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Anti-representative democracy: how to understand the Five Star Movement

The ideas of the Five Star Movement are best understood through their commitment to anti-representive democracy - a radical stance against traditional structures and institutions of representative democracy.

Five Star Movement leader, Beppe Grillo. Demotix/eidon photographers. Some rights reserved.

The Italian protest party Movimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement) is a grassroots movement founded in 2009 and developed outside the traditional channels of Italian political communication. The leaders and co-founders are Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio. Grillo, a popular actor and comedian, became the catalyst for a vast network of civic lists and citizen meet-ups, which formed the backbone of the party. Casaleggio, a communications entrepreneur, provided the movement with an array of technological platforms, the main one being the website and blog beppegrillo.it. This blog has an Italian, an English and a Japanese version, and is often ranked as one of the most followed and most influential blogs in the world. The blog functions as the “official headquarters” and official organ of communication of the movement. Grillo is officially the political leader of the movement, even though he does not have a parliamentary seat. Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) is often classified as “populist” by political commentators.

At the elections for the European Parliament in May 2014, M5S obtained 21.16% of the Italian vote, whilst Partito Democratico (PD), a major pro-EU political force and member of PES (Party of European Socialists) obtained 40.81% of the vote. These numbers need to be compared with those of the Italian general election, held in February 2013. In that election, M5S and PD obtained 25.56% and 25.43% respectively (Lower Chamber). That was an exceptional result for M5S and a disappointing result for PD. In contrast, the outcome of the May 2014 EU election was a disappointment for M5S supporters. This was also due to the expectations that had been generated by the pre-election polls, many of which had suggested that M5S would get more than 25% of the vote and possibly even top the vote.

Political commentators in Italy attributed what they saw as an electoral defeat of M5S to some of the movement’s actions, practices and statements, especially some of those that had come to the public's attention in the fifteen months between the 2013 Italian election and the 2014 European election. In what follows, we will go through some of these and argue that they can be explained by assuming that at the very core of M5S’s distinctiveness lies a radical anti-representative stance. This stance is a critical attitude towards representative democracy and the way it is implemented in Italy and in other democratic societies around the world. It is a stance in favour of what we call anti-representative democracy. According to this view, representative structures that mediate between citizens and political power are structures that separate citizens from political power. True democracy can only exist in the absence of such structures.

The reason why we call this view anti-representative democracy, rather than direct democracy, is that we wish to emphasize the antagonistic component of this view, that is, the claim that representative institutions need to be controlled, opposed, and possibly eliminated. As we will show, this anti-representative stance manifests itself in a variety of ways in M5S. The particular form the anti-representative stance takes in M5S is, in our view, of interest to all those who want to understand the drive behind the recent upsurge of populism in Europe and, more generally, the crisis of democratic institutions in Europe and elsewhere.

The expulsion of dissenting MPs

In both the Lower Chamber (Camera dei Deputati) and the Higher Chamber (Senato) of the Italian Parliament, M5S has expelled from its parliamentary groups, and from the movement, some of its own MPs who had dissented from the line of the movement. These expulsions are among the most criticized decisions of the movement. Many have argued that the expulsions are anti-democratic, that they cast a dark shadow on the movement, and that the threat of expulsion is the means by which Grillo holds dictatorial and arbitrary power over the movement and its MPs. Many have also argued that this leadership style harms the electoral prospects of M5S. However, it is possible to make sense of the expulsion of dissenting MPs by reference to what we call the anti-representative stance of the movement, and more specifically to the way this stance expresses itself in the rejection of free parliamentary mandates.

M5S members symbolically refuse to employ the title Onorevole (Honorable) in relation to MPs, using instead the term Cittadino (Citizen). This is normally seen and advertised as a call for modesty. But it is best explained as an expression of disagreement with the way the role of MPs is normally conceived. Article 67 of the Italian Constitution states that “Each Member of Parliament represents the Nation and carries out his duties without an imperative mandate”. Since the French Constitution of 1791, similar articles are common, in one form or another, in the constitutions of representative democracies. The article is normally seen as a mechanism by which representatives can transcend the interests of those who have elected them and take into account the common good and the interests of the political community in its totality.

