This is the new Italy

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.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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  1. Your comment on Anderson, that his piece is “in some ways too neat but also undeniably compelling,” is well made (and shared by a number of people I know who are experts on Italy). This, it seems to me, is a characteristic of Anderson’s work. His books on Western Marxism and Poststructuralism are cases in point, where the ‘compelling’ capsizes into the ‘wrong.’ The piece on the Italian left seems more correct, but there are questions unanswered there too.

    • I wouldn’t necessarily say that he’s wrong about any one thing. He does simplify however. I thought the correspondence on that essay was also very good and balanced things somewhat.

      • Yes, that was what I meant. Re Anderson being wrong: I think that applies much more to his reading of Western Marxism and Poststructuralism. But he’s always ‘wrong’ in an engaging – fascinating – way.

        • I hadn’t read the Perry Anderson piece before this week, and it’s lots of fun but in the end the letter from the late Tom Behan strikes me as the most useful corrective. Anderson makes Italy sound so socially quiescent when in fact that’s the last thing you’d call it if you looked up from his text and took a look at the place itself.

          • The Anderson piece is actually part of a larger one in The New Old World, which attempts at a survey of Italy itself, so that may explain some of the absences, Tad. Still, there’s always something Olympian about Anderson’s stuff that places it a tiny bit away from the messiness of everyday reality. Having said that, he’s a brilliant synthesizer and populariser.

  2. Thanks for the very kind words about my attempts to understand the impasse of the Italian Left in its most recent iteration. My interest in Rifondazione stems from the inspiration that the Italian wing of the Global Justice Movement provided in the early 2000s, and the hopes invested in the party as embodying a new kind of politics that we could learn from everywhere.

    It’s only in retrospect, after seeing those movements (around the world) decline or collapse, that I started to take very seriously what a truly radical politics would mean. It would have to mean both being of and in the movements but also recognising that within capitalist society politics is concentrated around the state. So the tricky thing is to build not just “from below” within civil society, but to try to concentrate that subaltern agency in a struggle on the effective terrain shaped by the state and political society. Only thus can the subaltern masses move from being the producers of this society to constructing their own forms of self-rule, in the process producing a new social order.

    Rifondazione never pretended it was the political wing of the No Global movements, (indeed it promised them autonomy); rather, because it was the only truly political thing going it ended up, by default, being allowed to mediate those civil society movements’ engagement with the state. The loosely autonomist character of those movements had no clear strategy once these questions were posed concretely, in terms of the “need” to get Berlusconi out of office.

    I see Grillo’s movement not as a direct expression of this, but of the longer-run crisis of authority of the political establishment. Anti-politics has sprung up in various forms around the West in recent years. It can take quite different forms depending on the concrete circumstances. The indignados of Spain are another variant. However, the failure of the radical Left in political terms helps explain why such a confused mess can rise to such heights so quickly.

    • “Rifondazione never pretended it was the political wing of the No Global movements, (indeed it promised them autonomy); rather, because it was the only truly political thing going it ended up, by default, being allowed to mediate those civil society movements’ engagement with the state.”

      But isn’t that the same trap that the Democrats have fallen into – believing that they will get to be the mediators of, in their case, the working class and sectors of the middle class ‘by default’? By default just doesn’t happen. It’s not that I don’t agree with you that Rifondazione’s choices were disastrous, but they were also the choices of an utterly exhausted political party. A party that had tried every possible iteration of how to be post-communist (whilst somehow remaining still-communist) and that would never in my mind have been able to produce anywhere close to the explosive appeal and – crucially – sense of innovation that the M5S has achieved.

      There is of course no counter-proof, but I will note that SEL did in fact maintain quite close links to the social movements, leading to the support of the social centres for its mayoral candidate Giuliano Pisapia, who had unexpectedly won the centre-left primaries and went on to win the local elections in Berlusconi’s own backyard. These links continued in part at this last election, much to the disappointment of Rivoluzione Civile, the frankly bizarre communist party led by magistrates (!) that considered itself as deserving of that support (also ‘by default’) precisely because they had refused to enter into an alliance with the Democrats. In any event, SEL got 3% of the vote, Rivoluzione Civile got 2% and no seats in parliament. These are the numbers of the ‘potential’ left as of now.

