They’ve done a deal in Europe with the far-right xenophobic neo-liberal Nigel Farage of UKIP. And once again they have stolen the left vote in a ‘red’ stronghold in Italy. Who are Beppe Grillo and his upstart Five Star Movement? Matteo Pucciarelli and Giacomo Russo Spena provide some insight.
Five years ago the Friends of Beppe Grillo (as they were called) got what for those times was a great result in red Leghorn, with mayoral candidate Mark Cannito: 9 percent, in a coalition with the Greens and Trotskyites in Sinistra Critica (Left Critique). It was there, in a cultural background that was Left and ecological, a little impetuous and a little sectarian, that the original nucleus of the Five Star Movement took shape.
And then it added a mass of supporters and activists from a whole variety of backgrounds, in particular the young, the unemployed, immigrants, college graduates: for example the aerospace engineer Philip Nogarin, a Leghorn local, an environmentalist with a past in the Green Party, who in the past described himself as the “cultural left”. The man who, following his party’s victory in ‘red’ parma in 2012, emerged victorious in a run off election earlier this month as mayor of a city where the Italian Communist Party was founded in 1921, and which the left had held virtually unchallenged since World War Two.
Direct democracy, the fight against the liquid gas LNG terminal project a few miles from the shore, an end to political appointments and the overwhelming power of the “Party”. The economic crisis has hit Leghorn hard in recent years, but the crisis in the port city is now thirty years old. The traditional red stronghold born of visceral passion turned into tradition and nothing else, a quiet life, made of agreements and political deals, often done with an attitude and arrogance of those who feel invincible.
The right place at the right time?
The question is what correlation is there between Leghorn and Italy, assuming there is one? More clues will perhaps help. From Greece we could borrow the words of the leaders of SYRIZA (the party of the radical left that came first to the last European elections): “Politics is often the luck of being in the right place at the right time. In Italy, the left has not been able to channel protest against austerity – which would have been natural for them to interpret – because they have been incoherent. The Left was considered responsible for the problem, not as an alternative to the problem. The Five Star Movement (M5s) reaps the rewards of political discontent and benefits from the effects of the crisis, representing a strong force against the establishment and two-party system. ”
Today, the historical Italian political duopoly, first christian democrats (DC) and communists (PCI) and the center-center, has been disrupted. Not from the likes of Mario Monti and Pier Ferdinando Casini and their Third Pole, which proved to be apolitical bluff, but from M5s that is permanently above Forza Italy in recent elections and opinion polls, but today well short of the Democratic Party (PD).
The owners of the M5s brand, the Casaleggio & Grillo diarchy, have not sinned from the point of view of consistency: from their first election appearances have equated – in an era that was fervently anti-Berlusconi – the PD and Silvio’s PDL, denouncing the common elements between the two parties. They attacked the Caste with all its costs and privileges, party politics in toto as a system of power and patronage, lobbyists, corrupt and corruptible. It was a catalyst for the discontented and the angry, bent low by economic and institutional crisis: the votes poured in from the right as from the left, as testified by polls after the election last year. The grillini, even on this, are actually sharp and clear from the first moment: “The M5s is post-ideological, facts count for us and we are neither right nor left.” “We are populist force,” added lately Beppe Grillo, protagonist in a campaign with heightened rhetoric in which he said everything and its opposite.
Grillo not ‘New Left’
Thus categorising the movement from one side or the other makes little sense. Those who see in M5S the “New Left” are misreading the movement because a good part of Grillo’s election programme has that political orientation: environmental issues, protection of public services, defence of the Constitution, a citizen’s guaranteed income, pacifism and so on. It jars because it ignores the proprietorial management of the movement dominated by the blogger-comedian (and no internal structures for decision-making normally associated with political parties but rather a web-based ‘direct democracy’). It jars because of its strongly right-wing attitudes on immigration and security, and its strong Euroscepticism in a nationalist mould. So much so that a debate opened within the M5s on the idea of an alliance with the xenophobic and neo-liberal British leader, Nigel Farage [confirmed two days after this article was written].
In a recent interview Roberto Fiore, the historic leader of far-right party Forza Nuova, explained how some historical battles of his party are now carried forward by the Northern League, the Brothers of Italy a split from Berlusconi’s PDL, and then M5S and this was “a great victory for us.” Greece’s SYRIZA last year came to Italy to talk with the movement. The meeting, ended before it had started. “The cultural differences are of course, that the M5s lacks [the conception of] class conflict and does not fight neo-liberalism,” said the SYRIZA leaders, who do not share the view of society as a struggle between a caste and citizens, but rather between social classes: between those who own the wealth and those who are becoming increasingly impoverished.
But if it is a post-ideological force (“for us what counts are the facts”) and not of the Left, grillofobic theories also see the movement as a threat to democracy. “Fascists”, tout court for many, in a game of simplification that does not help anyone to thoroughly analyze the phenomenon. And where in reality there is no evidence of the work in Parliament of “sentinel” against the austerity policies first of the grand coalition and now by the new prime minister Matteo Renzi – the draconian EU-inspired balanced budget law (Article 81 of the Constitution) and the Jobs Act – there needs to be a strong opposition. Which is what M5S is proving it wants to do.
