Right as Left

Cinque Stelle co-founder Beppe Grillo. Sicily, 2012.

He might as well have been possessed. Screaming and shouting, flapping his arms, Beppe Grillo’s eyes repeatedly rolled to the back of his head, like there was a demon inside him.

Though I understand Italian, I had a hard time discerning what he was saying. His words were slurred, and delivered in a panicked, disjointed sounding way.

It was a decidedly local moment, requiring translation in more ways than one. But, the crowd seemed to understand him and roared its approval.

Stopping in Turin to campaign on behalf of his party, the one-man show that is Grillo was a lesson in Italian politics I had yet to learn.

Expressing the rage that Italians feel about their corrupt political establishment, he’d managed to latch on to the non-verbal aspect of their discontent and make it seem meaningful.

Political, that is. Anti-establishment, and leftwing too. In spite of his libertarian ideology and anti-union stance, the millionaire comedian had transformed himself into the leader of Italy’s opposition.

Opposition to what is the question. Pro-environment, opponent of privatising water resources, Grillo’s withering criticisms of Italy’s corrupt political establishment are an intoxicating whirlwind of invective and denunciation.

His impact has been profound, particularly for a country struggling with three decades of economic decline, and the return of fascists to its political echelon during the Berlusconi era, which finally came to an end in 2011.

Marked by near-daily tabloid headlines about the decadent foibles of Italy’s wealthiest senior citizen, in the early ’00s, Grillo tapped into the profound disgust Italians had developed for their premier. 

Grillo’s boomer moralism offered the perfect generational palliative to a country in search of a post-Communist left following the Cold War, and the decline of socialism as an alternative to capitalism.

His ideas about direct democracy and the environment had a decidedly ’70s vibe to them, that appealed to both middle-aged Italians as well as Occupy-era youth who found his utopian attitude towards technology appealing.

But, as Grillo’s critics have repeatedly pointed out, it’s a simulation. It’s not the real thing. At heart, he’s a nationalist and xenophobic. The rest is a lie, intended to give the impression that Italy’s political establishment is somehow under threat by insurgent do-gooders, and not, in reality, undergoing a transition between elites.

However, if one looks at the sorts of ideological breaks Grillo indulges with the socialist left, it’s not hard to begin questioning his progressive bonafides. Take, for example, his repeat racist digressions against minorities and immigrants, or his romance with selling off public broadcasters.

Few areas of Italian politics are more historically significant in terms of the left-right divide. Particularly since the early 1990s, when crises in the Balkans and the Mideast jumpstarted mass migration to the country, and Silvio Berlusconi leveraged his media empire to get elected and influence the country’s political direction.

Few moments in Italian politics have been so influential, helping push it backwards in time, with its chauvinistic ethnic politics and state propaganda.

With his constant attacks on minorities and promotion of sexist consumer culture on Mediaset, Berlusconi set the stage for the ideological rejuvenation of the Italian far-right now in power. Never mind, of course, his inclusion of the Lega in three coalition governments between 1994 and 2011.

Cinque Stelle’s decision to sit in coalition with the Lega is a repetition of the Berlusconi formula but is having much worse effects. Now under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, the party is imposing itself on Italy as a nationalist party, confirming that the only thing Cinque Stelle accomplished was to return fascism to the Italian mainstream.

It could have been prevented. The key was in opposing Grillo’s views on diversity and immigration, which would have blocked such an alliance. On the surface, his resistance to them were the only drawbacks to an otherwise progressive-sounding platform, establishing Cinque Stelle as the logical successor to Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI).

The problem is that racism is a gateway drug equivalent to larger political problems. Particularly in an era in which mass population movements are an increasingly common response to war and environmental crises.

Refugees are an especially obvious scapegoat for fragile democracies with weak economies. Blaming minorities, whose rights are already subject to question by right-wingers, is much easier. You simply collapse the two, making everyone outside the majority ethnic group to blame. 

That’s the key to understanding why Cinque Stelle will never be a leftist party. Every progressive element of its platform is compromised by its victimisation of ‘outsiders’, who bear no responsibility for the problems Italy suffers from. That’s why Beppe Grillo’s critics are correct in questioning his progressive credentials.

Even if Grillo were an actual socialist, he still wouldn’t be immune to charges of racism. Look at the anti-Semitism that flourished in the former Eastern Bloc as but one example. Multiculturalism was not a common policy, despite the rhetoric of internationalism and xenophobia was a common experience for minorities.

The problem is that Cinque Stelle pretends that it can survive its racism and not compromise its other credentials. Enabling the xenophobic Lega leader Matteo Salvini to be deputy premier, when it didn’t have to, is all the proof that’s needed to show it can’t and why Italy desperately needs a real leftwing party.

Thinking back to my encounter with Grillo, I can’t help but reproach myself for imagining that Cinque Stelle might have moderated its ethnic politics, as I hoped it would if it partnered with the Partito Democratico to form the current coalition government, instead of the Lega.

“They mean well, but they’re too uneducated and moralistic to do anything meaningful,” a journalist friend said after first meeting Cinque Stelle MEPs in Brussels. “God knows where they will end up politically.”

It’s exactly that sort of person that sees Grillo’s theatrical displays, such as the one I witnessed in Turin, as an alternative. If only they weren’t so easily seduced by shamans.

Photograph courtesy of Pasere. Published under a Creative Commons license.