SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 198 May 2016

Italy: Five Star’s ten years

The Five Star Movement has been on the scene for a decade and is enjoying a new upturn – ahead in the polls to win Rome’s mayor on 5 June. Meanwhile, the death in April of its co-founder, Gianroberto Casaleggio, could exacerbate the tensions and contradictions latent since the Movement’s inception. It’s a good time to draw a balance sheet, writes MARCO VERUGGIO of Controcorrente (CWI Italy)

Beppe Grillo first ‘entered the field’ at the beginning of 2005, with the birth of, which rapidly climbed the league table of the world’s most-followed blogs. A few months later, the comedian from Genova proposed that his followers adopt an organised structure on the model of ‘meet-ups’, a social network which the American senator Howard Dean had used in his 2004 campaign in the Democratic primaries.

In the following years, Grillo launched a series of political campaigns – change to the electoral law, ban on candidates with a criminal record, etc – through his ‘vaffanculo days’ (‘fuck off days’). He held mass meetings where thousands of signatures were collected in support of these initiatives, and the first civic electoral lists linked to the meet-ups arose. In 2008, the Friends of Beppe Grillo announced that they would stand lists of candidates in the local elections in some cities. In 2009 the ‘Five Star’ electoral symbol was registered and Grillo put himself forward as a candidate in the Democratic Party (PD) leadership primary. The PD ruling group rejected his candidature. At the end of that year the national Five Star Movement was founded. In 2010, it obtained its first success in regional elections, with two candidates elected in Piedmont and two in Emilia.

In 2012 the Five Star Movement (M5S) stood in around 100 councils, winning four mayoral positions, including Frederico Pizzarotti in Parma. In the regional elections in Sicily its list obtained the highest number of votes and 15 candidates were elected to the regional assembly. The boom came in the general election of 2013, at the end of a campaign during which Grillo packed out squares all over Italy – culminating in San Giovanni square in Rome, historic assembly point of the left. The M5S electoral list came first nationally, beating the PD, if only by a handful of votes – because of the electoral system the PD obtained more seats. Pier Luigi Bersani, leader of the PD at that time, commented: "We came first but we didn’t win". The rest is recent history.

Anti-party, post-ideological

The M5S came about following a meeting between Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio. Grillo, son of the owner of a small metal company in the port of Genova and an accountant in the 1970s, enrolled in Economy and Business. He also did cabaret, through which he began a dazzling career in the state TV station, RAI. This was interrupted in the 1980s, however, when he was banned from state TV because of a joke he made about the Italian Socialist Party. Kicked out of RAI, he began a series of theatre tours where he concentrated more and more on social, economic and environmental issues.

Casaleggio, after becoming a software programmer at Olivetti, took the opportunity opened up by the internet to become manager of a computer firm working for large Italian and foreign companies, as well as in the public sector, until he founded Casaleggio Associati. He became the main brains behind Grillo’s blog, and his political adviser. While Grillo is the public face and charismatic leader of the M5S, Casaleggio worked behind the scenes in the role of organiser, taking responsibility for communications. He was the inspiration behind many of Grillo’s posts and battles.

So the M5S came about both as the expression of a social movement and from the initiative of two individuals. Although it has been able to relate to millions of Italians who are disgusted with politics and are looking for something new, its social character and ideology strongly reflect the cultural background of its two founders. While its electoral base is heterogeneous, with Grillo and Casaleggio’s message oriented to the generic ‘citizen’ fed up with parties and traditional politics, the ideas and methods of the M5S reflect issues and an approach which are typical of a middle-class radicalism.

It has an unclear ideological profile, oscillating between left ecologist positions and liberal illusions, with some nods towards the right which seem to be dictated more by electoral considerations than genuine conviction. It is not accidental that one of the first concrete initiatives of the M5S was the creation of a fund to support small- and medium-sized companies, funded by a proportion of the income of its elected representatives. However, the social composition of its electorate is very broad. In 2013, apart from winning majority support among the under 24s, the M5S was the most voted for party among industrial workers, the unemployed and self-employed, with over 40% support in each of these categories.

The M5S presents itself as an anti-party, post-ideological ‘movement’, neither right- nor left-wing. However, its positions include many myths and commonly held ideas which are typical of the radical left and liberal American thought – as well as ‘Renzismo’, the populism of PD prime minister Matteo Renzi. The key ideas of Grillo in the 1990s and the high-tech utopianism of Casaleggio have been mixed together to create a heterogeneous ideological repertoire which is adapted to specific needs by way of a series of corrections. Sometimes, in the face of more thorny issues, it resorts to online votes.

