A righteous wind is sweeping across Europe and corruption is being exposed all over. I do not mean, say, in Russia, where an entirely new system and changing property relations offer golden opportunities to speculators. (I read in Izvestia, I believe, that Anatoly Chubais, now First Deputy Prime Minister but hitherto in charge of privatization, is allegedly the fifth-richest man in the country.) I mean in steady, prosperous, respectable Western Europe. In Italy, where the purge brought the old regime down, the Prime Minister of the new one is now under investigation. In France, ministers tumble and tycoons tremble. In Spain, the escaped former head of the Civil Guard is still, mysteriously, in hiding, while in Britain you can find the going rate for a representative asking your question in Parliament. Everywhere you look it’s scandals, sleaze and putrefaction.
Naturally, our period is not unique. France, for instance, was shaken by the Panama Canal scandal in the 1890s and the Stavisky affair in the 1930s, to name only the most striking examples. But the revelations of sins and campaigns of indignation are usually significant symptoms. What is wrong with our political life that judges and prosecutors, aided and abetted by the press, are the new sheriffs, upholders of justice? Has the corruption spread because the cost of politics has gone up in our Americanized, television-infested société du spectacle? (Incidentally Guy Debord, the Situationist author of the book with this title, committed suicide on November 30.) Or is the growing stench the sign of a deeper decay, heralding the end of a reign? These are the questions that must be tackled once you have been brought up-to-date on the fast-changing saga of scandals.
In Italy the problem seems to be how to stop the judicial machine. The mincer has already done more than it was supposed to do–swallowing parties, smashing institutions, breaking business tycoons–yet it keeps on going. That is not really surprising since the cleansing, the mani pulite, affected only the political superstructure, leaving the foundations of society unchanged, and it anointed as champion of the new deal Silvio Berlusconi, a product and profiteer of the old one. The comic climax of the campaign was reached at the end of November in Naples, when Prime Minister Berlusconi, pre siding over a U.N. conference on the struggle against organized crime, was served notice that he was being investigated on suspicion of having bribed tax inspectors in his capacity as head of his vast conglomerate Fininvest.
For once, the famous magistrates of Milan may have made a mistake. Not that they attacked without ammunition. They have probably stocked a number of shells in their armory. But they switched the battle to the legal ground at a time when the Prime Minister was in trouble on the social and political fronts. Last March, you may recall, Berlusconi was swept into office as Mr. Bountiful as well as Mr. New’ Deal. He promised a million new jobs and no new taxes. While the jobs cannot be seep on the horizon, the Italians have been told to tighten their belts further. In order to cut the deficit, the government seems determined to slash social expenditures, starting with pensions in the current budget. People reacted to this attack on the welfare state through strikes and mass demonstrations. According to my Italian friends, the mood among the rank and file has not been s o militant since the sixties. The government is also paying a political price. In the November and December local elections, the three-party governing coalition suffered a serious setback. The National Alliance of the neo-Fascist Gianfranco Fini held its ground. The Northern League of Umberto Bossi, the most awkward ally, did not do as badly as expected. The real collapse was that of Berlusconi’s own makeshift party, Forza Italia.