FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Beppe Grillo and Italy’s Five Star Movement

by TOM GILL

Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement is now Italy’s largest party, only overtaken in terms of seats in parliament by Pier Luigi Bersani and Silvio Berlusconi by the alliances they have built with smaller parties – SEL and the Northern League respectively. So how did Grillo, a former comedian and Italy’s number 1 blogger, come from nothing – no power locally nor nationally two years ago – to win in elections 24-25 February over 100 seats in Italy’s lower house?

Here’s the answer in five points

1 As has been widely discussed in the press he’s built a massive following on the web, with his blog taking the number one spot in the country and about 1 million followers on Facebook and Twitter. This hegemony in social media, one that mirror’s Berlusconi’s rise using TV 20 years ago, has allowed him to send out his message unmediated and without real challenge (the fear of which may be in part behind his shunning of Italy’s traditional mass media, althoughly admittedly the level of political debate broadcast media in particular produces is lamentable). This medium has also allowed him to reach younger voters, and the previously politically unengaged (one survey, conducted 22 February, found half of his supporters didn’t identify with any political party).

2 His genius at attracting and entertaining large crowds, with half a million turning up to a rally in Rome days before the vote. This originates from his previous career as a touring stand up act, which he’s successfully applied to his political campaigning. Grillo has also shown himself a spectacular self-publicist, swimming across the Strait of Medina ahead of a stunning victory in Sicily in autumn 2012. What he’s doing is to apply best practice in political campaigning – mixing the virtual with real world campaigning, the kind  behind Egypt’s ‘Facebook’ revolution, which relied as much on traditional union organizing and political agitation by the Muslim Brotherhood as social media.

3 Grillo’s seen as a complete outsider, and like Berlusconi has been virulent in attacking the political class rightly seen as corrupt and incompetent. But while he’s always pilloried politicians of all colours – indeed it was central part of his comedy act – the billionaire media magnate has been embedded in the political power structures from the outset, building his media empire with the help of the late embezzling Socialist PM Bettino Craxi, and then directly shaping the political landscape after ‘entering the field’ in 1994. Since which time, despite the Tangentopoli, or Bribesville scandals that precipitated his political career, Italy is as sleaze-ridden as ever. Furthermore, Italy is a country where political instability means parties habitually resort to backroom deals to stitch up, top-down, coalitions, watering down campaign pledges in the process. Grillo’s refusal to do any deals with any party give him an air of honesty and transparency badly lacking among his rivals.

4. His fame or infamy – as Berlusconi’s long record shows, amid a string of largely forgettable Left leaders that have come and gone, politics has never been more personalised, and being loud, insensitive or gaff-prone is no disadvantage. Many find Grillo’s style aggressive, sometimes offensive, but his darkly comic personalized attacks – the best of which has to be to dismiss the former PM as Rigor Montis – get him headlines. It will be interesting in this respect how he maintains his leadership position once his army of unknowns – twenty- something housewives, students, graphic designers, IT engineers and jobless factory workers – take their seats in parliament while he remains outside, excluded by his own rule that no member of the movement with a criminal conviction can hold office (he has a manslaughter conviction from a car accident in the 1980s).

5. If Grillo owes at least some of his strident rhetorical style to the populist right, he stole much of his political clothes from the Left, just as the latter abandoned them to raid Mario Monti’s neo liberal wardrobe. Centre-left Democrat leader Bersani’s key campaign pledge was to stick to the former ‘technocrat’ premier’s EU-backed austerity and ‘reform’ programme, that is, slashing labour costs and rights, and undermining the ‘privileges’ of significant sections of the middle class, for example by liberalizing the ‘closed’ professions, measures that might cut legal fees, drugs or taxi fares in the short term, but may simply see the ‘rent’ they extract transferred to banks, supermarkets and corporations as they expand into these sectors to swell their profits. The centre-Left’s jettisoning of its social democrat identity and embrace of free-wheeling globalisation has, then, opened the field to Grillo to pose as the champion of the little man, and, since the onset of the Eurozone crisis, Italy’s much crushed sense of national pride.

Hence Grillo’s promise to revisit all international treaties including NATO membership, free trade agreements and the most notably the Euro, with a referendum – providing ample opportunities for potshots at Chancellor Merkel, playing to  a revived anti-German sentiment originating in the Nazi occupation of Italy. Hence Grillo’s proposals for ‘citizen’s wage’ for the unemployed, support for small and medium sized businesses, a strengthened say for small shareholders while demanding a clamp down on financial speculation and executive greed. Hence his call to reverse cuts to health and education. But Grillo is also strong on issues fundamental to a functioning democracy, like a law on the conflict of interest (targeting Berlusconi), which explicably the centre-Left failed to implement when in government. True he is silent on tax, and the big economic issues, like the role of public spending and government activism in kick starting growth and job creation, and the roll back in labour rights. And overall his policies – developed, like the Pirate parties of northern Europe – by activists via the web, lack detail. But the fact that far more left-wing voters (accounting for 40% of his supporters according to one survey) than right wingers swung behind him is telling.

