The stand-up comedian Beppe Grillo, like the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini before him, has a craving to take over the piazza and mesmerise the crowd. Where once young Italians chanted the mantra ‘Du-ce! Du-ce!’ now they chant ‘Bep-pe! Bep-pe!’. But it is not just a shared need to rant and rave at large numbers of complete strangers that hirsute Beppe and bald Benito have in common. Worryingly, for Italy and also for Europe (where democracy seems incapable of solving the existential crisis), there is a lot more to it than that.
Beppe Grillo founded the MoVimento 5 Stelle (M5S) in Milan on 4 October 2009. The capital ‘V’ stands for his signature slogan ‘Vaffa!’ which roughly speaking means ‘Fuck off!’ — in his case, to everything more or less, except wind farms. ‘Surrender! You’re surrounded!’ he bellowed over and over again at his rallies. The phrase was traditionally very popular with Italian fascists. He was referring to all Italy’s politicians, except his lot.
Now, less than four years after its foundation, his movement is the largest single party in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, after it secured 26 per cent of the poll at this week’s inconclusive Italian general elections. It is not, insists this fascist of the forest, a party. It is a movement. Parties, he is adamant, are the problem, not the solution.
Mussolini founded his Fasci di Combattimento in Milan on 23 March 1919 and less than four years later he was prime minister. Fascism was not, he insisted, a party but a movement. Parties, he was adamant, were the problem, not the solution. Fascism would be an ‘anti-party’ of free spirits who refused to be tied down by the straitjacket of parties with their dogmas and doctrines. This is precisely what Grillo says about his own movement.
Mussolini was the rising star in Italy’s Marxist party until his expulsion in 1914 because he — like the French and German Marxists but unlike the Italian ones — was in favour of Italian intervention in the first world war. He looked destined for the scrapheap.
Grillo, a former communist, was banned from national television in the late 1980s as a result of his defamatory performances. Things did not look rosy for him either. Forced to perform in piazzas and theatres, he took to ridiculing and demonising politicians, and then in 2005 he founded a blog that quickly became the most popular in Italy and a forum for the angry and the disaffected, mostly young, for all those whose state of mind is defined by the word ‘Vaffa!’. He duly began a national ‘Vaffa! Day’ or ‘V Day’ in 2007.
Shortly before he founded his movement, he tried to become leader of Italy’s main left-wing party — the ex-communist Partito democratico (PD) — but it would not let him stand in its leadership elections. At this week’s elections, the PD’s coalition was a winner of sorts with a majority of the seats in the lower house, thanks to the latest Italian electoral law that gives the majority of seats to the party with the most votes, however few. The PD’s coalition polled just 29.6 per cent of the vote compared with the 29.1 per cent of Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition. But despite that, the PD grouping gets 340 seats to his 121. In the senate, though, where different rules apply, no one has a majority.
If, however, the PD had allowed Grillo to stand in its leadership contest, he would no doubt have led it to overwhelming victory. Instead it chose the monumentally smug and tedious former communist Pier Luigi Bersani. But we haven’t seen the last of Beppe.
What gave Mussolini popular traction is what gives Grillo traction: a virulent hatred of parliament and the politicians who infest it. The dictator famously said he could have moved his bivouacs into ‘this deaf and grey chamber’ but had chosen not to. The comedian uses the same language. Whereas Mussolini spread the word through his own mass daily newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia, and enforced it by means of his blackshirts, Grillo does so through his website, Il Blog di Beppe Grillo, and violent verbal abuse and ostracism of opponents. Whereas Mussolini travelled by train to his rallies, Grillo travels to his by camper van.
‘I did not invent fascism,’ said Mussolini, ‘I extracted it from the Italian people.’ Grillo did not invent his movement, he says, he merely provided the humus — the internet forum — in which it grew. During the election campaign, he did not give one television or newspaper interview, because journalists, like politicians, are the enemy. Both Mussolini and Grillo appeal to the spirit and soul rather than the wallet and mind of Italians. Fascism was a civic religion and the Duce its god. The MoVimento 5 Stelle is a sect, with Grillo its guru, and like all good sects it does not have an office. Its HQ is not real, but virtual: Beppe’s blog.
Italian fascism, even though no one is allowed to say so, was a left-wing revolutionary movement which Mussolini founded because the first world war had made him realise that the proletariat is more loyal to its nation than its class. At the May 1921 general election, the fascisti won their first seats in the Italian parliament (only 35). Yet just 18 months later, after the March on Rome in October 1922, King Vittorio Emanuele III had appointed Mussolini prime minister.
At this week’s elections, no coalition, let alone party, got more than 30 per cent of the vote. Any government that somehow emerges from the debacle is bound to be short-lived. History repeats itself first as tragedy, wrote Karl Marx, then as farce: the comedian Grillo’s version of Mussolini’s March on Rome could be only a matter of months away.
Fascism was able to flourish thanks to the impotence and corruption of Italian democracy, especially in the first two decades of the 20th century, which made it incapable of dealing with an existential crisis — the threat of communist revolution. In 1945, with the fall of fascism and the monarchy, Italy returned to an updated form of the same impotent and corrupt democracy. Through fear of dictators, the new constitution severely limited the powers of prime minister, cabinet and president, and complex versions of proportional representation made it impossible for any one party to obtain a majority of the seats.
This was fine, more or less, in the boom times. Not any more. Italy has the third highest sovereign debt in the world as a proportion of GDP, its economy is in permanent recession, its tax burden and red-tape suffocating businesses, and its labour market paralysed by a forest of laws that make it virtually impossible to be taken on full-time or fired.
As with fascism, Grillo and his movement have flourished thanks to the impotence and corruption of the Italian parliament in the face of the current economic crisis — the threat of meltdown caused by the euro.
The unelected economics professor Mario Monti, who replaced Berlusconi as premier in a palace coup in November 2011, merely raised taxes and invented new ones.
But austerity is not just raising taxes; it’s cutting spending. Monti did nothing to hack back the monstrous debt (it rose from 120 per cent to 129 per cent). He did nothing to stimulate growth. Youth unemployment is at 35 per cent, and unemployment in total is much higher than the official 12 per cent if you count the hundreds of thousands still technically employed but paid by the state not to work.
Like fascism, Grillo’s movement is essentially left-wing and in favour of the state sorting things out — the Italian state. But it is against the euro and Europe — and Germany in particular.
Mussolini wrote soon after founding fascism that it is ‘difficult to define’. Fascism does not have ‘statutes’ or ‘transcending programmes’. Therefore ‘it is natural’ that it should attract ‘the young’ rather than the old who are likely to refuse its ‘freshness’.
Grillo’s manifesto is called ‘Il non statuto’. On his blog he says, ‘We’re all young ... We’re a movement of many people who are uniting from the bottom up. We don’t have structures, hierarchies, bosses, secretaries … No one gives us orders.’
Welcome to the new fascist future.