Fascism is not a likely future for Italy. That is worth saying, because it is being forecast. Many assume that the financial crisis plus Silvio Berlusconi equals a return to fascism. It did, after all, start there.
But that is an unlikely outcome now. Italy in the early 1920s, when Benito Mussolini rose to power, was reeling from a brutally Pyrrhic victory over the Austrians in 1918, the degradation of the political class and a rising threat from leftwing totalitarianism. Mr Berlusconi is clearly no Mussolini: he has squads of starlets, not of Blackshirts.
The real dangers lie elsewhere. Over the 15 years of his political career – always as prime minister, or as leader of the opposition – he has had a largely untrammelled opportunity to shift the national mood rightwards. This he has done not by crude propaganda but by a steady concentration on glitz, glitter and girls and a hyperbolic style of media-geared rhetoric that sees all opposition as communist and himself as a victim.
Now, as hard questions are posed on his relationship with a teenage would-be starlet – first raised by his wife – he has turned on the most obstinate questioner, the left-of-centre daily La Repubblica, issued a veiled threat through an associate and sought to render the questions invalid because politically tainted.
He has shown equal belligerence towards magistrates who judged he had bribed the British lawyer David Mills (to avoid corruption charges) – calling them “leftwing activists” – even though parliament has made him immune from prosecution.
Still dissatisfied even with such a useful parliament, he has called it “useless” and said it should be drastically reduced to 100 members, while his powers increase. He has sought to rouse the masses in his favour, by encouraging a “popular initiative” to collect the required 500,000 signatures for the measure.
But the danger of Berlusconi is of a different order to that of Mussolini. It is that of media sapping the serious content of politics, and replacing it with entertainment. It is of a ruthless demonisation of enemies and refusal to grant an independent basis to competing powers. It is to place a fortune at the service of the creation of a massive image, composed of assertions of endless success and popular support.
That he is so dominant is partly the fault of a faltering left; of weak and sometimes politicised institutions; of journalism which has too often accepted a subaltern status. Most of all it is the fault of a very wealthy, very powerful and increasingly ruthless man. No fascist, but a danger, in the first place to Italy, and a malign example to all.