Postmodern populism: the cultural logic of the MoVimento 5 Stelle

Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement has often been called a shake-up for Italian politics. But what if 'M5S' really obeyed an established paradigm that is far from the revolutionary ideas it claims to convey?

M5S leader Beppe Grillo during a press conference in Rome. Demotix/Eidon Photographers. All rights reserved.M5S leader Beppe Grillo during a press conference in Rome. Demotix/Eidon Photographers. All rights reserved.

He stepped onto the podium to a unanimous cheer, cameramen tripping over one another to steal the next potentially viral shot of his shaggy hair and gesticulating limbs. Looking confident in his role at the centre of the throng, this was an everyday happening for the TV comedian turned political activist Beppe Grillo: public face and ‘inspiration’ for the Italian ‘anti-corruption’ party, MoVimento 5 Stelle.

His short, crystalline address to a crowded young hall in Venice last week, was energetic and full of soundbites against his critics in a vital region that, he hopes, will turn out to vote sharply against its apparent bed-fellows the Lega Nord. “I can’t be stopped!” he began, drawing upon the cataclysmic metaphor of an impending tsunami: “politicians, prepare your escape… see you in Parliament!”

Launched in October 2009 as a “movement of free citizens” M5S has managed in three years what the now defunct Democrats of the Left party failed to do in ten: to provide a vocal and high-profile public demonstration of public support against the open criminality of the nation’s political elite. Key to the Movement's initial rise was a romantic faith in the revolutionary potential of online media, using blogs, apps and social networking to ‘crowd-source’ its particular brand of what Grillo optimistically calls: ‘e-democracy’.

From this virtual origin, and on the back of a tireless ‘real-world’ publicity campaign that has included everything from proposals for a national ‘vaffanculo day’ to the more desperate spectacle of the party leader posing in a skin-tight wetsuit after a high profile swim across the Straits of Messina, Grillo finally looks set to exert at least some governmental influence within a centre-left coalition headed by “very ex-communist” Luigi Bersani and the “radical centrist” Mario Monti. For a party that has no formal manifesto beyond its stated ‘priorities’ and little corporate support, it is an extraordinary example of the speed at which small ‘independent’ parties may continue to shape political space in Italy and abroad.   

It would be rash, however, to attribute this overnight success as representing the same kind of cultural shift as the extraordinary constitutional experiments being conducted in Iceland and Estonia, each of which have helped further the radical possibility of collective ownership of politics and society outside of sovereignty. Instead, contrary to the commentariat's focus on its online ‘audience building’ (a telling phrase in itself), at the heart of M5S remains the technological and cultural bastion of television, the mother of all Italian populisms. Television is still the nation’s central form of media consumption (over 85% of Italians cite television as their primary source of current affairs information).

Erik Gandini’s 2009 documentary film Videocracy details in excruciating detail the particularity of this media form in Italy: the covert influence of Silvio Berlusconi’s personality on its content, the invisible hand of advertising, the enduring fascism of a journalistic elite and the appalling sexism of the velina.

With this cultural context in mind, while admirably far removed from the policies of Berlusconi’s PDL, it is far from incidental to acknowledge that the televisual theatricality of Grillo’s performance has much in common with the grotesque intelligence of Berlusconi’s own brand of commedia dell’arte. In its ecstatic confusion of jokes, stunts and competitions that are exciting, baroque and gratifyingly a-historical, M5S juggles all the ingredients of a populism that serves less to encourage participation than to simulate it.

The warning signs that democratic praxis might not be as far removed from previous partisan efforts as the rhetoric suggests are clearly observable at the margins of the publicity campaign: its kitsch association with the aesthetics of pastiche and retro, its ever-smiling luminous Americanisms, its supporters’ acritical faith in the humour of the spokesman, its very reliance in the first place on the presence of a celebrity to represent ‘the people’.

Like the determined wannabe subjects of Gandini’s film, Grillo’s recent actions have demonstrated the fine line between aesthetic and marketing power and the power of political operation. In December 2012 Federica Salsi was expelled after participating on the popular political talk-show Ballerò; an example which was quickly followed last month with the resignation of Giovanni Favia, regional councilor for Emilia-Romagna, who was publicly abused for criticizing the internal democracy of the party. Subsequently, all ‘official’ members of M5S were ‘banned’ from talking to the mainstream media.

Who was involved in discussing the necessity of these expulsions? And why should Grillo have the final say? Like the oddity of Fox News recently presenting Julian Assange as the face of a secret, spooky and dangerous initiative, Grillo’s public ‘cult of celebrity’ and its frequent slip into executive and managerial power is indicative of the cultural logic of the postmodern whistleblower: television interviews are forbidden except for the expert performer.

If this criticism sounds reminiscent of the WikiLeaks smear campaign then it is worth pointing out the extensive proliferation of alternative initiatives, each of which have contributed more concretely to the concretisation of M5S’s goals without relying on the homogenous stimulus of Facebook or Meetup. Franco ‘Bifo’ Beradi’s telestreet movement launched in 2002, calling upon collectives to create and share their own pirate TV channels in opposition to the thinly disguised state monopoly. There are currently over 100 pirate channels, and growing. Or the influential magazine Alfabeta2 which, accepting work from professional authors, students and the unemployed, seeks to close the gap between political theory, journalism, art and their ties to a certain model of class aspiration. 

While these initiatives, and others, implore supporters to act, M5S asks them to delegate to the man with the brightest, most audacious costume. As neoliberalism began to emerge as a distinct phase of capitalist development, Autonomia Operaia and the global justice movement sought to attack the core of its structural violence. Today, it is Anonymous and Occupy that represent the evolution of this mode of opposition, attempting with varying degrees of success to create new spaces of ‘self-determined’ social practice that have begun to change the imagination of statehood. For these movements the current problem is that of how to direct evolution, yet the distinction between spasmodic attempts at re-forming assemblies and the supporters of Grillo’s movement is something deceptively simple: while networks and occupations are made of members, M5S is made of followers.

Last year’s ‘spontaneous’ uprising in Livorno, and the extent of the cover-up by the Italian telegiornale, provide a clear indicator of what will follow in the aftermath of the coming elections; a violent discontent, that while unlikely to destabilise the Goverment speaks clearly of the ‘unseen’ desire to initiate social change. The call for ‘direct democracy’ in Italy is indeed growing, yet what the rapid and uneven growth of M5S demonstrates is the extent to which this potential agency remains in the grip of a media paradigm and cultural logic that seemingly has no awareness of its own role in Italy’s democratic crisis.

The movement will continue to develop, no doubt, and may even learn from the fallibility of its spokesman. As it stands, however, the representative reality of Grillo’s ‘non-representative’ democracy is a prescient reminder that the creative use of online media cannot alone solve the problems of agency, identity and production that face an emerging form of precariat class struggle that is intrinsically opposed to personality politics. Within the context of Italian democracy the sudden buzz around this movement is unexpected, electrifying and in may cases sincere, but it fails to acknowledge the autonomy of a widespread indignation that makes its own rules, recoils from a more profound cultural lack and, from bitter experience, knows a fraud when it sees one. 

About the author

Jamie Mackay (@JacMackay) is a researcher in Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick and a contributing editor to OurKingdom

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The political program of M5S (in Italian).