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08 November, 2011

Silvio Berlusconi

This is obviously going to be off-topic with the rest of the blog... If you landed here for the first time, this is a rendering related blog and this article is an exception to the rule.

As the Europe's and Italy's financial crisis deepens, news crossed the wire today that prime minister Berlusconi vowed to resign. I see many people asking around the world how it was possible that this happens only now, how did Berlusconi manage to be in power for seventeen years even after countless scandals and accusations. While in general I think it's not surprising, and the eight years of Bush administration could be served as an example, I'd like to try to explain what's peculiar about Italy's situation (of course, in my point of view). 
Also, of course, I will make generalizations in the following. In no way I want to express that this is applies to everyone and everything, that should be pretty clear.

One way or another, we keep going on. This is by far what I believe to be the deepest of our problems. We don't care much about our society, we avert our eyes and keep going on, everyone trying to find a hole in which to live their lives. 
We are masters in bending (if there is a profit to be made) or ignoring laws. Even our image outside the country is that of creative, chaotic individuals (at best), known for being obsessed about family and our own small individualities. 
We are not socialists not liberals, we are just driven towards what can get us a gain tomorrow morning. Mind you, to a degree this happens everywhere, but it's not a defining quality of a population quite as it happens in Italy, where is deeply buried everywhere, from how people live their lives to how companies make business.
Even our economy, made mostly of small or family owned companies, with our comparatively large private savings and our huge public debt, is a testimony of this mentality.
I can't tell why this is the case, we are a young republic and unification was not a smooth deal, but we don't believe in society. Berlusconi is the embodiment of all this, and I don't know how much he was just "born this way" or how much he knowingly acts to please, to be popular, but he is certainly great in leveraging such sentiments. His political message, either explicitly or implicitly has always been "vote for me and I'll let you live your lives without control", "you don't need to be responsible for your actions", "I was successful, don't ask me how, you want to be like me, I won't ask you how"...
Berlusconi was never a left or right wing politician, he is obsessed about communism and certainly sees Italy's leftists as pure evil, but his actions are not the ones of a liberal. Among other things, he's remembered for saying openly at an entrepreneurs' convention  that companies without off-shore operations were not led smartly, and that evading taxes (one of Italy's chief problems) was morally sound in a country like ours (in which taxes are too high). He didn't them proceed to lower the taxes and impose strict controls to have everyone paying the right amount, or to incentive competition and freedom of enterprise. 
In the first months of his government he proceeded in the opposite direction, abrogating liberalization laws that were passed by the previous government, loosening controls over financial transactions and not reducing a single tax. Not touching established interests, not reducing bureaucracy, but just allowing people to just screw each other more freely.

Berlusconi is probably not the worst individual in Italy's history. Corruption and misgovernment were always there and can be even tracked to the same underlying sentiment. The first republic created a massive debt because political parties were quite literally buying votes by flushing enormous amounts of public money into all kinds of public ventures, creating hundreds of thousands of "fake" jobs, public employers who were pretty much useless. But it came down onto his knees when it was found that politicians also used public money to fund their own parties. There was corruption, but there is was still a sense of shame. 
Berlusconi took inspiration from this and pushed it one step further, he was proud of his tricks, every trial he escaped by passing laws in his own favor, every lie and joke he said made him look "smarter", more successful. It's not that the vast majority of Italians do not know he was a thief, that's also why many of his voters were even shy of saying so, especially if singled out. 
It's that deep down, they knew, but they admired his skill, they wanted to live the same dream, to take the easy way and just not have to care. That's also why for years even after all the sex scandals he managed to keep a mostly Catholic country under control. That's why he still now has a huge following...

