Tobias Abse reveals the reactionary nature of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement and the tragic fragmentation of the Italian Left
The Italian general election of 24-25 February 2013 has been a political earthquake or, to adopt Beppe Grillo’s own vocabulary, a political tsunami. We can all agree that it represented a massive popular rejection of the 13 months of unremitting austerity – in particular the attacks on pensions and job security – implemented by the technocratic government of former European Commissioner and economics professor, Mario Monti.
Monti’s ‘centrist’ coalition in reality represented that consistently neo-liberal section of the Italian right that met with the approval of German chancellor Angela Merkel and the German Christian Democrats (and the European People’s Party in Strasbourg), the European Central Bank, Bill Emmott and other journalists on the influential Economist magazine, the widely-read and quoted Financial Times and the ‘markets’ in general. In this election it took about 10% of the Italian popular vote (10.6% in the Chamber of Deputies, 9.1% for the Senate).
The centre left coalition, led by Partito Democratico (PD) Secretary Pierluigi Bersani, paid a heavy price for the grovelling subservience of its major component – the PD – to Monti. In fact, the PD had been far more consistent in voting for every single one of its anti-working class measures than Berlusconi’s Popolo della Liberta (PdL), many of whose deputies and senators often did not bother to turn up to vote in parliament or abstained in person (or even in the case of a few individuals occasionally voted against). The PD-led centre left coalition took 29.5% of the vote. Of this, the PD itself gained 25.4%, the more leftwing Sinistra Ecologia e Liberta – SEL – of Nichi Vendola 3.2%, and the rest went to minor formations.
The radical left coalition Rivoluzione Civile – which I will discuss in detail later in this article – took a mere 2.25%. The more significant of the two hard line Trotskyist groups standing independently – Marco Ferrando’s Partito Comunista dei Lavoratori – got 0.3%. In short, the left, defined in the broadest possible sense, got the votes of slightly less than one third of the Italian electorate for the Chamber of Deputies. An absolute majority of the Italian electorate voted for either the coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi (29.1% for the Chamber) or the Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo (25.5% for the Chamber).
Berlusconi’s recovery from his ignominious fall in November 2011 – and indeed his very marked narrowing of the gap with the PD-led coalition in the course of the general election campaign – is certainly worth noting. But beyond stressing the key role in the PdL’s electoral surge since the opinion polls published on 9 February of his belated promise to abolish IMU (an extremely unpopular tax on people’s first homes brought in by Monti’s government), and his last minute, impractical and probably illegal, pledge to refund this year’s payments if he won, there is little to say about Silvio Berlusconi that has not been said by dozens, if not hundreds, of other authors over the last twenty years.
The new phenomenon in Italian politics is not the success of the 76 year old television magnate but the sudden rise of the 64 year old former stand-up comedian and master of the internet, Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle or M5S). Whilst M5S got a higher vote share for the Chamber of Deputies than the Senate, it is in the Senate that M5S are in a position to paralyse the Italian political system. This is a system based on perfect bicameralism; in other words a system in which any government has to be able to win a vote of confidence in both houses, not just in the Chamber of Deputies. Under Calderoli’s Pig Law, introduced in 2005 on Berlusconi’s direct instigation, there are two different sets of rules for the allocation of seats in the two different Chambers. In the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, the coalition with the highest percentage score nationwide automatically gets 55% of the seats, even if – as in the case of the current centre-left coalition – it gets under 30% of the vote. In the Senate, the 55% premium is given on a regional basis. This is a guarantee of chaos, given that, for example, left-wing Tuscany is bound to produce a different majority from right wing Veneto. Before the election, and even whilst the thoroughly misleading exit polls were coming in (an echo of the 1992 British general election when Tory voters pretended to have voted Labour) with many shame-faced Berlusconi voters pretending to have voted for Bersani, it had been assumed that the centre-left would have do a deal with Monti, but that such a Bersani-Monti coalition would have a secure majority in the Senate.
