Inside Story

Italy’s best-known comedian meets the ghost of Mussolini

Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement made stunning gains at Italy’s last election, writes James Panichi. But as the controversy over its guiding philosophy continues, the new prime minister sees an opportunity rather than a threat

James Panichi 18 February 2014 4599 words

Free of the shackles of the public broadcaster, Grillo’s critique of the political elites became more blunt. Orazio Esposito/Sicilia Today

ANOTHER day, another ugly controversy for Italy’s campaigning comedian Beppe Grillo. As usual, the stoush kicks off on social media with a Facebook post as succinct as it is surreal. “What would happen if you found Boldrini in your car?” Grillo asks the 1.5 million people who have “liked” his page. The reference is to Laura Boldrini, the speaker of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies and one of the bêtes noires of Grillo’s party, the MoVimento 5 Stelle – the Five Star Movement, or M5S.

The response from a handful of followers is deeply disturbing: the question is soon tagged with rape jokes, sexist comments and references to prostitutes. By the time the post is taken down, the controversy has taken on a life of its own. Boldrini is interviewed by a left-leaning TV host on state broadcaster RAI and wastes no time in denouncing the act as eversivo (“eversive” rather than “subversive” is the adjective of choice when referring to Grillo). The attacks, Boldrini says, were aimed at Italy’s “institutions” and amount to a “democratic emergency” and an “instigation to sexist violence.”

The final act of the farce comes courtesy of Grillo’s communications manager in the Senate, Claudio Messora, who manages to outdo the ugliness of the original comments. In a tweet he opines that Boldrini is too ugly to be raped (he later dismisses the comment as a light-hearted, “late night quip” and promptly removes it).

This is the cue for politicians of all stripes to get involved. The then prime minister Enrico Letta, on a state visit to the United Arab Emirates, denounces M5S’s “neverending acts of barbarism” and offers Boldrini his solidarity; other leaders follow suit. Then, before the newspapers have time to report the fallout fully, Grillo’s party is caught up in yet another vicious spat, this time involving a female TV presenter. This is followed by a parliamentary sit-in by M5S MPs, who force a temporary shutdown of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies. (An usher was allegedly bitten during the scuffle.)

The result of all this is utter chaos. Grillo accepts no responsibility for the violent sexism of the Facebook responses because they didn’t come from him; M5S parliamentarians (around a third of both houses) continue to make a show of their commitment not to engage with institutions they see as corrupt; and newspaper columnists attack M5S’s tactics as squadrismo — a reference to the violent fascist squads that undermined Italian institutions after the first world war.

Are the rhetoric Grillo deploys against Italy’s institutions and his demand for the departure of the entire political class inherently extremist? When you argue that the system itself needs changing, rather than just the government, are you undermining democracy itself? And does his campaign bear any relationship — as some columnists would have it — to the Italian brand of fascism?

These are tricky questions for a country in which the legacy of fascism and the tactics of the charismatic dictator Benito Mussolini still loom large. Since the Italian Republic came into existence in 1946 historians have been warning that, under the right conditions, a dictatorship could regain a foothold. And today Italy has its perfect storm: a strong and charismatic leader clashing with the institutions, a rudderless and disconnected political establishment, an economy in tatters, and unresolved popular resentment over perceived loss of sovereignty via the European Union and the euro.

It’s a very long bow, of course. Grillo’s movement may have already hit its electoral high-water mark and there is nothing to suggest M5S is extremist — in fact, it’s hard to know whether the party is on the left or the right of the political spectrum. Yet, rightly or wrongly, the fear of fascism continues to dominate the conversation about Grillo’s unusual and often unsettling presence on the Italian political stage.

ITALIAN humour can be hard to decode. On the one hand, the comedy of groups like Aldo, Giovanni e Giacomo or the radio megastar Fiorello is both smart and side-splittingly funny. But when humour moves into political satire it can quickly descend into vulgarity and tackiness (although, admittedly, the same could be said about The Decameron, the masterpiece of Renaissance writer Giovanni Boccaccio).

Unlike in Britain and the United States, comedy writing in Italy isn’t dominated by upper-middle classes and there is no tradition of university reviews (tertiary education is no laughing matter). Instead, comedy tends to come from the underground world of stand-up (cabaret in Italian), which has yet to gain the mainstream respectability it has in other countries. In his 1987 film Kamikazen – Ultima notte a Milano, director Gabriele Salvatores depicts the world of stand-up comedy as most Italians would see it: seedy, ill-paid, blue-collar and bleak. The routines are mean-spirited and often not particularly sharp or funny.

