Can Europe Make It?

The 5 star movement and the left

The relationship between the Five Star Movement and the left is a complicated one. What is the potential and what are the limits of M5S to bring forward a progressive agenda?

Tommaso Segantini
20 July 2016

Virginia Raggi, who was elected mayor of Rome on the M5S ticket. PAimages/Fabio Frustaci. All rights reserved.

The Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle in Italian, M5S) has consolidated its place as a major political actor in Italian politics.

Born in 2009 as a protest movement and initially led by the charismatic figure of Beppe Grillo, the M5S have succeeded in breaking into the old Italian two-party system marked by corruption and consociationalism, and has established itself as a radically new political force through its structure, its decision making procedures, and for the policies it puts forward.

Since its birth, the M5S has proven to be, above all, a remarkable opposition force to the two party system that dominated Italian politics in the past 20 years. In a country with only a partly free media environment, the M5S does precious work in inquiry, research and denunciation of many corruption scandals, and has compelled the mainstream political parties of the country to be more democratically accountable. In this sense, the emergence of the M5S has undoubtedly been a very positive phenomenon for the health of Italian democracy.

The M5S is extremely innovative and progressive in certain areas: among other things, it gives great importance to environmental issues, and has proposed a highly forward-looking energy plan for Italy for the next 30 years, with the aim of ending fossil fuel consumption by 2050. It has popularized and pushes for the implementation of a basic income to alleviate poverty. It is actively fighting corruption and organized crime. It supports public services against privatization more than any other party, with some minor exceptions. It has introduced new tools of direct democracy that, although imperfect, are completely new in Italian politics. These are certainly very important, positive elements of the M5S.

People on the left have had a variety of reactions to the M5S. During the first years of their existence, the majority of leftists were quite skeptical about the Movement's worldview and potential to bring forward a progressive agenda. This was understandable: at the beginning (and, although to a lesser extent, still today), the M5S lacked a clear and coherent political program, and the messages conveyed by Beppe Grillo were often vague and sometimes contradictory.

Skepticism from the left increased as the M5S, from its inception, rejected the left-right dichotomy, claiming to be beyond what it considered useless categories to describe the western political realities of recent years, and refusing to officially position itself on the traditional left-right political spectrum.

Other reasons for leftwing skepticism are related to some of the Movement's dubious decisions and stances on various subjects. For example, when it elected its representatives to the European Parliament for the first time in 2014, the M5S forged an alliance with Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP. The alliance was based on the alleged importance the Movement and UKIP place on direct democracy.

The partnership with UKIP has been a dreadful and incomprehensible move for the sections of the left concerned with the democratization and the radical reform of the EU, and has left many activists and supporters of the Movement startled. The Movement's position on the EU has changed since, but doubts on the intentions of the M5S in regard to the European project still remain. 

Also, the M5S has, at times, given rather vague, imprecise and ambiguous statements on the topic of immigration and the refugee crisis; because of this, the left has often accused the Movement of having stances on immigration similar to xenophobic far right parties. This is mostly due to some isolated comments from some MPs and from Beppe Grillo, that might have been perceived as xenophobic or bigoted.

Fortunately, the position of the Movement has, with time, become more definite, and it has become clear that it is completely different from the one adopted by xenophobic political forces. Nonetheless, it is crucial that the Movement clears itself from any ambiguity on the topic of xenophobia, and that it makes its position on this topic more explicit. 

The reluctance to support M5S shown by some sectors of the left is also due to the fact that the Movement jeopardized many privileges that, despite the rhetoric, sectors of the Italian left had profited from in previous decades. For example, M5S has blamed the main Italian trade unions, which are historical allies of the left, for having failed to defend workers' rights, preferring instead to preserve the benefits of a minority of ultra protected workers and to compromise, leaving many, especially among the youth, at the mercy of an increasingly precarious labour market. The historical record of the last 30 years shows that M5S's accusations against trade unions are accurate.

M5S has also repeatedly advocated for a radical reform of the unequal and unsustainable Italian pension system, from which many old members of the Italian left benefit. All M5S MPs also cut their indemnities by half, and have proposed bills in parliament to extend this cut to all members of parliament. The response, until now, has been quite embarrassing, with practically all MPs, from left to right, finding excuses not to pass or simply ignoring the bills.

The uncomfortable truth is that the M5S brought to light many hypocrisies of the Italian left that many sympathizers had ignored or become accustomed to for many years. Some have recognized these hypocrisies and think that it is necessary to open a dialogue with the M5S; others have retrenched in their positions and oppose the M5S with varying degrees of grit.

However the main reason that, in my opinion, explains the left's diffuse distrust towards the Movement is its absence of a guiding ideology or worldview. In fact, M5S has never articulated a systemic, lucid and coherent critique of oppression, racism, and lack of democracy, and how these are interlinked, nor has it employed a rhetoric or shown the will to mobilize the working class, the "99%", against the current exploitative and unjust economic system.

"Nicola Melloni, in a piece for Jacobin, argues that the M5S “reduces Italy’s historical and prolonged crisis to a matter of corruption and lack of civic virtue, ignoring the economic and class dynamic of Italian capitalism”. The Movement’s diagnoses and analyses of the problems that plague Italy (and Europe) are often too superficial, and seem to lack an awareness of a bigger picture, a system of thought that is conscious of the intersectionality of the issues the Movement rightly addresses."

The Movement has devoted all its energies to what Nicola Melloni calls the "moralization of public life", a laudable but insufficient goal to achieve radical change. Melloni also states, in my opinion correctly, that M5S "is not foreign to social movements", but that "instead of politicizing these movements, as many in Podemos try to do, the Five Star Movement does nothing but block and marginalize their anti-capitalist discourse, reducing everything to an issue of political morality", and "redirects [their] energy towards a superficial critique of its political façade".

M5S clearly lacks a comprehensive and solid critique of capitalism, rooted in the best forces of civil society: this, I think, is the greatest limit of the Movement.

In the last two years, the M5S has grown in size and influence; recent polls indicate that it is the leading political force of the country, and in the recent local elections the movement won mayoralties in the important cities of Turin and especially Rome, ravaged by corruption and maladministration. The chance to govern two large cities will undoubtedly be a test for the Movement and an opportunity to prove itself.

Most importantly, the possibility that the M5S will govern the country in the future is becoming an increasingly likely scenario.

Only time will tell what the M5S will represent for those concerned with radical change. In the meantime, one can only be a keen, critical and unprejudiced observer, and acknowledge that the M5S is a highly popular and innovative political organization, with the potential to influence change for the good.

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