Five Stars: dreaming of a radically new politics

There has been a great deal of media speculation about the prospect of a new centre party in the UK. Meanwhile in many countries in Europe, new insurgent parties have been spectacularly successful for example in Spain, France, Greece and Italy. We are publishing a series of blogs (on Fridays) describing the experience from other European countries with the view of collating experience  and identify how a new party might break into British politics, given the inherent barriers of the first past the post system. The second one, by Corrado Poli, looks at the insurgent Five Star movement in Italy.

The word ‘party’ apparently derives from ‘part’. It means that parties represent sections of society. Typically, in the mass society, the classic division was between working class and the bourgeoisie. Later, in some countries like France, Germany and Italy, it transformed into conservative and progressive which shuffled the traditional social class allegiance.

In fact, a significant share of the intellectual bourgeoisie joined the working class in their fight to implement more advanced and modern individual rights and social justice in order to accelerate social change. Thus, after World War II, the crucial political conflict happened between the progressives – supported by and supporting the working class – who wanted to speed up the untamable modernisation, urbanisation, industrialisation and secularisation processes, and the conservatives who tried to slow it down.

In some countries, different political features appeared: in Italy and Germany the Christian Democrats were inspired by the idea of class co-operation rather than conflict (Marxists) or just competition (radical libertarians). In the UK and in Italy, smaller parties – the Liberals and the Socialists respectively – formed and played a progressive role by representing a more defined social section.

However, all the political competition happened in a mass society in which life-styles were directly related to social class cultures and later just to income levels, when modernisation was definitely achieved.

This political structure has effectively operated until approximately twenty or so years ago, then it began to decline. Recent social studies claim that we passed from a mass and class society to a new social environment in which people aggregate according to different life-styles or sub-cultures.

One might accept or question this approach, consider it temporary or a long-lasting feature of future social organisation: however, in the short run, politics is dealing with this unconventional form of social grouping and its contradictory – according to the still reigning nineteenth century philosophies – political choices.

Political organisation is still profoundly rooted in the power and governance system, not to speak of the political rhetoric that still employs outdated unappealing language. Long-established and well-organised traditional parties have occupied the power strongholds. Depending on each country’s laws and practices, they are still able to finance themselves and their political campaigns either by public finance or thanks to private donors. And of course, by illegal means and hidden funds, which have become more and more ‘necessary’ because the rising costs of political campaigns and consensus building.

Recently, two major facts have happened that have changed the rules of the political game. First, old parties have gradually lost control of a society that has transformed so that they keep losing more and more fragments of their constituencies. Second, the power-friendly mainstream media are no longer as persuasive as they used to be over the public opinion and are challenged by the social networks that have become the main source of information to most citizens.

Political campaigning and the forming of public opinion on the Internet is way cheaper than in newspapers, on TV, door to door and through advertising devices. This major change in the forming of public opinion has reduced the competitiveness of the conventional political organisations that are not practically and philosophically fit to cope in the new informational environment.

Incidentally, this radical change only partly regards the individual social values which tend to be quite stable; essentially it concerns the governance and representation system. Though the vote-shifts have increased significantly in recent years, voters’ loyalty to “their own” party is usually hard to undermine.

Five Stars Movement typically refuses funds that the government appropriates to parties for their political campaigns. Because they cannot refuse the money, they created a fund to support new companies and build infrastructures (which admittedly is another form of propaganda).

Also, the Members of Parliament devolve a large part of their allowances for the same purposes. But to start the successful Grillo’s blog and in general to make the movement move the first steps, some substantial investment was likely necessary. This money probably came from the Casaleggio company and other investors. Everyday political activity is completely self-financed by activists.

In some respect, Italy has been the harbinger of the ongoing radical political change. Berlusconi’s style has anticipated Trump in large Western countries, though this is not something to be proud of. More recently, that is in the last ten years, and more intensively in the last five, the Five Stars Movement (they refuse to be called a party) has been challenging the party system establishment.

They began as a protest populist faction led by Beppe Grillo, a brilliant comedian who transformed political rallies into real shows. However, Grillo has never been an alien to politics: since the eighties his shows were highly politicised to the extent that he was banned from Italian public television networks for his repeated challenge to the ruling classes.

Differently from other political movements, since the beginning they used internet and social networks. Thanks to a smart communication strategy developed by Gian Roberto Casaleggio, Grillo’s mentor, his blog soon became one of the most visited in the world.

Five Stars’ voters are quite diverse among them in many respects; they are united by mainly expressing a plain protest vote triggered by a generic discontent generated by the economic and social crisis. On the other hand, the Movement’s activists are younger and more educated than in other parties’ organisations for two major reasons:

(a) the crucial role of the Internet and virtual contacts.

(b) besides the protest against the government that collected the most emotional vote, the Movement’s messages focused on issues such as environment and connectivity. As a consequence, women are more active than in other political formations independently from equal opportunity laws.

Because of this particular membership, Five Stars Movement’s platform and basic values are considerably different from other populist parties who are successful all over Europe and the United States – if you consider Trump part of them. Mainly, the Movement does not represent the right sector and is free from any fascist or Nazi legacy, neither does it call for the preservation of old traditions or some national identity.

Activists are future-oriented, non-violent and anti-war, socially inclusive with immigrants, pro education, and so on. And straightforwardly against the establishment! If they refuse some typical European right sector slogans, does it mean they are leftists? They are not in as much as they are not rightists. They fish in both constituencies and mainly among the people who would not vote if the Five Stars were not there.

