Can Europe Make It?

What is the meaning of the Five Star Movement?

Although it took different paths, what happened in Italy is similar to what has happened in France: both countries saw their traditional main parties from the left and the right implode.

Raffaele Alberto Ventura
1 May 2018

April 12, 2018. Italy's Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio attends a press conference at the Quirinale Palace in Rome. Jin Yu/Xinhua/Press Association. All rights reserved.The Europeanisation of politics meant that Italians thought this election would bring them their Le Pen. However, they are more likely to be getting a Macron instead. How did the Five Star Movement become so mainstream, beneath its veneer of populism, that it can now get ready to implement its own technocratic agenda?  

Since its creation in 2009, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement has been an unmistakable feature of the Italian political landscape. For some, it offers the promise of a renewal of the political elite freed from corruption; for others, it is the label which houses a populist, Eurosceptic, anti-rational movement. Not only has Beppe Grillo’s blog led to personal accusations of fascism, but his gang of deputies and senators (a troop of unknown soldiers who entered the Italian Parliament by miracle one night in 2013) have come under fire for their lack of political experience. This is a euphemism. One of them attracted attention criticizing a project to implant microchips under people’s skin to control the population, another when she claimed that mermaids exist and more have been accused of believing in conspiracy theories. 

While it is true that Italy is a corrupt country, a country in the middle of a geopolitical game of power and influence due to its strategic position in the Mediterranean and a country now more than ever witnessing major dysfunctions caused by capitalism, the Movement has never offered a coherent discourse to explain these diverse phenomena. As a result, it has succeeded in channelling the anger of a large part of the Italian population, above all, the anger of the young. But what is this anger being channelled into? And on whose behalf? 

In 2012, Beppe Grillo asserted that it was thanks to his party that there was no movement in Italy comparable to Golden Dawn in Greece. The success of Matteo Salvini’s Lega in 2018 – which, among its campaign promises, proposes the mass deportation of illegal immigrants – paired with the rise in xenophobic violence across Italy have proved Grillo wrong. The news that a Senegalese man was murdered by an Italian national the day after the election – a story right out of Camus’ The Stranger – hasn’t had much airtime in a country where Grillo is often considered a leftist despite having defended the “sanctity of borders” in 2007.

Since then, Beppe Grillo has stepped away from the party and the Movement has undergone significant change. Its slate for the March 2018 elections was fronted by the more reassuring image of Luigi Di Maio, a 31-year-old activist from Naples, presenting a manifesto and a list of technocratic ministers mostly drawn from the centre-left. The Movement therefore finds itself to be the party of the anti-vaccine activists as well as that of the cult of experts: a seeming contradiction which perhaps isn’t one at all. As opposed to the narrative in the foreign press that paints this election as an ‘anti-liberal chaos’, in the words of the New York Times, we are proposing an alternative reading, which is no less troubling. 

What is the meaning of the Five Star Movement ? After running a campaign widely supported by the national press, Luigi di Maio won 32% of the vote. As a result The Movement is now the single largest party in Italy – second only to the coalition of three parties from the right and the far-right, which adds up to 37%. This is not sufficient for the Movement to govern on its own – unless there is a sudden twist of fate (something not unheard of in Italy, where in 2008 Berlusconi ‘bought’ a number of senators...). The question to ask now is whether Luigi Di Maio will lean towards the right or the left; whether he will show himself to be closer to the Lega’s Eurosceptic populism – as his critics and a considerable proportion of his own voters imagine he is – or whether he will, like the Movement itself, carry on with his steady path towards the mainstream. All the evidence suggests that it will be the latter. We could sum this up by drawing a parallel to the 2017 French presidential election: everyone thought Le Pen was coming, but they ended up with Macron. 

