More than two thousand guests were in attendance at Milan Cathedral on June 14 for the state funeral of Silvio Berlusconi, the businessman-turned-politician who served four different times as Italy’s prime minister and who died at the age of eighty-six of leukemia. His notorious lifestyle—two marriages, one engagement, a quasi-marriage, countless affairs, sexual scandals, and disregard for the law, though that doesn’t even capture everything—was decried by many Italians and celebrated by millions of others. So when the moment came there was a question as to whether Milan Archbishop Mario Delpini would deliver a condemnation or a eulogy. What he offered was neither. “What can we say about Silvio Berlusconi?” the archbishop asked from the pulpit. “He was a man: a desire for life, a desire for love, a desire for joy. He was a man and now meets God.” It was an acknowledgment of the ambiguous moral legacy Berlusconi leaves to his country and to Italian Catholicism. His political legacy is far more clear.
Berlusconi entered the scene with a splash in late 1993, and by 1994 transformed Italy’s infamously chaotic multiparty politics—which for half a century had revolved around the centrist Christian Democratic Party and the Communist Party—into a two-coalition system. One coalition consisted of “Forza Italia” (his own personal party, with a name stolen directly from soccer fans), the neo-fascist National Alliance, and the independentist Northern League; the other was a center-left group with the former Communist Party as its major partner. The suddenness of his success shocked political experts and ordinary citizens alike, and in retrospect looks like a foreshadowing of Donald Trump’s 2016 election. He was the inventor of a political system centered on himself.
Like Trump, Berlusconi brought a mogul’s understanding of the world to politics. Like Rupert Murdoch, he was keenly aware of how a government and the law could impact his media empire. He viewed the collapse of the Christian Democratic Party and the normalizing of the Communist Party in terms of the potential danger to his business, and while in office he rewrote rules on fraud, corruption, and other financial crimes to shield himself and his companies from prosecution. Yet he also understood better than others how momentous events like the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union could affect Italy and Europe more broadly. And he had a knack for speaking to (and for) the segment of Italian society holding a lingering affinity for Mussolini’s Fascist regime and its postwar adherents.
Berlusconi’s “businessman populism” was a preview of today’s disruption of the liberal order. In international relations, he accepted the post-1945 alignment of Italy with the West—but emphasized transactional and deal-oriented friendships with foreign leaders over any sense of shared values. His gaffes with various world figures were legendary, and they remain a source of embarrassment for many Italians. His pro-Israel stance aided the rise of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Right. He claimed credit for ending the Cold War thanks to the 2002 summit in Italy between George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, the latter of whom—along with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—is at the center of tensions with the West today. But Berlusconi never made a secret of his preference for Putin over Germany’s Angela Merkel; he even spent holidays and birthdays with him.
In domestic politics, Berlusconi achieved his major goal of keeping the Left out of power. Though he lost two elections, they were both to former Christian Democrat Romano Prodi, a centrist civil servant (and a Catholic) whom he could not accuse of being a Communist. He also managed to build a more friendly relationship between Italian conservatism and the European Union, giving key political support to the appointments of technocrats Mario Monti as member of the government of the European Union in 1994 and Mario Draghi as president of the European Central Bank in 2011. But he failed in modernizing the Italian economic system along libertarian lines, and when Italy found itself in dire fiscal straits in 2011, he was ousted from power under pressure from the markets and European leaders—but not before implementing some of the worst aspects of the neoliberal gig-economy model. His thirty years in politics also coincided with the deindustrialization of Italy (auto and auto-component manufacturing in particular). And, of course, he did nothing to address migration—though the technocratic governments that succeeded him were no more welcoming to migrants than he was.
Italy is now a country in decline demographically and economically. It is less inclined to invest in the future, depending more and more on the European Union and a shrinking number of industrial sectors. Socially, it is more unjust. Berlusconi succeeded in defending his own business empire and in moderating and rehabilitating the neo-Fascist extreme Right, with Giorgia Meloni becoming prime minister in September 2022 (Berlusconi reluctantly had to accept her as his successor). With his moderating presence now gone, it will be interesting to see how Meloni chooses to proceed.