Practically unreported in the European and North American media, an extraordinary revolution is under way in Italy. It is nothing short of a peoples’ revolution which, failing to lose speed and traction as most such forces do after the first bright dawn, seems to be gaining ground in all quarters of Italian society.
The Grillini are the hottest topic in every newspaper, on the airwaves and the Net. The one time stand up jester from Genova, Giuseppe ‘Beppe’ Grillo, who looks quite like an Old Testament prophet, has seized control of the national conversation. The grudging establishment parties are forced to deal on his terms.
The childish spite that the 150 Grillini MPs and Senators have received from the snooty doorkeepers at the ornate Italian parliament in Rome – telling the sans culottes to enter by the back door – speaks for itself. This petty and crude face of the establishment forces is nonetheless reported with glee by the mainstream media, who are beginning to have real fun with a story that clearly has a long way to go.
The cheery Grillini in their casual clothes, with their regional accents and general sense of clubby pleasure in finding themselves rather suddenly largely in control of the country, rub shoulders with the finely suited ‘profpo’s – the professional politicians accustomed to conducting government by nods and winks, plots and innuendo behind closed doors.
It is precisely the self-perpetuating upstairs classes who are discomfited at having to share the spoils of office with university teachers, nurses, engineers and shop keepers selected from the thousands who volunteered on the Internet in response to Grillo’s call to arms.
The photograph that I have selected here conveys the atmosphere beautifully: cheerful relaxed Grillini having lunch together in a homespun Roman bar. One of the country’s most conservative newspapers, Corriera della Serra, which is printed in Milan, Italy’s very own ‘City of London,’ has astonished readers by expressing admiration for the ‘quiet revolution,’ with the caveat of course that ‘it won’t last.’ We understand that the paper regards events, for the moment at any rate, as una piecevole diversione (a pleasing diversion).
Bedazzled Italians are simply amazed and astonished by the sight of the new Popular Front. Grillo has caught the mood of the hour. Now he turns to the People of the Pigs. He is talking about Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain who find themselves similarly oppressed by the crushing austerity programs imposed by the German Government, the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank, supposedly to ‘restore’ the sick balance sheets of all these highly indebted states.
Grillo doesn’t give a Sicilian fig for the top-down scorched earth policies which have driven unemployment among the Giovanni – the young – in Italy to near 40%. He is perfectly willing to renege on the compact, which is certain to strike a powerful chord with voters of Spain, who find themselves trapped in an even worse bind. The entire Spanish economy has more or less collapsed. The ruling socialists have been caught out in a massive corruption scandal which reaches right to the top of government.
As usual the elitist Spanish political class shrugged off the street protests as an irrelevance and a distraction in getting the country back on its feet. Italian voters got the same arrogant tutorial in the run up to their own general election. They responded by raising up the Five Star Movement as the largest political force, inweight of votes, in the country. A mood such as this may well prove handsomely exportable.
Aside from Spain, where the mood of popular anger has swept a pro-independence force into power in the rich regional, largely middle class state of Catalonia, Greece is a front runner in the stakes that might yet lead to a popular trans-European declaration of war on the power barons in Washington, Brussels and Frankfurt. Scots – now led by the ruling Kiltini – vote on independence next year. Grillo talks a lot about his inspiration from the plucky Icelanders, who refused to submit to the dictates of foreign powers and defaulted on their own vast debt. The land of cod and volcanoes is now happily prospering once again.
For the first time this sort of message is resounding in the highly conservative Italian media as an alternative script to enforced austerity. Italians of all classes came to resent the imposition of Mario Monti, an ex-EU Commissioner, as the effective dictator of the country, ruling with a handpicked bunch of cronies. To Grillo, this was nothing short of manna from heaven, precisely the fuel that he required to launch the Movimento to the front pews of authority.
Greece has literally lapsed back into the stone ages where almost nothing now is working properly, not the hospitals, not public transport nor the workers who go unpaid for months. As one prominent Greek newspaper declared, even the weeds in the streets have given up hope.
