Today Berlusconi is incontestably the icon of the Second Republic. His dominance symbolises everything it has come to stand for. Few secrets remain about the way in which he acquired his riches, and how he has used them to gain and preserve his power. The larger question is what, sociologically, made this career possible. An obvious answer would point to the unbroken sway of Christian Democracy in the First Republic, and see him essentially as its heir. The element of truth in such a reading is clear from the underlying electoral balance in the Second Republic. Proportionately, in all five elections since 1994, the total centre-right vote, excluding the League, has exceeded the total centre-left vote, excluding Rifondazione Comunista, by a margin varying between 5 and 10 per cent. Italy, in other words, has always been, and remains, at bottom an extremely conservative country. The reasons, it is widely argued, are not hard to seek. Fewer people move away from their areas of birth, more adult children live with their parents, average firms are much smaller, and the number of self-employed is far higher, than in any other Western society. Such are the cells of reaction out of which a body politic congenitally averse to risk or change has been composed. The sway of the Church, as the only institution at once national and universal, and the fear of a large home-grown Communism, clinched the hegemony of Christian Democracy over it, and even if each has declined, their residues live on in Berlusconi’s following.
The deduction is too linear, however. Berlusconi has certainly never stinted appeals to Christianity and family values, or warnings of the persistent menace of Communism, and Forza Italia certainly inherited the bastions of DC clientelism in the South – most notoriously in Sicily. But the filigrane of Catholic continuity in his success is quite tenuous. It is not only that the DC zones of the North-East have gone to the League, but practising Catholics – the quarter of the population that attends mass with some regularity – have been the most volatile segment of the electorate, many in the early years of the Second Republic voting not only for the League but also the PDS. Nor is there a clear-cut connection between small businesses or the self-employed and political reaction. The red belt of Central Italy – Tuscany, Umbria, Emilia-Romagna and the Marche – where the PCI was always strongest, and which the PD still holds today, is rife with both: family enterprises, flourishing micro-firms, independent artisans and shopkeepers, as well as the region’s co-operatives, a world not of large factories or assembly lines, but of small property.
Berlusconi’s real lineage is more pointed. Fundamentally, he is the heir of Craxi and the mutation he represented in the Italian politics of the 1980s, rather than of the DC. The descent is literal, not just analogical. The two men were close contemporaries, both products of Milan, their careers continuously intertwined from the time that Craxi became leader of the Socialist Party (PSI) in 1976, and Berlusconi set up his first major television station two years later, funded with lavish loans from banks controlled by the Socialist Party. The relationship could hardly have been more intimate, at once functional and personal. Craxi created the favours from the state that allowed Berlusconi to build his media empire: Berlusconi funded Craxi’s machine with the profits from it, and boosted his image with his newscasts. A frequent guest at Berlusconi’s palatial villa in Arcore, where he was liberally supplied with soubrettes and haute cuisine, in 1984 Craxi was godfather to Berlusconi’s first child by the actress Veronica Lario before he married her, and best man at the wedding when he did marry her in 1990. On becoming premier in 1983, he rescued Berlusconi’s national television networks, which were broadcasting in defiance of a Supreme Court ruling, from being shut down, and in 1990 helped ensure Berlusconi’s permanent grip on them, with a law for which he received a deposit of $12 million to his account in a foreign bank. At the pinnacle of his power, Craxi cut a new figure on the postwar Italian scene – tough, decisive, cultivating publicity, in complete command of his own party, and a ruthless negotiator with others.
Three years later, with the revelations of Tangentopoli exposing the scale of his corruption, Craxi had become the most execrated public figure in the land. But he was not finished. His own career in ruins, he passed his vision of politics directly to Berlusconi, urging him to take the electoral plunge at a meeting in Milan in April 1993.
An Entire Order Converted into What It Was Intended to End