Silvio Berlusconi looms over now-former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, January 14, 2013. (Reuters/Allesandro Bianchi)

Rome—There was one sunny week this spring when it looked like change might finally come to Italy. A week when an ossified and gerontocratic political class looked like it might give way to new faces and new ideas. When the combined forces of youth and progress looked strong enough to defy European austerity. When—after almost twenty years!—it seemed Parliament might finally pass reforms restricting Silvio Berlusconi’s perverse claims to power once and for all.

For when the votes had been counted after the late February elections, something new had emerged. The center-left side of the chamber was smaller than predicted, but also younger and less exclusively male. The Five Star Movement (M5S) led by Beppe Grillo had triumphed, gaining 25 percent of the vote. There had been “a participatory explosion,” wrote commentator Barbara Spinelli. It was an “uprising of the under-forty-somethings,” said another editorialist, Michele Serra. The new Parliament had an unusual number of women representatives and many fresh young faces, both in the Democratic Party-Sinistra Ecologia Libertà alliance (PD-SEL) and in the M5S. If the two sides (in a Parliament split three ways, the third part devoted to Berlusconi) could drop their mutual antagonism and find accord, Italy might make a fresh start, thought many on the left, including a group of respected intellectuals and constitutionalists who made a heartfelt appeal to the leaders in question.

It was a hope (or a hope against hope) that failed, thanks to a stubborn, suicidal division in the ranks of the center-left and an equally stubborn determination to dictate the rules of the game on the part of Grillo. After an awkward and fruitless two months of trying to forge an alliance with the M5S, center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani resigned and the PD fell back on the other alternative: that alliance with Berlusconi’s Party of Liberties (PDL) that Bersani had vowed it would never make.

On April 30, Parliament approved a bipartisan left-right government headed by PD exponent Enrico Letta and backed by his party and Berlusconi’s PDL. It was certainly a victory for Berlusconi, and probably a blessing for Grillo, who quickly labeled the new government an inciucio, a nefarious inside deal among politicians in defiance of what the voters wanted. In some ways he was right about that, and there is every reason to think his noisy opposition will continue to leach support from the PD. The center-left, meanwhile, risks coming apart at the seams. Nichi Vendola and his SEL have abandoned their electoral alliance with the PD and gone into opposition. Many PD voters, particularly the younger ones expressing themselves on the web, say they are horrified to find their party co-governing with Berlusconi.

Just to remind everyone what Italy’s real and pressing problems are, an unemployed construction worker opened fire outside the prime minister’s office while the government was being sworn in, injuring three people, one gravely.

While the man gave no particular political significance to his act except to say he wanted to shoot “some politicians” and then kill himself, mad gunmen are a rarity in Italy, and the general diagnosis was that the shooter had been unhinged by divorce and economic hardship. Suicides due to unemployment, failed businesses and sheer poverty are on the rise here and have been much in the news. The brute absence of jobs for the young has led hundreds of thousands to emigrate, or despair.

If there was one issue the center-left failed badly to represent in the February elections, it was popular discontent about economic hardship. Yes, the PD-SEL had offered some good proposals to oppose austerity and promote economic growth, but they did not remotely succeed in making voters believe they “felt their pain.” In part, that was because the PD had backed Mario Monti’s outgoing government, which was largely devoted to implementing EU austerity. In part, it was because the center-left’s Bersani refused to engage in the sort of demagogic populism that earned Grillo the protest vote. And the protest vote that didn’t go to Grillo went to Berlusconi; his voters conveniently forgot that he too had supported the Monti government after Berlusconi became a loud EU critic in the weeks before the elections, spouting wild tax-restitution promises and crazy recovery schemes—reconverting to the lira, printing money and the like.

There’s an expression in Italian that epitomizes the bitterness that Berlusconi, but especially Grillo, was able to capitalize on: Piove, governo ladro. A masterpiece of blame-the-government concision, it means in essence, It’s raining, there goes the government ripping us off again. Whatever the trouble is, in short, blame the government. Beppe Grillo’s furious campaign against la casta (“the caste,” i.e., professional politicians and their privileges), based on that principle, would not have been misguided had he not made greedy public servants the sole villains responsible for Italy’s economic decline and the hardships of the unemployed young and failing small businesses. Corruption in politics was widespread under Berlusconi’s watch (and following his example), and even the left was not immune. The austerity imposed by the Monti government was highly unpopular. New, and younger, faces in government were certainly needed. But to call the problem governo ladro was in many ways cheap rhetoric. What about the neoliberals in the EU? What about the 1 percent who are the real casta? The wealthy scions of those typical Italian companies still dominated by families of the founders, like Marzotto, the textiles producer, or Bulgari, luxury goods makers, currently under investigation for major tax evasion? Perhaps even Grillo himself, who is personally wealthy and avoided tax evasion charges by taking advantage of a tax amnesty in 2002–03? Is that why he’s less interested in the power money confers than in the (frankly lesser) power of legislative office?

You can’t help but wonder why US ambassador to Italy David Thorne came out with some rather fulsome praise of Grillo right after the elections. (The same day, France’s Marine Le Pen of the right-wing National Front weighed in with her endorsement of Grillo.) Maybe because Grillo’s Mister Fixit style is congenial to Americans (not by chance, he seems to be beloved among many American expatriates here in Italy). We don’t necessarily need to trouble the conspiracy theorists to see that Grillo gives voice to a practical, “let’s not overthink this” approach that is naturally antagonistic to Italy’s once-Communist left, which the United States bitterly opposed in the past and has never quite made its peace with.

Grillo’s relentless hammering at the politicians, left and right indiscriminately, was politically astute, allowing him to carve out a wide space for his movement in Parliament. But when it came to making legislative agreements or alliances with other groups, his answer has been no, period. “You’re the talking dead,” he shouted at Bersani’s overtures, and called the PD leader “a political stalker who is molesting the M5S with indecent proposals.” When a large number of M5S deputies were reported to be willing to cooperate with the center-left, Grillo called his troops to order by threatening to resign if they did not obey.

Such authoritarian tactics clash with the M5S’s pretenses to direct democracy. Just how tyrannical the irate comedian Grillo and his communications guru, Gianroberto Casaleggio, a prosperous self-made businessman himself, really are still remains to be seen. (Casaleggio’s rather chilling video about his political utopia, Gaia, can be seen in English on YouTube.) So far only a minute proportion of the 8.8 million M5S voters have ever participated in any of the movement’s web-based direct votes. Yet it is so new and inexpert, and such a ready target of attacks from the Italian establishment, that Grillo’s reluctance to be transparent is probably his only hope of survival.

That said, there are unsettling likenesses between the Grillo movement and early days of Fascism just after World War I. Grillo’s shouted oratorical style is eerily reminiscent of old recordings of ll Duce. While he rejects any political label, the forward-looking technical solutions Grillo proposes to problems like energy and the environment look progressive. His views on immigration put Grillo on the far right, however. Until 1914 Mussolini was a Socialist and editor of the party newspaper Avanti; his conversion to interventionism, then worship of war and later his noisy defense of Italian veterans “betrayed” by their leaders became a radical right-wing attack on the conservative old guard. Like those World War I veterans returning to an Italy that seemed to have no place for them, Grillo’s target voters are the young, the unemployed, the ones who have no prospects under the present capitalist and European administration. Yet his frenzied and histrionic attacks are not aimed at those larger systems but at the unions and especially the “fat” Italian political class his movement would like to replace. And he gravely muddies the waters when he suggests that the rot in the Italian political system is not predominantly on the side of the right, and of Berlusconi.

The Wu Ming collective, authors of several smart, radical historical novels including Q and Manituana, have attacked Grillo’s as a false protest movement, arguing that precisely because it has had the M5S, Italy has had no Occupy or Indignado movement. Paradoxically, “over the past few years, Grillo’s movement has ensured that the system in Italy remains the same,” Wu Ming wrote. Grillo has co-opted local protest movements and essentially defanged them under his governo ladro umbrella, they suggested.

That paradox looked less arcane this week as the new left-right government was installed, just as Grillo had “predicted” it would be (and effectively forced it to be), and with Berlusconi gloating. The new government was “an orgy of the worst bunga bunga” said Grillo, with a nod at Berlusconi’s tawdry sex parties. He didn’t look wholly displeased. If Grillo had meant things to change, why didn’t he find a way to cooperate with Bersani?

The new Letta government, it must be said, actually breaks with the past in several ways. Seven of the ministers are women, including the weighty posts of foreign minister and justice minister. Italo-Congolese MP Cécile Kyenge was named minister of integration, Italy’s first non-white minister. The cabinet is youngish (average age 53) and includes none of those tired party pols who have run Italy for two decades. But the Letta government has a fatal flaw: it is based on a compromise with Berlusconi, a leader who in any other democracy would be in jail rather than in Parliament leading a governing party. The ungainly governing coalition is one that Berlusconi can exit any time he wants, while the PD is meanwhile “forced to carry the cross,” noted the newspaper closest to Grillo in spirit, Il Fatto Quotidiano. The alliance with Berlusconi is a “restoration” and betrayal of a vote for change, said the SEL’s Nichi Vendola. Hours after the government was formed, left and right were already at loggerheads over Berlusconi’s brazen demand he be chairman of the all-important new committee on institutional reforms.

Above all, the new coalition can only be a government dedicated to solving Berlusconi’s problems. The numerous trials in which he is a defendant must either conclude with a sentence or continue to drag on as his lawyers invent ever-new reasons to demand a mistrial and begin anew. The most damning new accusation against him, brought by the prosecutor in Naples, is that he paid off at least one MP to switch parties in 2008 and cause the Romani Prodi government to fall. Rumors abound that Berlusconi is seeking some guarantee from the center-left that he will be allowed to go free. An appointment as a life senator would probably take care of that.

But meanwhile, does Italy’s left, with all its long, proud traditions, want go down with this ship? A few young PD deputies, including Giuseppe Civati, as well as the SEL’s Vendola, are determined not to and did not give the Letta government their confidence vote. There are other dissenters outside Parliament, including radical metalworkers’ union leader Maurizio Landini and left technocrat Fabrizio Barca. But in the cruel light of early May, they look slightly ghostly, a few survivors on the Raft of the Medusa.

American austerity-mongers, John Nichols says, are facing a mathematical moment of reckoning.