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Italy's New Brand: 5-Star Movement

The breakthrough achieved by a new political movement, the 5 Stars Movement (its official name is Movimento 5 Stelle, abbreviated as M5S), was a key result of the election that took place on the 24/5 February in Italy. For the Chamber of Deputies the M5S got 25.55 percent of the votes.  The figure for the Senate of Republic was similar. This resulted in 109 seats for M5S in the Chamber of Deputies and 54 seats in the Senate. For the old political establishment this outcome is quite drastic, but what does the M5S stand for, and will the Italian workers benefit from this electoral outcome?

Corrupt from the start

In order to understand Italian politics we need to go as far back as the artificial creation of Italy by the dominant European powers of that time (i.e., Great Britain, France and Prussia). Since its very foundation in 1861, Italian capitalism and its political establishment have been deeply linked to corruption and collusion with secret societies, such as Freemasonry and illegal organizations.

Italian schoolbooks still teach that about 1,000 men led by Giuseppe Garibaldi conquered the southern part of the peninsula, dominated at that time by the House of Bourbon that could field an army of 150,000 men. Even with the addition of rebels and help from Savoy and Britain, Garibaldi’s army could not count on more than 15,000, ten times less than the Neapolitan army (as Marx pointed out in the New York Daily Tribune 23 August 1860). How did they do it? Corruption was the main weapon used by Garibaldi’s army.

The weapon of corruption worked very well and has dominated Italian politics since. ‘Unlike the rest of Western Europe, the disintegration of feudalism in southern Italy failed to produce an independent entrepreneurial middle class’ (Judith Chubb, Patronage, Power, and Poverty in Southern Italy, 1982). This was in large part due to the colonial politics of the northern Italian bourgeoisie (Antonio Gramsci, Ordine Nuovo, La Settimana politica, Operai e contadini, 1919-1920). The banks of the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies were being systematically robbed by the new elite. From 1863 to 1866 the Bank of Naples lost 37 million lire (Gigi Di Fiore, Controstoria dell’Unione d’Italia, 2007). The Bank of Sicily’s director, Emanuele Notarbartolo, who tried to save it from bankruptcy, was murdered on the orders of Raffaele Palizzolo, another Member of the Italian Parliament and member of the management board of the same bank. Palizzolo was also a known Sicilian mafia boss, who took advantage like many others of the unification of Italy to make dubious investments (trafficking) for his own personal profit. The same year, 1893, another scandal involved another bank, Banca Romana, which to extinguish its debts printed fake money.  This scandal involved very important political leaders like Giovanni Giolitti and Francesco Crispi, founding fathers of Italy. These historical facts are just some early examples of how the Italian political system worked from the very beginning.

Things did not change during the Fascist dictatorship and after WWII the main party, the Christian Democratic Party (Democrazia Cristiana, DC), refined this rotten system even further. Their political machinery was based on clientelism and patronage. Amintore Fanfani, leader of the DC in the 50s, while advocating against clienteles and personality politics set up a scheme to recruit DC members called tesseramento which took clientelism to its extreme. Judith Chubb describes how these tessere (party membership cards) were crucial to get power within the DC political party. The tessera of the DC is like a blank check: it can be given out to anyone – to relatives, to the deceased, to persons chosen at random from the telephone book or from health-insurance list’ (Corriere della Sera 7 November  1973). The trick was quite easy: you provide me with tesserati and I provide you with jobs in provincial councils, local government offices, agencies of the public administration. Of course the public sector grew like crazy with no equivalent growth in the private sector.

Organised crime was another very convenient partner for the political establishment because it controlled a part of the private sector, in particular the construction business. This system soon extended to the rest of Italy, in particular when ‘at the beginning of the 70s, Cosa Nostra (the Sicilian mafia) itself began to become a company. A company because, by getting a more and more hefty share – which sometimes became almost a monopoly – of the drug market, Cosa Nostra began to manage an enormous amount of capital’ (last interview with Paolo Borsellino, 1992).

