Originally published in Il manifesto, Roberto Ciccarelli interviewed Wu Ming about Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S), founded by Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio; translation adapted from libcom.org.
Beppe Grillo — flickr @ambralazzari
Wu Ming: The birth of “Grillismo” is a consequence of the crisis in the global justice movements beginning a decade ago. Little by little, as that river was drying up, Grillismo started to flow over the old river bed. In the early years, the liquids were still mixed together, making it impossible to see what was stirring in the mixture, and weakening some of the stench.
Subsequently, the growth of M5S has itself become a cause, or at least an important contributor, of the absence of radical movements in Italy, due to its systematic capturing of local struggles, especially the more photogenic. There is no civic struggle for which M5S hasn’t taken credit, portraying itself as the sole protagonist of each. Themes, claims and rallying cries have been co-opted and re-inflected into a confused and classic “either-or” proposal, which is presented as above left and right.
This discourse accumulates more and more contradictions, because it draws together ultraliberalism and the defence of common goods, the rhetoric of direct democracy and a Grillocentric “boss-principle”, opposition to the TAV (characterised by civil disobedience), and crude legalitarianism that confuses ethics with avoiding legal convictions.
This last feature was clear on the first V Day (V stands for “vaffanculo” — “go fuck yourself”). Grillo associated Daniele Farina (an activist at Leoncavallo in Milan — a well-known leftist squatters’ centre) with the mafia, simply because she had also been legally “convicted”. This certainly smells of right-wing culture, but Grillo’s telling of the story of Italy is even more right-wing.
RC: What is Grillo’s version of that story?
WM: There is an honest people (assumed to be undivided, with no classes or opposing interests) and a corrupt caste external to the people. In order to solve Italy’s problems it is necessary to elect “honest people”, who won’t make “right-wing” or “left-wing” decisions, but “fair” decisions.
Here, Grillo’s rhetoric is similar to that of the much-despised Monti government: issues are technical, not political. This is a simplistic and comforting framework, removing contradictions, ignoring the causes of the crisis and offering easy-to-recognize enemies.
RC: But why is M5S gaining enormous support at present, even among left-wingers and activists of previous movements?
WM: If Grillo and Casaleggio have succeeded it’s because the movements have been unable to find a way out of the crisis that hit them a decade ago. There hasn’t been any reorganisation, and the cycle of struggles haven’t taken hold in common sense. Grillo embodies the failure of the movements, and we must deal with this.
It is understandable that so many left-wing and radical people, amongst them former activists, support Grillo “because there is no alternative”. We don’t have it in for them. But we are sure M5S is a false solution, and the refrain that “there’s nothing else” is a result of the “capturing” we have mentioned.
If Grillo’s face is superimposed on every movement, it is inevitable that people will get the impression that he is the only one taking action. The spell must be broken, and, at the same time, the heavy work of reconstruction must be carried out.
RC: You were talking about the opposition to the TAV. On March 23, all M5S members of parliament will travel to Val Susa to take part in a demonstration against the TAV — a strong signal that M5S is taking ownership of struggles in the valley. And this could be repeated for other movements. How is this choice of organic action compatible with the M5S’s right-wing framework?
WM: They should be the ones to explain how they can reconcile their support of a movement that isn’t afraid of using illegal methods and has also used force, with a concept of “honesty” which is limited to having a “clean” criminal record. This is another contradiction that such frenzied and showy activism tries to keep hidden: you run here and there so that you don’t have to truly face up to any fundamental knotty problems.
RC: Could you give an example of a “fundamental knotty problem” that they don’t want to face?
WM: The “citizens’ income”. They constantly mention it, and this was certainly a bad habit in the “antagonista” movement, most of all in a certain post-operaismo that was a little bit, let’s say, “flower power”. But what does one mean by “citizens’ income”?
The problem can be further divided in two: what does one mean by “income”? Is it an unemployment subsidy? Is it the minimum wage? Is it one thousand euros per person? And then, do we get it by taxing the rich or by abolishing the pension funds and cutting all public salaries? Certainly the ultra-liberalist Casaleggio is pushing for the latter, but do they all agree?
Furthermore, what is understood by “citizenship”? Is it the universalistic principle born of the French Revolution, or is it the right-wing nationalistic variety? Is it jus soli or jus sanguinis? Is my dark-skinned neighbour, whose children go to school with mine, included or not? Judging from certain racist statements coming from exponents of M5S and from Grillo himself, we would say that he is not included, and that the “citizens’ income” would be distributed according to chauvinistic criteria.
RC: You “cheer” for the rebellion of the movement’s base against the leadership of M5S. But which base are we talking about, since M5S includes not only the precarious worker and the poorly-paid worker obliged to be self-employed, but also the small businessman hit by the crisis and the pensioner?
WM: There’s been a misunderstanding about this point. By “cheering for a rebellion within M5S” we mean that we hope that the contradictions intensify and explode.
This shouldn’t be confused with a narrow argument about a “base” that “is good”. At the base there are many fascists and people that until yesterday were carried away by Bossi or Berlusconi. There’s even that guy from the Pontedera M5S who broadcast a terrifying racist statement, and that Sardinian member who compared homosexual marriage to bestiality. The “base” isn’t “good” — that would also be part of a right-wing framework, an attempt to covertly bring back the idea of the “people” versus the “caste”, with Grillo and Casaleggio being the caste.
No, we hope for vertical and horizontal breaks, and on concrete issues. It will be specific battles that bring “left-wing” M5S members face-to-face with choices that now can no longer be put off.
RC: Do you think that Grillo will accept the offer of “governing” so as not to “end up like Greece”?
WM: Casaleggio, who has certainly devoured marketing manuals such as Tom Peters’ Thriving on Chaos, is asking himself how M5S can preserve its image as “the great underdog” now that concrete decisions will have to be made, and where any concrete decision will bring about the sacrifice of something (and someone). In any case, whichever path they choose, the contradictions mentioned above will not remain hidden for long.