Four Points on M5S

In the spring elec­tions of 2013, the polit­i­cal equi­lib­rium of the so-called Sec­ond Ital­ian Repub­lic was upset by a new polit­i­cal entity that was offi­cially cre­ated only four years ear­lier: the Five Star Move­ment (M5S). The polls pre­dicted a vic­tory for The Demo­c­ra­tic Party (PD) and its allied SEL, (Left, Ecol­ogy and Free­dom). The PD, born out the union of the heirs of the Ital­ian Com­mu­nist Party and the more pro­gres­sive wing of the for­mer Chris­tian Democ­rats, ran on a cen­trist plat­form under the lead­er­ship of Pier Luigi Bersani. On the other hand, Sil­vio Berlusconi’s Party of Lib­erty (PDL) looked to be in rapid decline, as a series of scan­dals and the inabil­ity to address the harsh eco­nomic cri­sis finally made a breach in years of polit­i­cal indif­fer­ence. The cen­trist party of Mario Monti (Scelta Civica) stood no chance, but was held in great regard by high finance cir­cles and the inter­na­tional press. In the pre­vi­ous months, Monti had led a tech­no­cratic gov­ern­ment with the sup­port of the PD and PDL, which enforced aus­ter­ity mea­sures (along with anti-labor reforms) that fur­ther plum­meted Italy into debt and social unrest. Mean­while, long­stand­ing prob­lems of cor­rup­tion, exten­sive mis­use of pub­lic monies, and the out­ra­geous ris­ing cost of pol­i­tics have fur­ther widened the rift between Ital­ian peo­ple and their politi­cians.

Out of this acute pop­u­lar dis­con­tent, Beppe Grillo, come­dian and owner of M5S, care­fully shaped a move­ment that mobi­lized a het­ero­ge­neous spec­trum of forces. It ran an envi­ron­men­tal­ist and gen­er­ally pro­gres­sive plat­form tainted, how­ever, by pop­ulist and anti-immi­grant pos­tures. It offered a palin­genetic image of the Inter­net, trum­pet­ing it as the salv­i­fic instru­ment that would res­cue Italy democ­racy from its decline. Most impor­tantly, its grass­roots polit­i­cal cam­paign was marked by the refusal of fur­ther pri­va­ti­za­tion and by a gen­eral attack against all that could be linked to polit­i­cal par­ties and their pol­i­tics (in Italy now com­monly called anti-caste dis­course). M5S cap­tured an impres­sive 25% vote of protest com­ing both from the Left and the Right, across class divi­sions. Once in par­lia­ment it refused to strike an alliance with the PD, who then pro­ceeded to form a gov­ern­ment with the PDL, in fact recon­sti­tut­ing the ear­lier Monti gov­ern­ment under a dif­fer­ent prime min­is­ter.

Writ­ten in the weeks fol­low­ing the elec­tions, this arti­cle rep­re­sents an acute analy­sis of the shape, dynam­ics and ide­ol­ogy of this new entity of today’s Ital­ian pol­i­tics. It begins to unearth the ways in which the new class com­po­si­tion of post-Fordist Ital­ian labor is giv­ing rise to polit­i­cal forces that rely on a rad­i­cal de-con­stituent impulse, omi­nously dis­tort­ing the ide­als of direct democ­racy through the fetish of dig­i­tal rep­re­sen­ta­tion.

—Andrea Righi


An old limit, per­haps the limit of the estab­lished polit­i­cal sys­tem, is its refusal to accept any rup­tures in its ratio­nal­ity that may come from ris­ing polit­i­cal move­ments.1 When a new polit­i­cal move­ment erupts on the scene with unex­pected force, even when fore­seen, the first move of the polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment is defen­sive action and the attempt to assim­i­late and neu­tral­ize it. It bends it to its own lan­guage and its own agenda, even when that lan­guage and that agenda are pre­cisely the rea­son for the con­flict incited by the move­ment in ques­tion. It has already hap­pened in Italy, to give two macro­scopic exam­ples, with the move­ment of ‘77 and with rad­i­cal fem­i­nism, both of which resulted in a non-dia­logue. It is hap­pen­ing again now with the M5S (Five Stars Move­ment) on the part of the Demo­c­ra­tic Party (PD), among oth­ers. It is sur­pris­ing how the party of Pier Luigi Bersani passed at once from an atti­tude of sub­stan­tial under­es­ti­ma­tion and hos­til­ity con­cern­ing Beppe Grillo, “the dig­i­tal fas­cist,” through­out the elec­toral cam­paign, to the pre­de­ter­mined and intended open­ing of the day after the results. At the core of this pro­posal was the appeal to the ratio­nal­ity and the sense of respon­si­bil­ity of the Grillini2, the same appeal that is found in the intel­lec­tual texts pub­lished by Repub­blica in sup­port of Bersani’s effort. As if by appeal­ing to sim­i­lar or com­pat­i­ble pro­grams between the M5S and the PD, one could avoid con­fronta­tion with the rough and irre­ducible point of the prob­lem: the fact that the M5S is a dis­mis­sive move­ment in no way com­pat­i­ble with a con­struc­tive and pro­gram­ma­ble logic. Its pro­gram does not con­sist of enu­mer­ated points that it affirms, but in the deter­mi­na­tion to inval­i­date, or at least to gravely block, the func­tion­al­ity of the sys­tem: between this rea­son­ing and that of Bersani and his advi­sors there is a dif­fer­ent level of ratio­nal­ity.

