Behind the Five Star Movement

For all its antiestablishment rhetoric, Italy's Five Star Movement is a force for the status quo.

Beppe Grillo, the comedian and founder of the Five Star Movement, speaks in Ravenna, Italy in 2013. Matteo/ Flickr

The 2013 emergence of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement shook Italian politics.

At the general elections the new formation — which resists the label “party” — organized mostly through the Internet by a famous comedian and populated by people without any prior political experience, obtained more than 20 percent of the vote.

That was as much support as the longstanding Democratic Party received and more than the Silvio Berlusconi–led Forza Italia.

Despite the fact that, due to the less-than-democratic Italian electoral system, the party only received one-sixth of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies, the result inspired a wave of commentary across the political spectrum.

A year later, many would compare the experience with that of Podemos in Spain.

In many ways, the birth and success of those two parties stemmed from the political and economic crisis that reached its apex in Southern Europe. For more than two decades, Europe has been dominated by parties of the center-left and center-right. These two forces alternated in power and fought fierce battles during electoral campaigns but shared values and economic programs: the sanctity of the European Union and free-market-driven growth. The differences between their respective economic policies were often indiscernible.

As the financial system crumbled, austerity kicked in and the euro became a part of the problem rather than the solution, and the political system that upheld that economic structure felt the repercussion. Like other new or previously marginalized parties, the Five Star Movement benefited from the legitimacy crisis of the European political system.

In particular, Podemos and the Five Star Movement — benefiting from their newness to the scene — share a powerful antiestablishment rhetoric: the old political system and personnel are portrayed as a caste of self-interested politicians in contraposition with the general interests. Because both the Socialists and Conservatives are equally responsible for the political and economic crisis in Italy and Spain, Podemos and the Five Star Movement want to go beyond the “fictional differences” between the Right and the Left. The real cleavage, they say, is between the “people” and the “establishment.”

In many ways it is the same political message of Occupy: we are the 99 percent, against the 1 percent.

Similarities, however, end here. Occupy exposed the class nature of contemporary capitalism, and Podemos proposes a democratization of society that would attack the vested interests of the capitalist class.

The Five Star Movement, on the contrary, reduces Italy’s historical and prolonged crisis to a matter of corruption and lack of civic virtue, ignoring the economic and class dynamic of Italian capitalism. Far from progressive, its political agenda is an incongruous mix of common-sense, populist appeals and right-wing and left-wing slogans. While campaigning for an overturn of the whole establishment, it fails to address the circumstances that allowed for the development of such a corrupted political system to begin with.

To better understand the reasons behind the success of the Five Star Movement and its differences with other, actually progressive political formations, one has to look at the peculiar trajectories of Italian recent history.

The Italian crisis, unlike the current global one, started almost twenty-five years ago with the demise of the Soviet Union and the subsequent collapse of the so-called Italian First Republic. After World War II, Italy was uninterruptedly ruled by the Christian Democrats (DC). The strategic position of the country and the unusual strength of the Communist Party (PCI), which soon dwarfed the moderate socialists, created a unique situation among Western European countries — the so-called “blocked democracy.”

The DC counted on mass consent, Atlantic support, and a vast patronage system that more often than not led to a blatant alliance with organized crime and to mass corruption of public officers. A system of crony capitalism developed, countered by a strong left opposition that won key concessions from the ruling class.

Italy was a paradox in many senses: the DC controlled the government for almost half a century due to international pressure and social and economic concessions on the domestic front. As soon as one pillar of this system collapsed, the whole system crumbled. The end of the Soviet threat and the tragic decision of the PCI to transform itself and move rightward to social democracy indirectly led to a massive flow of judicial inquisitions against the ruling class — the so called Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) — and the dissolution of every traditional party.

This was not a change from below, much less a revolution. The old political system simply collapsed on its own contradictions. But no alternative social organizations were capable of filling the void.

For a couple of years Italy witnessed the increasing activism of “civil society” asking for change and for a new, honest political class. However, no economic and social demands were really advanced. Public outrage was focused on corruption, but the diffuse interests behind this corruption went largely unnoticed. The public asked for a sweeping change of the political personnel, and nothing more.

