[en] Grillo and Movimento 5 Stelle – Updated version

Sources

Introduction

Beppe Grillo

Beppe Grillo has been a comedian since 1977 and, like many comedians in Italy, he used to appear on television criticizing politicians and the economic ‘powers-that-be’. The foreign media often mention that it was telling a joke in 1987 about Socialists being thieves that got him banned from mainstream television. In 2002 he started touring Italy as a comedian, talking about renewable energy, ‘copyleft’, GMOs and other subjects not covered by the mainstream media. It was also about this time that he started to criticize Parmalat, a very large dairy company, for its bad investments and over-rating. Two years later the company went bankrupt. This and other things he looked into gave him a high public profile. He featured on the cover of Time magazine in 2005, for example, as a result of his speeches against political corruption.
A short biography and criticism of his political activism can be found on Wikipedia.

Background

A few documentaries help in getting to know Grillo

Movimento 5 Stelle

Movimento 5 Stelle: history

Movimento 5 Stelle (literally ‘five stars movement’ or M5S) is a grass-roots political movement founded by Beppe Grillo in 2009. The inspiration for M5S came from the success of the so-called ‘V-Day’ (‘V’ stands for ‘vaffanculo’, ‘fuck you’), a large festival organized by Grillo in 2007. An enormous crowd gathered in Piazza Maggiore, Bologna, and shouted a loud ‘Fuck you!’ to politicians, the so-called ‘caste’ of privileged governors and administrators. Screens were also set up in squares in many other parts of Italy to follow the event. The event had three main objectives: to campaign for a ban on politicians with a criminal record serving in Parliament; to prohibit parliamentarians from serving more than two terms; and to return to an electoral system allowing citizens to choose their representatives (rather than the closed lists system introduced in 2005). A second V-day took place on 25 April 2008, also focusing on three areas: freedom of information; a referendum on removing public subsidies for newspapers; and the general perception that the Italian press is not free and is controlled.

After the first V-Day Grillo started to suggest his supporters should become political, creating ‘civic lists’ (a group with no official connection with a national political party and which campaigns on local issues). Until 2005 an informal association called ‘Friends of Beppe Grillo’ had brought together groups of citizens through MeetUp.com, an online social networking portal which facilitates off-line group meetings. Grillo, once a strong critic of the web, suddenly started a blog. He said his reasons were to achieve wider visibility and to have the freedom to bypass the Italian mainstream media (which did not actually report on his movement until 2008). He was helped by Casaleggio Associati, a PR company. The blog has become the most read in Italy and is the only Italian blog in a list of the 100 most popular blogs in the world.
The official creation of the movement was announced by Grillo in a blog. He also set the requirements for being elected to M5S civic lists:

  • not belonging to any party or political association
  • never having received a penal criminal sentence
  • promising not to serve more than one term in office
  • being resident in the constituency where they stand for election.

In addition, only Grillo can approve, or withdraw this approval from, someone wishing to be on a civic list. He has also made comments that only Italians should be elected to M5S civic lists.

Grillo has continued to underline his belief in the importance of civic lists as the foundation of a good and positive way of politics.
Many civic lists with the M5S brand took part in local elections during the Italian administrative elections in May 2012, where they achieved good results (from 3% to 12%) and won mayoral elections in Parma, Mira, Comacchio and Sarego and returned 181 councillors around Italy. In the 2012 regional election in Sicily the party got 15% of the vote while the candidate got 18%. (N.B. In Italy, one can vote for a candidate of one list whilst also voting for the candidate of another.) More electoral results can be found on Wikipedia.
Grillo himself recognises that online campaigning is not enough and has continued to hold public meetings since the first V-day. The style and subjects are always the same: long talks, huge crowds, big media coverage, jokes, provoking accusations, hyperbole and twisting the names of his enemies (such as ‘Psiconano’ – psychodwarf – for Berlusconi, and ‘Rigor Montis’ for Mario Monti).