V for Vaffanculo 

The force of habit distracts us from paying attention to details, but there is one detail that warrants a closer look: the huge red V on Beppe Grillo’s party coat of arms, disrupting the spelling of moVimento. This V recalls the Movement ’s first undertaking – Vaffanculo Day (literally, ‘go fuck yourselves’) on May 8, 2007, during which a vast crowd gathered to vent their frustrations about government corruption. Beppe Grillo presented himself as the radical heir of the Italian left that, lacking more convincing economic arguments, had been using the tools of judicial power against Silvio Berlusconi for fifteen years. This was a simplistic strategy which neglected the main problem of the judiciary in Italy: it wasn’t only politics that was corrupt, but the judiciary too. 

The big V in Vaffanculo, however, hides a second reference in its typography: the V from V for Vendetta, released the year before the Movimento’s first actions, and which has made its way from the screen to becoming a real political symbol. Derived from an anarchist comic by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, V for Vendetta’s superhero is in a totalitarian world much like our own. His Guy Fawkes mask has since become the symbol of political resistance all over the world – and has been donned by the angry and disenfranchised from across the political spectrum, from Anonymous hackers to protesters during the Arab Spring. It has been the face of a series of movements that provided momentary excitement for the Left, which soon ended in disappointment or even embarrassment. Anonymous hackers may have been Kremlin spies, and the Arab Spring only a smokescreen for religious extremism – surely just a coincidence.

Grillo, believe it or not, was the very first to use V for Vendetta in a political context. The movie ends with a spectacular explosion of the Palace of Westminster in London and this particular image was a perfect metaphor for what Beppe Grillo wanted to achieve with the Italian Parliament. Shortly before the Movimento’s victory in 2012, he declared that he will “open the Parliament like a can of tuna”. Some commentators drew a parallel with a similar statement by Benito Mussolini in 1922. But what is most interesting is how the spectacular rhetoric of a Hollywood movie infiltrated political reality, feeding a strictly post-ideological vision of both power and counter-power. A pure political myth created by the American cultural industry.

Two years after the first success of Vaffanculo Day, the Five Star Movement was born. It’s the joint invention of a TV comedian, Beppe Grillo, and the guru of a computer consulting company, Gianroberto Casaleggio: a movement of sorts, but also a gigantic project of manipulation of consensus, as well as a real buzz machine, using a network of blogs drenched with advertising. Behind the myth lay a quasi-religious view of technology as a tool to achieve the dream of a true direct democracy. A disturbing video entitled “Gaia — The future of politics” summarizes this view, not without recalling some Bannonical eschatological declarations, though today it is dismissed as “absolutely not representative of the intentions of the Five Star Movement ”.

In the following years, despite this cult of the Internet, every IT system created by Casaleggio’s company to pick a candidate or political options from one’s own computer ended in total failure: votes manipulated by the “owners” of the Movement, computer problems, infiltration, and, most importantly, a democracy strongly limited in its choices by the charismatic leader… None of the strategic choices are left to activists but are always imposed from the top. Direct democracy is the MacGuffin of the Five Star Movement , this narrative "content-free" element which Hitchcock used as a plot device for driving his thrillers.

Many times in the years since its creation, political observers might have had the impression that Grillo’s party was merely a huge joke. The most obvious clue – or perhaps the most disturbing – is a video released on April 12, 2012 in which Grillo explains in a very disjointed way that a technology named “SWG4 zip war Airganon”, developed by Casaleggio, can fight corruption – which was a complete invention. The comedian, who always seems on the verge of bursting into laughter, added very serious subtitles to the video. One year later, for the legislative elections of 2013, his party entered the Parliament with 25% of the votes. Quite an effective joke.