      • I guess I’m talking about a political weakness within the movements of the early 2000s, rather than so much PRC’s choices. I recall many a sensible Marxist getting carried away with the Italian autonomism of the day. This is what we have to come to terms with — what kind of politics do you want to build within the movement? There was much tut-tutting at the time that you should even attempt this. And when things were going well, the tut-tutters were hegemonic in their disavowal of trying to build parties from below.

        Any political successes and failures on the radical Left today have to start from its historic self-immolation a few years back. Things just start from a weaker base and in a less propitious climate.

          • … or from the self-immolation of the right, when the right is at its weakest – another and more severe global financial crisis, for example – the radical left needs always to be always already ready to rule

  3. “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.”

    Know the empty feeling: it’s a cliché; leftist oppositions rescuing defeat from the jaws of victory. Surely there’s a mentality, some phantasms hardwired into being born to rule, born to oppose that are hard to bust? I guess too the feeling and belief involved in being the other needs learning, and knowing that being in power is morally and ethically the right thing to be doing, with the consequent belief in knowing how to rule in accord with those morals and ethics.

    Sounds airy-fairy I know, but the thought came to me as I read the post (and offshoots).

    • The parties to the left of the Democrats less so, but the Democrats themselves have long since completed the transformation from the party of permanent opposition that was the old PCI to a party of government that is in fact bewilderingly inept at opposing things. So why they should be so afraid of governing is a bit mysterious. This is definitely more a question for psychoanalysis than for political science, though, I fear.

    • I’m not so sure about this. We tried having a stronger left. We’ve also tried – are constantly tyring – to have a left capable of attracting the entire spectrum of its voter base, from the reformist to the revolutionary. It seems to me – and it’s a working hypothesis at this stage – that these voters are rejecting the fundamental assumptions of what left-wing politics means. That they’re not trusting left-wing parties *because* they are left-wing parties, not because of the specific left-wing parties we have, and that they don’t trust unions because they don’t believe in unionism, not because they think the unions we have are ineffective. This, I grant you, could be seen as the result of 20 years (at least) of these forces not being truly representative of the interests of the working class. But it almost doesn’t matter at this point. The problem is how the left walks back from this. And it’s not remotely clear to me how we do that.

      This is the crux, and is very well-put: “What stands out here is the limits 5SM places on online democratic participation… 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.”

      The left has lost control of the field and the form of “its” debate takes place. This is what’s new about this election.

  4. The crisis for the parliamentary left globally, and by extension the traditional radical left is also coloured by the wane of social democracy. Limited to defensive maneuvers under neoliberal onslaught the working class isl eft decomposed and fragmented.
    Indeed at the time of anti-global movements the trad left offered little more than criticism of new organisational forms on one hand and became parsitesof the movement on the other.
    All attempts, since the death knell of social democracy, by the working class to recompose themselves will fall well outside the realms of the left. If the left can be of aid, it will need to release itself of dogma and accept the lead offered by the avantguard sections of the class.

  5. I agree with this to an extent. Certainly, the Left can’t just keep being purely reactive, in the sense of simply letting others come up with new strategies and tactics and then playing the role of the spoiler, explaining how they won’t work. It’s very unlikely that Wikileaks could have come from the ranks of the Left, since as soon as you floated the idea, a zillion people would have told you that nothing would come of it.
    At the same time, what does an abstract call to abandon dogma actually mean? Which dogma? What’s the difference between letting go of dogma and abandoning principles?
    Given the general erasure of radical history that’s taken place over the last decades, surely one task of the Left is to cling on to some of the knowledge that’s been gained in the past. We’re not starting completely again; we do have some experiences that are worth defending.
    The task is to avoid being an antiquarian, to cherish past lessons as historical artefacts but as ideas capable of driving innovations today.
    How exactly you do that is anotehr question.

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