M5S rejects this principle. The movement conceives of elected representatives as mere delegates and portavoce (spokespersons) of the citizens. In this perspective, free mandate is the tool that allows elected representatives to disregard the interests and views of ordinary citizens and to act in their own interest or in the interest of powerful actors in society, such as lobbies and corporations. MPs who dissent from the party line are seen as MPs who exercise their mandate in a free rather than imperative way. In other words, they are seen as betraying what in our opinion is the core of M5S’s distinctiveness, its radical anti-representative stance.

M5S has expressed its strong support for the introduction of legal, non-costly and easily accessible mechanisms for the ‘recall’ of MPs. These are mechanisms that allow citizens to request that MPs be dismissed. Expulsions can be seen as a surrogate for legal recall mechanisms, put in place by the movement in order to operate within a system where such mechanisms are absent. 

Elected representatives are denied autonomy

M5S tries to constrain the actions of its elected representatives in a variety of ways, the threat of expulsion being one. The movement has made it mandatory for its MEPs to sign a legally binding contract requiring them to pay 250,000 euros in case they violate the movement’s code of conduct. Moreover, in many cases, an official online poll, open to all M5S members, is launched on beppegrillo.it before a parliamentary vote occurs, and the outcome is taken to be binding for the MPs when the parliamentary vote occurs.

Again, some have argued that these methods are just ways for Grillo to arbitrarily control and direct the actions of the MPs belonging to the movement. The critics claim that the online polls are always constructed in ways that favour Grillo’s views. But the attempts to tightly constrain the autonomy of MPs are best explained by reference to the anti-representative stance of the movement. Grillo could argue, and in some occasions has indeed suggested, that he is simply acting as guarantor of the fundamental principles of the movement. The suggestion seems to be that, given that free mandate is currently protected by the Italian Constitution, surrogate methods are needed to ensure that M5S elected representatives do not exercise their mandate as a free mandate.

This logic is also applied to elected representatives at a local level. M5S has won mayoral elections in several small towns and in Parma, a relatively large and wealthy city in Northern Italy. The election of Federico Pizzarotti as mayor of Parma in May 2012 was seen at the time as an important achievement for the movement. However, personal relationships between Grillo and Pizzarotti have grown increasingly tense as a result, among other things, of Pizzarotti’s opposition to the expulsions mentioned above.

Grillo and others close to him have hinted at the possibility of initiating an expulsion procedure against Pizzarotti. This has been seen as a sign that the movement is not democratic and has been said by commentators, critics and also some supporters to constitute an electoral liability. However, Grillo’s behaviour can be explained as springing from the rejection of free mandate: by making public statements against the expulsions, and by expressing his disagreement with the policies and methods that tightly constraint the actions of elected representatives, Pizzarotti is fighting against the anti-representative core of M5S. 

The refusal to participate in coalition governments

After the Italian general election in February 2013, a PD-M5S coalition government became, in theory, possible as a result of the new composition of the parliament. PD had obtained the highest number of elected MPs, whilst M5S had topped the vote in the Lower Chamber. President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano gave Pierluigi Bersani, leader of PD at the time, an exploratory mandate (mandato esplorativo) for trying to form a government. However, talks between PD and M5S failed. Bersani later attributed this failure to M5S’s refusal to cooperate, claiming also that M5S’s uncooperative behaviour was ultimately to be blamed for the subsequent formation of a mostly technocratic governo di larghe intese (a broad consensus government) led by Enrico Letta and supported by a parliamentary majority comprised of PD and PDL (Popolo della Libertà, Silvio Berlusconi’s party).

The broadcasted live-stream of the meeting between Bersani and the M5S parliamentary groups was described by the Italian media as an attempt by M5S - according to some a successful attempt - to publicly humiliate Bersani. Similar talks and a similar meeting occurred in February 2014, when Matteo Renzi - who replaced Bersani as leader of PD - met with the parliamentary groups before forming a new government, which replaced Letta’s. On both occasions, Grillo argued that the aim of M5S was not that of participating in government, but rather that of ‘opening up’ the political system in order to reveal how traditional politics works.

