What had up to then represented a marginal and exotic curiosity seeped into the pores of the nation. The plastic and predatory spirit of Reagan's America spoke now Dante's language. Recurrent satirical characters distinguished by a limited and repetitive set of jokes dominated TV shows; neologisms coined by the series' protagonists would become part of the national vocabulary. The nagging repetition of the same lame gags mirrored a new, individualized form of urban alienation, with privacy being publicly exhibited on television. Fast food restaurants and shopping malls started making their appearance in Italian cities (Berlusconi's reign originates from his native Milan, the most industrially and technologically advanced city in Italy).
A post-ideological Italy obsessed with wealth, notoriety and status-seeking ambitions was forever immortalized in Mediaset's programs. It was not a pleasant sight, but it was a very popular one. For the first time in its history, Italy could now listen to recorded laughs mechanically triggered by stale jokes. "Laugh, you idiot, or someone else will laugh at you" seemed to be the underlying motto. Hypnotized by this synthetic sirens' song, Italians would retreat from public life and squares, desert street life to elect television as their new polis. The end of grand political narratives and the defeat of domestic dissent were succeeded by the unattainable dream of fame and success. The possibility of daily joys, humble pleasures and ordinary fulfilment was hijacked by illusory and over-sexualized promises, as shining as unrealizable.
It was the catastrophic triumph of form over content, packaging over substance; a TV format where the space for interpretation and antagonism was erased. Homologation parading as freedom is the quintessential quality of Berlusconi's TV. Another program authored by Antonio Ricci that now feels almost conspiratorial -- though featuring Italian citizens as the conspirators themselves -- is "Fantastico," with comedian Beppe Grillo. Grillo is now the political leader of an emerging and eerily successful party running a campaign based on indifference, racism and dubious slogans like "They are all thieves!" whose overall significance is better described by the Italian term qualunquismo
, which literally translates as "whatever-ism."
As long as Berlusconi shaped the media landscape and therefore the political life of the country from a distance, opposition to his new cultural model was marginal. When he became the official representative of the state thanks to his preliminary "cultural revolution," opposition grew stronger and more hypocritical. No mainstream political faction ever proposed to unhinge or even to address the socio-cultural contrivances that allowed Berlusconi to thrive in impunity. Critiques are always brought against him, not his significance nor his national rootedness. He effectively emerged as this evil entity, when in reality his professional résumé is no different from a Rupert Murdoch (except in terms of global reach) and his political moves not dissimilar from a Tony Blair (they both privatized public services and invaded sovereign countries).
He clung to power like an oil-rich sheik, personifying the merging of soft and hard power, politics and entertainment.
Murdoch and Blair never completely lost their legitimacy primarily because they stuck to their respective roles. Berlusconi, with his exhibitionism, shocked spectators worldwide precisely because he violated the unwritten distinction between political rule and lobby. He clung to power like an oil-rich sheik, personifying the merging of soft and hard power, politics and entertainment, which in other western "democracies" remain distinct affairs, interdependent, but still distinct. Here lies his exceptionalism. For the rest Berlusconi incarnated the modern imperative of democratic capitalism, destructive enjoyment, immaculately encapsulated by hip-hop artist 50 Cent in his ruthless aphorism "Get Rich or Die Tryin'." Whether you get to that through Wall Street via Harvard Business School or through the barrel of a gun or, like Berlusconi, thanks to the institutional fragility of your country, seems to be a matter of secondary importance.
Why follow the rules when those who take shortcuts not only get away with it but are also hailed as "great men" and "achievers"? What's important is to be successful -- contemporary society stigmatizes "losers" and rewards winners, encouraging people to do whatever it takes to "become somebody." Berlusconi did become somebody, and he did so with huge democratic support, cheered forth by the same audience who had dreamt of fame and success in front of his television screens. While publicly denying his wrongdoings, Berlusconi can still rely on the conniving complicity of half of the country that repeatedly overlooked, when not overtly applauding, his every move. The other half has yet to come up with a credible alternative, which leaves us with a country unlikely to change overnight after Berlusconi's demise.