[iDC] papi and the patriarchal state

Adam Arvidsson adam.arvidsson at unimi.it
Thu Oct 1 09:12:50 UTC 2009

A samizdat that has been circulating for a while among Italian intellectuals, it ended up on my desk...


In recent months the global media spotlight has focused on the private life of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.  Parties in his Sardinian villa where foreign heads of state rub shoulders with call girls in costumes; choreographed performance of young show girls- arranged in series of blondes and brunettes; suspected illicit liaisons with minors, evidence of direct routes from the presidential bedroom (and the Great Bed, a personal gift from Valdimir Putin) to political office (as in the case of the Minister of Equal Opportunity,  Mara Carfagna an ex show girl who is said to owe her office to excellence in foeda labiorum ministeria- as Karl Marx wrote of Lady Orkney), and above all girls, girls, girls. Of course Silvio Berlusconi is not the first politician to use his power and influence to satisfy his sexual appetites. (As all powerful men, Vittorio Sgarbi, Berlusconi's long time intellectual side-kick said, he has a powerful sexual appetite which must be satisfied lest he looses his mind.) Nor are the parties in the Sardinian Villa a novelty, they have been going on since the 1980s when Mediaset, then Fininvest, acquired a virtual monopoly on private television and thus became a powerful magnet for young girls willing to do a session on the producer's couch in exchange for a chance to be on TV.  After all politics and sex and in particular television and sex have gone together for a long time. What is spectacular is rather the fit between the sexual antics of the prime minister and the general state of the nation; how Papì's sexual perversion (and we mean that in a value-neutral, clinical sense) expresses so well the perversion that lies at the core of the entire Italian system; this coincidence is why, perhaps, in the course of a couple of weeks, Silivio Berlusconi became 'papì' with the all of those italians who did not vote for him.

At a first glance, papì would be the father of the nation. And Berlusconi quite desperately tries to cultivate his paternal image, mainly by disposing Rolex watches and other pricey gifts left, right and centre. He likes to think of himself as a kind of Italian Ataturk, rather than Mussolini-who, at least initially, took little interest in national fatherhood. And papì-the-father would fit well with the essentially patriarchal nature of Italian state and society, where women are under-represented, in work-life as well as in politics, where hierarchical personal relations is what really counts and where the very traditional role of pater familias, remains a persistent reality: a social fabric still dominated by what anthropologist Edward Banfield once called 'amoral familism'.  But as a national father-figure, papì is one sick daddy! He hardly shows the kind of moral posture and paternal benevolence that traditionally comes with such positions. Instead his main conception of national fatherhood seems to be to exercise his ius primae noctis, and he and his aids constantly trawl the downwardly mobile middle classes for daughters who are willing to share his bed. Like a latter day feudal lord he sees the nation mainly as the natural humus out of which beautiful girls grow, and as he has publically pronounced on more than one occasion: 'there are so many of them in Italy'.

Indeed 'papì' is not the standard term for 'dad' in Italy, although it is used. The term rather brings to mind the spoiled rich girl (generally from the area around Milan) with her rich industrialist father who saves her from her own mischief by means of his mere financial strength. Even though the notion of papì who saves daddy's girl from herself has seen a revival since the 1980s- to a large extent, incidentally, through the light comedies broadcast on Berlusconi's private television networks, it has a long tradition in italian popular culture. It goes back at least to the 1950s, where the figure of the 'commendatore' or 'commenda' figured frequently in cinema. Il commenda was a self-made man, immensely rich but generally without an education (but who insisted on being titled 'doctor') and who surrounded himself with one or several female secretaries/protegées, with whom he entertained a fatherly relationship. Sounds a lot like Berlusconi? Well he does have an actual university degree (although not from the Sorbonne as he claims to have whispered to Zarkozy) but otherwise, yes, he even has similar title (cavaliere del lavoro). 

Both papì and his predecessor, il commenda , enjoyed imagined sexual relations to their daughters. Yes papi takes care of his little girl', but afterwards he wants pay-back. Apparently the term papì was first used in Berlusconì's entourage by a demi-monde form Brazil, where the term has explicitly sexual connotations. In that context Papí is a term that a prostitute would use with an ageing client in order to try to ignite the fire in his loins by appealing to the idea of an incestuous relationship. The term 'papì' is part of the skilled prostitutes repetoire in producing a sexual experience, an erotic spectacle. Seen this way, Papì's sexuality is essentially spectacular, that is it is a pure act of consumption without any productive effects or results.  In other words,  Papí's sex has no real object. Papí, like onan, spills his seed, having no better use for it, while thinking about how it might have been if all these girls were his daughters. And this goes for his political power as well. The real perversity of papì; of his sex as well as of his power is that it is devoid of any real idea, object or direction. (Apart from the dirty old man's dream of an endless consumption of sexy twenty-somethings.) It it is precisely this waste that expresses the essence of Papì's perversion, sexual and otherwise. After all Silvio Berlusconi enjoys almost absolute power in Italy. He commands the support of all of the important forces, organized crime, the church, the middle class, what is left of industry- in short the whole patriarchal state, yet what does he chose to do with his power? Undertake the kinds of necessary structural reforms that will allow Italy to avoid the fate of Argentina? Implement investments in sustainable energy systems that would create employment, boost research and development and fit right into the hand of what is left of Italy's industrial districts? Make the trains run on time (or at least stop exploding)? No he organizes parties with girls. Like the rest of the patriarchal state papì's politics is largely spectacular, and, incidentally, disproportionally focused on the spectacle of women´s bodies, abortion, the sexual threat of immigrants. His politics, like his sex has no real object, it is mere spectacle.

