December 11, 2023 | Rome, Italy

The deeper woe

By |2018-03-21T18:45:14+01:00July 4th, 2011|"Notebook"|
Moroccan-born Karima el-Mahrough is still at the center of media attention.

hen Silvio Berlusconi was scheduled to appear in court on charges of prostitution of minors in April, news teams from 29 countries teamed up to create a media circus in front of the Milan courthouse. Berlusconi never showed up.

But when Berlusconi did appear in court on June 18 charged with paying a $600,00 bribe to British barrister David Mills for false testimony (Mills was convicted of taking the bribe in 2009), international media turned its back on the story.

That the public and the media preferred the first trial is no surprise. There are nearly two dozen legal actions pending against Berlusconi, but only one promises juicy details about voluptuous and (then) underage Moroccan-born Karima el-Mahrough, known as “Ruby,” and about Berlusconi’s so-called “bunga-bunga” sex parties.

Yet by neglecting the trial involving Mills and others on charges including tax evasion, bribery, illegal campaign finance and accounting fraud, observers trivialize Berlusconi’s real impact on Italian society and politics. Focusing on the sex wastes an opportunity to understand the implications of corruption for liberal democracy everywhere.

Practices deemed corrupt, such as influence-peddling, bid rigging, tax evasion, kickbacks and nepotism, are really nothing more than attempts to tilt the playing field to personal or group advantage. Corruption is the evasion of rules that make society and business fair and impartial. At the same time, corrupt practices are considered norms in many social systems.

In his recent book, “The Origins of Political Order,” American political scientist Francis Fukuyama identified these practices as part of “tribalism” or “patrimonialism,” stages in the evolution of the liberal democratic state. The state is the creator and guarantor of neutral, impersonal systems that regulate justice, economics and society. While they are not necessarily egalitarian, rules are codified and consistently and impartially enforced. States amount to the addition of another layer to pre-existing patrimonial and tribal systems. When states fail, or when they are not fully formed, patrimonialism and tribalism re-emerge. Since the first recognizably modern states took root during China’s Zhou dynasty between 770 and 256 B.C. the evolution of modern liberal democracy has been a contest between state and pre-state, or patrimonialism.

Italy and Berlusconi’s rise within it perfectly illustrate this tension.

Fukuyama defines the cornerstones of modern liberal democracy as the existence of a state, the rule of law, and an accountable government. Although the unified Italian state is busy celebrating its 150th anniversary, faith in its legitimacy wavers, particularly in the south. The electoral system discourages political accountability. Whether as cause or effect, patrimonialism is a strong and attractive parallel power in Italian politics and society.

Berlusconi, who came from a nonpolitical background, is in debt to this parallel power. He credits his father’s connections and his carefully-developed friendship with former Socialist leader and 1980s Prime Minister Bettino Craxi for his success. Berlusconi participates generously in patronage, handing out gifts and political positions — including giving insider status to dental hygienist Nicole Minetti, who introduced him to underage Ruby.

The Economist claims Berlusconi has “screwed” his country. He didn’t. As Fukuyama notes, human society is innately conservative. Berlusconi just tapped in to Italians’ ambivalence about the state and legitimized already-familiar patrimonial ways.

In fact, his entire political career has been based on attacking state institutions that attempt to level the playing field. In decades-old video clips, he warns cheering crowds of the threat posed by Italy’s occult “elite” in the “judiciary and university.” He has legislated vigorously to weaken both.

But tension between the state and patrimonialism is not just an Italian problem. Nor is it just arcane political theory.

Turmoil in Tunisia, Libya, Afghanistan reflects complex competition involving “tribal” groups vying for power. It also expresses a desire for a neutral, law-based and non-tribal state. But the absence of strong institutions and the prevalence of kinship alliances make the path to achieving liberal-democratic statehood in these regions anything but straightforward. What Fukuyama calls “retribalization” is just around the corner.

Greece is the current poster child for patrimonialism run amok. In Greece (as in Italy), the introduction of the euro and the later 2008 international economic crises made it impossible to continue papering over or funding the inefficiencies of patronage and client-based politics.

Patrimonialism has real-life consequences. It is anti-democratic and anti-meritocratic. It wastes human capital. When individuals and alliances seek only to obtain and maintain main power, unfairness and corruption are givens.

Corruption also has measurable costs. A low rank on Transparency International’s corruption index has economic consequences. Who invests in countries that rank low on TI’s index? When businessmen or government officials put personal or group gain ahead of the public good, inefficiency and waste are guaranteed.

International academic research has repeatedly demonstrated a direct link between corruption and such shortcomings as poor healthcare, gender and income gaps, a weak press, and inadequacies in social mobility.

While Italy may represent a cornerstone of modern culture, its press freedom and gender equality rankings are decidedly Third World. Its southlands suffer from the poorest delivery of state healthcare, the weakest rates of educational achievement, and the highest youth unemployment. The south also has the highest rates of organized crime, patrimonialism at its most virulent. Faith in the state is marginal.

No country can afford complacency. Transparency International recently cautioned the United Kingdom about the increasing presence of corruption in politics and sport. Fukuyama warns that the increasing homogenization of American neighborhoods and special-interest politics are patrimonializing trends.

Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga parties — among consenting adults — may be victimless and legal. But patrimonialism and corruption threaten civil society — in Italy and around the world. And it diminishes us all.

Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."