Rome—When 38-year-old Virginia Raggi, a lawyer and relative newcomer to politics, was elected mayor of Rome in June, it was a stunning victory for her party, the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), or Five Star Movement. Raggi beat her Partito Democratico (PD) rival in the runoff vote by a crushing margin of 67 percent to 33 percent, symbolically slaying the governing PD, also the incumbent in the city of Rome.
Though the M5S had previously gained power locally in a few places, Rome was much bigger political prize, an internationally visible arena where the three main postwar power groups, the neo-Fascist far right, the Catholic center, and the Communist left, had each fought for its piece of ground for decades. Now the M5S, distinguished mainly for its ferocious attacks on the political establishment, was to have its place in the sun. In Turin, too, the M5S triumphed, when Chiara Appendino, 32, with a background in business management, won a surprise victory over the incumbent mayor Piero Fassino, a PD veteran whose political career goes back to the Italian Communist Party.
So the Movimento 5 Stelle had finally stormed the Winter Palace… or should we say, carried out its March on Rome?
Therein lies the problem. If only we knew what they stand for.
For the M5S is far more mysterious than it has appeared to some observers, to whom it seemed to resemble Spain’s Podemos or Syriza in Greece. The movement took off in 2007 with stand-up comedian Beppe Grillo’s successful Vaffa rallies, where crowds turned out to shout “Vaffanculo!” (“Get Screwed!”) at Italy’s corrupt politicians. Grillo’s hugely successful blog soon became a rallying point for the disaffected. In 2009 he and the late Gianroberto Casaleggio, an eccentric, sci-fi loving web-marketing guru in favor of both enlightened despotism and direct democracy, founded the M5S. Today only a few acolytes seem to remember what those five stars in the name and on the party symbol signify.
The five stars were born, one journalist mused recently, because the pampered Grillo and Casaleggio measured well-being by hotel standards. “We could have a five-star life!” the comedian used to scream at his rallies. That is, if those thieving politicians didn’t steal all the money.
No, the five stars stand for “water, environment, transport, connectivity, development” shot back one ardent Grillino in a tart comment. It’s true, those were the watchwords in the very early days, just after “vaffanculo” was discarded, although you do have to wonder what “five-star water” might be (merely uncontaminated, or positively delicious?), and why a ranking system for resource-guzzling luxury hotels would make sense for the environment, which flourishes where the hand of man is absent. A guaranteed “citizen’s income” for all whose earnings fall below a certain level is another longtime M5S proposal, warmly backed today by Turin’s Appendino.
According to the most recent national program, the M5S’s projects today are “state and citizen, energy, information, economy, transport, health, education.” A look at the specific policy promises turns up a hodgepodge of the petty and the grand, a long wish list that seems to have been compiled from the kind of web survey dear to party strategist Casaleggio (he died in April this year, aged 61, of a brain tumor). Thus under “economy” the program calls both for “vigorous debt reduction” and “ceilings on executive pay in publicly traded and state-controlled companies” and favors “local production” and “nonprofits” as well as guaranteed unemployment benefits. Alongside all these good intentions, however, there is no trace of the hard choices about how to stimulate a depressed economy that any governing party would have to make. No mention of employment, inequality, or EU-imposed austerity. Under “transport,” the program calls for more bike paths and an improved rail system to discourage automobile use, but there is no mention of spending on infrastructure under “economy,” or of how to accomplish all these good deeds and pay a minimum income while slashing the debt. Nor does the program have any indications on foreign policy. The M5S is anti-Europe, and its Euro MPs are aligned with the far-right xenophobes of Britain’s UKIP in the EU parliament, at least until Britain finally leaves the union. It’s a program rich in magical thinking, in short.
Like many a charismatic leader who rides the wave of public disgust with established politics today (Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi come to mind, and so does UKIP’s Nigel Farage, who claimed victory with Brexit), Casaleggio was a kind of businessman/aspiring wheeler-dealer. Grillo’s successful blog was one of his ventures, and Casaleggio expertly milked the advertising on it. And Grillo, a wealthy showman, shares much of his outlook. They are men who believe that politics is intrinsically silly and corrupt and that any entrepreneur can do it better. Their profound scorn for the political class springs from a personal dislike of government regulations and taxes they consider punishing, and not surprisingly, they are firmly pro-capital.
In recent years, prodded by Casaleggio, the M5S has embraced anti-immigrant and anti-regulatory positions dear to the small-business owners they hope to draw into the movement. When the government of Matteo Renzi was finally poised to pass a law on civil unions, giving gays long-needed rights (a measure hotly contested in a country occupied by the Vatican), the M5S suddenly withdrew support and members were told to vote their consciences, thus dooming the most controversial plank, the one allowing gay couples to adopt. The promised “direct democracy” of online voting—candidates and major M5S decisions are decided by a vote on the Grillo blog site—has time and again brought accusations of fraudulent vote-counting. By many accounts, the party is fragmented, held together by draconian measures from the top, like the penalty of 150,000 euros that local representatives, including Mayor Raggi, are contractually obliged to pay the party should they stray from the agreed-upon policy line. Neither of the two young MPs spoken of as successors to Grillo is anywhere near as prepossessing as the leader.
Accusations of fascism are quick to fly here, in the country that invented the phenomenon; Prime Minister Renzi is routinely called a fascist by the dissident left of his party. But in truth, if any party resembles the one Benito Mussolini was building with the support of bitter World War I veterans in 1919–20, it is the M5S. There is the same messianic theme of redemption for the betrayed—in today’s case, citizens betrayed by their corrupt and spendthrift governors. The same mixture of ideas hastily borrowed from right and left (lest we forget, Mussolini was a Socialist before he was a Fascist). The same dictatorial grip at the top, applied to keep a sprawling movement together.
For the only issue that really unites the M5S is scorn for politics and politicians. That wholesale “plague on all their houses” condemnation of the political class is rather difficult to reconcile with public office, as some M5S members elected to local government or to parliament in Rome have learned to their dismay. Several have been expelled from the party for making alliances or not obeying orders. Another became embroiled in an organized-crime scandal when a fellow M5S city councilor was investigated for connections with the Camorra, Campania’s local mafia.
The first moves of both newly elected mayors Raggi of Rome and Appendino of Turin have met with intense scrutiny and a barrage of criticism. Raggi, who is up against a hostile public bureaucracy in a city where basic services like garbage collection and bus and metro service are constantly on the verge of collapse, a city in which widespread corruption was unveiled in 2014–15 in the Mafia Capitale scandal, does seem to lack the needed political experience. Multiple urban brushfires burned across Rome this hot, dry August, and she seemed unable to react. The city utterly defeated her predecessor, Ignazio Marino, a surgeon who was elected with the PD but was eventually forced out by his own party. Raggi’s candidates to supervise the environment and sanitation have been hotly contested on the basis of their past experience, for if experience is necessary, it is also tainting in the mind of M5S purists. In Turin, opponents of a much-contested high-speed rail line through the Val di Susa to the west lashed out at Mayor Appendino for expressing her support for the police guarding the building site; the M5S has strongly defended the protesters.
Still, one doesn’t need to be a fan of the M5S to think two months in office is too little to evaluate the performance of their new mayors. In Raggi’s case, the attacks are constant. Beppe Grillo, who last year was reported to have drifted away from his creation, fatigued and bored, has apparently decided to occupy himself with making Raggi’s government a success as a showcase for the next elections.
Right now, no national elections are slated before 2018. But Prime Minister Renzi, having pushed through a contested reform of the two houses of Parliament designed to separate the functions of the lower house and Senate and long in the works, has called a necessary referendum on this constitutional amendment for November. In the present fractious political climate, not even his own party is fully behind him, and whether the amendment will pass is uncertain. The prime minister, no stranger to cocky gestures, also made a crucial error in suggesting this was essentially a vote of confidence in himself. Should the amendment fail, it would be difficult for him to remain in office. So elections could be closer than they seem, at a moment when the M5S is quite popular.
