The first thing you need to know is that the sentence is final: Silvio Berlusconi is guilty of tax evasion and has been sentenced to four years imprisonment with no further chance of appeal. He is also to be banned from holding public office for a period of time yet to be established.
Finally, we have a guilty sentence. Something to which half the nation can point. It is now a matter of forensic truth that Berlusconi created a slush fund of over 400 million euros by funnelling, through a series of off-shore, ad hoc companies, the purchase of the broadcasting rights for a number of American films and television shows over several years. It is not the only crime he’s been accused of, nor the most serious. But the race is over: he has been caught up with, at last, in spite of the myriad laws he passed when in he was in government to stretch the length of the race course and buy himself more time.
His right-hand man was found guilty of corruption, once, and sentenced to five years imprisonment. The corruption was carried out on Berlusconi’s behalf. But he was Prime Minister then, and could not be tried. By the time he could, the statute of limitations kicked in: yet another textbook instance of bourgeois justice, where the servant pays while the master walks free. But no more. Not this time. Yet whatever satisfaction you might feel today, while you wait for other, juicier proceedings to reach their sentencing stages, will be spoiled by the second thing you need to know: that at the time of the sentence, Berlusconi was not only in government – as filmmaker Nanni Moretti had imagined when he shot the story of these final days for his film The Caiman – but in government with the Left.
This is the final indignity of the Berlusconi story: that the forces that he ostensibly entered into politics to vanquish, those former Communists that he has always insisted (up to and including the speech he gave a few hours ago) on calling Communists, and who in his mythology have always ruled Italy in spite of never being in government by controlling powers such as the judiciary – that these forces, I say, that for twenty years have lived in his shadow, always trying, always ultimately failing not just to defeat him politically (for they could never manage that – not decisively enough) but to have him disqualified from holding office, as in most other nations of laws he would long have been, should now, on the day of reckoning, have the most to lose from his downfall, for it threatens nothing but the continuity of their power.
It’s poetic justice. In 1993, when the centre-right Christian Democratic bloc crumbled amidst corruption scandals and an economic crisis, the erstwhile Communist Party supported a government of national unity led by banker Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, only to lose the elections the next year to a newcomer, Silvio Berlusconi. He was their creature, their monster, born of a bizarre determination to hold our moribund political institutions together, along with the capitalist state. Thanks to that brief Left/Right alliance, Berlusconi was able to portray the neonate Democratic Party of the Left as the ruling power, and blame them for the state of our economy and the paralysis of our politics. Then in 2011, when the extraordinary, improbable political edifice that Berlusconi had erected and held together for so long finally crumbled, they did it again, supporting an even more technocratic government (this time with no politically elected ministers), led by another banker, Mario Monti, instead of holding the elections amidst the rubble, as the only remaining force standing. And so this year they lost, again, but it was a worse kind of defeat, in that they came first, so theirs was the responsibility to form the government that would seal the end of the continuous historical project of a ruling political Left in Italy.
I wrote in March that Berlusconi was dead, and it was true. This is the last thing you need to know: that nothing happened yesterday. Berlusconi will not go to prison. The government that he’s supporting, and that a man of the Left leads, will continue to oversee the nation’s terminal political and economic decline, calmly, grimly. There can be no sense of triumph, and why would there be? It’s no victory when a man is found guilty of tax fraud. It throws no light on twenty years of our history. It brings no change.