Waiting for Berlusconi

“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.

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16 Responses to Waiting for Berlusconi

  1. Phil Walker says:

    Our cynical disillusionment about politics makes us feel sophisticated, but makes us ripe for exploitation.

    The problem is we’re not cynical enough, or at least not in the right way. The public cannot, or perhaps will not, see through the politicians’ lies and bluster and perceive truly that they can’t solve our problems no matter how much power we hand over to them. Witness the Johann Hari piece I linked on Facebook a day or two ago, where he declares that the public has a subconscious faith in politicians to bale us out of all our problems. I think he’s probably right, but it’s his kind of politics which has bred the situation where we think that the way to resolve all our problems is by letting the politicians take over. Social democracy is always going to fail because people are corruptible, and because it unwittingly, but invariably, turns into a game of channelling the taxpayer’s benefits to the politically well-connected.

    So I guess you could say I’m coming round to your view that it’s the failure of left-wing politics which makes the far right a real danger (apparently, Hayek thought something similar). The difference between us is that I think that is so much the worse for attempts to remake society in a left-wing mould: not only is it doomed to failure, but the populism of the left will usher into power populists of the right as well. We need another way: something we haven’t tried for rather a long time is being so cynical about politics we try to keep politicians out of our lives and let individuals do what they think is best provided it doesn’t harm others.

    But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I? 😉

  2. John H says:

    Phil: I don’t think we’re all that far apart here. The difficulty I have with classical liberalism, though, is its locating of exploitation and coercion solely in the hands of the state, tending to ignore the exploitation and coercion within economic relations.

    So I share your desire to reduce the involvement of politicians and the state in our lives. But on the other hand the state can at least provide some counter-balancing force to economic exploitation (while also underwriting it, of course).

    The fact is that to sharply reduce the role of the state – political relations – without equivalent changes to economic relations will leave people at the mercy of large corporations. (And I’m more than a little hazy about what those “changes to economic relations” would be, what with not actually being a revolutionary Marxist……)

  3. Phil Walker says:

    Yeah, and for my part, I do see that there are problems with Big Business. I use the capitals deliberately, because it’s the bigness I dislike. And of course, big businesses were once small businesses, so one doesn’t simply want to rag on business. Not least because, as a public sector employee and from a family of public sector employees, I realise that they’re the one who pay me.

    But more generally there is a classical liberal critique of large corporations, especially the monopolistic sort. The main case is that they are frequently the creations of state policies. That arises through a few channels:

    1. Government regulations have a tendency to hit small firms harder than large ones, because the larger ones are better able to absorb the cost. Of course governments can tailor regulations to hit firms proportionate to size, but they rarely do.
    2. Big Government spends large amounts of money on big projects, and it tends to prefer to use one company. Goldman Sachs is this government’s investment bank of choice, for example. You’d rightly say that Goldman was big *before* the government started to use them, but you can see how, say, a health IT contractor could grow rather large rather quickly on the teat of the NHS, and Goldman certainly hasn’t been made smaller by its dealings with the government.
    3. Big Business uses its size to obtain political privilege and protection. Small businesses aren’t baled out, for example, but car plants get all sorts of government help. (One could say the same for Big Labour.)
    4. Big Government can conspire with Big Business, either wittingly or unwittingly, against the public by forcing them to buy products sold by Big Business. I’m still steaming quietly about forced annuity purchase, by which means the government guarantees a captive market for its own debt and a captive market for the life companies. The only losers are the customers (OAPs!), who don’t get to choose what to do with their own money.

    There is a simplistic way that this gets expressed even by classical liberals, which is that Big Business is the sole creation of Big Government. I don’t think that’s true: businesses do grow naturally, so left to itself the economic jungle will get some big beasts. Those can be dangerous, and that’s why we have laws against exploitation, against unjust terms and so on. In a sense, that is all just a part of the “provided it doesn’t harm others” caveat.

    But all that said, I can’t shake the suspicion, founded on observations of how business and government interests align against the public in so many ways, that starting from where we are now, Big Business and Big Government would, generally speaking, shrink together.

  4. ct says:

    You’re way off on Palin. Less socialist media, more thinking for yourself.

  5. Rick Ritchie says:

    “Our cynical disillusionment about politics makes us feel sophisticated, but makes us ripe for exploitation.”

    By politics do you mean political theory of party politics?

  6. John H says:

    Rick: I’m not sure many people make such a clear distinction. In any event, I think the answer is “both”: people are both disillusioned with political theories and ideologies (hence our obsession with pragmatism) and with politicians/parties.

    Quite probably the one feeds into the other: politicians have spent at least two decades saying that what matters is not what political theories people espouse, but what they can get done in practice; and then they’ve let people down in practice (Tony Blair would be a quintessential example of this).

  7. joel in ga says:

    As I read, I kept thinking of Obama–smooth rather than buffoonish (at least as long as his teleprompter works) and ruthless.

    Your reference toward the end to Palin surprised me. She and cynical demoralization are polar opposites.

  8. John H says:

    Joel: I don’t say that as a statement about Palin personally, but about the circumstances of her rise, her promotion as an anti-intellectual, “post-political” outsider.