Media and Opposition
These two aspects were also important and I'm sure there is a lot more to be said, but I think they don't contribute to explain the Berlusconi phenomenon quite as understanding how much deeply he connects with some Italian sentiments.
Berlusconi owns most of Italy's media and he is renown to be a great communicator. He lies, but his lies are so constant and so fiercely defended by so many, that they slowly become truths. Words slowly lose their meaning and the public becomes divided into factions who do not reason but just mindlessly cheer for one or the other party.
Again, that's partially a "quality" of Italians, being more emotional than rational, being hot headed and profoundly divided. But he managed to exploit that incredibly well.
His power does not extend over only media of course, most if not everyone in his party is strongly tied to him, he choose men with little political past and respectability of their own, people who depended on him to be elected. Berlusconi IS his party, and everyone sings the song he sings. And he made pretty clear that was the way from the start, his party always had direct references to him in the logo, in the hymns, everywhere. Everyone laughs at his jokes. Everyone follows the same rules, tells the sames words, uses the same dialectic tricks. I'm not sure if it's imitation or doctrine but it's powerful.
On the other hand the opposition is fragmented and largely seen as made of intellectuals  and professional politicians who do not have any connection with the people. (which to a degree can be even very true). They were always bad communicators so it was easy for Berlusconi to play them, routinely saying that there was no better alternative than him, that the left-wing was made of communists that had no real plan other than raising the taxes (even if financial pressure increases or decreases have not really been strongly linked to any particular government). Furthermore they showed no cohesion, being unable to claim even the huge victories they sometimes achieved (Italy was able to enter the Euro as one of the founding parters due to the work of a left-wing government for example) and not being able to look past their divisions.


Viktor said...

This is yet another obvious and clear example that politics is obsolete. Ideally the government is supposed to manage society and provide for their needs. How can this happen when it is run by people who do not know how to solve problems? They are not trained in critical thought and constructive criticism. They don't understand that competition is vastly inferior to cooperation. A group of parties waiting for their turn to try their own way of management is extremely inefficient. Why aren't they working together? After all everyone wants the same thing: to live well and to fulfill their desires.

Also as long as freedom is directly proportional to purchasing power there can be no justice and no solution to problems for everyone, only the richest will get what they want. Laws are not the answer obviously. A law is a piece of paper, it does not prevent the rich individual from paying off the judge and gaining whatever he/she wants. As long as the management system is so poorly designed there will be severe abuse.

The whole law system is built around the twisting of language. If a new law does not pass you can rearrange the words and choose slightly different words that mean sort of the same thing. This makes a lot of room for confusion and passing of laws that can be extremely detrimental to society as a whole, but benefits the interest of the small group of people who presented the law.

For example the Stop Online Piracy Act. As far as I know piracy is much less of a big deal than most companies will admit. Valve openly said that they think piracy is not about cheating payment, it is about convenience. Many people, including myself, play pirated games because they are easier to use. Then if they like the game they buy it. Some industries may be really hurt by piracy but that act has implications that are way too broad.

The fact that Berlusconi was in office for 17 years and that many people liked him is also evidence that the power elite have very real influence over the values of people. If, like you say, italians like him and aspire to be tricksters and skillful liars as him... what does that indicate? He seems like a symbol of success and superiority even though this is false.

The government as it is today is obsolete and a new form of it must be developed and put into use. A government that uses cooperation instead of competition. A government that knows where the root of the current problems of society is and how to remove it.
The problems of society do not spawn randomly they have a common cause and this cause must be removed. If it is not removed, the same problems will appear again and again.

Viktor said...

On the piracy topic :)

DEADC0DE said...

About piracy I don't totally agree with Valve. I agree that convenience is a big factor, and I even thing that not _all_ piracy is "bad". But it is damaging, and not everyone can build a system like Steam and have a way of printing money regardless of the games they make. And systems with too high piracy tend to die, i.e. PC gaming. Also there's no real justification for it. Yes games are crazily expensive. Don't buy them yet, buy all indies, that will teach the industry a lesson and they will even be forced into making better games, and indies will thrive. Pirating does not solve anything, and you don't really _need_ that game, or cd, or movie. We are spoiled by consumerism.

About government and democracy: I see the problems, but it still looks to be the best choice until someone else shows me and proves me that something better exists.

Viktor said...