An M5S-PD coalition would have required M5S making concessions to PD, that is, to a party that has traditionally been very much in favour of the rules (written and unwritten) and of the institutions of Italian representative democracy. Moreover, a coalition would have required giving the MPs belonging to M5S the power to go beyond their role as spokespersons. It is not by chance that Grillo has repeatedly claimed that M5S will participate in government only if and when M5S manages to obtain an absolute parliamentary majority, a situation in which M5S would not have to make compromises with traditional parties.

The decision not to participate in coalition governments with PD was harshly criticized by PD supporters, but also by some M5S supporters. Many have argued that the unwillingness of M5S to make political compromises harms the movement’s electoral prospects. Whether this is correct or not, we think the best way to understand M5S’s refusal to participate in coalition governments is to see it not as a strategic mistake but rather as springing from its radically anti-representative stance. In light of a rejection of free mandate, political bargaining conducted by elected representatives aiming to obtain a share of the executive power seems deeply problematic. 

Antagonistic parliamentary tactics 

M5S’s participation in parliamentary proceedings has been outright antagonistic. They have been accused of sabotaging parliamentary life with an excessive and barely legal use of filibustering techniques. Upon election, M5S claimed the presidency of most parliamentary committees, especially those in charge of monitoring the activities of sensitive government branches, such as RAI (the public broadcasting company) and the secret services. Also, in January 2014 M5S initiated an impeachment procedure against Napolitano, despite the fact the procedure had no chance of succeeding.

All these behaviours can be explained in terms of M5S’s anti-representative stance. There are two elements here. The first is the willingness to avoid political bargaining with traditional parties, which we have seen at the previous point. The second is the willingness to act as an institutional channel through which citizens can control, contest and in some cases veto the decisions and the activities of government and of the traditional parties that participate in government. (Notice also that in the Italian system, the President is elected by the parliament, and thereby by elected representatives, rather than directly by the citizens.)

In general, the contestatory tools that ordinary citizens have at their disposal in modern representative democracies are either informal (e.g. putting pressure on elected representatives via public opinion campaigns) or costly and heavily constrained in scope and efficacy (e.g. suing governmental decisions in court). Some would argue that the same was not true in some political systems pre-dating modern representative democracies, such as that of the Athenian democracy and perhaps also that of the Roman Republic. M5S is pushing towards a system in which the contestatory tools are more robust, more powerful and more directly under the control of ordinary citizens than they currently are.

The selection of candidates

In the current electoral law in Italy, citizens do not vote for specific candidates. Rather, they vote for a party and for a numbered list of candidates associated with that party. The more votes the party receives, the more candidates on that list are elected (strictly in the order of the list). This feature of the law is contested by M5S because it adds an additional layer that separates citizens from political decision-making. The Italian law makes the control that citizens have on politicians even more indirect than in systems that allow for citizens to vote for specific representatives. The opposition of M5S to this electoral system is therefore unsurprising given the anti-representative stance.

In this case too, M5S has put in place surrogate methods and procedures. These are aimed at ensuring that, in spite of the representative institutions within which the movement is forced to operate, M5S candidates are selected in a way that is compatible with the anti-representative stance of the movement. The names that appear in the M5S lists on the ballot papers are decided via online polls (parlamentarie) in which the members of the movement can vote for those who have put themselves forward as potential candidates. Pundits and critics have suggested that the numbers of those who have participated in these online polls have been too small for the process to have sufficient democratic legitimacy.

But Grillo and others close to him have argued that, given the current system, these online polls constitute an important improvement with respect to the often untransparent procedures used by other parties to select candidates. We can notice that, independently of the numbers of those who participate, the online polls function as a way of expressing opposition to representative structures that separate citizens from political power. This is their symbolic value.

Public consultations on policy

In Italian law, referendums can be held upon collection of at least 500,000 signatures and only for abrogating existing pieces of legislation. By collecting 50,000 signatures, Italian citizens can make official proposals for new laws (iniziativa di legge popolare), though there are mechanisms by which the parliament can dismiss or ignore such proposals—and such mechanisms are often used. In any case, law articulation and approval is entirely in the hands of the parliament. The parliament is the ultimate legislative body. M5S has suggested on a number of occasions that many decisions currently taken by the parliament should instead be taken through public consultation. This comes directly from the anti-representative stance of M5S.

In a very radical version of anti-representative democracy, there is no parliament of elected representatives and decisions are taken directly by the citizens. In a less radical version, a parliament of elected representatives exists but its powers are tightly constrained and a large portion of political decision-making occurs through public consultations.

Various theorists of representative democracy have argued that large-scale democracies cannot work without a host of robust representative institutions. This claim is normally justified in terms of the number of people involved, which is deemed to make it practically impossible to apply the Athenian model, where representative structures had a marginal role and much political power was directly in the hands of those who had the status of ‘citizen’. Some theorists have also argued that, independently of the practical problems generated by large numbers, representative structures that separate citizens from direct political control have some important advantages, in that they buffer the system against the moods of the masses and their cognitive and motivational limitations.

One way of articulating the anti-representative stance of M5S, which makes sense of its claims on the importance of online polls, consists in seeing M5S as rejecting what these theorists have said. On this view, representative structures that separate citizens from political power are never beneficial. Moreover, the suggestion is that the elimination of representative institutions in favour of anti-representative routes is possible in contemporary large-scale societies as long as methods of online participation are properly developed and used. Along with a parliament of elected spokespersons (with an imperative mandate), M5S envisages the existence of a multiplicity of moments of direct political participation open to all. On this view, the ultimate legislative body should be the people, rather than an elected parliament. This perspective requires a reversal of the current situation, one in which non-representative routes to democratic decision-making are few and ineffective.

Limitations to the re-election of elected representatives

According to the rules of M5S, any elected representative belonging to the movement must serve for no more than two terms. Ancient and contemporary constitutions sometimes contain similar limitations. The Italian Constitution currently does not. The possibility of serving multiple terms in office allows for the accumulation of political experience. Some theorists see this as something positive, not just for the individuals who accumulate this experience but also and primarily for the pursuit of the common good. However, from an anti-representative democratic perspective, the possibility of serving multiple terms means the possibility of creating an elite of professional politicians, separated from the rest of the population and skilled at manoeuvring the levers of political power without much regard for the common good and for the interests of ordinary citizens.

The refusal to interact with trade unions and the employer’s federation

In the meeting between Bersani and M5S mentioned above, Roberta Lombardi - who was, at the time, the newly-appointed leader of the M5S parliamentary group for the Lower Chamber - said “we do not meet the social partners, because we are the social partners”. Lombardi was referring to M5S’s refusal to hold official meetings with the trade unions and with Confindustria (the Italian employer’s federation). She was ridiculed for what many saw as political naivety. But Lombardi’s statement can be explained as one manifestation of a radical anti-representative stance. According to this stance, representative bodies in general, and not just elected parliaments, are problematic. These bodies are in need of reform, or perhaps even in need of elimination, so that most of their political power can be redistributed to the citizenry.

The movement as non-party

Grillo and the core supporters of M5S often say that M5S is a non-party. The statute of the movement is labelled as a ‘non-statute’ on beppegrillo.it. From an anti-representative perspective it is obvious why M5S does not want to be identified as a traditional party. Political parties are representative bodies. In the traditional view of representation, political parties provide the ideological glue that informally connects citizens and representatives. This glue allows citizens to fuse their interests in order to select political elites. But an anti-representative perspective rejects the very idea that there should be political elites and that the function of voting is to choose among such elites. Political elites are seen as a ‘caste’ that needs to be abolished, and that is why M5S is said to be anti-casta. This perspective rejects the idea that there should be bodies like political parties that function as intermediaries between citizens and political elites.

