Italy’s clowns: No joke for establishment parties

In his ‘tsunami’ election tour Grillo began to give voice to the deep discontent at economic crisis and austerity

Comedian Beppe Grillo and the Five Star Movement have taken centre stage following Italy’s general election in February. It is the latest, dramatic manifestation of the widespread rejection of establishment politics. CHRISTINE THOMAS reports on this new political phenomenon.

The shock result in the recent Italian elections reverberated around the world, leading to market instability and fears about the possible economic fallout. The Five Star Movement (M5S – Movimento 5 Stelle), launched by the comedian Beppe Grillo just four years earlier, emerged as the biggest single party, with more than 25% of the vote. “We channelled all the anger in society”, said Grillo, summing up this election ‘victory’ in an interview with the international press (he refuses to speak to the Italian media).

While workers and youth in Greece, Spain and Portugal have been waging general strikes and taking to the streets in their millions in opposition to a never-ending austerity onslaught, in Italy there has been relative quiescence. This is in spite of the devastating economic impact on ordinary people, with living standards falling to the level of 27 years ago. But, on 24/25 February, all the accumulated anger and dissatisfaction poured into the ballot boxes, with the M5S becoming the main beneficiary.

In packed electoral rallies in piazzas all over the country, Grillo’s cry of “tutti a casa” (send them all packing) had a particular resonance with a population sick to the stomach of the corrupt, moneygrubbing, self-seeking politicians of the establishment parties, and of the industrialists and bankers involved in scandals. With just 2% having faith or trust in political parties, more than eight million voters turned to the M5S which pledged to ‘clean up’ and ‘shake up’ the political system.

Consistent with its election pledges, the M5S is refusing at this stage to form an alliance with the PD (Partito Democratico) electoral coalition, or with the coalition of the PDL (Popolo della Libertà), the party of Silvio Berlusconi, both of which got around 29% of the vote. The ‘grillini’, as they are often called, effectively hold the balance of power. While the immediate perspectives are unclear, if any government emerges from these elections it will be weak, unstable and short-lived. New elections are likely, possibly within months. In that situation, the M5S could even increase its support – it has already gone up three points in opinion polls to 29%.

A ‘movement’ not a party

Clearly, the Five Star Movement is a key player in the Italian political arena. But what is its character, what does it stand for and how is it likely to develop in the future? In reality, the confused, ambiguous and fluid nature of the movement makes it difficult to define. Grillo describes himself as its ‘megaphone’, because the M5S, which developed in opposition to the traditional parties, is a ‘movement’ rejecting the structures of a party and which, therefore, cannot have a ‘leader’. In actual fact, Grillo, who co-founded the M5S with Robert Casaleggio, a wealthy marketing and web businessman, has an enormous personal influence over the movement. He owns the M5S ‘franchise’ and can personally decide who can and cannot use its symbol in elections.

Grillo describes the M5S as “neither right nor left”, a “movement of ideas not ideologies”, and this is reflected in its membership, programme and electorate. The movement is mainly one of young, educated middle-class professionals. Of its MPs and senators, 24% are self-employed or small-business owners, 35% are professional/white collar workers and 15% students, pensioners or unemployed, 78% have a university degree.

The M5S votes were geographically evenly spread and came from all political parties, both ‘left’ and ‘right’. Around 25% of its electorate had previously abstained. Which parties its votes mainly came from varied from region to region. In Turin, an industrial city in the north, for example, 37% of the M5S votes came from the PD (which includes part of the ex-Communist Party), and 20% from the ‘radical’ left. In Padua, 46% came from the right-wing populist Northern League (Lega Nord). In Reggio Calabria in the south, 49% came from Berlusconi’s PDL.

The movement has a programme, voted for online by its members, but the pronouncements of Grillo in the piazzas and, in particular, posts on his blog, the most widely read in Italy, hold considerable weight. He also has a million followers on Twitter. The use of the internet and social media is central to the way in which the movement is organised, with ‘horizontal’ democracy seeking to replace the normal ‘vertical’ forms of democratic structures of elected committees, delegate conferences, etc. The 163 grillini MPs were selected online, with 20,000 people participating.

Grillo launched his blog with Casaleggio in 2005, and the first ‘friends of Beppe Grillo’ began to discuss online and organise local ‘meet-ups’ (they use the English word). Things really started to take off in September 2007 when Grillo organised his ‘V.Day’ (V standing for an Italian expletive), when tens of thousands of people queued for hours in piazzas around the country to sign a petition calling for politicians with a criminal record to be banned from holding office. The movement spread via internet and social media, and the first Five Star councillors (30) were elected in local elections in 2008. In autumn 2009, the Movimento 5 Stelle was officially launched, going on to get more councillors elected and its first mayor of an important city (Parma, in Emilia Romagna). In anticipation of what was to happen later in the national elections, M5S became the biggest party in elections in Sicily in November 2012.

Awash with corruption

The corrupt political ‘caste’ and political system are the main targets of the movement. Grillo’s comedy routines have always had a political edge to them. In the 1980s, he railed against corrupt politicians. In 1986, he was banned from public TV after a joke about the then prime minister, Bettino Craxi, who eventually fled the country to avoid charges during the Tangentopoli scandal. Tangentopoli lifted the lid on a sewer of kickbacks and corruption spanning the political spectrum, leading to the collapse and disintegration of most of the main bourgeois parties. It was against this background of political crisis that Berlusconi was ushered to power, and the Northern League began to grow, both claiming to be ‘new’, ‘fresh’ untainted forces.

Now, once again, Italy is awash with corruption scandals, undermining virtually every institution from football to the Vatican. In an international corruption league table, Italy is ranked 72nd, below Botswana, Chad and Rwanda. At national and local level, politicians of all the establishment parties, including the Northern League, and in particular Berlusconi’s PDL, but also the PD, have been found guilty of, or are under investigation for, taking bribes to give favours to friends and family members, creaming off millions of euros of public funds to finance lavish lifestyles, and a myriad of other charges. The idea, already extremely widespread in society, that they have all got their snouts in the trough, that they are all thieves, has been reinforced by these latest scandals.

This partly explains the success of the grillini. Grillo uses revolutionary sounding phraseology about sweeping away the current MPs, parties and political system. This strikes a chord, especially with young people who hold the traditional parties in contempt and see no credible, mass left/anti-capitalist alternative among the existing parties and political formations. Fifty per cent of under 25s voted for the M5S (67% in Sicily), and 60% of students.

In reality, however, the movement is proposing not revolution but democratic reform of the existing political system. This would include cuts to parliamentary salaries and expenses – the grillini representatives will only take half of their salaries, possibly less. In Sicily, the remainder of their salaries has gone to help local micro-businesses. The M5S calls for a change in the electoral law, halving the number of MPs, and abolishing the state funding of political parties, etc. The money saved, it claims, would go towards financing the rest of the M5S programme. The remainder would be financed from scrapping military spending on wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Voicing deep discontent

Before the economic crisis, Grillo only really ever touched on two main issues: the political caste and the environment. The problems faced by workers in the workplace, cuts in health, education and public services were barely if ever mentioned. Even now these economic and social issues take second place to political reform. But the impact of the economic crisis has been severe both on working and middle-class people. Nearly 40% of youth are unemployed and tens of thousands of workers are on ‘cassa integrazione’ (short-time working or at home with part of their salary paid). The overwhelming majority of Italian companies are small, often family-run businesses struggling to obtain credit from the banks. A company closes down every minute.

In his ‘tsunami’ election tour of 77 piazzas, Grillo began to give voice to the deep discontent at economic crisis and austerity. ‘Borrowing’ demands from the anti-capitalist left, he called for the nationalisation of the banks, a shorter working week and a ‘citizen’s income’. He spoke about restructuring the debt and called for a referendum on the euro. The M5S programme opposes cuts in education and supports a totally free health system. It is against the privatisation of water and is for the renationalisation of telecoms.

In a context where the parties of the ‘radical left’, like the PRC (Rifondazione Comunista), have become invisible both in struggles and in elections, the fact that these issues are being raised and discussed is a positive development. The PRC stood in the elections as part of a heterogeneous electoral alliance (Rivoluzione Civile) dominated by magistrates which got a mere 2% of the vote. However, while the M5S’s reformist agenda has reflected and channelled the anger in society, it is entirely inadequate as a response to the crisis. Even if the political reforms were enacted and military spending cut, it is estimated that this would provide barely €2 billion, nowhere near sufficient to finance the proposed reforms in the M5S programme.

There are many on the left who say that the vote for the M5S is a reactionary vote. This is based primarily on comments that Grillo has made about the trade unions, public-sector workers and, in particular, CasaPound, a neo-fascist organisation. It is important that these comments and the vote for the M5S are put into context. A distinction has to be made between Grillo, the M5S and those who voted for the grillini.

A breakdown of the vote for the M5S shows that some of its best results came in areas where there have been important local struggles. In Taranto, for instance, where thousands of workers face losing their jobs due to the closure of ILVA, the biggest steel factory in Europe, the M5S got the highest vote of any party. In Carbonia Sulcis, Sardinia, where miners occupied the last pit in Italy with dynamite strapped to their bodies to stop it from closing, the grillinis got 33.7%. In Bussoleno, Val di Susa, centre of the mass No TAV campaign against a high-speed rail link, the M5S obtained a massive 45%.

Undoubtedly, in the Veneto region in the northeast, many of the grillini votes came from former Northern League voters, including small-business owners. But some of these would have voted for the left in the past and, as Grillo has shown, could be won over to a programme which included the nationalisation of the banks and low-interest credit for small businesses.

An eclectic mix of policies

If a credible anti-capitalist alternative had been on offer there is no doubt that many of the votes which went to the grillini could have been channelled in a leftward direction, as has been the experience in Greece with the rapid rise of Syriza. But this is not the case in Italy. The historic weakness and collapse of the left has created a vacuum which the M5S has filled rapidly and spectacularly. This is most definitely a complicating factor in the development of a new mass left workers’ party. But, in the absence of a viable alternative, the vote for the M5S marked an important break from the parties of austerity and a searching for radical change.

The programme of the grillini is a confused, incoherent, eclectic mix of policies reflecting its middle-class make-up. Grillo’s comments are often ambiguous and open to different interpretations. They also express clumsily the genuine feelings of many middle- and working-class people. His comments on CasaPound were not an open endorsement of fascism but a recognition of the reality that some of CasaPound’s policies overlap with those of the M5S (and even with the anti-capitalist left), and that some youth attracted to fascism could be won over to the M5S. However, many on the left interpret Grillo’s comments as being sympathetic to fascism.

The question of the character of fascism needs to be addressed – the grillini group leader in the lower house has also made comments revealing an ignorance of its real nature. So do some of the comments Grillo has made regarding immigrants: saying that Italy cannot take on all the world’s problems, and that the children born in Italy to immigrants should not be given the right to citizenship automatically. However, this needs to be done not by labelling the M5S as ‘fascists’ or in a moralistic way, but by putting forward a programme which explains how it is possible to fight for an extension of jobs, workers’ rights and quality public services for all, and how this entails challenging the economic base of society.

When Grillo called for trade unions to be ‘eliminated’ because they are ‘old structures’ like the parties, some interpreted this as an attack on unions in general. Others, including many organised workers, saw it as a welcome attack on the union bureaucracy, especially as Grillo said that, if the unions were like the FIOM (the more militant union of engineering workers) or COBAS (union of the base), things would be different. In the same speech he went on to declare that companies should belong to those who work in them.

This is consistent with the grillini support for ‘direct democracy’ over a democracy which requires intermediaries such as parties. The real issue here, however, and which has been expressed in Grillo’s praise of workers’ participation in Germany, is a denial of class conflict and the promotion of the idea that workers and bosses have a common interest in working together for the good of the economy, a position which flows from the M5S’s middle-class composition and outlook.

Conflicting pressures

In the very short term, the movement is likely to grow both in terms of members and electoral support. But very quickly the political and organisational contradictions are likely to intensify, leading to its decline and fragmentation, especially if it enters or forms a government at national level. Some reforms will be possible. In Sicily, the grillinis have blocked the building of a controversial US satellite ground station, and the same could happen with the TAV. But the weakness of the Italian economy and the ongoing crisis mean that these reforms will be very limited. The movement will come under conflicting pressures from the capitalist class, on the one hand, demanding austerity and labour market ‘reform’ and, on the other, from the working- and middle-class people who voted for it in the hope of real political and economic change.

The limits of the M5S’s reformist policies and the methods of the movement can be seen in Parma, where the mayor, Federico Pizzarotti, is a grillino. As a legacy of the previous corrupt administration the mayor inherited a budget deficit of almost €1 billion. Already the administration has started to increase charges for local services and impose cuts ‘because the money isn’t there’. The grillini were elected in Parma partly in opposition to the building of a local incinerator which, they claimed, would go ahead ‘over their dead bodies’. The incinerator has now been activated and cannot be stopped, they say, because of the crippling compensation that would have to be paid.

There is no concept of building a mass campaign among local people to demand more money for local services from central government or to stop the incinerator. While individual councillors have recently begun to go to factories faced with closure, and individual members are involved in local environmental struggles, like that of the No TAV in Val di Susa, the main M5S campaign initiatives have been limited to the question of democratic political reform.

The absence of party structures in the M5S means a lack of accountability and democratic control over elected representatives, especially at a national level. The unrest among members in Emilia Romagna and the expulsion of two councillors, including the first ever elected M5S councillor, who criticised Grillo for undemocratic methods, is a foretaste of future rebellions against the political and organisational dominance of Grillo over the movement. Already, Grillo has threatened around ten to twelve senators with ‘consequences’ for the ‘betrayal’ of voting for the PD candidate (an anti-mafia magistrate) for president of the Senate, causing uproar among the movement’s members in blogland. As the political and organisational contradictions emerge this will open up space for discussion about the need for an anti-capitalist political party based on the workers’ movement and on struggle.

The M5S represents a new and important factor in a situation of political, economic and social crisis. An analysis and understanding of the character and the weaknesses of this movement is necessary but is not, in itself, sufficient. Those on the left in Italy need to engage politically with the grillini and their ideas and, most importantly, with those radicalised workers’ and youth who voted for them as part of the process of building a real working-class alternative to the capitalist system.

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March 2013