Silvio Berlusconi has departed as prime minister of Italy. After 17 years dominating Italian politics, he was effectively edged out by President Giorgio Napolitano, a former Communist, and will be replaced by Mario Monti, a former European Commissioner. Crowds gathered outside Parliament were quoted as saying that they wouldn’t believe he was gone until they saw it for themselves. They were right. Berlo was barely out of the gates before making a statement that he would be around politics for years to come.
Monti is a lifelong bureaucrat. He’s been appointed senator for life, to make him eligible for the post of Prime Minister. In Greece, new Prime Minister Lucas Papademos is an ex-ECB deputy head, and won’t go into Parliament at all — the Greek constitution makes no explicit demand that the PM be an MP. Their dual appointment has stabilised Europe and the eurozone — for the moment. But it has also undermined the European project, by laying bare its power relations.
Some have been describing what has happened in Greece and Italy as a coup. But it is rather the opposite — a coup occurs as a response to a strong oppositional force. What has happened in southern Europe has been a total collapse of legitimacy, in the absence of a clear alternative and an opposition. In Greece, the majority of the population want to remain in the EU and the euro, but they don’t want to accept the October 26 austerity agreement that comes with it. The forcing out of Papandreou and the appointment of Papademos has simply deferred the handling of that contradiction, allowing for the €8 billion payment that will forestall a pre-Christmas default.
Italy lacked even the organised and forceful opposition of Greece, and the appointment of Monti was simply a concession to bewilderment on all sides. The anti-Berlusconi movement, which had taken up the colour mauve, for reasons best known to itself, tended to be civic and abstract in its concerns and rhetoric. Focused on Berlusconi and co’s mammoth corruption, it had been overtaken by the sudden shift in Italy’s fortunes and prospects, as dictated by the sudden, and contrived, jump in 10-year bond yields.
In Greece, the Communists can draw on an uninterrupted militancy and a long-standing refusal of consent to notions of parliamentary democracy. In Italy, the Left has long since consented to the parliamentary process that Berlusconi and his assets and allies in the media and the establishment, have wrapped around their little finger. The accession of Berlusconi in the ’90s, with parties more like football teams — Forza Italia — drawn from a mix of technocrats, ex-fascists, and “radish” communists (red on the outside, white — i.e. conservative — within) — was a group whose interests never coincided.
Some wanted simply to keep the Left out, others to push forward modernisation perpetually stalled under the pre-1994 party system, and others just wanted to make money. Political determination was supplied by the Northern League, with its obsessive anti-immigrant politics, its petit-bourgeois resentments, and its celebration of an invented country — Padania — cobbled up because the separate northern movements, of Lombardy, Piedmont, etc, lacked critical mass unless united.
The weakness of the Right was a direct product of the Left it defined itself against, which had failed to understand how Italy had changed politically and culturally, after the end of the Cold War, and the final collapse of Communism. Pundits writing obituaries of the Berlusconi era will focus on the persona he projected, of the one who gets away with it, and everyone, Italian commentators included, will exaggerate its importance. True, there was very little that could shift it, even when the stories stopped being about tax evasion and started to be about underage prostitutes.
Yet his success had far more to do with the ability of his political machine to successively reshape the electoral rules, so that Parliament could be stuffed with a series of faceless cronies. In a generation, Italy had gone from being a country where politics was lethal on a grand scale, to one wholly inverted, where a prime minister could send to the European Parliament a list of MEPs consisting almost entirely of exotic dancers. weather girls and the like, a two-decade dell’arte recapitulation of the country’s post-war trauma.
The political vacuum created by a top-down Europe made that possible, and the same top-down Europe brought it to an end when required. Monti is an ex European commissioner, Bilderberg member, Trilateral member, a consultant to Goldman Sachs and Coca-Cola among others. Had he not existed, it would have been necessary for 9/11 truthers to invent him. Yet the very fact that he and Papademos can step so easily into their appointed roles is clear evidence that the European political crisis began long before they got the call.
In the last analysis this crisis was not an economic one, it was political — and a good thing too. Brought on by the refusal of Greeks to pay with a blank cheque for a crisis largely talked up by bond traders, it wouldn’t have happened had the Greeks simply knuckled under, as did Ireland. That would suggest that it is far from over — not least because these periodic crises have become so lucrative for the money markets. With Italy squared away, it would be surprising if Portugal was not suddenly, in the days ahead, a place about which something must be done. And then Spain. And then, God knows. Quite possibly the return of Berlusconi …