Zip War Airganon

There is a word for it now, Grillismo. People outside of Italy are finding out what it is and beginning to ask questions. Is it a progressive movement? Does it offer new prospects in the fight against austerity? Is its model of organisation and campaigning replicable outside of its country or origin, or is it bound to its charismatic leader and to a very specific social and political context, like Berlusconismo? ‘No’, ‘no’ and ‘the former’ would be my provisional answers, but the more immediate problem is descriptive/analytical. How do we go about documenting Grillismo? What is the evidence for us to gather, and how reliable is it?

A movement that had its origins on the web and still exists primarily at a web address is going to leave a vast and publicly accessible archival trace. However in the case of the M5S, this trace is far from unambiguous, as I’m going to demonstrate via a brief video starring Beppe Grillo himself and posted on the movement’s official YouTube channel last April. It is entitled ‘Confiscation of politicians’ assets’. The setting is the campervan that Grillo uses to tour the country. The comedian is sitting at the table, a V for Vendetta mask placed at his side and framed in the establishing shot. He delivers his speech, which I’ve translated below, whilst looking at and occasionally tapping on an iPad. Italics indicate English words in the original.

Confiscation of politicians’ assets

Okay, I’m doing a bit of reading here … we’re really in a fine mess, aren’t we? But now we’re perfecting an auto-crowdsourcing algorithm, the SVG4, in order to highlight and cross-reference all worldwide data pertaining to banks and tax returns. This way these people won’t be able to just say ‘I’m leaving, I’m resigning’ and be done with it. They will also have to hand back what they took. So we’re going to do some cross-referencing with this algorithm, which as I’ve said is a cross-checking, in order to see what their income tax return was when they took office and what it is now, then reduce it automatically thanks to this algorithm down to a salary of 1,200 euros a month. The rest will be given back. We’ll order seizures as we do with the Mafiosi. We have succeeded with the Mafiosi, but these people are slightly worse, so besides outsourcing we’ll have to do a crowd-outsourcing, that is to say an instant assessment of the assets held in Italy and abroad. Once we have these data the passports will be seized – again, we have a marvellous check that matches all personal details, so we’ll get all the documents of the passports that will be seized. Then, once we have the situation under control and all these monies have been returned to the Italian people, they’ll be able to leave – in fact we the proper thing to do would be to expel them from this country, make sure they never come back.

Anyway I’m having a look now at how the SWG4 is progressing … we’re already cross-referencing the data from the banks protected by the ‘fiscal shield’. We have names, surnames, everything. Once we have put everything online with a software we’re creating with the best developers … We’re already selecting the best bailiffs available … the police officers … with a Zip War Airganon. The Zip War Airganon is a software that will ensure anonymity and deliver a bailiff in the right place at the right time. It’s all for now, we’ll keep you advised.

I say ‘English in the original’ except Zip War Airganon is only meant to sound English to Italian ears, but has no obviously recognisable or searchable meaning. Ersatz English has in fact an honourable tradition in Italian popular comedy, as exemplified most famously by the jumbled speech of wannabe Yankee Alberto Sordi in the 1954 film An American in Rome and by the 1972 Adriano Celentano song Prisencolinensinainciusol. Along with the nonsensical use of actual English words (‘crowd-outsourcing’), and Grillo’s visibly stifling a laugh towards the end of the video, that phrase is the strongest internal clue that this is in fact an elaborate joke. But what kind of joke is it, and at the expense of whom?

What Grillo satirises here, in an intriguing Dadaist move, is not only the rhetoric of Anonymous-style hacker rebellion but of Grillismo itself. An indirect proof comes from the hundreds of comments to the video on Grillo’s blog and YouTube, which especially in the immediate aftermath of publication were uniformly and enthusiastically approving, with only a handful of people willing to either critique the nonsensical premise of Grillo’s ‘plan’ or point out that it might be a joke.

Following the heated post-election debate on the direction the movement’s should take, Grillo has suggested that there are hundreds of ‘infiltrators’ paid by his political enemies to foment dissent daily on his blog (he has dubbed their comments ‘squirts of digital shit’), but the uncritical support of the blog regulars and of the largely anonymous YouTube throng to this spoof is more damning. So many people found the ‘Zip War Airganon’ master plan plausible because it is not greatly out of step with the movement’s and Grillo’s own technological solutionism (to borrow Evgeny Morozov’s phrase), combined with his oft-stated intention of ‘opening up Parliament like a can of sardines’ and, eventually, retire the current political class in its entirety. The problem with the joke – to the extent that it is in fact a joke – is that Grillo has expressed so often his belief in the power of the internet to solve political and social problems, and has issued so many other perfectly serious proclamations of similar tenor (‘we’ll eliminate labour unions’, etc.) that one doesn’t know where to look for the punch line.

The situation is not unprecedented. The art of Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, the founder of Futurism, was full of humour and occasionally self-directed irony, but this didn’t stop him from becoming a very active Black Shirt. This is not to establish an explicit parallel between Fascism and Grillismo but to caution against falling for such acts of misdirection, and for the many attempts to dissimulate and play down the movement’s most authoritarian tendencies. Grillo and his followers deserve to be taken seriously, even when they appear to be asking us not to.


