All political lives end in failure, Enoch Powell said: but some failures drag on for much, much longer than others. Yesterday, 75-year old Silvio Berlusconi released his stubborn grip on power by handing in his resignation to our President Giorgio Napolitano.
Bill Clinton left office at 55; Tony Blair at 54; José Luis Zapatero is standing down at 52. The era-defining Margaret Thatcher ceased being Prime Minister at 65, ten years younger than Berlusconi is today. Among leaders who beat Berlusconi’s retirement age from high office, Ronald Reagan stood down at 78, and Fidel Castro at 82; Juan Domingo Perón died at 79 while still in power.
Berlusconi first won elections in 1994, and dominated the political scene so thoroughly that even his intervals in opposition will be remembered as part of an uninterrupted, 17-year spell of Berlusconismo. Millions of young voters have come of age with no memory of Italy before Berlusconi’s discesa in campo. They remember nothing but his political pragmatism, cloaked under an anti-Communist ideology that wore thinner and thinner by the day; his jests, excesses and jokes that slowly turned from charming to pathetic; his extreme personalization of politics as an exchange of favors; and his blind refusal to modernize Italy.
Most of all, he bears responsibility for changing the nature of social mobility in Italy. In the post-war years, Italy’s miracolo economico meant that millions of Italians quit toiling in the fields and migrated to work in the factories of our very late Industrial Revolution. The diseases of the dirt poor, pellagra and malaria, were beaten in the 1950s. In the ’60s and ’70s, many people found their way to middle-class comfort through newly created jobs in banks, commerce, and the public sector. Those who had worked in factories were often able to set up shop on their own, and created a generation of family companies with their own fabbrichetta (small factory). In the ’80s, we even built an elite of Italians who were at home in the upper echelons of worldwide finance, academia and corporations; many young and brilliant students joined international business schools, consulting firms and investment banks. All through this extraordinary growth story, we never ceased believing that doing well in school and working hard were the two keys to our success: even during the darkest days of terrorism and kidnappings in the ’70s, when wealthy entrepreneurial families feared for their children, they sent them out of Italy, to study and earn university degrees abroad.
But something broke in the ’90s. Our ascensore sociale, the elevator that people could catch from humble origins to become respectable and rich, no longer worked very smoothly. Tangentopoli disrupted the old order. It gradually emerged that for ambitious young people it was a smart career move to get a job somewhere in Berlusconi’s economic empire. In 1993-1994, young managers, entertainers, and salespeople went through central casting for Berlusconi’s new political party. “Casting” is not a metaphor: there are many witnesses to what happened in those TV studios. If you were telegenic and could seduce an audience, you were a candidate. If you were a nerd or an intellectual, you were out.
We did not know it, but Italy’s economy had already started growing at less than half the pace of the rest of Europe – which it has done for the past two decades by now. Without reliable growth, young people resorted to patronage and crapshoots: the rise of soccer players’ and TV entertainers’ salaries dramatically shrunk the range of success models and career aspirations for young Italians. Aided by a criminally undemocratic electoral system on one side, and criminally conservative labor unions on the other, our politicians froze the system for nearly two decades. Standards of hard work and diligence went out of the window: when kids got bad grades in my generation, they were locked up to study; when kids get bad grades today, parents complain to the teacher. Politics, with few exceptions, became the refuge of the mediocre. Integrity and intellectual rigor became old-fashioned, unnecessary virtues. Many of the brightest minds of our generation stood by as this happened; many sought their fortunes outside Italy. The privileges of the political class were the target of much discontent, but little action. Stunning arrogance and vulgarity were displayed by politicians even last night, as they left the palaces of power worrying about their own future after Berlusconi.
Mario Monti has a few months, perhaps a year, to pull us back from the brink and to do many important things very quickly, against the opposition of many stakeholders who only wish to stay entrenched in the old order: I wish him all the best. But rebuilding an Italy we are proud of, and shaking out the heavy burden of Berlusconi’s legacy, will take years, maybe decades, if it is at all possible. And we can no longer watch from the sidelines: it starts with each of us.