Welcome, Mister Di Maio 

This metaphor is not as absurd as it sounds: the day after the March elections this year, the comedian declared that “The Movement can adapt itself to everything”. In a way, it can be reassuring if we read between the lines a desire to go beyond the populism that was at the root of the Movement’s success. But it is still deeply worrying, because we understand that Grillo is referring to a hollow shell. This is compounded by the fact that the party operates in a very opaque way: the “brand” belongs to a private company, the Casaleggio Associati, which decides entirely which political platform party members must support. As shown in Luciano Capone’s reports about Il Foglio, the liberal centre newspaper currently close to ex-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, this opacity isn’t far from an unconstitutional vice – a detail that is not seen as too scandalous in the country where Silvio Berlusconi ran in the elections despite the conviction that makes him ineligible. 

The Five Star Movement spent the months before the election reassuring the middle class (as well as foreign investors) about its ability to govern. As a result, experienced journalists – notably in Corriere della Sera, the main centrist daily newspaper, which has always known how to accommodate power, from Mussolini to Berlusconi – took the Movement ’s program very seriously and treated it with a degree of indulgence, anticipating a likely victory. It is indeed the old powers that be – the “Poteri Forti”, as they say in Italy – that have helped the Movement’s  rise.

After the election results – and if the possibility of the “populist” coalition with Lega is excluded, which would threaten the Euro – the most natural solution seems to be a government constituted by the centre-left Democratic Party. This seems to be the solution sought by the President of the Republic, Mr Mattarella; and it might be this very configuration that Mr Di Maio was preparing with the list of ministers he drew up a week before the victory announcement, in an unusual fashion. Distinguished leftist commentators – such as Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the daily newspaper La Repubblica – have changed their views on the Movement and now claim that an alliance is a feasible solution: “From now on, the Five Star Movement is the main party of the modern Left”. Manufacturers have also declared their support for an alliance: “A democratic party that does not frighten us”. The more difficult task will be to make Matteo Renzi and his Democratic Party – which has already paid a heavy price for its coalition with the centre-right – accept this humiliation. But the alternative is to let the far-right govern, a difficult choice fraught withpotential consequences. This dilemma could very well tear apart once and for all the traditional Italian left, and possibly lead to its self-destruction. The Five Star Movement already seems ready to take its place.

Although it took different paths, what happened in Italy is similar to what has happened in France: both countries saw their traditional main parties from the left and the right implode, and now find themselves with, on the one hand, a new neo-nationalist right, and, on the other, a party which claims to be “neither right-wing nor left-wing” and assures everyone that it can lead reforms to modernize the country.

The Five Star Movement has found itself in this role, a surprising evolution given its origins. It slipped into the newly-opened vacuum and sold itself to the highest bidder. That is the main characteristic of the Bombastium. What remains to be seen is whether this is only the upteenth disguise of an ambiguous movement which is still too opaque for us not to worry about its success. Behind the reassuring smile of Mr Di Maio and his carefully memorized monologues, we can discern the work of the communication team of Casaleggio, led by a former Italian Loft Story candidate. The meme creator Logo Comune edited a video to point out an analogy between the Napolitan politician and the protagonist of the film Being There (1979), played by Peter Sellers, which tells the story of a naive man who achieves a brilliant political career based on a misunderstanding.

Underneath its veneer, the Movement seems to be getting ready to implement a technocratic agenda which will fit into the ordoliberal scheme which governs the European Union. Grillo’s first objective has always been to radically cut public expenses. As for his position towards the Euro, it has kept changing over the years and yet there is a temptation to take seriously his declaration in 2014 according to which the national scale is obsolete and that Italy should be “divided into macro-regions”, just as Gianfranco Miglio used to advocate.

We should also pay close attention to the way potential ministers of the potential government were presented to the press, including for instance the economist Andrea Roventini: “Andrea has a record of publications that puts him among the top 10% of world economists and in the top 5% nationally. With him, we are proposing to bring to the Ministry of the Economy everything we’ve always hoped for: youth, merit, scientific excellence and political independence”. A post-ideological discourse, which is therefore completely ideological.

It is also interesting to see how Mr Di Maio formulates what he calls the “citizenship revenue”. This measure, which had seduced survivors from the traditional left as well as devotees of the welfare state, especially in the South of Italy where the unemployment rate is very high, is merely, in the version proposed by the Five Star Movement, an unemployment benefit with very strict conditions.

