“This man looks like a corrupt idiot and acts like one, but this should not deceive you – he is a corrupt idiot.”
The Today programme had an item this morning about Silvio Berlusconi. It was interesting (worth catching up on once it appears on “listen again”), but followed the typical pattern for British media coverage of Berlusconi: an overall tone of amusement and condescension towards those crazy Italians and their strange political ways.
One little detail mentioned in passing in the report: Berlusconi’s rewriting of the Italian constitution to reduce the power of the judiciary (with their impertinent attempts to prosecute him for corruption) and to locate all executive power in Berlusconi alone. Hmm. Remind you of any other Italian leaders over the past century? No matter: let’s get back to chortling about “friendships” with “lingerie models”.
Slavoj Žižek gives some reasons why we shouldn’t feel too smug about Berlusconi. Far from being an Italian oddity, Žižek argues, Berlusconi is part of a pattern of “post-democratic” populism. He describes Italy as “a kind of experimental laboratory of our future”:
If our political scene is split between permissive-liberal technocracy and fundamentalist populism, Berlusconi’s great achievement is to have united the two. (First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, p.48)
This combination makes him “unbeatable, at least in the near future”, with a disconsolate Italian Left seemingly resigned to accepting him “as Fate”:
This silent acceptance of Berlusconi as Fate is perhaps the saddest aspect of his reign: his democracy is a democracy of those who, as it were, win by default, who rule through cynical demoralization. (p. 49)
As such, Berlusconi represents a new kind of politician, the “postmodern” leader who becomes impervious to criticism, since no-one even expects him to stick to his electoral programme. Žižek continues:
This new kind of president mixes (what appear to be) spontaneous naive outbursts with the most ruthless manipulation.
Hence Berlusconi’s buffoonery “should not deceive us” (see Žižek’s slightly adapted quotation from the Marx brothers at the start of this post):
Beneath the clownish mask there is a mastery of state power functioning with ruthless efficency. Even if Berlusconi is a clown, we should therefore not laugh at him too much – perhaps, by doing so, we are already playing his game. (p.51)
Later in the same book, Žižek turns his attention to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In contrast to those on the Left who (on the principle that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”) condone Ahmadinejad as “the hero of the Islamist poor”, Žižek describes him as:
a genuine corrupted Islamo-Fascist populist, a kind of Iranian Berlusconi whose mixture of clownish posturing and ruthless power politics causes unease even among the majority of ayatollahs. (p.123)
Žižek’s view is that our “cynical pragmatism” may mean that:
we in the West are effectively entering a post-democratic era, getting ready for our own Ahmadinejads. Italians already know his name: Berlusconi. Others are waiting in line. (p.125)
Who might our Berlusconis or Ahmadinejads be? We probably don’t know their names yet, but even among existing politicians we can see parallels with Berlusconi’s style of politics.
Berlusconi’s combination of “spontaneous naive outbursts with the most ruthless manipulation” put me in mind of Boris Johnson, whose carefully cultivated image as an upper-class buffoon distracts people from his political ruthlessness and ambition (to which Sir Ian Blair can testify; watch your back, Dave). It’s worth bearing in mind that, back when Boris Johnson was editor of the Spectator, the magazine seemed intent at times on rehabilitating Benito Mussolini.
In Simon Cowell’s proposal for a “political X-Factor” we have a recipe for our own marriage of “permissive-liberal technocracy and fundamentalist populism”.
Over the Atlantic, a similar combination of buffoonery, populism and “cynical demoralization” can be seen in the rise of Sarah Palin. (What may save us in Gov Palin’s case is that the buffoonery appears to be a genuine reflection of her political and personal limitations, rather than a cultivated front for political acumen.)
I’m not saying that any of these individuals is a Berlusconi (let alone an Ahmadinejad) in waiting. But they are a straw in the wind, an indication that western politics could develop in some worrying directions over the next couple of decades. Our cynical disillusionment about politics makes us feel sophisticated, but makes us ripe for exploitation.