As Steve Bannon paraded around Rome last week ahead of the Italian elections, he looked noticeably calmer than usual. Posing for photographers in front of Bernini’s iconic baroque fountain in Piazza Navona, the conspirator par excellence spoke enthusiastically about his “fascination” with the political forces at work in the country, and his genuine desire “to learn” from a context that he defined as “central for the evolution of populism in Europe.” For Italy in particular, where mistrust of the political class is soaring, this outside intervention—a novelty itself in what is perceived as an arcane and inward looking political environment—helped fuel the sense that change, for once, might be possible.
When the results came in, many were expecting a watershed moment, and, in a strange way, despite the dizzying pie charts and resigned proclamations of a hung parliament, this is what they got. The so-called populist parties obtained 50 percent of the vote share, with the chameleon anti-establishment and Euroskeptic Five Star Movement (M5S) emerging as the largest single party with 32 percent and the far-right Lega winning around 18 percent. While no single party or coalition is yet in a position to take control—and any number of backroom deals may be made in the days or most likely weeks—this shift is one that shows a deep discontent with the incumbent partitocracy, with neoliberal globalization and, just as importantly, with the left. It was, in other words, the closest thing to Trumpism possible in Italy today.
The most spectacular result, though hardly unsurprising, was the collapse of Matteo Renzi’s flailing Partito Democratico (PD) which, in its worst-ever performance, ended with around 20 percent of the vote share. Renzi’s government had been heavily criticized across the political spectrum for failing to create jobs and resurrect a moribund economy, but also to offer a practicable policy in refugee accommodation (or, to counter the Lega in particular, deportations). This dissatisfaction with the major parties, however, was not confined to the democrats. The other more surprising victim of the night was Silvio Berlusconi, whose center-right Forza Italia lost out to the Lega and won just 14 percent of the vote, hardly the triumphant return that was being prematurely heralded by international media. Ten years ago these combined forces made up over 70 percent of the vote. Now they are struggling to meet half that figure.
It was this great hollowing out that has fuelled the fire of the M5S, Italy’s most complicated and contradictory political force. The movement, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo and now-deceased tech entrepreneur Gianroberto Casaleggio, has repeatedly claimed to be “beyond left and right,” exhibiting a brazen arrogance that has seen it universally sneered at by the vast majority of academics, journalists, and political commentators since its birth in 2009. At the ballot box, though, it was a different story. Last night’s results overwhelmingly confirm M5S is in fact one of most successful insurgent forces of a new political era, far surpassing the importance of other young, if ideologically diverse, movements such as Podemos in Spain (21 percent) or the Czech Pirates (10 percent). To have established such deep roots in such a short space of time, in a country with such embedded power structures as Italy is by any measure, a remarkable achievement. No wonder, then, that Bannon was so keen to take a peek from the inside.
On paper, and taken at face value, much of the M5S program sounds appealing. Testament to this is the sheer variety of their public supporters, including alt-right commentators, radical left intellectuals like Dario Fo and Bifo Berardi (the latter has since retracted his support), and even Bill Emmott, former editor of the Economist, who despite some reservations was surprisingly enthusiastic about M5S when I interviewed him in the run-up to the vote. Few indeed could argue with the idea that that Italy’s notoriously corrupt republic needs a new force to clean up the system, to “drain the swap” in Trump’s words. What M5S have done so cleverly is to occupy this space with an additional commitment to tackling all the other things that the incumbent parties have failed on: environmental commitments, democratic participation, and technological innovation, to name just three. As for the economy, M5S has campaigned in favor of a basic income (without presenting any cost estimates) as a measure to protect an increasingly precarious working class that has been abandoned by the system. Looking at the strong support in the country’s impoverished southern regions like Sicily, Campania, and Puglia, as well as with the chronically unemployed young, this gamble seems to have paid off.
The appeal is easy to understand, at least in theory. So why has the movement been so criticized? And why, following their most recent success, are so many in a state of panic? First, of course, are the realities behind these pretty words. It is hard to take M5S’s remarks on direct and internal democracy seriously when candidates have historically been forced to toe the party line to such an extent that members have been expelled for “crimes” such as talking to the “fake news” on mainstream TV. Then there is the question of ownership. For a movement that prides itself on transparency, the nonprofit organization that manages the M5S digital platform, Rousseau, is remarkably cagey about where its presumably vast advertising revenue ends up. More tangibly still. the movement has seemed on the back foot thanks to the unambiguous ineptitude of several local representatives. In the past year alone Virginia Raggi, the Five Star mayor of Rome, has presided over several corruption scandals and a dramatic worsening of public services, from transport to the now infamous garbage crisis. None of this however has affected their anti-political appeal at the national level.
One of the most important aspects to note about M5S, however, leaving aside all superficially attractive aspects of their program, is the movement’s gradual but decisive shift towards the right. In reality glimpses of this were visible from the very beginning—in what were passed off as occasional rhetorical gaffes, such as when one candidate likened gay sex to bestiality, or, more recently when the movement’s leader Luigi Di Maio made the bizzare claim that Italy is importing 40 percent of Romania’s criminals. More recently this kind of talk has translated into actual policy. Under Raggi’s mayoralty, there have been several evictions of shelters hosting refugees in Rome, as well as widespread talk of deportations at a national level, not to mention consistent fear mongering about rising crime due to immigrants (in fact, as ISTAT data shows, crime in Italy is actually decreasing and there is no easy correlation with areas of dense immigration).
Trump’s victory in 2016 was a turning point here, a watershed moment that Grillo welcomed in typically brash fashion as a “big fuck you to the world!” From this point on it should have been impossible to suggest that policies such as their famous basic income could be funded in any other way than through protectionist, nationalist, and ultimately, in the context of unstoppable people flow, racist politics. Just as worrying, as with America’s alt-right, M5S’s political identity has been premised on the encouraging of fake news. In 2016, following the Trump victory, Buzzfeed’s Alberto Nardelli published an in-depth investigation unveiling a large network of misinformation, propagated by M5S-affiliated sites via Twitter and Facebook and circulating articles with origins at Russian outlets such as Sputnik. Among them were a host of entirely fictitious stories about the CIA trafficking immigrants across the Mediterranean, dystopian “woke” indoctrination programs facilitated by anti-measles vaccines, as well as personal, slanderous campaigns against Matteo Renzi, including allegations that he is secretly moonlighting as a pimp.
While M5S may have once have enjoyed pretentions of surpassing all ideologies and historic divisions, it is increasingly evident that their political paradigm has become, and perhaps always was, premised on the same postmodern populism that so successfully fueled Donald Trump’s rise to power. What’s truly novel in Italy is that they have brought so much of the left with them on their rightward journey. When Bannon fantasized about the “ultimate dream” of a M5S-Lega government last week, there was a collective sigh of despair, not only from the left, but many supporters of the rising populist movements too. Whatever alliance emerges in the backroom talks, the challenge for both parties will be to maintain their newfound bases in a changed political landscape.
Jamie Mackay is a writer and translator based in Italy. He is a contributor to openDemocracy, the New Statesman, VICE, and Il Manifesto, among others, and a press coordinator at European Alternatives.
This article originally appeared at Political Critique.