5 Star Movement: A Populist Alternative to Italian Neoliberal Politics

March General Elections Results. Source:    theguardian.com

March General Elections Results. Source: theguardian.com

Interviewee: Ciro Brescia (Five Star Movement)
Interviewer: Dae-Han Song (English Chief Editor)
Editor: Andrea Schnitzer (Editing Team)

The interview was carried out through text on May 9 with Ciro Brescia, a member of Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S) since its inception. Present since its beginning as Meetup groups around the renowned anti-corruption comic and leader Beppe Grillo, Ciro Brescia has witnessed the M5S trajectory from inception to its recent rise to government.

We wanted to learn more about this populist movement - despite vying for power in government, the M5S rejects the label of party - that has generated so much support and at times appears conservative and at others progressive. Brescia, who identifies as a Communist, explains the contradictions and potential of the M5S in changing Italy by exploring the political context out of which it was born and those that compose its ranks.

While the interview is historical in nature, an update is necessary as (after the interview) a government was formed by the two populist anti-establishment parties: the left-wing populist M5S (with the most votes at over 32%) and right-wing populist League (3rd most votes at over 17%). Appended to the interview is a follow-up question about the populist coalition and Ciro’s response.

1. Could you briefly introduce yourself? (your organization, when you started your social movement work, and your role at the M5S)

I started my political activity in the social movements and then later with the Rifondazione Comunista party in the mid 90s. I found myself always much more in favor of the left wing of the party. I distanced myself from that party when I realized that its leadership was only interested in elections. I’ve always been very attentive of international affairs, especially about Bolivarian Venezuela during the 2002 imperialist coupe against Commander Chavez.

In Italy, we started creating a network of “complementary currencies” as a form of popular resistance front against the crisis of the neoliberal capitalist system. One of the groups that was deepening this issue was congregating around the meetups of the friends of Beppe Grillo. These were the first core bases from which the 5 Star Movement was born in order to participate in the election and compete for control of the government. Some of the characteristics of this movement are reminiscent of the National Liberation Committees (NLC) formed in Italy after World War 2 in order to fight the fascist regime and which was able to establish the first Italian republic. The NLC was made up of various tendencies that were progressive, conservative and liberal: communists, socialist, republicans, Christian democrats, liberals to some that before had supported the monarchy and those that had distanced themselves from fascism.

I was a candidate in the first regional election of the MoVimiento in 2010, when M5S just barely began to take its first steps. Since then, we have been working to educate people about the experiences of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) countries through our various institutional spokespeople that were elected in these last two legislatures.

2. Could you describe how the M5S developed? What were the conditions that created M5S? How has M5S changed?

Although Venezuela comes from a semi-colonial history and Italy is an imperialist country, from the beginning, the M5S reminded me of the trajectory of the Movement V Republic (MVR) led by Chavez. The five programmatic axis of Chavez’s MVR can be synthesized as follows: struggle against the puntofijista regime (in Italy we call it biparticism: that of the center-left and center-right); fight against the most despicable privileges; fight against corruption; fight for the defense of the country’s strategic companies; participatory democracy. These five axis are the same as those from which the founding core of the M5S organized around.

3. Although M5S rejects the designation of political party, calling itself a movement, the M5S became the largest political party of this parliamentary election in March with 32.6% of the vote. How is the M5S an alternative to the right? To the left?

Beppe Grillo, was a public figure kicked out of the Italian RAI public television for his public satire of the Craxi (social democrat) government’s corruption in the 80s. He always saw himself as part of the socialist family. He was recognized as the leader of the M5S since its inception in Oct. 4 of 2009. He presents himself as an alternative to the social democratic Democratic Party (PD) and to the Berlusconi pole (neoliberalists) denouncing their corruption. According to Berlusconi, the M5S is more dangerous than the “communists” (this is how he generally refers to the “left” of the 90s whom he beat in elections). According to the social democrats the M5S is worse than Berlusconi himself. That’s how the social democrats try to discredit the protest and the nonconformity that the M5S was able to organize against the “second republic” of the social democrats and Berlusconi's liberals.

M5S can develop a role for Italy’s social progress only if the conscious and organized communist movement is able to attain social hegemony for the creation of a socialist society. Otherwise, the M5S is destined to fail, disintegrate and betray its own program, ending up like Alexis Tsipras in Greece: the false left that sold itself to neoliberalism and kneeled to the right. Of course,  there exist some socialist and communist groups but they have been unable to overcome their limits and errors in analysis, influenced by the left bourgeoisie that has been unable to succeed in constructing an ideological, political, economic and social hegemony. That’s why the popular masses lost confidence in them because what they say and what they do don’t match.

M5S emerged as an alternative to “Italian bipolarism” that has fallen into neoliberal politics, in its “left” variations (social democratic, reformist and revisionist) and its right (liberal-labor as Silvio Berlusconi loved to define himself).