Just last week, a midterm election in a prosperous British province witnessed the near victory of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) which campaigns to take the UK out of the European Union. UKIP used to be seen as a waste bin for disaffected voters. Not anymore.
Statisticians quickly noted that the UKIP candidate – who almost exactly mirrored the image of the Greenhorn Grillini – took votes in equal measure from both establishment parties, the conservatives and the liberals who weirdly happen to be jointly running the country, yet hammered each other at the hustings.
So far most of the talk about non-establishment parties centered on the rise of the Neo Right in countries such as Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Austria, Greece and even the UK. Now the pendulum has swung across the cratered landscape of austeritized Europe to focus on an entirely new breed of political animal. We might call it Soft Left meets the New Conservative Realism, in short a new force which reaches across the traditional political divides.
If I am right, then an enormous miscalculation has been made by the architects of the austerity which is now eating into the vitals of the entire Continent. This is to say that the internationalism expressed by the European Union as the all powerful overseer of Europe has run out of steam.
The long post-war concordat of European unity is at risk from the flowering of ‘disunity’ – not in the sense of upheaval and disorder but taking back and restoring sovereignty to nation states along with their individual peoples. Farewell One Size Fits All. Such an agenda cannot and will not be found among establishment political forces.
Italy’s sans culottes are inspiring not least because they got away with it. Of course there had to be the necessary Moses-like inspiration which indeed came from a burly, often hoarse man who hasn’t used a razor blade for years and made people laugh for a living. The joke is now on the Italian establishment.
I have already written that risks are attendant in having such a powerful, brilliant even, oracle at the head of an invasion force, which in fact is what the Movimento really is. I pointed to comparisons which can be made with the rise of Benito Mussolini, and so have many other commentators on Italian affairs, some of whom refer to ‘Generalissimo Grillo.’
We shall have to see how Grillo will respond to the inevitable challenges of dissent arising within the ranks of the Grillini: this is important because if the Movimento is to plant firm roots it has to be seen foremost as open, democratic, progressive and self-renewing.
Moreover, it must retain the ‘unparty’ structure and philosophy. It is a fact that the new freshly released energy arises from the absence of traditional political hunkering. It was these features more than anything else which led Italians of the left, right and center to vote for an entirely new and untested force.
And remember Grillo sees his present success as merely a step on the way. He will now force the establishment parties – notably the quasi-socialists, led by Piero Luigi Barsani, who equipped with an apron, would resemble a humorless pizza baker – to write new electoral laws.
These will sweep away the existing party list system (it Italy you cannot vote for an individual, only The List) and replace it with candidates elected by the single transferable voting system in specific constituencies. The infamous top-up measure of extra seats for those who get the most votes for the Senate will disappear. He promises term limits, an interesting prospect for Americans.
Grillo gambles that the next election – almost certainly to be held this year – will then return the Movimento as an independent governing force. This is a very large question that depends upon the nature of Italians to stick to this winner, as they did however for so long with the now utterly discredited Silvio Berlusconi.
Another increasingly important question of the hour is if the revolution is for export. The most prominent seeding grounds have been raised, loosely the Sick Men of Europe. If I were to point to another culture with a famous history of popular risings, then I would say watch developing political trends among the French very closely. The election of the dour, uninspiring Francois Hollande as president has proved to wide swathes of popular opinion that nothing is to be gained or expected from the traditional right-center divide.
This message was in fact expressed by largely independent candidates in the presidential election last year. There was a good deal of intelligent and independent thought articulated in those quarters. But to the masses, so to speak, it was a priority largely of evicting Nicholas Sarkozy from the presidential palace. That surgery having been achieved, the French are stuck with the dismal misery of his successor.
How long before the sans culottes arise once again in the country of their birth? I suspect, not long. And, in a final teasing thought, are the Grillini – and citizen democracy – capable of crossing the Atlantic?