M5S: The Program

The ‘5 Stars’ stand for five common goods: clean energy, free connectivity, publicly managed water, clean waste collection and welfare. At the beginning, the movement often interested itself in particularly local issues, due to its local nature (Meetups are held regionally): against the incinerator plant in Parma, for example, or against TAV in Piedmont. As numbers of followers increased, a national perspective and program became required.
In October 2009, a 4 page ‘non-statute’ written by Beppe Grillo and Casaleggio appeared on beppegrillo.it/. In this, the movement is called a ‘non-association’, the four requirements are set out and the name of the 5 Stars Movement is connected to a trademark registered in the name of Beppe Grillo, the sole owner of rights to its use (Art 3).

The only other publicly available document is a 15-point program, published by Grillo in April 2012, outlining 15 goals of M5S: the abolition of provinces; the abolition of campaign expenses; the unification of townships smaller than 5000 inhabitants; the abolition of Lodo Alfano; the teaching of the Italian constitution; the reduction to two terms for politicians; erasing all privileges of a member of parliament, forbidding the holding of another job whilst an elected representative, an average wage for members of parliament, forbidding the holding of more than one office; forbidding those with a criminal record from standing for election; direct participation via the web in all political meetings; the abolition of Authorities; the introduction of a class action law; referendums to be both abrogative and pro-positive without quorum; the duty to vote on laws proposed by citizens; laws to be approved only if the state can afford to enact them; laws to be made publicly available online three months before their final approval.

Most points in the two official documents, in statements by Grillo (who is broadly representative of the M5S position) and on his blog concern domestic (internal) politics. The Economist remarked that ‘M5S’s programme, which stresses environmental commitment and political reform … has little or nothing to say about entire areas of policy.’ No reference is made to immigration policy, to foreign policy, to EU policy. There is an unfinished air to these public pronouncements.

Distrust in Politics

As can be seen in the 15-point program, M5S’s core assumption is that all politicians are untrustworthy.
Italians have become used to political scandals at the highest level since the 1970s: from the Lockheed bribery scandal, P2 and Tangentopoli to the more recent Berlusconi scandals about bribery, prostitution and legislative immunity. Even in the local context, vote rigging and corruption are common. And this is before mafia ties, alleged or proven, are mentioned.
A point often stressed by Grillo is the number of members of parliament who have a criminal record. La Repubblica, a national newspaper, reports that 26 MPs have been convicted of crimes and about 100 are currently under investigation for serious crimes such as theft and corruption. Beppe Grillo’s blog labeled them ’targets’. Grillo’s supporters lay stress not only on individuals’ criminal records but also on their so-called productivity and technical expertise. They claim that politics done by citizens can be neutral, that there is no need for the organizing and partisan structures of a party, a trades union or other grouping. This assumption is often summed up in the phrase ‘left and right are the same’. The book ’La casta’ (the caste) explained the real costs of the Italian political class, and provided M5S supporters with a new and often repeated name to call politicians.

Distrust in the Media

Another way of expressing distrust of the existing political set-up is to point out links between politicians and the media.
Italian television has always been heavily influenced by political parties, an influence which was even institutionalized by a law in 1975: public television is literally split into political ‘lots’, according to the results of political elections.
Former prime minister Berlusconi owns three national TV channels, one newspaper and a large publishing house (Mondadori). When he was in office, he was also in a position to appoint the heads of the three public channels.
In the Freedom of the Press Index, Italy comes 61 out of 179. Most of the Italian population get their news and information by watching the television and reading the press and these are connected, one way or another, to the political or economic powers-that-be.