The Left, overwhelmed by its own disorientation following the fall of the Berlin Wall, was unable to address this regime crisis and to exploit the need and demand for change. In the ruinous backpedalling of the 1990s, the Italian left abandoned any aspiration for progressive social change and represented, instead, the pro-European, modernizing face of Italian capitalism.

The main political aim of the post-PCI center-left was to transform Italy into a “normal (capitalist) country,” like France or England. What emerged was a reloaded version of the old system. Tired of traditional politics, Italy elected Berlusconi, who presented himself as new and as an entrepreneur free of political baggage — despite representing the very interests that had dominated Italian politics for so long.

Traditional conservative social forces resisted any type of change and feasted amid the long economic decline of the country. Strangled by a massive public debt, with local clientele always on sale, an inefficient productive system unable to cope with the pace of globalization, and constrained by the new European rules that impeded competitive devaluations and imposed draconian budgetary discipline, Italy starved under a ante-litteram austerity program in force since 1993.

Though among the founders of the European project, Italy was somewhat less exposed to the forces of international capitalism. Foreign Direct Investment ignored the country; fire-sale privatization favored the politically connected entrepreneurs; family-dominated capitalism preferred behind-the-door agreements to competition. Italy never truly modernized.

The political system was the perfect representation of this immobility. Electoral campaigns revolved around the persona of Berlusconi, the most divisive and charismatic political figure since Mussolini. Two very heterogeneous coalitions formed — with the very minimal common ground of either support for or opposition to Berlusconi.

The content of electoral programs was largely irrelevant, and the key to success was a patronage system based on the shifting allegiance of local boyars, who controlled pockets of votes. The old corrupt system crawled back. Italy had not changed. The head of the dragon, the Christian Democrats, may have been decapitated, but its body was still alive. Soon enough, new scandals made the front pages of Italian newspapers.

Once again, this asphyxiating system collapsed as a consequence of an external event: the global financial crisis. A crisis that, initially, hit Italy only marginally, as Italian banks were less vulnerable than British and (crucially) Spanish ones to the derivatives market.

It is in this situation of perennial sluggish economic performance and total moral bankruptcy that the Five Star Movement emerged. Beppe Grillo, its founder, was a famous name in Italy well before the birth of his movement. An artful comedian, he was the master of political monologues that were routinely aired on national television. He became quite a phenomenon on the web as well, running one of the most-read blogs in Italy.

Aided by a marketing agency, Grillo began organizing mass meetings — the V days (V standing for Vaffanculo, Fuck off) — where he attacked the political system’s corruption. Employing rhetoric similar to what the populists in Podemos would later use, Grillo claimed there was no more right or left, but simply the “political system” and the cancerous establishment.

This claim had obvious appeal to an Italian electorate outraged by countless cases of corruption, demoralized by a country in perpetual crisis, and convinced that both sides were incapable of changing. In addition, the radical left, a potential alternative to the Five Star Movement, had recently euthanized itself by yet again joining a government that did nothing to change, even slightly, the country’s economic situation.

The 2006 government led by Romano Prodi — an honest if moderate politician coming from the old Christian Democrats — crumbled despite a desperate attempt to keep Rifondazione Comunista and centrist parties united so they could carry out their single mission: getting rid of Berlusconi.

Not around to fumble in power, the Five Star Movement had no such legacies to shed. They did not have any links with either the largely delegitimized left or right and announced itself as the moralizer of Italy. They picked up the bourgeois mission to remake Italy, which was initiated in 1991 and then interrupted by Berlusconi’s rise.

They found an incredibly receptive electorate not only because of the corruption of Italian politics, but also because the creeping economic crisis that had created a general and mass discontent.

The Five Star Movement’s secret for success — and its most severe limitation — has been its capacity to blame the political class for Italy’s decay. Whereas in Greece and Spain the financial crisis exposed not only the corruption of the politicians but, above all, the culpability of global capitalism, in Italy the anticapitalist discourse remained marginalized. The message was easy, as was the solution: replace a caste of crooked politicians with a new wave of young, free citizens. For Grillo and his supporters, after all, the corruption of a political system based on diffuse clientele was not the product of a certain type of capitalism, but rather of a few rotten apples.

