What’s Left Of The Five Star Movement?

Recent political developments have revealed the final mutation of the Five Star Movement into a party of the much-opposed establishment

Recent political developments have revealed the final mutation of the utopian movement into a pragmatic party.

The Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle, M5S) was a novel phenomenon on the Italian political scene. Co-founded in 2009 by the charismatic Genovese comedian Beppe Grillo and the web strategist Gianroberto Casaleggio, the driving force behind the movement lays in the idea that the Italian political class had become cynical, corrupt, greedy, impervious to change, and on the whole more interested in retaining its privileges than in advancing the wellbeing citizens.

One could indeed argue — especially after reading Gaetano Salvemini’s Il Ministro della Malavita, which unmasked Giolitti’s clientelism, or Martin Clark’s sweeping history, Modern Italy: 1871 to the Presentthat such a class of money-grabbing, apolitical politicians is inherent in a system that dates back to the country’s unification and wedded to Italian statehood.

In the past, there have been other political forces challenging this state of affairs. For a time, during the 1970s, it was the Italian Communist Party: not only a party, but a political culture standing outside of the widespread collusion between the state, private industry and organized crime — that tacit agreement which marked the post-war settlement and which, under the circumstances, was perhaps necessary for the speedy economic recovery after 1945.

But eleven years ago the moment seemed ripe for the advent of a new political force that would carry on this anti-system, anti-corruption tradition. A force which would better fit the changed nature of modern society: that force was the Five Star Movement.

The five stars represent five core issues to which the movement claims to be dedicated: public water, sustainable transport, sustainable development, right to Internet access and environmentalism. The party also advocates e-democracy, direct-democracy, checked economic growth and non-violence. One may notice a green tinge here, yet the Greens/European Free Alliance group in the European Parliament rejected the party’s membership in 2014 over its stance on immigration, which, interestingly, has caused it to be label its politics as “far-right”.

Unlike the ambiguous position that it occupies on the European political spectrum, the movement is very clear and uncompromising about the behaviour which is expected of its members. One of the most important rules of M5S is that politics is a temporary service.  No one who has already been elected twice at any level (local or national) is allowed to run again in an election. Grillo himself drew up the rule in 2017, clearly stating that:

The Five Star Movement is a community of citizens based on certain rules. They are few, clear and simple. For this reason they can not be repealed. One of the founding rules is that of only two mandates at any level.

This principle of limited mandate is connected with the firmly-held belief of ‘zero-cost politics’, according to which political activity is a public service, and must not become a career or an end in itself. Here we see the first unrealizable ideal of a movement that seeks to govern politically in a multi-party system like Italy’s. A party must make compromises, forge unwelcome alliances, and bend its rules according to changing political climates. And so it was that idealism had to yield to practicality. On August 13, party members voted on the Rousseau website to abolish the rule that had been one of the main bedrocks of the new movement.

This axiom would have been impossible to respect in a situation where 35% of M5S’s Members of Parliament are on their second term in office. This would have made them unable to run in the local and regional elections to be held in the Fall. Virginia Raggi, the current mayor of Rome, had also decided to run for a third time as mayor, and so the party would have thrown away the opportunity to control the Holy City by denying her the possibility of running one more time.

Another previously held belief which seems to have been forgotten is the party’s refusal to join forces with any other political association. This too was one of Grillo’s diktats, and it was an attempt to distance his organization from the existing parties in power, and to present himself as a “proud populist” opposing the establishment. Not only was this rule broken twice in order to form two consecutive governments — one alongside the League and the current one with the Democratic Party (previously a sworn enemy of the M5S) — but talks are already underway with the democrats in many regions and municipalities to support a starred candidate.

The movement has thus been institutionalized: it has joined the fold of the establishment, that very system to which Grillo and Casaleggio were so implacably opposed. This will do much to disenfranchise supporters of the M5S, some of which have already defected under the leadership of the ex grillino Senator Gianluigi Paragone, whose position on the European Union remains orthodox.

This is a major turning point for the Five Star Movement, and an important lesson for those who think that strong idealistic principles trump the trappings of party politics. The struggle for power is a much stronger motive than grand utopian narratives.

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