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.