I was indeed a little mad. . . . True wisdom does not come from reason but from a far-seeing, visionary folly, which I believe guided me throughout this political adventure.
—Silvio Berlusconi, foreword to Erasmus, In Praise of Folly
On September 24, 1974, an attractive young secretary from Edilnord Constructions announced the birth of the cable television channel Telemilano2 (Gambino 2001, 105). Four years after broadcasting to the “satellite city” that Berlusconi had built on the outskirts of Milan, this channel settled into the citywide airwaves under the name Telemilano58. By 1979 Silvio Berlusconi had accumulated enough capital to invest more money into the mass media than any other entrepreneur, exploring the still uncharted territory of post-state-monopoly television. Two-and-a-half-billion Italian lire was an incredibly high sum of money for an investment with unpredictable capitalization in the newly liberalized broadcasting market. However, the rights to three hundred TV-premiere movies bought from bankrupt Titanus Productions could be easily sold to the many local broadcasters blooming throughout the country (Gambino 2001, 105).1 What is more, it was possible to bypass legal restrictions on the local broadcasting radius by intervening in the perception of space itself.
Berlusconi’s approach consisted of simply recording his newly acquired movies on VHS tapes and mailing them to the local channels that had signed up to his network. In exchange for competitive prices to transmit the movies, all these local channels kept identical schedules, offering synchronized programming across the nation and showing advertising from Berlusconi’s other communication venture, Publitalia, already edited into the VHS recordings. It must have been his oft-flaunted passion for philosophy more than his law degree that led Berlusconi to understand space and its geometry differently from his business competitors. In fact, although many still see space as an absolute construct, holding its content while not being altered by it, in a Leibnizian turn, Berlusconi redefined space as emerging from the relations among the entities that constitute it. From now on, his television career would no longer be marked by the Euclidian-style measurements of his construction business. Berlusconi’s new topological inspiration built on the structure of space as space and on the essential structure of figures despite their continuous variation. This means that the soon-to-be richest man in Italy could give up measuring metric space in absolute terms to creatively compose spaces that connect like patchwork—the spaces were amorphous, smooth, and not homogenous (Plotnitsky 2003, 99–102). They were plotted through the movements of the parcels with his films and ads.
Within a few years, Berlusconi’s incipient broadcasting project had smoothed out the striated space of local television into a manifold of national broadcasting—a veritable assemblage.2 Berlusconi’s nationwide television was a collection of heterogeneous channels not formally attached to each other; its manifold character could only be defined differentially, in terms of conditions of frequency and accumulation of its parts (Plotnitsky 2003, 102). So, until Berlusconi had enough power to influence communication legislation, every local channel was only a fragment of the national space that was brought together through the tape delivery distribution method, competitive advertising, synchronization, and standardization—this process is called syndication. Syndication was the hack that placed Berlusconi in the position to beat his competitors and build his national media empire.3 The Italian chaotic and corrupt socioeconomic context made the hack effective. In surprising ways, some of Berlusconi’s assemblage-producing strategies are also the strategies Telestreet develops. Indeed, a syndication of sorts, perhaps a peer-to-peer syndication through the internet, is Teletreet’s trick to nationwide proliferation and increased power.
The consolidation of power into the media tycoon’s Midas hands (and into those of his cronies) is ultimately the story of the concretization of a new power diagram that gave life to Telestreet and whose shorthand label is Italian neoliberalism. When power becomes diffused (Deleuze 1995), counterpower becomes constituent (Negri 1998), and vice versa: the media- and information-scapes that feed Telestreet, and those that Telestreet rejects, are directly connected to productive communication networks that multiplied in the eighties. The eighties and nineties in Italy were a time of deep-seated transformations and of the fluidification of all forms of social and political control. More than an introduction to and critique of Berlusconi, this chapter outlines the shifty topology of the milieu of individuation of Telestreet and its connective activism from the perspective of the mediascape. Berlusconi has been deemed a key historical agent of change in Italian society. For me, the meaning and value of the story of Berlusconi’s rise to power lie in using his parable to inquire into the relations between power and counterpower: the networking of connective activist nodes within what I call here, for lack of better words, the neoliberal-Berlusconian milieu. The neoliberal-Berlusconian milieu is a powerful and flashy kind of environment of individuation with properties amplified by the communication machine that gained consistency in the eighties and that gave origin to Berlusconi’s entertainment and political assemblages alike. This particular configuration of neoliberalism arises from the swirl of global geopolitical and economic shifts, changes in Italian party politics, the institutional and social reactions to the political climate of dissent in the seventies, the rise of criminal actors as economic stakeholders, as well as developments in technology, the expansion of the entertainment and financial sectors, to mention only a few. Berlusconi gives this milieu its peculiar sheen but it is the intensification of the forces I discuss that constitute it. Berlusconi’s assemblages are more product and less cause of Italian neoliberalism, even though they significantly shaped it in return.