M5S won in the last March 4, 2018 elections as the first political power. It defines itself as “movement” to differentiate itself with the other classic parties of the “First Republic” (e.g. Christian Democracy, Italian Socialist Party, Italian Republican Party, Italian Liberal Party, Italian Democratic Socialist Party) and the “Second Republic” (e.g. Democratic Party, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia). The M5S doesn’t present itself in coalition with other forces, like the right and Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) do. Its strongest political and economic proposal that was able to win many of the votes and become the first political force as “basic income.” The great support for this demand can be seen in the Italian reality where unemployment levels are very high (40-60% of youth unemployment and of young women in the worst regions). These organized movements of the unemployed have as their demands: “Whether with work or without it, we want to live,” and “guaranteed salary.”

It was predictable that the M5S would have come out ahead in the elections as the first political force but not enough to be able to govern without dialoguing with the other political forces.

Furthermore, the new electoral law, “rosatellum,” is created to favor a coalition between Renzi’s social democratic PD and Berlusconi’s right liberals. Both parties are in favor of the European Union’s “troika” (the popular term for the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank).”

Both this “swindling” could not overcome the ungovernability of the Atlanticist and pro-EU oligarchy. The March 4th election came out against the neoliberal government of a grand alliance (such as Merkel’s Grosse Coalition in Germany between the social democrats, the Christian Democratic Union, and Christian Social Union.) 

Thus, with the legislation passed (the XVII), the M5S was very useful in breaking up the Italian puntofijismo (bipolarism or bipartisanism) masked as social democrat or as the right confirming the reality that in Italy the distinction between “left” and “right” has little significance. While this is not absolutely true, the reality is that the representative system of bourgeois democracy is in an even greater crisis, because it cannot guarantee the rights of the imperialist bourgeoisie in this phase of the general crisis of the capitalist system that started in the 70s when the mask “of capitalism with a human face” began to crack. That’s why one of the axes of the M5S about “participatory democracy” or “direct democracy” is a fertile terrain for the development of social movements.

In the last elections, the M5S won many of the votes of the PD that is considered the main left, even though it has the same neoliberal combo in its “pseudo-progressive” variation. Social democracy emerged discredited, and its old parties, more and more (in almost all the European countries) in one form or another, became more and more like the right and thus began losing the trust of the popular bases.

4. What is M5S’s relationship with social movements? Is it involved in international solidarity with other parties?

The social movements (workers, unemployed, ecologists) work to control those elected through dialogue and of course through criticism. There are many examples of this from Milan to Naples, from the north to the south. In southern Italy, especially in the Campania region where in Naple, M5S was able to achieve up to 70% of the votes through the appeal of “basic income.”  

As regards international solidarity, the M5S organized official events about the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America - Peoples’ Trade Treaty  (ALBA-TCP) countries, inviting all the diplomats from the member countries. We did the same with BRICS and also about the issue of NATO. Alessandro Di Battista, one of the most well known M5S leaders, participated in Quito, Ecuador as the only Italian representative to the ELAP (Latin-American Gathering of the Progressive Countries and Movements). You can easily find all of these events in the internet.

5. What is the future direction of the M5S?

We’ve reached 80 days since the election of the M5S in which we cannot have been able to create a new government for the XVIII legislature. We have moved from a “bipolar system” to a “tripolar” one.

The modern Italian revisionists that had hegemony over the old communist movement have finished with their role of manipulating the working class and the popular masses for the dominant classes. Now, workers and popular masses use their votes, when they don’t abstain, to support M5S and Matteo Salvini’s League (especially in the north) which had presented itself in coalition with Berlusconi’s FI and other forces from the right.

After more than two and a half months of confrontations, we are now trying to form a government. What was defeated for sure was Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party that went from 41% during the European elections to 18% in the parliamentary elections of March 4. Since Italy is a parliamentary republic, the latter elections are the most important in the country. The PD continues to be the second political force with M5S first with nearly double the votes. The third force is Matteo Salvini’s League.

The PD, as the heir of those modern revisionists, at least for part of it, came out very much beaten, confused and without a clear line. It didn’t want to support the M5S despite having lost millions of votes to the M5S. The secretary, Matteo Renzio resigned and for now the PD is without a clear direction. Furthermore, at the international level, as a force in support of the U.S. and EU it is in opposition against a government that wants to stop the EU’s sanctions against Russia. 

What’s certain is the center-right coalition is collapsing. And with it, Italy’s traditional political framework, which is why there is talk of a third republic.

6. Follow-up question to the interview: What are your thoughts about the coalition government between M5S and the League? Did both parties enter a coalition because there was sufficient common ground between them?

It’s not a matter of whether there is enough in common or not. The issue is about placing the popular organized masses into the center so that they can force the government apply the progressive parts of its promises and mobilize to reject the most regressive parts. Starting with the implementation of the progressive parts of Italy’s 1948 Constitution, which were never applied and were simply left on paper, or later cut or annulled.