Regarding Silvio

With the political crisis in Greece apparently about to end up with the formation of a national unity government in some form, attention is now shifting to Italy where PM Silvio Berlusconi’s life suddenly got even more interesting than usual over the last few days. With interest rates on the Italian national debt rising above 7%, or above 8% on the one-year bonds, he finally declared yesterday that he will resign and call for elections early next year when the planned budget reforms have been implemented.

That sounds like a play for time to me. If Berlusconi were to hand in his resignation right away, he could expect to lose influence very rapidly as a new government (possibly under a politically relatively neutral figure like Mario Monti) would take centre stage. On the other hand, staying in power for another couple of months would give him at least time enough to set up his Minister of Justice, Angelino Alfano, as a viable successor (which given Alfano’s track record as the man behind an unconstitutional 2009 law granting Berlusconi immunity from prosecution is hardly an encouraging choice) and give his party a chance of success at the coming elections. Whether this play succeeds will largely be up to Berlusconi’s right-wing coalition ally Lega Nord, which contributes 60 seats to his parliamentary majority of 344 seats out of 630, and given that even the party leader Umberto Bossi has now called for his resignation, things are beginning to look more than a little sketchy.

But one may well ask how things have come to this point so relatively quickly. Whatever else one may think about him, Berlusconi is a political fighter par exellence, having survived an impressive 51 motions of no confidence just in this election period alone, the last one less than a month ago. So what is it about no. 52 that may prove different?

An important part of the answer is that just as Berlusconi is a political survivor, he is also virtually an archetypical incarnation of political confrontation. His rhetoric style is infamous. Any criticism is invariably written off as leftist propaganda and conspiracies, threats of prosecution are the work of a “cancerous” and “anthropologically different” leftist judiciary, and left-wing voters are “pricks … who would vote against their own best interests”. And his politics have been no different, trying as late as last month to pass legislation that would see journalists jailed for up to three years if they publish wiretaps deemed “irrelevant” (i.e. embarrassing to Berlusconi).

Governing in such a manner is all well and good (at least for yourself, if not the country) as long as you have your majority in place and coalition partners who don’t ask any questions. But when the crisis hits, the interest rates skyrocket, and your coalition partners suddenly find out that it might not be in their best interest to risk their own power base to keep you in power, you’re going to find yourself running out of options very quickly. Because the opposition, whom you’ve built a career out of attacking and vilifying, is certainly not going to raise a finger to help you out.

To put this into a Habermasian interpretation, what we’re talking about here is the difference between instrumental action (which is based on unilateral interests and the exercise of power) and communicative action (based on consensus and mutually accepted values). Berlusconi is a master of the former, while the latter has been resigned to the deepest, darkest corner of his political toolbox. There’s no doubt that this strategy has been working out well for him until quite recently; he is, after all, the longest-sitting Italian prime minister since World War 2. But the events of just the last couple of days illustrate just how vulnerable a position built on instrumental action is, and why it’s a good idea to engage communicatively with your opponents. It’s not just better for the civil society as a whole, but the political goodwill earned will stand you in good stead once the good times end and the interests rates start hitting the fan.

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