How Beppe Grillo stole the left’s clothes

Lorenzo Fe argues that Italy's Five Star Movement owes a big debt to the left – but won votes by rejecting it

March 1, 2013
7 min read

Beppe Grillo. Photo: Niccolò Caranti/Wikipedia

The outcome of the Italian elections brought many surprises – though for once Berlusconi was not one of them. His vote did not collapse, as many had hoped for, but nor did it recover. His coalition lost six million votes but retained the level of support that had been expected. This decline was obscured by the poor performance of the centre left, which got a lower vote than expected, as did Mario Monti’s centre coalition.

The most commented-on aspect of the election internationally, though, has been where the remaining votes went: to the comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle, or M5S). It became the single biggest party in Italy, picking up 25.6 per cent of the vote.

Let us make clear that this is no victory for the left. M5S is an extremely ambiguous phenomenon. As Giuliano Santoro points out, Grillo and the co-founder of his movement, marketer Gianroberto Casaleggio, are both millionaires with a proprietorial conception of their organisation.

M5S’s constitution, written by Grillo and Casaleggio, states: ‘The name of the Five Star Movement is attached to a trademark registered under the name of Beppe Grillo, the sole holder of rights on its use.’ These rights have been consistently used to expel anyone who has tried to make the movement more autonomous from Grillo’s personal style of leadership.

A chaotic mix of left and right

Grillo claims that ‘left’ and ‘right’ are now useless categories. Accordingly, he mixes environmentalism, degrowth and anti-austerity with anti-immigration remarks typical of the far right (for example he rejects citizenship for the children of migrants). When talking to CasaPound, who are self-declared fascists, Grillo stated that ‘anti-fascism’ does not concern him and that everybody is welcome to join the movement.

As the leftist collective of authors Wu Ming noted, Grillo’s proposals are ‘a chaotic programme where neoliberal and anti-neoliberal, centralist and federalist, libertarian and authoritarian ideas coexist’. Wu Ming also accuse Grillo of having channelled popular discontent against austerity in a purely electoral and politically very ambivalent direction, suggesting that this is one of the reasons why there was no Occupy or Indignados movement in Italy.

But what, then, can account for Grillo’s astounding success? You could rightly blame the centre-left Democratic Party for flirting with neoliberalism and austerity. In a paradoxical situation – one very representative of the Italian anomaly – during the electoral campaign the economic positions of left and right seemed to switch. Berlusconi’s right has taken to quoting neo-Keynesian economists in order to condemn Monti’s policies.

Many leftists were hoping that a good performance of the centre-left coalition would allow Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani to form a government without Monti’s neoliberal centre, and that a good performance by the more radical Left Ecology Freedom party (SEL) could bring the axis of any coalition onto an anti-austerity platform.

But everybody knew that this was highly unlikely and that probably, in the end, the centre-left would have championed neoliberalism by governing with Monti. Certainly Grillo profited from this perception.

Failure of the left

All that is true, but still too simplistic. If it was an anti-austerity vote, then why didn’t Left Ecology Freedom, which proposed an anti-austerity and green platform in many respects similar to Grillo’s, get more than 3 per cent? Because it was allied with the Democratic Party? But then why did Civil Revolution, a group of all the leftist forces that refused to enter the centre-left coalition, get only an irrelevant 2 per cent?

It is striking to see how Grillo won support by ‘stealing’ so many issues and battles that the alternative left has been fighting for decades. As Lorenzo Zamponi notes, there are three main themes that Grillo appropriated from the movements: global justice issues (opposition to war, GM food, big finance, multinational corporations), environmental issues (especially the battle for water to remain public and the ‘No TAV’ movement against a high speed railway in Piedmont), and participative issues, reacting against the top-down nature of the traditional parties (which in Grillo’s case is translated into an exaltation of internet democracy that hides his strict control over the movement).

Perhaps what we find most frustrating is that Grillo completely fails to acknowledge his debt to the alternative left. But I think this is the very explanation for his success. Italy is an extremely politically polarised country. Just as some people will never vote for the right, many people will never ever vote for the left, no matter how bad the right is.

All parties on the Italian left are descendants of the Communist Party diaspora, and to some extent they are still paying for the party’s early support for the USSR and its later ambiguities on the issue. Many people just can’t stand the idea of seeing ‘the communists’ in power, and Berlusconi is well known for having exploited this feeling to the utmost – he has sometimes framed Bersani as some sort of ‘austerity communist’. But even Left Ecology Freedom’s leader Nichi Vendola, an expression of a more libertarian left, is seen as part of the old communist bureaucracy, and indeed he used to be a cadre of the Communist Party.

The attempts from Vendola and his allies to renovate the old organisational forms and the standard conception of political representation by working with social movements, although seriously pursued, did not manage to go far enough. This is partly due to the internal limits and the heritage of the party structure, partly to the impossibility of winning the rest of the centre-left to this strategy, and partly to the lack of consensus within the movements themselves on the issue of collaborating with parties.

The final failure of this strategy came about in 2008, when the centre-left government collapsed. And this is exactly when Grillo’s political project started to take shape. By proposing a new organisation with a new organisational form and rejecting the identity of ‘leftist’, Grillo was the only force that could appear as truly different from the discredited establishment. He drew votes from both sides.

Where will Grillo go?

Sergio Zulian, a long standing activist in Italy’s North East Social Centres network, comments: ‘This electoral result is certainly a child of the economic crisis that finally destroyed the credibility of the political class, which was already highly damaged by the corruption scandals typical of this country. Even the radical left wasn’t able to separate itself from the old representational mechanisms that are seen as part of the establishment. Grillo had a very effective communicative strategy that allowed him to re-frame many battles led by the movements. The same cannot be said for the parties of the left.’

Among other things, with his own anti-austerity and green platform, he managed to build the working class and post-materialist middle class coalition that Vendola’s project had been based on. Many trade union members voted for M5S, as well as those workers who had formerly switched from the Communist Party to the far right Northern League.

Now the centre-left does not have his own majority in the upper house and Monti’s seats are not enough to build one. Bersani and Vendola have rejected the idea a ‘grand coalition’ with Berlusconi, which would make them lose even more support. They are trying to negotiate with M5S.

It’s too early to tell what will happen. Maybe Grillo could work with the left and actually do some of the leftist things that are in his own programme: renegotiate the debt, create incentives for a green economy, regulate finance, guarantee basic income, and so on. Or maybe he will cling to the most demagogic parts of his platform – for instance, after the elections he immediately restated that he wants to abolish all public funding for the parties, which would finally throw electoral politics exclusively into the hands of millionaires like Berlusconi and Grillo himself.

Sergio Zulian adds: ‘This crisis is changing Europe – we need to make an effort to understand this change and bring it on a progressive direction. We’ll soon find out which direction the M5S itself will actually take.’

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