The Rise of Beppe Grillo is a Symptom of Italy's Crisis

posted by Geoff Andrews at Saturday, February 23, 2013

In September 2002 I was in Piazza San Giovanni in Rome to hear the film director Nanni Moretti address up to a million – estimates of these events always vary wildly – of his ‘girotondini’; literally ‘ring a ring a roses’ participants. This was a very civilised but indignant demonstration attended by a broad range of mainly centre-left groups opposed to what they saw as Silvio Berlusconi’s abuse of power and defence of his private interests. At the time Berlusconi was just over a year in to his second spell as Prime Minister, and momentum within the opposition had been growing among large union and anti-global movements.

A few months earlier, Moretti had walked out of another Rome square, Piazza Navona, after telling centre-left leaders they would ‘never win’. He blamed them – rightly as it happens – for failing to deal with Berlusconi ; notably for not passing conflicts of interest legislation and for lack of unity and effective leadership. Those leaders, which included Massimo D’Alema, Francesco Rutelli and others, were offended by Moretti’s action. However, history has shown him to be accurate, as Berlusconi went on to dominate Italian politics even as the worst aspects of his regime became public knowledge and the economic crisis intensified.

At the culmination of this 2013 election campaign, Piazza San Giovanni was packed once more. Again estimates of numbers varied wildly, but the tones were angrier and the rhetoric heavier. Members of the press were not welcomed by the assembly. Beppe Grillo, the comedian, blogger, and now candidate for Italy’s highest office, was making a last appeal to his supporters. Many of these were in their twenties and thirties, part of that lost generation which Italy desperately needs to bring growth, creativity and above all hope. Grillo’s support seemed to be rising fast - opinion polls stop 15 days before election day – and he was looking to end his campaign on a high.

Much of what he said, in what came over as a prolonged rant at Italy’s political class, made sense. After all, Italy’s leaders are a sorry bunch. Not only have they failed to offer a way out of the economic mess, but they have been incapable of providing wider reform of the political system or of opening up its institutions to anything remotely resembling a meritocracy. Don’t even mention the word ‘transparency’ in a society still dominated by protected interests and organised corruption. Grillo’s long-standing pledge is to tackle the criminality of Italy’s politicians and his call to ‘send them home’ got the biggest cheer of the night.

His appeal is particularly popular among younger Italians - at least those who have yet to join Italy’s growing exiled diaspora in Europe. This generation of Italians have most to fear. Unemployment, the difficulty of getting the chance to start a business or independence from their family, low wages and insecure work are common. Italy needs to find a solution for its young people.

However, Grillo is not the solution. It is true that he has been ignored by Italy’s press a lot of the time and, despite their contempt, increasingly feared by the mainstream politicians. But he has also exhausted his mission; he has become a symbol of discontent, but the need now is to get on with the alternative. His protest could yet extend to holding some balance of political power in the new government and, if so, his terms of negotiation will not be easy. But his rhetoric of all or nothing, a referendum on the euro and tarnishing all his opponents with the same brush is not, in the end, a solution. The same evening that Grillo was ranting in the piazza, Nanni Moretti was in a Rome theatre repeating his warning of 2002 and the urgent need for ‘conflicts of interest’ legislation to today’s leader centre-left Pierluigi Bersani, who now seems close to victory. The road to reform in Italy may turn out to be a quieter affair than Grillo would like.