The resistible rise of Beppe Grillo

Digital populism in Italy.

 

“If we rely on a fictional account of the world when making decisions then the authors of the fiction have a better claim to be in charge than we do.” (Dan Hind, A Programme of Media Reform)

That acting skills have become one of the most valued assets in politics isn't big news. During the recent US presidential campaign, for instance, the sudden rise in Mitt Romney’s popularity was triggered by his brilliant performance during a presidential debate whose political content was, well, hardly a subject of debate. Nonetheless, the professions of politician and actor are still considered to be distinct, with Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger being notable exceptions. But this may fast be becoming an outdated distinction. In Italy, a comedian is leading a new political movement that is sweeping the already disfigured domestic political landscape. But there is nothing to laugh about; quite the contrary.

Beppe Grillo has risen from the status of mediocre comedian to that of political leader in an escalation of digital populism that threatens to garner his party around 100 of the 630 seats in the lower house of the Italian parliament at the next election. Grillo, the founder of the Five Star Movement (M5S), has been running a mostly internet-based political campaign through the party's blog and the local groups that have emerged from it. The movement has a strong anti-politics agenda - all political parties are crooked, the argument runs, and they all need to go. Not especially nuanced, but exactly the kind of populist rhetoric that disillusioned and apathetic Italian voters are buying into. Never mind that Grillo has recently opened the doors of his movement to the candidacy of members belonging to the neo-fascist organization Casa Pound.

The comedian-turned-politician is the undisputed leader of his movement, yet he won’t himself run for the presidency. He is more of a choreographer. The copyrighted symbol of the M5S belongs to him and a recent wave of summary purges among the movement’s ranks should leave no doubts as to who is in supreme command. Behind the barker is an even more sinister figure, the internet entrepeneur Roberto Casaleggio.

Recently interviewed in the Guardian, the web guru behind the M5S, declared that “it’s like Jesus Christ and the apostles” referring to the Grillo phenomenon - an apt characterisation of a movement that has more in common with a religious cult than a political party. Coincidentally, Grillo starred in a film called Looking For Jesus in 1982, directed by Luigi Comencini and scripted by Silvio Berlusconi’s televisual ideologue Antonio Ricci (more of whom later). 

Casaleggio is one of those cyber-evangelists Steven Poole described in a recent article in the New Statesman as “dreaming of a perfectible electronic future and handing down oracular commandments about how the world must be remade.” He is the one who suggested the comedian should open a blog where to proselytise fearful and exasperated netizens only too willing to throw the proverbial first stone and join the next virtual pogrom. Casaleggio claims that the internet is tearing down the wall between the state and citizens, thereby allowing a more direct form of democracy. Hardly. The M5S’s battle is in fact aimed at entering the corridors of power to replace “those thieves” rather than creating an alternative political system based on different, fairer principles. It is not the system itself that is wrong, but those who run it, the movement's rhetoric implies. Give me power, runs Grill's implicit pitch, and I’ll fix everything. How? Well, the movement has a statute written by Casaleggio and Grillo whose rules cannot be changed. If you don’t like them go elsewhere, found your own movement.  M5S's rigid hierarchy is also evident in Grillo’s categorical refusal to engage in televised debate (the same applies to all the movement affiliates, those who did not obey were immediately expelled). True, Italian television may not be the most enlightened of political arenas but Grillo’s squeamishness is pronounced.

He is in fact the quintessential child of what Umberto Eco called “Neotelevisione”, the Trojan horse of Silvio Berlusconi. Despite the movement's flauntingof the internet as a kind of otemic fetish, commercial television is the real motor of Grillo’s success. He debuted in Berlusconi’s media empire in the early 1980s with the TV show Fantastico. It is thanks to his privately owned TV channels and its programmes that Berslusconi exerted power, and Grillo is simply one of his apostles, though now animated by patricidal ambitions.

