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Send in the clowns: Italy’s ‘V-Day’

When mop-haired, finger-wagging comedian Beppe Grillo called for a day of action to tell Italian politicians to 'Go fuck yourself', huge numbers of people took part. Stefano Decicco reports on the man who organised Italy's 'V-Day'

October 11, 2007
13 min read

Before 8 September 2007, Beppe Grillo was a famous Italian comedian. Since then he has become the man who organized the ‘V-Day’. Grillo announced the V-Day (where V stands for the very rude Italian word, Vaffanculo, something like ‘Go fuck yourself’). On this day anyone who desired radical change in the political system was invited to sign a petition with three demands: an electoral system based on voters directly choosing their representatives rather than voting for party lists; a ‘cleaning of parliament’ (every candidate who’s been convicted of crimes to be banned from seeking public office); and a proposal to limit politicians to two terms.

More than five million people participated in the event, according to Grillo, and more than 300,000 signatures were collected. There were gatherings in more than 200 town and city squares. In Bologna, where the comedian was talking, there were 50.000 people present, according to the daily La Repubblica. Small groups of demonstrators also gathered in the UK, Belgium, the USA, Brazil and Japan.

V for the people

V-Day raised the temperature of the political debate in Italy. Politicians of right and left have accused the comedian of being a ‘shallow demagogue with populist tendencies’, and of having a ‘general mistrust towards politics and the political system’. Actually, he has said repeatedly that it is the political class he wants to destroy, not politics. Politics, he argues, must start again, from the people. The main proposal that sprung up after V-Day was that people who have a clean record and are not members of an existing political party team up as groups to stand as a ‘civic list’ for the local elections.

Let’s look at his three proposals. The first, for direct elections of the candidates rather than voting for a party list, implies that a party will not be able to decide who the candidates are. Under the present system, in the last local Italian elections, for example, many candidates from the north of Italy were elected in the south. A local representative should be ‘local’ and know the area he represents, Grillo argues. As he wrote in his blog, ‘The town halls make decisions about the everyday life of each one of us. They can poison us with incinerators or start to recycle different types of material. Create play parks for the children or ports for the speculators. Construct car parks or nurseries. Privatise water or keep it under their control. From the local level we have to start to do politics again with the civic lists.’

He has said he will soon publish on his blog the requirements to be in the civic lists, and every list that fulfils these requirements will have the transparency certification ‘beppegrillo.it’. The lists can bear any name they like, since Grillo says clearly that he does not want to create a new political party (in which he could not figure anyway because he has been convicted of negligent homicide), and they can be autonomous as to what action they take. There can be more than one list in the same town or city. The certified lists will be publicised on the blog and the groups will be able to exchange experiences through a common website. ‘The V-Day participants are not lending their voices to anyone. They are their own loudspeakers. They are the citizens who do politics,’ he says.

Grillo’s supporters, he claims, are already a political movement: they organise and meet regularly to discuss issues such as the environment, the economy, insecure work and so on. The comedian says political parties have tried to ignore him but they can’t anymore because of the size of the movement behind him. Indeed the support that Grillo had on V-Day was a sign of the growing dissatisfaction among Italians about the state of politics. He says the way Italian politicians behave gives him all the ammunition he needs to swell his ranks.

Clown prince of Italy

But let’s pause and go through Grillo’s biography. According to Wikipedia, he became a comedian almost by chance, improvising a monologue in an audition. Two weeks later he was launched onto a national stage by an Italian TV presenter, Pippo Baudo. In the 1980s his reputation rose further, thanks to shows like Te la do io l’America and Te lo do io il Brasile, (I’ll give you America/Brazil), where he wittily narrated his experiences of his visits to the United States and Brazil. Now extremely popular, a TV show called Grillometro was developed especially for him. He introduced more and more political satire into his performances, quickly offending a lot of Italian politicians.

