Beppe Grillo is not a clown - and he's turned politics upside down

Feb 27, 2013
Robert Fox

Grillo takes his place in the piazza with the Italian people - and there's no going back to the old ways

BEPPE GRILLO, satirist, blogger and protester has staged one the greatest coups de theatre in Italian political history. His storming finish in the Italian general election is not only turning Italy upside down, but threatens to do the same across the EU.

His Five Star Movement, or M5S, was a gleam in a blogger's eye just four years ago. Now it has 150 members of parliament - and whoever forms the next government will need its support one way or another.

Grillo has also given birth to a new political protest concept - fancullismo. It arises from the campaign slogan and battle cry 'Vafancullo' – which is going to give headline writers a headache because, as any tourist who has witnessed road rage in Rome will know, it translates literally as 'F*** 0ff!"

Grillo, now 64, has been giving the finger to old-style Italian politics, its corrupt ways and corrupt practitioners. The five stars of M5S stand for a bundle of principles and policies - free water supply, social and economic mobility, protect the environment, and no to bad politicians.

Crucially, the movement also opposes the austerity measures approved by the EU and Chancellor Merkel and imposed by their buddies in the outgoing government of technocrats headed by former banker Mario Monti.

In Italy, these measures have brought unemployment to one young person in three, reduced pensions in the fastest ageing population in Europe and a widening gap between the productive North and the impoverished South.

But it's the style of the protest as much as the substance which is so striking - the latest and most accomplished example of a new form of movement which rejects the old ways of parliamentary democracy and government.

It has a lot in common with the protesters camping out in the squares of Athens when Greece was forced to go through repeated elections to come up with a government agreeable to the EU leadership and their banker, Germany.

Among the Athenian campers were university professors, economists and university teachers suddenly thrown out of jobs who now believed the old consensual system of parliamentary politics was irretrievably broken.

M5S also chimes with single-issue parties like Geert Wilders' Freedom Party in the Netherlands and even Nigel Farage's UKIP - though I should stress that Grillo and his movement tend to the left.

Grillo himself will not take a seat in parliament, having ruled himself out under his own party rules because of a conviction for manslaughter after a fatal car crash in 1980.

This, as Italians like to say, puts him in the piazza with the people, instead of in the palace with the politicians, making him potentially all the more effective - rather as the radical John Wilkes was in 18th Century England, when he successfully challenged the authority of parliament with monster outdoor rallies across London.

Yet in Britain today, reaction has been slow to the seismic game-changer Grillo is proving to be. As M5S claims its 150 seats in Rome as the single most successful party in the Italian elections (the others are alliances), in London George Osborne has been reaffirming his austerity measures following Moody's downgrading of our Triple A credit rating.

On the BBC's Today programme yesterday, Evan Davis, an economist by trade, and Annalisa Piras, an Italian political analyst, agreed that Italians would have to see the error of their ways in backing Grillo and "learn that austerity programmes are for their long-term good". As a piece of political judgment this ranks alongside Marie Antoinette's "let them eat cake".

"Grillo really has changed everything in Italian politics, and in the EU," says Lucio Caracciolo, an editor and professor of politics in Rome. "He has got some very able young people both in parliament and in the regional assemblies. Things will have to change on austerity and it is a very serious moment for the EU and the Euro. Things just can't go back to the old ways now."

Beppe Grillo is a shrewd operator, with a pedigree as a political and business analyst. He should not be dismissed as a television clown who just struck lucky with his big red nose day.

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Grillo's success should worry the mainstream media too. After all, he's achieved this landslide without speaking to established newspapers or broadcasters, relying on the internet and rallies instead.

That the BBC's Today programme invited commentators from its stuffy establishment commentariat is no surprise. It's another reason why the State Broadcaster is seen as synonymous with the ruling elite.

The old parties are of course all in the pocket of old money - and these days old money is not that old. The crisis about so-called over-spending would not be a crisis if it was not for the way that the hyper-rich have currently got everybody else in a bind. Just like the way monarchy and autarchy used to have everybody sewn up since nobody for some time could work out how to have legitimacy without chaos - unless you trusted the old structures. But this kind of new people power is the reverse image of the advantages capital has from easy transfers around the world and industry has from transformed styles of selling. It may be dangerous times because it is so interesting. But the idea that austerity will lead to a new expansion may not be that clever - since getting things better organised so most people do not starve or suffer from deprivation and denial may not be best achieved by presertving the oligarchs and the hyper-rich, and making the poor sell themselves into slavery in order to go to university and be able to afford a roof over their heads. Watch this space.

I think you confused autarchy with autocracy.

You're obviously completely clueless about Grillo. He has run under no platform at all, and in the two days since his party was elected with the majority of seats in the Camera, all he has done is continue to attack Bersani on his blog. Grillo thrives on creating large spectacles and sensation, but has yet to offer anything of substance. His only campaign promises have been to get rid of unions, withdraw from the EU and provide a 1000 euro/month stipend for people out of work, for a maximum of three years. He has cleverly dodged questions about how he might actually pay for all this. Like Berlusconi, he won this election by promising to make money out of thin air. No surprise that Anglo hipsters who don't actually read Italian papers and don't keep up with Italian politics would consider M5s something positive.

...couldn't even begin to improve on this comment, Ray - well said!

...Roberto - at least, this clown makes us smile - just like Berlesconi - and quite unlike the austerity meisters of the Northern EU - "lighten up Luigi".

.........thrives on creating large spectacles and sensation, but has yet to offer anything of substance- typical populism........ It worked for Blair for ten years!

As il Duce said, "ruling Italy isn't difficult but it is pointless"

I have read that he is no friend of Israel or Jews, although perhaps not necessarily in that order.

Not sure how accurate that is. Does anyone have more info?

thank's a lot from Italy!!! wind has finally changed,we will not disappoint you!