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Populists in Europe (6/8) : Beppe Grillo, the anger of the people

Friday, 16 May, 2014 - 14:46

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Is Beppe Grillo an extremist, a populist or a visionary? In spite of his slip-ups, his 5 Star movement is expected to get 25% of the votes in the European elections.  


In order to destroy the political class and change the face of the country, Beppe Grillo and his party founded in 2009 and entitled the 5 stelle movement or M5S, favour insults and provocations. The troublemaker is a serious challenger to traditional parties for the European elections. Polls project the M5S will get 25% of the votes, and they are hoping to beat the Democratic Party, currently in power. Are these millions of Italians just expressing despondency with their scandalous political class or is the movement running deeper?

Government through blogging

In order to stand out from current politicians across the board – whom he wishes to defeat – Beppe Grillo has been recruiting executives for his movement on the blog he created in 2011. It ranks first in Italy (see picture), second in Europe and ninth in the world in numbers of visitors. It is on this platform that he sends messages to his “grillini” – the name given to members of the movement – and sends directives to his 106 MPs and 50 senators elected in the 2013 legislatives.

The M5S also won five important cities including Parma in the 2012 municipal elections. But its mayor Frederico Pizzarotti has fallen from grace. Since he started his blog, Grillo has been staging “witch trials” against dissidents before throwing them out, as with five senators who were very critical of the lack of democracy within the movement.

A theory inspired by Illich

Beyond communication and folklore, this Web 2.0 strategy also symbolizes a horizontal conception of politics partly inspired by Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich’s theories. This utopian thinker (1926-2002) developed revolutionary theories about the counter-productivity of institutions, the advantages of deschooling society and the development of togetherness to foster trust and autonomy among citizens.

Grillo’s kind of populism may therefore be less demagogic than it first seems. Besides, his economic platform of degrowth, sustainable development and the implementation of a basic income is partly based on some of Nobel Economics Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz’s theories (see picture).

Excesses that are scaring intellectuals away

Although he considers the M5s leader’s stance “meaningless”, former Silvio Berlusconi spin doctor Luigi Crespi still admits that Grillo “could be the trigger that brings about change to the political class. The president of the Council Matteo Renzi wants to act quickly because he knows that Grillo embodies anger and that a great revolt will follow him.”  

But Grillo’s excesses and the illuminations of Giancarlo Casaleggio, co-founder and scandalous guru of the movement, have scared a number of early supporters away. The intellectuals who now criticize the comedian’s extremes are systematically pilloried on the blog and some “grillini” do not hesitate to burn critical books such as those from writer and journalist Corrado Augias, who denounces the incompetence of M5S elected officials.  

The press and the majority of politicians no longer let Beppe Grillo’s excesses slide, especially when he attacks symbols of anti-Fascism such as Primo Levi. He also published a picture of a concentration camp on his blog, replacing the terrible quote Arbeit macht frei (work shall set you free) by P2, macht frei (P2 shall set you free). P2 refers to a masonic lodge accused of organizing a network between its members, politicians and the mafia.

After having tried and failed to reach out to him in the legislative elections in the hopes of creating a united government, the left of centre Democratic Party is now trying to demystify the Movimiento 5 Stelle, even though the party is seen by 56% of Italians as the only alternative to Matteo Renzi’s reformist party.


FOCUS : Disillusions in Parma.
On May 22nd 2012, Frederic Pizzarotti won the city of Parma with 60.2% of the votes. With no university degree and virtually no experience in politics, this young Parma native promised to change the face of his beloved city with the Movimiento 5 Stelle platform. Two years later, disillusionment runs high. During his election campaign, Pizzarotti had promised to get in the way of the unpopular incinerator. “Over my dead body” he would then protest. But the incinerator is still blowing smoke. 

In terms of public administration, the new mayor has also revised his promises downwards. With a debt reaching €800 million, Parma was on the brink of bankruptcy. In order to get it back on its feet, Federico Pizzarotti chose Merkel-inspired austerity. The idea to abolish the IMU property tax went out the window. On the contrary, the mayor decided to raise it in order to bring in revenue. He also broke his promise to lower income tax. “Instead of making tax laws more flexible, he has made them stricter” locals complain.  

Public services are also a great disappointment. The underground project was abandoned due to lacking funds. Regarding the arts, the Regio theatre’s excessive expenditure – which according to Federico Pizzarotti had come to symbolize the poor financial management of his predecessors – has not been lowered. On the contrary, the city administration has just unblocked a 900,000 budget. As a result, Beppe Grillo has turned his back on the young mayor.

(Translation: Clemence Grison)