What’s left? Italian movements after the triumph of the Five Star Movement

The new populist party captured public anger against austerity and corrupt elites more successfully than the radical left, writes Lorenzo Zamponi. So where next for the left as Pasokification takes hold?

April 15, 2018 · 7 min read
M5S leader Luigi Di Maio

On March 4th, yet another political system in Europe collapsed. The latest episode of this long-standing series took place in Italy. The script is always the same: the neoliberal centre-left in ruins, the mainstream right losing support in favour of more radical nationalist forces, and new populist challengers emerging, riding the wave of austerity-triggered discontent.

Matteo Renzi’s PD (Democratic Party), neoliberal heir of the once-glorious PCI (Italian Communist Party), followed in the footsteps of Greek PASOK, Spanish PSOE, French PS and German SPD. These centre-left parties that governed in times of crisis and austerity, abandoned their socialist roots, and paid the price for unpopular measures and broken promises in successive electoral disasters. The hegemony of what Nancy Fraser called “progressive neoliberalism”, established by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton two decades ago, is over. As is, in Italy, the propulsive force of the PCI, whose radical heritage has disintegrated, probably once and for all. In fact, disappointed PD voters did not turn to Renzi’s competitors on the left. LEU (Free and Equal), the list that joined leftist SI (Italian Left) and the recent social-democratic split from the PD both barely made into the parliament. Meanwhile Potere al Popolo (Power to the People), a new party that combined some movement collectives and small communist parties in a new populist experiment, did not manage to get any of their candidates elected.

The largest share of voters that left the PD went to the M5S (5 Stars Movement), the web-based “neither-left-nor-right” party founded by comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo and now led by 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio. This is the worst sign of the historical defeat of the Italian left: faced with the PD’s collapse, voters did not turn to its relatively radical competitors, but to a force culturally outside the workers’ and democratic movement, outside the concepts of socialism or even progressive liberalism. It’s a force radically critical of unions and collective organisation in general. How did it happen, and what are the implications of the M5S’ victory for the future of the Italian left and movements?

The Five Star Movement it cannot be defined as leftist or progressive in any way, and has actually taken significantly right-wing stances on key issues such as immigration and unions. Nonetheless, the M5S is at least partially a product of the anti-austerity cycle of protest. Italy did not see a mass anti-austerity movement on the level of the Spanish 15-M or the Greek “movement of the squares”. Nevertheless, Italians did fill the squares between 2008 and 2011, and opposition to austerity was a significant political force in the Italian society, threatening the popular support to mainstream centre-left and right-wing parties. The M5S rose to the occasion and was able to ride this wave, establishing itself as the alternative. But – an alternative to what?

Beppe Grillo’s early political statements targeted increasing precarity in the labour market, the privatisation of the water supply system, the construction of large public infrastructure thought to harm the environment. One might call this an anti-neoliberal programme, and indeed it appropriated many popular components of the social movement discourse. Nonetheless, none of these greivances were framed in a way that questioned the economic status quo – the aim was not to challenge neoliberalism or capitalism, but perhaps to demand a better deal.

Furthermore, the M5S appropriated the most ubiquitous element of the Italian political discourse, something that was rooted both in grassroots movements and in the public opinion shaped by the mainstream media: opposition to political corruption. Similarly to the Spanish case, the outrage for the corruption of the political elite has been intertwined with the critique of austerity and neoliberal governance.

As opposed to Podemos, the M5S focused much more on the former element than on the latter. Two decades of Berlusconism and anti-Berlusconism, and even before that, the scandals of 1992, had burned into the Italians’ collective consciousness the idea that the corruption of politicians was the first and foremost cause of every problem of the country. M5S jumped on this narrative, framing the root of the problems as a caste of corrupt politicians that mismanages the country for their personal interest. Thus, it has been able to capitalise on the people’s discontent over crisis and austerity without really questioning the economic order. Berlusconi and this ‘caste’ have shielded from public outrage the economic elite, neoliberal policies and European and supranational institutions, that in other countries have taken the blame for the crisis. According to this narrative, you don’t have to change the nature of the system – you just need to put better people at its helm.

The M5S has cultivated a strange double-nature, ensuring a broad-base populist appeal whilst not promising little substantial threat to the economic status quo. On the one hand, it’s the standard-bearer of anti-austerity politics – especially under the technocratic government of 2011-2013, when mainstream parties were entangled in a grand coalition and the left was out of the parliament. On the other hand very careful in appeasing the bourgeoisie, has created what some call the “simulated civil war”: an extremely heated public debate, with the M5S using a violent rhetoric against mainstream parties in the parliament, while at the same time, in the streets, the level of social conflict is at its lowest.

In the last few years, some Italians have delegated the struggle to the M5S: a party that has appropriated the discourse of social movements, but whose action is completely confined inside the walls of parliament. Will it last? Maybe, but not forever. The M5S has been able to position itself always with the majority of Italians, on every topic: mildly progressive on redistribution, centrist on civil rights, conservative on immigration. While this has been rather effective in discourse, it will probably prove much more difficult when in the government, when the demands of realpolitik make it impossible to play to as many different audiences as they’ve recently tried. It seems unlikely that the party will be able to make good on their electoral appeal, built as it was on vague and contradictory policy programmes, galvanised by opposition to the political elites which they are about to join. And it is clear, now, that they will be in the government. They may need another election, or even two, but the many Italians who voted for them stand to be disappointed and disillusioned.

Disappointment towards the M5S will be the critical challenge than the Italian left and movements will have to face. Di Maio’s party is walking on a thin line. On the one hand, it aims at embodying the Italian instalment of centrist populism (like Macron in France and Ciudadanos in Spain) – and on the other hand it answers to an angry and inpatient constituency, which won’t tolerate hold-ups or stagnations in the programme of radical change that it was promised. This is the opening that Italian movements (that are almost as weak as the Italian left but that, differently than their party counterparts, face an immediate historical task) need to address, playing on the contradictions on the M5S agenda to carve the space for a progressive alternative. With one caveat: this opening exists also on the other side. The M5S has been occupying a big space in Italian politics, almost the whole realm of opposition, hindering the chances of the emergence of a leftist alternative but also having a similar effect on the radical right. The success of Di Maio’s party is preventing political polarisation from happening, while society is indeed polarising: if the M5S explodes, interesting and dangerous times may come.

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