A Despair of Democracy Reappears in Europe

May 09, 1994|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — The popularity of Silvio Berlusconi, designated to become Italy's prime minister, has been compared with the populist appeal of Ross Perot in the United States and Bernard Tapie in France.

It is more serious than that. Qualities of desperation and unreasonable hope were evident in the election that gave Mr. Berlusconi his present position, suggesting that much remains to come in Italy. A Berlusconi-led government is more likely than not end badly. Business success rarely can be duplicated in government. If a Berlusconi government fails, what will follow?

The Italian ''revolution'' was begun by the country's independent magistrates, revealing the thick layers of corruption corroding government at every level. The parliamentary election that followed repudiated not only the Christian Democratic and Socialist parties most deeply implicated in corruption, but also the reform forces that had broken away from the old parties.

The winners were those groups completely outside the established system. Mr. Berlusconi, of course, is an enormously successful television, press, finance-services and retail entrepreneur. His is the second-largest private business group in Italy, after Fiat. He argues that this success proves that he can shake Italy out of its old habits, modernize its institutions and win it the competitive international rank it clearly deserves.

His argument is undermined by the facts that the Berlusconi group currently is in serious financial difficulties ($2.3 billion in debt) and its past success was due in part to favors from the now-repudiated ruling political parties. Mr. Berlusconi has had links to the sinister P-2 Masonic Lodge, at the center of Italian political intrigue in the 1970s. The conflict between Mr. Berlusconi's business interests and his new political responsibilities remains unsettled.

The other election winners were the north Italian federalist movement, the Italy's neo-fascists are pale and unconvincing sentimentalists; only the foolish will ignore them.

Northern League and the neo-fascist National Alliance. Mr. Berlusconi's cabinet negotiations with the Northern League are difficult because he (as well as the neo-fascists) is committed to Italian unity while the Northern League demands a form of autonomy for the north. This contradiction will constrain, if not immobilize, a new government.

Mr. Berlusconi's link with the neo-fascists has been much criticized abroad, but in terms that are both complacent and unperceptive. The neo-fascists are pale and unconvincing sentimentalists, reclaiming a lost Roman glory and celebrating an absurd Mussolinian imperialism. But they give evidence that a certain despair of conventional democracy exists in Italy. They recall the political circumstances from which all of the European totalitarian movements emerged during the period between 1914 and 1932.

Fascism was a reaction against the rationalism, utilitarianism, political liberalism and hedonist individualism of the 19th century. It was a revolt against the intellectual and political traditions of the Enlightenment and French Revolution, dominating liberal Europe until the first world war and still the values of our society today.

Today we call hedonism by the name of consumerism, and we justify a ruthless individualism in terms of civil rights and individual entitlement. We say the short-term injustices will all work out to long-term benefit.

However, people in power said that during the years leading up to the world war.

Others declared that liberal capitalism was exploitative and democratic politics inherently corrupt. They argued that people could find their true voice in mass movements that affirmed national emotional unity and expressed the human need for solidarity and collective and national identity.

That is what is going on again today in the former Yugoslavia. It is evident in the nationalist movements in the former Soviet Union. This rejection of democratic and utilitarian politics, individualism and hedonism was fundamental to the political philosophy of the Red Brigades in both Italy and West Germany during the 1970s and early 1980s.

Democratic political systems are a recent affair, in historical terms. They had a brief existence in Greece and Rome, afterward re-emerging in the 18th century, fewer than 200 years ago. They came under tremendous and near-fatal attack from both fascism and communism during the lifetimes of people reading these words.

Who says they are now permanently installed? There is a real fatuity in the complacent argument currently made by both liberal Clinton administration officials and right-wing editorial writers, that democracy and market economics are wonderfully installed in the West and all but inevitably expanding everywhere else.

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