Recent political developments have revealed the final mutation of the utopian movement into a pragmatic party.
The Five Star Movement (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 of the citizenry.
One could indeed argue — especially after reading works such as Gaetano Salvemini’s Il Ministro della Malavita, which unmasked the Giolittian apparatus of clientelism, or Martin Clark’s sweeping history entitled Modern Italy: 1871 to the Present — that such a class of money-grabbing politicians uninterested in the public good is inherent in a system born with the country’s unification, and therefore wedded to Italian statehood.
There have been other political forces in the past that challenged this state of affairs, and for a time it was the Italian Communist Party which sought to be such an emblem: not only a party, but a political culture standing outside of the widespread collusion between the state, private industry and organized crime — the tacit agreement that marked the post-war settlement, and which, given the circumstances, was perhaps necessary for the speedy economic recovery that began in 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 while assuming a new character to better fit the changed nature of modern society: 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 has caused it to be labelled as a far-right force.
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 5SM is that politics is a temporary service: no one who has already been elected twice at any level (local or national) can be a candidate again.
This principle of limited mandate is connected with the firmly-held belief of ‘zero-cost politics’, according to which it must not become a career and a way to make money. Here we see the first unrealizable ideal of any 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 the changing political climate.
And so it was that, on August 13, the members of the party voted on its Rousseau website to abolish the rule that had been one of the main bedrocks of the new movement. 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 axiom would have been impossible to respect in a situation where 35% of 5SM Members of Parliament are on their second term in office. This would have made them unable to run in the upcoming local and regional elections in September. 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 playing her cards one more time.
Another previously held belief which it seems has 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 away 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 5SM), 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, of the very system that Grillo and Casaleggio were so implacably opposed to. This will do much to disenfranchise supporters of the 5SM, some of which have already defected under the leadership of the ex grillino Senator Gianluigi Paragone for his more orthodox stance on the European Union.
This is a major turning point for the Five Star Movement, as well as being an important lesson for those who think that strong idealistic principles trump the trappings of party politics. The conquest of power seems to be a force much stronger than grand utopian narratives.
Support our independent project!
Italics Magazine was born less than two years ago in Rome, from the idea of two friends who believed that Italy was lacking a complete, in-depth, across-the-board source of information in English. While some publications do a great job, writing about the latest news or focusing on specific areas of interest, we do believe that other kinds of quality insights are just as needed to better understand the complexity of a country that, very often, is only known abroad for the headlines that our politicians make, or for the classic touristic cliches. This is why Italics Magazine is quickly becoming a reference for foreign readers, professionals, expats and press interested in covering Italian issues thoroughly, appealing to diverse schools of thought. However, we started from scratch, and we are self-financing the project through (not too intrusive) ads, promotions, and donations, as we have decided not to opt for any paywall. This means that, while the effort is bigger, we can surely boast our independent and free editorial line. This is especially possible thanks to our readers, who we hope to keep inspiring with our articles. That’s why we kindly ask you to consider giving us your important contribution, which will help us make this project grow — and in the right direction. Thank you.