Indeed the prospect of such a majority in which it was assumed Monti would play a key role as Economics Minister or Foreign Minister was enthusiastically welcomed by the spokespersons of international big capital such as The Economist’s Bill Emmott. In the event, the combined Bersani and Monti blocks were in a minority in the Senate; the coalition of the Financial Times’ dreams remained an unrealisable vision. Whilst the majority of Senate seats is divided between Berlusconi and Grillo who are very unlikely to form an open alliance, both of these groups now have a bargaining power in relation to the centre left that Monti has completely lost.
Although Beppe Grillo himself is 64 and looks older – in striking contrast to the 76 year Silvio Berlusconi with his facelifts and hair transplants – M5S has far more support amongst young people than amongst the older generations. Giacomo Benedetto, a political scientist from Royal Holloway, University of London, in a Senate House debate on the Italian elections held on 28 February, calculated that M5S had gained 42% of the 18-25 year olds’ vote. This calculation was based on differences between voting patterns for the Senate for which only adults over 25 can vote and the Chamber of Deputies for which all those over 18 are entitled to vote. The calculation, as he acknowledged quite openly, has the flaw that it assumes that everybody entitled to vote for both houses voted for the same party in both instances. In reality, a minority consciously split their votes, either for tactical reasons connected with the more complex electoral system for the Senate or because they were equally attracted by two different groups.
Benedetto’s calculations gave the PD a single figure share of the youth vote, suggesting that the PD had completely alienated the younger generation by their support for Monti’s austerity. After all, in January youth unemployment rose even further to 38.7%, compared with 11.7% for the general population, also an increase on the previous month. (This reminded me of the dynamic behind the conflict between the PCI and the youth ‘movement of 77’ in 1977, although I hasten to add that Benedetto made no such analogy himself.) According to Benedetto, both Rivoluzione Civile on the independent radical left and Nichi Vendola’s Sinistra Ecologia e Liberta (SEL), the PD’s more left-wing coalition partner, principally derived from a right-wing split from Rifondazione Comunista in 2008, did better amongst the under 25s than amongst the general population. But only slightly above 1 in 10 of the younger votes had chosen these groupings to the left of the PD – far fewer than those opting for M5S.
A study produced by the Istituto di ricerca Tecne, reported in Corriere della Sera, on Saturday 2 March 2013, gives similar but not exactly identical figures for youth support for M5S. Tecne’s survey is based on a definition of young people as 18-29, rather than 18-24 year olds. It claims that 37.9% of under-30s voted M5S, whilst the PD had 26.3% of this age group, a less spectacular collapse than Benedetto suggested. Very significantly, Tecne also claimed that 54.8% of students and 41.1% of the unemployed had voted M5S (with only 22.1% of students voting for the PD). The alienation created by youth unemployment and the PD’s unquestioning support for austerity in all its forms during the Monti government – which had more impact than slightly more left-wing rhetoric about growth or jobs from PD Economics spokesperson Stefano Fassina and, to a lesser extent, Pierluigi Bersani himself – was a key factor in this result. But such groups were also pulled towards M5S by its support for a basic citizen’s income, whose appeal to the unemployed and students relying on badly paid part-time jobs to make ends meet should be self-explanatory. Whilst there is debate about this proposal on the left internationally, with Greens and autonomist Marxists supporting it and those of us from other traditions identifying with the older Italian slogan ‘lavorano tutti, lavorano meno’ (i.e. shorter hours and working sharing on full pay for all those genuinely fit to work) having some doubts, it is the one bit of M5S economic policy that can not be dismissed as right-wing.
M5S has made much of its use of the internet and employs a great deal of horizontalist rhetoric. This is another factor in explaining its success in gaining the youth vote. But Marxists should be wary of this as the main explanation and give due weight to the economic factors discussed above.
It is true that some of the recent Italian social movements that emerged during the 2008- 11 Berlusconi government were largely internet-based and to a large extent horizontal, although one must be a bit wary of any theory about leaderless movements of the kind popularised by Manuel Castells and Paul Mason. The Italian academic and former Manifesto journalist Paolo Gerbaudo has pointed this out in his recent book Tweets and the Streets which is deserving of greater attention than it has so far received. Notwithstanding Gerbaudo’s qualifications, which despite his book’s focus on Egyptian, Spanish and US examples, would in his view also apply in Italy – the notion of a horizontalist movement based primarily on social media has some validity in relation to the Popolo Viola (Purple People) and Se non ora, Quando? (a feminist movement against Berlusconi’s sexism that organised some massive demonstrations all over Italy in the last year or two of his recent government). Nevertheless, there is a need for a greater measure of scepticism in relation to M5S.
