Italians deliver a big F–k you to the political establishment

People react as Five Star Movement leader and comedian Beppe Grillo arrive during a rally in Rome

Is Beppe Grillo the messiah,  or just a very naughty boy? His 5 Star Movement (5SM) swept the Italian elections earlier in the week taking 25% of the vote. This result is a stunning rebuke to the once mighty Italian left – 5SM is not really born of the Left – rather it is the intellectual property of one man – Grillo. These articles from writers far more knowledgeable on the political situation in Italy are useful contextual reading (Dr Tad here and Giovanni Tiso here). Rather, what I want to delve into is 5SM’s support base, how it is organised and what the implications are for the industrial-political situation in Australia.

I’d recommend having a look at this Demos paper on the 5SM, which includes an interesting survey of 5SM’s Facebook supporters, their economic positions,  their pressing issues and social attitudes. The first thing to note is the 5SM supporter respondents are far more likely to have completed high school than the statistically average Italian – 54 per cent of respondents had a high school diploma as opposed to 34.8% of the rest of the Italian population. Yet while they may be educationally privileged, the average 5SM supporter is also more likely to be unemployed (19 per cent of respondents identified as being unemployed as opposed to the official unemployment rate of 7.9%). Further, the average 5SM supporter is likely to identify themselves as left of centre. In other words, they are the under-utilised and educated components of the Italian working class – they are the section of the population that any successful Left movement would need to draw from for its leadership and activist base. Moreover, their top two issues are the economic situation (62% nominating this as an issue) and unemployment (61%).

And these educated working class leftists are looking towards an Italian millionaire in Grillo who believes trade unions should be “wiped out” (to be replaced with worker representatives on company boards). He can get away with this because there is a generalised anger directed towards the institutional leadership of the Italian state and key civil society actors (much like in Australia). This rage hits bankers, the Catholic Church, the Italian legal system, politicians, the press and trade unions. Interestingly, only 11% of 5SM supporters tended to trust trade unions (versus 32% of the Italian population). This is the rage of a group of workers who don’t feel the mainstream union movement effectively addresses their economic issues.

Instead, into the vacuum steps a comedian who channels and organises this anger into a vote for the 5SM. At about this time I could insert some vague comments about the organising power of the internet and make a reference back to the Gutenberg Press  (not to be confused with Steve Guttenberg). However, what stands out here is the limits 5SM places on online democratic participation. The key policy document has been co-written by Grillo and are not subject to any sort of democratic oversight or revision, and participation seems to be basically restricted to commenting on blog posts. If anyone knows what sort of democratic rights 5SM can exercise I’d actually really like to know. But while Grillo appears to exercise control over the medium, his message is one of direct democracy. His basic message appears to be, “listen, the political establishment, all those guys claiming to represent us, let us down. So fuck them – I think you should have a direct say and a direct vote in the matters of state.” There is a salient lesson, one which can be applied for progressive or reactionary ends, about power and the changing means of communication. Real power, in the age of the internet, comes not from seeking to directly control the outcome of any one debate but in controlling the field and the form in which the debate itself takes place. 5SM is essentially saying, join with us unquestioningly and have your own direct say later on. To me this is problematic and unsustainable.

While you can get a pretty good pasta on Lygon St, Australia is not Italy. However, there are important parallels to be drawn here. There are similar levels of latent anger and mistrust directed towards key institutions of civil society and the state. Now is the time for the Left (political parties, unions, writers, and activists) to respond with clarity and courage. Don’t worry about the reaction of banks, and big business. No one really trusts them anyway. If the Left doesn’t respond, some other group or person will fill the void and they may well not be benign. The response though, must take a specific form – individual leaders within left social movements have to make a courageous decision – to devolve decision-making processes down to their respective memberships. You have a choice, give up your influence or your control. You can’t hold both for any length of time.*

*On that note I’ll be returning back to the direct unionism project pretty soon.


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