Pivotal to Berlusconi’s  influence and commercial innovations is Antonio Ricci (creator of Fantastico), a man who, in Variety’s words, “with his penchant for comedy and variety, changed the face of Italian television”. Indeed. If programmes had up to then mainly targeted families with quiz shows, song contests and generalist spectacles that appealed to multiple generations of viewers, Ricci’s schedule attracted a younger audience. Ricci’s programmes are a primary ingredient in the toxic infodiet of millions of Italians. That Grillo was formed professionally in this milieu should raise a doubt or two about his self-validating claims of anti-systemic purity. Grillo’s association with Ricci was not limited to television, but culminated in Ricci’s only foray into the Seventh Art, the aforementioned Looking For Jesus. Comencini’s film is about a Vatican official hunting for a photogenic messiah to be televised nationwide in order to bring peace to the troubled nation. Grillo, needless to say, plays the budding tele-messiah.

Fast-forward 20 years and Grillo is filling the  void left by Berlusconi, exploiting Italy's weak democratic traditions for his own ends. “You should be thankful that I’m here or there would probably be the neo-nazis in my place,” Grillo has declared. It was meant as reassurance, but sounded more like a threat.

Showman: Beppe Grillo addresses supporters (Photograph: Getty Images)
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We knew we’d become proper pop stars when we got a car like George Michael’s

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

One of the clichés about celebrity life is that all celebrities know each other. Back in the Eighties, when we were moderately famous, Ben and I did often bump into other famous people, and because of mutual recognition, there was a sort of acquaintance, if not friendship.

There was a random element to it, as well. Some celebrities you might never catch a glimpse of, while others seemed to pop up with an unexpected regularity.

In 1987, the car we drove was a 1970s Austin Princess, all leather seats and walnut dashboard. In many ways, it symbolised what people thought of as the basic qualities of our band: unassuming, a little bit quirky, a little bit vintage. We’d had it for a year or so, but Ben was running out of patience. It had a habit of letting us down at inconvenient moments – for instance, at the top of the long, steep climbs that you encounter when driving through Italy, which we had just recklessly done for a holiday. The car was such a novelty out there that it attracted crowds whenever we parked. They would gather round, nodding appreciatively, stroking the bonnet and murmuring, “Bella macchina . . .”

Having recently banked a couple of royalty cheques, Ben was thinking of a complete change of style – a rock’n’roll, grand-gesture kind of car.

“I wanna get an old Mercedes 300 SL,” he said to me.

“What’s one of those?”

“I’ll let you know next time we pass one,” he said.

We were driving through London in the Princess, and as we swung round into Sloane Square, Ben called out, “There’s one, look, coming up on the inside now!” I looked round at this vision of gleaming steel and chrome, gliding along effortlessly beside us, and at the same moment the driver glanced over towards our funny little car. We made eye contact, then the Merc roared away. It was George Michael.

“That was George Michael!” we both shouted. “And he was driving the car we want!”

We’d always had a soft spot for George, even though we seemed to inhabit opposite ends of the pop spectrum. He’d once been on a TV review show and said nice things about our first album, and I knew he had liked my solo single “Plain Sailing”. We’d done a miners’ benefit gig where Wham! had appeared, slightly out of place in their vests, tans and blond bouffants. There had been a bit of sneering because they’d mimed. But I remember thinking, “Good on you for even being here.” Their presence showed that being politically active, or even just caring, wasn’t the sole preserve of righteous indie groups.

A couple of weeks later, we were driving along again in the Princess, when who should pull up beside us in traffic? George again. He wound down his window, and so did we. He was charming and called across to say that, yes, he had recognised us the other day in Sloane Square. He went on to complain that BBC Radio 1 wouldn’t play his new single “because it was too crude”. “What’s it called?” asked Ben. “ ‘I Want Your Sex’!” he shouted, and roared away again, leaving us laughing.

We’d made up our minds by now, and so we went down to the showroom, flashed the cash, bought the pop-star car and spent the next few weeks driving our parents up and down the motorway with the roof off. It was amazing: even I had to admit that it was a thrill to be speeding along in such a machine.

A little time passed. We were happy with our glamorous new purchase, when one day we were driving down the M1 and, yes, you’ve guessed it, in the rear-view mirror Ben saw the familiar shape coming up behind. “Bloody hell, it’s George Michael again. I think he must be stalking us.”

George pulled out into the lane alongside and slowed down as he drew level with us. We wound down the windows. He gave the car a long look, up and down, smiled that smile and said, “That’s a bit more like it.” Then he sped away from us for the last time.

Cheers, George. You were friendly, and generous, and kind, and you were good at being a pop star.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge