Since Berlusconi’s death, the media have focused on his persona—not Berlusconism and its legacy.
Italy shows that the crisis of democracy and triumph of right-wing populism, which have been bewailed since 2016, actually started back in the 1990s. Silvio Berlusconi, often ridiculed abroad and highly controversial at home, was ahead of his time in a sense. He dominated Italy’s domestic policy for nearly 20 years and was the first right-wing populist to govern a developed western industrial country.
He achieved a total of three major electoral victories, which should be a warning to the United States and any other country that believes Trumpism ran its course after four chaotic years. Italy proves that worse scenarios are possible too. Like a political roly-poly toy, Berlusconi kept popping back up and returning to power in alternation with the moderate left, which is much weaker now than it was 30 years ago.
Berlusconi won elections mainly by promising Italians the moon and making people feel good. As a former crooner (he earned good money as a student singing on cruise ships) as well as the founder of multiple television channels and owner of a large media corporation, he had the business of promises and illusions down pat. Considering his lack of ideological substance, there is a good argument to be made for initially interpreting Berlusconi’s right-wing populism as a form of politics based largely on orchestration and communication.
Berlusconi was a very compelling speaker and always cut a bella figura with his permanent smile and bespoke suits. He was so successful at this that even left-wing and liberal media outlets and historians referred to him as Il Cavaliere, a nickname that literally means ‘knight’ and played on his carefully orchestrated projection of masculinity.
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When he founded Forza Italia, Berlusconi created a collective movement and political party tailored entirely to himself. All of this corresponded to the type of charismatic leadership described by Max Weber back in 1919, at a time when liberalism and the economic foundations of the middle class had been seriously weakened and fascism was emerging as a political movement in Italy.
Right-wing populism as a form of politics was also a cultural phenomenon to begin with, but we have to look more closely at Italy’s social and economic history to understand it. The country’s three-decade tragedy (which will hopefully not end as such) is significant not just to Italians but to everyone in Europe and the west, because it is a cautionary tale of what can happen when right-wing populists remain in power for a long time.
Italy’s post-2008 recession lasted for nearly six years on and off, much longer than in any other developed economy. The crisis in Italy is a demonstration of how the first right-wing populist to govern a large western industrialised nation drove his country into the ground.
It would be wrong to focus only on government debt here, however. Fiscal policy became an obsession in the age of neoliberalism, one that grew even more intense during the eurozone crisis. What Italy really needed already back then was a new economic dynamic to emerge from society itself.
But this did not happen, because Italian society lost its previous social dynamic when Berlusconi came to power. Youth unemployment deteriorated and salaries for the young who still had jobs were miserable, which led to the phenomenon of the mammoni, young men who could not move out from their parents’ home. The increased dependency on family support and the long crisis rendered Italy even more susceptible to right-wing populist demagogy than it was in Berlusconi’s time.
Increased television consumption was one of the direct consequences of the Berlusconi era and his activities as a media tycoon. From 1988 to 1995 alone, the time that Italians spent watching TV each day rose from an average of two-and-a-half to more than three-and-a-half hours.
This was due above all to new private channels serving up an endless stream of quiz shows, prize draws, talk shows and soap operas. The standard of public television also declined dramatically under Berlusconi; RAI, the national public television station, now mainly broadcasts cheap entertainment during prime time. And the division of roles between the oily moderators and the scantily-clad, overly made-up assistants is a blow to gender equality—something Berlusconi rejected, as do other right-wing populists.
While the media have been dumbed down, the education system has been neglected at the same time. Italy has long lagged behind Germany and France in terms of the proportion of young people who attend academic secondary schools or universities. The country was catching up until the 1990s, but the gap widened again under Berlusconi.
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In 2018, Italy had by far the lowest proportion of college graduates of all EU member states (just 26.8 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds). By contrast, the proportion of young Italians who only complete the compulsory level of schooling is nearly 35 per cent (this was also the youth unemployment rate in 2018—the connection between the two is a well-known problem). In terms of education spending, Italy trails far behind every other member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
This has to do with the austerity measures following the financial crisis, but the lack of spending on education had begun already when Berlusconi returned to power in 2001. Then, during the eurozone crisis, in the first austerity package of 2010, the finance minister, Giulio Tremonti, cut around 8 per cent of the already meagre budget for universities and schools. In terms of internet infrastructure and digitalisation, too, Italy has lingered near the bottom of the list of EU countries for years.
Italy clearly needs an extensive investment programme which would create jobs on the side. The strongest attempt to break with the austerity policy of the third Berlusconi government came from the left-wing populist Five Star Movement (M5S), which came to power in 2018, followed through on one of its campaign promises and introduced a reddito di cittadinanza or universal basic income (a pet subject of the global left). It corresponds to an older, southern-European model of the welfare state, based primarily on monetary payments instead of solid public institutions and services.
But this basic income requires huge bureaucratic effort to manage and is not nearly as unconditional as promised. Because the programme was so costly, the government had to place more and more constraints on it, meaning that only around one million people received any payments. This simultaneously reveals the limits of national social policy in the framework of the EU.
Poor conditions in the labour market from the mid-1990s led to the ‘re-familialisation’ of Italian society. Rising youth unemployment made Italian teenagers and college graduates even more dependent on family networks when they wanted to enter the labour market. Furthermore, young Italians were increasingly unable to afford to cut the cord to their parents.
