In the early stages of Beppe Grillo’s career he performed as a comedian and acted monologues in theatre and television. However, after a satirical joke in 1987 involving the then-ruling Socialist Party, he was banned from the mainstream information channels. Grillo then started a new life that gave birth to a fervent political activism against the vices of both Left- and Right-wing Italian politics. Yet his passionate monologues have not turned him into a politician – rather his purpose is to inform people by entertaining them.
The poor administration of Christian-Democrats, Socialists, Leftists and Berlusconi’s Centre-Right coalition has brought about disorganization and incompetence since the 1960s. In a country where the state’s massive spending has provoked a deficit of around 120% of GDP and youth unemployment of more than 30%, Grillo’s shows have provided an alternative voice. His appeal lies in his revolutionary and attractive ideas: these ideas are at once pragmatic and idealistic, and an ideology against the partitocracy. Thousands of people have independently joined the blogger in sharing their views with him on the web – the epicenter of this movement. However, Grillo recently denied that his activity constitutes a movement, party, or an organisation, saying that he believes instead in politics for the people by the people. As such, citizens are expected to directly and indirectly participate in political activity by either campaigning or supporting the group.
Grillo’s rising popularity and extremely outgoing personality helped him to launch the Meet-Ups, local units spreading not only across Italy but now also spanning Europe and reaching parts of the UK and the US. Internet blogging and voluntary engagement reminiscent of the epochal crowds spreading the Arab spring over the Middle East via blogs and social networks, are the cornerstones of Grillo’s programme.
In 2008 a controversial appeal called Clean up Parliament was created by Grillo and his supporters, who collected 350,000 signatures to demand that convicted Members of Parliament leave their jobs rather than sustain their immoral position in claiming to represent Italian citizens. It was noticeable that whilst this initiative gained coverage and momentum in international newspapers such as the Herald Tribune, no single Italian newspaper or television broadcaster allowed room for it.
Growing disaffection with their representatives among most Italian people dates back at least as far as 1992, when politicians were first made to tremble for their positions in the 1992 Clean Hands scandal, where a system of bribery-for-policy was exposed. According to the 2010 corruption perceptions index prepared by Transparency International, Italy comes 67th in its ranking, further down than countries such as Ghana, Rwanda and Namibia.
Grillo is also a champion for freedom of information, in a country where television is the major source of information, and where Silvio Berlusconi uses his ownership of around half of Italy’s national television sector to spread his biased political triumphalism all over the small screen. Both private and public broadcasters came in for heavy criticism when they deliberately ignored the 12th June referendum on nuclear power and the privatisation of water utilities. When the Prime Minister said he would not be voting, no channel showed the Head of State, Giorgio Napolitano, taking part in the ballot. Despite popular calls for reform, both the Centre-right People of Freedom (PDl) party and the Centre-left Democratic Party (PD) chose instead to serve powerful lobbies and remain silent in an artificially-created bipartisanship.
Not surprisingly, many Italians do not feel represented by these over-paid politicians. Grillo on the other hand is immensely popular for talking directly about new methods of representation, innovative proposals for change and politics as a not-for-profit vocation.
In the wake of Grillo’s rising popularity after many successful theatre shows, most members of the Establishment snub this new form of political engagement led by a comedian, whose programme they describe as mere ‘anti-politics’. A massive 2007 rally involving mobilisation in main Italian cities with more than 2 million people attending was not only overlooked by the mainstream parties, but came in for a lot of opprobrium from this quarter. Grillo’s activities were depicted as consisting of entirely of false claims and strong language (his famous V-Day Celebrations with ‘v’ standing for ‘vaffanculo’ - fuck off). The activist argued that politicians responded so aggressively because they had nothing to offer and saw their interests attacked. Grillo was exposing inappropriate management and poor performance across the political spectrum.
Grillo has been asked numerous times about his future involvement in politics, as the leader of a political organization. He was also blamed for not getting involved in public debates or talk shows to express his view, and being too self-absorbed by his monologues. The blogger as frequently replies that he already has his own job (as a comedian) and that by contrast, his will is only to inform people, not to steal money out of their pockets. He severely criticizes the self-importance of the ranks of convicted MPs who have extremely high salaries, privileges and benefits, and a politics that in the last few decades has led to higher unemployment, slow growth and higher public debt. Meanwhile, most Italians have to struggle to cope with taxes (more than 44% overall) and everyday challenges.
This comedian is creating a space for new forms of participation never offered by any political party, that answers to aspirations towards democracy from below, promotes younger leaders and a strong, transparent web through which citizens can exert their influence on political activities. Some may argue that this seems a populist, reductionist approach to politics. Yet, as the turmoil over the Middle East has shown, new forms of representation are both attractive and necessary. Beppe Grillo’s impact on the choppy seas of Italian politics may yet provide the necessary tools for a strong civil society to claim politics back and rebuild a country.