Friday, August 2, 2013

To Catch a Thief: What the Berlusconi sentence tells us about Italy

So finally, after 52 trials the communist judges that have infiltrated the Milanese courts and ultimately spread through the system all the way to the Cassazione (Italy's highest appeal court) have got their man. Berlusconi is convicted at the third and final level of judgement of a tax fraud committed some two decades ago and receives a prison sentence, although for a variety of reasons (age, an amnesty law, the possibility of 'alternative measures') he will not set foot in any jail.

The response from the convicted criminal himself was predictable enough: he has long argued that he is innocent of all charges and that his many trials are the result of left-wing judges trying to use the law to achieve a political end of eliminating the most popular politician in the country. What amazes many people outside Italy, and particularly in Northern Europe and the English-speaking countries, is that so many Italians still support him. After all, in some democracies the merest whiff of legal trouble or sexual scandal is enough to end a political career - British politician Chris Huhne was recently jailed and his political career terminated for evading a speeding ticket. Why do Italians seem so forgiving?

Let's try and get into the mind of the Berlusconi-supporting voter. First, there is the traditional deference with which many Italians view the rich and powerful - even Berlusconi's opponents refer to him as 'Il Cavaliere', after the honour of 'Cavaliere del Lavoro' (similar to our knighthood for services to industry) was bestowed on him by his friend Bettino Craxi back in the 1980s. Berlusconi plays to this role of the rich benefactor, giving supplicants gifts such as watches, jewels, apartments or simply money in the style of the traditional 'notables' of pre-democratic times. Of course, his TV channels are very helpful in cultivating this image.

But let's not assume that most of Berlusconi's support comes from these quarters. If there is one thing you can say about Italians, it is that they do not like to play the sucker. And in a country with such a Baroque administrative and legal culture as Italy, obeying the law and paying your taxes is fraught with danger. At best, you can end up out of pocket knowing that many others are cheating on their taxes. At worse, you can find yourself penalized for doing the right thing, since tax law is complicated and unpredictable, and very often tax levels are set on the assumption that citizens will indeed not report their full income. Not surprisingly, an estimated 13.5% of income is not declared to the tax authorities. More generally, Italy's legal system is exceptionally complex, with a much larger number of laws and regulations than other democracies, many of which are in flagrant contradiction with each other.

So when Berlusconi talks of the injustices he has faced at the hands of judges and the state administration, this chimes with the experiences of most if not all Italians. And those most likely to sympathize with him are to be found in the very large section of Italian society that owns property or their own business, or is self-employed. Sure, many Italians believe that the best way to deal with the problem would be if everyone paid their taxes and respected the law. Others take the view that that will never happen, and therefore the law should be applied in the most relaxed manner possible. When Berlusconi talks of 'liberty', he effectively means 'impunity'. Since the state and the law don't work properly, punishment is illegitimate, verging on totalitarian. This fits in nicely, of course, with Berlusconi's strident anti-communism.

In the end the saga of the justice system is representative of the broader problem of the development of the Italian state. The Piedmontese nation-builders of the late 19th century attempted to create a unified Italy on the basis of a French-style administration, in which local resistance to state power would be overcome by the imposition of a systematic, uniform set of laws to be implemented by a centralized bureaucracy. Unlike in France, the Italian state never quite succeeded in turning 'peasants into Italians'. The state remains, for many Italians, an unloved and even loathed presence, tolerated for providing tangible benefits such as jobs in the public sector, state pensions, and healthcare, but not respected. In large sectors of Italian society the state has failed to establish itself as a necessary framework for civic coexistence or an efficient and fair economic system.

For this reason, we can get rid of Berlusconi (perhaps), but it is much harder to overcome berlusconismo.