- The Liberty of Servants: Berlusconi’s Italy
There has been one rather significant change in Italian politics since 2010 when Maurizio Viroli wrote his book The Liberty of Servants. Silvio Berlusconi, the man who gives the book its subtitle and whose smirking face stares out from the cover, is no longer prime minister. He has been swept from power, not by the ballot box or the judiciary, but by the relentless pressure of the markets.
Strange as it may seem, that doesn’t detract from the central thrust of the book. Although, on one level it is an attempt to explain one man’s dominance of Italian politics (a “country of fragile liberty,” as Viroli puts it) for nearly two decades, it also serves as a warning to all democratic nations about the ease with which a powerful individual can come to dominate a society, voluntarily exchanging the “liberty of citizens” for the “liberty of servants.”
Viroli begins his unapologetically idealistic polemic by spelling out the differences between these two forms of freedom. He defines the “liberty of citizens” as a civic liberty — a liberty based on laws that doesn’t involve dependency on the arbitrary decisions of a master. The liberty of servants, however, is an illusory, or precarious, freedom, which could easily see a benevolent leader replaced by a tyrannical one.
Under Berlusconi, Viroli argues, Italians were governed by a de facto court system, with the prince ruling over “a theatre of courtesy and entertainment.” In this version of events, Berlusconi’s coterie of young, attractive women (who appear only fleetingly in the book) are on hand “to brighten the lives of the signore and the courtiers with their charms.”
Viroli introduces us to some of those courtiers. In the main, they are sycophantic, forelock-tuggers, who go to extraordinary lengths to please Berlusconi. One striking example is the Rome city councilman who proposed naming a square after Berlusconi’s mother, because her “dedication helped write a page of our recent national history by contributing to the decision of her son to enter politics.” As Viroli wryly observes, “No one, as far as I know, ever suggested dedicating a square to the mother of Garibaldi, Cavour, Mazzini . . . or any other great Italian.”
Another memorable vignette features a television journalist — not even one who works for a network owned by Berlusconi — who places words in the mouth of a toothless old woman after the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake. Although the woman didn’t actually [End Page 123] hear what the visiting prime minister told her during their brief encounter, the eager-to-please journalist convinces her that she’s been promised new dentures.
Some of the references might be lost on those who haven’t followed the Berlusconi saga closely. I wasn’t aware, for example, of “the court minstrel” Mariano Apicella, Berlusconi’s favorite singer — and holiday companion — who, according to Viroli, sings “soulless” ditties to the signore.
As Viroli points out, many of the more titillating aspects of the Berlusconi era have already been well documented. His book (which predates some of the most damaging tales of “bungabunga” parties and call girls) spends little time analyzing the gaudy surface of the system but concentrates instead on the philosophical and historical factors that underlie it, making it possible in the first place.
To the key question of who is responsible for this state of affairs, the answer seems to be virtually the entire Italian political class. Focusing on a few, well-chosen moments from Italian parliamentary history, Viroli shows how politicians from the Left and Right acquiesced, allowing Berlusconi, with virtually no argument or fuss, to begin his political career, without having to relinquish his ownership of the media. This, Viroli argues, was a dereliction of duty and a betrayal to the nation.
One of the author’s main regrets is systemic. Italy, he says, lacks the checks and balances of the US political system. By way of illustration, he...