Criticism

The leader

A report by Demos draws parallels between M5S and a franchise:

“There is a strong link between the movement and its founder, which is affirmed in several places in the non-statute. For example, article 3 states that Grillo is the only holder of the right to use the name ‘Movimento 5 Stelle’, while article 1 of the “non-statute” says ‘the headquarters of the ‘5-Star Movement’ is the web address beppegrillo.it’ and that ‘contacts with the movement should only take place via the email address MoVimento5stelle@ beppegrillo.it’. In this sense, the M5S seems to have some similarities with a franchise – the label ‘Movimento Cinque Stelle’ remains the property of Grillo alone and only he can decide – on a case-by-case basis – who may use it for political (or any other) purposes. This is re-emphasised in article 7, which says that the M5S gathers candidatures and decides who ‘will be authorised to use the name and brand “Movimento 5 Stelle” when competing in any election’”.

Grillo has capitalized on his fame to draw attention to political issues, as some comedians do. He was ‘banned’ from appearing on television like a number of other Italian comedians and journalists. Some felt it was a personal struggle (like Enzo Biagi), others used it to begin a campaign for journalistic freedom (like Santoro, who founded a new network-free political program called ‘Servizio publico’). Grillo is one of a small number who have been able to use their fame as a springboard to real political power, as shown by the non-statute.

A man of the same kind as Grillo, comedian and journalist Guglielmo Giannini, founded a political party called Il Fronte dell’Uomo Qualunque (’The Common Man’) in the late 1940s. Although short-lived, this party had great success in the first political elections in Italy after the second world war. Giannini’s UQ, just like Grillo’s M5S, was widely ‘qualunquistic’ (with a non-committal attitude, cynical political disinterest, a lack of social responsibility and anti-political populism). This attitude became well-rooted in the Italian middle-class (which made a relatively recent appearance in Italian history).
Like Giannini, Grillo has turned his fame as a comedian to a political end but continues to present himself as a comedian. He constantly states that the movement is run by the participants and that he himself has no leading role, nor is he a candidate. He does not present himself as a leader but he behaves like one. Below we give just two examples which illustrate this but there are others and it does appear to be a ‘modus operandi’. When Grillo speaks, he is alone on the stage, and he posts alone on the blog: the space for other participants to be active in a democratic way is very narrow.

The migrant issue

In October 2007 a post appeared on Grillo’s blog called “Desecrated Borders”. It said that ‘a country cannot throw onto the shoulders of its own people the problems caused by tens of thousands of Roma people from Romania who are arriving in Italy’, and described the problem as ‘a volcano, a time bomb’. We urge you to read this post in translation. English language comments about the post are all very critical but not so all the 6000 or so Italian ones. The argument used by Grillo is quite simple: as human beings, our duty is to reject immigrants otherwise most people would treat them as slaves, thus increasing the unemployment rate and so generating social conflict. Borders, therefore, must be controlled.

In November 2011 Grillo wrote a post claiming that ‘citizenship for immigrants’ is not a priority and is, in fact, a ‘mass distraction’ to move the political debate away from the real problems. He was criticized and was asked to reply to these criticisms, but he declined. He did not even answer the critical comments left on the blog by his followers.
As indicated earlier, the movement is open only to Italian citizens.

The TV show ‘ban’

Grillo decided that M5S representatives should be banned from appearing on television talk shows, as the media would distort what they said and misinform the viewers. The ban was not discussed in advance by the Meetups and was presented as a ‘suggestion’, but followers unanimously agreed on the grounds of their distrust of the media industry.
Federica Salsi was the only representative to appear on a political show (on the most left-wing channel of public TV). She took part in a discussion with other political hopefuls and acknowledged that ‘the problem of democracy within the M5S exists’. Grillo criticized her strongly on his blog (although did not name her) and crudely called her talk show appearance ‘her G-spot’. Salsi even received threats. Finally she was dropped from the movement. (source).