There is nostalgia for the mythical entrepreneur of the past: the self-made man, creating work and social wealth, instead of enriching himself through financial speculation. There is the myth of advanced capitalism, American or German, which invests in technology and training and imprisons those who evade paying their taxes and defraud consumers. There is the rhetoric of the small- and medium-sized Italian businesses and artisans, the ‘real wealth’ of Italy, together with tourism and culture. And the prosecution of politicians who live off the backs of small businesses and honest citizens, with the complicity of a rapacious state bureaucracy (including, in this narrative, public-sector workers), multinational corporations and corrupt bankers.

It is in this context that the idea of a ‘collective conscious and new politics’ is placed. Alongside the growth of the worldwide web, this means that communication is no longer in the hands of ‘the power’ (the masonic elite and Bilderberg technocrats) but in those of the people. Thanks to the global democracy of the internet, the argument goes, every problem of humanity can find a concrete solution, making ideology, religious confession and political parties superfluous.

From these premises Grillo and Casaleggio drew the conclusion that a group of non-professional, young, honest and competent politicians, ready to study diligently and supported by a strong movement of ideas, can enter into the state institutions. Once there, they can clean out the old politics, proposing laws and becoming in effect the last line of defence for a state with a credibility crisis, "before the people come onto the streets and make a revolution", as Grillo puts it.

But how? By investing in technology and renewable energy, giving the unemployed a guaranteed minimum income, involving citizens in decisions (referenda, participatory budgets, etc), and reducing political costs. In addition, by implementing the government’s proposed spending review to reduce the costs of companies and the public sector, and using an iron fist against swindlers, the corrupt and tax evaders.

Contradictions and cracks

With the passing of the years and contact with concrete reality, the first contradictions and cracks have emerged in the Five Star Movement. Even so, this heterogeneous mixture of analysis, principles, programme and organisational methods continues to hold a certain fascination for millions of Italians disgusted by the ‘old parties’. Moreover, these are the same contradictions which for years have been fed by the so-called radical left, the liberals of the Fatto Quotidiano newspaper and, in some ways, Renzismo (in his youth rhetoric, for example).

It is no accident that the criticisms in this milieu against the M5S have always been against the form rather than the substance. Much of the ‘radical left’ accuse the M5S – more out of envy than conviction – of being racist and anti-democratic, sometimes even fascist. This is a way of detracting from the fact that the M5S has been more coherent than them in some ways – such as its refusal to go into alliance with the PD – and as ineffective as them in others (though, in general, not more so).

The basis for the cracks emerging in the M5S lies in the fact that, although it challenges some of the social phenomena in society – inequality, social and environmental devastation, corruption, lack of democracy – it does not grasp their structural connections to the functioning of the capitalist system as a whole. The M5S therefore feeds the illusion that it would be possible to introduce rules which could prevent the market from damaging ‘honest citizens’, the environment and ‘natural wealth’. And to do so it would be sufficient to take inspiration from the northern European or Anglo-Saxon model of ‘advanced capitalism’.

In a show in 1993 Grillo had a go at ‘backward’ Italian companies: "There’s a 400,000 lira device. Volkswagen made it. It’s a device which cuts off your car engine when you stop at traffic lights or when you’re in a queue. Isn’t it stupid to consume petrol when the car has stopped? Do you know what Romiti [then CEO of FIAT] said about queues? He said that being at the back of the queue is a chance to be with your family!" In 2015 Volkswagen was involved in an international scandal, caused by another device, just as clever but less praiseworthy. And it is being revealed that Volkswagen was not the only one to falsify carbon emissions data. This alone shows that capitalism, advanced or backward, in the north or south, has only one rule: to make money.

Second problem: you want to change society, but what agency will change it? For the M5S it will be the ‘citizens’. Being ‘post-ideological’, the M5S does not identify itself with a social class. But Grillo likes the big entrepreneurs of the past: "Olivetti, Costa. People who knew all of their workers by name! Costa even rented houses to his employees, he deducted an amount from their pay packets and then after a certain number of years said: Now this is your house. You’ve bought it with your own money, even if I put the money aside because otherwise you would have wasted it!"

