All political careers end in failure, a British politician once said. Even so, politicians rarely fail as spectacularly as did Silvio Berlusconi, who at long last resigned on Saturday night, to the cheers of his countrymen (“la commedia è finita!” writes an Italian friend) and the approval of stock markets around the world.
Not that he is aware of having failed: On the contrary, Berlusconi clung to power—petulantly, angrily—until the bitter end. He finally left office only because “eight traitors,” in his words, failed to support him during a vote last week, and he lost his parliamentary majority. Had that not happened, he surely would have carried on, even as the Italian financial system collapsed in a hail of fire and brimstone all around him.
I leave it to others to puzzle out what will happen to the Italian financial system next, and I don’t envy them. A couple of weeks ago, I heard a senior European central banker solemnly declare that the future of the entire continent might well depend upon whether and when his colleagues would once again begin to purchase Italian government bonds. It is bad enough that Greece is about to go down in flames. But Italy? The fourth-largest economy in Europe? The eighth-largest economy in the world?
Yet even if one looks backward instead of forward, the conclusion of Berlusconi’s political career doesn’t look much more cheerful. On the contrary: The story of the long reign of Berlusconi at the very top of Italian politics holds gloomy lessons for would-be revolutionaries everywhere.
For, as not many now remember, Berlusconi’s political career was the direct result of a very dramatic revolution, one that I was lucky enough to witness at an early stage. In 1993, I went to Milan to interview Luca Magni, an Italian businessman who ran a cleaning company. After years of paying bribes to secure contracts, Magni had decided a few months earlier that he’d had enough. “I just wanted to do business without worrying about it,” he told me. So he made a recording of a government official who asked him for money, passed the recording to a public prosecutor named Antonio Di Pietro—and thus set into motion a chain of investigations that eventually led to the arrests of hundreds of politicians and political appointees.
Each arrest led to another, and in due course, the whole Italian political hierarchy collapsed. Bettino Craxi, the leader of the Socialist party, escaped to Tunisia and never came back. Giulio Andreotti, the Christian Democrat leader and former prime minister, was investigated for mafia connections and never returned to public life. Their political parties vanished.
Into the vacuum stepped Silvio Berlusconi. Though it’s hard to believe now, at the time he seemed revolutionary, too. He talked about releasing Italians from the chains of bureaucracy, corruption and high taxes. He brought a whole new group of young people into politics, all dressed in cashmere sweaters. He named his political party Forza Italia—after the slogan of the national soccer team—and for a brief moment, that seemed fun. For an even briefer moment politics became chic, even among the northern Italian middle classes, who had always stayed away. In Milan, I was told in 1993, it was actually rude to ask a man which party he voted for, much worse than asking him how much money he made. Berlusconi was supposed to change all of that.
But Berlusconi, who had accumulated his wealth under the old regime, was incapable of changing himself, let alone his country. Some people grow more mature upon attaining political power. Some grow more arrogant. He fell into the latter camp. Instead of heralding the new era, he brought the revolution to a halt. Instead of making life easier for the Luca Magnis of Italy, he avoided unpopular reforms, accumulated even more state debt, spent much of his time with fellow billionaires (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin among them) and organized “bunga-bunga,” whatever that means exactly, in his palatial residences.
He remained popular enough to be re-elected, in part because the opposition was so weak—when the old Italian political class was eliminated, nothing else emerged to replace it—and in part because he represented the material “success” to which many modern Italians aspire. But now the bond markets have caught up with him, and the prosecutors won’t be far behind, or at least I hope not.
Which brings me back to the gloomy lesson of his career: Occupy Wall Street! Libyan rebels! Spanish Indignados! Be careful what you wish for: The elimination of your country’s political class will not necessarily result in a better-run state or a happier society. Instead, if you are not extremely careful, you might get the counterrevolution—you might get Berlusconi.