No Party, No Pope and No President: Italy’s Anarchist Moment


March 07, 2013 15:45 EDT

With a prospect of a hung parliament following recent elections and Italy’s major public and political figures out of the picture, will a new movement gain momentum?

By mid-1920s, an Italian anarchist group, Gli Arditi d’Italia (Italy’s Daring Ones), counted some 50,000 members and sympathisers, and its most prominent member was called Errico Malatesta. Fascism ranted and raved across the country and the Pope manifested his understood support for the rising dux, in the face of personal sympathy and powerlessness. Revolution for this ardent group of resistance was an act of will, a leap forward beyond the socio-economic calculus, and the rationalities of the professions of politics. But the will did not suffice and Italy’s Daring Ones were progressively outnumbered by the grassroots ranks and files of the Fascist militias, The Blackskirts. What happened next lies in the untold and told of history books.

“Italy Cannot be Governed”?

After ninety years, the country is without its dux economicus (Mr Monti) following the stepping down of its dux mediaticus (Mr Berlusconi) and, most unusually, pontifex maximum (Mr Ratzinger). The popular saying,  “Italy cannot be governed”, is a self-fulfilling prophecy. For most commentators Italy’s political chaos, its peoples and institutions’ ungovernability, and the popular disinterest for rules and regulations is the cause of its current malaise. Regardless of the value of these common places, which are often used by Italians as a ground for debates and sarcasm, without a taint of self-defense, anarchy is a spectre, among other phantoms, which wanders in Italy’s streets, where Europe is only coterminous.

The last elections decreed the rejection of austerity measures in toto and sanctioned the return to electoral anomaly. The centre-left Democratic Party (PD) did not reach 30% while Mr Berlusconi’s party did not win and did not lose. The Milanese politician succeeded in mobilising its silent minority of voters, made of private interests, non-wage earners, propertied classes and the enchanted strata with his media, with a campaign made of common promises and the unsaid hope of not enforcing rules on tax evasion. Furthermore, unsurprisingly, the EU-imposed Prime Minister Mario Monti was given a cold addio, with little more than 10% votes. Matter of surprise is not Berlusconi’s resilience in the political scene, despite innumerable gaffes, trials and failure to deliver his dreams of prosperity. Indeed while the leader of the centre-right party achieved 30% of the vote (including the quasi-separatist North League), in reality 70% of the votes went to overtly anti-Berlusconi parties. After all, every country has its own political idiosyncrasies and Italy is no exception.

Yet, the state of exception is Italy’s anti-political movement, the5-Star Movement (M5S) headed by the comedian Beppe Grillo. The scope of Grillo’s victory signed the end of the old political context in diametrical lines and brought the debate towards systemic analysis of Italy’s institutions and polity. Under the veneer of populism and vaffanculism, (translatable as ‘f**k-off-ism’) which were also traits of Mussolini’s “anti-party” Fascist movement in the 1920s (as described in the Spectator), the M5S emblemised many of the contradictions of Italian politics and society. Italy’s taste for populism is not new, but the success of the M5S invites an alternative justification.

When European leaders pledged unconditional support for the English-speaking and internationally-travelled Mario Monti, Italians were simultaneously realising that unelected EU institutions were embezzling their already limited representative governance. When the country’s unemployment soared in face of the economic crisis, the political leadership first ignored the materiality of the crisis under Berlusconi and then justified draconian moves of austerity, through an informally illegitimate government supported by the centre-left PD and the exiting ruling party, with little regard to popular dissent. Thus, when Italians casted their ballots with a vote of protest, they did not chose to be traditional in their support for left-leaning parties; nor did they vote for nationalist or neo-fascist groups such as La Destra, Casa PoundForza Nuova, which saw their share of votes falling to disappearance. All these and other votes from the undecided electorate seemed to have conveyed into Grillo’s movement, which achieved an astonishing 25%, only three years after its creation in 2009. With the prospect of a hung parliament and the mobilisational capacity of his party, Grillo displayed contempt for offers by other political parties, inviting them to dig their graves with a self-defeating governissimo, a left-right coalition.

“Break-through on the Left”

A great deal of words has been spent on this election, yet to capture the essence of Grillo’s movement, one should emphasise his political syncretism, his outrage beyond “left and right”, which has been capable of attracting sympathies across the social, generational and political spectrum of Italian politics, in tandem with the movement’s campaign in favour of largely popular ad hoc policies, such as electoral reform, cuts in the politicians’ wages, etc. On this platform the movement attracted those undecided that could understand a language of clear, unrhetorical ideas, and had enough of the old refrains of slander and accusation between the two camps of Italian politics: Berlusconi’s opponents and the 76-year old billionaire. It was a vote of protest, but rooted in decades of unrelenting political opprobrium, widening gap between people and authorities and the disenchantment with the matter of politics as traditionally conceived. As this happened, the M5S, regardless of its real political leanings which seem sympathetic to “third way” politics (in the past exemplified in the UK, by the Official National Front or neo-fascist parties in Italy), expressed the sentiments of a large section of disillusioned people, for whom change needed to be carried by new faces and the language of the ordinary, or the too ordinary. Therefore, the M5S operated the “break-through on the left” and attracted leftist voters, beyond its anti-EU positions. The movement played the game with the language of new media (e.g. blogs), but also established itself locally, similarly to what the North League had done in the late 1990s.

If there is something positive in these elections is the “positive danger” it represents for Italy’s political class as a whole.  The “tsunami”, as said by Grillo himself, will probably leave few traces of the old political guard. Yet, this huge mass of discontent and indignation against the institutional stasis could lend itself to future xenophobic waves, as disclosed in some of Grillo’s statements about citizenship rights and his violent anti-EU language. The 5-Star Movement is diverse and syncretic; almost surely, those elected in parliament are not able to formulate a coherent approach to political government, beyond the agreement on ad hocpolicies. They bear the legacy of their previous affiliations, which often is marked by right-wing movements.

The negative danger lies in the issue of leadership, which in many instances has brought Italy to a rightist drift, with Mussolini, Berlusconi…With the cataclysmic resignation of the Pope, which left a spiritless religious country without its conservative façade, and where President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano will soon step down, neutralising the last bulwark of the status quo, people may be worried of a new anarchist moment, engendered by the lack of traditional institutional breaks. Yet, this is indeed the best opportunity for them to exercise influence on wanderer politicians, who in the absence of systemic forces are more likely to listen than to perform the daily corruptions of Italian politics. When in the 1920s Benito Mussolini started its anti-communist campaign, Italy’s Socialist Party reached an appeasement with him and the Communist Party opted for a pragmatic, failed, approach of containment. Italy’s Daring Ones, supported also by Antonio Gramsci, remained among the few forces to actively oppose fascist populist encroaching, with persistence and engagement. If today, Italian progressive elements opt for a strategy of appeasement with populism or lean towards those who oppose the M5S by the means of European austerity and pragmatism, the M5S will be able to gather even more momentum and could eventually follow a path of xenophobic anti-politics, transforming the political debate not to the language of bread and fight, but degrading it to an emptyvaffanculo!


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