@DEADC0DE I agree that pirating does not solve anything if people who can afford a game just don't buy it. This is where lost sales come from. I think there are three kinds of consumers:

1. Those that pirate games but after feeling that they like the games they buy them.

2. Those that want to play games but can't actually afford them and therefore use pirated copies. For example children.

3. Those that pirate games and don't buy them even if they like them.

So if these are indeed the three
kinds of consumers, companies are losing money only from the third kind. This still doesn't mean anything because I don't know the percentage of each kind but it doesn't "look" so bad to me with this limited information.

There actually is a, sort of, new idea for a government and it sounds much better than anything tried before. The guy who came up with it has been studying the problems of society his whole life, he's almost 100 years old now. However, he has no proof that his idea will work globally. There are two reasons that no one has tried to prove it yet.

The first reason is that extremely few people know about it, and of those few who do, very few have actual technical competence. The media doesn't want to broadcast it to people.

The second reason is that it has nothing to do with the conventional notion of government. Every government and political establishment will most likely be against it because it turns the current structure of government and society inside out.

By inside out I mean a society and government that operates in cooperation instead of competition. One that uses verifiable information to make decisions instead of opinions and the ability for everyone to contribute and be involved in decision making process without bureaucracy, elitism(wealth for example) and private interest. Also every process will be fully transparent, that is, information about it will be available for everyone to see.

Such a system can only be achieved with a high level of automation and by using the principles of cybernetics (this is just one field of science that has to be used).

The project that aims to achieve this is called The Venus Project (TVP).

In short its purpose is to ensure the wellbeing of ALL people by the application of science and technology to social problems.

Rim said...

@Viktor: "In short its purpose is to ensure the wellbeing of ALL people by the application of science and technology to social problems."

Scientific or not, rules cannot replace empathy. That's what got us into our current mess in the first place.

@DEADC0DE: A native greek was telling me a very similar story as your original post, except of course applying to Greece. It's kinda weird that the cradles of our civilizations seem to have gotten stuck on selfish opportunism. On the other hand, maybe we north-Europeans are just being less frank about it :)

Viktor said...

@Rim I did not mean that science and technology will impose rules that will replace empathy. Science provides the best known way to identify a problem and search for a workable solution. Applying science and technology to social problems does not mean "impose arbitrary rules" on people. It means:

1. Identify the problem and its root cause.

2. Develop a method or technology that will eradicate the root of the problem therefore eliminating the problem itself.

The idea is that people exhibit behavior that reflects their culture (values) and their physical environment.

On one hand if the culture teaches people to compete with each other instead of to cooperate, there will be rivalry and fighting (in every sense of the word that you can think of - beat up, kill, screw over money or position of advantage).

On the other if there is not enough water or food for everyone in a given culture, some people will have access to it, some won't. There will always be fighting in one way or another for desirable resources when they are scarce.

Today, competitive attitude, poor education, hatred, bigotry, elitism and racism, to name a few, are symptoms of a deeper problem. These types of behavior reflect a physical environment that is based on scarcity (never enough money).

If people don't have money to cover their living expenses and live in constant fear that they can lose their jobs they will not have empathy. When you watch TV and the news you always get a constant feeling that something is terribly wrong and you learn to expect the worst. This is the environment having a detrimental impact on people. When you change the environment the behavior of people changes.

The following must be achieved in order to solve the problems we have today, mainly poverty, hunger, no time for family, life insecurity, workplace stress, war, debt.

1. Food and water must be free (as in free beer) for everyone and it must be safe and clean.

2. Homes must be free for everyone.

3. Education must be free of charge for everyone. The education system must be radically redesigned. No more grades, grades instill competition among students, there are other ways to motivate children and grown people to learn.

4. Transportation must be free for everyone.

These things can only be achieved through science and technology, not through politics, not through banking or law making. Let science do what it does best, giving answers to questions and solutions to problems.

Rim said...

@Viktor: I'm afraid we'll have to agree to disagree. I don't want to turn this comment section into my political/sociological soapbox.

I can't resist to point out that, even though I consider myself rather pro-science, it's not hard to imagine how such a system with the best of intentions could ultimately fail quite horribly. I'll refer to writers like Orwell and Huxley to make this point more eloquently :)

Viktor said...