The neoliberal-Berlusconian milieu illustrates perfectly how power cannot be isolated from an environ that includes both economic actors and governments as one and the same (Nitzan and Bichler 2009, 8). As a matter of fact, in Berlusconi, as its façade, it is not even possible to separate the entrepreneur who accumulates capital—the media tycoon who influences public opinion—and the politician who develops policy (Lazzarato 2007, 88). But here I am not talking about personal roles because Berlusconi is a metonymy for the larger milieu where specific subjective, libidinal, social, cultural, and economic flows intersect and are channeled to exercise power. Paolo Virno has described the socioeconomic and subjective turn of the eighties and nineties as counterrevolution (Virno and Hardt 1996, 240): a subtle and pervasive process that radically transformed all forms of life, mentalities, cultural habits, tastes, customs, and social relations that had developed in the Italian social laboratory of autonomia. These changes unfolded while industrial production shrunk significantly, structural unemployment rose, and the economy transitioned into a booming service sector.
Like in other Western countries, electronic technologies became dominant modes of production that exploited the knowledge and communication skills of an increasingly precarious and flexible labor force. Ironically, the autonomist ideals of self-valorization through creativity and the refusal of work were recuperated into the backbone of circuits of cognitive capitalist production (Virno and Hardt 1996; Vercellone 2006). With the triumph of neoliberalism in Italy, it is no longer possible to distinguish political flows from productive and social flows, and this considerably impacts the processes of subjectification of Italians (Lazzarato 2007, 93–94). In all these transformations, communication and information are fundamental driving forces whose signifying and a-signifying processes are reorganized along market logics, be it business, the entertainment world of mainstream media, or institutional politics. Telestreet’s individuation and that of a larger field of social movements and media activists unfolds in this milieu, with its structural, infrastructural, and discursive components. Telestreet is not just an antidote to Berlusconi’s control of the media because Berlusconi is only a symptom of the problem that connective media activism aims to confront: the radical subjective turn and growing social isolation fostered in neoliberal power configurations, where communication is a tool to feed individualistic subjectivities and to accumulate capital at the expense of the vulnerable.
A Milieu behind the Sheen
Berlusconi’s empire grew during dark and depressing times: at the peak of the brutal repression of autonomist activism and while the spread of organized crime seemed uncontrollable. To make things worse, inflation was on the rise and the country’s economy had entered into recession. Contrary to what is commonly thought, dominant capital thrives during periods of inflation because there is a redistribution of capital from small to large firms (Nitzan and Bichler 2009, 370–75).4 This is how Italy’s economy once again found wind in its sails. In the eighties in Europe and North America, industrial production declined or was outsourced while corporations and oligopolies were able to profit from the elimination of antitrust legislation to grow and consolidate. The year 1980 opened with a defeat of the unions by Fiat, which would permanently gain the upper hand over its workers. By then Italian entrepreneurs had started investing in service-based and immaterial economies, contributing to the expansion of the tertiary sector. During this period, capitalization—which I consider an encompassing mode of power instead of an economic category—reveals the real power of accumulation insofar as one sees how creativity and knowledge can be put to work to accumulate power by creating new forms and sites of productivity (Nitzan and Bichler 2009, 217–18).
Berlusconi harnessed the real power to accumulate already as he started building entire suburban neighborhoods and shopping malls in the late sixties, pooling together considerable amounts of investments from mysterious sources and obtaining building permits where no one else could (Gambino 2001; Barbacetto 2004). Clearly, his ability to rearrange the conditions for accumulation through less-than-transparent connections was fundamental to the process. Fininvest, his main investment company, was created in 1979 to coordinate and organize this growing empire, and from this point on, his career was marked by the continuous creation and relocation of sister companies registered under relatives’ or friends’ names (Barbacetto 2004). With a seemingly endless flow of cash, Berlusconi’s activities branched out into finance and insurance, the entertainment business, advertising, publishing, and television. In all these sectors he beat the average accumulation rate by bringing his competitors to their knees through rock-bottom prices and takeovers, becoming more powerful than the rest. Tight relationships of nepotism, patronage, and debt that run along political party lines boosted the complex web of regulations, contracts, and shared worldviews in the background of Berlusconi’s rise to power. In particular, direct and underground links between the heads of many financial institutions and state industry with private entrepreneurs facilitated secure investments, the allocation of tenders and contracts, and the privatization of important sources of profit. Working hand in hand, the new class of politicians and entrepreneurs was responsible for Italy’s entry into the world of global business, the privatization of much of its infrastructure, and the slow demise of an allegedly unaffordable welfare state (Berardi, Jaquemet, and Vitali 2009, 47). These changes enabled more circulation of capital and new investments that consolidated the power of some economic (and political) actors while eliminating many others.5
It is not surprising, then, that even before Berlusconi’s entry into politics, his empire fused politics and business. There is often a strong link between governments and corporations in neoliberalism, despite the common ideological opposition to state influence in the market. The Italian transformation took place by limiting access to resources through laws and norms, by excluding others from the game, and by taking away the power from certain actors—all thanks to deep-reaching ties between entrepreneurs and governing parties. This had qualitative repercussions on the distribution of power, especially in the media and communication industries. Modes of governmentality in both disciplinary and control societies bear on profitability in different ways, depending on the dominant material or immaterial economic structures that characterize them (Foucault 1979; Deleuze 1995). In either diagram, however, any kind of earning will be the outcome of a struggle among dominant capital groups to shape and restructure the direction of social production in order to create the conditions for capitalization. Since the accumulation of power is never absolute and always done in relation to other powers, the concept of the differential becomes useful to explore the development of the Italian mediascape.