In particular, the job seeker would have to accept the third job proposition he is offered, which could be anywhere in Italy since the search base will be organised at the national level. The true political miracle of Mr Di Maio would be to succeed in getting such a reform approved – which is in line with European legislation often criticised by leftist parties (Hartz IV, Macron’s reform, “flexsecurity” or “workfare”) – under the guise of a popular or populist measure. Or even to dismantle the public service under the pretence of replacing it with a universal income — “Our long-term goal is to outstrip the current social security system” — just like in Milton Friedman’s vision. Brava!

Are we witnessing the Macronisation of Beppe Grillo? Today, finally, the Five Star Movement isn’t the party of extremes, left or right, that it once appeared to be. It is, in a way, the heir of Christian Democracy in the age of the Internet. Mr Di Maio said it again on the day after the election: “We’re neither of the right nor the left”. The journalist Gianni Riotta underlined that one of Beppe Grillo’s mentors might be former minister Enzo Scotti, famous for his skill in “flipping” his position within the old Christian Democracy (DC).

He cautioned that The Movement might suffer from the influence of lobbies, previously associated with the DC party that ruled for over fifty years, which adopted positions that were alternatively right-wing or left-wing, fascist if necessary, socialist when needed, to pass reforms to turn Italy into a social-democratic country, technocratic at times and populist at others.

If Mr Di Maio succeeds in striking a bargain with the Democratic Party and if the leaders (pardon me, the owners) of the Movement succeed in silencing the most radical voices, this Macronisation will be fully accomplished. Unnoticed, the Five Star Movement will maybe succeed in adopting the “reforms Italy has been waiting for for years” – a recurrent leitmotiv in the Italian public debate. That is, in any case, the wager that the Italian middle class is tempted to take, now convinced that the Movement shares its interests, thanks to the mediation of some Deus ex machina working in the shadows of Casaleggio Associati. It is a risky bet, but not entirely absurd.

The issue of populism, however, will not be so easily resolved: it will shift somewhere else and after having gone through such an escalation in the rhetoric used, it risks becoming even more powerful. On the day after the election, the fiscal authorities received a few requests to reclaim the citizenship income. While these reports are anecdotal, they indicate the bitter disillusionment that will follow. That is where Matteo Salvini’s Lega might obtain even higher scores, paradoxically turning the Movement  into the role of the “useful vote” of Moderates. In general, the mistakes of the British Conservatives that led to Brexit should be a cautionary tale to anyone who believes that they can fan the flames of resentment without eventually suffering the consequences.

A moral

Recent history is beginning to look like the tragedy of Oedipus; what was bound to happen eventually happens precisely because people try not to make it happen. In 1774, Louis XVI named Robert Jacques Turgot as minister of finances and asked him to reform the French economy. The minister deregulated the grain market, but the following harvest was such a disaster that instead of lowering prices, it provoked a huge inflation as well as local shortages. The people protested, leading to what historians called the “Flour War”. The reform was withdrawn.

In the following years, several conspiracy theories bloomed on the grave of this aborted attempt of reform and its alleged malicious objectives. It is on this exact same basis of paranoia, fuelled by the aristocracy against the power of Parisian "technocrats", that fifteen years later in 1789, the people once again revolted after a new shortage of flour. And that is how the starving people brought to power a political class which actually realised the objectives of the technocrats: wide-ranging reforms. The first one adopted by these “populists”, one month after the fall of the Bastille, was precisely to deregulate the grain market. In one way or another, History follows its path. Each reader can decide themselves what the moral of this story is.

The original article (in French) was published by The Groupe d'Études Géopolitiques – a study group in the École Normale Supérieure of Paris. It was translated by Lola Salem and edited by Katie Ebner-Landy and Victoria Gonzalez-Maltes.

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