Italy has long been a quasi-patrimonial society, where the lines between economic ownership and political control are blurred and where personal proximity to power is the most immediate way to succeed. The state is partnered with a private sector divided between large enterprises with interconnected ownerships and a small- to medium-size, family-based enterprise system that has been largely dismantled by the pressures of globalization.

You can blame it all on corrupted politicians, but those politicians are the — admittedly awful — face of a decrepit society. Especially in the South, local barons control votes, and request a fee for their services. Political parties lack vision, but they are also the product of a world in which traditional classes and interests decomposed.

This is a perfect environment for the Five Star Movement, and it will be until the Left offers a compelling alternative that addresses the true economic and social causes of Italy’s malaise.

There is some reason for hope. Italy has been been rich in social movements recently, the most famous of which culminated in the stunning anti–water privatization referendum victory in 2011. Many other movements have fought specific battles, including the NO TAV — opposed to the high-speed train connecting Italy to France at absurd environmental (and economic) costs — and the housing rights movement, which is both fighting foreclosures and providing a livable space for homeless families through occupation.

Lately, FIOM — the Metalworkers union — has shown a continued capacity for militant action both inside and outside the workplace. And one should not forget that Italy was the country where the alter-globalization movement was the strongest, with oceanic demonstrations and thousands of initiatives from below.

Of course, this hasn’t yielded much lately. The chronic economic crisis, rather than the sudden slump suffered by Spain (among others), did not lead to the social explosion that was the basis for Occupy and other movements. Years of fighting and defeats have left many without hope for change.

To be sure, the Five Star Movement is not totally foreign to these social movements. But it does not provide them any institutional legitimation. Instead of politicizing these movements, as many in Podemos try to do, the Five Star Movement does nothing but block and marginalize their anticapitalist discourse, reducing everything to an issue of political morality.

The Five Star Movement represents a quasi-credible opposition to the political establishment, but one that, because of its lack of vision and coherence, does not represent a real alternative. Furthermore, because of its electoral strength (and political capacity), it will be hard to build an alternative actually rooted in class struggle and worker organization.

In the meantime, much of the current discourse in Italy continues to be set by the Five Star Movement. Reactionary solutions to problems like corruption abound. If traditional politics is dirty, it is suggested that parties should be funded not by public financing, but through private donations alone. If unemployment is hurting Italian workers, then the proffered solution is strict immigration controls.

It’s no coincidence that the Five Star Movement chose to form a group in the European Parliament with the right-wing UK Independence Party.

Whatever hopes it inspires, the Five Star Movement can’t be changed from within. While the movement was born as a horizontal organization to promote democratic participation, internal democracy is strikingly absent. The movement is the private property of Grillo, and he has used this ownership to keep internal opposition at bay and even to administer expulsions. If anything, the Five Star Movement is the ultimate oligarchic party, privately owned as if it was a firm.

Perhaps even more damaging, however, is the movement’s reduction of a systemic crisis to an issue of probity. The diagnosis is so off the mark that it’s been seconded by a large part of the establishment. And, if anything, the term “caste” has been popularized by two journalists of the house organ of the Italian bourgeoisie, Il Corriere della Sera.

The pair repeatedly denounced the hidden scandals and the enormous privileges of Italian politicians, and their book La casta was an instant bestseller that anticipated and accompanied the rise of the Five Star Movement.

At more or less the same time, none other than now–Prime Minister Matteo Renzi launched his ultimately successful leadership campaign in Democratic Party. His political platform was built almost solely on the concept of “rottamazione” — scrapping.

The message was familiar to Italians: get rid of the old generations of politicians that had governed the country for more than two decades, and give space to the new generation. However, for Renzi the issue was not political, but generational. Like Grillo, he argued the problem could be solved by a simple changing of guard, replacing old politicians with new ones, possibly younger, better, and more honest.

The moralization of public life is not all revolutionary, at least not in this application. Instead of using public outrage to radicalize the struggle against an oppressive and increasingly violent system, the Five Star Movement redirects that energy toward a superficial critique of its political façade.

The social and economic aspects of the crisis — the reduction of democratic spaces, the economic reforms used to discipline the working class, the resultant social tension and racism — are completely ignored.

But that isn’t a problem for the Five Star Movement. Their battle fits perfectly in the most classic of Italian political paradigms: everything needs to change, so that everything stays the same.