Four Points on M5S

In the spring elections of 2013, the political equilibrium of the so-called Second Italian Republic was upset by a new political entity that was officially created only four years earlier: the Five Star Movement (M5S). The polls predicted a victory for The Democratic Party (PD) and its allied SEL, (Left, Ecology and Freedom). The PD, born out the union of the heirs of the Italian Communist Party and the more progressive wing of the former Christian Democrats, ran on a centrist platform under the leadership of Pier Luigi Bersani. On the other hand, Silvio Berlusconi’s Party of Liberty (PDL) looked to be in rapid decline, as a series of scandals and the inability to address the harsh economic crisis finally made a breach in years of political indifference. The centrist party of Mario Monti (Scelta Civica) stood no chance, but was held in great regard by high finance circles and the international press. In the previous months, Monti had led a technocratic government with the support of the PD and PDL, which enforced austerity measures (along with anti-labor reforms) that further plummeted Italy into debt and social unrest. Meanwhile, longstanding problems of corruption, extensive misuse of public monies, and the outrageous rising cost of politics have further widened the rift between Italian people and their politicians.

Out of this acute popular discontent, Beppe Grillo, comedian and owner of M5S, carefully shaped a movement that mobilized a heterogeneous spectrum of forces. It ran an environmentalist and generally progressive platform tainted, however, by populist and anti-immigrant postures. It offered a palingenetic image of the Internet, trumpeting it as the salvific instrument that would rescue Italy democracy from its decline. Most importantly, its grassroots political campaign was marked by the refusal of further privatization and by a general attack against all that could be linked to political parties and their politics (in Italy now commonly called anti-caste discourse). M5S captured an impressive 25% vote of protest coming both from the Left and the Right, across class divisions. Once in parliament it refused to strike an alliance with the PD, who then proceeded to form a government with the PDL, in fact reconstituting the earlier Monti government under a different prime minister.

Written in the weeks following the elections, this article represents an acute analysis of the shape, dynamics and ideology of this new entity of today’s Italian politics. It begins to unearth the ways in which the new class composition of post-Fordist Italian labor is giving rise to political forces that rely on a radical de-constituent impulse, ominously distorting the ideals of direct democracy through the fetish of digital representation.

—Andrea Righi


An old limit, perhaps the limit of the established political system, is its refusal to accept any ruptures in its rationality that may come from rising political movements. 1 When a new political movement erupts on the scene with unexpected force, even when foreseen, the first move of the political establishment is defensive action and the attempt to assimilate and neutralize it. It bends it to its own language and its own agenda, even when that language and that agenda are precisely the reason for the conflict incited by the movement in question. It has already happened in Italy, to give two macroscopic examples, with the movement of ‘77 and with radical feminism, both of which resulted in a non-dialogue. It is happening again now with the M5S (Five Stars Movement) on the part of the Democratic Party (PD), among others. It is surprising how the party of Pier Luigi Bersani passed at once from an attitude of substantial underestimation and hostility concerning Beppe Grillo, “the digital fascist,” throughout the electoral campaign, to the predetermined and intended opening of the day after the results. At the core of this proposal was the appeal to the rationality and the sense of responsibility of the Grillini 2, the same appeal that is found in the intellectual texts published by Repubblica in support of Bersani’s effort. As if by appealing to similar or compatible programs between the M5S and the PD, one could avoid confrontation with the rough and irreducible point of the problem: the fact that the M5S is a dismissive movement in no way compatible with a constructive and programmable logic. Its program does not consist of enumerated points that it affirms, but in the determination to invalidate, or at least to gravely block, the functionality of the system: between this reasoning and that of Bersani and his advisors there is a different level of rationality.