This is the real tragedy of Papì, and the patriarchal state that he represents so well. He has no ideas any more. He has reached the apex of his power and he does not even have a conception of the future.  And it is precisely in this lack of ideas, in this lack of a future, that Papì expres ses the essence of contemporary Italy. 

Where did the future go? Was it ever there? How do we explain the decline of this country, a country that embarked on a hopeful, even 'miraculous' modernization process in the post-War years and just stalled sometime in the 1990s. Part of the explanation rests with the essentially patriarchal nature of the Italian state, with the very part of Italy that papì represents. Patriarchy can mean two slightly different things. There is the feminist understanding that focuses on the institutionalized superiority of men over women. Then there is the more traditional sociological sense that instead takes patriarchy to mean a system where power works through informal but hierarchical networks of interpersonal relations and mutual obligations that are commanded by a centralized 'father figure' and, essentially run like a household. (Of course the two aspects coincide empirically: in patriarchal power networks, women are subordinated and objectified, and often exchanged as tokens of alliances between families and clans). The most well-known popular cultural example of Italian patriarchal power structure (in the second, sociological sense of the term) is of course the mafia, which we imagine as run by the sentimental patriarchy of Marlon Brando´s Godfather. But such patriarchal structures do not only exist in organized crime. They are a persistent political reality throughout most aspects of Italian society. Local politics is run this way, so is office politics, careers, access to services or contract, permissions or government bureaucracy. Everything is easier in Italy if you know somebody. And such patriarchal power-structures are deeply inter-related with the Italian state. Access to careers in the public administration happens through personal relations, university careers are based on service and loyalty to an academic barone; government contracts, building permits, and, not least, entry into the vastly over-privileged political class (or to use the terms Italians themselves have begun to use, caste) happen this way. And it always has. The 19th century liberal Italian state was struggling to erect a counter-power to what was seen as the corrupting influence of local interest. Mussolini initially hoped to free the state from local power networks, but eventually had to give in. The new post-War republic built on a complex power balance where local interest and patron-client networks were institutionalized within a larger raison d'etat built around the catchwords of modernization and anti-communism. (Or to use the Christian Democrat electoral slogan of the early 1960s, 'modernization without surprises'.) In short the Italian state has always been divided between two conceptions of power and politics. First, a patriarchal state where power is managed in local patron-client networks and where the state apparatus is mainly seen as a source of spoils and political booty to be colonized. Second, a republican conception of the state, going back to Manzoni and the heroes of the Risorgimento, where, like in other European countries, the state is seen as, precisely, a res pubblica, an embodiment of the common cause, that should prevail above local interest. The First Republic represented a contested balance between the patriarchal and the republican state. In the end the patriarchal state won. Quite paradoxically, as the existing representatives of the republican state- the leading socialist and Christian democrat political parties -were delegitmized in the Tangentopoli scandal, which made public their involvement in the patriarchal state, in the illicit patron-client networks that actually ran things at the time, this process also undermined any obstacle to the further expansion of the patriarchal state. Indeed, "after the old political class were swept away by the tangentopoli trials in the early 1990s, a new even more ruthless bunch stepped in, and engaged in a almost post-soviet like plunder of the state. This gave rise to a new generation of palazzinari, scalatori and other audacious speculators that were able to accumulate huge fortunes through their personal alliances and networks. At the same time republican concerns, like investments in infrastructure, research and education were ignored. This led to a constant relative decline in the productivity of Italian labour, forcing Italy to compete with low-wage countries like Turkey or Romania. The introduction of the Euro made things worse for labor by blocking for always to possibility to devalue the lira (the key to social peace throughout the 1970s) and by creating a huge real inflation where the cost of living virtually doubled (privileging capital that could pass on rising costs to others, over labour that could not). The result was a growing economic weight of the patriarchal state within the economy, in the form of the informal power networks that could take the place of declining and ever less powerful 'official' economic institutions. Papì and his party are the representative of this development. It is true that Berlusconi has a virtual monopoly on television, but Italians are not that stupid. Most people who vote for Berlusconi do so because it is in their interest, either directly: a local friend is connected to a larger client-patron network represented by a political fraction aligned with Berlusconi, he, and as a consequence also I would benefit form a Berlusconi- led government. Or indirectly, Berlusconi keeps saying that the judges are criminals and communists who are out to get him personally. To me that sounds like an implicit promise that I could probably go on not paying my taxes or keep using black labour. 