But the PD and its sup­port­ers are not the only ones put in a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion by this block­age. Reac­tions to M5S’s suc­cess oscil­late between the enthu­si­asm for its unex­pected results and hor­i­zon­tal hyper-democ­racy, and the panic for its hier­ar­chi­cal, pop­ulist, mil­lenar­i­an­ist traits. In the mid­dle there is an agnos­tic uncer­tainty among those who con­tent them­selves with facts: there must be a good rea­son if so many peo­ple akin to us, the pro­gres­sive Left says to itself, voted for it. If M5S expresses anger and social frus­tra­tion, chan­nel­ing it in a legal way, bet­ter to trust it than to dis­trust it. With less agnos­ti­cism and with a con­sis­tent eupho­ria for all that has a vague fla­vor of sub­ver­sive­ness, some post-work­erist groups dis­trust the legal and ser­mo­niz­ing judi­cial trade­mark of the M5S, but savor the insta­bil­ity it pro­vokes in the polit­i­cal sys­tem , as well as the “mul­ti­tudi­nous” com­po­si­tion of its con­stituency, for­get­ting its ran­corous and racist traits. The rev­o­lu­tion is seen as an arrow that runs lin­early and pro­gres­sively; the con­tra­dic­tions at the heart of the peo­ple are just a hic­cup along the way, and through­out the course the impor­tant thing is to liq­ui­date the his­tor­i­cal Left.

Mean­while, such oscil­la­tions show the dif­fi­culty of defin­ing not the many lines, but instead the dom­i­nant line of the M5S: its main direc­tion, its ide­o­log­i­cal guide, its con­sti­tu­tive geneal­ogy. This is what, in other words, restores mean­ing to the M5S beyond its ambiva­lence and ele­ments of “sim­i­lar­ity” to the claims of a left­ist party like SEL (”Sin­is­tra, ecolo­gia e lib­ertà”) and the antag­o­nis­tic move­ments of the last decade. The very crit­i­cal analy­sis that Wu Ming pro­posed of the M5S is among the few, along with that of Giu­liano San­toro in Un Grillo qualun­que, to shed any light on that sub­ject. One may hear their echo in the four points of reflec­tion that I pro­pose here.3

1. The recent exploits of the M5S do not imply the end of the Sec­ond Repub­lic – they are rather the ripest fruit, or per­haps its last act. From the twenty years of Berlus­coni and from his tail­piece in the tech­no­cratic gov­ern­ment of Mario Monti, Grillo-Casa­leg­gio & Co. inherit three cru­cial fac­tors: the eth­i­cal-polit­i­cal “great nar­ra­tion” which coun­ter­poses hon­est civil soci­ety against the cor­rupt caste of politi­cians; the neolib­eral break­down of the Fordist work into post-Fordist “skills”; the “com­pen­sa­tion” for the cri­sis of polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion through the re rep­re­sen­ta­tion (tele­vised in the case of Berlus­coni, on the inter­net in the case of Grillo) together with a per­son­al­ized, cen­tral­ized, and strongly “per­formed” lead­er­ship.4