Grillo’s leadership style is essentially top down authoritarian populism. He uses his blog to get his views across but does not necessarily really pay
much attention to his critics’ responses on the internet. This has been abundantly clear in the week since the election when he tried to demonise the 24 year old student Viola Tesi who has collected more than 150,000 signatures on the internet for an alliance between M5S and the PD because of her brief membership of the Pirate Party, with Grillo or some of his close associates also seeking to imply she was a PD ‘infiltrator’. He has expelled people from M5S overnight more or less on whim. For example, he expelled one woman for appearing on television, which he regarded as a mortal sin in itself, although the views she expressed were in no way divergent from M5S policy. That particular expulsion was accompanied by a crude misogynist sexual innuendo which is all too typical of his attitude to women, which may well not be much better than Berlusconi’s.
Candidate selection for M5S was carried out through on-line primaries but only 20,252 people participated and there appear to have been no guarantees against fraud from people with multiple email addresses and so forth. This is in obvious contrast to the primaries for the centre left leadership in November 2012 in which about 3 million people participated and the primaries for the PD parliamentary candidates in late December 2012 in which about a million people participated, despite the appalling weather and the distractions of the seasonal festivities. Contrary to the views expressed at the Senate House debate by Giuseppe Veltri, a social scientist from the University of East Anglia, the flawed ‘ internet democracy’ of M5S is actually far less impressive than the more conventional but relatively open (albeit with serious safeguards against fraud and multiple voting) candidate selection process of the PD.
It should also be stressed that Grillo’s general election campaign was heavily reliant on massive public meetings in piazzas all over Italy, which he called the Tsunami Tour culminating in a closing rally of about 100,000 people in Piazza San Giovanni in central Rome on the Friday before the election.
This is not ‘post modern politics’ but a return to the tried and trusted methods of the mass parties of the 19th and 20th centuries. Only Umberto Bossi and the Lega Nord have used these to any great extent in the two decades since Achille Occhetto’s liquidation of the Partito Comunista Italiano in 1991, as the PDS/DS/PD have stupidly assumed they could fight Berlusconi on equal terms in the television studios with which he is so familiar and they are such amateurs. It has to be said that the Bossi/Grillo approach of a return to a round of open air public meetings bypasses all the nonsense centred around discussions about the colour and cut of a candidate’s suit and tie to which Berlusconi has sought to reduce Italian politics. People may have learnt about Grillo’s meetings from the web and seen some in other regions through Youtube videos but they came in their thousands to see and hear a live performance.
However, the main objections to M5S are not the flawed nature of its alleged internal democracy, the spurious horizontalist rhetoric and the authoritarian leadership style – ugly as these features are – but some of its core policies.
Grillo has made it plain in no uncertain terms that he is against granting Italian citizenship to the children of immigrants born in Italy. He has met with representatives of the hard line neo-Nazis of CasaPound whose requirements for membership include reading Mein Kampf and not denying the Holocaust on Facebook (strongly implying that they regularly do so in private, a point I think was lost in the editing of an article of mine in the Weekly Worker). CasaPound not only strongly identify with the anti-semitic theories of Ezra Pound but leading Naples members of their organisation were heard discussing a plan to rape a female Jewish student when being wiretapped by Italian magistrates investigating other issues. A few years ago a member, or allegedly a former member, of CasaPound went on a murderous rampage in Florence shooting dead a number of Senegalese.
In the course of the election campaign this year, CasaPound organised a physical attack on a Rivoluzione Civile election candidate in Lazio. A few years ago their student wing, the Blocco Studentesco were involved in physical violence against students belonging to the Onda Anomala in Piazza Navona. Whilst this awful incident finally taught the Onda that there is a difference between left and right and there was a very good reason for the long standing anti-fascist prejudice of the traditional Italian labour movement, we all would have preferred that they had absorbed this basic point in a more intellectual way. Grillo was not only seen on television consorting with these thugs but claims he would in principle be prepared to do joint work with them in the future.