Another important aspect of this issue is that M5S cannot currently be classified as either left wing or right wing. It is literally beyond ideologies, but not in the sense that, say, Tony Blair’s New Labour was sometimes said to be, but rather in the sense that conflicting ideas (belonging to very different world views and value systems) coexist in M5S. Some commentators have pointed out that this, and what they see as a resulting lack of a well-defined platform, harms the electoral prospects of the movement. But it can be pointed out that the anti-representative stance can be shared by people with all sorts of views on economic and social issues, both at the right-wing and at the left-wing end of the political spectrum.

So, if we are correct in saying that M5S has an anti-representative core, it is not unsurprising that the movement brings together individuals with left-wing views, individual with right-wing views, and anything in between. And it is not surprising that on issues that are unrelated to the anti-representative stance, the movement sometimes lacks a unified position. This can create what some political commentators might see as an electorally unpalatable and confusing mix. But from an anti-representative perspective, the lack of homogeneity is a strength: it shows that the movement truly behaves like a channel for the views that the citizens can express via the online polls, and it ensures that the movement does not transform itself into a traditional party.

The alliance with UKIP

Immediately after the European elections of May 2014, Grillo proposed an alliance between the MEPs of M5S and those of UKIP (the UK Independence Party) in order to form a single parliamentary political group in the European Parliament. MEPs belonging to officially recognized political groups, unlike those who do not, have access to funds and leading positions in committees. So, being able to join a political group has substantive benefits in terms of political power at EU level. Grillo’s proposal was put to the vote via an online poll and was approved by M5S members. But many critics, political commentators, and some M5S supporters have harshly criticized the alliance, claiming that it will harm the way the party is perceived.

UKIP is ideologically characterized in a way that M5S, at least currently, is not. UKIP is currently a right-wing party, with right-wing views on social and economic issues. It is anti-EU and, rightly or wrongly, it is perceived as xenophobic by many, including many Italian voters. Many M5S voters do not see themselves as right wing; on the contrary, many see themselves as left wing and strongly opposed to xenophobia. Many are very critical of EU austerity policies, and some are anti-euro, but not many of them are explicitly anti-EU at the moment.

In defence of the alliance with UKIP, Grillo has stressed that it is a merely tactical alliance, that the MEPs of M5S will not be constrained by UKIP policies and views, that there will be no bargaining with UKIP, and that Nigel Farage—UKIP’s leader and himself an MEP—has been firm in expunging xenophobic ideas and in expelling xenophobic individuals from his party. Interestingly, Grillo also drew attention to Farage’s speeches at the European Parliament, especially those in which Farage denounces what he sees as the lack of democratic legitimacy of EU institutions, and their intrusion in the political decision-making of EU member countries. In some of these speeches, Farage refers in particular to the austerity measures imposed on countries such as Greece and Italy by the so-called European troika (the triad composed of a representative of the International Monetary Fund, a representative of the European Central Bank, and a representative of the European Commission). The troika has been in charge of giving advice and directives on economic policy to the governments and parliaments of those EU countries that have been unable to meet EU economic targets.

An anti-representative framework can help us understand the M5S-UKIP alliance. To a certain extent, and especially at the level of sovranational institutions, UKIP is a non-party in favour of anti-representative democracy. This is clearly illustrated by Farage’s speeches. Because of its ideological characterization and various other UK-specific features, UKIP is not as anti-representative and anti-party as M5S. But at the sovranational level UKIP is closer to the anti-representative ideal (which seems to be driving Grillo and the M5S core supporters) than any other political party in the European Parliament, including those other parties that are often classified as ‘populist’, such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National (right wing) and the Greek party Syriza (left wing). The only possible exception is perhaps the Spanish party Podemos. However, Podemos agreed to join EUL (the European United Left). This political group of the European Parliament comprises traditional parties in favour of representative institutions and, more importantly, in favour of strengthening representative institutions at the European level. Joining this group would have been incompatible with M5S’s anti-representative stance. 

