Much of liberal European opinion—French and German, in particular—responded to Silvio Berlusconi’s general election victory of 2001 with a chorus of unease. Do the method of his victory and the nature of his project herald a new and limited model of European democracy, the most ambitious of the many populist answers to the malaises of the Continent? And again, a question oft-repeated but which sounds historically ingenuous to many a sophisticated Italian ear: are there parallels between Italy’s role as a precursor in the early 1920s and what is happening now?footnote1 Primo Levi wrote, as long ago as 1974, that ‘every age has its Fascism’, and went on to warn that ‘one can reach such a condition in many ways, not necessarily by means of terror and police intimidation, but also by withholding or manipulating information, by polluting the judicial system, by paralysing the school system’.footnote2

Counterposed to any such interpretation is that of the great majority of Italian institutional and official opinion, which includes under its umbrella the rump of the Left Democrats (Democratici di sinistra), whose President is the former Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema. For them there is little danger of an incipient regime. Il manifesto continues to be sold freely from the newstands, the right of assembly has not been brought into question, RAI 3, even in the most unfree television system in Europe, continues to provide anti-Berlusconi satire and to broadcast news bulletins that are left-liberal in orientation. Italy, according to this view, is moving, if laboriously and melodramatically, away from proportional representation and weak government towards a necessary strengthening of the executive and a right-left alternation in power. If anything, it is the present government’s incompetence, not its concentration of power, that is putting Italy at risk. Michele Salvati wrote from the columns of la Repubblica a year ago: ‘I have never thought, and I still don’t, that this centre-right coalition constitutes “a menace to democracy”, if that term is given its proper meaning’.footnote3 It is worth asking whether he is right.

Perusing the two volumes of Berlusconi’s speeches published before the last election, and covering the period 1994–2000, one is struck by how much space is dedicated therein to the concept of liberty and how little to that of democracy.footnote4 The liberty that Berlusconi has in mind is prevalently ‘negative’, a classic freeing from interference or impediment. Individuals have to be placed in that condition of freedom which allows them, in an expression borrowed from the Risorgimento, to fare da sé or ‘go it alone’, to express their individuality to the full. Economy and society have likewise to be liberated, ‘from oppressive chains, from the weight of bureaucracy and suffocating procedures, from fiscal pressure which has grown too fast and too far’. Competition increases such liberty: ‘Everyone must be free to offer his own goods, services and ideas to his peers, who can decide freely if to accept or reject them. Every limitation to competition is equivalent to the violation of the freedom and rights of everyone.’ All this will have a familiar ring to Anglo-American ears.footnote5

‘Positive’ freedom, on the other hand, receives scant attention. In order to function, the market creates spontaneously a work ethic, as well as the moral principles of loyalty and honesty. It is these values which the political sphere lacks. The state, however much it tries, cannot legislate values into being. Rather it is to be regarded with suspicion every time it seeks to do so, or to limit free competition in the name of the collectivity. Behind such intervention there always lurk ‘the interests of certain groups and classes, whose electoral support is sought by those who hold power’. Anything other than a ‘minimum state’ is a potential threat to the person of the citizen: ‘We cannot accept their desire to control everything, their invasion of our lives, their presumption to regulate all our activities!’footnote6

As for democracy, when Berlusconi does pay some attention to it, his discourse is nearly always confined to the need for regular elections, and for the electorate to have the right to vote directly for single personalities—the president of the Council of Ministers; the presidents of the Regions; ideally, for the president of the Republic. His is a vision which concentrates on regularity and personality. The need to consult the electorate is stressed in particular in 1995, when the centre-right felt defrauded of the chance to test public opinion, which appeared to be on their side. What is never considered, and this should come as no surprise, is the wider communicative and cultural context in which elections occur, or the differing resources available to individual candidates. Likewise, scant attention is paid to the benign consequences of a balance of powers within the democratic state. Judicial autonomy is regarded as anathema.

Berlusconi’s view of politics is thus based on the corrosive combination of negative freedom and formal, personalized democracy. The combination is corrosive because negative freedom, unaccompanied by its positive counterpart, undermines fatally the attempt to assert collective interests. It denies the possibility for a given community to establish, in the name of a collective good, a sense of limit and a necessary framework in which the search for self-realization can take place.footnote7 It encourages instead the creation in civil society of over-powerful individuals unwilling to submit to a much weakened general rule of law. They are free—too free, one might suggest—to fare da sé. At the same time, the rules of democracy, limited to the questions of regularity and personality, do nothing to guarantee a level and equitable terrain on which elections can be held. Few, if any, restrictions exist to impede new agents, emergent from the tertiary sector, and in particular from communications, finance and entertainment, from using their very considerable economic and mediatic resources to influence heavily, and sometimes to storm, the political sphere. The way is open for the creation of modern patrimonial and charismatic figures.

The historical realities of such a process are, at least so far, complicated and far from linear. Some of the great media entrepreneurs, including the most powerful of all, Rupert Murdoch, choose to wield political influence indirectly. They are distinctively patrimonial (Murdoch has ambitions for ownership and control which extend to all five continents), but rarely charismatic. The ill-fated Bernard Tapie in Marseilles and William Bloomberg in New York have both used local politics as a power base. Cem Uzan in Turkey, the founder of the country’s first pay television, Star TV, has tried recently to assert himself on a national political level, but with limited success. Trajectories vary, as does the degree of political and legal constraint exercised upon these figures’ freedom of action. They are most likely to make progress in those contexts, such as southern Europe and South America, where politics, even in their democratic form, have been dominated by deep-rooted patronage and clientelism.footnote8 But as we shall see their rise to power and their influence is not limited to such settings.