Italy. More than just a bunch of comedians

Mike Phipps charts the meteoric rise of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which took a quarter of the votes in February’s parliamentary elections in Italy

The Guardian dismissed them as irrelevant. The left derided them as populist. But in the recent general election, they took over 25% of the votes, more than the two main parties. The outgoing government of Mario Monti, hailed by EU leaders 14 months ago as clean and technocratic, got just 10% of the vote. This was a clear rejection of austerity.

The Movement is the creation of TV comic and Italy’s most popular blogger Beppe Grillo, whom the New Yorker described as “a distinctly Italian combination of Michael Moore and Stephen Colbert” (an anti-conservative US satirist). He hit the headlines in 2007 when he held a rally in Rome of 100,000 people, more than when Italy won the World Cup.

He founded the Five Star Movement in 2010 around five core principles – publicly owned water, sustainable transport and development, free internet access and environmentalism. With very little funding, but a quarter of a million of dedicated supporters, he has changed the Italian political landscape.

The Movement focuses on honesty and direct democracy in politics, demanding politicians be the servants of the people. Those who dismiss it as “anti-politics” should take a closer look at Italy‘s rotten system.

Berlusconi’s financial and sex scandals are just the most visible feature. The annual budget of the Italian Presidency is nearly four times that of Buckingham Palace. MPs earn twice as much as their French counterparts. They have chauffeured limousines, free air travel, private tennis lessons and generous pensions, for which they are eligible after thirty months in office.

According to Grillo, even the crime rate of the most dangerous suburb of Naples, one of  Europe‘s highest, is lower than that of the Italian parliament. Berlusconi sidekick Cesare Previti was convicted of corrupting judges after nine years of hearings and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment. He spent just five days in jail before being released to perform community service.

Active citizenship seems to be the driving force of Grillo’s Movement. One of the keynote speakers at a preparatory meeting in 2009 was Laura Pizzotti, a teacher, who
later became a key campaigner for a referendum against water privatisation. Many in the Movement are young, lower middle and working class, who have never been active in politics before.

Italy is a deeply unequal country. One in four people lives in poverty. The number of hospital beds per inhabitant has dwindled by a third in twenty years and is now about half that in Germany or France.

After the collapse of \Berlusconi’s Government just over a year ago, the left should have done well. But Democratic Party leader Bersani got only a few more votes than the right wing, payback for his cautious approach. He recently told the Wall Street Journal he “would stick to the fiscal commitments Italy has made to its European partners, wouldn’t roll back the pension and labour overhauls introduced by Monti and wouldn’t be held hostage on labour issues”.

Historian Perry Anderson argues Italy’s communists “made a pilgrimage from Communism to social liberalism without so much as a stopover at social democracy”. While the left had its closing ticket-only meeting in a theatre, Grillo attracted half a million supporters to an outdoor rally in midwinter Rome.

Commentators are now examining Grillo’s contradictory programme. He promises to revisit all international treaties including NATO membership, free trade agreements and the euro, with a referendum. He proposes a citizen’s wage for the unemployed, a reversal of cuts to health and education, reducing the working week to thirty hours and nationalising banks. He wants tough anti-corruption laws and an end to public funding for religious schools.

But he has annoyed the left parties by criticising their trade union appendages. He has also courted right-wing voters, saying granting citizenship to children born in Italy of immigrant parents is not a priority. Worse, he held a friendly televised meeting with the fascist CasaPound group.

These faults should not be minimised. But it is the anti-elite, anti-austerity focus of the Five Star Movement that is likely to define its trajectory over the coming months.

The financial markets are jumpy over the Movement’s refusal to do a deal with the pro-cuts parties of either left or right. Italian Marxist “Bifo” Berardi says, “Grillo’s party has prevented the government of financial dictatorship. Now it is the turn for the movement of society.”







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