Now that the big corporations are corrupted by financial speculation, the new heroes are the small entrepreneurs, "a species becoming extinct, supported by the left still grasping at the teats of the franchisers, state contracts and cooperatives, betrayed by the right which is often corrupt and linked to the Mafia, friend and foragers of the big entrepreneurs with laws and ad hoc welfare benefits. Giving in is difficult but when they do, with a cord around the neck or a gunshot in the office, it’s not an act of surrender but of protest. [The small entrepreneur] throws his life in the face of those who have never worked, threatened, betting on dreams, always paying personally for choices made. Without help and proud that he doesn’t have to ask. He is a fighter who seems devoted to martyrdom, but who fights for everyone, even for his adversaries. Without him the country would be snuffed out like a candle, without the fabric of the small and medium companies all that would remain would be banks without deposits, public-sector workers without a wage and pensioners without a pension".

According to the philosophy of the M5S, workers can be part of changing things if they shake off their role as workers. If the public-sector worker repudiates his/her affiliation with the bureaucracy. If the metalworker distances him/herself from the trade union and gives up work-related unemployment benefits in exchange for a citizen’s income of €600 a month. If s/he is ready to accept any kind of work. If not, s/he is a scrounger. In conclusion, if s/he gives up identifying with a social class and limits her/himself to being a citizen, ready to ally with the small entrepreneurs in a battle that is neither right- nor left-wing, against ‘the powers that be’.

Internet-driven democracy

Technology makes looking for an agency for transformation useless. In fact, it becomes the agency, according to Casaleggio. For the M5S, the internet is a means of spreading democracy, because ‘it’s in the hands of the people’. The possibility of publishing content on the internet is considered equivalent to controlling it, as if it were not the owners of the servers and the telephone network systems, states and colossal companies like Google and Amazon which govern the system but whoever has a Facebook page or Gmail account. Power is identified with communication and communication belongs to whoever communicates.

With class divisions surpassed the state becomes a neutral field on which the old politics and citizens confront each other. The old commonly shared belief that ‘we are the state’ is sovereign. Therefore, the main way to help the spontaneous democratisation of the world through the web is by the ‘re-conquest of the state’ by electoral and legal means. This places the M5S as the only means of containing social anger within the republican institutions, before people pour onto the streets or follow the extreme right. An attack on Laura Boldrini (PD president of the lower house) and the occupation of the government’s benches in parliament substitute social conflict in the streets with a battle in the political institutions – by the representatives of the citizens against all the parties in parliament. This representation is considered to be the first step towards an M5S government and the implementation of its programme.

Since the internet is democracy, the M5S’s organisation is modelled on the web. There are no membership cards. You sign up to the blog. Members get together in the meet-ups to discuss and plan initiatives. The most discussed topics are public services and the environment, and almost everywhere meetings are organised to inform members about the interventions M5S representatives have made in the political institutions. The themes, however, are very disparate.

In Naples they discuss more about open source, language courses (local dialects), walks in the city centre or the traditions of Scampia, a suburb of Naples, rather than unemployment. In Genova, two weeks of struggle at the ILVA steel works did not make it onto the agenda of the local meet-up. In Sulcis, Sardinia, the site of a bitter struggle by miners against the closure of the last remaining pit, the most discussed issues are Beppe Grillo, civic activism, freedom of information and renewable energy. In the XI municipal area of Rome, they discuss permaculture and the possibility of satisfying two thirds of the population’s food needs by planting vegetable gardens on the roofs of blocks of flats.

Sometimes decisions are made by meetings, online votes, or primaries. A national Directory has been set up recently. On the other hand, if there is conflict in the institutions, the natural bodies of the M5S are those defined by the institutional roles. Grillo and Casaleggio (the ‘guarantors’ of the Movement) sometimes took decisions over everyone else’s heads – presumably, Grillo intends to continue to do so. The members of the Directory are all MPs with important parliamentary posts: Luigi Di Maio (vice-president of the lower house), Alessandro Di Battista and Carlo Sibilia (vice-president and secretary of the Foreign Affairs Committee), Roberto Fico (member of the governing body of RAI) and Carlo Ruocco (vice-president of the Finance Committee). In the same way, the spokespersons for the M5S in cities and regions are mainly mayors and council group leaders.

As a unique formation in European politics, the M5S is internationally isolated. It experienced (and rejected) courting by the Front National of Marine Le Pen, but ended up in the arms of Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party in the European parliament, more out of convenience than principle. This alliance has not really developed and has stirred a less than enthusiastic reaction among the rank and file of the M5S. This is also due to the oscillation and latent contradictions between Grillo, on the one side, and the majority of the M5S’s elected representatives, on the other – and, in some cases, even between Grillo and Casaleggio around issues such as immigration and leaving the euro. The M5S tries to make up for the lack of strategy by continually adjusting its tactics. It is clear that this international isolation represents another factor of structural weakness to which the M5S does not seem to have found a response as yet.