As we have seen with Palizzolo, the connection between political class and organised crime has always been there, but now in the 50s, 60s and 70s, it became obvious, with people like Giovanni Gioia, Fanfani’s political secretary, Salvo Lima, a collaborator of Gioia with important connections with Cosa Nostra who was murdered by Cosa Nostra itself in 1992, and Vito Ciancimino, DC politician, mayor of Palermo and mafia member. To confirm Borsellino’s statement, we could just consider that Silvio Berlusconi started his empire by getting a surety from the Bank Rasini of Milan that was involved in Cosa Nostra money laundering. The best buddy of Silvio Berlusconi, Bettino Craxi, leader of the Italian ‘Socialist’ Party (Partito Socialista Italiano, PSI), became clearly important when Cosa Nostra and the DC were having some ‘marital’ problems in the early 80s. It was known that this traditionally small party (9.6 percent of votes), which still carried the hammer and sickle logo until 1985, at once became ‘important’ and notoriously corrupted to the core.

To an extent, the Italian political class underwent a transition in the period from 1969 to 1977, which in Italy was characterised by intense social and political unrest connected with the first serious economic troubles since the end of WWII. At the conclusion of this phase, the national political class represented not only a relative obstacle to the healthy development of Italian capitalism, but started to act as an absolute brake: the public debt boomed and in 1985 reached the warning level of 80 percent of GDP (in 1970 it was only 40.5 percent).

If in the past Italian politicians were not so different from their counterparts in other European countries - maybe just slightly more naive and less concerned with an effective capitalist industrial policy - from the first ‘pentapartito’ (i e. five parties) government in 1981 they began to act as a simple parasite clique who prompted an artificial economic development making use of what Marcello De Cecco referred to as ‘criminal (or bastard) Keynesianism’: unbalanced and unproductive public expense, generalised political corruption at all levels, competitive devaluation of the currency, high taxation rates on salaries together with widespread tax evasion in the self-employment sector, and, finally, heavy reliance on the protected export of low-technology goods related to the existence of the European Common Market.

Enter Beppe Grillo

When in 1986 Beppe Grillo, a successful comedian from Genoa, made a joke about the PSI being corrupt he said what everybody knew already. Grillo was banned because of this joke from Italian television. This showed how little people were then allowed to say in the mainstream media and how bad the political situation was.

Grillo’s activism against the political establishment became even more pronounced after that. At that time he was working in theatres, touching upon topics like corruption, pollution, consumer association matters, unemployment, bank scandals, etc. People who did not follow him in theatres could still see him on television on Tele+, where his live performances were broadcast every now and then. Grillo’s performances got mainstream media coverage when he talked about scandals like Parmalat’s, which broke before the media and justice system knew about it. The internet was the real breakthrough for Grillo. He could finally reach many more people, and his blog became the most popular in Italy.  Through Grillo’s blog, meet-ups were and are organised to allow ‘Grillo’s friends’ to meet face to face, discuss local problems and organise action groups, for instance against a local council that wants to build a new incinerator. In this way Grillo’s friends or followers started to become more and more proactive. In 2007 on the 8 September, a very symbolic date for Italy, a V-Day (Vaffanculo = Fuck off) was organised to gather as many followers as possible to protest against the political establishment. This was a great success, connecting 220 cities at the same time. On this occasion Grillo declared that he did not intend to create a political party but rather to eliminate them.

Grillo specified later that the M5S is in fact a movement and not a party. At the end of 2009 the M5S was founded. For some, Gianroberto Casaleggio is the real mind behind the M5S. It does not matter to us if behind Grillo there is Grillo or Casaleggio or Grillo and Casaleggio. What matters is what this political movement is about. They claim that they want to empower the citizens, getting rid of the old caste of politicians and their old systems based on clientelism and patronage. That’s reasonable and necessary in a country like Italy. We can sympathise with such a movement over this point, in the same way that Marx did with liberals like Garibaldi and Francesco Crispi in their battle against the Bourbon monarchy (Karl Marx, New York Daily Tribune, 8 August 1860), without this meaning that Marx was a liberal.   

The Five Star Movement’s platform

So let’s have a brief look at the M5S political platform. M5S complains that the state is disjointed from the citizens, that the constitution (which represents bourgeois law) is not applied, and that the state’s cost far outweighs its efficiency. Here a cry for bourgeois legality was expressed through the M5S.  Of course this message also appeals to workers, who have experienced years of abuse from the political class. M5S also proposes that the salary of the members of parliament be in line with the national average; this point has been seen as socialist, but in fact is just a sign that when a capitalist economy is in crisis politicians should get the blame too. Nothing socialist there! We think that the capitalist system itself should get the blame and not just its servant politicians.

