What we can learn from Beppe Grillo …and what we can’t

I hate being the centre of attention!
I hate being the centre of attention!

Should we invite someone from the M5S (Five Star Movement) to speak about how they built their movement in Italy?

This was  an interesting and relevant question raised towards the end of our recent local Left Unity meeting writes Dave Kellaway. I suggested that we need to think more about this since the M5S does not define itself as on the left or indeed as a party. It’s mantra is that ‘we are non-party and we are above other parties, neither on the right or the left’. Indeed when the 100 odd MPs took their seats in the Italian parliament they deliberately tried to sit in the upper rows of the semi-circle. Nevertheless the M5S is a political phenomenon.

Just three years since its official formation and electoral scores below 5% it recently became the joint biggest party in Italy in the February general elections. Its breakthrough was foreshadowed in the election campaign with its ability to fill the squares throughout Italy, something the left used to able to do. Today it is riding high since it is highly probable that the new government will be very similar to the previous Monti-led national pro-austerity government.  Berlusconi’s right of centre party (PDL) and Bersani’s left of centre Democratic party(PD) lost millions of votes to Grillo and to abstention in February amid a general anger against austerity and the political caste. Despite that the new government will be very similar to the previous one where the right and the so-called mainstream left will support a pro-Troika, pro-austerity government.  To quote Leopardi: ‘ everything had to change for nothing to change’.

Beppe Grillo and his movement have refused to have anything to do with such a government, refusing alliances with either ‘the PDL or the PD without the L’ who are both accused of sustaining a corrupt political caste that has prevented real change for 20 years.  Symbolising this immobility is the way Napolitano (only 88 years old!) has been brought back for an unprecedented second presidential mandate so that he can cook up the same national government that he did with Monti fourteen months ago.  The M5S, Vendola left-wing SEL party and many of the rank and file PD membership supported  Stefano Rodota for president as a means of preventing what most ordinary people in Italy see as another ‘stitch-up’.  Activists are so angry that they surrounded parliament at the weekend to shout abuse at their MPs – including in restaurants.  Hundreds, particularly the youth, have occupied the local PD offices around the country.  The PD has managed to hand Grillo a golden opportunity to be the only opposition to a Monti-mark 2 government.  Needless to say there is open warfare in the PD over its future direction. It may split or the pull of its apparatus and resources may keep the currents together in an uneasy but paralysing truce.

So what are the things we can learn from Grillo and the M5S?

  1. Be bold and understand the depth of the crisis of political representation on the right and the left.

Here it is the refrain one hears when canvassing  – they are all the same why bother to vote. The expenses scandal and the utter hopelessness of Miliband’s opposition, where he refuses to say if he will restore the cuts and he accepts the main post -Thatcher framework of privatisation and anti-union laws, means the control of the Labour party on the vote of working people is weak. The rise of UKIP, the nationalist parties , the Greens and Respect’s breakthrough in Bradford  all show this.  Even if there is a slight swing back to Labour to kick out the Tories at the general election it will be a lesser evil vote without great belief or enthusiasm. The structural weakening of the industrial heartlands and the consequent decline in trade unions and working class cultural institutions further loosens Labour’s dead grip.  Despite our anti-democratic electoral system parties to the left of labour can make an impact.  The very recent polls has shown Labour is not surging ahead but coasting .

  1. Social media can help develop political support and a distinct political culture.  

The Grillo blog is in the top ten sites in the world and the biggest political site in the Italy by many miles.  Beppe Grillo, as a comic, was banned from the TV and his movement refuses to allow its MPs to appear on political talk shows. Yet this has not stopped the irresistible rise in the polls. After meeting internet guru, Casaleggio, he understood earlier than other politicians that more and more people use the internet for information and discussion. It provides the movement with a gigantic counter-information site alternative to the mainstream media. Although as we will see below it lends itself to a very limited form of democracy it certainly allows the M5S to materially oppose its system-changing world view to the consensus of the media in which all the other political parties operate.

  1. Don’t be afraid to talk about the big picture.

We may disagree about the programme , tactics or strategy of the M5S but it certainly speaks about the need for a major change. Its most popular slogan is ‘tutti a casa’ about sending all the politicians home, of a total democratic change.  In fact we need to understand the usefulness of radical democratic demands alongside the anti-austerity or economic ones.  Limiting politicians to two terms of office, radically cutting their pay and expenses,  regular accountability albeit through the internet, and against the list systems where the parties decide everything are all very popular, mobilising issues in Italy.

