The end of the Five Star episode

The most striking political development in Italy arising from the 2007-08 financial crash was the rise of the populist Five Star Movement, which emerged as the biggest single party with over ten million votes in 2018. But now the bubble has burst and, with anger rising as the coronavirus crisis ravages Italy, the task for the workers’ movement to build its own party is urgently posed. CHRISTINE THOMAS draws the lessons from the Five Star episode.

In the March 2018 general election, the Five Star Movement (M5S) secured a national vote of nearly 33%. In the ten years since comedian Beppe Grillo’s online followers began tentatively to stand candidates in elections, it went from a small, fringe protest group to become the most voted party in Italy, and one of the most successful populist parties internationally. Two years later, its support had fallen by more than 50%.

As the coronavirus crisis ravages Italy, M5S is in the governing coalition with the capitalist Democratic Party (PD), and various split offs from the PD. Even before the crisis, on 22 January, its then leader Luigi Di Maio resigned – the equivalent of a captain leaving a sinking vessel. Almost 30 MPs and senators had already jumped ship or been pushed overboard.

The precipitous electoral rise and fall of the M5S graphically illustrates the political volatility ushered in by the post-financial crisis period in Europe and world-wide, which is now set to be surpassed in the new Covid crisis era. Populist parties in their different forms – right, left, nationalist, or ‘neither right nor left’ (as the M5S claims to be) – were propelled into political voids created by a dramatic collapse in confidence in the established parties across the spectrum; in particular, the social-democratic and communist parties that once had a mass electoral base among working-class people.

The political degeneration of these former mass working-class parties was spurred by the collapse of the Stalinist Soviet Union – the absence of an alternative social system to capitalism, even in a distorted form. This hastened their transformation into outright capitalist parties. In Italy, this was compounded by the Partito di Rifondazione Comunista (PRC) – a left-wing split off from the former Communist Party in the early 1990s – propping up and entering into government with capitalist parties, and losing the semi-mass base it had built up among workers and youth.

Even before the 2007-08 economic crisis, the Italian economy had suffered 20 years of stagnation and high public debt. As elsewhere, the world crisis further reinforced mistrust in political parties, as well as capitalist institutions and processes, including parliament and elections. With all the traditional parties seeking to administer an economic system in crisis in the interests of the capitalist ruling class, offloading the cost onto the working class and sections of the middle class, a space was created for the rapid growth of parties promoting an anti-establishment message.

But it was not just a case of politicians administering cuts, privatisation and attacks on jobs and working conditions. In many cases, those same politicians were using their elected positions for their own ends. This was particularly the case in Italy, where corruption is historically rooted. Self-seeking MPs, senators, councillors and appointees to public and private institutions from all the established political parties were found to have their noses in the trough. Corruption infected every institution in society – from football to regional health boards – but anger was especially aimed at elected politicians. A mere 2% of the population had faith or trust in political parties.

With their main emphasis on ‘honest politics’ and ‘cleaning up’ the political system, Grillo and the M5S were able to channel the disgust that growing sections of Italians felt towards politics and politicians, and their strong desire for change. All corrupt MPs would be ‘sent packing’. The crooks and swindlers who evaded their taxes would be imprisoned. The number of MPs would be cut, their large salaries and benefits slashed, and bureaucratic waste and inefficiency eliminated. Its programme, initially, was quite limited, concentrating on attacking the political caste, with a few environmental and social demands tagged on. Nonetheless, it was a message that came to resonate more and more with alienated voters looking to voice their opposition. For many, the details of what the M5S proposed were secondary, the most important thing was to shake up the system.

How it all began

It all began in 2005 with a blog,, which became one of the top ten most read blogs internationally. Two years later, on V-Day (referred to by Grillo as ‘Fuck-off Day’), 8 September 2007, over two million people packed into squares up and down the country to hear Grillo, a very popular national comedian, berate the corrupt political caste. They queued for hours to sign a petition to ban candidates with criminal records standing in elections.

Grillo’s online followers came together in local ‘meet-ups’ and, in 2008, the ‘Friends of Beppe Grillo’ decided to stand candidates in local elections, with 30 being elected. With the official launch of the Five Star Movement in 2009, it stood first in regional and, eventually, national elections in 2013. Tens of thousands again greeted Grillo’s Tsunami Tour of the country’s cities, culminating in a real electoral tsunami of 109 MPs and 54 senators. M5S was now the most voted for party nationally but was not in government. Five years later, in 2018, the movement went on to double its MPs and senators (221 and 112 respectively) and, finally, to form a government in coalition with the far-right, populist Lega led by Matteo Salvini.