As Max Weber argues, such patriarchal power networks, political or economic, are intrinsically conservative. They are directed towards the preservation of the existing status quo. But it is a conservatism without any ideology or vision, without values: existing power relations should be preserved, not because they express or embody some greater ideal, but because they are there as the only tangible reality. Indeed, the patriarchal state in its pure form - as represented by Berlusconi and his entourage- no longer requires any kind of ideological legitimation. It simply is there, as the natural order of things. As a consequence, Italy under Berlusconi has been stripped of its future, materially as well as ideologically. Not only are there no investments in the sectors necessary to build a future (education, research, infrastructure, telecommunications), but there are no investments in maintaining the ideological possibility of a future different from the present one. Primary and secondary schooling along with public television and independent media are prime targets of budget cuts. A constant appeal to insecurity and risk- particularly in relation to immigrants- is supporting a massive policing of public space and repression of alternative forms of sociality. This is not only because Berlusconi is interested in eliminating competition to his own media empire, but also because he and his entourage simply do not see the need for anything different from what is there now. Why would children need to learn about history, why would adolescents need to reflect on the world that they live in; why would young women need to hear about feminism? It is far better if they learn to simply accept their position in the existing order of things. Conversely, why would Italy need to invest in research and development or in alternative energy- there are no immediate money to be made in that. Better build nuclear power stations where lots of cement is used and friends of friends can get their commissions. 

This cancellation of the future is visible all across Italian society. It is becoming a key element to the mentalité of Italians in all walks of life. Life is becoming an eternal present; hoping for the benevolence of the boss that will guarantee a job today, a chance to get on TV or simply to get by, precariously, until the end of the month. Such living in the present is no longer just a feature of the lumpenproletariat, where Pier Paolo Pasolini found it in the 1970s. It is becoming a central feature of the middle class life world as well. Once the supporting strata of the republican state, now downwardly mobile, the middle class keeps living on their savings, pretending that all is as it used to be. (In a survey of workers in the Milan fashion industry- the Italian creative class par excellence- 75 per cent claimed to be economically dependent on their families). This is particularly true for the younger generations who, once they've finished university- a protected cocoon where old ideas like meritocracy, advancement, career, a future still prevail- they are thrown into a labour market where a massive oversupply of skilled labour combined with ultra-liberist labour legislation has created a situation where paid employment, much less a career is almost impossible to get by. They try it all, they network, they work hard in order to attract the benevolence of the boss, they keep educating themselves- thus alimenting the booming market for masters, MBA, diploma and other more or less fraudulent educational products that now proliferate in Italy. In the meantime they live on their family's saving and engage in the kind of consumption style that they have been used to as adolescents, preferring not to think about the future, or hoping for that great break-through that will magically transport them from their precarious existence into the world of success, money, or simply a decent existence that keeps being projected as 'normal life' by television and the mass media. Those who have the skills escape abroad. Those who are beautiful send their pictures to Mediaset where a lucky few are selected to pass through the presidential bed to a career as television presenter, reality television star or even a run for a position in local politics. (As Berlusconi said to his 18 year old starlet Noemi, the one who triggered the whole scandal- “What do you want, become a television presenter, or run for the European Parliament ?”)  The lack of an intelligible vision of the future, combined with the material lack of possibilities for gradual advancement or even social mobility, combine to support a presentist mentality where hope in the future is replaced by faith in magic: a faith that proliferates in the massive growth of the cult of Padre Pio and resonates in Berlusconi's constant proclamations that 'all is well', 'there is no crisis' ' we will send all the victims of the Aquil earth quake on cruises in the Mediterranean', and so on. 

In the lack of a future, politics discover women's bodies as its most important object, either as young starlets, the consumption of which seems to have become the absolute object of power, or as arena on which politics can be exercised. It is significant from this point of view, that, despite everything else that had been going on, it was Berusconi's passion for girls that finally got him, just like politics in the fall of 2008 was dominated by the 'caso englaro' and interminable debates as to whether to pull the plug on a poor girl who had lain unconscious since 1992, or not. The government likes to seem like it is doing something by erecting a number of laws that serve to 'protect' women against omnipresent risk (from immigrants, from rapists, and so on), or suggesting incentives for women to withdraw from the labour market in order to fight unemployment (just like the fascist regime did in the wake of the crisis of '29). And women can easily be objectified, Italy has one of Europe's lowest rates of female labour market participation, particularly in the south, and the feminist movement is weak, and essentially silenced. It also has one of Europe's lowest nativity rates. Are all of these things connected? We know that high levels of female labour market participation, high nativity rates, the political strength of feminism and high levels of faith in the future can correlate (look at Sweden...) Italy has none. Is this what is really rotten in the Italian state: that it remains a patriarchal state, ideologically built on the silent bodies of women, while most successful industrial or post-industrial nations have managed to reduce (if not eradicate) the weight of patriarchy in their political and social systems? 

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