From theory to practice

Electoral victories have meant that the M5S has had to manage positions of power. This has brought all these difficult issues to the surface. In Parma, the M5S mayor, Frederico Pizzarotti, has inherited a catastrophic budget situation. The same is true of Filippo Nogarin in Livorno, particularly with regards to rubbish collection. They could have tried to defend their electoral programme of public services and citizen’s rights, while presenting the bill to those who are responsible for the financial crisis, thus making it a national political question for the entire M5S.

They did not do so – like Alexis Tsipras, the Syriza prime minister of Greece, towards whom the M5S was first sympathetic and then indulgent. Because, in order to challenge the ‘golden rules’ of capitalism – one of which is that bank debt must be honoured – it is necessary to have an alternative to the system. Above all, although a mayor can at least try to break such rules, it is not sufficient merely to have a majority in the council chamber. There needs to be thousands of people outside it, organised and ready to mobilise.

The only other alternative is to present the bill in the form of cuts to the ‘citizen-workers’, instead of ‘citizen-bankers’. But that provokes conflicts, even expulsions and splits. This was the case, for different reasons and around different issues, in Quarto, a municipality of Naples, where the mayor was expelled from the M5S. The M5S has an obsessive idea that public companies are in debt solely as a result of mismanagement or corruption. Further, that responsibility is distributed equally between politicians, managers and workers, that criminality can be fought effectively by magistrates, and that it is sufficient just to denounce blackmail, whether or not it can be proved. Moreover, it is claimed that this is the main difference between the M5S and other parties. In the end, these ideas inevitably rebound on the M5S itself.

In the same way, the M5S tends to transform rules into dogma: whoever has an elected position must see their term through to the end, with every controversial decision put to an online vote. This meant that, in Rome, the M5S gave up the candidacy of Di Battista for mayor or it would have broken its own ethical code. Virginia Raggi, a lawyer, is now the candidate. At the time of the vote in parliament on civil unions for gay and lesbians, in order to avoid another split in the parliamentary group, Grillo published a brief communication on his blog - overturning the result of the online vote - announcing that M5S MPs would be allowed ‘freedom of conscience’, only to change position again the following week.

Approaching a crossroads

Ten years on from Grillo’s entrance into politics, the M5S is in its most delicate phase, in which every false step could jeopardise its survival as an important political force. A year after its 2013 triumph, when it was already clear that it had not succeeded in "opening up parliament like a tin of tuna", the M5S saw its vote go down. Nonetheless, the scandals in Rome, the soap opera surrounding the ex-PD mayor Ignazio Marino and the first symptoms of a crisis for Renzi have revitalised the M5S. However, Grillo and his followers are experiencing new and serious difficulties precisely when they could win the elections in Rome. That would present them with their biggest test to date: governing a city which is home to the most poisoned tangle of political, economic and criminal interests in the country. That Grillo warns of the threat of strikes and imposes the surreal rule on candidates that they must pay a fine of €150,000 if they bring the image of the M5S into disrepute, these are signs that the risks are understood and, at the same time, of the difficulty in dealing with them.

Mafia Capitale (political scandals in Rome) and Vatileaks (scandals at the Vatican) have revealed to millions of people that the capital’s real government is in the hands of a big-business cabal. Fixers, criminals, cardinals, building speculators and bankers sit around the same table with political parties, supplying votes in exchange for favours. In the absence of social support, it is the only way the politicians have. The big-business fixers make up a group of organised social and economic forces, rooted in the local area, with efficient channels of self-financing, even military control, and with an efficient propaganda machine. It is a system which is part-legal, part-illegal, through which the ruling classes share out local and also national business.

Governing Rome would put the M5S at a crossroads. Either the corrupt big-business/political interests are confronted, or the strikes by bus drivers and refuse cleaners, and protesting traffic police will end up as scapegoats for the crises in Rome. Maybe, by playing workers against ‘citizens’. Sooner or later, the choice will have to be made.

Without a clear decision – which, given the nature of the M5S, is unlikely – the perspective is one of continual internal conflicts, expulsions and splits, a progressive weakening which would make the M5S one of the many political forces in crisis in Italy. On the one hand, this scenario risks reproducing a kind of Tsipras effect, with millions of people – including many workers and youth who saw the M5S as the last chance for a political alternative – thinking that nothing else can be done. On the other hand, it would leave the unresolved question of workers’ political representation and the aspirations for a society founded on economic and social equality more firmly to the fore.

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