Resubjectivation, Made in Italy
By the early 1980s, Berlusconi was able to wage war against the Italian public service broadcaster Radio Italia (RAI)—the only real contender and nationwide broadcaster. The first battleground was the field of advertising, where Publitalia—Fininvest’s advertising wing—offered such low advertising rates for Berlusconi’s TV network that it enabled even small companies to access this market. Previously, television advertising had only been open to businesses with enough capital to meet the high investment costs RAI demanded. With the arrival of Berlusconi, advertising became such a bargain that one would think Publitalia was heading for a financial crash. Instead, because the frequency and accumulation of ads during each show on its channels was unprecedented and the introduction of American movies and series through the VHS tape system stimulated nationwide distribution, Fininvest stole RAI’s audience and revenues. It also changed the relation between audiences and ads, which became ubiquitous.
Paradoxically, it was not until a concern with media democracy was raised at the end of the decade that Berlusconi became officially free to dominate the airwaves with the help of the Mammì Law. This piece of legislation passed by his personal friend Prime Minister Bettino Craxi normalized the consolidation of his media empire, and Fininvest was allowed to keep three national channels. The Mammì Law did not include any antitrust regulations or limitations on advertising. Five months later, Berlusconi was also allowed to launch three pay-per-view TV channels (Barbacetto 2004).6 As a result, the Italian mediascape ended up divided into two poles: RAI, controlled by the government; and the channels owned by Berlusconi’s Fininvest. With Berlusconi’s election to prime minister, both poles fell under his influence.
The coalition between media, business, and politics became instrumental in pacifying discontent and stimulating consumption. Much of Berlusconi’s ability to dominate the market derived from his companies’ capillary expansion in many emergent sectors of the economy, from large supermarkets and shopping malls to financial and marketing services. Berlusconi’s topological approach helped connect different commercial spaces and was boosted by his marketing and communication infrastructure. Most importantly, Berlusconi’s control of the market helped saturate the increasingly mediatized environment with a flow of advertising images and symbols of new lifestyles that spoke to the desires of Italians to unprecedented degrees (Berardi, Jaquemet, and Vitali 2009, 28). These images worked well together with the television programs that mixed spectacular consumption-oriented and sexualized content with depictions of a new class of wealthy Italians.
During the period of passage from industry to business, one of the first systems to go had been the so-called point of contingency (scala mobile), a mechanism that automatically raised wages in relation to inflation. Now, Italians had less money and more time to spend at home. TV became the most popular mass media in Italy. Police repression of activism and drug-related crimes made the streets unsafe for many, who came to prefer sitting comfortably in front of a TV. Fininvest’s Canale 5’s jingle aptly sums up the climate of the times: “Corri a casa in tutta fretta, c’é Canale 5 che ti aspetta” (Hurry, hurry home, channel 5 is waiting for you) (Berardi, Jaquemet, and Vitali 2009, 28). Here, Berlusconi’s cutthroat competitive strategies met the needs of both investors and of audiences looking for entertainment and quickly took over RAI’s role of family sitter. As an alternative to austere and conservative television programs, the new channels offered the excitement of the latest movies and TV series, the sappy romance of soap operas, the cheap thrills of soft porn, the best TV hosts and dancers that had jumped ship, and the promises of winning the countless variety and quiz shows. In a country with the highest TV viewership in Europe (Seisselberg 1996), the superficial and carefree nature of this programming contributed greatly to a climate of cynicism, opportunism, and crass hedonism, exemplified in one of the biggest successes of the time in Italy, the American television series Dallas (Berardi, Jaquement, and Vitali 2009, 28).
The ads and shows provided a template for a collective resubjectification of many who needed to compensate for a rather drab reality. The Italian mediascape, in which even RAI had to rethink its approach to entertainment to compete with Fininvest, established a relationship with its audiences that targeted their desires more than ever. For Maurizio Lazzarato, these developments sustained the production of the consumer as well as the individual of the neoliberal-Berlusconian assemblage because what was interpellated was a “political” rationality—an inclination to make choices and think about life in specific ways rather than simply as passions and emotions (2007, 91). This resubjectification is tied to a transition (never total) between diagrams of power—from discipline to control—from industrial to postindustrial (Foucault 1979; Deleuze 1995). Societies of control are marked by diffuse forms of hyperconnection, soft control, and surveillance in which life answers to the logic of capital.
As processes of subjectivation spill out of disciplinary sites of confinement (the factory, the church, the party, etc.), a subjective turn is shaped by the new environment, discourses, and infrastructure of value creation. This turn revolves around the creation of new desires, sensibilities, and aspirations at the intersection of social and economic production—what autonomist feminists would consider part of capitalist social reproduction (Serra 2015; Thorburn 2016). The professional and social requisites of the new power diagram are creativity, sociability, and communication skills, as well as the ability to adjust to change. As the movement of ’77 is put to work in the creative industries, the new dominant processes of subjectivation become tied to advertising and consumption, which are supported by the introduction into the market of financial loans, installment purchases, and credit cards (Lazzarato, Manning, and Massumi 2009).7 The new symbols of the time are no longer the Mao-Dadaist and the barefoot intellectual but the yuppie and the paninaro, the cynical consumer and logo-oriented youth who hang out in the new restaurant sensation: McDonald’s fast food restaurants.
These processes accompanied the “secularization” of culture from the church and from the religion-like doctrine of the Communist Party on the one hand and, on the other, the rise to power of a new generation of socialist politicians, led by Bettino Craxi (Virno 1996, 241). The politicians’ rhetoric exhibited a Dallas/Reagan-style superficial optimism, hedonism, and individualism as well as an unprecedented openness to lobbying and corruption. Many of their illegal practices—Swiss bank accounts and offshore warehousing of shares, money-laundering, association with the mafia, tax evasion, price inflations, complicity in murder, bribery of politicians and judges, shady mergers, takeovers, and so on—surfaced in 1992–93 during the Tangentopoli (bribeopolis) scandal. When the Mani pulite (clean hands) investigative team brought most politicians, many lawyers, judges, and entrepreneurs like Berlusconi’s brother behind bars, Berlusconi found himself under investigation. With his business on the verge of financial collapse, no one in the parliament who had his back, and the new government pursuing its own punitive measures, urgent action was needed.
In 1994 the Silvio Berlusconi Publishing House launched a new series dedicated to great thinkers (Raboni 1994), starting with the ones who had most inspired its owner’s “apprenticeship and audacity” (Letta 2008). Hot off the press came Thomas Moore’s Utopia, Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, and Desiderius Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly. In his personal foreword to Erasmus, Berlusconi shared how The Praise of Folly had influenced his visionary philosophy of life and work, for which folly is a creative, vital force.
An innovator is at his most original when his inspiration comes from the depth of irrationality. The revolutionary intuition is always perceived . . . as absurd, when it first comes. It is only later that this is recognized and accepted. . . . True wisdom does not lie in rational behavior, necessarily conforming to premises and therefore sterile, but in a farsighted, visionary “madness.” . . . It was those very projects that people were opposed to and I was passionate about, my dear friends, those that came from the heart, not from cold reasoning, that were my biggest successes. (1990, ii)
A few weeks later, it was Erasmus’s visionary folly that helped Berlusconi enter the political stage with a new party: Forza Italia (Go Italy!)—a football cheer. What Berlusconi did not invent but had come to perfect is a space (of manifolds, or assemblages) in which politics and business are sustained and mutually strengthened through strategic communication and marketing. The Italian “communication machine” was running now, well oiled, and Berlusconi may be seen as its mad pilot. Still, as mentioned, this communication machine grew from a combination of alliances, economic shifts, policies, and repression contemporaneous to Berlusconi’s empire, such as the shift to post-Fordism with its technologies, the spread of flexible modes of labor, the financialization of information and expansion of the communication industry, an overall reorganization of labor market and socially necessary labor time, and the crisis of representative democracy (Virno 1996, 241). Ultimately, counterrevolution, Virno claims pithily, involved a transformation of the collective tendencies of the seventies into professional requisites (242). This means that on many levels, the sociocultural transformations resulted from the capture of the flows of desire and creative delirium that had been valorized a decade earlier by autonomia. Counterrevolution put creative delirium to work. Berlusconi’s empire and the communication machine are not the same thing, but the communication machine as a vector of resubjectivation played an important role in making counterrevolution possible.
This is why it is not enough to look at Berlusconi’s twenty-plus years in office as the result of his mediascape monopoly to understand how Italians—whose interests are not represented but actually damaged by this situation—have so enthusiastically bought into Berlusconi’s “visionary folly.” An analysis strictly focused on media consolidation misses the importance of the eighties’ collective resubjectivation that embraced the values of neoliberalism, leaving them (mostly) unchallenged. This limited perspective also leads one to look for alternatives to Berlusconi’s power mostly in practices of counterinformation that are doomed to fail because of the differential power he holds on the mediascape. If I reiterate that the communication machine is a major engine of the neoliberal-Berlusconian milieu, it is not simply because of his control of information flows but because it rechannels the flows of desire and captures affects and sociality into economic flows. Connective activism emerges as a strategy to liberate these flows of desire and reorient processes of subjectivation.
The Italian communication machine boasting 24/7 a new economic miracle while constructing a dreamlike world of consumption for television audiences was certainly an important means for the collective resubjectivation of Italians. The marketing and strategic communication methods from new creative enterprises like Benetton were developed and tested in the eighties and nineties; they also created Berlusconi and his party as an infallible and adaptable composite that brought Italy into twenty-first-century politics, where communication and the political are in reciprocal presupposition (Lazzarato 2007, 94). Using models tested in business, and reading the Italian sociopolitical transformations with a visionary eye, Forza Italia emerged as a new type of party—what Jörg Seisselberg dubs a “media-mediated personality-party” (1996). The irruption of communication into party politics is certainly not unique to Italy (it is especially common in the United States) because it is the result of widespread changes in the conditions of economic production, media penetration, and changing attitudes of citizens toward party politics in general. Still, Forza Italia is a compelling case for its intensity and the ease with which it took off in a country where television was the primary means of information, and where discontent with the political system was particularly acute.
Publications like An Italian Story—the high-budget picture books on the life of Berlusconi—convey the extent to which strategic communication had become the backbone connecting the heterogeneous elements of business and politics in Italy. These two volumes tell the glossy tale of the Berlusconi family and reveal the secrets of his success to readers. Forza Italia mailed the books free of charge to every single household in the country between 2001 and 2006. An Italian Story celebrates Berlusconi as a self-made family man, accessibly transposing onto his own image the aspirations of an entire epochal shift. Thanks to these discourses and to a common tendency to identify the agents of history in strong male figures, Berlusconi rises larger than life from a messy web of events and elements that characterize the political-economic context I described. Rather than a simple advertising strategy, the showcasing of Berlusconi as a winner, who is a self-made businessman and the president of the storied football club AC Milan, is an effective marketing maneuver. That is, if ads in politics are supposed to promote specific agendas and candidates to secure votes, the marketing of politics attends to the needs and desires of the “voters’ market” as it translates their values into images and symbols. Marketing is not about selling a product but about shaping social relations and values in the market; this is why it deeply structures politics (Lazzarato 2007, 92).
At the same time, whereas the promotion of Berlusconi’s leadership of the party harnesses the desires of Italians, his persona also effectively embodies and symbolizes the neoliberal ideals that Forza Italia promotes: competition, opposition to state regulation and taxation, private ownership, and so on. Seisselberg stresses how this combination secures the “best possible mediability of the party’s political offer through the media” (1996, 721), no matter who owns the media. He also emphasizes how the pluralization of lifestyles and the loss of collective consciousness that marked the transition from the seventies to the eighties came with a decrease in party loyalties. In Italy as in other Western countries, this decrease was more the result of changes in the factors that produce social identities, in the rising emphasis on individuality, and in new consumption habits, and less the result of historical events like the Tangentopoli scandal.
The satisfaction of needs that drives voter behavior today leads to “offer-oriented decisions” that are similar to consumer patterns (exemplified by the key role of polls), and parties in many countries recognize the importance of media penetration and personalized politics to retain voters’ attention. For these reasons, marketing and strategic communication in Forza Italia were taken to an unprecedented level from the beginning, incorporating Diakron, a market research institute staffed with Fininvest’s employees, directly into the structure of the party. Diakron steered a supple machine that was perpetually tuned into voter markets and public opinion (Ruzza and Fella 2009, 106). Because of Forza Italia’s hierarchical party structure, marketing allowed for changes in the political offer, and in the mediatization of the party’s leader—at the same time as it facilitated a transition from Realpolitik to symbolic politics (Seisselberg 1996, 721). Symbolic politics is characterized by a homogenization and simplification of information, by the power of naming in the political communication process and by affectivity (722). In the nineties, Berlusconi’s visionary folly already tapped into information and data flows before this method could be perfected with big data analytics and social media dataveillance.
Forza Italia’s party structure is the other site where Berlusconi’s visionary folly delivers a product of its time. Since the mediation of politics is a high priority, Forza Italia has a highly hierarchical communication and organizational structure to help its president gain power. This organization resembles that of a business enterprise with a top-down approach, and with political candidates undergoing interviews and being screened for such attributes as persuasiveness and telegenics. At the bottom ranks of the hierarchy are the promoters—the grassroots activists who interact with citizens—and the clubs, whose members help with PR at the local level, organizing cultural events, party celebrations, banquets, balls, excursions, charity concerts, or sporting events (Seisselberg 1996, 718–29).8 It is also worth noting the uniquely corporate terminology used in Forza Italia, where voters are referred to as the public or the audience (il pubblico), which is not a common epithet for voters in Italian.