  1. Build long term mobilisations over matters that affect people, including ecological questions.

Electoral success follows successful campaigning on the nitty-gritty issues. The M5S were active in supporting  locally-based campaigns against water privatisation, on US military listening posts, on the expansion of incinerators and building the High Speed rail link through the Val de Susa. Beppe Grillo was using his blog for years exposing corruption by politicians and the big companies. He criticised the financial irregularities endemic in the system years before the banking crash and has put ecological questions at the centre of its activities.

  1. Use humour, use our imagination to mobilise people in new ways.

You can get used to the norms of the political game so even people on the left frown on vulgarity or being too brutally critical of the mainstream parties.  People sneered or condemned the Va Fa (Go F..K yourself) days, which really began to make the Grillo phenomenon a mass movement a decade ago.  There was a little of that over the Thatcher funeral where the vulgarity and bad taste eventually saved the honour of the left over the rewriting of history during those weeks.  Even radical left activists probably underestimate the visceral anger that is out there. It is not populism to try and relate to that.  However we have to produce slogans and demands that hit people between the eyes or in their stomachs. We need our own 5 point programme that people can access and retain easily.

But what does Grillo get wrong?

  1. He reduces the problem of the economic and political crisis to radical democratic demands.

It is as though cleaning up parliament would necessarily challenge the power of capital and the establishment which operates in a relatively autonomous way from political institutions. His economic programme is very weak. Despite correctly calling for a citizens’ safety net income in Italy (which does not have even our Welfare state benefits) he tends to talk about leaving the Euro or giving more support to small and medium sized businesses as a solution.  His championing of Rodota as a left choice for President was tactically astute but reflected illusions that a Rodota presidency would fundamentally change the political situation on austerity or the other big questions.

  1. The M5S does not identify the independent self-organisation of working people as the key to changing the system. 

This is logical since his analysis of Italian society is that once everything is more democratic and less corrupt the essential economic motor can be run more efficiently. Although denouncing the corruption and atrocious management of Italian capital he does not have any theory of class exploitation which can explain the current crisis. Consequently it has sometimes denounced trade unions as being tied into the partocracy or political caste and sometimes linked up with the more radical trade unions such as the FIOM metalworkers. We in Left Unity should reject any notion of one nation and base ourselves on the self-organisation of working people who are in an antagonistic relationship to the people who own the wealth within the nation.

  1. The M5S movement itself is not democratically organised.  

To be sure the M5S it trumpets the slogan that within its ranks that  ‘one equals one’.  However this is limited to voting online on a number of policies or positions that are not discussed in any democratic political structures. There are no congresses or conferences in which different political positions or currents can really exist. Indeed at the merest sign of dissent from representatives there are organisational threats of expulsion subsequently carried through.  If you compare the primary elections for candidates in the M5S with the ones organised in the PD it is difficult to argue that the former were more democratic. It is calculated that some current MPs were selected with only a few thousand votes. It is entirely logical of course,  if you do not define yourself as party then the traditional idea of the cut and thrust of political debate with organised currents feels out of place. The democracy is vertically between the leadership team around Grillo and the hundreds of thousands of members registered on the site.  What this does show is that merely using the internet as an organising tool does not necessarily result in a transparent democratic party.

  1. Parties, even not-Parties led by the ‘genius’ of great men, can never provide a longlasting political alternative for working people.

Beppe Grillo is not a fascist – you can see numerous declarations on his website and observe his practical politics to see that is not the case – and nobody serious in Italy uses that term. However he is a populist who is vital to the growth and continued strength of his movement.  Although frozen out of the TV he constantly gave theatrical or stadium performances that build up his recognition over the years. He is the biggest draw in town. He does consult and often studies what experts have to say but he also often makes up the political line on the hoof. So recently he was for calling all his supporters to Rome to protest the latest stitch up on the Presidency and then like the Duke of York, he called it off.

  1. Finally the movement has little to say about involving women, ethnic minorities and gay people in the leadership or structures of the movement.

It is not a concern although there are large numbers of women active in the M5S. The modernity of using the internet does not always result in progress on the widest political involvement.  Certain off the cuff remarks by Grillo have not been particularly progressive on either gays (the question was gay marriage) or on the rights of migrant children born in Italy.  This does not mean to say that M5S as a movement has reactionary positions on these matters. Part of the problem is that there is not a detailed programme that includes all these questions.

In conclusion it is worth studying new political movements which have such a startling rise and impact. Even if there are not classic left or labour movement oriented currents they can demonstrate some positive and negative political lessons.


  1. Interesting read. One point you missed is that M5S internally has people from the left and the right working together on thorny issues at a local level.

    this is the main attraction everyday issues that people can relate to. Issues that people have been talking about for the last twenty years and have never been resolved.

    Her is the megaphone of what people have been thinking and saying about Italian politics and politicians. He has hit a warm-spot , especially the under 45, who have become accustomed to find and form their own opinions away from the Italian mass media, which at the best of times sits either to the or right depending on what channel and time of thee day.

    Anyways to come a close. The secret is quite simple. Take a stand against injustice, cheats, robbery , corruption and all politicians in general and have a charismatic leader scream from various stages and point fingers at the greed and lust for power that they have gathered around themselves and you have a winning combination.

  2. Hello,

    I casually found this page and I’d like to add my opinion as an italian citizen pro-five star movement. Honestly I think it requires more than just standing against corruption, to build in few years what Grillo built. And his concept was pretty brilliant, because the first step wasn’t making big changes, but to operate at a local level and let all the citizens partecipate activily in the movement to regain the control of the enviroment they are living in. Anyone can join, partecipate and create its own list to be elected. This is the hidden democratic way of Grillo. The electors are updated each time of what the elected are doing and what is happening inside the politics palaces. It requires quite an effort (specially an initial capital)to build this and nobody seems to be aware of it. At a national level the movement wasnt as ready as at a local level since everything happened faster after Monti failure to bring Italy out of the crisis. In your article you mentioned the primary election of PD, but people seems to ignore that during PD primary, rules were changed in order to avoid Renzi from winning against Bersani. Renzi is Florence major who was running to lead the PD party with the program of renewing PD’s leadership. Another point ignored is that the only woman (also very good politician) who was running in PD primary election(Laura Puppato), was completely put aside while national media shadowed her candidature. It’s a common easy thing to blame Grillo of not allowing a real democracy inside the 5 Star Movement, but honestly; since now, his actions were justified by the need of keeping the integrity of the Movement. He stopped some members from appearing in controlled media and didnt allow the Movement to be involved in the parties political game. Other than that he never interfered with the political administration of 5 Star Movement members. The need of Grillo presence to keep order is also a weakness because it seems that without Grillo the Movement could not last long, but I wouldnt say it’s a big issue since the Movement has a clear mission to bring a change and eradicate corruption from politic; it has no reason to survive after. About their program, it seems to be the main weakness, because there are things that are not practicable, others that are not in the short period (about the exit from EU, it’s not a final position, but rather a way to say that EU economical policy cannot continue this way, so as Grillo confirmed, they are open to dialogue) . So I was convinced of their credibility after seeing their local administrators. At a local level, where they are administrating, the Movement demonstrate to be really down to earth. They respected their first principle to cut political costs and they try their best in achieving reasonable objectives despite their lack of experience. The Movement is not perfect but if the population wait for perfection, it might wait invane. It requires dedication and full commitment to achieve what Grillo achieved , keeping its movement outside any scandals. Unluckly once they went into the parlament, the population starts to pretend instead of supporting the change and the result is that the old system is taking over again. Anyway, if you want to replicate what the movement did, remember to start from the bottom at a local level, involving local people in solving local issues and let them be the leaders of their territory as Francesco Zanella mentioned in his post. Then you can create a network that link them at a national level throughout internet.

  3. I am in Italy right now and there really is a sense that Grillo has missed the boat. Not just old voters, but all ages say the same thing. He should have taken the 4 stars that were offered and had done with that … he held out for all 5 stars and … nobody expects him to get mote than 10% next time.

    So what can be learned? Know when to take the money and when to open the box.

    If anybody would say that Grillo could have been lied to and that Bersani would never have delivered his promises, he could have got Bersani to swear publicly, put a deal only with results and to hold back support for anything more than his 4 stars.

    I think a huge chance has been wasted. Now we have Berlusconi back. This was in part down to Grillo. He fecked up.

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