What happens now? The ‘markets’, a media euphemism for the global elite, are all jittery about renewed political instability in Italy. Bersani’s centre-left coalition, while enjoying a majority in the House, has not won control of the Senate, and cannot do so even with the support of Monti.

So there’s pressure from some quarters internationally for a grand coalition between Bersani and Berlusconi. This would actually just mean more of the same – a downward spiral of economic decline, falling employment and living standards even as the dreaded ‘spreads’ eased –  since Monti’s premiership these past 14 months has required a tacit alliance between Bersani and Berlusconi in parliament. And it would be an inherently unstable alliance, not least because each of the constituent parties to that alliance are often contradictory political agglomerations (for example there are continuous tensions between the former communists and christian democrats who fused into the Democrats). And there’s Berlusconi himself who follows no other path than his own preoccupations with his legal woes and business interests.

Fortunately it seems Bersani is resisting these voices, and today some kind of rapprochement with Grillo appeared to be in the making. There’s certainly potential to find common ground around a number of progressive policies, although if they stick to EU mandated austerity policies this leaves little room for hope. What’s for sure, there’s more in a deal with Grillo for the Democrats than for the Five Star Movement. If Bersani can’t do a deal, then grand coalition or not, elections will be likely coming round again soon. And it could be the comedian-blogger’s movement that is projected into government.

Tom Gill blogs at www.revolting-europe.com

More articles by:

Tom Gill edits Revolting Europe.

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

June 27, 2017
Jim Kavanagh
California Scheming: Democrats Betray Single-Payer Again
Jonathan Cook
Hersh’s New Syria Revelations Buried From View
Edward Hunt
Excessive and Avoidable Harm in Yemen
Howard Lisnoff
The Death of Democracy Both Here and Abroad and All Those Colorful Sneakers
Gary Leupp
Immanuel Kant on Electoral Interference
Kenneth Surin
Theresa May and the Tories are in Freefall
Slavoj Zizek
Get the Left
Robert Fisk
Saudi Arabia Wants to Reduce Qatar to a Vassal State
Ralph Nader
Driverless Cars: Hype, Hubris and Distractions
Rima Najjar
Palestinians Are Seeking Justice in Jerusalem – Not an Abusive Life-Long Mate
Norman Solomon
Is ‘Russiagate’ Collapsing as a Political Strategy?
Binoy Kampmark
In the Twitter Building: Tech Incubators and Altering Perceptions
Dean Baker
Uber’s Repudiation is the Moment for the U.S. to Finally Start Regulating the So-called Sharing Economy
Rob Seimetz
What I Saw From The Law
George Wuerthner
The Causes of Forest Fires: Climate vs. Logging
June 26, 2017
William Hawes – Jason Holland
Lies That Capitalists Tell Us
Chairman Brandon Sazue
Out of the Shadow of Custer: Zinke Proves He’s No “Champion” of Indian Country With his Grizzly Lies
Patrick Cockburn
Grenfell Tower: the Tragic Price of the Rolled-Back Stat
Joseph Mangano
Tritium: Toxic Tip of the Nuclear Iceberg
Ray McGovern
Hersh’s Big Scoop: Bad Intel Behind Trump’s Syria Attack
Roy Eidelson
Heart of Darkness: Observations on a Torture Notebook
Geoff Beckman
Why Democrats Lose: the Case of Jon Ossoff
Matthew Stevenson
Travels Around Trump’s America
David Macaray
Law Enforcement’s Dirty Little Secret
Colin Todhunter
Future Shock: Imagining India
Yoav Litvin
Animals at the Roger Waters Concert
Binoy Kampmark
Pride in San Francisco
Stansfield Smith
North Koreans in South Korea Face Imprisonment for Wanting to Return Home
Hamid Yazdan Panah
Remembering Native American Civil Rights Pioneer, Lehman Brightman
James Porteous
Seventeen-Year-Old Nabra Hassanen Was Murdered
Weekend Edition
June 23, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Democrats in the Dead Zone
Gary Leupp
Trump, Qatar and the Danger of Total Confusion
Andrew Levine
The “Democracies” We Deserve
Jeffrey St. Clair - Joshua Frank
The FBI’s “Operation Backfire” and the Case of Briana Waters
Rob Urie
Cannibal Corpse
Joseph G. Ramsey
Savage Calculations: On the Exoneration of Philando Castile’s Killer
John Wight
Trump’s Attack on Cuba
Dave Lindorff
We Need a Mass Movement to Demand Radical Progressive Change
Brian Cloughley
Moving Closer to Doom
David Rosen
The Sex Offender: the 21st Century Witch
John Feffer
All Signs Point to Trump’s Coming War With Iran
Jennifer L. Lieberman
What’s Really New About the Gig Economy?
Pete Dolack
Analyzing the Failures of Syriza
Vijay Prashad
The Russian Nexus
Mike Whitney
Putin Tries to Avoid a Wider War With the US
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail