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The Italian way to populism

The Five Star Movement has polarised people’s attention and anger around a discourse on legality that is non- or anti-political. Neither extreme left nor right, but only while they are safely in the opposition.

lead The Five Star Movement in its early years. Flickr/ Michele Federico. some rights reserved.The Five Star Movement (M5S) has now become the leading political party in Italy. After the defeat of the Democratic Party (PD) in the referendum aimed at abolishing the bicameral system, the consequent resignation of the former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, and the schism of the left wing of the PD, the polls now estimate that in the very unlikely case of immediate elections the M5S would gain the relative majority of votes.

Many people look on this as a blessing, or at least with empathy, after decades of political mismanagement, scandals, and a tragic combination of clientelism and irresponsible public spending. Some others are deeply concerned about the lack of experience of these newly born politicians, define them as dangerous populists, and fear that once the electoral struggle is over the members of the M5S would lack the skills needed to govern a difficult country like Italy, which is burdened by a huge public debt and stuck in a long period of stagnation.

I shall propose here a different reading that is counter to both supporters and critics of the M5S, for I think that while the M5S has had the evident merit of revitalizing public opinion that had remained silent and sullen for too long, it has polarized people’s attention and anger around a discourse on legality that is non-political. And this risks overshadowing the fundamental debate on the functioning of the political economy paradigm adopted by the governments of the last decade and the eventual necessity of a new one.

M5S 2009 - today

As many people already know, the M5S was born around the second half of 2000s out of the initiatives of the Italian comedian Beppe Grillo, outlined mainly through his famous blog, even though it was institutionalized as an official political movement only in 2009. It firstly participated in the administrative elections in 2008, through civic lists, with negligible results, but four years after, in 2012, it managed to elect its first mayors, in three small cities and in Parma, a province capital. In the meantime, the technical government appointed in 2011, led by the economist Mario Monti, and supported by both the centre-left and the centre-right, resigned just a few months before the expected date of the elections.

The traditional parties that had supported Monti’s government and its harsh austerity measures paid an electoral price for what they call an act of responsibility. If you add this to the widespread dissatisfaction of the people with the scandals that accompanied the sunset of Berlusconism, it is not so difficult to understand why in 2013 the M5S registered an explouat in its parliamentary debut. In its first parliamentary vote, it managed to become the largest vote-getter party in the chamber of deputies, outperforming even the PD, which was supposed to grasp the fruits of years of anti-Berlusconism but which came up short, even with its allies, of sufficient votes for creating a pure centre-left government.

The first important thing to understand about M5S is that its representatives perceive themselves as morally superior to all other politicians. They immediately made it clear that they would renounce any kind of alliance, and they have stuck to this dogma in every political body they were elected into. But it is fundamental to note that they do not discriminate on a political basis; rather, they do so based on reasons related to individual morality. Basically, what they claim is that the whole Italian political system is so corrupt that any politician belonging to traditional parties lacks sufficient credibility for sharing in a political project.

Opening the tin of tuna

The consequence of this attitude in the three-pole political system that emerged from the last election – and that has substantially remained unvaried so far – is that the only way to create a government is to look for transversal alliances between the left and the right. In fact, the three governments that have come in succession after the 2013 vote were supported by the PD together with Berlusconi’s right-wing party – first, with the whole of Berlusconi’s party, and later, when he passed to the opposition, with a group of deputies and senators that split off from their former leader.

The recurrent expression used by Grillo and his MPs in the aftermath of the last political elections was that they were going to open the Parliament like a tuna tin, in the sense that they would render as transparent as possible an institution that has been used and monopolized by what they call ‘la casta’ (the caste) for too long. The M5S has not achieved its great consensus by proposing specific policies; rather, it has done so by proposing itself as the doctor that can cure a dying patient, the Italian political system. With respect to this, it would not be much of a logical stretch to say that the M5S is not destined to last forever. Once its mission has been accomplished, and Italy has finally won its struggle for legality, the members of M5S could reach the conclusion, without incurring in specific contradictions, that the movement does not have any reason for existing. For the electorate could keep on monitoring the decency of its representatives from outside the institutions. 

The basic difference between the M5S and the populist parties that are now gaining votes in other countries is that the former does not propose any political paradigm shift, nor does it take radical positions on key issues such as migration, taxation, investments, the euro, and the like. So far, the key argument of the M5S has been the waste of public money spent irresponsibly by members of traditional political parties as remuneration for their political jobs. As a symbolic act, representatives of M5S have decided to renounce a considerable part of their salary and to channel it into a fund for financing small and medium enterprises.

Neither extreme right nor extreme left?

Some people see it as a big blessing, because by radicalizing people’s anger around the issue of the mismanagement of public money, M5S has prevented the rise of dangerous populist movements. In fact, what is really peculiar about Italy in comparison to other European countries is that even though the dissatisfaction and anger is widespread among voters, neither the extreme left nor the extreme right have managed to enter the Parliament so far.