Grillo and co-founder Gianroberto Casaleggio, an entrepreneur and web strategist, presented the M5S as superseding specific class divisions and interests. In a ‘post-ideological’ world, they were on the side of the ‘citizen’ against the corrupt and powerful elite. At the same time, they promoted a ‘new way of doing politics’, which rejected traditional party organisation in favour of internet-based direct democracy.

‘Digital democracy’ has not been confined to the M5S but has also been central to the Pirate parties in countries such as Sweden, Iceland and Germany, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise, and Momentum in the Labour Party. The idea of movements based on horizontal, ‘non-hierarchical’, internet democracy has been particularly attractive, at least initially, to a section of youth, alienated by the political degeneration and bureaucracy of the traditional parties, which has turned its back on the concept of party structures.

The members of the M5S have been mainly young, educated, middle-class professionals. Of its MPs and senators elected in 2013, 24% were self-employed or small business owners, and 35% professional or white-collar workers, many in the high-tech or newer service industries. This social composition has shaped the movement’s political outlook. Its electoral support, on the other hand, has been very heterogeneous – cross-class and drawn from all parts of the political spectrum. However, different social layers have been attracted at different stages of its evolution and there have also been some regional variations.

In its early days, the radicalism of the Five Star Movement appealed to many disillusioned former left-wing voters, youth, and those who had never voted. In the 2013 general election, when it made its first national breakthrough winning more than a quarter of the votes cast, it managed to mobilise over 25% of those who had not voted in the previous general election. It had the support of a majority of under-24s and was the most voted for party among industrial workers, the unemployed and self-employed, with over 40% support from these categories. From 2014 it began to win over more voters who had previously backed ‘centre-right’ parties. The 2018 general election was the peak of its electoral success. In some parts of the south – wracked by poverty and extremely high levels of unemployment, especially among the youth – its vote reached 40% (in Puglia and Sicily, for example), and even over 50% in some parts of Naples and Campania.

From protest to institutions

At various times, Beppe Grillo was capable of mobilising tens of thousands of people in the various squares of Italy. According to the M5S, however, radical change was to come about not through collective struggle but through ‘honest’, ‘competent’ people entering parliament and state institutions – replacing the crooked, self-seeking, inefficient politicians and officials who were corrupting the system – and managing them efficiently and fairly for the good of ordinary citizens.

Individual Five Star members have been involved in, and given support to, local campaigns, especially around environmental issues. In some cases, the M5S has reaped the political benefits – such as in the Piedmont region where its opposition to the TAV high-speed rail link between Turin and Lyon was a factor in Chiara Appendino being elected mayor of Turin in 2016. This was not, however, the main emphasis of the movement, and the more electoral success the M5S achieved, the more the ‘institutions’ took precedent over local activism.

It did not take long for reality to puncture the illusion that meaningful change could be brought about through infiltrating the system with well-meaning citizens and reforming it from the inside. In 2012, Frederico Pizzarotti became the first elected M5S mayor of a sizeable city, Parma, in the Emilia-Romagna region. Along with the corruption of the previous administration, opposition to the building of a local incinerator had been an important factor in Pizzarotti’s election.

Once in office, however, he declared that the cost of decommissioning the already activated incinerator was too high and it would continue to function. Moreover, having inherited a budget deficit of almost €1 billion, he promptly set about cutting services and increasing charges, “because the money isn’t there”. There was no thought of mobilising local citizens to refuse to make cuts and demand that central government make up the shortfall.

An even bigger test came in 2016, when Virginia Raggi became mayor of the capital Rome, winning 67% of the vote in the run-off ballot, her highest support coming from the poorest peripheral areas of the city. Rome had been rocked by the Mafia Capitale political scandals exposing a corrupt network of power, linking politicians, criminals, big business, speculators and financiers in a votes-for-favours exchange. In addition, the city has been plagued by a severe rubbish and transport crisis.

Without a programme for directly challenging the economic and political structures of capitalism – the power and control at the root of the crisis – Raggi has been incapable of resolving any of the most important issues facing working- and middle-class people in the capital. What is more, her administration has also been tainted by corruption scandals. In the European elections in May 2019, the M5S vote collapsed in Rome, most spectacularly in the poorest areas where Raggi’s initial support mainly came from. On 25 October 2019, workers in transport, waste collection, schools and other sectors took city-wide strike action against poor services, degradation and working conditions. For all its denials, the M5S was discovering that the class struggle does, in fact, exist.

