Down with the Parties! Let’s take back our country! Let’s get to work and try to solve the nation’s problems ourselves, without recycled political exiles, without professional politicians, without chattering hacks. Based on the foremost point on which we all agree – namely, that ‘no-one must get in our hair’ – every Common Man and Woman should interrogate their conscience; think; reflect; think and reflect some more; then send us their ideas and advice at the following address: The Common Man – Political Office, Corso Vittorio Emanuele 51, Rome.
The suggestions shall be examined by a group of Common Men and Women who don’t need to be named because none of them seek celebrity. Following this first political contact, an even-tempered discussion will commence, with the aim of giving us an initial orientation. Then we’ll proceed to the election – with a set of procedures and broad and absolute guarantees to be agreed upon in due course – of an Interim Leadership that will be charged with the practical organization of the movement (or party or union or whatever we’ll end up calling ourselves) until the proclamation of the first congress. The Leadership will attend the congress in an outgoing capacity, with the accounts settled and the programme outlined in its generalities. Thereupon the membership will decide, with full authority, what we’re going to do next. We couldn’t be any more liberally democratic than this. None of the so-called political parties of this country, which have been led for the last two years by men that nobody elected nor confirmed, will thenceforth be able to claim any legitimacy.
The symbol of L’Uomo Qualunque – first the newspaper, then the political party – was a man being crushed by a vice. Its slogan was Abbasso tutti, ‘down with everybody’. Yet for two years, from 1946 to 1948, the Common Man’s Front seemed poised to play a lasting role in Italian politics. Its success was in fact short-lived, its core populist message evaporating as the country settled into its new – and not so new – political institutions.
Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star Movement is routinely compared to the front founded by Guglielmo Giannini, and for good reason. Let’s quickly review the most obvious similarities: the Common Man’s Front was born out of a mass-circulation newspaper; the 5 Star Movement was born out of a mass-circulation blog. The newspaper, the blog and Giannini and Grillo themselves share as their main rhetorical mode a crude form of satire, right down to misspelling the names of the leading political figures of the day for comic effect. The slogan of the Common Man’s Front was ‘down with everybody’; the 5 Star Movement organised a series of Vaffa, or ‘Fuck off’, days of national action.
Organisationally, the Common Man’s Front was structured around the ostensibly spontaneous coming together of groups of sympathetic citizens – the same basis on which the 5 Star Movement operates. This made the Front vulnerable to infiltration by Fascists, which is matched by the rumoured efforts by far right-wing organisations to penetrate the 5 Star Movement today (to make matters worse, Grillo has explicitly left the door open to neo-fascists ‘so long as they have the right credentials’, that is, so long as they fulfil the formal qualifications for membership). In terms of political content, the rejection not just of ideology but also of the principles of representation that underlie the form of the party is the structuring belief of both organisations.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Front and the Movement share a faith in the transparency of economic and social life, such as to allow those who are able to master the predominant technology of the day – be it the web for us, or the principles of rational communication and organisation in Giannini’s epoch – to bypass the political process and achieve a set of equally transparent shared outcomes.
The Common Man’s Front, as I said, didn’t last long. It left the Italian language with one of its best words, qualunquismo, which like the French Poujadism has exclusively negative connotations nowadays. There is no English translation for either of these words, although it is standard in dictionaries to find the phrase ‘political apathy’, or ‘indifference’, or ‘cynicism’, none of which preserve the meaning of the original. The qualunquists were in fact engaged, at times enthusiastically so, just as the Grillini are today. It was political disillusionment, paradoxically, that drew them to politics.
How long will Grillo’s movement last, then? It’s been a few weeks since I wrote the essay on the political solutionism of Grillo’s 5 Star Movement for the issue of Overland that just went on sale – blame the inevitable time lags of print publishing – and I’m worried that some of its points might appear overstated to those who follow Italian politics closely, and know of the torrid time that the Movement has had since its plethora of first-term MPs took office, in March. I won’t get into the details of this strife, which has led to expulsions, resignations and Grillo calling for a plebiscite on his role as ‘non-leader’. More worryingly perhaps, from its point of view, the Movement has lost some local elections along the way. But I believe that the predictions of its imminent unravelling are premature, and the dangers I pointed to in my essay all real and present. For the key historical lesson about the Common Man’s Front is that it ceased to have an appeal with the electorate as soon as the nation’s political institutions stabilised themselves. Now the crisis that has afflicted Italy for over twenty years – a time frame that offers another implicit historical parallel – is primarily political, and not just financial. Until this political crisis is resolved, Grillo’s movement will get many chances of getting things wrong and all the time it needs to learn how to sit in parliament, waiting for a chance to gain even more representation whilst pushing all the usual populist – indeed, qualunquist – buttons. It’s a space that needs watching by everyone who studies politics.
The excerpt at the top of the post is from Guglielmo Giannini, Grido di dolore (‘Cry of anguish’), in L’Uomo Qualunque of 8 August 1945. The full Italian text is available here.