, unwittingly, had made him king by destroying the previous establishment?

Let there be no misunderstanding. The number of people awaiting trial in jail is much too big in Europe in general and Italy in particular, so restrictions on preventive detention are long overdue. But this was Berlusconi's last concern. You don't introduce a genuine reform for bribing public servants or filing fraudulent bankruptcy and leave it unchanged for petty thieves. This was class legislation; it was businessman Berlusconi's decree for his pals, among them Bettino Craxi, longtime leader of the Socialist Party and his former protector. In fact, it was literally lawmaking pro domo sua, since Berlusconi's own conglomerate, Fininvest, and his own younger brother, Paolo, were soon to be engulfed by the scandal.

Thus, it may have been self-defense rather than self-confidence that prompted Berlusconi. He must have known that the Milan magistrates were ready for a major offensive. A prosecutor from a different team investigating some minor classes of government bribe-taking had stumbled upon an enormous affaire that turned out to involve not only very high-level officials but also Italy's top economic establishment, from Fininvest to Fiat. The whole inquiry was then handed over to the magistrates of the mani pulite, since it seemed to be a parable of the kickbacks, the other leg on which the old economic system stood.

Whatever his motives, Berlusconi committed his first big blunder. His chief political advisers, the pollsters, wrongly suggested he could go ahead with the decree. The judges did not take it lying down. A gloomy Antono di Pietro, the most famous of the magistrates, appeared on television to announce that he and his colleagues had asked to be reassigned, since they were no longer able to carry out their job properly. Then all hell broke loose. Messages of protest were faxed from all over the country. Police had to protect some of the prominent suspects emerging from jail. Demonstrations sprouted in various towns. The slogan was no longer Forza Italy but Forza Ladri (Go Thieves!). Not only his reluctant partner Umberto Bossi but also the hitherto loyal neo-Fascist Gianfranco Fini told Berlusconi they could not back him in this fight. Deserted, outvoted, defeated, he hat to give in.

Yet even this was not the end of his troubles. Under interrogation, the financial head of Fininvest admitted bribing tax inspectors with money given by Berlusconi's brother. With the noose tightening, the boss called his top henchmen for a special meeting at his luxurious villa, where it was difficult to distinguish his ministerial from his Fininvest servants. This "confusion" of personnel ignited another protest, and he has been trying ever since to produce a "blind trust" conceal his not very split personality. (Not a very blind one either, since Fininvest will carry on, and Berlusconi will appoint the trustees.)

I will not deny my delight in seeing the arrogant Berlusconi eating humble pie. But we should not be seduced into error by our pleasures. One blunder does not bring a career to an end, and it is not as if the left has an alternative project in place. It is never very good when judges must carry the work unperformed by a political movement.

Finally, there is the puzzle of the historical role of the Milan magistrates. In 1992 they were allowed to proceed on the assumption that the time was safe for a smooth political transition. They acted with such zeal that they nearly brought the whole system down and not just the political superstructure. Berlusconi, despite his presentations to the contrary, was its savior. But as soon as it is back to business as usual, they strike again. Can the system take the strain?

Italian Flu. Cases of corruption coming to the surface are spreading across Western Europe. German industrialists, Spanish socialists, French financiers and politicians, have been involved in recent months. Compared with the earthquake precipitated thirty months ago by the Italian magistrates, these are mere tremors, but they may be symptomatic of a new attitude of judges toward the political establishment.

The arrest in July of Maurice Arreckx, the 76-year-old Senator from Toulon in the Var provinces, accused of having taken a kickback of about $370,000 from a firm that may not on its own prove the new mood. It is true that arrests of parliamentarians are very rare in France, but Arreckx, who called himself "the godfather of the Var," was asking for trouble. Also this area, like the neighboring Rivera, is well known for its links between politicians and the underworld.

More significant is the fact that the judges are now going after ministers in the ruling government. This too is not entirely new, since in 1992 they prosecuted Bernard Tapie while he was a member of the Socialist government. In that instance, however, the magistrates seemed to be having fun proving that the Socialists were no more moral than their predecessors. It was expected that the judges would be more compliant now that the conservatives are back in office, but some of them seem undeterred. Gé rard Longuet, the Minister of Industry, suspected of illegal deals both in his own business and in collecting money for his party, is so far being sheltered by the government, but the Minister of Communications, Alain Carignon, was forced to resign in July.

Carignon, 45, is a self-made man. He did not graduate from university. He climbed through the Chamber of Commerce as an expert in public relations. Eleven years ago, to everybody's surprise, he conquered the town hall of Grenoble, one of France's most dynamic cities, in the Alpine region of the Dauphiné. He then extended his power to the province of Isère, was elected to the National Assembly in Paris and in 1986 became part of Jacques Chirac's conservative government. when the right returned to office last year, he was again favored with a ministry. But his power always rested on his local base, and in trying to consolidate that, he ran into trouble.

Eight months before the local elections of 1989 a company was set up in Grenoble called, in good franglaise, the Dauphiné News. It produced a glossy monthly and then two free biweekly journals, whose main purpose was to promote Mayor Carignon and his political allies. Carignon, though nominally unconnected to the operation, dictated the contents of the papers and helped gather the necessary funds. Once the election was over--and duly won by the major and his list--all publication ceased. Then, in quick succession, one firm took over the heavily indebted Dauphiné News and another acquired the city waterworks, which the newly elected council had privatized in a rush. it turned out that both firms were subsidiaries of the same conglomerate, the Lyonnaise des eaux. It took a judge some time to disentangle his connection, but when he did, Carignon had to resign.

The Lyonnaise is headed by the former secretary general of the neo-Gaullist party, to which Carignon belongs, as do the two top pretenders to the presidency--Chirac and Eduouard Balladur. Another financial backer was France's giant public works firm Bouygues, which also owns the country's biggest TV channel. What will happen now if the judges cease respecting the unwritten rules? No wonder some establishment figures think the country is going to the dogs. If politicians and businessmen are no longer allowed to make deals on the quiet over, say, the provision of water, where is it all going to end? These young magistrates, mon cher, have caught the Italian disease...

Not quite or not yet. Judges were allowed to sap the political system in Italy because the European economic environment seemed to require of its member nations a strong executive that could cut jobs and wages and dismantle the welfare state without much parliamentary interference. Admittedly, the Italian ruling class was under no great threat from the ex-Communist Party and the once-militant unions. Still, keeping in mind the former fighting spirit of the labor movement, it was safer to take institutional precautions. Such safeguards were not required in the past in other parts of Europe. In Britain, for instance, a battle with the miners proved necessary to impose Thatcherism, but major institutional change could be avoided. In a new, deregulated world, however, one dominated by international finance, the sacrifices demanded of the working people may be too big for consensus politics to survive even when it appears strongly rooted. The British Laborites or the German Social Democrats may no longer be able to accept what is demanded by the capitalist establishment, or, if they do, to deliver. If this is its assumption, capital needs a more authoritarian framework. This is the sense in which the Italian flu may be contagious, the judges acting as the possibly unconscious instrument of historical transition. The spreading smell of corruption could thus be the sign of a gathering storm, heralding for Western Europe a long period of economic crisis, social upheaval and institutional transformation.

Horror and Hope. Our storms lose drama in the face of death. Because the French government had to justify Operation Turquoise we had, here in Paris, probably an earlier and larger ration of Rwandan horror. We also had, like elsewhere, a debate on the international means to prevent such genocide. I take this opportunity to express, inevitably in shorthand, a degree of disagreement with the views of my old friend and colleague Kai Bird [see "The Case for a U.N. Army," August 8/15]. Disagreement not with his general proposition that the world is crying out for an international order nor even with many of his concrete proposals, but with what I take to be the underlying assumption of his argument, namely that the left can carry out its policies and express its "values" within existing institutions, even lightly reformed ones.

The U.N. was set up by the victors in the last war on the premise that it would function if the permanent members, and particularly the two superpowers, agreed. The cold war blocked that mechanism. Now in changed times the U.N. can act, but only to perpetuate the capitalist system under the guidance of the United States. To expect any punitive action against the interests of the G7, let alone the United States, is plain wishful thinking. (I saw the other day the list of journalists imprisoned throughout the world. China came tops, followed closely by Kuwait, despite the tremendous difference in population. Could you imagine Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia, threatened with the withdrawal of most-favored-nation treatment because of its abuses of human rights?)

The case of Rwanda itself is instructive. The horror has its roots in the antagonism between Hutus and Tutsis, which was encouraged by the Belgian colonial power to preserve its rule in earlier days. The latest atrocity has a great deal to do with the terrible poverty and land hunger imposed on Africa by the world order dominated by First World finance. Must we perpetuate that order so as to be able, every few years, to show the efficiency of our rescue operation? On the left our vocation is not to act as adviser to the prince. It is to criticize him and, occasionally, force him into action. Above all, it is, within our limited possibilities, to show to others what the struggle is about, so that in the long run they will bring down the princes at home and abroad.

Naturally, this does not mean that, in the meantime, we can put up with horrors. There is plenty of room for intermediate schemes, concessions and compromises. Yet these must be included in a strategy that used to be known as "revolutionary reformism." People must be allowed to fight to defend their interests within existing society. But each project, each reform, must contain the seeds of its successor so that ultimately the logic of our struggle will clash with the logic of the existing system. To do this, we must stop confusing their morals, based on greed; their order, resting on capital; their world, dominated by international fiance, with the kind of society that we want to build. Should the current crises revive this awareness, there may be some light in the present darkness.

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