Business, money, power, arrogance
Going back to Leghorn, then, has the city gone to the Right? With his usual irreverence Mario Cardinali – the director of Il Vernacoliere, the Italian monthly satirical magazine – said of the Democratic Party, in Corriere della Sera newspaper: “And the green light to supermarkets, red coops and white ones as well now? And the useless new hospital that nobody wants? And the degradation of monuments? Business, money, power, arrogance. A big mess. Leghorn said fuck you.” On the same lines was Lenny Bottai, the boxer and former head of the Bal ultras – a radical left group of fans who follow the Leghorn football team – who, interviewed on news website Pagina 99, asked:
“Why should I give my vote to the Democratic Party, which proposed as commissioner for sports Maureen Hunter [a former candidate for the right-wing PDL party for the Tuscan town of Massa] while warning the Livornesi to defend themselves from the Right of M5S, when all the right-wing policies in the last 20 years were implemented by the Democratic Party that has become the new DC? If there is one thing that has made me sick – he continued – is resurrecting terms such as ‘companions’ and ‘anti-fascism’ to win a runoff for purely economic and power interests, and many of us fell for it. The vote was not ‘for’ but ‘against’, and it was also a matter of health. Livorno has a high incidence of cancer. After the bankruptcy of the LNG terminal, these lot (Pd) promised another incinerator and landfill. [Instead] They needed to give a clear [progressive] signal. Cities shouldn’t be governed in tandem with the lobbies.”
Lessons from Leghorn
In other words: when the left stops pursuing left-wing policies, its core vote abandons it. If to be a popular party you turn into an employment office for public managers of and are always ready to quell any critical thinking and every struggle, you cannot be shocked at such as outcome. The Leghorn alternative information website Senza Soste was even clearer: “Many people who live outside Livorno are stunned by this result and our political positions. Anyone who lives here knows that the electorally organized left (except the Communist Refoundation Party), the left organized at the grassroots and engaged in supporting the many struggles on the ground, voted overwhelmingly for the M5S, or rather against the Democratic Party.
Many held their nose but for the good of the city, others in a more instinctive fashion since the headquarters of the M5S in Leghorn are hung with banners that declare “No Tav” [the controversial high speed rail link], “No LNG terminal” and “Public Water Referendum”, the same slogans that many have adorning their own homes. With the PD instead what was there to share? Nothing but empty rhetoric of those who often talk their constituents into believing that the [old communist party] PCI still exists. In fact, many can probably recall the dozens of complaints and legal processes of the many battles, recent and past. ”
Now what? One of Leghorn’s most popular and followed ham actors, Pardo Fornaciari, once a member of Proletarian Democracy, declared of the new M5S mayor: “Nogarin will hold in the city a strong consensus that will be around 30 percent of the citizens. Little, very little. A petty-bourgeois political force in such conditions is likely to be fatally affected by the organized social class which proves to be the strongest. Either capital, that traffics, that builds, or the organized force of producers, the workers. Of which for now, there is now sign.”
At Civitavecchia, a sea port town in the province of Rome, its the same film. It features an incumbent mayor Pietro Tidei who in recent years had close ties with the powers that be and the lobbies, then embroiled in sleaze relating to family empire building. And then the split in the centre-left with Nichi Vendola’s Left Ecology Party (Sel) and the PD at loggerheads and early elections. Sel choses to vote for their own autonomous and non-allied candidate, who receives nearly 11 percent. M5S and the Democratic Party’s Tidei go to a second round ballot.
A hot, May 26, Henry Luciani, regional councillor and former strong man of Sel in Civitavecchia (where he was also deputy mayor) stated: “The relationship has now deteriorated: [Tidei] was working to demolish the majority by not respecting the programme. We have sent him packing and in the European elections has took a resounding blow. In the second round we must continue the process to see off Tidei, we will never give our support to the former mayor. ” And indeed, behind the scenes Sel broke the alliance with the PD almost everywhere and supported the candidate of the M5S. Like most of the voters of the Left list in Leghorn, they supported Nogarin in the run off vote.
Grillo’s left support
Leaving aside the logic of attaching a political allegiance to M5S, one should think about why now more and more people on the left have taken refuge in Grillo’s house. The journalist Alessandro Gilioli rightly wrote: “The question is not whether the 5 Star Movement ‘is or is not of the left’ but rather whether some existing or potential left voters – especially younger ones – continue to think about getting or not representation electoral closer to their ideals or interests when voting M5S. ”
This is also due to a deficiency of the traditional Left that from 2006 onwards has collected a series of setbacks and made the wrong strategic decisions. The L’Altra Europa list, put forward by SEL, the communists and others to the left of the PD, barely got over the minimum 4% threshold in the European elections (meanwhile the PD under new leader Renzi is now at over 40% in the polls, although this spectacular rise is recent). Recent surveys by the SWG pollster show that compared to last year the percentage of right-wing voters has fallen and those among the Left have increased.
It is fashionable to point the finger at former communist leader Enrico Berlinguer, thirty years after his death. If the Democratic Party – formed in 2007 from former christian democrats and former communists – has cut its roots and is culturally distant from the PCI, analogies with the M5S are misleading too. From the point of view of the vision of a society. From the perspective of a real alternative that must be established. To go beyond the shouting, the loud proclamations. Berlinguer (author in the 1970s of the Historic Compromise with the Christian Democrats and the ‘Eurocommunist’ split with Soviet Union) was an ideologue, he was a left-winger, he was a communist. And today the political space to modernise, consistent with those values, is enormous. Assuming there is a desire to do so, of course.
Translation/edit by Revolting Europe