This is the world in which Giuseppe Grillo, a comedian from the port city of Genoa, got his break in the late 1970s. He was spotted at a cabaret club in Milan and offered a gig on state broadcaster RAI (on condition that he change his first name to the friendly diminutive “Beppe”). The sprawling format of Italian variety shows — which usually set aside a slot for comedians — suited the bearded and coiffured Grillo and, helped by a sponsorship deal with a brand of yoghurt, he soon became a household name.

Grillo was making good money and was commissioned to do a number of light-hearted travel programs. (That’s how he first came to my attention as a young viewer: his documentary on Brazil, Te lo do io Brasile, was both funny and informative.) But the satirical side of his humour was becoming more pronounced and he began to make enemies. That he would eventually fall out of favour with the powers-that-be was obvious; what was unexpected was that his purge from the highly politicised state broadcaster would hinge on a single joke.

The incriminating gag, for the record, wasn’t one of his best. Here it is. Bettino Craxi, the then Socialist prime minister of Italy, is on an official visit in China and his sidekick, deputy Socialist leader Claudio Martelli, says to him over a meal, “Do you realise there are a billion people here and they are all socialists?” Craxi says, “Yes. So?” Martelli says, “But if they are all socialists, who do they steal from?” The joke resonated in Italy, where it was no secret that the Socialist Party was funded by kickbacks. (Craxi fled to Tunisia in 1994 for that very reason.) By articulating the accusation, though, Grillo had broken a taboo.

While he went on to make occasional TV appearances, Grillo’s career on the small screen had come to an end. He became persona non grata at RAI, which was (and remains) the plaything of Italy’s party system, and Silvio Berlusconi’s TV outlets, which owed their very existence to Craxi’s support, also kept their doors closed. One of Italy’s most respected comedians was out in the cold, with no prospect of coming back.

NATIONAL grassroots political movements are a rarity in Italy. The domination of the media by the powerful publicly funded political parties is part of the explanation, as is the impact of a voting system based on proportional representation, which limits the territorial links between electors and the elected. Yet after Grillo’s TV defenestration he tried something truly revolutionary: he started a national popular movement that wasn’t owned by any of Italy’s traditional centres of power. With the help of a mysterious web consultant by the name of Gianroberto Casaleggio (who continues to eschew a public role), Grillo established, the blog he would use to get his message out, unfiltered. He then hit the comedy circuit — or rather, he created one.

First, Grillo took his shows to theatres. Then, when crowds started to grow, he moved on to the piazzas. Free of the shackles of the public broadcaster, his critique of the political elites had become blunt. Polite British media usually render the obscenity that became Grillo’s battlecry, vaffanculo!, as “up yours.” By failing to translate the full vulgarity of the expression, though, you lose something of what it conveys. Thousands of socially conservative Italians gathering in a square to chant “go do it up the arse” points to a breakdown of normal mores. People were seething with anger.

Grillo was tapping into the discontent about Italy’s ruling elite that traditional media had largely overlooked. It had been widely assumed that the “Clean Hands” anti-corruption investigations of the 1990s would usher in a new period of good governance in Italy; but what the country got from its “Second Republic” was more of the same, even though many of the leading political figures (including Craxi) had departed the scene. A 2007 book called La Casta (The Caste), by two prominent journalists, fed into the general horror over just how corrupt the Italian political class had become. (Regional governments were revealed to be particularly good at embezzlement.) The message to the electorate was that no matter who they voted for, the thieving among public officials would continue.

Grillo had found a rich vein of discontent and the Italian establishment responded to him in the same way it had reacted to the rise of the regionalist Northern League in the 1990s. First, it treated his supporters with condescension, arguing that they were under-educated, naive and caught up by forces they didn’t understand. The next step was to invoke Mussolini and warn of the parallels with the rise of national socialism in the 1920s.

The sight of discredited traditional parties ganging up on Grillo was grist to his campaign mill; the name-calling on the part of left-wing intellectuals also did Grillo’s Five Star Movement (created in 2009) no harm at all. Grillo was showing he could channel the anger he had encountered in Italy’s piazze into a cohesive political organisation and it became clear that M5S would soon start to have an impact at the polls. What’s more, he did it by refusing to appear on Italian television, replacing it with social media and staking his claim to a net-savvy generation that was new to the political process.

