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 But this may fast be becoming an outdated distinction.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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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood