A State in tatters, violent communists and a money laundering mogul

Apparently, Silvio Berlusconi died, and that’s quite surprising. Most of us who have grown up with his television stations and saw on our family’s screens his rise to power assumed he was immortal. If Berlusconi wanted to freeze his body in a cryogenic freezer and restore his cells with life-rejuvenating plasma from the river Po, he probably could. Instead, he bought a football club.

There is nothing to celebrate about Silvio Berlusconi’s political legacy, and probably there is little to celebrate about his entrepreneurial history too. The thing is that his empire was built with other people’s money. Well, it depends on how you see it. I’m not going to crack my brain entering into a very long list of historical details about his rise as a construction mogul, but his story has been well told by many journalists like Marco Travaglio. Silvio Berlusconi made his money as a money laundering fixer for big financiers and the mafia who wanted to wash money or pull their capital out of Italy undetected. Abetted by his father’s contacts and knowledge, who was also a banker, Silvio Berlusconi mastered the art of money laundering and built a business on this skill, eventually enabling him to have access to capital that built his construction and media empire. Berlusconi’s money laundering activities were so extensive that ended up being investigated by various prosecutors and this prompted him to begin a political career. He admitted this himself in an early interview with the legendary journalist Enzo Biagi, and spent his life in politics fighting prosecutors and judges.

There’s a great irony to Silvio Berlusconi’s history that makes it all very revealing of his fraudulent and corrupt nature. Despite entering the political foray with the projection of being a successful capitalist, a role that was much desired in Italian politics due to the prolonged economic stagnation as American and Japanese companies took ever more of their market share, Silvio Berlusconi left the country in a mess where doing capitalism became a veritable nightmare. For all his bluff and bluster, Silvio Berlusconi could have solved his country’s long-dated economic problems when he spent nearly a decade in power at the start of the millennium, instead, he left a country unprepared for what was to come: a Euro crisis which threw Italy in the gutter of economic rankings. As Berlusconi left office, youth unemployment skyrocketed and an exodus ensued. Berlusconi drained Italy of some of its most skilled workers and entrepreneurs. The foreign direct investment in Italy today, is even less than before Silvio Berlusconi entered office. Berlusconi spent his premiership literally fighting justice, throwing parties, making a fool of himself abroad, and building his empire.

It’s obvious why I chose this particular photo of him because it reminds us of one of his most iconic moments. At the European Parliament, Berlusconi implied Martin Schultz was a Nazi, something deeply offensive to Germans. The insult was intentional, but this was Berlusconi. He didn’t do diplomacy, he connived, bluffed, and made a fool of himself and his only friend on the international stage was Vladimir Putin or Viktor Orbán, while in Europe and in the US he was ridiculed and laughed at behind his back (there’s actually proof of this in Wikileaks). Italy wasn’t even considered seriously on the international stage when he was Prime Minister and Berlusconi profited from this situation by spending his time changing laws to protect himself from prosecution, such as when he successfully convinced his coalition government to reduce the statute of limitations on false accounting charges. Some would defend his record by saying that the economy grew during his tenure and this is true. Yet, Berlusconi didn’t strengthen Italy’s manufacturing industries nor did he bring investment in technology and research: instead he reduced it and built a precariat economy as American companies kept taking even more market share of Italian industries. Today, the Italian government is literally bankrolled by the European Central Bank, and while Spain improved its public finances since its last crisis, Italy became one of the main reasons why the ECB was hesitant to pull the plug on its bond purchases as it attempted “restrictive monetary policy”.

It was, however, Italy itself that made Silvio Berlusconi, which was broken and battered and with a post-traumatic syndrome it got from the post-War years. Italy has for many years always been one of the most complex places in Europe due to its geography in the Mediterranean that brought to it many different people across the years. Yet, even unification didn’t end war in Italy. After Italy was united in 1871 the country remained divided by North and South, foreigners and locals, the rich and the poor and the divisions were so wide, complex, and intersectional that the national reconciliation seemed an unreachable dream. It may be strange to think about this today, but Italy’s reality in the 1970s was the nearest thing to a civil war in post-War Europe. Hundreds if not thousands of Italians were killed by fascists, communists, and the mafia in the 1970s, culminating in the murder of Prime Minister Aldo Moro himself in 1978 by the Red Brigades – only because he intended to bring about national reconciliation.  So, after the grand master of the Italian right, Giulio Andreotti retired from politics, a young and charismatic Silvio Berlusconi, flush with cash could come through the wreckage and promise something new. The successful entrepreneur was going to replicate his capitalist success in politics. A new and prosperous Italy for everyone. It didn’t turn out that way.

If Viktor Orban died, would the European Parliament’s President Roberta Metsola have had similar words of praise? I don’t think so. People’s memory seems to fade very quickly about those who commit great crimes and get away with it. This shouldn’t be the case. It is tempting to use the death of a person to conveniently participate in social conventions of nostalgic obituaries, but I don’t think Berlusconi deserves this privilege. Berlusconi spread a culture of impunity and political corruption throughout the Mediterranean with his television channels. We all could see in real-time his antics and his theatre as he used politics to fight justice and evade prosecution, and as he did this successfully, he projected himself as even more successful and invincible. No wonder he got admiration from people like Yorgen Fenech. Silvio Berlusconi was all about doing it all for yourself irrespective of everyone and everything. He left Italy worse with a culture of corruption and impunity and his decadence was so great that he made Catholics out of communists.

Personally, I will remember him as a repulsive politician who exported his decadence. I don’t know how Italians feel about him, although I am sure the young generations have a lot to say about him. As a European, surely and squarely we are definitely much better off without him.

1 Comment

  1. Ironically European Experts arrived in Italy to start enquiring into the state of fianacial affairs Italy has plummeted into. Market share? The Chinese, bought textile factories in Pisa. Imported Chinese textiles whic they turned into Fashionable ladies` garments and gents suits, attached labels bearing names of famous designers and exported the product back to China. These products drove the Italian share of trade out of China. As if that was not enough, the Chinese in Pisa employed forced, imported, cheap Labour from China, paying the least of wages and forcing the Chinese worker into slavery All this is documented amply, widely and publicly. Such are the legacies, plus much more.

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