Opinion remains divided, though, over whether Grillo is of the far left or the far right. His attitude to corruption may be simple enough: no one with a criminal record should be allowed to hold public office. But when it comes to economic policies he is against what he considers to be Italy’s subservience to foreign interests. He believes that the euro — Europe’s common currency — represents Italy’s loss of economic sovereignty, and argues in favour of exiting the currency altogether (and defaulting on debt).

On this issue he appears slightly closer to Greece’s far-left politician Alexis Tsipras than to far-right leaders like Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. His economic outlook has attracted the vocal support of UK-based left-wing academic Loretta Napoleoni, who for the last few years has been warning Italians that the euro is on the cusp of an implosion.

On environmental issues, Grillo is close to left-leaning greens — in no small part because environmental vandalism in Italy is also about the country’s corrupt political system. Yet Grillo also buys into conspiracy theories about foreign capital, which in any other country would place him firmly on the extreme right. What’s more, he has angered Italy’s Jewish community for not acting quickly enough to remove anti-Semitic remarks from his blog, and his foreign policy is broadly anti-Israel (which some newspapers put down to the influence of his Italian–Iranian wife, Parvin Tadjik).

Yet Grillo’s supporters are even harder to define. They tend to be young, internet-using and broadly to the ideological left, although typically having no previous relationship with either left-wing political parties or public office as a whole. One Italian journalist I spoke to in Brussels reckons M5S is closest to the Swedish Pirate Party, which is a libertarian, direct democracy outfit with a strong interest in privacy, transparency and web-based knowledge-sharing.

In the 2013 national elections 109 M5S MPs were elected along with fifty-four senators. The party gained around 25 per cent of the vote, making it the second most popular grouping in parliament after the centre-left Democratic Party. The M5S parliamentary contingent immediately revealed itself to be unwilling to cooperate with other groupings, forcing the Democratic Party into a precarious and humiliating coalition government with its traditional foes, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

Grillo himself was not elected: he refused to stand because he was convicted of manslaughter following a 1981 car accident in which three of his passengers were killed (making his Facebook post about Boldrini all the more macabre). Grillo’s policy of not allowing convicted criminals to enter parliament means that he is destined to lead the party that he owns (along with Casaleggio) from outside parliament. It’s an arrangement with no precedent in Italy.

Yet ideological divisions between Grillo and his parliamentarians suggest the party leader is further to the right than his own party. When 366 asylum seekers died off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa in October, it prompted a lot of soul-searching on the part of Italian legislators. Two M5S senators presented a motion to abolish what is referred to as the reato di clandestinità — the crime of being an illegal alien in Italy. Grillo was outraged and attacked the motion’s backers; however, a snap poll on his blog revealed a majority of M5S members were against him and he was forced to back down.

It wasn’t the first time the charismatic M5S leader had clashed with both his membership and his parliamentary delegation. It is true that Grillo has been able to harness the vote of younger, probably left-leaning Italians who cannot relate to the deep-seated ideological affiliations of their baby-boomer parents. Yet channelling that passion into a cohesive movement is proving tricky.

The sixty-five-year-old’s political outlook was formed by Italy’s corrupt “First Republic” — a world many of his supporters would only have read about in history books. In particular, it is unclear how much his euro-scepticism — which places him squarely in the camp of extreme-right European politicians — resonates with the party base. Grillo’s hatred of Germany’s economic ascendancy may play well with older Italians; younger Italians who have grown up as Europeans may not share the concern over loss of national sovereignty.

If this is a fascist revolution in the making, as Grillo’s critics would have it, you wouldn’t know it by looking at M5S’s elected representatives. There may be a few odd characters among the party’s MPs and senators, but there are also young and articulate people from a wide range of social backgrounds, with a strong representation of women and southerners. It’s a clear departure from the northern blokiness of Italy’s earlier protest movement, the Northern League. How the second wave of M5S candidates will fare at the European elections in May depends on the profound changes which have recently taken place elsewhere in Italy’s political firmament.

IN MOST Western countries the epithet “fascist” applies to anyone with political views to the right of our own. Parents, tabloid media, parking officers, Jeff Kennett, Genghis Khan — you name them, they have all been called “fascists.” But in a country in which the reminders of capital-F fascism are everywhere, the insult is used more sparingly and, usually, more accurately.