Actually we don't disagree. I don't know if it will work or not, it has never been tried. But it is a great direction and I think it is worth considering in depth. Science fiction writers are a great source of ideas and also provide good worst cases that need to be considered, however their work does not mean we can't or shouldn't try. Just approach it like any scientific problem, if it works we go forward, if doesn't we change it, if it works partially we take only the parts that work and move forward.

Viktor said...

@Rim If you are interested I kindly ask you to read the book The Best That Money Can't buy. It's a short book, 170 pages. It concisely and clearly explains the purpose and direction of The Venus Project, how it differs from the fictitious worlds of Huxley or Orwell and most importantly, it provides an approach of how to actually start implementing the things that are being envisioned.

The book is available for free online, you can google it very easily. You can also buy it if you decide that the cause is worth supporting but this is not necessary.

Also if you'd like to talk about this you can contact me via twitter
@ViktorSkarlatov. I'd be very interested in hearing your criticism on The Venus Project.

Everything said so far is also targeted at this blog's author :). I am interested in talking to people with hardcore technical skills about TVP.

DEADC0DE said...

Government: I do fairly strongly believe that competition, or better, selfishness, is the only thing that moves us (and other species), and that all rules and organizations do emerge from that (a rule is accepted only if the individual gain surpasses the losses, on average, i.e. I accept not to kill because I don't want to be killed). You could argue that cooperation is "emergent" from that process and probably is, but I doubt humanity have the foresight to take things to the limit, in particular, I think we are fairly unable to reason in timespans that are far beyond our individual lives. It's natural and I don't think U can beat nature.

Piracy: I agree that you lose only from the third kind, but it's easy to get 1 and 2 into 3 as once you pirate, the pirated game becomes much more convenient and you don't even try... Moreover, there is NO REASON AT ALL for 2 to exist, if you can't afford a game, don't buy it, it's just a game, a kid DOES NOT NEED to have ALL the most recent games! Category 1 also does not need to exist, all games come with demos, there are plenty of reviews, it's just a bad excuse. The only time I see piracy as good is for professional applications that can't be afforded by individuals that are learning them, but the market need to encourage such professionals. But nowadays that's also mostly not relevant because everyone realized that's the case and all the big software comes with educational licenses...

Viktor said...

@DEADC0DE I agree that competition has been a driving force for people so far. However this aligns with the theory that people, like all other living species exhibit behavior that reflects their environment. When there is scarcity of basic necessities of life in the environment, competition emerges naturally. People have always lived in scarcity. When there is abundance there is no competition. An obvious example is air. There is more than enough air for everyone and you never see people competing for air. You don't get an air bill at the end of the month. The same is true for sun radiation. You don't pay for heating during the summer in many countries simply because it is warm enough for everyone. It is easy to imagine that the same would be true for food, water, education, houses and recreation.

The aim is to align human beings more with nature, not to separate them from it or to somehow defeat nature, this is impossible. This is what the current system is trying to do. It has no regard for nature because people are arrogant and ignorant, they think destroying the environment is not a concern for them because they see no immediate negative feedback in their daily lives. They don't realize however that nature is actually the worst dictatorship that can ever exist. It has rules than can not be broken. If you don't eat you die, if you don't breathe you die. There are no options if you want to live you have to comply with the rules, you can not appeal to nature any other way. Even if, through technology, people transcend their current limitations, they are still slaves of nature. If you are a robot you fail to function if your energy cells are depleted. Different existence same problems.

The natural state of a human being depends on his/her physical and mental health which in turn depend on the environment. The environment includes physical requirements like food, water, air, warmth and also social requirements that can only be satisfied by the surrounding community. If people are to achieve a higher standard of living they need to restructure the current system along these lines.

I am not saying that you don't understand these things, I am saying that most people, including those in charge do no operate according to these principles. The whole world operates according to the principles of business and I am afraid that if we don't change what we are doing, we will suffer the consequences. Beijing is already experiencing the effects of this ignorance and arrogance first hand. Google the air pollution levels and what their government has to say about it :)