But the PD and its supporters are not the only ones put in a difficult situation by this blockage. Reactions to M5S’s success oscillate between the enthusiasm for its unexpected results and horizontal hyper-democracy, and the panic for its hierarchical, populist, millenarianist traits. In the middle there is an agnostic uncertainty among those who content themselves with facts: there must be a good reason if so many people akin to us, the progressive Left says to itself, voted for it. If M5S expresses anger and social frustration, channeling it in a legal way, better to trust it than to distrust it. With less agnosticism and with a consistent euphoria for all that has a vague flavor of subversiveness, some post-workerist groups distrust the legal and sermonizing judicial trademark of the M5S, but savor the instability it provokes in the political system , as well as the “multitudinous” composition of its constituency, forgetting its rancorous and racist traits. The revolution is seen as an arrow that runs linearly and progressively; the contradictions at the heart of the people are just a hiccup along the way, and throughout the course the important thing is to liquidate the historical Left.

Meanwhile, such oscillations show the difficulty of defining not the many lines, but instead the dominant line of the M5S: its main direction, its ideological guide, its constitutive genealogy. This is what, in other words, restores meaning to the M5S beyond its ambivalence and elements of “similarity” to the claims of a leftist party like SEL (”Sinistra, ecologia e libertà”) and the antagonistic movements of the last decade. The very critical analysis that Wu Ming proposed of the M5S is among the few, along with that of Giuliano Santoro in Un Grillo qualunque, to shed any light on that subject. One may hear their echo in the four points of reflection that I propose here. 3

1. The recent exploits of the M5S do not imply the end of the Second Republic – they are rather the ripest fruit, or perhaps its last act. From the twenty years of Berlusconi and from his tailpiece in the technocratic government of Mario Monti, Grillo-Casaleggio & Co. inherit three crucial factors: the ethical-political “great narration” which counterposes honest civil society against the corrupt caste of politicians; the neoliberal breakdown of the Fordist work into post-Fordist “skills”; the “compensation” for the crisis of political representation through the re representation (televised in the case of Berlusconi, on the internet in the case of Grillo) together with a personalized, centralized, and strongly “performed” leadership. 4

Let’s start with the first point. The contrast between an honest society and a corrupt caste is a fable, perhaps the fable, that has accompanied Italian politics from the early nineties. Like all fables, it stimulates the popular imagination and is based on an irrefutable reality, the mounting anger against the privilege, the corruption, and above all the passiveness and impotence of the ruling class. And yet this remains a self-comforting and self-deluding fable. In the times of Tangentopoli, which was a system of corruption based on the exchange of favors and bribes between politicians and businessmen, it was necessary to blame the politicians and acquit the businessmen 5; Silvio Berlusconi benefitted from this, taking the field himself as an honest and trustworthy businessman external to the Palazzo. 6 Later, during the long reign of the Cavaliere 7, the fable served on one hand to paper over, under the postulate of the honest society, the diffused illegality through which Berlusconi’s permanent illegality found acceptance and popularity; on the other hand to invalidate, under the banner of “they are all the same” any (albeit feeble) attempt by the center-left to govern. More recently, following Rizzo and Stella’s famous book La Casta (The Caste), printed by Il Corriera Della Sera, it served to delegitimate politics tout court and welcome the arrival of the bocconiani in the government. 8 Now, Grillo’s version tells the story of the anger of the social classes massacred by the crisis, directing it not towards its rightful target – the neoliberal fixation and European austerity – but simply against the corrupt caste, with the goal of bringing back the community of the honest citizens. The anti-political matrix of the M5S is born from this. But so far, to be precise, this merely shows a strong anti-party  anger that is fully comprehensible if one thinks of the sorry state of Italian politics. The true anti-political matrix is more hidden, and this leads us to the second point of reflection.

2. In addition to being corrupt, the caste is by definition incompetent: for the M5S political professionalism is, without exception, a trick that covers the inability to do anything. The people, on the other hand, know what they are doing and are able to use their skills to benefit the common good. We heard it in the ritual presentation of the grillini before the parliament: as a farmer I would like to deal with organic farming, as a teacher I would like to reform education, as a nurse and I would like to rebuild healthcare… Lenin’s cook could and should have learned to govern the State; Grillo’s cook is ready to be in charge of the Ministry of Food. Now, one can see in this gallery of skills the proof of M5S’s post-Fordist composition—according to the aforementioned euphoric interpretations of net workers, knowledge workers, first-generation precarious workers, and the unemployed proletariat—and yet one can also see the potentially subversive face of the bio-capitalistic apparatus that puts to work and valorizes skills. Alternatively, one can see an inter-class movement driven by a degraded and impoverished middle class—a social stratum that has never contributed to the cause of democracy, nor the revolution—extending the neoliberal “do it yourself” ideology to politics or rearranging the technocratic view of politics that Italy has already experienced with the bocconiani in government. If skills are made immediately political, if expertise becomes immediately governmental, we don’t defeat the self-referential professionalism and incompetence of the hated caste. Rather, we jettison politics as an autonomous language, and as the site of the mediation between specializations, interests, and corporations. It is not the caste that we rid ourselves of, nor the parties, but politics tout court.

