No laughing matter

Comedian Beppe Grillo's Five-Star Movement is a serious disruption to the usual way of doing politics.

Imagine this as a new political movement’s strategy guide: Rule no. 1: don’t give interviews to the national press, radio and television; Rule no. 2: our leader, who - unlike the rest of us - is very famous, will not stand as a candidate in any elections; Rule no. 3: when we qualify for lavish state funding, we will refuse it.

I could go on, but it would read like a long list of ‘how not to win elections and influence people’. Yet these are just some of the rules of Italy’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S – Five-Star Movement), which in the past year has gone from under 5 per cent in polls to almost 20. In the most recent pre-election surveys, it is running third at around 17 per cent. This is despite none of its members having been interviewed in the Italian media during the campaign – and in a country where the use of television in particular has played a major role in political success, most notably that of Silvio Berlusconi.

Founded in October 2009, the M5S is like no other political movement in Europe. Yes, similar to the Pirate Parties, it places great importance in the Internet. But the M5S is much more than that and the ‘Internet-party’ label is reductive. Rather, the M5S communicates and organizes on two levels: the web and locally. According to the Movement’s ‘non-statute’, its headquarters is the website of one of Italy’s most famous comedians, Beppe Grillo (for almost a decade, his site has also been the country’s most-read blog). Online and offline activities complement one another. Grillo has constantly encouraged his supporters to discuss – both on the internet and in physical locations – the issues he raises on the blog as they relate to local questions in their cities and towns. This has been done through the creation of Beppe Grillo meet-up groups which have formed the nucleus of the movement’s presence all over the country. Both online and offline, activists and supporters discuss the key themes of the M5S: sustainable development, anti-corruption, transparency, direct democracy, the creation of a genuinely free – and fairer – market, a radical overhaul of Italy’s political class and democracy, opposition to austerity and interference in domestic politics by European elites.

While much has been written about Grillo and the M5S in both the Italian and international media, we know very little about those who sympathize with the Movement and what their grievances are. This is particularly true of the Movement’s online followers. To provide a first answer to this, we conducted a survey with Demos of almost 2000 Facebook fans of Grillo and the M5S. As regards who they are, we found that they tend to be male (63 per cent), over the age of 30 (64 per cent) and better educated than the average Italian. 19 per cent, however, were unemployed, as opposed to a national average of circa 11 per cent.

Socio-economic issues worry M5S supporters far more than socio-cultural ones. When asked to list their top two concerns, 62 per cent cited the economic situation and 61 per cent unemployment, with taxation in third place (43 per cent). Despite their fears about Italy’s economy and their own prospects, immigration was seen an opportunity for the country by 56 per cent of those surveyed (well above the Italian average in national surveys of 28 per cent). Rather, what M5S supporters are angry about is the state of democracy in Italy and Europe. 83 per cent stated that they were ‘not at all satisfied’ with Italian democracy and only 8 per cent said they trusted Mario Monti’s technocratic government – abysmally low, but still higher than the 3 per cent who trusted the main political parties and the 2 per cent who trusted parliament. The European Union fared better, but only by comparison, with just 20 per cent of respondents saying they trusted it. Strikingly, the only times when M5S supporters responded positively were when asked if they trusted the Internet (76 per cent) and small-medium enterprises (61 per cent). Combined with just 11 per cent saying they trusted the press and 4 per cent the television, these findings seemed to tally with the communication and mobilization strategies of the M5S. As mentioned above, these focus on the internet and the locality, while ignoring the media which is cast as being at the service of the parties and other elites.

So what now for the M5S? It seems clear from our findings that the Movement is pushing the right buttons for its followers, although – as with all new movements – there is a sizable risk that the discontented supporting it now will also become dissatisfied with the M5S after it enters parliament. On that last point, it is inevitable that the presence of a large number of novice deputies will create organizational and communication problems for the M5S. The Movement will have to prove that it is not another personal party, in a country well used to personal parties. And it will have to balance the expectations and grievances of its followers with the realities of what it can actually achieve. Whichever way the Five-Star Movement story finishes, however, it has proved that you can mobilize discontent in crisis-hit Europe quickly, using innovative combinations of strategies most of Italy’s mainstream politicians would have laughed at a few years ago. They’re not laughing now.

Duncan McDonnell is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences in European University Institute in Florence.

The Demos Report ‘New Political Actors in Europe: Beppe Grillo and the M5S’ is available for download, free of charge, here.

Beppe Grillo. Source: Getty

Duncan McDonnell is a Marie Curie Fellow at the Department of Political and Social Sciences in European University Institute in Florence. He tweets at @duncanmcdonnell.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia