Not So Funny

Supernova: Com’è stato ucciso il MoVimento 5 Stelle [Supernova: How the Five Star Movement Was Killed]

by Marco Canestrari and Nicola Biondo
StreetLib, 283 pp., €14.99 (ebook)
Beppe Grillo
Beppe Grillo; drawing by Siegfried Woldhek

The immediate future of Italian politics is now in the hands of a famous comedian whose party might form an alliance with a far-right party that once advocated the secession of the northern regions of Italy. Both parties share an antagonistic attitude toward the European Union. How did all this come to pass?

In the early 1990s Italy’s GDP equaled or even surpassed that of Great Britain, making it the world’s fifth-largest economy. This was all the more remarkable given that the cold war had frozen Italian politics; the presence of the largest Communist Party in Western Europe had prevented the normal alternation of left and right governments. This led to virtual one-party rule by the Christian Democrats, a deeply entrenched patronage system, and widespread corruption. However, the European Union’s standardization of currency and a nationwide investigation into political corruption were expected to rein in government profligacy and waste, strengthen democracy, and encourage economic prosperity.

This did not happen. Today, Italy’s GDP is 36 percent smaller than the UK’s—the result of twenty-five years of economic stagnation. Despite a slight recovery in the past two years, Italy’s GDP—and the average Italian family’s purchasing power—is still more than 10 percent smaller than it was before the recession of 2008–2009. Unemployment is over 11 percent and about 33 percent for people under twenty-five who are not in school. Those who do find work are barely scraping by. According to the Bank of Italy, 30 percent of Italians thirty-five and under earn about $1,000 a month, forcing them to live with their parents, delay or forgo having children, or leave the country. Nearly two million people—most of them young, educated, and skilled—have left in the past ten years.

It is no surprise, then, that Italian voters in the national elections on March 4 rejected the parties that have run the country for the past generation. The chief beneficiaries of this general disaffection were two protest parties. One was the Lega, which ran on the promise of kicking out the country’s estimated 600,000 illegal immigrants and won nearly 18 percent of the vote. But the biggest winner—at 33 percent—was the Five Star Movement (FSM), founded by the comedian Beppe Grillo.

The FSM is another expression of the populist wave that has swept so many Western democracies in the past several years. It has a loud, foul-mouthed, and charismatic leader who dares to say what others only think; it makes innovative use of digital technology and social media; it advocates economic protectionism; it stokes anti-immigrant sentiment, violent anger at the traditional press, and skepticism of established experts and professional politicians. And it has a soft spot for Vladimir Putin.

The FSM also draws on left-wing populist ideas: a guaranteed minimum income, environmentalism, and a deep distrust of global capitalism. It has developed new forms of political participation and expressed a strong idealistic desire to clean up politics, limit the…

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