Giovanni Favia was also dropped after giving an off-the-record interview to a television talk show describing Casaleggio’s negative influence on M5S’s internal democracy.
Grillo forbade both from using the M5S symbol.
In the final days before the 2013 elections Grillo confirmed he would give a television interview, but later declined.(source)

But is he a leader? Ambiguity

Grillo behaves in many ways like a leader but on stage he behaves like a comedian. His act involves insults, swearing and voicing widely-shared ‘commonsense’ views in soundbites like ‘Politicians go home!’ ‘Corruption must end!’ and ‘The mafia is shit!’
Any deeper concepts of a political nature, expressed on the blog or in public appearances, are often interrupted by jokes and laughter. One cannot distinguish between a joke and a clear political stand, one doesn’t know whether to endorse the view or just to laugh. Everything turns into a general statement or a personal interpretation. Broadly, the M5S has no core principles and so has no clear stand on crucial issues. This stance leaves any decision-making to the person in an institutional role (the elected mayor, for instance) or simply delegates it to the leader of the moment.

Ambiguity can also be seen in Grillo’s sources of inspiration and advisers.
Grillo’s informatics guru, Gianroberto Casaleggio, is often seen as the true source of inspiration for M5S. His ideas about democracy, expressed in two videos called ‘Prometheus’ and ‘Gaia’, are far from orthodox: in his opinion, human hopes rest on a nuclear holocaust that will drastically reduce Earth’s population; and on the internet, which is seen as the incarnation of Freedom itself. Such uncritical ideas about the internet are supported by the majority of M5S activists. We strongly suggest viewing the videos to form a personal opinion.

Casaleggio’s role inside M5S drew some criticism also from among its activists (including Favia) after the last administrative elections. Some M5S candidates elected in local administrations complained that an unofficial ‘central committee’ was being created without any democratic procedure: people were just selected by Casaleggio, and even Grillo seemed to have no say in the matter.

One of Grillo’s ‘economic advisers’ is financial operator Eugenio Benettazzo, whose controversial articles are often published on Grillo’s website. Benettazzo can be seen sometimes at meetings organized by the neofascist party Forza Nuova. He wrote a controversial article in which he argued that the financial crisis occurred in the USA because of ‘racial promiscuity’.

The followers

M5S has been criticized because of its anti-political approach, but in a few years it has gained many activists, followers and sympathizers. People who did not usually take part in political activities had their first experience of activism at Grillo’s Meetups.
Many of his followers are disappointed leftists, tired of traditional parties, who share progressive views, but others appear to be more conservative, sometimes with xenophobic and crypto-fascist ideas. The comedian has no view about the variety of tendencies amongst his followers, asserting that ‘democracy’ implies the expression of any point of view. Campaigns and attacks started by Grillo are often endorsed by his followers. In fact, some of these campaigns are pre-existing arguments started by people who then become Grillo’s followers.

We recommend the Demos study as it is gives a good insight into Grillo’s followers and is the only one available in English.

The medium

The Demos report remarks that ‘Beppe Grillo is one of the first politicians to have embraced this transformational change, and [to use] social media as the primary medium of communication, recruitment and organization. […] . Grillo has an enormous social media following: almost one million people have joined his Facebook page. Grillo tweets regularly.’

On 20 February 2013, he had more than 900,000 followers on Twitter. This is remarkable in Italy where political parties have made very poor use of the internet and social media but yet Facebook has more than 20 million users. Grillo’s blog is one of the most followed in the world, (9th in the world in 2008, according to the Guardian.)

Grillo has been able to transform this on-line following and support into real world political impact. His successful blog is the only actual ‘think tank’ of M5S, bringing together the comedian’s boasts against politicians, denunciations of corporate economic unfairness and ‘revolutionary’ ideas for a green economy and a better society. The comedian seems to be the only one entitled to post or decide who can post on the blog. There is no moderation of the comments: each comment expresses one point-of-view, commenters rarely answer each other, and it never leads to a wider constructive discussion. The democratic potential of the blog as an instrument of creation is not realized.

Even Struggles in Italy, as a collective blog, has checks and balances: fact-checking and internal discussion play a large part in the process. No such thing happens on Grillo’s blog; it seems there are few internal discussions and no external ones. The political prosumer or the clicktivist is very far from real political activism, but Grillo’s blog is even further away, towards the position of the passive television watcher. Grillo seems more of a broadcaster than a blogger, and this reinforces his strong image.

Both Grillo and his followers have a strong faith in the internet as material democracy, and in information as a means of freedom in itself. Neither the leader nor the followers take a critical view of ownership, openness, and the possibility to shape the means. It is assumed that every good citizen and M5S activist has a Facebook account and an internet connection: this is completely untrue for around half the Italian population.
There is a total absence of historical perspective: official documents are rare, there is no concern about web obsolescence and all public discussions and posts are stored on the Meetup servers. There is not even any deep discussion about digital literacy or about English proficiency in order to better access the web.

The ideology

M5S’s agenda focuses on cross-ideological issues: ecologism and degrowth, digital freedom, direct democracy, transparency. Actually, M5S activists proudly claim that they are favourable to ‘ideas’ being put into practice, and against any ‘ideology’ (meaning a set of fake political ideals one must stick to: fascism, communism etc).

The usual way to think of politics is in partisan terms. Until now an average Italian person thought of politics as voting or being a member of a party, a trade union or a committee.
M5S, though, claims that all these structures can be removed, and that citizens can act on the same level on real issues without referring to one another’s political background. That is why the requirement of a candidate to have no previous political affiliation is so emphasized. Politics is reduced to a matter of basic economic arithmetic: removing corrupt politicians for cost reduction, replacing them with technical administrators ‘employed’ by citizens; doing away with public funding to newspapers to cut public expenditure; stopping immigration as it does not fit the economic trend; stopping the refunding of electoral campaign expenses (guaranteed by Italian law since 1994).

This is also strongly connected to the distrust of politicians; they do not respect the law, nor the principle of people’s equality, nor their vote, nor their will as a taxpayer. In such a situation, the cry of ‘neither left-wing nor right-wing’ makes complete sense and the M5S attracted a lot of people from both sides. The backbone of Grillo’s views is, in this sense, clearly populist: ‘the people’ is the only ‘true’ political subject, and there is no room for traditional class divisions or any other analytic point of view. The fact that Grillo is not a candidate and presents himself just as a megaphone expresses this principle exactly.
In January 2013 Grillo accidentally met a representative of CasaPound and declared that ‘the movement is open to everybody’, forgetting that the dubious political activity of CasaPound activists is against one of the basic principles of M5S: having no previous political affiliation. Grillo said “You [the CP activist] could be one of us”. This is how cross-ideological M5S is.

The limits of this ideology are many. If the enemy, the ‘caste’, disappears, as was the case in the 2011 mayor elections in Naples and Milan, the rhetoric of M5S crumbles. Both new mayors had no strong political affiliation and they both won by campaigning for issues similar to M5S but without any reference to ‘people power’ or by depicting a greedy and evil enemy.

People power is, as we said before, restricted by the legal statute of the movement. M5S is a trademark and Grillo is its owner. Although he is not a candidate he has the power of veto whenever he wants, just by prohibiting its use (see the cases of Salsi and Favia). A further limitation is that only Italian citizens can be members of M5S, in a country where is very hard even to get a visa. On top of that, another important limitation is the exclusion of the candidates with a criminal record. It is obviously important to have honest candidates, but often defending a cause, defending an occupation or simply resisting the police means getting charged. The Struggles in Italy blog is full of articles about citizens and workers demonstrating for their rights and finding the answer is legal repression. Law and justice are not always the same.

Finally, the biggest limitation to M5S is that it has no history. ‘It is an assemblage of first-time candidates with no shared vision except an opposition to politics as usual. That, combined with its consensus-driven approach, makes it hard to predict how its members will vote in a parliament.’ (NYT) Many M5S members declared themselves to be antifascists in protest at Grillo’s conversation with Casapound, others keep rejecting the left-right dichotomy. Many commenters agreed with the ‘Desecrated borders’ post, other did not. How can such widely disparate ideas live together in the same movement?

The economic issue

As we said before, M5S does not put forward any analysis of economy and society and it is impossible to detect any coherent vision from the comedian’s statements, made on stage in amongst jokes or on his blog. Across the board, the M5S takes ideas from here and there and this is also the case with the economy. In the middle of the campaign Grillo started proposing the introduction of protectionist duties, saying that the Italian state must have the guts to protect its companies. This was a nod in the direction of small and medium size enterprises which have been hit badly by the crisis. These businesses are the backbone of production in Italy, a country where there are few large-scale industries. Over the past 20 years these small and medium size companies have provided strong support for the Northern League and PDL (Berlusconi’s party) consensus, but they are now responding positively to the numerous appeals of Grillo.

During the final campaign meeting in Rome, Grillo assumed a position that seems to shed light on some of the more shadowy areas of the M5S’s economic program: he proposed company profit-sharing through workers’ ownership of shares. Unions, at least the big bureaucratic unions which are part of the ‘caste’ themselves have no part in this project: Grillo has even proposed their abolition. The company would become a place where both workers’ and owners’ interests become identical, a vision that obviously denies the existence of class struggle.

Sources:

Beppegrillo.it (English Version)
[en-es-fr] Grillo for Dummies
The NY Times 1 and 2
Der Spiegel
The Guardian1, 2 and 3
The Economist
The Huffington Post
[de] The Wall Street Journal
The Washington Post
Times of Malta
[it] Repubblica

9 Responses to [en] Grillo and Movimento 5 Stelle – Updated version

  1. Pingback: [en] The Movimento Cinque Stelle has protected the System – a comment by Wu Ming | Struggles in Italy

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  3. ernesto pescini says:

    I think mr Grillo has made a step too far in the battle, his best return energy wise is in public Arenas where Beppe skilled as he is can deliver his views heart-in-mind, too soon he has jumped in a wasp nest. He is a Scarlet Pimpernel and as such he should fight the system from outside. Unity in Italy is extremely difficult, history shows that Italy has too much private interests at the expense of country sovereignty unless people literally wake up next day without a penny, then maybe Grillo will find a new nation. Mind, I think he is a hero and heros sign up for Sacrifice. He needs more than a hug.

  4. Carlo D'Arrigo says:

    Thank you for a detailed, well-informed and objective article on M5S. It is quite rare to find one.

    As a sympathizer I do agree with most of the criticisms but I would like to specify some things:

    – On internal democracy: this point is highly debated by activists in meetups and many people are wary of the weight of Grillo and Casaleggio. Activists are much less loyal to Grillo and Casaleggio than they are to the ideals of less corruption, more social justice and meritocracy. Recently enhancements were made to the web platform allowing activists to debate policy issues with the intent of developing new law proposals. Also voting on policy decisions were held on various occasions through the Blog, including on an immigration topic, where the result was in favor of immigrants rights (despite a previous blog post by Grillo recommending the opposite). The vote was respected. Finally M5S MPs commonly decide what to vote in parliament independently of Grillo and Casaleggio.

    – On the low ideological depth: That is true but it is consistent with the view that policies should not be made by a select party elite but should reflect the will of the majority of the population. The philosophy is similar to the Swiss system which emphasizes mass participation in political affairs.

    In any case, the ideological depth of Berlusconi or the Democratic Party (left) is no greater than the M5S’s. Berlusconi positions his party as a right wing free trade party but it has done nothing else than favor his interests and those of his cronies. The Democratic Party sounds leftish while campaigning but while in power has never lived up to their promises of a fairer society… In fact they have always avoided addressing tough issues such as conflict of interest, corruption and bureaucracy. The PD in practice much closer to Berlusconi (examples abound) than they are to an Obama or a Blair (in his heyday).

    When weighing the pros and cons of the M5S, the pros are much greater especially when considering the competition that they stand against.

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