Forget Berlusconi. Berlusconi is dead. And with Berlusconi dies the right-wing coalition that he didn’t so much cement as embody, with its paradoxical mixture of opposites – fascist corporatism vs Thatcherite neoliberalism, nostalgic nationalism vs regional separatism, moral conservatism vs how the boss liked to spend his evenings. This is all gone, and once Berlusconi literally dies, or finally retires, the parties of the right that have dominated Italian politics for twenty years will instantly cease to exist. The question is what parties or movements will rise to take their place. For you can be quite sure that something will.
In 1994, Beppe Grillo starred in a two-part one-man show on Italian national television. In spite of his considerable popular appeal as a comedian then at the height of his career, he hadn’t been allowed to appear on the public airwaves since 1986, following an incident at a popular Christmas show when he made one too many jokes (by which I mean: one joke) on the thieving habits of Socialist Party politicians. But now that the Socialist Party had been wiped out by the massive corruption investigations of the early 90s, it was finally permitted for Grillo to return. Shrewdly, he negotiated complete creative and technical control over the broadcast. He was determined that he would only return on his own terms.
The show was enormously successful, with an audience of 15 million for each of the two nights. It was also his last appearance on television to date.
In the best tradition of Italian comedy, Grillo’s satire was both political and di costume, that is to say of the manners and habits of Italians. His targets during the 1994 show included Berlusconi, then at the very beginning of his political career, but also the most rampant manifestations of the consumerism that had saturated the media and the culture. With bitter prescience, Grillo identified the coming brand of post-political, a-political politician, the ostensible product of the civil society that screams – in the shrill style of a TV shopping network host – ‘I’m going to build you a hospital! I’m going to build you a school!’ These people, he said, not Berlusconi, are the ones you must fear.
He was right. He also happened to be describing a creature that wouldn’t properly enter the political scene until this year, under the banner of his own party. Although Grillo’s ‘5 Star Movement’ (M5S) – the undisputed winner of this week’s national elections – isn’t really a party. Hell, it isn’t even a movement. It’s a network. Better: a platform. Headquartered at a URL address – www.beppegrillo.it – it exists primarily as a digital construct, yet it is also able to physically occupy the public square, gathering no fewer than 800,000 people for its final election event in Rome last Friday.
Who are these people, and where do they come from? Grillo himself likely wouldn’t have entered politics if not for the distant act of censorship that relegated him to the margins of the public conversation, effectively to near non-existence for someone in his line of work. This also explains why he took to the internet so successfully: he had already learnt how to remain popular without television, if not in fact how to turn the enforced obscurity into a source of appeal.
His cult following was similarly primed for the new medium. These aren’t activists or militants in the conventional sense that these words have in left-wing circles. They are citizens of the web, or rather: citizens because of the web. Their online debates lend themselves to casual mockery, oscillating as they do between critiques of international finance that quickly descend into conspiracism and dark speculations on the true nature of chemtrails, but these are simply the contents of any large enough online generalist forum. What we must ask and evaluate is the kind of politics that such a form can produce.
In their post-election rush to soften earlier critiques of Grillo’s movement, some left-wing commentators have made the point that a number of its aims – such abolishing the reform of the labour market known as the ‘Biagi Law’ and introducing a guaranteed unemployment benefit – are ‘of the left’ (an editorial in the communist newspaper Il Manifesto even called Grillo ‘one of us’). However these policies must be understood within the circumstances of their production. Far from being the organic outcome of an ongoing debate within the movement as it is sometimes claimed, the M5S’ policy document (PDF, Italian) was launched by Grillo in 2009 and has not been substantially amended since, as if the movement were still waiting for a necessary software upgrade that enabled it to do so. The policies themselves are a hotchpotch that ranges from the abolition of provincial councils to helping people take responsibility for their own health. If there is one overarching theme, it is that of streamlining public administration and the state; if there is one fundamental principle, it is that of ‘digital citizenship’, with the attendant faith in the power of communication technologies to increase knowledge, equality and freedom.
Here I must talk briefly about the left: it lost. We lost. I suppose you might want to know why, whereas I’d like to know why it feels like it’s the same defeat that has been replayed over and over for my entire adult life. Perry Anderson offered in 2009 a formidable summation that I find in some ways too neat but also undeniably compelling, and fully applicable to the events of the weekend. It paints the devastating picture of an ‘invertebrate left’, which has conspired over the course of several decades to squander the largest popular movement for change in Europe. As late as ten years ago the No Global movement in Italy was capable of astonishing feats of mass mobilisation, to say nothing of our robust leftist intellectual tradition. So why is there in 2013 no left-wing party capable of expressing a radicalism remotely as appealing to the public as that of Beppe Grillo and his unknown, unschooled, uncultured followers?
Of all the analyses that I have read this week, in English or Italian, Tad Tietze might have come closest (and here) to trying to answer the question. His contention, if I have interpreted it correctly, is that our failure to sustain the mass antagonistic social movements of the past decade derives from the failure of a party like Rifondazione Comunista to provide them with an equally antagonistic political outlet in parliament, choosing instead – as it did – to support a ruinous centre-left coalition that lasted in government two years without registering a single progressive achievement. There may be some truth to this charge. Even a lot of truth. But it seems to me that the work of sustaining those movements and a truly oppositional politics in the leftist tradition – the work of not only describing and presaging but concretely enacting new forms of social and labour relations – is an incommensurably different kind of work to the one that Grillo has undertaken, and that their respective eventual success couldn’t begin to be measured on the same plane. To put it more simply: the eight million votes that the 5 Star Movement has received this week aren’t votes that we should have had or could have had, for they responded to an antithetical brand of politics.
It’s not just that Grillo wants to abolish unions, or has cheerfully declared that the neofascists of Casa Pound are welcome into his movement. It’s that his faith in the internet – call it his digitalism – is the opposite of Marxian materialism. For Grillo, the internet is at once ontology and epistemology, both the Real and the means of apprehending the Real. His followers aren’t social actors in the full sense, but are defined as being part of a digital network of peers. The exercise of their democratic freedom is the equivalent of clicking ‘like’ on Facebook, as many times a day as it is required of them. They are of no class, neither left nor right. They are the present, the new. They don’t view their political success as a function of our political failures, but as a function of the fact that we are the old. They are what there is. We are what there was.
I don’t take solace in anything. I don’t even view this election result as proof that Italians have rejected austerity. It’s not about that. It’s about a fundamentally new and radically diminished way of conceiving of political and social subjects, and what constitutes democratic participation. The left will need to come up with answers, and quickly.