Digital democracy

From the beginning, the M5S founders Grillo and Casaleggio had an almost religious faith in the democratising force of the internet – its ability to take power away from the elite and place it into the hands of the ‘citizen’. For them, direct online democracy was far superior to representative democracy and the party structures, mediated through conferences and delegates, that the social-democratic and communist parties had traditionally been organised around. By doing away with those structures, bureaucracy would be eliminated and grassroots participation increased – everyone, they argued, ‘is of equal worth’.

The M5S is officially a movement, not a party, organised around ‘non-statutes’ and with a ‘non-leader’. In a country in which political corruption has been so endemic – rooted in an historically weak central state – and the disconnect between the political caste and ordinary people so great, these ideas have understandably had a certain echo.

In reality, the organisational basis of the M5S has been empirically modified to take account of changing circumstances and the interests of the ‘non-leaders’, and there has been a constant tension between democracy and centralisation. Through Casaleggio’s enterprise, Casaleggio Associati, and a complex and opaque legal network, Grillo and Casaleggio (who died in 2016) were effectively owners of the Five Star Movement which has been run just like a company.

In the early days, when Grillo was the main spokesperson or ‘megaphone’, he would often unilaterally make policy announcements on his blog. In some cases, with regard to immigration, for example, these views were not necessarily shared by the online membership at the time. He has had the individual authority to allow the Five Star symbol to be used, and to expel members. For a period, members would get together in local meet-ups to discuss ideas and sometimes plan initiatives. But their activities and autonomy have been increasingly curtailed and policed from above – losing control over communication, for example. In 2015, power became increasingly centralised, as the ‘non-leaders’ attempted to manage the serious contradictions and divisions that were emerging as more M5S representatives were elected, especially at national level.

Online consultation of members over controversial issues has taken place, candidates have been approved via the web, and members have on occasion even been able to propose policy initiatives and amendments. Nonetheless, the final decision over what will be accepted has rested with MPs and senators. There has been no real opportunity for the kind of thorough debate and democratic accountability that can take place in branch meetings and conferences. Instead, initiatives and proposals have mainly emanated from above, with the membership merely asked to accept or reject in a plebiscitary manner with a mere click of a mouse, without the possibility of proposing or debating an alternative. This has led to abrupt and opportunist zigzags in policy and orientation, such as which group to align with in the European parliament.

With the election of councillors, MPs and senators the limitations of online ‘democracy’ became clear. Who were the elected representatives accountable to? On what basis would they vote on measures proposed in the council chamber or in parliament? How could they be kept in check? The M5S tried to get around this problem by obliging elected representatives to sign up to a set of rules and principles governing their behaviour. Mandates would be limited to two terms (since extended to three), and representatives would be obliged to forgo part of their salary. Non-compliance with these conditions has resulted in several expulsions.

But political dissent has been dealt with in the same way, too, with elected representatives, individual members and groups being summarily expelled. In addition to expulsions, there have been innumerable resignations by disillusioned elected representatives and online members, and lack of internal democracy has been an important factor in this. Without an elected collective leadership, subject to democratic control by the members, leadership has effectively been seized either by the ‘non leaders’ or the councillors and MPs who have appointed themselves as spokespeople for the movement.

Participation in online votes has steadily declined. While average turnout in ballots was 60% of the registered membership in 2012, it had fallen to 14% in 2017. The proposal to enter a coalition government with Salvini’s far-right Lega in 2008 should have been a momentous decision for a movement that, from its inception, had shunned alliances with other parties. Yet, just 40% of the registered membership voted. Once all political discussions were live-streamed but that has since been abandoned. Discussions with Salvini were held in secret and the vote was a straight yes-or-no referendum with no alternative proposals on the ballot.

Towards government

However, the local and regional inconsistencies of M5S representatives, the splits, expulsions and limited democracy, initially, did not have much of an effect on its electoral support nationally. Italian workers, and a big section of the middle class, were so desperate for change, especially as the consequences of the economic crisis really started to bite, that they were prepared to give the M5S a chance to govern. Everything else had been tried, it seemed, and now was the time for ‘something new’: 75% of those electors who voted for the M5S in 2013, did so again in 2018.

When Grillo took a step back and separated the role of ‘guarantor’ and ‘political leader’ in 2017, paving the way for the election of Luigi Di Maio as political leader, it was part of a broader strategy for gaining political power. The movement underwent a makeover as the young, besuited and telegenic Di Maio courted business leaders in an attempt to assure them that they had nothing to fear from a M5S government. Attacks on the EU, for example, were toned down as the party prepared to become an even greater part of the very establishment it had so vocally condemned.