An interesting proposal is to make debate available to all citizens with internet access via the live streaming of public meetings. This is not direct democracy, but the principle that workers could participate more closely in political debates is interesting. Following the same line, there is the proposal that new laws should be online three months before they are approved to get citizens’ comments. It is not clear if these comments will be enough to change the proposed laws or even stop them, but again the principle of participation is interesting. M5S asks for referendums without a quorum condition and for the obligation on Parliament to discuss laws proposed by a people’s initiative. All these efforts to make Parliament more accessible to the workers are welcome, however very limited they are by the fact that economic power will be still in the hands of a few who will be influencing the political world anyhow. A more transparent way of doing politics in Italy is the main reason why the M5S got such a large vote. This expressed a feeling amongst many, even some of the upper class who rely on the bourgeois legality of the constitution, that the current political system was not representing them. 

The M5S political platform includes several points about sustainability. Capitalism is not sustainable so to try to reconcile this with the health of the planet raises contradictions by definition.  In terms of economic policy the M5S wants to introduce class actions, abolish the dummy corporation system in the stock exchange, and abolish the so-called Biagi law in which workers with temporary contacts have no rights for holidays, sick leave or maternity leave, and have restrictions on their pension payments. Article 18 of the Workers’ Statute (Statuto dei Lavoratori, 1970) says that an employer ought to have a fair reason to fire an employee. Several governments have wanted to modify it, so allowing the employer to fire their employees quite easily, to create what they call ‘flexibility’. Grillo in his blog proposed that this article should not be changed but that instead the taxes on enterprises should be lowered. The fact that the M5S is against Biagi’s law and does not want to change Article 18 was a crucial point to gain votes from the working class. In principle not changing this article is good. Unfortunately the real problem is that the worldwide free labour market has considerably reduced the working class’s bargaining power. Instead of hoping that lower taxes on enterprises would solve the problem, workers should get involved in international movements to fight against capital. Instead, M5S national reformism seems to be the preferred way.  

Moreover the M5S tries to counter the anarchic nature of capitalism by proposing to forbid the closure of food and manufacturing industries which have the internal market as their main market and to ban cross share-holdings between the bank system and the industrial system; also that financial advice  institutes should share responsibility for losses; that a salary limit be established for the CEOs of corporations in which the State is the main shareholder; abolition of stock options; abolition of state monopolies such as Telecom Italia, Autostrade, ENI, ENEL, Mediaset, Ferrovie dello Stato. This is the part that seems to interest the Occupy Movement. M5S wants to reduce the public debt so as to reduce the costs of the State. As the Italian State costs a lot, the money will also need to come from somewhere else. Benefits to unemployed people are also mentioned in M5S’s programme.

M5S reached political power rather quickly as an anti-establishment movement, because in Italy politics, corruption and crime are so interconnected, and public opinion, influenced by bourgeois ideology, can no longer stand it. In economic terms, the M5S response is a Keynesian mixed economy, with the old illusion that government intervention will be able to control or even cure the anarchic nature of capitalism. Unfortunately, the mixed economy already proved to be ineffective in taming capitalism. But can the M5S at least get rid of corruption and collusion? We shall see. 

It may be interesting, from the social science point of view, to notice that reformist movements are becoming more and more hybrid and decoupled from traditional left and right alignments. The internet has become a powerful medium for people organization, but still people need human contact and public speeches to get convinced. For many people representing the old establishment, this has been a real revolution.  For the working class this is yet another reformist movement. The Italian bourgeoisie is in such bad shape that this quite moderate movement, which aims at a capitalist system regulated by the government with no obvious links to organised crime, seems to be asking a lot. The need to apply bourgeois legality is so urgent that voters from all sides were attracted to the M5S. Workers voted for the M5S with the hope that cuts to state expenditure and the abolition of Biagi’s law could improve their condition. Unfortunately, capitalism does not have a good face or a bad face, it follows profit. And although it is very appealing to kick the old politicians up the arse, the situation for workers is unlikely to be improved by M5S political reforms.