Silvio Berlusconi, herald of Italy’s far-right

Italy’s former prime minister died on June 12. His decades-long career was marked by financial scandals, the platforming of the far-right, and neoliberal anti-worker policies

June 13, 2023 by Tanupriya Singh
(Credit: Jin Yu/Xinhua)

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s former prime minister and billionaire right-wing politician, died in Milan on June 12, at the age of 86.

In a decades-long career marred by financial and other scandals and prosecutions, the leader of the Forza Italia party would assume the role of prime minister four times between 1994 and until he was forced to step down in 2011.

Considered to be Italy’s first true populist, his influence in shaping the national discourse extended beyond the time he spent in office, both through the role he had played in the privatization of television in the 1980s, and subsequently in the mainstreaming of the far-right in the political landscape.

Berlusconi initially made his fortune through real estate and construction in the 1960s and 1970s, building new sections of Milan at a time when people from other parts of the country were moving to the city in search of work.

He then set up a cable television company, TeleMilano, which became Canale 5, the country’s first private television channel. By the 1980s, he would expand his foray into mass media and publishing, with his TV network, Mediaset, competing against state-owned broadcaster, Radiotelevisione Italiana or RAI. 

He would also acquire the AC Milan football team, notably naming his party after the slogan raised by fans during games– Forza Italia or Go Italy. 

Berlusconi’s formal entry into politics in 1994 took place in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of the Italian Communist Party as well as the Tangentopoli corruption scandal, which signaled the end of the “First Republic” and with it, the major political parties of the post-War period.

It was in this moment of rupture that Berlusconi gained his footing—“With the Second Republic there was talk of the need to renew politics, and the way Berlusconi did it was through spectacle,” Maurizio Coppola, from the left-wing Potere al Popolo party, told Peoples Dispatch.

This was also reflected in the kind of television programming that he introduced to the country, superficial and lacking in content, and characterized, for instance, by the objectification of women. 

Berlusconi’s version of the “renewal” of Italian politics was also based on heavy anti-communist and anti-left propaganda, Coppola added—“He had that heritage from the Cold War.”. The second key pillar of the leader’s rise, he added, was through his ties with criminal organizations, particularly the Mafia in Sicily and other outfits in the rest of Italy. 

“These organizations also had major enterprises that were in a way financed by Berlusconi’s politics. Generally speaking, if these organizations were supporting him in his electoral campaign, when it would come to public spending on construction, for instance, the money would go to the companies linked to these organizations, or people would be placed inside public or political institutions,” Coppola said.

“There were a lot of municipalities that were dissolved due to the infiltration of the Mafia. While such links had existed before, even with the Christian Democrats, Berlusconi really accelerated this process of unity between criminal organizations and bourgeois political parties.”

In line with this link between business and state power were Berlusconi’s anti-working class politics. In 2002, his government took aim at Article 18 of the Workers’ Statute, a key win of the workers’ struggles of the 1970s, which mandated companies to reinstate workers fired without “just cause.”

Importantly, he orchestrated a fragmentation of the working class, “He was preparing the grounds to diversify labor contracts and to diversify protections for stable versus precarious workers, and then also, as a classical bourgeois politician, abolished taxes for companies,” Coppola said.

At the same time, he also formed alliances with the far-right, including successors of the fascist Italian Social Movement (MSI) such as the Alleanza Nazionale (AN). Incumbent prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy (FdI) party draws its symbol from the AN. 

“When he won the elections in 2001 the extra-parliamentarian, extra-institutional far right took to the streets to declare that they could finally be a part of the social life of Italy.” As Berlusconi opened up space for these forces, they in turn sustained him, Coppola said. 

Berlusconi was ultimately forced to step down amid the debt crisis in Europe in 2011. However, this did not signal his withdrawal from politics, as he would continue to make “connections within the right in institutional politics.”

A decade later, the far-right has taken over the government. 

Meanwhile, the politics of Meloni’s fascist Fdl and its anti-immigration coalition partner, League, in turn had Berlusconi speaking of Forza Italia’s “moderate” and “centrist” credentials as a member of the tripartite coalition. He subsequently won a seat in the Senate in the general election in September 2022.

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Certain differences did exist within the ruling coalition, Coppola said, most notably Berlusconi’s opposition to selling arms to Ukraine and his close friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “But in the end, the economic and financial interests were much more important. When the parliament was voting to send weapons to Ukraine, Forza Italia supported the move.”  

In terms of Italy’s economy, “he really was with [Meloni’s] coalition. He represented the big industries and the big capitalist class, but he also tried, in a way, to balance that by giving something to the smaller capitalists in Italy’s very limited economic base.”

Meanwhile, the Italian left and workers must now contend with the legacy of Berlusconi’s politics and economic policies. Real wages have stagnated, and even fallen, in the past 30 years, with statistics indicating that millions have been forced to rely on food distribution networks, Coppola said.

“The government is not addressing these issues, speaking instead of migrants and of the supposed ‘ethnic substitution’ of Italians [a reference to the white supremacist great replacement theory],” a continuation of the kind of discourse and politics that grew under Berlusconi. 

The question which emerges is “how should the working class intervene?” For Coppola, “Our task is to bring the social issues back to the table… to bring back a politics from the autonomous point of view of the working class instead of accepting little [piecemeal] measures here and there… to really expose the systematic dismantling of labor rights, of the health care and school systems… We have to rebuild a radical left perspective.”