“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 But this may fast be becoming an outdated distinction.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.