The Magazine

The Fall of Rome

Bankrupt and bloodied, Italy’s political elite clings to power

May 13, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 33 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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It is tough to say what Grillo and his followers stand for. They don’t really have an economic plan. Grillo himself believes in French ideas of décroissance, or “ungrowing,” associated with the economist Serge Latouche (and attractively expressed in decades past by such thinkers as Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich). One of the new Five-Star deputies in Rome explained to me that the party would like to scrap a proposed high-speed train in order to hire people to make buildings more energy efficient, and in general to have more people work at home. “Progress does not mean doing the same thing,” he said. “It’s doing things with fewer resources.” This may sound bizarre, but in a country where low birthrates mean Italy will lose a quarter of its population in a generation or so, to believe in shrinkage is to be on the side of history. The Five-Star deputies are among the only Italians to have faced this question somewhat squarely.

Grillo’s people have fought against NATO bases in Sicily and trash incinerators in Parma. They want tax cuts and say the Italian tax authorities are a tyranny. They have called for a referendum on whether Italy should stay in the common European currency. Like the left, they want to claw back the wealth that rich people won before the financial crisis (il bottino, Grillo calls it, “the booty”). Like the right, they are not crazy about the idea that everyone born to a member of Italy’s rapidly growing immigrant population deserves Italian citizenship. And there are echoes of Mussolini’s rhetoric in some of Grillo’s rhetoric, including his warning to the political class​—​“Surrender! You are surrounded by the Italian people!” A millenarian video made by Casaleggio descries the machinations of “masonic, religious, and financial groups” in contemporary politics, and Grillo’s website was lit up last week with discussion of Letta’s having addressed the international businessmen’s roundtable known as the Bilderberg Group.

Most of all, the Five-Star Movement hates corruption. It distrusts Berlusconi and his People of Liberty party (PdL). It dislikes Berlusconi for the familiar reasons injected into the international press by Berlusconi’s opponents in the Italian literary elite: his influence-peddling, his control of Italian television, his dalliances with teenage girls, and, less avowedly, his wealth. Unlike the Italian literary elite, though, the M5S brings skepticism to Italy’s Democratic party as well. The PD is the home of trade union patronage, and Grillo warns that unions are “just like the parties: old organizations that history, not me, will shut down.” The PD builds its prestige and lines its pockets and then erupts into dudgeon should anyone suggest that it cares about anything other than the interests of the poor. Grillo calls it the “PdL without the L.”


In the short term, the M5S has two major gripes about political corruption: First, the metastasis of parliamentary seats​—​Italy has 315 senators, not counting its appointed “senators-for-life,” and these seats are all starting points for little empires of patronage. The second gripe​—​and do note the contrast to American ideas of fighting corruption​—​is the public funding of campaigns, which provides the money that lubricates those patronage empires. Ending public finance of political parties is the one M5S reform plank so popular that Letta on his first day as prime minister announced he would pursue it. 

The M5S, however wackily, aims to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. It chose its list of deputies and senators in an Internet election. In the first days of parliament its members objected to sitting in a bloc as part of the usual left-to-right fan; they preferred to sit in the back rows, as the montagnards of the French Revolution did, and for the same symbolic reasons​—​they want to remain away from, but above, power. The M5S deputies call each other “citizen” rather than “honorable.” There have been dozens of convicted criminals in Italy’s parliament in recent years, and high on the list of its rules is the exclusion of members with criminal records. That excludes Grillo himself, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in 1981 for a driving accident in which three passengers were killed.

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