At the same time, the M5S widened its political programme, pushing limited social welfare measures as an answer to the acute poverty and unemployment that had worsened as a consequence of the age of austerity. For some time, the ‘citizen’s income’ had been one of the measures closely identified with the M5S. Originally, it had been intended as a universal basic income paid to everyone, whether rich or poor. In the end, it became a time-limited, conditional unemployment benefit for the very poor. But even this limited proposal helped to secure the M5S huge support in the south, especially, where unemployment was sky high and the welfare system virtually non-existent for many, particularly the youth.

The M5S went into coalition with the Lega in June 2018 as the dominant force in terms of the votes behind it (33% to 17%) and MPs. By the time the coalition fell in August 2019, when Salvini withdrew the Lega’s support, however, the relationship of forces in the polls had been reversed. Using his position as interior minister to promote the idea that Italy’s problems were the result of excessive immigration and ‘weak’ law enforcement, Salvini was able to dominate the political discourse. He rapidly built up the Lega’s support by promoting a tough anti-immigrant and law and order agenda.

Di Maio, on the other hand, as labour minister (the non-party law professor Giuseppe Conte became prime minister), did not get the economic resources for the welfare policies he wanted to promote, and had no strategy for fighting to secure them. This would have required taking on the EU and its imposed spending restraints and decisive measures against the Italian capitalists – the M5S has backed off from adopting such a stance at every stage.

In alliance with Salvini, the M5S capitulated on defining policies and pledges, such as its opposition to the TAV, while voting through the Lega’s policies on ‘security’ and immigration. Even though the citizen’s income was eventually introduced, its restricted form did little to reduce poverty and, crucially, nothing to create jobs, which was what many M5S voters so desperately wanted. The ‘government of change’ appeared to change very little in people’s day-to-day lives.

It was the M5S that paid the political price. Subsequently getting into bed with the PD – the main focus of Grillo’s anti-establishment attacks in the early years – once the coalition with Salvini had collapsed, only further underlined the Five Star Movement’s opportunism. The alternative – fresh elections – would have undoubtedly led to a rout for the M5S.

From day one, the current fragile government coalition has been virtually paralysed through conflicts and divisions, on the verge of breaking apart at any time. In a desperate attempt to stem the M5S’s plummeting support in the polls, and the haemorrhaging of members and elected representatives, the M5S organised a national demonstration in Rome on 15 February – claiming a turnout of just 10,000 – around the question of ending life-long pensions for ex-MPs. This was against the coalition government the M5S is a part of! The demonstration was meant to evoke the radical origins of the M5S as an anti-establishment protest movement. Before the Covid crisis, it had planned to hold a national meeting to discuss the existential crisis it is facing – basically, how to survive as a political force.

Populist instability

Born from economic, social and political crises and with no coherent ideology or class base, populist parties like the M5S are inherently unstable and volatile. Notwithstanding the severe economic and social crisis now facing Covid-gripped Italy, it is extremely unlikely that the M5S will succeed in reinventing itself and win back much of the support it has lost, even if it were to go into political opposition. While support for prime minister Giuseppe Conte has risen in the first phase of the Covid crisis, the M5S has continued to plummet. Today, it is registering barely 12% in the polls. That puts it as the fourth party nationally, behind even Fratelli di Italia (Brothers of Italy), a far-right populist party with its roots in the fascist MSI, which has benefited the most, politically, from the current crisis.

Like the Lega, which is still polling around 30%, Fratelli di Italia has attacked the EU’s pitiful response to the coronavirus outbreak, fuelling the already generalised idea that it has ‘abandoned’ Italy. A poll in March found that 67% of Italians feel that being part of the EU is disadvantageous, up 20 points on November 2018. In another poll in April, 53% said they were ready to leave the euro or the EU.

In the immediate period, far-right populists are likely to continue to be the main political beneficiaries of the corona crisis and the huge economic and social consequences it has unleashed. There is little political space for a third populist party, especially one that is discredited, has no local roots, and a fragile, fragmented and crumbling social base. Even so, a rump M5S may continue to exist for a while.

Italy has been one of the European countries hardest hit by Covid-19, with a dramatic death toll and a health service brought almost to its knees in the north of the country. The economic toll is likely to be just as dramatic. Growth had not even returned to the pre-2008 level before the coronavirus struck. Public debt could soar to 180% of GDP raising the spectre of a debt default.

Italian workers, who have taken some of the most decisive strike action during this crisis to defend their health and safety, will be forced onto the offensive at a certain stage. Politically, they will be compelled to look away from populism towards building independent political representation with a socialist programme that reflects, not the interests of a mythical classless ‘citizen’ – which, ultimately, means those of the ruling capitalist class – but their own specific class interests.