Some commentators would probably disagree with my latter observation and would object that the Lega Nord (Northern League) is a far-right populist party that might pose a threat to democracy, referring in particular to its insistence on leaving the European Union (EU) and on introducing much stricter controls on the arrival of migrants.

But I think this is an over-exaggeration, because the Lega Nord is a relatively small political force (it now accounts for about 12 percent of the votes), is now administering several local bodies without causing peculiar threats, and above all, in the near future, can only get to the national government in coalition with the centre-right.

Nonetheless, if the M5S should be praised for defusing dangerous extra-parliamentary deviations, it is also preventing the development of a serious discourse on how to finally create economic growth within the fiscal parameters set by EU. For the people’s indignation is now centred on micro cases of the waste of public money, rather than on macro issue relating to the desirability of the austerity measures imposed over the last decades.

Reddito di cittadinanza

The main economic proposal of the M5S consists in what they call ‘reddito di cittadinanza’ (citizenship income), a sort of guaranteed minimum income to be paid to whoever involuntarily falls below a fixed poverty line because she has lost her job or is unable to earn enough to stay afloat. That guarantee minimum income  – despite its name, not to be confused with the universal basic income, given that it expires once the person gets a decent job and is conditional upon actively searching for employment (after you refuse three job offers, you lose the subsidy) – has come under near-universal criticism. The biggest objection levelled against this proposal by all other parties is that Italy simply lacks the money to fund it. The M5S responds by listing all the cases in which a more legal and efficient management of public institutions could lead us to saving enough to collect the required funds.

But what is difficult to understand is how the M5S plans to bring back economic growth. While the pro-business front, which encompasses the right and Renzi’s PD, insist on lowering taxation and reducing the deficit, and smaller left parties invoke countercyclical measures based on public intervention, it is not clear how the efficiency dogma embraced by the M5S would get translated into choices of political economy if the movement was really called to govern the country.

Members of the M5S have repeatedly insisted that they are neither left nor right. And I have become convinced that unfortunately this is true. They started as kind of single-issue movement and, over the last few years, did not do much to evolve into something more complex. With this, I do not mean that their crusade against corruption and the mismanagement of public funds is useless; on the contrary, I think that these are important problems and I look very positively at the fact that a political movement has finally decided to tackle them seriously. Shall we find an alternative method for taking control of the national deficit while preserving employment and giving new momentum to welfare provisions, such as the progressive ruling coalition is now trying to do in Portugal?

Yet, what I find troubling is that the M5S has somehow spread the idea that the whole issue of reversing Italy’s decline depends on legality. The consequence is that people always become more angry about the individual misbehaviour of their MPs, and fail to take a clear and decisive stand on inherent systemic challenges that concern the strategies Italy should adopt to become competitive in the global market and try to preserve what remains of its once generous welfare state.

By the time the M5S have accomplished its mission and Italy will have finally halted the phenomena of corruption and clientelism, Italians will surely live in a better country. There will also be a more just and more efficient distribution of internal resources, once the political links no longer represent an insurmountable obstacle for social mobility.

But even in this scenario that the M5S sees as the optimal one, we would still remain with the same fundamental challenges. Shall we insist on cuts in public services and in privatization, along the lines preached by all ruling parties over recent years, or shall we find an alternative method for taking control of the national deficit while preserving employment and giving new momentum to welfare provisions, such as the progressive ruling coalition is now trying to do in Portugal?

Political misbehaviour and beyond

The majority of M5S members and supporters never tackle these systemic conundrums. If you carefully listen to their speeches and debates, you would note that their strong arguments levelled against their counterparts is that politics cost us too much and that traditional political parties too often get involved in judicial scandals. Both are true. Deputies, senators, and representatives in regional congresses do get very high salaries and collect huge pensions for a few years (in some cases, a few months) of political work. Many voters are mistaking correctness for the ability to govern.

Moreover, if you look at the Italian history of the last 30 years, you will see a never-ending conflict between the judiciary and the political powers, which in many cases is triggered by political misbehaviour. So there is nothing surprising in people now asking for cheaper and more honest representatives. But in my view the underlying misunderstanding, provoked in many people by the M5S’s campaign, is that these cheap and honest representatives will manage to reverse Italy’s crisis simply because they are cheap and honest.

With this, I do not mean that the members of the M5S lack the right political ideas for leading the economy to prosperity again. I simply mean that at the moment we still do not know this. Besides, many voters are mistaking correctness for the ability to govern. The big worry is that the dissatisfied people that now look with hope at the M5S might get disillusioned in the future, and turn to a more radical and dangerous populism.

In the event that a Parliament made up of honest people living modestly proves unable to have a clear and immediate effect on the welfare of the people that elected them, after a period of confusion we might run the risk of extra-parliamentary forces arising. This is a risk from which the M5S, as long as it remains in the opposition, is saving Italy.

About the author

Fausto Corvino is a PhD student in Politics, Human Rights and Sustainability at Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, Pisa. His research interests include cosmopolitanism, distributive justice and the decommodification of labour power.

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