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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. How would you suggest the Left responds to this, then? In some ways, it seems a phenomenon of our time: people flocking to an oppositional movement precisely because it seems different, both different from the establishment but also different from the traditional Left. So what does one do in those circumstances? How is the Italian Left reacting?

    • We seem to be at the “hoping Grillismo implodes under the weight of its contradictions” stage of grief. No prizes for guessing what I think of this approach.

      The Italian Left is utterly disoriented, and has been for some time. Amongst the hopes offered by Nichi Vendola, lately of Rifondazione Comunista, two-time openly gay governor of the large and supposedly conservative region of Puglia, there was a solutionist one, namely that his massive Facebook following (over half a million users, more than any other single European politician as of a couple of years back, possibly still the case now) would translate into an ability to draw, if not into radicalism, at least into a staunch left-wing movement the great post-political internet unwashed. It… didn’t eventuate. He and the other politicians who are trying to glue Rifondazione Comunista back together are still squabbling and together mustered a little over 5% of the votes, which translates to even less in actual terms due to their running separately. These are the parties that draw on the great tradition of the Italian antagonistic Left (even though one of them, Vendola’s Left Ecology and Freedom, ended up in an alliance with the much-more-centre-than-left Democrats).

      This is where we’re at, and I don’t know where we take it. There have been times over the last five or six years when I thought, perhaps reflexively, ‘this is it, we could build a movement around this battle’ (be it the attack on public education or on article 18 of the workers’ statute), but it always petered out, and not for want of a desire to fight on the part of many people. Our ideologies are exhausted. I say this without bitterness: the Marxist project no longer has mass appeal, and I think the fact that so many people confidently envisage a reversal of its fortunes as soon as we hit Greece levels of economic desperation is both misguided and grotesquely wishful. So if whole chunks of the Left’s ‘natural’ electorate refuse to play the waiting game and vote for somebody who seems keen to bust things up now, as Grillo does, I cannot entirely blame them.

      Where do we begin the patient work of constructing a strong and broad anti-capitalist Left? The social movements seem the most logical place, and the most vital. I haven’t given up on them, not by a long shot.

  2. I get that this is some weird satire, but this whole situation is so bizarre, particularly the ‘technological solutionism’, which is even evidenced through the use of algorithm, software, etc, as if these are truth-telling tools and thus keys to a politically liberated future (which sounds an awful lot like Anonymous). Hence, bizarre – even as it exploits genuine political anxiety. What does Grillo propose for the future, once he’s eliminated unions and politicians?

    • He hasn’t made it terribly clear. Or rather, there have been a number of contradictory answers: from the slimming down of the state and the institution of direct democracy (rather how you’d run an apartment building writ very large), to old fashioned think big statist politics (“Joseph Stiglitz is writing our economic policy”), to the people will decide when we’re in charge for after all I’m just a spokesperson, to the master plan drafted and variously hinted at by Mr Casaleggio, the internet entrepreneur that is the closest thing the M5S has to an intellectual figure. I’m going to try to unpick all of this in the coming weeks, for I think this is a serious phenomenon that requires urgent study.

  3. In a way, I think “technological solutionism” is a slightly pat way to look at / dismiss the idea behind the slice of technocratic vapourware that is “Zip War Airganon”.

    As I understand it, when Morozov decries solutionism he contrasts technology used in the service of properly conceived public policy with the implausible notion that profit-driven technology service companies will, by way of the invisible hand, close the efficiency gaps in the decent society.

    Although there isn’t sound policy behind Zip War Airganon, tax information exchange agreements (TIEAs) are perhaps an interesting first step towards an administrative structure capable of effectively regulating the transnational corporation.

    The current TIEAs don’t work too well (again, as I understand it) but networked computers do offer some hope that they will eventually do better. And either way, they’re probably more use to the process than the UN.

    • Zip War Airganon is not a tax agreement, though, is it? It’s the execution of a political programme – to make the current members of the Italian Parliament give back the monies they earned while in office above the level of salary of a factory worker – in the form of a computational algorithm. The software will do everything: calculate the amount owed (there will always be an amount owed, given that parliamentarians earn a great deal more than 1200 euros a month), locate the money, withdraw and release documents, direct law enforcement. It’s the state machine operating without politicians or administrators. And yes, it’s a joke, but a very tenuous one, insofar as it is linked from within a blog post indistinguishable – both rhetorically and content-wise – with every other post on Grillo’s blog, and taken as seriously, as much at face value as the others by Grillo’s followers.

      • Yep. I’m not wilfully arguing against the point you’re making – Zip War Airganon is an absurdity.

        Just wondering what other things go along with the dim authoritarian yearnings of Grillo’s followers (who might as well be anyone, to be honest – others fall swiftly in love with only moderately more sophisticated false panaceas).

  4. I don’t want to entirely dismiss the argument that it could have been anyone – the M5S is certainly of the fact that there is a large vacuum to fill – but I’m more interested in the particular someone who seized the opportunity, and succeeded in becoming a populist leader virtually from night to morning without ever appearing on television except as the subject of news reports. Along with the specific content of his politics I want to understand this appeal of his.

  5. Doubtless Grillo will be the subject of many films by A, B, C to Z grade directors, both in Italy and Hollywood. He will become a phenomenon. A new genre will be invented in his dishonour: the Grillopticon. Richly deserved.

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