The lower party ranks in particular can be seen as an upgrading of Berlusconi’s scheme of syndication (the nationwide network of broadcasters that used the VHS tape system to transmit simultaneously). Club members and promoters are not professional politicians and have no decision-making power within Forza Italia but have a similar relationship to the party as small companies to a franchising brand or mother company. They are able to gain symbolic and political power (and favors) at the local level in exchange for conforming with and promoting the values and images of the party: “In order to market their own political product, they have to rely on a recognized brand, but in exchange they have to follow precise rules of style and conduct, bringing a good name to the company whose label they work” (Virno 1996, 257). Overall, the character of the neoliberal-Berlusconian milieu speaks more to the features of neoliberal information-based capitalism than to a simple media monopoly.
Powerful capitalists tend to shape the market for their own interest and disadvantage smaller actors, and yet discourses about the free-market economy commonly establish that big businesses will automatically boost production and help industry thrive, thereby also supporting small businesses (the so-called trickle-down effect). These beliefs recruit smaller entrepreneurs into supporting the party’s economic, political, and social agenda even though they do not have lobbying power like the bigwigs of Forza Italia. Forza Italia’s agenda is not much different from the mantra of many other parties embracing neoliberal policies: less state control on the economy; less investment in government bonds and more trust in privately owned saving and investment plans; less taxes; privatization of state services like health, education, and insurance; more consumption to promote the economy; and more surveillance (Berlusconi 1994a, 1994b; Redazione 2009). They promote a free market (though in reality only free for a few) and private initiative, profit, and individual leadership.
Above all, Forza Italia makes more sense in the context of the Italian neoliberal milieu if we link Berlusconi’s topological approach to accumulation. For Forza Italia, change is the differential outcome of “the free input of many people, each different from the others” (Berlusconi 1994b). As an assemblage, Forza Italia is a “free organization of voters of a completely new kind” (1994b). It is not the homogeneous, ideology-based space of the party but a new force that unites and smooths the space of politics, eliminating any distinctions between government and economy, entrepreneur and politician, citizen and consumer. It is only fitting that the party’s vision is one that promotes a kind of competitive democracy whereby “democracy is achieved, not primarily through conflict with, but through competition between parties” (Seisselberg 1996, 727).
Since the political struggles no longer rely on a clash of ideologies but on the relative hold on voters, power is accumulated differentially. This vision translates into a rejection of inner-party democratic decision-making processes typical of Western democracies because the focus is on the party’s external and media-compatible success.9 The role of marketing and strategic communication in shaping the “voters’ market” by adapting to opinion trends in the electorate and maximizing success in relation to other parties takes the Berlusconi assemblage beyond simple populism into the realm of what had been described as “technical populism” (Seisselberg 1996, 730). Technical populism is the name of the business-oriented, marketing-based, personality-focused populism that thrives in the Italian mediascape. This term brings to light important forces that shape the relationship between politics and the economy in many other countries, and it draws attention to the import of communication and information in contemporary power arrangements, debunking the simplistic equation between mainstream media control and unrivalled power. If there is a way in which media penetration has an impact on the rise of technical populism and overall social control, it is through governmentality and its attendant subjectivation.
Television as a Governmental Machine
In Berlusconi’s Italy, as in other neoliberal milieus, affective manipulation is a pillar of governmental control strategies (Grusin 2010, 80). Governmentality is concerned not only with people but also with the organization of things: governmentality involves the distribution of the mediascape, the regulation of access to frequencies and methods of transmission, the allocation of advertising, and the standardization of television’s aesthetic language and narrative strategies. In other words, governmentality entails the configuring of the context for the emergence of everyday practices that interweave media like television into people’s lives, creating continuity and familiarity between content and media use. The diffused and subtle background relation between everyday uses of media and the cognitive and sensory functions involved in engaging with media is called mediality (Grusin 2010). In Italy, the mediality of television—a mediality that involves the consistent conflation of entertainment and information—modulates collective affective orientations and mobilizes populations in politics and everyday life alike.
As I watched the 2001 electoral battle on television, it was hard not to notice the beginning of a new grammar for Italian politics: the campaign no longer rested on a clash between opposing ideologies, as was common in Italy. Instead, the race relied on the images and appeal of two opposing leaders—Francesco Rutelli and Silvio Berlusconi—and their ability to capture the imagination of their voters. Forza Italia established the mediatization of symbolic politics as an indispensable political strategy (Seisselberg 1996), and Berlusconi’s 2001 election campaign marks this important transition from the consistent mobilization of affect in television entertainment to electoral media coverage. Thanks to the professional management of the persona of Forza Italia’s president, Berlusconi’s televised speeches and promotional videos were delivered amid screaming crowds of fans who sang his campaign song (“Meno male che Silvio c’è” [Thank God Silvio’s here]). The images of him smiling triumphantly over the crowds as if he had already won the elections were ubiquitous. Primetime broadcasts of his fatherly discourses on protecting the interests of common people touted his success in business and with women and positioned him as a benefactor and role model for Italians. These dazzling electoral shows seemed to replace, convincingly, a widespread fear of precarity with the excitement about a future in which Berlusconi will reward the common person—like he does in the countless reality and quiz shows of his TV networks. Even if I did not buy his story, it was hard not to be swept away by the spectacle and the grandiose promises.
Crucially, the affective responses to Forza Italia’s campaign were not just my reaction to the content of the images; they were also premediated (Grusin 2010); that is, they mobilized an already existing connection to the medium of television through a reaction to stimuli that are usually experienced outside electoral politics, when watching TV for entertainment. The aesthetic register of the delivery—the colors and lights of the shows, the cries of the crowd in the background, the music—were enthralling because they blurred the line between politics and entertainment. As an agent in the governmental assemblage of neoliberal Italy, Berlusconi’s constellation of media outlets helped shape that mediality as well as the larger sociotechnical milieu in which his voters subjectivate, or individuate. In this sense, Berlusconi premediated his victory and thereby made it possible.10 I was bedazzled as I watched the campaign unfold.
Media are agents of governmentality not just because they produce and organize meaning and roles but also and especially because they mobilize collective affective orientations (Grusin 2010, 48–49). The collective affective orientations of Berlusconi’s voters preceded the appearance of emotions and rational choice; they impacted viewers before and independently of their rationalization and interpretation of the experience, and they had an impact on their decisions as citizens and consumers. Affect scholars have correlated the deliberate “priming” of the environment in which affective reactions happen with resulting patterns of “deliberation-without-attention and choice blindness” (Massumi 2015, 40). These patterns are typical of neoliberal citizen behavior where the zones of indistinction between affectivity and rationality have become the sites of intervention to exercise control (27–28).
What better proof of this than the Italian study of voters’ perceptions showing that, just before going to the polls in May 2001, the characteristics most associated with Berlusconi by the people surveyed were “he is a strong leader” (64.9 percent), “he is enthusiastic” (60.2 percent), and “he is persuasive” (58.9 percent) (Grasso 2003, 2). These qualities were certainly fundamental for Berlusconi’s entrepreneurial career, but none of them spoke directly to his capacities as a law or policy maker. They were, however, in line with the profile of the leader of an enterprise party like Forza Italia. The idea of deliberation-without-attention and choice blindness in the context of the electoral campaign, in combination with the concept of mediality, point to how, for 51 percent of Italians surveyed, an important characteristic attributed to Berlusconi was his good looks. Only 38.4 percent of those who answered the surveys identified with his political mandate or that of his party (34 percent), and 25.5 percent and 24.7 percent, respectively, believed in the leader’s honesty and capacity to keep his promises (Grasso 2003, 2–3). These poll results suggest that in the background, in the machine-like connections between television and viewers, the interconnected system of perception organs, affective reactions, psychosocial background, and interiority, commonly defined as an “individual,” were primed to relate to Berlusconi as a compassionate boss, a successful Casanova, and a father figure (Papì) who could take care of the country rather than as a professional politician with a clear and realistic agenda.11
This individuation of Berlusconi’s voters unfolded in a milieu that included sociocultural norms as well as institutions and specific media configurations. For example, the syndication of television programming within the Fininvest network did not simply synchronize the transmission of content; it also created a shared time and space, contributing to the collective individuation of a national audience. Technical and policy solutions were crucial for the correct arrangement of elements in a mediascape that structures and individuates. The individual and the collective were engendered within this governmental, sociotechnical milieu: individuation—and indeed transindividuation—occurs while the interface between the interiority and the sensing of the individual and the world is developed and managed. From the top down, meanwhile, governmentality is concerned with disciplining, coding, and organizing the mediascape and the television industry’s relation to one as part of the audience.
Telestreet’s Delirious Milieu
The thread of delirium and creative assembling that started with autonomia leads me to Telestreet via Berlusconi. The connection of these apparently disjointed elements detours through Deleuze’s distinction between the paranoid and passional regimes of madness: the paranoid is connected to processes of semiotization through codified signs; the passional is connected to processes of subjectivation forging new connections among signs. Deleuze calls these two qualitatively different kinds of madness the “I-will-not-leave-you-alone” of the paranoid and the “leave-me-alone” of the passional. The respective regimes associated with each are mapped onto social formations, where imperialism is associated with the paranoid/coded signifier and unbridled capitalism with the subjective/passional. The former is a process of expansion and coordination of signs while the latter establishes subjects as the agents of capital and detaches bundles of signs from its center (capital) to recode them as needed (Deleuze 2006, 14–16; Demers 2008).
The distinction between the two regimes shows that, even if to many Berlusconi’s madness may seem more like a kind of paranoia—a delusion of grandeur—it is, in fact, closer to the passional regime of madness explored in the context of autonomist media experimentation. Hyperbole aside, this seemingly paradoxical relation between ways of exiting the structure and form of capture and control is an important aspect of contemporary forms of neoliberal governmentality. When talking about Berlusconi, it is possible to draw on Deleuze’s parallelism to highlight the passional love affairs or orgiastic connections among capitalism’s main actors and resistance to them as a struggle over the differential accumulation of power, a power that is not a power over (potestas) but a power to (potentia) (Negri 1998). I showed this with the first nationwide broadcasting strategies and with the politician-entrepreneur aggregate that grew stronger and more powerful as the connections among its elements grew more intricate. Berlusconi’s power to recompose the assemblage of his companies like Fininvest and Mediaset, boosting up investors’ trust precisely in connection with other events, creates the conditions for such growth. Berlusconi was able to beat the average and accumulate in relation to others (companies and parties) because he acted in an environment where there is topological space to control and flows of signs to harness. The cult of personality was also an important element to skirt around accusations of conflict of interest and always come out as a winner in the voters’ eye. Always smiling like in an eighties TV series, Berlusconi and his colleagues have been able to mount countless attacks on the judiciary system, on civil society, and on the new generation of autonomist activists who emerged in the late nineties.
At the same time, this de-lirium, this ability to move out of regimenting structures, merely puts the Italian prime minister on par with most other global multinational powers, which understand the dynamics of power accumulation through capital. Albeit magnified by the rather dystopian Italian example, Berlusconi’s relationship to the economy and to the state ought to be seen as an example of how power is inextricably linked to capital. The strength of this passional, topological type of capitalism lies in its ability to reconstitute itself as potentia (constituent power) while still maintaining a connection to potestas— (constituted power), through legislation, material production, and accumulated capital. The force of neoliberal capitalism affects what comes within reach, reordering society through processes that control, shape, and transform opposition. The commodification, structuration, and restructuration of capital unfolds according to a logic that, since the accumulation of power is always relative, compels actors to always try to augment their capital to maintain divisions of power (Nitzan and Bichler 2009, 18). This results in a strong gravitational force that shapes modes of governmentality.
The ability to hack and connect into assemblages is by no means an intrinsically emancipatory process. Then, what does resistance look like and what is the function of media within resistant formations? If neoliberal governmentality acts on its subjects through social subjection, often exercised through socioeconomic discourses and the mediality of television and other mass media, subjectivity becomes the fraught terrain of a struggle that is itself differential. For Judith Revel, resistance is located in the “dismeasure between power and modes of life . . . the dismeasure between exploitation and processes of subjectivation in the very meshes of power itself, in other words, between the management of life and life’s power (here, I use power as potentia, and not as potestas)” (2013, 18). Governmentality from this perspective is about the simultaneity of control and affirmations of liberty and resistance inside the field of governing practices. If, as Revel claims building on Foucault, “power and subjectivation, governance and liberty are indissoluble and, at the same time, dissymmetrical” (18), we can think about this relation as differential—that is, as an ongoing struggle to access and expand control over sites of subjectification, be they television, other spaces of semiotic and cultural production, and in general for social reproduction (media infrastructure, social centers, mutual support networks, and so on). Connective activism is a set of practices of subjectification that engage in this kind of struggle.
The success of Berlusconi’s visionary, topological approach lies in his ability to forge new connections and redirect flows of signs, in the same way Radio Alice did and Telestreet has since done. This “folly” finds its source of creativity in the manipulation of signs, not just for signification but also as affective devices that draw on commonsense assumptions about social reality to order and rearrange power. Many of the Telestreettari grew up during the eighties and nineties and claim the language of television as their own idiom to create with. In the affective encounters with the media, whether zines, free radio, Dallas, spectacular shows, or pirate television, processes of individual and collective individuation reconfigure. Herein lies the power and importance of projects like Telestreet, and especially insu^tv: in the clash with contemporary forms of capitalist control, experimentation and media tinkering are key to throwing a wrench in the cogs of the communication machine, finding ways to wrest subjectification and social reproduction from the neoliberal-Berlusconian milieu. The delirious creativity of Berlusconi’s world and that of Radio Alice and Telestreet may be inseparable but they are not equivalent (Revel 2013, 23). I locate the differential aspect of this kind of struggle in the constituent power of resistance within and against neoliberal governmentality, specifically in the neoliberal-Berlusconian milieu.
What follows takes a closer look at how media activism from the nineties onward attempts to constitute itself as potentia to tackle powerful social and economic neoliberal assemblages. Here, the growing role of strategic communication and marketing in capitalism is tied in surprising ways to the development of media activist practices that thrive on similar principles. It is important not to lose focus of the material co-constitution of a dominant media apparatus like the one I described here and networks of media activism.