Italian Elections, 2013: Novelty or Déjà Vu?

by Alessandro De Giorgi*


The results of the 2013 elections in Italy were shocking to most international observers. Expectations in the media had been that the center-left coalition would win a majority and steer the country along a path of economic austerity and budget conservatism that Mario Monti’s technocratic government had initiated. Instead, Italians resuscitated the right-wing former president Silvio Berlusconi, according his party a surprising 30 percent share of vote. Yet Berlusconi’s rise from the ashes was not the headline-grabbing news, any more than was the half defeat of a center-left coalition that finally succumbed to the poverty of its own ideas and to the populist fantasies of the Right.

The true novelty was that 25 percent of Italian voters voiced their mounting dissatisfaction both with the austerity measures dictated by “the market” (and its European true believers) and the chronic corruption of Italian political parties by giving their vote to the “Five-Star Movement” (M5S), a new populist formation headed by a former standup comic. Some international media outlets offered the view that Italy is now in the hands oftwo clowns. Despite containing an element of truth, such editorializing does not do justice to the complexity of the political situation in Italy (and in Europe), and sheds little if any light on the emergence of M5S as a political phenomenon. Is M5S a party or something else? What is its program? What challenges does it pose to progressive agendas in Italy and beyond?

Comedian Beppe Grillo and millionaire Internet tycoon Gianroberto Casaleggio cofounded the M5S as a political organization in 2009. Their collaboration began in 2004. At the time, Grillo was touring Italian theaters with the kind of satiric shows that made him popular during the 1980s and 1990s. Casaleggio was an Internet marketing expert who in 2009 had founded Casaleggio & Associates. Among the corporate clients of this Internet consulting company are J.P. Morgan, PepsiCo, Marriott, the American Financial Group, BNP Paribas Bank, IBM, and Best Western. Casaleggio recognized great potential in Grillo’s histrionic style and provocative “anti-system” message. The pair opened a website and blog (, which Grillo runs by himself; but they are administered and funded by Casaleggio, who also became the main publisher of Grillo’s bestselling DVDs, pamphlets, and ebooks. Over the last decade, millions of followers have coalesced through this blog around Grillo’s campaigns, which range from traditionally leftist issues such as renewable energy, protection of the environment, public water systems, etc., to less partisan moral crusades against the privileges of a “caste” of “dead” professional politicians. In the leader’s rhetoric, the latter includes all traditional parties (left and right) and labor unions–which the movement seeks to get rid of. In 2007, Grillo’s mounting online success culminated in a “Fuck-Off Day” (Vaffanculo Day), which attracted hundreds of thousands of people into the squares of Italy’s main cities. The gathering (followed in 2008 by a “Fuck-off Day 2”) marked the political debut of Grillo’s organization. In the wake of the massive corruption scandals surrounding Berlusconi and his government, the goal of the 2007 mass gatherings was to collect 50,000 signatures for a ballot initiative that would ban people convicted of any crimes from running for office and establish a limit of two terms for elected officials. The organization collected more than 330,000 signatures. Since then, Grillo has embarked on other high-visibility campaigns to abolish public funding of political parties, to end state subsidies to private schools, and to block environmentally catastrophic infrastructure projects such as a bridge connecting Sicily to the peninsula and a high-speed rail between Turin and Lyon. M5S did not launch these campaigns, however; rather, it jumped into grassroots mobilizations often initiated by radical or anarchist movements, such as the anti-high-speed rail (no-TAV) movement in Northern Italy, to subsume them under its own political agenda and then retroactively claim exclusive paternity over them. The movement thus coopted collective struggles and capitalized on their electoral potential, pursuing a conscious strategy to depoliticize radical mobilizations by reframing them in the populist language of common citizens and pushing for commonsense (i.e., beyond left and right) solutions to the problems created by an inept class of corrupt politicians. In this vision, there is no room for ideological distinctions between progressive and reactionary politics, and issues of power, exploitation, and inequality are carefully expunged from a rhetoric obsessed with the mantra of the people.

The result of this “depoliticization of politics” can be seen in M5S’s schizophrenic electoral platform. It is an unsavory mélange of neoliberal measures (privatizations, liberalizations, anti-unionism, and free-market policies), traditional social-democratic themes (public schools, health care, public transportation), and a hint of radical slogans (basic income guarantee and economic degrowth). Absent from the program are references to any issue not conforming to the oversimplified narrative of honest citizens rising against power-hungry politicians, which Grillo dispenses to his followers. Thus, there is no mention of politically contentious issues such as unemployment, wage labor, prisons, drug laws, immigration and asylum, reproductive rights, or gay rights; even controversial concepts such as justice, equality, or rights are absent from the M5S vocabulary.

The true nature of this “movement” is revealed in the organization’s statute. This document, which consists of six articles, states that the organization has no physical offices, with the leader’s blog being its only headquarters; the M5S name and logo are trademarksregistered under Mr. Grillo’s name (he retains the exclusive right to their use); and the main object of the organization is “the selection and choice of those candidates who will advance the social, cultural, and political campaigns promoted by Beppe Grillo, as well as the proposals shared within the blog” (art. 4). There is no mention of how new members are accepted or rejected, who has the power to expel them and under what circumstances, how political decisions are taken inside the organization, and so on. Indeed, the statute is silent on procedures because the exclusive power to expel members rests with the leader himself, who has liberally exercised his power to purge (reinforced by systematic character assassination through his blog) members of M5S who have raised concerns about the lack of internal democracy–or have even spoken with journalists and other “mercenaries of the regime.”

As of March 2013, Grillo, an unelected leader, and his silent partner, Casaleggio, have stymied all negotiations aimed at forming a new government. They proclaim that “the movement” is not willing to give a vote of confidence to traditional political parties. Needless to say, whoever objects to this edict, even if democratically elected, is “out” and can no longer use Grillo’s trademark. In the end, the M5S is a deeply hierarchical organization that is kept together (not unlike Berlusconi’s party) by the cult of personality surrounding its leader. The much-celebrated “internet democracy,” another mantra of Grillo, Casaleggio, and their followers, comes down to a perversely authoritarian use of the digital realm that differs little from Berlusconi’s use of his own commercial TVs to build political consensus.

Regrettably, Grillo is correct when he proclaims that his “movement” saved Italy from (what he calls) political violence. Italy did not experience Occupy or Acampadas movements. With Grillo, people took over the squares, but only to listen to a fiery monologue from the central stage. Yet, many Italian progressives either have voted for Grillo or are looking with interest at this “civil revolution.” For better or worse, the M5S has brought into the Italian Parliament an unprecedented number of young, law-abiding people (not to mention women), and various intellectuals are signing petitions and pleas to Grillo not to “waste this opportunity.” Is this really an opportunity for the Left?

Some from the radical/autonomist Left voted for Grillo to “help make the country ungovernable”–i.e., to precipitate a crisis of representative democracy and European financial capitalism. Others hope to exploit the movement’s rising internal contradictions to capture the grillini’s [little crickets] misplaced political passions and channel them toward radical political struggles. This might be the only happy ending in this rapidly evolving story. But it must happen quickly–before Grillo realizes his goal of “controlling 100% of the Parliament,” after which “the movement will become the state.” Déjà vu, anyone?

* Alessandro De Giorgi is Associate Professor, Vice Chair & Graduate Coordinator at the Department of Justice Studies, San Jose State University, and a member of the Social JusticeEditorial Board.

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