In 1987 during the Saturday night TV show Fantastico 7, he attacked the Italian Socialist Party and its leader Bettino Craxi, then Italy’s prime minister, on the occasion of his visit to the People’s Republic of China. Grillo asked: ‘If the Chinese are all socialists, from whom do they steal?’ The joke hinted at the totalitarianism of the PRC, but even more to the widespread corruption for which the Italian Socialist Party was known. As a consequence, Grillo was effectively and silently banished from publicly owned television. He was vindicated a few years later, however, when the Italian Socialist Party had to be disbanded in a welter of corruption scandals known as Tangentopoli, uncovered by the ‘Mani pulite’ (Clean hands) investigation.

Craxi himself died in Tunisia, unable to return to Italy, where he would have been jailed for several convictions. From the beginning of the 1990s, though, Grillo’s appearances on television became rare: according to many people, this was because politicians ostracised him on account of his revelations about their hidden financial activities, frauds and false claims. When one of his shows was finally broadcast in 1993 by RAI, Italian public television, it obtained a record 16 million viewers.

Grillo currently performs in theatres in Italy and abroad, with outstanding success. His themes include energy usage, political corruption, finance, freedom of speech, child exploitation, globalisation, and technology. He was one of the first to encourage the use of Wikipedia as the future of knowledge sharing. Now his blog is the most read in Italy, and among the 20 most read in the world. ‘If you speak through television and newspapers you are generally unchallenged,’ he says. ‘But on the web your reputation is at stake. Everyone in Italy has tried to start a blog – politicians, journalists – but they never last. Our minister of justice, Clemente Mastella, has one and he talks about me in it. That’s like Gordon Brown in England answering Mr Bean!’

Political indifferents

There was no publicity for V-Day in the institutional media, nor in the more ‘radical’ ones. Carta, an Italian magazine involved with social movements uttered no word on Grillo, at least before the day itself. Later Giuliano Santoro, one of the editors, said that Grillo’s event fitted perfectly a country that is now worried about the possible ‘danger’ brought by the immigrant windscreen washers (lavavetri), a country of ‘qualunquisti’ (political indifferents); he pointed out that V-Day was advertised on some websites of the Northern League, the right-wing party whose aim is to divide the north from the rest of Italy. Carta later acknowledged and praised Grillo’s commitment to the ‘green issue’, but not his overall ‘antipoliticism’. There are more important issues to address, said the magazine, citing insecure work, equal civil rights, disarmament and peace.

Curiously, several government ministers have raised their voices in support of Grillo. These include Di Pietro (minister of infrastructures) and Pecoraro Scanio (minister of environment). Fausto Bertinotti (president of the lower house chamber of deputies) said of V-Day: ‘In the face of mass criticism, those who are criticised should listen and try to understand … Grillo is filling a void that exists in politics with some very dubious material, but his criticism should be accepted …There are no saviours, though, outside politics, so the solution must come from the reformation of politics, politics must be the one thing that fills those voids.’ ‘How do we defend the public morality?’ Bertinotti asks. ‘The parties should define, in this regard, a binding code of conduct, which would exclude, for example, people who have been convicted of socially dangerous crimes.’

Grillo’s more vocal critics include D’Alema (minister of foreign affairs). He said that Grillo is not even trying to fill that ‘void’ and was trying to ‘break the teeth of the politicians’ without offering any real solution. ‘If we destroy the parties,’ D’Alema says, ‘we risk of being governed again by Berlusconi, who has all the media, and not by Beppe Grillo.’ He only agrees with one point of the petition: that politicians who have been convicted for serious crimes should not be re-elected.

Anarcho-unionism and antipolitics

Scalfari, founder and former director of La Repubblica, probably gave the most well-constructed criticism of Grillo’s V-Day. He titled his article ‘Grillo’s Barbaric Invasions’ and argued that the phenomenon is not new to Italy, with its tradition of anarcho-unionism-par excellence. What can be a good safety valve against authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, he says, do not have value in a democracy, ‘where people can organise their dissent in more efficient and civil ways than marching with a banner with “Vaffanculo” written on it.’ Form is content, in Scalfari’s opinion, and the ‘Vaffanculo’ is not just a word chosen by a comedian, but the sign of a society which has become wild.

Grillo, with his antipolitics, wants to abolish the division between governed and governors, and set up a sort of assembly system – the ‘agora’ the Greek word for assembly or open meeting, and a name now widely used in websites. The real novelty of ‘Grilloism’, indeed, is to use the net to organise political (or antipolitical) meetings and discussions. But assemblies, whether on the internet or in an agora, are shaped by personalities. Think of Cola di Rienzo, the man who tried in the Middle Ages to restore the city of Rome to its former position of power through a popular insurrection. After his election as a tribune, all the corrupted nobles left the city or went into hiding. After a period of good government, he had to lay heavy taxes upon the people; he then committed cruel and arbitrary deeds in a vain effort to regain favour. He was eventually killed by the mob.

In Grillo’s antipolitics the person with the power is the one who says what to do, produces the slogans, leads the way. He is the landlord and dominates the assembly. The assembly system has always been a stage, an anteroom of dictatorships. And, Scalfari senses, behind ‘Grilloism’, lies a dictatorship: ‘Antipolitics has always made a clean sweep for the future dictator, who’s not Grillo, obviously. The dictator first gives a prize to those such as Grillo, and then imprisons them. This is what history taught us.’

Scalfari says he agrees with the principle of direct elections of the legislators, but underlines that the Democratic Party, which is now being formed in Italy by the centre-left, already applies the principle through primary elections. He condemned the proposal to limit politicians to two terms as foolish, pointing out it would have deprived Italy of important politicians such as De Gasperi, Togliatti and Nenni. As for the third proposition on a clean parliament, he believes there must be a distinction between types of crime. For example, we cannot ban people who have been convicted of an opinion crime. ‘What about Gramsci, and Pertini?’ says Scalfari. ‘People would have probably voted for them if a real elected parliament had existed.’ ‘These are complex issues that if simplified, risk suppressing the personal responsibility of the individual, and dulling his critical capacity; and our future is in the hand of that capacity,’ says Scalfari.

V for Vendetta

What does the man Beppe Grillo really stand for? It can be hard to understand. He refuses to side with left or right. He is just ‘an intermediary’, he likes to say. People must participate and do politics, not him. When journalists try to label him with the name of a political party or of a politician, he says he dislikes them all. No matter, left or right, they don’t care about some of the most basic things – like privatisation of the public services, renewable energy, insecure work, the mafia and legality. He regards Walter Veltroni (Democratic Left mayor of Rome and probably the future leader of the new Democratic Party) as a man full of contradictions because he speaks of renewable energy and then he says he wants to build the TAV (high speed train) because it can be eco-sustainable.

Grillo refuses to be categorised politically because in so doing, he says, it would be much easier for the journalists to so typecast him that the issues raised by him would be easily forgotten, leaving a space to be filled by ‘gossip’. On the other hand, it was he who gave Prime Minister Romano Prodi the nickname ‘Alzheimer’ (referring to his general slowness, and to his ease in forgetting Grillo’s proposals for a clean parliament). This insult, not the issues, dominated the news and now all his critics can reject him as a worthless jester and a disrespectful man. On TG4, one of Berlusconi’s three TV channels, the director Emilio Fede called Grillo a ‘fenomeno da baraccone’ (circus freak), and said that one day the people will tell him ‘Vaffanculo’.

So who are his supporters? The footage of V-Day posted on Youtube shows an incredible variety of people who gathered for the event. From retired people to traffic policemen, from young people with insecure jobs to managers, white collar workers, clerks, students, doctors and housewives. On his side stand priests (Padre Alex Zanotelli), judges (Di Pietro), singers and journalists like Marco Travaglio.

Grillo may be called a demagogue, but the number of people who participated in the event has clearly shown a renewed interest by citizens in the social and political life of the country, and should not be underestimated. So what if people from such different backgrounds started to realise that things could be much more in their own hands? That they could create an alternative to privatisation of water, to incinerators, and insecure jobs? Could the clowns really take over the circus?

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