The communicative strategy

Grillo has been accused of an excessively aggressive communicative style. His use of swear words and of abrasive, politically incorrect sarcasm in his invectives and satires against the political enemies of M5S is well known. He and his collaborators have organized some very successful days of protest and public mobilization in order to promote the movement and its proposals. These are called V-days, where the V stands for the expletive vaffanculo (“go fuck yourself”). Many have argued that this style of political communication harms the electoral prospects of the movement by scaring away moderate voters.

Independently of whether this is true or not, it is useful to point out that the political use of this communicative style, especially in the context of polemical attacks directed at the great and powerful, has a century-old history, both in Italy and elsewhere. Grillo uses his aggressive jokes and humorous insults to sound a wake-up call aimed at motivating the people to fight against political elites. That is, he uses his jokes and insults as a weapon against the casta. The expletive mentioned above is directed at professional politicians, traditional parties, MPs who do not see themselves as mere spokespersons, etc. Whether this style appeals to you or not, and whether you think it is strategically sound or not, reference to the anti-representative stance can help you make sense of it.

Notice also that Grillo himself is not an MP, nor does he want to be an MP. Grillo has justified this with reference to the fact that in the 1980s he was convicted of manslaughter for a car accident in which he was the driver, and this makes him ineligible under the rules of the movement. But there also seems to be another, and perhaps more interesting, explanation: Grillo’s emphatic rejection of the idea of him becoming an elected representative is just another manifestation of a radical rejection of representative structures. Being the leader of a radical anti-representative non-party is, at least from an expressive and symbolic viewpoint, incompatible with being an MP. 

Conclusions

One of the slogans used by M5S during the 2014 EU elections was #vinciamonoi (“This time we are going to win!”). This slogan went viral on Twitter and Facebook in the weeks before the election. When the news of the relatively disappointing electoral results started circulating, some opponents started mocking M5S supporters by replacing #vinciamonoi with #vinciamopoi (“We shall win later!”). This slogan was readily adopted by Grillo, and used in an assertive and positive way, to mean something like: “Yes, make fun of us if you like, but we will win eventually, and we will have the last laugh”.

The best way to make sense of this is not just as a way of neutralizing the mockery but also as resulting from the anti-representative stance. Grillo and M5S core supporters are best seen as conducting a peaceful war against the traditional structures and institutions of representative democracy. Their appropriation of #vinciamopoi suggests that they are prepared to accept short-term electoral losses in pursuit of a long-term victory. Only time will tell what the impact of this strategy on the fate of the movement and of Italian and European political institutions is going to be.

We believe we have shown that an appeal to the anti-representative stance and to the commitment to what we call anti-representative forms of democracy can explain in a unified way many actions and practices of M5S. For each of the events we have discussed, alternative explanations can and have been given. We are not denying that there may be some truth to some of these explanations. We are claiming that, independently of those explanations, reference to the ideal of anti-representative democracy provides a unified framework for generating a deep and an interesting analysis of M5S.

As it stands, the analysis is incomplete. It is important to understand what might be the rationale for a radical rejection of representative democracy, a rejection made in the name of democratic ideals. Grillo and M5S core supporters are not always entirely clear on this, though some claims made by M5S supporter Dario Fo - Nobel Prize Laureate for Literature, but also, like Grillo, an actor and a comedian - seem to point in the right direction, a direction in need of analysis and articulation.

Briefly stated, our view is that the most interesting way to make sense of the anti-representative stance within a democratic perspective is with reference to what many perceive as the threat to democracy posed by oligarchies (including large corporations) and technocratic elites. On this view, the traditional structures and institutions of representative democracy allow oligarchies and technocratic elites to hold disproportionate influence on the political process, an influence incompatible with ‘true’ democracy and ‘true’ political equality. We intend to expand on this in future articles.

About the authors

Lorenzo Del Savio is a Research Fellow at Universitätsklinikum Schleswig-Holstein.

Matteo Mameli is Reader in Philosophy at King's College London.

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