Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

Italy: Five Star Movement – once critically admired by New Left Review – on the Ropes.

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Image result for 5 star movement poster

Italy: Two Populisms Fall out.

The dramatic move on Thursday came after months of fighting between the League and its coalition partners, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S).

The cavernous differences between the parties were clearly exposed on Wednesday when parliament rejected a motion by M5S to block a high-speed rail project linking Italy and France. M5S has built most of its popularity on vehemently opposing the long-stalled project but was outvoted by the League and opposition parties.


Salvini has been threatening new elections for weeks as the League reached 39% in opinion polls. Meanwhile, support for M5S has more than halved to 15% over the last year.

The League also triumphed in May’s European elections, winning 24% of the vote. The M5S only managed 17%, putting it in third place behind the centre-left Democratic party, which took 23%.

The Italian 5 Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle), it is often forgotten today, was at one time considered by some on the anglophone left to be ‘wing-left’ as well as populist.

Counterfire – who run what’s left of the Stop the War Coalition and the People’s Assembly, also called them, once upon a time,a “sort of coalition of resistance” (Beppe Grillo has wiped the smile off the face of the European elite argues Jo Franks. 2013)

Toby Abse, whose articles on Italy this Blog often relies upon, and are highly regarded by all, published this book review in 2016,

What sort of populism?

Toby Abse reviews: Filippo Tronconi (ed) ‘Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement: organisation, communication and ideology’, Ashgate Publishing, 2015.

This, which is long standing theme of comrade Abse, caught many people’s eyes,

Regrettably, Grillo’s most ardent British fans outside Ukip circles – where Arron Banks has actually suggested Ukip needs to copy M5S – have been the staunch Brexiteers of the New Left Review, a journal that in happier days popularised continental Marxism, and once even published an entire issue devoted to Tom Nairn’s challenge to the Europhobic anti-European Economic Community consensus of the British left in the 1970s.

This is no exaggeration.

While some call the movement “eclectic” and “anti-elitist”  – a way of avoiding saying right-wing red-browners –  New Left Review rated the movement for its opposition the system.

The thriving through Chaos, pro-Brexit, and publisher of a variety of sovereigntists such as Wolfgang Steek (that’s enough Coatesy) Editor of New Left Review editor Susan Watkins, was impressed enough to devote a section of one of the journal’s ponderous Editorials to the movement.

This are her assessments of the builders of the Red Brown Front in Italy:


This starts, “…only in the last few years have left oppositions started to produce national political projects with an impact at state level—flanked, and sometimes outflanked, by the radical right.”  Watkins continues looking at Corbyn, Syriza, Bernie Sanders, and (remember him, jean Luc-Mélenchon),  and, then, pausing, “Many on the Italian left would deny that Beppe Grillo (at the time 5 Star leader, the Jiminy Cricket founder of the movement now run by Luigi Di Maio) deserves a place in their ranks; not without reason”.

And yet….

The social profile of M5S’s 109 deputies and 54 senators was a marked departure from Italian norms (as with Podemos deputies in Spain): they were it workers, students, housewives and the unemployed, mostly in their twenties and thirties—rather than lawyers, professors and party officials. The M5S deputies pointedly took only half their allotted salaries, donating the rest to local projects; they disdain the formalities of the Palazzo Montecitorio, addressing their fellow deputies as ‘Citizen’ rather than ‘Honourable’—unlike the Corbynistas or Podemos. Uniquely, Five Star parliamentarians were obliged to vote according to their mandates, determined by online plebiscites in which at most 30,000 took part. Ignoring the mandate brought immediate expulsion; around a quarter of the parliamentary caucus has been ejected to date.

She continued,

 ..proponents of online direct democracy, the Five Stars take a position of radical iconoclasm towards Italy’s existing system: they aim to ‘open it up’ to the public by livestreaming back-room negotiations; with the rest of the left and the Northern League, they have assailed Renzi’s new constitution, but went farther in calling for pd President Napolitano’s impeachment over his illegal manoeuvrings to install Monti as prime minister in 2011.


Grillo targets Renzi’s grand-coalition government, rather than ‘the rich’, for ‘destroying the welfare state, the rights of workers and the education system and selling off strategic Italian assets’ to pay down the debt.

This was the key point for the NLR national sovereigntists,

Grillo, who had given full support to the Syriza referendum, derided the capitulation—‘It would have been hard to defend the interests of the Greek people worse than Tsipras did’—and went on to formulate a Plan B for monetary sovereignty within the eu.

This is her conclusion – bizarre as it looks today,

Italy’s Five Star Movement, which can’t properly be categorized as social-democratic—although the policy overlaps are remarkable: M5S shares Sanders’s views on immigration, Mélenchon’s on the euro, Corbyn’s on Western military intervention. One difference is Grillo’s stress on helping small and medium-sized manufacturers: although they all say this, he really seems to mean it—this is his own social background, after all, and an sme orientation also speaks to M5S’s new, ex-Lega supporters.

Another lies in the distinctive social demographics of the Five Stars’ base: they do well among students, the unemployed, unskilled workers, retailers and craftsmen, but less well among white-collar workers and badly among teachers—sectors that are far more supportive of Sanders, Corbyn, the Front de gauche and Podemos.footnote19 The reasons for that may lie in scepticism about the Five Stars’ version of online direct democracy—which can seem whimsical and, indeed, undemocratic—or dislike of Grillo’s coarseness: encouraging his audiences to shout ‘Vaffanculo!’ at images of politicians with criminal convictions, for example. But however poor Grillo’s taste, or repellent his jokes, M5S should be judged, like any political movement, by its actions. Its voter base, despite an influx of Lega Nord and ex-Berlusconi supporters, is still predominantly on the left.