In other words, they aim at representing the unrepresented who, to a large extent, are the educated new ‘prof-letarians’: young professional Europeans, with no children and no (or unsatisfactory) job.

Prof-letarians have a high opinion of themselves and this is good (why not?). The problem is that they also have unachievable high expectations about income and social status. These thirtyish-fortyish people are unlikely to gain the income and the social status they aim at because currently the supply of educated people is abundant compared to the demand.

Therefore, they are frustrated and see in the Five Stars both an opportunity for a new policy and a way to express their anger against a society that in their opinion marginalises them. They are teachers (who would like to be) academicians, professional trained in not yet well-established careers, lawyers, musicians, artists, and in general persons active and skilled in jobs that still lack a competitive market.

Surprisingly, these still generic ideological features of the participants in the Movement, have not been explicitly elaborated either by some self-proclaimed or elected leader nor do they refer to some intellectual elaboration. At least, this is the common perception at first glance.

Critics of the Movement claim that there was a hidden strategy in diffusing short repetitive and apparently occasional messages that in the long term created and are creating the shared ideology or language of the Movement. Movements’ promoters reply that Five Stars’ ideology is merely the outcome of the way the activists aggregate on the net. They maintain that the political proposals of the Movement emerge from an open debate and are voted online.

Thus, citizens first aggregate online, then ideas, a proposal and eventually the overall platform follow. In a way, it proves the famous McLuhan’s quote “the medium is the message”.

In this respect, the Movement is ideology-free, but at the same time it represents a part of the electorate that lacks or distrusts membership in other parties.

Adversaries of the Movement have been and still are suspicious of the role of the Casaleggio Associati, a well-established public relations and communication company somehow connected with financial power. The company was led, until his premature death last year, by Gian Roberto Casaleggio, a media and communication expert and a visionary. Someone suspected that the grassroots (or internet) democracy endorsed by the Movement was indeed heavily conditioned by the Casaleggio Associati. Certainly, Gian Roberto Casaleggio who bequeathed the company direction to his son Davide, played a major role in the establishment of the movement.

Whether the Casaleggio Associati responds to some real ‘stay-behind’ power is uncertain and definitely unproven. It is also difficult to foretell whether the Casaleggio Associati or some external interest group can really keep under control the online voting system and the very flexible structure of the Movement.

They might have created an organisation purposely designed to go out-of-their-control. Nonetheless, and contrary to traditional politics, this is an irrelevant issue. As a matter of fact, the Movement’s leaders are not interested in implementing their own ideas and convincing the electorate to follow them. Rather they want to find and lead an electorate that forms online as the output of a poll.

The founders of Five Stars’ politics believe that their role is not to propose ideas and programmes, but to represent what the people communicate. Political philosophers would argue a lot about the pros and cons of this approach, but it is definitely a new entry that cannot be included into the long-lasting dualism between right vs. left, labour vs. conservative, socialism vs. libertarianism.

Moreover, differently from the traditional politics, the Five Star constituencies form on the net and have no direct contact either with geography or with established institutions like Unions, clubs, associations, vested interests, churches and so on. The Movement’s elected members call themselves ‘citizens’ speakers’ (portavoce in Italian) and they don’t like the word ‘leader’ given to the most prominent persons that obviously arose in the course of time.

There is a clear conceptual contradiction: an ideology that refuses ideology is a strong ideology especially because it is foreign to any well-established political and scholarly tradition. Thus, to promote it you need convincing leaders and to achieve political success an elaborated organisation – no matter if just virtual – is required. A scholarly and in-depth analysis of this aspect is still to be elaborated.

In the beginning, the Five Stars’ representatives refused to participate in any TV political talk-show and didn’t release interviews to newspapers because they did not trust mainstream media independence. This was also a communication strategy that worked well to create an aura of diversity and curiosity. After having elected several members of Parliament and other representative in civil institutions, the Movement’s leaders dismissed the ban and now the participation is equal to other political groups.

Five Stars’ communication style has not influenced significantly other parties. However, they have been somewhat effective in fighting against corruption and in forcing the government to pass some laws they proposed or sustained. For instance, if the Five Stares were not loudly calling for a reduction of politicians’ privileges, it would have been unlikely that the Parliament would have reduced their members’ allowances.

One major characteristic of Five Stars Movement is that they refuse to participate in any coalition with other parties both at state level and locally. This has become particularly inconvenient because the new electoral law – clearly designed to penalise the Movement which in the polls is supposed to be the first party – favours party coalitions by assigning the majority in the Parliament to the coalition (and not to the single party) that wins more votes than the others.

The refusal to make any alliance is meant to stress the diversity of the Movement from any other political group. It’s possible – if not likely – that, after the election, especially if the votes of the Five Stars will be necessary to form a government, the Movement will split in two parts: the fundamentalists and the collaborationists.

The Movement lacks any grassroots organisation hence it performs poorly in local elections in which often it is not even interested to participate actively. Their aggregation is not physical and they can perform well in large metropolises – that by the way are not so numerous in Italy whose population mostly lives in small towns – and at national or European level.

The future of Five Stars Movement is uncertain. They have been an active and influential opposition for almost five years now. The turning point will be the next Parliamentary elections that will take place next spring in Italy.

Some analysts think that it might dissolve as quickly as it was established because of its very light and virtual structure. Others believe that it will last and other parties are indeed imitating the same strategy and party organisation.

Whatever happens in real politics, one thing is certain: Casaleggio and the Five Stars brought into politics lots of new ideas with which everyone will have to deal with in the future.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


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