Just what the Movimento 5 Stelle would do if elected to national government remains a mystery. The messianic “throw the bums out” rallying cry wins votes but offers no program. It’s been called populism, but it’s not even clear that Grillo is speaking to the “little man”; his is a howl of pure rage. We need to ask ourselves why it is so attractive today.
One reason is that the established parties are discredited everywhere. They are in Britain, which voted for Brexit despite Conservative and (weak) Labour support for EU membership. And in Spain, where two elections in a six-month period still have not produced a governing coalition. Not to mention France, where the Front National of Marine Le Pen threatens to overwhelm the Socialists and the right. The established parties struggle to convince national voters they are looking after their interests because the powers they need to do so are simply not available at the national level. Neoliberal capitalism, truly global in scope, can no longer be regulated by national governments; it can only be controlled at a supranational level. If Italy wants more jobs and growth, it can only get them through European economic policy, although certainly not the hegemonic policy of the moment, the austerity imposed by German financial authorities. Whatever Matteo Renzi’s defects, he has certainly tried to push Germany and France toward a more Keynesian European consensus.
Does the M5S understand these matters? Does Beppe Grillo, who has made no political alliances in Italy and no international alliances except with Nigel Farage, even care? Like Mussolini, he seems to believe Italy can live in autarky, by imposing national economic self-sufficiency. It’s not just a crazy idea (where will he get his new iPhone?) but reveals a profound naïveté about problems that don’t really interest him.
You would think that Italy, after almost twenty years of a soi-disant anti-establishment figure like Silvio Berlusconi, would have learned the lesson. In 1994 the rogue TV tycoon’s Forza Italia party was that era’s equivalent: an upstart “anti-political” political movement that swept away the ruling parties after the Mani Pulite (“Clean Hands”) corruption investigations of 1992.
But perhaps cynicism breeds more of the same. It was the Berlusconi government’s hungry, light-fingered approach to public office that opened a space for Grillo and his Vaffa rallies in 2007. Now Grillo hopes that same anger will bring down a center-left only marginally implicated in corruption, but deeply divided and defeated.
* * *
What with the corrosive, dark Italian TV series Gomorrah (a gritty inside portrait of the Camorra, based on the bestselling 2006 book by Roberto Saviano) airing in the United States in August, not to mention the ever popular Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante, the city of Naples is in the world limelight in a way it hasn’t been for a while. Under the Spanish crown, this was once Europe’s largest city; during the French Revolution, it briefly and tumultuously became a republic; then it slowly declined under the Bourbons. Today it’s a little run down but extremely lively.
It’s interesting then, that the left’s biggest challenge to Matteo Renzi came from Naples, when Luigi De Magistris, the incumbent mayor, was reelected after soundly defeating first the PD candidate, then, in the runoff vote, the center-right pretender. A pugnacious former prosecutor, De Magistris is unlike Nichi Vendola, former governor of Puglia, or Giuliano Pisapia, who stepped down as Milan mayor in June—two impressive political figures from the Sinistra Italiana, successor of the Sinistra Ecologia Libertà —in that he does not have longtime roots in the traditional Marxist left, but began his political career with Italia dei Valori, a militantly anti-corruption, centrist party founded by another prosecutor. It’s legitimate to wonder whether De Magistris has the political coherence needed to lead the left and not succumb to mere populism. And he has faced obstacles: During his first term, he was suspended from office for 18 months, accused of irregular procedures while a magistrate, then reinstated after he was acquitted on appeal. Despite his roller-coaster ride in office, and against the hostility of the PD, he succeeded in gathering a broad backing to defeat his runoff opponent by 67 to 33 percent. By forcefully giving voice to popular disillusion with Renzi and official PD politics, he was able to project a winning left alternative to the M5S.
On the eve of his reelection, De Magistris predicted that Naples will become “a strong political actor” on the national scene. “The Peoples Liberation Movement, I call it. We’re going to interact with Barcelona, Athens, and Brussels, around Italy and with other movements based on self-government and popular self-determination. We’ll be the Podemos of the Mediterranean, the Napoletanos. We’ve always had some imagination and creativity, even in politics.”
The times are right. Though it won’t be easy.