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Reinventing Populism: Italy’s M5S and its Raison d’être

by | July 7, 2017

Last March, a party launched by a consumer-oriented blog eight years before topped opinion polls for the first time in its history. Mixing fruitfully the rage against political elites and the sanctification of common citizenry, the Italian Five-Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle, from now on ‘M5S’) and its founder (Beppe Grillo, a comedian with a four decades-long career) have earned the trust of roughly one out of three potential voters, and are projected to remain the most innovative political actor of the 2010s.

Interpreters have struggled to nail down what the M5S is and is not, given the slippery nature of its claims. It is a movement that runs for election but doesn’t want to be called ‘a party’; that portrays itself as post-ideological and beyond both the left and the right camp; that aims to find the best and most logical solution to a wide range of problems through (not-so-transparent) online surveys, and refuses any political alliance. One interpretation, coming mostly from representatives of the ruling centre-Left coalition and radical academics, is unsurprisingly focused on the M5S’ inability to govern effectively even where it has won elections, on its maverick behaviour, on the grammatical and historical mistakes tweeted by its leaders. It is a widespread reading where M5S’ voters are depicted as ignorant, manipulated citizens, inhabiting a second-class society not really worth our attention.

Between Millenarianism and Mainstream

In 2013, Italian writer Federico Campagna compared the M5S to a Children’s Crusade, the medieval mythos of a Christian army comprised almost entirely of kids, embarked to the Holy Land under the protection of God and ended up in an unmitigated disaster. While the crusade symbolism has been adopted several times by Grillo himself in his anti-establishment tirades, the allegory used by Campagna refers more startlingly to the idea of ‘common people’ affirmed by the M5S. A classless land where pure, innocent citizens are fighting an unspecified enemy (‘injustice’), while pursuing an impalpable deity (‘honesty’).

Surprisingly, M5S has topped the polls in the very period when Rome, the Italian capital ruled by one of the party’s rising stars (Virginia Raggi) has been lurching from one trash crisis to another, and is on the verge of political collapse; a time were the party is plagued by corruption scandals, has wildly mismanaged local online primaries and has overall lost its aura of incorruptibility and purity. This almost complete lack of correlation between the party’s troubles and its performance in the polls is telling us something new: that the support for M5S goes beyond the lust for E-democracy and it’s deeply rooted in the mistrust of all the other political forces.

Evidently, M5S and its agenda – much as it is contradictory – must be taken seriously. Having so much in less than a decade, the party will quite plausibly assume other shapes and features in the next few years. But for now, political opponents must opt for an approach other than just ridiculing it and its voters. With talks of early election adding to the jitters of the Left, the M5S prospects have never been brighter. Sarcasm and disrespect haven’t worked. The underdog is now a serious contender for government, and many of its battles (such as the anti-vax campaigns, the suspicions thrown at pro-migrant NGOs, and the support for universal basic income) are having a real impact in the political discourse. As with many weird jokes in Italian history (cf, Silvio Berlusconi’s ten year tenure as Prime Minister), M5S must be challenged with precision and urgency.


Inside the M5S

Most observers agree that the M5S is a prime example of First World populism: a party detached from the twentieth century’s major ideologies, reluctant to flirt with concepts like ‘class struggle’ yet welcoming mass meetings and grassroots organizing; a party with an amazingly simplified internal discourse, which helps seduce supporters from all tints of the political spectrum. But what kind of populism are we talking about, specifically? The term ‘populism’ has also been applied to such varied formations as Corbyn’s Labour, and to Podemos – but what do these have in common with Grillo’s creation? To get a grasp of what the leading party in Italy has in mind we should probably start questioning its identity and social composition.

By all accounts, in its initial phase the M5S was linked to the kind of social movements less rooted in party politics than in civil society. The ‘five stars’ were a reference to five key issues for the party: public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, the right to Internet access, and environmentalism. Its members used to gather in spontaneous ‘meetups’ (along the lines of the 2004 Howard Dean campaign in the US) fascinated by an escapist utopia where humanity and nature could have a greener, peaceful, more harmonious relationship, and an invariably corrupt political class turned upside down – while skating gently over crucial ideological divides.