Let’s start with the first point. The con­trast between an hon­est soci­ety and a cor­rupt caste is a fable, per­haps the fable, that has accom­pa­nied Ital­ian pol­i­tics from the early nineties. Like all fables, it stim­u­lates the pop­u­lar imag­i­na­tion and is based on an irrefutable real­ity, the mount­ing anger against the priv­i­lege, the cor­rup­tion, and above all the pas­sive­ness and impo­tence of the rul­ing class. And yet this remains a self-com­fort­ing and self-delud­ing fable. In the times of Tan­gen­topoli, which was a sys­tem of cor­rup­tion based on the exchange of favors and bribes between politi­cians and busi­ness­men, it was nec­es­sary to blame the politi­cians and acquit the busi­ness­men5; Sil­vio Berlus­coni ben­e­fit­ted from this, tak­ing the field him­self as an hon­est and trust­wor­thy busi­ness­man exter­nal to the Palazzo.6 Later, dur­ing the long reign of the Cav­a­liere 7, the fable served on one hand to paper over, under the pos­tu­late of the hon­est soci­ety, the dif­fused ille­gal­ity through which Berlusconi’s per­ma­nent ille­gal­ity found accep­tance and pop­u­lar­ity; on the other hand to inval­i­date, under the ban­ner of “they are all the same” any (albeit fee­ble) attempt by the cen­ter-left to gov­ern. More recently, fol­low­ing Rizzo and Stella’s famous book La Casta (The Caste), printed by Il Cor­ri­era Della Sera, it served to dele­git­i­mate pol­i­tics tout court and wel­come the arrival of the boc­co­ni­ani in the gov­ern­ment.8 Now, Grillo’s ver­sion tells the story of the anger of the social classes mas­sa­cred by the cri­sis, direct­ing it not towards its right­ful tar­get – the neolib­eral fix­a­tion and Euro­pean aus­ter­ity – but sim­ply against the cor­rupt caste, with the goal of bring­ing back the com­mu­nity of the hon­est cit­i­zens. The anti-polit­i­cal matrix of the M5S is born from this. But so far, to be pre­cise, this merely shows a strong anti-party  anger that is fully com­pre­hen­si­ble if one thinks of the sorry state of Ital­ian pol­i­tics. The true anti-polit­i­cal matrix is more hid­den, and this leads us to the sec­ond point of reflec­tion.

2. In addi­tion to being cor­rupt, the caste is by def­i­n­i­tion incom­pe­tent: for the M5S polit­i­cal pro­fes­sion­al­ism is, with­out excep­tion, a trick that cov­ers the inabil­ity to do any­thing. The peo­ple, on the other hand, know what they are doing and are able to use their skills to ben­e­fit the com­mon good. We heard it in the rit­ual pre­sen­ta­tion of the grillini before the par­lia­ment: as a farmer I would like to deal with organic farm­ing, as a teacher I would like to reform edu­ca­tion, as a nurse and I would like to rebuild health­care… Lenin’s cook could and should have learned to gov­ern the State; Grillo’s cook is ready to be in charge of the Min­istry of Food. Now, one can see in this gallery of skills the proof of M5S’s post-Fordist composition—according to the afore­men­tioned euphoric inter­pre­ta­tions of net work­ers, knowl­edge work­ers, first-gen­er­a­tion pre­car­i­ous work­ers, and the unem­ployed proletariat—and yet one can also see the poten­tially sub­ver­sive face of the bio-cap­i­tal­is­tic appa­ra­tus that puts to work and val­orizes skills. Alter­na­tively, one can see an inter-class move­ment dri­ven by a degraded and impov­er­ished mid­dle class—a social stra­tum that has never con­tributed to the cause of democ­racy, nor the revolution—extending the neolib­eral “do it your­self” ide­ol­ogy to pol­i­tics or rear­rang­ing the tech­no­cratic view of pol­i­tics that Italy has already expe­ri­enced with the boc­co­ni­ani in gov­ern­ment. If skills are made imme­di­ately polit­i­cal, if exper­tise becomes imme­di­ately gov­ern­men­tal, we don’t defeat the self-ref­er­en­tial pro­fes­sion­al­ism and incom­pe­tence of the hated caste. Rather, we jet­ti­son pol­i­tics as an autonomous lan­guage, and as the site of the medi­a­tion between spe­cial­iza­tions, inter­ests, and cor­po­ra­tions. It is not the caste that we rid our­selves of, nor the par­ties, but pol­i­tics tout court.