In 1993, half of Italian men under the age of 30 still lived in their parental home. This triggered a debate about the mammoni (‘mama’s boys’) and the question of whether their behaviour was a consequence of the difficult labour market or something gender-specific, seeing as only around a quarter of women of the same age were still living with their parents in the mid-1990s. Stagnation and the financial crisis protracted and heightened this dependence on the family. According to more recent data, two thirds of all Italian men and women between the ages of 18 and 34 were still living with their parents in 2018, with the statistics for women largely in line with those for men.
A glance at Italy’s income statistics immediately explains why family ties have become so important again. After the eurozone crisis, Italians under the age of 35 earned an average taxable income of just €540 monthly. Even subtracting the unemployed from this statistic, this is about as much as the statutory minimum income in Germany and Austria.
The miserable starting salaries in Italy—which often barely top €1,000 even in well-paid sectors—mean that young Italians generally cannot afford their own place unless mama and papa help out. Their parents are also indispensable as soon as these young Italians have children themselves, because childcare and kindergarten places are rare and expensive. This is another argument in favour of expanding the social state in combination with an education initiative.
In society as a whole, however, there are limits to the solidarity of older Italians. The financial crisis caused youth unemployment to double to more than 42 per cent between 2008 and 2014. At the same time, the employment rate for over-55s rose from 33 to more than 40 per cent. This generational crowding-out has to do with the fact that young workers are easier to dismiss.
Many young Italians have all but given up on themselves: around one fifth between the ages of 15 and 24 do not work or attend school or any other educational establishment. The reddito di cittadinanza has not reduced their dependency because there are especially strict conditions on paying this basic income to people under 30. In general, one of the weaknesses of an unconditional basic income is that it is primarily a budgetary solution. But state-fund transfers and cash for welfare recipients will not solve Italy’s problems, especially not in the ailing Mezzogiorno.
This was already apparent under Berlusconi, who, until the crisis of 2009, funnelled sums in the double-digit billions to the south each year through Italy’s fund for underdeveloped regions (fondo per le aree sottoutilizzate). But economic growth in the south was half a per cent lower on average than in the north from 1995 onwards. As a result of accumulation over the years, southern Italy’s per capita gross domestic product had already dropped from 79 to 69 per cent of the EU average even before the financial crisis.
After the crisis, the Mezzogiorno fell behind Poland in its GDP (adjusted for purchasing power); within the EU, only Romania and Bulgaria are poorer. To tackle the complex problems of the Mezzogiorno and other structurally weak regions (though it is important to distinguish here between agrarian and post-industrial areas), what is needed is a development economics for the developed world and a different kind of welfare state—designed not around payments but around employing people in a planned and purposeful way, especially in kindergartens, schools and social hotspots (this corresponds more to the Nordic model of the welfare state).
Aside from Lombardy, Piedmont and parts of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, Italy was a poor and structurally weak country even into the 1960s. Its wealth grew rapidly in the following three decades, especially in the northeast and central Italy. But this means that only a single generation has enjoyed the high standard of living largely taken for granted in Germany and the Netherlands, for instance. This might be one of the reasons Italians fell back into old behavioural patterns after the boom ended. Family ties and clientelism grew more important again, and the role models for men and women became more regressive.
Labour migration has always been one potential response to poverty and a lack of prospects. According to Eurostat, emigration from Italy nearly doubled in the decade after the global financial crisis. Until the outbreak of the pandemic, around 150,000 people left their homes in Italy each year and headed north. The number of Italian immigrants in the United Kingdom tripled between 2009 and 2016, and there is a large Italian diaspora in London.
Many of these immigrants are highly qualified academics. Even in Berlin, Munich and Vienna, one sees more and more Italians on the subway, in cafés and at playgrounds with their children. Right-wing populists are using this exodus to propagate their far-right ‘population replacement’ theory, contrasting ‘good’ Italians with ‘bad’ immigrants from elsewhere.
The loss of so many agile young people is socially and economically draining for Italy itself. Labour migration from Italy is still low compared with eastern Europe, but it is a constant topic of discussion among academics in particular. Almost everyone knows someone who has moved away (and, unlike the guest-worker migration starting in 1955, many women are now also seeking jobs abroad). This contributes to the gloomy mood of those who stay behind. Even if they have a job, low wages make them wonder if they, too, should leave.
Joseph Schumpeter proposed the oft-cited theory that capitalism tends towards ‘creative destruction’ and continually renews itself through crises. Schumpeter developed his theory primarily in terms of the economy and companies, not capitalist states and societies. In this respect, it is only partially applicable to Italy and the longer-term decline of a whole country. What is relevant, however—particularly to Italy, but perhaps also the entire EU—is his warning that, through the formation of monopolies, a focus on entrepreneurial rents and waning innovation, capitalism endangers its own existence.
In Italy, la crisi has yet to unleash any creative impulses; instead, it has paralysed society. This is just as true for big companies, causing productivity to stagnate since the mid-1990s. Such a development is unique among western industrialised countries and it means that, from the perspective of employers, there is little or nothing left to distribute. In this respect, the crisis goes even deeper and is far more than just a fiscal problem.
This is an edited extract from the chapter on Italy in Philipp Ther’s new book, How the West Lost the Peace: On the Great Transformation, published last month by Polity