Today, the M5S keeps polling first among the under-34. This tendency is pretty remarkable in a number of ways. In the United States Hillary Clinton surpassed Trump among under-29s (55% vs. 37%) in the 2016 presidential election. Jean-Luc Melenchon received the largest share of young people’s vote in France. Bernie Sanders and Corbyn’s Labour are triumphant among under-30s. All of this suggests that the young are leaning to the Left, or at least against the Right. First-time voters in Italy, however, represent the core of a party who proudly claims to be “neither left-wing or right-wing”, with an uncertain political identity, and a history unmoored from extant ideologies. Those with higher education, in both the working class and the petty bourgeoisie, are some of the strongest demographics within the M5S. This represents a puzzle to those trying to rebuild a class-based Left; but it also challenges those who reduce M5S to a brainwashed, ignorant cult.


Beyond Left and Right?

But is the M5S really so apolitical, and far from ideological extremes? We should examine this claim more thoroughly. According to a 2015 survey, Grillo’s supporters are increasingly right-wing (20 percent today, compared to 14 percent two years before), although 29 percent still consider themselves ‘left-wing’. The majority, about 54 percent, consider themselves ‘centrists’, although in Italy this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re moderates. As Dino Amenduni, a political strategist and social media expert who worked with the Partito Democratico, points out: “We should look into the high standard deviation.” Basically, the data points of the M5S are spread out over a wider range of values, going from ‘typically left’ to ‘typically right’, but not necessarily reconcilable in between two poles.

On issues like LGBT rights, M5S’ supporters are timidly sympathetic, and they back ideas like basic income or legalization of marijuana. But on the European Union, immigration and crime they are more conservative than other left-wing parties; the post-materialist and environmentalist values are more and more diluted within an increasingly race-baiting, xenophobic and paranoid framework of populism. Beppe Grillo tried to reach out to CasaPound, a far-right party, since at least 2013. Last year, he applauded Donald Trump’s victory. After the 2014 European election the M5S joined Nigel Farage’s Brussels group. The vast network of websites controlled by the M5S is a notorious manufacturer and disseminator of fake news, so efficient that even the traditionally restrained Partito Democratico tried to imitate its style.

The ‘leaderless ideology’, the non-hierarchical structure and the slogan ‘everybody counts as one’, which once represented the dawn of the Movement, are now completely disregarded, since Grillo has made it clear that he’s the one who gets the last word.


A multi-flavored sherbet

Italian philosopher Raffaele Alberto Ventura once compared M5S to ‘Bombastium’, a mysterious element which first appeared in a Carl Barks’ comic story in the 1950s: a colour-changing, glow-in-the-dark sherbet that tastes different every time one licks on it. Just like Bombastium, you could look at the anti-parliamentary tirades of M5S, and see Fascism; hear the anti-austerity rants, and see leftist rhetoric; watch the outburst against the faceless bureaucracy, and see laissez-faire liberalism. Traditional parties may perceive ambiguity as a weakness, but M5S turns abstraction into the core of its platform

While Iňigo Errejon, chief theorist of the Spanish left wing party Podemos, explicitly mentions Ernesto Laclau as his main intellectual reference, the M5S is the European party that probably best embodies the Laclauian concept of populism. Take, for example, the creation of an ‘empty signifier’ (watchwords like ‘honesty’, or ‘cleaning up politics’, that symbolically structure the political environment), its own presence representing an ‘unachievable fullness’” (that crystallizes a horizon of particularities). Or consider its declination of the Gramscian ‘historic bloc’, in putting together otherwise conflicting groups. The fact that this model appears to work, with anti-establishment sentiment now more popular than ever, makes the M5S model a seducing object of desire for the Left.


Horizons of hegemony

But are we sure that the M5S now really aims to gain office? The current state of things does not provide us with a clear answer. The attempted reform of the voting system was rejected with a plebiscite in last December’s referendum, mostly thanks to M5S’s feverish propaganda. Ironically, a political victory appears to have turned into a major obstacle for the Movement’s road to power: mainstream parties are now talking of a highly proportional system that would prevent the M5S from securing an overall majority (unless they gain a 51% of the vote).

A proof of unselfishness? Given the party’s refusal to form any coalition and the limit of two legislatures imposed on its MPs; given that the party’s support for the proportional system was ratified by a quick, undebated online poll launched by Grillo itself, maybe the M5S is trying to say something else: that it’s chasing the unlikely shadow of the old Communist Party: a life in the opposition, possessing a hegemony of culture and political discourse, while others control key institutions. Arguably, winning governmental power would destroy M5S, forcing it to particularise its agenda in the format of policy, lumping it in decisively with the political establishment, and exposing the incompetence of its leaders. A popular power base, supported by a profitable industry of paranoia and conspiracy to be kept continuously blooming, would allow M5S to continuously exert power without office. It could be a permanent, and permanently mutating, opposition.

Not so stupid, after all.