Tom Cruise is an exceptionally beautiful American man with an invincible smile, but he is a member of a cult called Scientology. Virginia Raggi is an exceptionally beautiful Italian woman with an invincible smile but she is a member of a cult called the MoVimento Cinque Stelle (M5S). I understand the attraction of cults in a world in which God has disappeared and our lives are so boringly bad and our political systems worse. But I have yet to come across a cult that does not engender disastrous mental problems.
Last Sunday, the radiant Raggi, a 37-year-old lawyer with a small son and a big motorbike, easily won the most votes in the first round of the mayoral elections in Rome. She is expected to win the second ballot next Sunday. The only concrete policy she has been able or willing to reveal, as far as I can tell, is a desire to stamp out fare-dodging on buses. And people think poor Boris Johnson is a loser because he has no blueprint for Brexit. But who cares about the nitty-gritty of life on this earth? What counts — when it comes to cults at least — is faith.
‘It is only the first chapter,’ said Raggi, smiling invincibly at her press conference after the polls closed. ‘The wind is changing, gentlemen, the wind is changing.’ She made it seem, for a moment, as if Jesus himself was about to come to the Eternal City.
The capital ‘V’ in the word MoVimento stands for Vaffa (Fuck off) — to everything, more or less, except wind farms. The experts define this ‘movement’ (the word ‘party’ is verboten) as ‘anti-establishment’ but nobody really knows what that means. One thing can be said: though neither left-nor right-wing, the movement draws its support from the left, by and large, just as Fascism — founded by the revolutionary socialist Benito Mussolini — did.
Like everywhere else in Italy, Rome is up to its neck in corruption. The city has not had a mayor since Ignazio Marino — from the ex-Communist party of Italy’s premier, Matteo Renzi — was forced to resign amid an expenses scandal. Since then, a non-elected commissioner has governed the city — not that many people have noticed.
Raggi was once a supporter of the ex-Communists. Now her cult is also well placed to take power in a number of other important Italian cities, especially Turin. It is established as the second biggest party in Italy, just behind Renzi’s Partito Democratico.
After the 2014 European elections, in which it did exceptionally well, the M5S struck up an alliance in the European parliament with Nigel Farage’s Ukip. It’s easy to see why Farage has fallen for Raggi’s movement: among the many things that it rejects are the euro and sometimes even the migrant tide from Libya — but only in a non-specific, cultish way.
What we are seeing in Italy — and in the rest of Europe — is the emergence of a new kind of politics that could have devastating consequences. But the word ‘populist’, which sort of fits nationalist/patriotic parties such as the Front National or Ukip or Alternative für Deutschland, does not begin to explain what is going on in Italy with the cult of the MoVimento Cinque Stelle. So let me try to reveal the secret.
The M5S has simply copied the method of the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, and applied it to politics. As a young man, I attended one or two meetings with Scientologists and I have attended meetings of the M5S. Both created a church-like atmosphere in which the initiated shuffled about like a cross between social workers and monks, muttering cod-scientific words and handing out questionnaires to the lost and lonely while whispering in hushed voices about change. M5S preaches a mantra of direct democracy at the click of a button, via the internet, plus the abolition of political parties. In their brave new world it will all be about direct contact — virtual, not real, of course — between the citizen and… and what exactly?
The M5S’s followers do not believe in God but they do believe in their leader: Beppe Grillo, a 67-year-old Billy Connolly-style stand-up comedian with an Osama bin Laden beard, who did not deign to present himself in public after Raggi’s first-round victory but beamed a video to the faithful.
Grillo’s guru was Gianroberto Casaleggio, a mysterious internet gink who rarely appeared in public. Casaleggio, who died of a stroke in April aged 61, was once married to an English translator, Elizabeth Birks. They had a son, David, 40, who has taken over the reins on the internet side of the operation. This principally means ‘Il Blog di Beppe Grillo’, which Casaleggio’s company set up and runs. This is the headquarters of the movement — a thing that exists only virtually — and gets so much traffic that it makes a fortune from advertising.
Casaleggio Snr was obsessed with science fiction and Genghis Khan. He believed in aliens and that by 2054 the entire planet would be ruled — after an apocalyptic world war — by a global internet government called Gaia elected via direct democracy online but headed by an enlightened despot. Parties, religions and ideologies will no longer exist, he said, and so ‘Man is God’.
That was his vision. I wonder if it is also the vision of the beautiful Raggi, who is now set to become the first ever woman mayor of Rome. She has been remarkably coy about this so far.
The followers of the M5S cult meet each other only in small local groups called Meetup — which, again, is similar to Scientologists — and use the internet not the telephone to communicate. Every political decision must be approved by people called ‘guarantors’. This used to mean Grillo and Casaleggio but now a committee performs the role, via internet, naturalmente. All candidates have to sign a contract — which if breached leaves them liable to a fine of up to €150,000.
Even though their leader Grillo was convicted of manslaughter in 1981 after a car he was driving crashed, killing his three passengers — a mother and father and their nine-year-old boy — his followers cannot enter politics if they have a criminal record or are under criminal investigation.
Fascism was a cult as well. Once, Italians who hated their corrupt and impotent parliament, its politicians and the establishment amassed in piazza to listen to Mussolini rant and rave and they shouted in unison: ‘Du-ce! Du-ce!’ Now, when the comedian Grillo takes to the stage in piazza, as he does all the time to do the same thing, they shout: ‘Bep-pe! Bep-pe!’
But it is what M5S get up to in the virtual piazza that scares me.