It is worth pointing out that the M5S dismissal of the traditional (and very well founded) leftist prejudice against fascists and the anti-immigrant racism go together. Maria Meriggi has supplied me with details of a recent incident in the small Tuscan town of Pontedera where M5S not only refused to participate in a demonstration against the violent neo-fascists of Forza Nuova, a notorious bunch, second only to CasaPound in terms of physical attacks on immigrants, but issued a statement full of the most disgusting and rabid racist comments about the immigrants living in Pontedera.
I have seen photographic evidence from David Broder, a comrade currently doing research in Rome, of CasaPound pamphlets and Grillo’s works sharing pride of place in Rome’s main neo-fascist bookshop. It is hardly surprising that Grillo has quoted anti-parliamentary remarks by Mussolini (alongside an image of Mussolini) on his blog in the last few days nor that at the closing rally of M5S in Rome the slogan ‘you are surrounded’, used against the parliamentary parties, was the one traditionally associated with the youth wing of the old neo- fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano. Grillo’s attitude to the trade union movement is also reminiscent of classical fascism. He wants the unions to be ‘wiped out’. When Susanna Camusso, the leader of the largest left wing trade union confederation, the CGIL, challenged him about this in the most robust manner possible during the election campaign, publicly comparing him to Mussolini, he back-tracked, claiming he only meant the ‘Triplice’ (the three main trade union confederations – CGIL, CISL and UIL) and not rank and file base unions like Cobas (roughly equivalent to IWW or IWGB).
But these are weasel words. On other occasions he has made it clear that he believes all that workers need are representatives on company boards – something all too reminiscent of Mussolini’s corporate state in the 1930s. One would hope that nobody on the left would dispute the racism and pro-fascist nature of Grillo’s own comments and some M5S actions. There is more dispute over here about the role of a more general xenophobia in Grillo’s campaign. It needs to be stressed that his rhetoric frequently targets ‘the Germans’ rather than specific German politicians like Angela Merkel or German economic institutions like the Bundesbank. I would argue, however, that the nationalist solution to the international capitalist crisis propounded by Grillo and M5S – Italy’s immediate exit from the Eurozone and return to the lira – is not in the interest of the working class movement. This solution would lead to the devaluation of the currency and a boost, probably only a temporary one, to the small and medium businesses involved in Italy’s export sector. This would apply particularly to those in the North East, whose owners frequently supported the Lega Nord in the days of Bossi’s pomp and whose representatives had a very friendly meeting with Grillo in the course of the election campaign. For the factory working class and for public sector workers of all kinds, who have already suffered a drop in real living standards for more than a decade, intensified by the 13 months of austerity under Monti, this would be a further catastrophe as the cost of numerous imported goods essential to everyday life would sky rocket.
Whilst Italy may produce more of its own food than Britain, it has not been self-sufficient for a long time. To those who argue otherwise, that somehow the workers have a common interest with the narrowest greediest most exploitative sections of small capital against the demons of the European Union, I would emphasise the close association between Italy’s forced exit from the ERM (Exchange Rate Mechanism) in 1992 and the final abolition of the Scala Mobile (Wage Indexation) which the Italian working class had won as a result of heroic struggles in the early 1970s. Austerity can only be fought on a Europe-wide basis; there are no national, let alone nationalist, solutions to an international capitalist crisis. Here Grillo is at one with Berlusconi: both offer nationalist, racist, xenophobic false solutions to a capitalist crisis.
Having attempted to demonstrate that – both in terms of structure and programme – M5S is far less attractive than academics like Giuseppe Veltri and various writers and groupings on the British left (whom I will refrain from listing on a ‘Left Unity’ website) believe, I want to conclude by saying something about Rivoluzione Civile. This grouping attempted to offer a radical left alternative to austerity. It attacked not only Berlusconi and the so-called centre-right coalition (which actually included two neo-fascist groupings, Ignazio La Russa’s Fratelli d’Italia and Storace’s La Destra) but also Monti’s ‘centrists’ (in reality the presentable neo-liberal right) and the PD which had colluded with Monti and intended to do so again in the event of a hung parliament. (This was a hypothetical hung parliament in which Monti held the balance in the Senate, which in the event he did not).