In Italy the written language is often used to obfuscate, which is why the clarity of the country’s 1948 constitution is so remarkable. Among the eighteen “transitionary dispositions” at the end of the document is a ban on a refounding “in any form” of the Italian Fascist Party. This provision was included to help Italy make the transition from dictatorship to democracy without sliding backwards — but it was never removed. A 1952 law added the crime of “apologia of fascism” and another one, in 1993, criminalised the “public exaltation of exponents, principles, facts or methods of fascism, or its anti-democratic objectives.” In short, almost seventy years after the constitution came into effect, the fear of a return to fascism still informs Italy’s institutions.

Yet fascism’s true legacy lies in Italy’s weak governments and a cultural paranoia about the risks posed by strong leaders. Where Mussolini had created a strong executive, the 1948 constitution deliberately applied the brakes. The executive needs the support of both houses of parliament or it must resign immediately (imagine an Australian government calling it quits every time it loses a vote in the Senate). Even minor cabinet reshuffles need to be vetted by the country’s president. All government decrees have sixty days to go to parliament, where they are dealt with by a powerful and complex committee system. The risk that a strong leader will return to power is kept in check by a legislature and a judiciary so unresponsive to the wishes of the executive that any potential dictator would get sick of it and opt for a career as a merchant banker.

But anti-fascism didn’t extend to the dismantling of other fascist-era structures. The Italian economy is still dominated by professional “corporations” that resist any attempt at reform. The judiciary is a good example, but journalism is even better: those who haven’t sat an exam to join the state-sanctioned guild, the ordine dei giornalisti, can’t be fully employed by a media outlet. Small wonder the fascist regime liked corporations so much.

The state still plays a large part in private enterprise, and government appointments to boards are common. The troubled Monte dei Paschi di Siena bank, for example, had a board stacked with political cronies. And the Italian government loves to pick winners: the trip to the United Arab Emirates by recently deposed prime minister Enrico Letta was in no small part designed to promote a deal between Etihad and Alitalia, an airline so badly run by its political overlords that taxpayers have had to bail it out time and time again.

For a modern state built on anti-fascist principles, fascism’s legacy of corporatism is all around. Which is why the prospect that a new Mussolini will rise from the ashes of an Italian state failing under the weight of a global recession exercises people’s imagination. Whether or not Grillo’s politics fit the fascist bill, many fascist structures remain in place.

All of this means that the remarkable 2002 biography, Mussolini, by Australian academic Richard Bosworth, is vital reading for anyone exploring the Grillo–Mussolini parallel. Bosworth chronicles Mussolini’s slow rise from largely self-taught war veteran to small-town teacher, campaigning journalist, MP and — eventually — the dictator who led Italy into a disastrous colonial campaign and the second world war.

Although Mussolini’s rise to power was linked to specific historical circumstances, there is plenty in Bosworth’s biography for observers of contemporary Italy — not least Mussolini’s intellectual journey from the socialism of his father’s family (his Spanish first name was a tribute to Mexican revolutionary Benito Juárez) to the views that underpinned his right-wing dictatorship. Along the way, like Grillo, Mussolini’s politics were hard to place in a traditional left–right divide.

Bosworth’s focus on Mussolini’s work as a journalist, which paved the way for his political rise, offers even more context for the debate over Grillo. Mussolini edited the Socialist Party’s newspaper Avanti! (which exists to this day as an online publication) before moving to the paper that he would support right to the end, Il Popolo d’Italia. These newspapers were effectively Mussolini’s blogs. He remained obsessed by getting his message out unedited and uncensored — even when, one suspects, the readership wasn’t particularly large or influential.

Mussolini’s writing became what has been dubbed “Fascism’s megaphone” and helped propel the journalist to national prominence; and it was his reputation as a public intellectual that paved the way for his political rise. By the time Mussolini led the March on Rome in 1922 — the first step in a slow-moving coup d’état — he was a household name.

The Marcia su Roma also coincided with a restructuring of the squadristi — the black-shirted militias to which Grillo’s Facebook followers are often compared. The role of these armed squads in Mussolini’s rise shouldn’t be underestimated, because they exacerbated the failures of the Italian state and created a sense of imminent danger. They had initially been created to respond to the threat of a communist takeover, but after the March on Rome the squadristi were essentially a private police force attempting to create social chaos to support the Fascist coup. Mussolini described his enforcers as “my little army,” yet he did not micromanage them — he was able to focus on the big picture while the squadristi went about their business.

As British historian Christopher Duggan shows in his recent book, Fascist Voices, the argument that Italy had been denied a “place in the sun” — colonies in Africa — was a strong theme in people’s willingness to embrace Il Duce. Duggan’s book brings together diary entries from average Italians who were swept up by Fascism for different reasons — some were ideologically driven, some were misled, some just got carried away by the patriotic hysteria.

This sense that Italy had fallen foul of a conspiracy of more powerful countries is one that continued well after the fall of the fascist regime. At my Italian middle school in the 1980s a classmate with impeccable left-wing credentials used the “place in the sun” argument when criticising Britain for its role in the Falklands war (“the British hate colonialism, except their own”). Which is why the resentment that Grillo directs against Germany’s economic policies finds many Italians receptive: his argument is that Italy is again being denied what is rightfully hers.

THE LAST thing you want to be called in Italy is a demagogue or a populist — it’s as bad as being called a fascist. Which is why all sides of politics in postwar Italy produced leaders who were team players and backroom deal-makers, able to work the weak political system to their advantage and keep allies onside, rather than appeal to the masses. There wasn’t a charismatic leader to be found anywhere other than on a soccer field.

Berlusconi changed that. Coming from the world of advertising, he was able to break free of the conservative shackles of Italy’s political culture and propel his public persona to the centre of the political discourse in the 1990s. Whatever the merits of his policies, Berlusconi was precisely the type of man the constitution was designed to keep at bay: the charismatic populist.

Partly in response to Berlusconi, the former communist left of Italian politics continued to argue that ego was a dirty word, and so the party apparatchiks who ended up as leaders were consistently devoid of charisma. Which is why Pier Luigi Bersani, the candidate the Democratic Party fielded against Berlusconi and Grillo in 2013, didn’t stand a chance. The party emerged as the largest grouping in parliament but it lost so many votes to M5S that the election was put down as a defeat anyway. The party leadership took it philosophically: having a solid and boring party man — a post-communist party official from central casting — was preferable to selling out.

Over the last few months, all that has changed. In December, Democratic Party supporters used a primary election to wrest the party away from its communist-era aparatchiks and hand it over to Matteo Renzi, the thirty-nine-year-old mayor of Florence. His background is moderate (he’s a former Christian Democrat rather than a communist) and he represents generational renewal in a country that has never before dared to question its gerontocracy’s legitimacy.

With his distinct Florentine accent and slight lisp, Renzi is an easy target for TV satirists. Yet there is nothing cute about his determination to get rid of the party’s ideological dead wood in a process he has dubbed rottamazione – literally ‘to junk’ or ‘to make into scrap metal’. He openly admits to a vaulting ambition to lead the country out of the mess it is now in and his pragmatic and swift replacement of Letta as prime minister was breath-taking. After having always said he would never accept the prime-ministership without going to the polls first, he changed his position without a moment’s hesitation.

But Renzi’s charisma is the real issue. Unless his party turns on him, the new prime minister with a penchant for Twitter will have reversed seventy years of left-wing political tradition in one fell swoop. Former communists and left-leaning Christian Democrats, the children of backroom deals and endless committee meetings, have allowed the party (and the country) to be led by a strongman. If Renzi survives to the next election he might even do something Democratic Party has consistently failed to do: defeat Berlusconi.

It’s no coincidence that even before becoming prime minister Renzi had been reaching out to M5S supporters while criticising its leadership. Given that one in four Italian voters supported M5S at the last election, Renzi may believe there is a booty of votes that is his for the taking. The theory is that if Grillo supporters find a more rational alternative prepared to take on their concerns about honesty in government without the online craziness, they will ditch their leader then head left rather than right.

This approach puts Renzi at odds with those on the hard left of his governing coalition who believe Grillo and his supporters are eversive fascists. And that goes some way towards explaining why speaker Laura Boldrini, from the far-left Sinistra Ecologia Libertà party, sees the admittedly appalling attacks by Grillo’s online community as a fight for the survival of Italian institutions. Without fascists to oppose, anti-fascism loses its meaning. So while Berlusconi and, more recently, Grillo have provided former communists with their Mussolinis, Renzi’s job is now to rid the Democratic Party — and Italy — of its fascist ghosts. It won’t be easy. •