Can Europe Make It?

Five Star Movement: Italy's populist progressives?

The Five Star Movement was progressive from the start. Now they have another chance to shake things up – will they squander this too?

Alessio Colonnelli
6 August 2016

Five Star Movement leader Beppe Grillo. Paimages/Domenico Stinellis. All rights reserved.

Last week, a woman called Prima Pagina and asked: “Why were things that cost 50,000 liras priced at 50 euros and not 25, their supposed value?” She wondered why the spike in prices had never been rectified.

The radio presenter Giorgio Meletti, a journalist from Il Fatto Quotidiano, replied that customers did lose money, but that was compensated by the fact that “each of us has a relative running a retail business who’s made a profit”. A baffling answer, yet it is typical of a major current in Italy's national discourse, one often dismissive of left-right differences.

In his view, nobody suffered significant losses – things evened themselves out. To drive his point home, Meletti went on to say that politics isn’t about left and right any more, but populism and non-populism instead.

Whatever the case, ordinary people were left out of pocket for a long time after the euro was introduced in 2002; many needed assistance or borrowed to make ends meet. A huge hole in the State’s coffers is still there, and with lame growth for the next twenty years, as predicted by the IMF, Italians will face even harder times.

No mincing words here: the extra cash resulting in the lira-euro switch was grabbed from people and stashed by large and medium corporations in tax havens around Europe and beyond. What kind of new politics can do justice to this? Any tenets worth preserving from our ideological pasts?

Years ago, I was intrigued by the techniques deployed by the British Liberal Democrats and Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S), who share a sophisticated rejection of both left and right notions (Podemos eventually dropped a similar strategy). The two parties crave roving or dormant voters to carve out new space. The electorate as a pig: don’t throw anything away. Clever, I thought.

Yet, when their big chance came, both Lib-Dems and M5S failed to take an active role in government. Nick Clegg’s rag-and-bone men subjected themselves to the brutish David Cameron & Co. for five long years of unfettered Thatcherism and never raised their heads; M5S indignantly refused to put aside their post-ideological stance of ‘purity’ – itself an ideology “reducing everything to an issue of political morality,” wrote the scholar Nicola Melloni – as they sneered at the prospect of governing alongside the Democratic party (PD).

So, whereas the former are dead and buried for failing to fight tooth and nail for goals they said they stood for, the latter seem to have different qualities and could have another opportunity. Lately, M5S won Rome and Turin. According to pollsters Termometro Politico, voting intentions for M5S are at 29.5 per cent, just 1.2 below the leader PD.

Despite winning a quarter of the votes, consensus for M5S dropped after the 2013 national election. The mood was that you can’t just be good at protesting, you must also have the guts to govern; and while some felt further emboldened, many more were actually put off by M5S’s hard-core self-righteousness.

This give-a-toss attitude came from a man who for decades has satirised the political classes as a much-acclaimed stand-up comedian. M5S co-founder Beppe Grillo finally went for the jugular, once it had been disingenuously decided to no longer invite him on screen for treading on the toes of the socialist leader Bettino Craxi.

The whole political ‘caste’, as Grillo branded it in his ‘V-Day’ rallies – V stood for vaffanculo or ‘get the fuck out of here’ (an unabashed invitation to established parties) –, became his primal target.

Cosying up with xenophobic Ukip and overseas far-right parties served to reinforce M5S’s distance from the traditional centre-left (and moderate right) and lure disgruntled voters and assorted Eurosceptics. Sundry tempted leftists, however, found the strategy bewildering.

But aren’t they the basin M5S need to tap into for a majority government of blissful purity, away from the left-right caste? And isn’t such a basin naturally in line with the progressiveness of both the five stars (water, environment, transport, development and energy) and the universal basic income, one of M5S’s priorities?

Il Fatto Quotidiano journalists – M5S sympathizers, however carefully they conceal their feelings – still mock left-right disquisitions, just as I heard on Prima Pagina. All the same, with Grillo taking a back seat, M5S could now snatch a further chunk of the leftist electorate by publicly asking themselves why they have neither articulated a “critique of oppression” nor shown “the will to mobilise the working class against an … exploitative economic system,” wrote Tommaso Segantini on openDemocracy. Such self-assessment would bring them closer to those still doubting their ability to govern by egalitarian principles.

To run Italy on its own, M5S need to entice progressives away from PD; but will they ever pass themselves off as a leftist outfit? Success will depend on how many, like Meletti, choose to discard sets of political beliefs and focus on the work being done. Endemic tax evasion, corruption and embezzlement of public money – which M5S are determined to fight – follow no particular ideology, after all.

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