    As Christopher Hitchens (OK, not the most dispassionate of observers) puts it:

    Her stock-in-trade is the deft cultivation of resentment against the big cities, the intellectual elite, the media and all who look down on small-town folk. It’s a worn and cracked old disc, and it’s being spun again, often by a group of rarefied Republican intellectuals, who ought to know better, and orchestrated in Washington by Fred Malek, an old inside-the-Beltway hack, who once ­provided the paranoid populist Richard Nixon with a list of subversive Jews who worked in the Department of Labour. … I personally know some extremely serious conservatives, such as David Frum and Christopher Buckley, who expressed grave public ­concerns about the Republican ticket on these terms.

    The “cynical demoralization” lies in intellectual insiders exploiting popular resentment against them by promoting a candidate whom they probably secretly despise but who they believe can deliver the goods politically.

  9. joel in ga says:


    thanks for the clarification. Hitchens may have mistaken as Palin’s stock-in-trade a very minor aspect of how she was marketed during last year’s campaign. And she was indeed marketed abysmally.

    But from this side of the pond, Palin’s lasting appeal seems to have more to do with a kind of upbeat Reaganism reprised, coupled with a gallingly explicit faith in Jesus Christ. Her major weaknesses, IMHO, are her apparent military hawkishness and a lack of familiarity with the Austrian school of economics, neither points the mainstream Left or Right usually seize upon.

  10. John H says:

    Joel: ah. I see. A case of “Reaganism repeats itself: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” 😉

  11. John,
    you worst nightmare as a liberal is already sitting in office over here. He will make Sarah Palin a shoe in if he keeps his track record going the way it has.

  12. joel in ga says:

    John, a very witty turn of phrase!

    I do suspect the Leftist media’s hostility toward Palin, an openly Christian, pro-life, wife, mother of five, and public figure, goes beyond mere politics. They seem to want her to fail the same way Cain wanted Abel to fail.

    Has there been any discussion of Palin’s political views in the European press? In our media, gossip about her family life takes center stage.

  13. kieran donoghue says:

    john – suprised to see this here rather than wandering hedgehog. I’m not convinced by the decription of Berlusconi as “post-democratic” -as far as I am awarwe Itlaians still have a vote. The fact that so many of them choose to use it to repeatedly vote him in puzzles me, but it’s their choice. Demagogues with a track record of incoherence of principle and reneging on electotal promises can be found all through history and if I were a better historian I’d give you a list – I’m not clear what’s new about Signor B (although perhaps I would be if I read Zizek). Admittedly he has the advantage of extensive media control by the combination of his private business interests and the state TV channels – I’m not sure that could easily repeated in other Western democracies.

  14. John H says:

    Hi Kieran! Hope you’re settling in to Melbourne OK.

    Wandering Hedgehog is more aimed at UK party-political topics. This is more general/cultural so it ends up here. 🙂

    In the context of Zizek’s argument, Berlusconi crops up just after Zizek has been describing Richard Nixon as “the last genuinely tragic US president”: “he was a crook, but a crook who fell victim to the gap between his ideals and ambitions and the reality of his acts, and who thus experienced an authentically tragic downfall.”

    In contrast, Zizek argues that Ronald Reagan (and Carlos Menem in Argentina) was a “Teflon” president, a “postmodern” president who is “no longer even expected to stick consistently to his electoral program”, and who thus “becomes impervious to criticism”. Berlusconi is then (Zizek argues) an example of this phenomenon.

    So what is perhaps new about Berlusconi is the fact that there no longer needs to be a mask of civic respectability to his rule.

    As for “post-democratic”: I suppose the question is to what extent “democracy” can be equated with simply the “holding of elections”. Yes, Italy still has elections; Berlusconi has even lost them (when the Left managed to hold itself together long enough to scrape together a short-lived and unimpressive coalition government). But does Berlusconi seriously regard elections as either an expression of the will of the people or a serious threat to his power and interests – or are they simply another aspect of political life to be manipulated to his advantage?

    In Britain, too, we keep on having elections, but the power of the executive is increasing at the expense of the legislature, a process that will be accelerated by Conservative plans to emasculate the Commons by removing a fifth of its members (in the name of “saving money”!). Look at how Tony Blair was able to win a third term with 35% of the 59% of voters who bothered to turn out for him: the next election, whatever the outcome, is likely to be similarly uninspiring in its outcome. Low turnout, a narrow win for [insert name here] greeted with what David Mitchell described as a “first-Christmas-since-Gran-died” wave of enthusiasm…

  15. I’m not sure that the Berlusconi-Palin connection is such a strong one. However, over six years later, I am frequently reminded of Žižek’s observations (and of this post) when I read about Donald Trump, where the parallels are glaring and terrifying. Memory is so short online, but occasionally it is worth looking back and highlighting especially prescient remarks. This, I believe, is one such example.

    • John H says:

      Thanks for the reminder about this one! And yes, Sarah Palin proved to be something of a damp squib (though I did observe that Palin’s rubbishness was probably genuine rather than a cynical front…). And yes, The Donald. Turns out we all did know the name of our Berlusconi after all……

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