Laughing All The Way To Power

Italian political activist Beppe Grillo.

Italy’s most popular political figure has just told me to fuck off.

At least that’s what Beppe Grillo’s hand gesture seems to say, emphatically “Vaffanculo!” as Italians like to curse. Or could his two-finger salute be more a Churchillian V-for-Victory gesture? Recent Italian events suggest as much — that his profanity might be a lost-in-translation expression of triumph.

Neither right or left, Grillo’s anti-politics, internet-led Five Star Movement, the Movimento 5 Stelle or just M5S as Italians know it, has just swept into the mayoralty of one of Italy’s most important cities, Parma — source of the world’s best-loved hams, cheeses and pasta sauces and, also, home of the indigestible $10 billion Parmalat corruption scandal that continues to disgust Italians.

With his candidate elected on a campaign budget of just €6,000, historically minded Grillo says the post-Berlusconi landslide in Parma is M5S’s decisive ‘Stalingrad’ moment.

His implication is that Rome (or perhaps Berlin again) will be the next to fall to him and his grassroots army, who are conquering all before them. Italy’s political establishment — the “partytocracy” as he condemns it — and the media are suddenly spooked, simultaneously attacking him and praising him after decades of mostly ignoring him.

I ask him to clarify his hand gesture. “No, it definitely means fuck off,” the 63-year-old activist insists, smiling. “Vaffanculo!” he says, verbalising in Italian, “to the media, to the corrupt officials, to the corrupt politicians, right and left — all of them can fuck off.”

Not only does he confirm the meaning of his hand signal, he gleefully describes how he organises, via the internet, throughout Italy, national ‘V-Days’. These rollicking events draw thousands of roaring Italians into their village piazze to tell the well-upholstered, state-sponsored, Portofino-vacationing plutocracy who rule them to, well, vaffanculo. Collectively. And increasingly loudly.

Relentless in his anti-corruption message, Grillo talks for an hour about what ails Italy. He punctuates the discussion, held at his modest beachside villa on the Tuscan coast, with a generous offer of sustenance — as Italian grace compels him.

“Would you like some food?” he asks, and then with a mischievous wink, “…are you sure you don’t want any money from me?”

The question betrays Grillo’s take on the back-scratching relationship between Italy’s media and its state officials, a deeply rancid one. Italy is the country where Rupert “Leveson Inquiry” Murdoch’s satellite TV operation Sky Italia is marketed as highbrow. I decline.

Grillo also declines to call the M5S a party, preferring the more populist “movement”. Whatever M5S is, it’s young and rampant. Apart from Parma, it has recently taken three other Italian mayoralties, with candidates aged 26 to 32 years. In 2010 local elections, its vote was an average 3 to 5 per cent. In recent municipal ballots, it tracked at 10 to 15 per cent. Nationally, an Ipsos opinion poll on May 21 had Grillo’s M5S at 18.5 per cent popularity, second only to the big-tent Democratic Party on the left, and outstripping former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right People of Freedom.

As M5S’s notional leader, Grillo refuses to parade the movement’s candidates in the conventional media, and rare is the Italian journalist who has interviewed him. Grillo sees local journalists as irrelevant and if he wishes to talk to the press, he does so with foreign reporters. The candidates also bypass the media, consulting direct with voters via technology. This sidelining has engendered a deep animosity from the Italian media, who demonise him and often cast him as “un-Italian”.

Mass movements like Grillo’s — organised via the internet, text and social media, and bypassing the traditional outlets of communication to take anti-austerity, anti-corruption mantras direct to the citizenry — are sweeping a deeply wounded Europe. As the continent descends further into its economic mire, these movements are tearing up the long-established rules of politics. And they expose a profound disgust for a centuries-old political class that seems clueless and incapable of correcting Europe’s many ills.

In Germany, the centre-left Pirate Party is polling about 10 per cent nationally with its net-derived “liquid democracy”. Having taken seats in a handful of key state legislatures it’s now taking aim federally.

Last month in Prague, Pirate Parties from around the world met to network and brainstorm ideas. Their goal was nothing less than the wholesale re-casting of how politics is transacted globally, issue-by-issue directly by the citizen. In struggling Greece, too, protest parties have emerged, including the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn at the extreme right, and Alexis Tsipras’ Syriza on the left, which is now tracking second in polls for the decisive June 17 election.

But only Italy has produced political buccaneers with the fun and sheer take-no-prisoners bumptiousness of Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement. Grillo says the movement is now in the throes of nothing less than “zeroing, eliminating all other political parties”.

“We have a shared agenda in this project for the world,” he says. The same sentiment is echoed in his blog, which is published simultaneously in Italian, English and Japanese. “We [M5S] are like a laboratory for this type of movement.”

In Germany and France, he says, protest movements are arising at the extreme left and right, “but in Italy our movement is filling the vacuum, genuinely rising through the centre”. Which is paradoxical, he mischievously notes, “because we invented fascism in Italy!”

