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The Beppe Grillo Phenomenon

12 March 2013

The Italian general election did not give a majority to any party or coalition – but it did produce a clear winner: the Five Stars Movement (M5S) of Beppe Grillo. With 25.5 per cent of the vote in the lower house and 23.8 per cent in the upper it is the biggest single party in the parliament, as Berlusconi and Bersani both head coalitions. This clearly marks a huge shift in Italian politics. But a shift in which direction?

Beppe Grillo, 64, is the son of the owner of a small welding company from Genoa, who dropped out of university to become a comedian. He was a popular TV performer in the 1980s till he fell foul of the political establishment after he made a joke about the well-known corruption of Bettino Craxi’s Socialist party. He was effectively banished from the airwaves. However his live stand-up shows continued to attract large crowds. In them he regularly targeted the political corruption of Italian politicians.

In 2007, he decided to begin active political campaigning but not in the traditional way. Via the web, he launched what turned into huge mobilisations. On September 8, he organized a “V-Day Celebration” where the “V” stood for vaffanculo (‘go fuck yourself!’). A second V-Day followed on 25 April 2008, in Turin, whose target was the lucrative subsidies the press receives from the government and big business, These issues seemed to put him on the left, as has his enthusiastic endorsement by the famous left wing dramatist Dario Fo.

In 2010, he launched the “Movimento 5 stelle” (“Five Stars Movement” or M5S). The “Five Stars” referred to five issues: “public water, sustainable mobility, development, connectivity, and environmentalism”. The new movement, which could be joined via the Internet, heavily stressed “clean values” such as honesty in public service, and “direct democracy”, demanding that all the existing professional politicians be driven out of public life. This remains a central axis of Grillo’s uncompromising position that those elected should be limited to a maximum of two terms, allowed no other jobs, be paid the average wage and barred from standing for office if they have criminal records. Grillo himself did not stand in 2013 because he has a 1980 conviction for manslaughter (in a driving accident.

Grillo has used the new technology and social media, Face Book and Twitter, to communicate directly with his followers. His enormously popular blog is available in English and Japanese, as well as Italian. By these means he has been able to circumvent the near boycott of the state broadcaster RAI and Berlusconi’s print and broadcast media. His followers have created 532 Grillo meet-up groups which form the nucleus of the movement and had 87,895 members in 446 cities by November 2012.

During the general election campaign, he toured the length and breadth of Italy in a camper van, attracting hundreds of thousands to over 70 rallies. His main demands were that there should be a major reform of the electoral law, a referendum on remaining in the Eurozone, cuts in politicians’ privileges, a minimum income for the unemployed, twenty hour work week, laws to enforce clean energy and free access for all to the internet.

None of the M5S candidates are professional politicians or have any experience in parliament or government. One of them, Sebastiano Barbanti, a 36-year-old marketing strategist elected in the impoverished southern region of Calabria, told Reuters: “The ideologies are finished, ideas aren’t right-wing or left-wing, they are good or bad.” So what can be said of Grillo’s political stance? Is he right or left, anti- or pro-capitalist?

A millionaire man of the people?

For all his deliberately “ordinary man” image Grillo is himself a millionaire, with an official income of €4.5 million, though of course this is small beer compared to the likes of Berlusconi. And there is some serious money from the new technology industries. M5S cofounder, Roberto Casaleggio, is a successful information technology executive, former head of the Italian operations of the British firm Logica who now heads his own company, Casaleggio Associati.

Casaleggio claims he is for a “new, direct democracy that will see the elimination of all barriers between the citizen and the state”. But when challenged by some members who were discontented with how the Movement’s policies were decided, Casaleggio responded, “The statute contains the rules. If they want to change the rules, they can create another movement!” “And who wrote the statute?” asked the interviewer, “Grillo and I” he replied.” (Guardian January 3, 2013)

This direct democracy is not even that of the town squares and the Occupy Movement’s assemblies. If the demos – the people – cannot impose its will on its millionaire benefactors, then it is no democracy direct or otherwise – a worse situation than in parliamentary democracy.

What is clear is that Grillo and Casaleggio’s movement is not working class but neither does it represent a significant sector of big capital, not yet anyway. It is what Marxists characterise as a petit bourgeois populist movement, but one with a pro-capitalist, not an anticapitalist, programme. Of course at present few capitalist want his demagogic, radical proposals!

Flirting with fascism?

Grillo has taken up various left wing and even “anti imperialist” causes, such as opposition to the occupation of Afghanistan, But he has also taken up very right wing ones too, attacking Roma immigrants and saying children born to immigrants should not receive Italian citizenship. He has moreover refused to define himself as “antifascist” and said that he has no objection to members of Casa Pound, a neo-Nazi “social movement” that violently attacks left-wingers, joining his movement. He has even participated in friendly discussions with Casa Pound on television. One of his “economic advisers” is a financial operator, Eugenio Benettazzo, who sometimes attends meetings of the neo-fascist party Forza Nuova and whose controversial articles are often published on Grillo’s website, including one arguing that the financial crisis occurred in the USA because of “racial promiscuity”.

At a rally in Brindisi during the elections, Grillo said,

“I want a State with balls, let us get rid of the unions, an old structure like the parties. There’s no longer a need for trade unions. Companies should belong to those who work.” He later clarified his position by saying he meant only the three largest federations, not rank and file unions like COBAS and CUB.

This echoes the demagogy used by fascists, who stir up popular anger with radical demands and direct it against the working class movement. It draws on the widespread feeling that Italy’s trade unions have failed to defend their members or fight austerity, but rather than calling for more effective unions, controlled by their rank and file members, it demands that a strong (capitalist) state should abolish them as “no longer necessary”.

The outcome of the Italian election will undoubtedly deepen the crisis of Italian society, and a crisis always accelerates the polarisation of society. But without a fighting mass movement against austerity, millions see no clear-cut choice or way forward, particularly the poorer sections of the middle class, who hate the one per cent at the top and its paid politicians, but do not identify with the working class because the unions have not used their power to fend off austerity. This inaction has allowed Grillo’s M5S to grow, and add further confusion. If this situation continues, crisis and austerity without a revolt, the danger is it could ultimately favour the fascists, as in Greece.

Austerity’s real purpose, in Italy and elsewhere, is to make the working class, the lower middle classes and the poor pay for the crisis in order to restore capitalism’s profitability, giving it a new lease on life. The Italian working class has to show to the rest of the poor and “little people” that it will impose its own solutions on the crisis – and for that it needs the rebuild a mass party but this time built on a clear programme for the overthrow of the capitalist system, certainly not a mass populist movement controlled from the top down by two millionaires.

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