Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
The police spend little of their time making arrests, and most crimes are not solved, writes Alex Vitale – their real purpose is social control
Many important things happened on conference floor, reports Alex Nunns – but you wouldn’t know it from reading the newspapers
Radhika Desai says Capital by Karl Marx is still an essential read on the 150th anniversary of its publication
The Spanish state is seizing ballot papers and raiding meetings, write Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte – but it is being met with united resistance
The crunch executive meeting ahead of Labour conference agreed some welcome changes, writes Michael Calderbank, but there is still much further to go
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny
Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology
Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke
The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana
Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth
Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company
You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild
Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University
This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback
Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein
Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up
Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement
‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic
Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden
There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright
Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones
‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression
Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death
‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum
The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes
Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference
Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki
Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers
Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project
Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power
What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains
The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going