Grillo says Italy’s traditional power brokers, now whingeing about him, “have to thank us” for emerging through Italy’s moderate, rational centre. He compares this with the movements in France and Greece, which have tilted to harsh political extremes in their protest.

“People don’t believe in traditional politics anymore. They want democracy from below. People want to know where their taxes are spent.

“It’s the end of the power of parties, of the political class, of the partytocracy.

“We must imagine an entirely different life, to produce other things that aren’t cement, roads, supermarkets and big infrastructure as a way of growing … to get out of using oil in 20 years. It’s finished.

“We [M5S] are against infinite growth as the only propulsion of the economy.

“It’s not just Italy, but the entire Western world cannot stand on its feet anymore.” He likens the globe’s plight to Wile E. Coyote of Road Runner cartoon fame, who often overshot his path to teeter at a precipice. “If we in the West look down, like he did, we fall. We are on the brink.”

Beppe Grillo is hard to pigeonhole, and that’s just the way he likes it. Although he trained as an accountant, most Italians know him as a TV comic and entertainer who morphed into a satirist targeting the often-ridiculous vaudeville that is Italian political life, along with its endemic, fecund corruption.

After stints on TV through the 1980s — he was effectively banned by broadcasters in the late 1980s after criticising the then Prime Minister Bettino Craxi’s Socialist Party as corrupt — he embarked on annual national tours, which helped build his grassroots visibility. In packed halls and clubs around the country, he would reveal how Italians were being ripped off by state utility companies, often producing immaculately researched charts that detailed the connections between politicians and business. He’d also tell his audiences how their environment was being degraded by rapacious developers aided by friends in official posts. And it was all done, all explained, with an edgy wit.

This satirist is a triple threat: part humourist, part consumer champion (he is famous for his assaults on Telecom Italia) and part investigative journalist. He was the first to expose the Parmalat scandal, the long-running fraud at one of Europe’s biggest food companies that was revealed to have €8 billion missing from its accounts, a scam that claimed thousands of investors. His background as an auditor has been useful in disgesting dodgy corporate accounts — and then traducing them in his shows.

His tours and notoriety also made him wealthy, enabling him to finance the technology backbone that keeps the Five Star Movement on the up. That formidable network and internet reach is provided by a specialist Milan consultancy, Casaleggio Associates, who Grillo says are “geniuses” but who his sceptical enemies like to describe as “shadowy”.

It’s easy to see why the pampered political class is scared of him, and why his finger-pointing touches a chord with weary Italians.

Take his big idea to reform Italy’s cosy state pension system, which dispenses taxpayer-funded entitlements of as much as €20,000 to €30,000 a month to myriad ex-officials: “Pensions above €3,000 a month should be abolished,” he tells The Global Mail.

And the way he brings perspective to the perks of Italy’s diplomatic service: “Our ambassador to Berlin makes more than Angela Merkel does! Angela Merkel should change jobs and be our ambassador.”

And his take on the expensive office of president: The most revered political office in Italy costs €240 million annually to maintain — “four times Buckingham Palace!” he claims.

But not anymore, not if Grillo gets his way. His is an attack on the Italian state as a careerist lifestyle choice, as an unchallenged perks-for-life way of living.

“Everyone says we have no program, well, here’s the program!” he says, plonking a printed manifesto on the desk, while offering a link to his hugely trafficked blog. “We’ve got more of a program than these other guys.”

As for the ailing euro, Grillo argues for a two-tier common currency, reflecting Europe’s relative economies. “Since we [Italy] went into the euro, we have lost 30 per cent of our economy.”

He wants to abolish Italy’s 110 provinces, thereby taking out an expensive layer of government and patronage. This would save Italians €10 billion annually, he says.

Smaller municipal councils would be aggregated, another huge saving. And he would ban Italy’s long-standing practice of politicians being permitted to hold a range of political offices, which multiplies their perks.

He takes pride in declaring that none of his movement’s candidates are extremists, nor do they have criminal records, nor are they being investigated — no small achievement in this land of the mafia and assassinated judges. He’d like errant politicians and officials to be tried before juries of citizens, a dig at a justice system often criticised as soft and conflicted.

But even finger-pointers have to deliver and Parma will be a huge test for M5S, to see if it has the right stuff to clean up federal politics, a concept that opinion polls suggest Italians are warming to. Parma’s new mayor is 38-year-old Federico Pizzarotti and, unsurprisingly for an internet-inspired political movement, a computer technician. Pizzarotti is probably Italy’s most closely watched politician now and on May 29, his job became harder still when the Emilia-Romagna region was struck by a powerful earthquake, the second in a week.

Grillo says he doesn’t want to be Prime Minister (which is just as well because he is unable to, because of a 1981 conviction for manslaughter after a car he was driving was involved in an accident that killed three people).

“I am not the puppet-master. I give my popularity as the inspirer of this movement over to young people.

“It’s time to take this wretched country back.”

NEXT WEEK: Inside Germany’s Pirate Party