3. The third fac­tor trans­ferred from the Sec­ond Repub­lic to the M5S is the rela­tion­ship between the cri­sis of polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion and the use of medi­ated rep­re­sen­ta­tion. What Berlus­coni real­ized through tele­vi­sion, Grillo real­ized through the Inter­net, or rather, through a skill­ful inte­grated use of tele­vi­sion and the Inter­net. This issue, along with the con­tra­dic­tion between the hor­i­zon­tal and neu­tral con­cep­tion of the Inter­net claimed by Grillo and Casa­leg­gio and their hier­ar­chi­cal and cen­tral­ized man­age­ment, has been dis­cussed at length. It is worth­while, how­ever, to remem­ber that today the Inter­net, like tele­vi­sion in the tran­si­tion from the First to the Sec­ond Repub­lic, does not func­tion only as a means of con­quest of the polit­i­cal scene and the con­struc­tion of a con­sen­sus. Today, as before, both polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion and rep­re­sen­ta­tion by the media con­tribute and com­pete to rede­fine pol­i­tics. Between ’92 and ’94, tele­vi­sion (not only Berlusconi’s chan­nels but also pub­lic tele­vi­sion) antic­i­pated with its for­mat (real­ity TV, duels, polit­i­cal shows, etc.) the change in polit­i­cal forms (per­son­al­iza­tion of the lead­er­ship, bipo­lar­iza­tion, a major­ity elec­toral sys­tem), as well as the change in the regime of the speak­able and the unspeak­able, and of the true and the false. Today, the use of the Inter­net of the typ­i­cal grillino invokes the illu­sion of direct, par­tic­i­pa­tory democ­racy, in which “one equals one,” but where one, or maybe two, as in the case of Grillo and Casa­leg­gio, decide for every­one regard­ing every­thing.  Para­dox­i­cally, this direct democ­racy coin­cides with elec­toral democ­racy: it does not crit­i­cize the insti­tu­tions of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, but occu­pies them while try­ing to dis­man­tle them. Is this the over­com­ing of direct democ­racy that awaits us, and in which we should rec­og­nize the cri­tique of rep­re­sen­ta­tion by rad­i­cal move­ments since 1968?

4. When the things that we desire occur under a sign oppo­site to what we had expected, we should not cry vic­tory but reflect, self-crit­i­cally, on the short­com­ings of our hege­monic capac­ity. This is why acco­lades for M5S’s class com­po­si­tion are not con­vinc­ing – nor are the crit­i­cisms of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, or the hail­ing for direct democ­racy, or the “inabil­ity to gov­ern” it has sup­pos­edly pro­duced. The fact that M5S incor­po­rates points and instances of rad­i­cal polit­i­cal move­ments does not mean that Grillo works to facil­i­tate the task. It means that we have not been able to give a hege­monic direc­tion to these points and instances, and that Grillo has inscribed him­self in this gap. This has already hap­pened with Berlusconi’s neolib­eral tran­scrip­tion over the claims of free­dom of ’68, and of fem­i­nism. We know how it has ended: for one thing, with women’s ”free­dom” to sell sex, and the bunga bunga mar­ket. Per­haps it is more appro­pri­ate to focus on the fol­low­ing oxy­moron: tak­ing the comic ele­ment of Grillo’s char­ac­ter seri­ously. Per­haps his true de-con­stituent strength lies in car­ry­ing the para­doxes and parox­ysms of tra­di­tional pol­i­tics and rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy to the extreme. It is called the prac­tice of par­ody, and so it is not strange that it is the only effec­tive means against a polit­i­cal sys­tem that has been reduced to par­ody itself.

—Trans­lated by Devon MacLeod, Brenna Day and Grace Hunter

  1. Image thanks to pasere

  2. Sup­port­ers of Giuseppe Grillo’s pol­i­tics. 

  3. See Wu Ming “Gril­lismo: Yet another right-wing cult com­ing from Italy”; Giu­liano San­toro, Un Grillo qualun­que, Castelvec­chi, Rome 2012. 

  4. Gian­roberto Casa­leg­gio, a per­sonal friend of Grillo, is an entre­pre­neur work­ing in the field of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and tech­nol­ogy. He is also the author of an apoc­a­lyp­tic mock­u­men­tary on the rise of a new world Inter­net based order he called Gaia See

  5. In Ital­ian Tan­gen­topoli, lit­er­ar­ily the Bribesville, com­monly refers to the series of scan­dals regard­ing polit­i­cal cor­rup­tion that emerged in the early 1990s through a judi­cial inves­ti­ga­tion called Clean Hands. It led to the demise of a whole polit­i­cal class and the begin­ning of the so-called Sec­ond Repub­lic. 

  6. Cen­ter of polit­i­cal power. 

  7. Nick­name for Berlus­coni, as he received the Order of Merit for Labor, in Ital­ian Cav­a­liere del Lavoro, in 1977. 

  8. From the name of the Boc­coni Uni­ver­sity of Milan, one of the most exclu­sive pri­vate uni­ver­si­ties in Italy. 

Author of the article

is an Italian journalist and writer.