Rivoluzione Civile sought to reverse the attacks on Article 18 of the Workers’ Statute, restoring such job security as had existed before Monti, to raise pensions, to cut defence spending on massively expensive new fighter planes and in general terms to fight for more social justice. Obviously, unlike Grillo, it was very clearly opposed to racism and fascism. It is true that it was not a revolutionary programme or even an overtly socialist one. Rivoluzione Civile was an electoral block which included anti-mafia or anti-camorra mayors like Leoluca Orlando in Palermo and Luigi De Magistris in Naples. It was fronted by Ingroia, a campaigning former magistrate from Palermo who had fallen foul of the establishment when his investigations into the state’s collusion with the Mafia in 1992-93 had gone too far. His interception of President Giorgio Napolitano in four telephone calls to a former Christian Democrat Interior Minister, subsequently charged with giving false testimony about the state’s role in such negotiations, was beyond the pale. The highest court in the land was mobilised to ensure that the calls were never transcribed and all the tapes destroyed, doubtless just as a matter of principle, so that the President should not be the accidental victim of phone tapping (it had been Mancino as the recipient of the call, not Napolitano as the caller who had been under observation) during the course of his term of office as Head of State.
The largest component in Rivoluzione Civile was the Partito della Rifondazione Comunista; it also included Antonio Di Pietro’s left populist Italia dei Valori, the Partito dei Comunisti Italiani and the Italian Green Party as well as various civil society associations and the individuals named above. This somewhat unstable coalition was repeatedly criticised, if not anathematised, by such hardline Trotskyists as Marco Ferrando’s Partito Comunista dei Lavoratori and the even harder split from Ferrando’s current, the Partito di Alternativa Comunista, as a rotten cross class lash-up. However, those who believe that the workers were crying out for pure communism, accompanied by the hammer and sickle on the ballot paper, should remember that the PCL got 0.3%, despite being available as an option across the whole national territory. Furthermore, even allowing for the fact that the Partito di Alternativa Comunista could only gain the requisite signatures in some regions (urging abstention, rather than a vote for its one-time comrades in the PCL, where it was not standing), its 5159 votes nationwide does not suggest workers were yearning for the one true faith.
In the aftermath of the disappointing 2.25% gathered by Rivoluzione Civile, its more right wing components – Di Pietro’s IdV, the mayors – have left, and the Partito dei Comunisti Italiani seems, as far as I am aware, to be debating whether to stay or go. Both Ingroia himself and Rifondazione are committed to carrying on with the project gathering what forces they can from civil society. Originally Rifondazione had made a call for an Italian Syriza. This is still their goal: Rivoluzione Civile, at least in the form that actually fought the election, was a fall-back position. It has to be stressed that the grouping that made a real Italian Syriza – that might actually have crossed the threshold in the Chamber of Deputies – impossible on this occasion was SEL.
Last summer, in response to developments in Greece, PRC Secretary Paolo Ferrero called upon Nichi Vendola, the leader of SEL, to bury their differences in a new broad formation. SEL was largely composed of the old right wing of the PRC which split away after its narrow and unexpected failure to win at the July 2008 party congress. The other principal component of SEL, which accounts for the ‘Ecologia’ in the name, was, paradoxically, the old left-wing of the Italian Greens. Vendola and SEL rejected this offer and persisted in moving closer and closer to the PD, siding with the PD when Bersani’s party quarrelled with its former allies in Di Pietro’s IdV, who – to do them justice – had voted against Monti on almost every vote of confidence connected with the austerity programme. Throughout the election campaign, Monti lost no opportunity to criticise SEL and urged Bersani repeatedly to dump these ‘extremists’ but given the parliamentary arithmetic in which SEL will not be put to the test of opting for either Monti or their proclaimed principles, it is sadly unlikely they can be brought back into the fold in the immediate future.