A clearer analysis of the 5 Star Movement was hardly hiding in the broad daylight of left political journals.

Back in 2013 this appeared in Red Pepper,

How Beppe Grillo stole the left’s clothes. Lorenzo Fe 

Let us make clear that this is no victory for the left. M5S is an extremely ambiguous phenomenon. As Giuliano Santoro points out, Grillo and the co-founder of his movement, marketer Gianroberto Casaleggio, are both millionaires with a proprietorial conception of their organisation.

M5S’s constitution, written by Grillo and Casaleggio, states: ‘The name of the Five Star Movement is attached to a trademark registered under the name of Beppe Grillo, the sole holder of rights on its use.’ These rights have been consistently used to expel anyone who has tried to make the movement more autonomous from Grillo’s personal style of leadership.

rillo claims that ‘left’ and ‘right’ are now useless categories. Accordingly, he mixes environmentalism, degrowth and anti-austerity with anti-immigration remarks typical of the far right (for example he rejects citizenship for the children of migrants). When talking to CasaPound, who are self-declared fascists, Grillo stated that ‘anti-fascism’ does not concern him and that everybody is welcome to join the movement.

As the leftist collective of authors Wu Ming noted, Grillo’s proposals are ‘a chaotic programme where neoliberal and anti-neoliberal, centralist and federalist, libertarian and authoritarian ideas coexist’. Wu Ming also accuse Grillo of having channelled popular discontent against austerity in a purely electoral and politically very ambivalent direction, suggesting that this is one of the reasons why there was no Occupy or Indignados movement in Italy.

On the real nature of the 5 Star movement Toby himself noted,

The authors acknowledge that populism is not always rightwing, since no Italian political scientist can ignore the rise and fall of the left-populist Italia dei Valori party led by Antonio Di Pietro. But they see most successful European populist parties of recent times as being on the right (often the extreme right), and marked by anti-immigrant and anti-EU stances in their programmes. The problem with M5S for political scientists is that it fits neither category particularly well. Its original programme – the Carta di Firenze of 2009 – claimed that the Five Stars of its title stood for “[public] water, environment, [public] transport, [sustainable] development and [renewable] energy”.

However, whilst the original 2009 programme has never been repudiated, the absolute centrality to the party of Grillo’s blog has meant that he has shifted M5S to the right by repeated ex cathedra pronouncements on that blog about such topics as immigration. As Vignati points out (p19), “In 2000, Grillo criticised the ‘natural racism’ of Italians”. Regardless of whether Grillo’s recent anti-immigrant stance – particularly his opposition to the granting of Italian citizenship to the children of immigrants born in Italy – is due to electoral considerations, as Lorenzo Mosca suggests on p159, or to the influence of Gianroberto Casaleggio, as Vignati seems to imply on p19, it does make it impossible to define M5S as ‘left-libertarian’ in programmatic terms.

Casaleggio’s assertion in a 2013 text – that “M5S sees the word ‘leader’ as belonging to the past; it is a dirty word, perverted” – is unceasingly belied by its practice, for, as Vignati rightly observes, “its ‘leaderist’ character prevails over the ‘leaderless’ rhetoric with which it is imbued” (p11). Given the emphasis on political families for classificatory purposes, it is rather surprising that none of the contributors comment on Grillo’s lash-up with Farage in the European parliament.

On whether the 5 Star Movement was ever ‘left’ he notes,

There is some disagreement amongst the contributors as to whether the M5S electorate could ever have been categorised as predominantly leftwing, although there seems to be broad agreement that its current constituency is very heterogeneous. Andrea Pedrazzani and Luca Pinto in chapter 4 – ‘The electoral base: the “political revolution” in evolution’ (pp76-98) – see the 2012 local elections as a watershed. Before then, “more than half of Five Star voters expressed preferences ranging from extreme left to centre left (52%) and the rest were divided between respondents who refused to be placed along the left-right dimension (21.6%), centre voters (13%) and rightwing voters (13.4%)” (p94). After the 2013 general election, “the percentage of leftwing voters in the M5S was just 38.4%; rightwing voters almost doubled, increasing to 22.3%; and people who refused to be placed along the left-right divide reached 27.7%” (p95). Or, to quote the same authors’ less statistical summary, “In its early days, the M5S was quite similar to those supporting the left-libertarian parties that formed across Europe in the 80s” (p95), but “Grillo’s anti-system stance has led to a relevant change in the composition of the Five Star electorate, which has gradually become more heterogeneous” (p96).

Also worth looking at:

More articles by comrade Toby: from 2018 to early 2019.

Italy’s government provoking a clash with EU

Against the background of attempts to form a new rightwing coalition across Europe, Toby Abse looks at the manoeuvrings of the rival Italian populists.

Recession and xenophobia

Toby Abse reports on the latest shenanigans of the right-populist government – and the stirrings of organised working class opposition



Written by Andrew Coates

August 9, 2019 at 4:56 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Bastani also fell for this, natch.

  2. Something more to remember about him!

    Andrew Coates

    August 9, 2019 at 5:42 pm

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