Reviewed: Il Grillo canta sempre al tramonto by Beppe Grillo

Anyone for cricket?

New Statesman
Beppe Grillo in Rome in April. Credit: Eyevine/Contrasto.

Il Grillo canta sempre al tramonto
Beppe Grillo, Dario Fo and Gianroberto Casaleggio
Chiarelettere, 208pp, €13.90

Italy has been a land of political vanguardism. It was in the 15th and 16th centuries, as republican city states achieved a precarious but briefly vigorous existence. One of these, Florence, produced the founding genius of political science, Niccolò Machiavelli, who sought to make rulers realise that the state was not their possession but a public trust.

It was again in the vanguard in the 20th century: Benito Mussolini spun fascism out of radical socialism in the early 1920s. At about the same time, Christian democracy was first essayed in the form of the Italian People’s Party, founded in 1919 with the reluctant blessing of the Vatican by the anti-fascist priest Don Luigi Sturzo; after the war, Alcide De Gasperi revived it in the form of the Christian Democratic Party. In the 1960s, the Italian Communist Party evolved a socialdemocratic- tending “Euro-communism” that strongly influenced Mikhail Gorbachev, the last ruler of the Soviet Union.

Today, Beppe Grillo has established a movement that is the first web-based political grouping to make a breakthrough in serious electoral politics. Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S) – the Five Star Movement – won the highest number of votes in Italy for a single party in the February elections (coalitions of the right and left blocs produced higher tallies when counted together).

Grillo sees the internet as the medium through which the world is changing: “Thanks to the net, we have at our disposal a vast quantity of ideas and we can bring thousands of intellects to bear on one particular issue.” To which the playwright and Nobel laureate Dario Fo replies: “What is grander than a revolution?”

The exchange is part of a conversation, which also includes Grillo’s close associate and web genius Gianroberto Casaleggio, recently published in Italy as Il Grillo canta sempre al tramonto (“The cricket always sings at dusk” – the title is a pun on Grillo’s name, which means “cricket” in Italian). One of a sudden splurge of books on Grillo, Il Grillo canta reveals most about a politics that has passed from the web to the streets and finally to parliament and that now holds Italian politics to a kind of ransom. To understand the Grillo phenomenon is – for all its many “onlyin- Italy” features – to get some sort of handle on where politics everywhere in the developed world is going.

Grillo, who is 64, has been one of Italy’s most popular comics for more than 30 years. From the early 1980s, he developed a line in satire that was increasingly critical of the Church, celebrities and, most of all, politicians. With the help of Casaleggio, a long-time web entrepreneur, he has melded together a stage act, a political critique, a blog and citizens’ activism into a movement that presents itself as the direction in which politics must go. There’s something in this of Marx’s idealistic view that, under communism, the state would wither away and citizens would govern themselves. This isn’t necessarily a preserve of the left: in the UK, the Conservative MP Douglas Carswell has written: “The web . . . makes collective action and intelligence, free from any directing authority, possible on a size and scale that was previously impossible.”

Grillo, Casaleggio and Fo are explicit: remove governments, parties and, above all, leaders and the web will allow for self-government. “For the M5S,” Casaleggio claims, “‘leader’ is a word of the past, dirty, devious: ‘leader’ of what?” “In cities,” Grillo says, “we’re used to police and traffic lights, while there’s another way of moving about, which is not to have rules.” Grillo mentions New Delhi and Bombay, where, he says, traffic rules are worked out in the absence – or in the ignoring – of controls. Casaleggio invokes Periclean Athens, where: “Democracy was founded on the idea of community, common thought and shared values . . . Maybe the web can help to rediscover that inspiration which allows equality among intelligent beings. And for that, you don’t need a leader, a charismatic boss to whom you must turn.”

Yet, as many Italian commentators have noted, Grillo often acts like a boss. Fo encouraged his superstar status (and ego) by lauding the swim he made from the mainland to Sicily across the Strait of Messina (a little over three kilometres) in October last year to publicise the movement’s campaign in Sicily, saying that it showed “courage and determination . . . a new way of presenting yourself to people”. Grillo presents the new in old-fashioned celebrity clothes, trading on his fame and on that of those the media promote: when the movement recently chose who it wanted as its presidential candidate to replace Giorgio Napolitano, it voted for Milena Gabanelli, an investigative journalist who presents a sharp-edged programme on the state broadcaster Rai’s third channel.

As the M5S climbed in the opinion polls last year, Grillo issued stern prohibitions to its election candidates not to talk to the news media and in particular not to appear on the political talk shows that proliferate on Italian TV. Grillo writes: “We don’t want [the representatives of M5S] to appear on talk shows . . . We want talk shows to be abolished. Since I put out that fatwa, many people have begun to agree with us. The talk show is dead . . .”

Everything in politics must change or be destroyed – the personnel, the parties, even the language. Casaleggio mentions a talk he had with Romano Prodi, twice head of a centre- left governing coalition, who told him, referring to Grillo, “Comedy is comedy and politics is politics.” No, replied Casaleggio: people don’t see politics that way – they mix it all together and increasingly see politicians through the lens of satire and ridicule.

For the past two months, Grillo and Casaleggio have, through the exertion of strong control over their elected deputies and senators, all newcomers to national politics, refused to make a deal with the left coalition that narrowly won the plurality of votes. Its former leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, who announced his resignation on 20 April, sought desperately to get some sort of agreement that would have allowed him the necessary dominance of upper and lower houses. Grillo’s refusal to negotiate has often been couched in the most contemptuous terms: Bersani, buffeted by critics and competition in his party, was made to look weak. Grillo’s obstructionism has now forced the left to form a “grand coalition” with the right bloc, which includes Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom Party. This will allow the M5S leader to argue that the old parties have closed ranks against the future.

Grillo is a ranter, a tyrannical leader who denies leadership, one who lumps the good, the bad and the utterly corrupt in Italian public life into one nightmarish mass that must be abolished – as if societies were morality plays in which victory over the devil issues in the Kingdom of God. Yet he works a thick seam of disenchantment. There is disenchantment across Europe now. Soon, crickets will be singing everywhere.

John Lloyd is a contributing editor of the Financial Times