Maurizio Viroli is a distinguished Italian liberal political philosopher and historian of thought who, these days, lives in a sort of exile, sharing appointments between Princeton University and the Universita della Svizzera Italiana in Lugano, Switzerland. He is no friend of Silvio Berlusconi and his regime, and is deeply troubled by the level of public support that the world's second most notorious media entrepreneur has won for himself as prime minister of Italy. This short book is Viroli's diagnosis of what is wrong with Italy and with Italians.
The argument is quickly established in a foreword and a preface: "Italy is a free country, in the sense that there is liberty, but it is the liberty of servants, not the liberty of citizens." Those who want to see Berlusconi as a revived Fascist, a sultan moved to the West or a populist transported across the Atlantic to Europe are mistaken, Viroli contends. What the Italian prime minister has forged in his "veiled tyranny" (a term Viroli borrows from a 14th-century jurist, Bartolo da Sassoferrato) is a modern "court society", and one that is more corrupting and menacing than its predecessors.
"Unlike early-modern and modern princely and imperial courts that affected some hundreds and thousands of individuals," he states, "Berlusconi's court system influences practically the whole country through the power of the media." The result is an "anthropological transformation on a large scale", whereby Italians become unfree in their very marrows and, almost without knowing, renounce the duties of citizenship that are the key to genuine individual freedom.
In his successive chapters, Viroli develops these points, although without adding much to his initial statements. In the manner of his trade as an intellectual, he uses a wide range of references - Cicero, Tacitus, Machiavelli, Giacomo Leopardi and the rest - often with long quotation to advance his case with passion. The setting is almost always Italian, although Viroli does warn in passing that Berlusconi's "methods and language could find imitators in other countries".
As a polemic, the book works well enough; within its own strictly idealist borders, it makes many telling points. Yet it is hard to read it as the last word on contemporary Italy, particularly now, when the end of Berlusconi's political career looks nearer than it did a year ago when Viroli wrote. Moreover, perhaps as a result of the book's brevity, Viroli's major themes are often arguable. Are "anthropological revolutions" (a term taken from a dubious interpretative line about Mussolini's dictatorship) really so easy to impose? Viroli seems perplexed by Italian traditions and the part that they have played in the Berlusconi story. So, he maintains patriotically, "good citizens" predominated in the Risorgimento; national unification, he says, "took place because we had men and women endowed with great inner strength, morally free, and therefore invincible and capable of arousing great political energies". Worthies, he claims, were equally to the fore in the Resistance, although the examples he cites are such liberals as Carlo and Nello Rosselli, Ferruccio Parri and Benedetto Croce and not communists such as Antonio Gramsci or Palmiro Togliatti.
In sum, we learn, there were virtuous individuals in the national past, just as Viroli, we suppose, is virtuous today. The people, by contrast, are imponderable or corrupted: "the triumph of television has engendered hordes of illiterates who are incapable of understanding the written word, unable to grasp a concept or develop a line of reasoning". Viroli, a critic might conclude, is a liberal of some rigour but, in his marrow, an elitist far from any potential popular base.
The Liberty of Servants: Berlusconi's Italy
By Maurizio Viroli, translated by Antony Shugaar. Princeton University Press. 200pp, £19.95. ISBN 9780691151823. Published October 2011