3. The third factor transferred from the Second Republic to the M5S is the relationship between the crisis of political representation and the use of mediated representation. What Berlusconi realized through television, Grillo realized through the Internet, or rather, through a skillful integrated use of television and the Internet. This issue, along with the contradiction between the horizontal and neutral conception of the Internet claimed by Grillo and Casaleggio and their hierarchical and centralized management, has been discussed at length. It is worthwhile, however, to remember that today the Internet, like television in the transition from the First to the Second Republic, does not function only as a means of conquest of the political scene and the construction of a consensus. Today, as before, both political representation and representation by the media contribute and compete to redefine politics. Between ’92 and ’94, television (not only Berlusconi’s channels but also public television) anticipated with its format (reality TV, duels, political shows, etc.) the change in political forms (personalization of the leadership, bipolarization, a majority electoral system), as well as the change in the régime of the speakable and the unspeakable, and of the true and the false. Today, the use of the Internet of the typical grillino invokes the illusion of direct, participatory democracy, in which “one equals one,” but where one, or maybe two, as in the case of Grillo and Casaleggio, decide for everyone regarding everything.  Paradoxically, this direct democracy coincides with electoral democracy: it does not criticize the institutions of representation, but occupies them while trying to dismantle them. Is this the overcoming of direct democracy that awaits us, and in which we should recognize the critique of representation by radical movements since 1968?

4. When the things that we desire occur under a sign opposite to what we had expected, we should not cry victory but reflect, self-critically, on the shortcomings of our hegemonic capacity. This is why accolades for M5S’s class composition are not convincing – nor are the criticisms of representation, or the hailing for direct democracy, or the “inability to govern” it has supposedly produced. The fact that M5S incorporates points and instances of radical political movements does not mean that Grillo works to facilitate the task. It means that we have not been able to give a hegemonic direction to these points and instances, and that Grillo has inscribed himself in this gap. This has already happened with Berlusconi’s neoliberal transcription over the claims of freedom of ’68, and of feminism. We know how it has ended: for one thing, with women’s ”freedom” to sell sex, and the bunga bunga market. Perhaps it is more appropriate to focus on the following oxymoron: taking the comic element of Grillo’s character seriously. Perhaps his true de-constituent strength lies in carrying the paradoxes and paroxysms of traditional politics and representative democracy to the extreme. It is called the practice of parody, and so it is not strange that it is the only effective means against a political system that has been reduced to parody itself.

—Translated by Devon MacLeod, Brenna Day and Grace Hunter

References   [ + ]

1. Image thanks to pasere.
2. Supporters of Giuseppe Grillo’s politics.
3. See Wu Ming “Grillismo: Yet another right-wing cult coming from Italy”; Giuliano Santoro, Un Grillo qualunque, Castelvecchi, Rome 2012.
4. Gianroberto Casaleggio, a personal friend of Grillo, is an entrepreneur working in the field of communication and technology. He is also the author of an apocalyptic mockumentary on the rise of a new world Internet based order he called Gaia See.
5. In Italian Tangentopoli, literarily the Bribesville, commonly refers to the series of scandals regarding political corruption that emerged in the early 1990s through a judicial investigation called Clean Hands. It led to the demise of a whole political class and the beginning of the so-called Second Republic.
6. Center of political power.
7. Nickname for Berlusconi, as he received the Order of Merit for Labor, in Italian Cavaliere del Lavoro, in 1977.
8. From the name of the Bocconi University of Milan, one of the most exclusive private universities in Italy.

Author of the article

is an Italian journalist and writer.