Beppe Grillo: The anti-politics politician

May 17, 2012

For some three decades, an Italian comedian named Beppe Grillo has satirized – viciously, at high volume, naming names – the corruption of Italian politics. Last week, in Italian elections, he won the honor of being a part of the very thing he mocks.

When Grillo started doing comedy, in the early eighties, the Socialist Party – led by Bettino Craxi, prime minister from 1983 to 1987 – was in coalition with the Christian Democrats, and was a byword for theft from the taxpayer. Italians would say: The Socialists haven’t been in power before, they know they won’t last, so they have to make money quickly – a kind of resignation to the inevitability of political larceny that the British mind (mine) found quite shocking. Grillo was also shocked: or at least, he made shock the basis of his act. More than any other public figure, he fashioned from the venality of Italian political life a dark, bitter and yet hilarious comedy.

The politicians were furious that their good name should be so besmirched, and got him banned from Italian TV – which, in the eighties, was monopolized by the channels of the state broadcaster RAI, in turn under the control of the politicians.

This didn’t stop Grillo performing and becoming rich – he had a taste for Ferraris and speedboats, of which he now claims he is cured – but it did stop his message from disturbing the tranquility of Italian homes. When he was unbanned for a show in 1993 (it achieved stellar ratings), he revealed himself as outrageous and outraged as ever, and was off the air again.

I went to see his show in Florence three years ago at a gaunt and echoing stadium suited to rock concerts where one would have thought a one-man show would be swallowed up in the immensity of the place. Grillo’s was not.

His style is a mix of the extravagant and the intimate: He scorns the stage, roaming among the audience. Apparently consumed with rage, he shouts into the microphone that the country is choking with the rottenness of its ruling class, whether political, religious or corporate – then grabs the head of someone in the audience and clasps it to his chest, stroking the hair, as if providing the spectator a moment’s refuge from a cruel world. His short, chubby figure is crowned with a tumbling white mop of hair, his energy belies his 63 years, his commentary shifts from the bitter to the witty and back again in seconds: “The churches are empty, signori, empty! No one is listening! No one! Our bishops go around with four bodyguards! If Jesus Christ had had four bodyguards, they would never have put him on the cross!” Berlusconi was known as the “psycho-nano” (“psycho-dwarf”).

For the past decade, Grillo has put his wit almost completely at the service of politics. In a flurry of activity, he founded a website –, in Italian and English; organized a series of rallies, usually vast, called “Va fancullo” (“fuck off”) days at which he rails at and delights the crowd; and organized a political movement called Cinque Stelle (Five Stars), which seeks to encourage ordinary people in every locality to come forward and speak for the community’s distrust and dislike of mainstream politics.

In local elections last week, Cinque Stelle, which gets most of its boost from and Grillo’s stage acts, achieved over 7 percent nationally, over 10 percent in the north, 15 percent in Genoa, Grillo’s home city, and 20 percent in the rich city of Parma, Italy’s food capital. “Nothing remains [of the mainstream parties],” Grillo commented after the vote, with typical understatement. “They are liquefying in this political diarrhea.”

To be sure, Italy’s party on the right crashed. Silvio Berlusconi’s creation, People of Freedom, campaigned without its founder and lost city after city. (Berlusconi had gone to Moscow to see his friend Vladimir Putin inaugurated again as President of Russia.) Berlusconi’s main partner, the Northern League, did worse: Its leadership is mired in serious corruption allegations, and its citadels of the north fell like skittles. The official left party was the victor – but an unconvincing one, as its share of the vote declined since the last local elections.

I’ve long thought that Italy has been the largely unacknowledged crucible of new political movements over the past century – perhaps because Niccolò Machiavelli, a Florentine, was the first in the world to conceive of the exercise of politics as a science that should be learned and practiced. Fascism sprang from the teeming brain of Benito Mussolini, a mix of socialist economics and nationalist expansionism, cooked into a theory by Giovanni Gentile and injected with the view that through war and struggle a man and a nation found their highest expression.

Christian Democracy found its first organized expression there, inspired by the urgency of the Vatican’s fear of rising socialism and communism: A priest, Luigi Sturzo, founded the People’s Party in 1919, and, proclaimed from most pulpits, it quickly reached a vote of over 20 percent. Banned by the fascists, it reappeared at the end of the war as the Christian Democratic Party, whose leader, Alcide De Gasperi, was prime minister for eight crucial years from 1945.

The powerful Italian Communist Party evolved, in the 1970s and ’80s, Eurocommunism, a profound influence on Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union and a passage out of the theory of proletarian dictatorship into an acceptance of representative democracy. And Silvio Berlusconi has been the progenitor of the overt marriage of media and politics, a mixture that he was uniquely able to achieve because of his money and political ambition but that provides models for politicians, democratic and otherwise.

Grillo is in this line. He has merged his talent, his energy, the Internet and his “outsider” status into a force and an image that has real resonance today, especially in a country where politics has so devalued itself that it has had to be replaced by a transitional, unelected technocratic government charged with ordering the economy (which Grillo vehemently opposes). He has presented himself as the honest man in a world of thieves and liars; as a tribune of the people who uses the power of the microphone to voice the discontent of a people; as a performer pronounced extreme whose targets have come to seem well chosen. Whether he can sustain a movement that now has some purchase on power is a large question. The exercise of politics is not a show, or a blog.

And he hasn’t been proved democratic, as it’s commonly understood. His scorn for the parties often slops over to an apparent scorn for representative politics; he seems to be groping for a kind of direct democracy – which, at least till now, has in his movements on the Net and in the piazzas, focused on himself. Italy’s politics tend to come together round the charismatic figure; and Grillo, like his enemy Berlusconi, is certainly that. Many, including many on the left, see him as a demagogue and a ruthless populist, from whose activities no good will come. For him, such views are simply more evidence of the “liquefying” of the political scene.

He’s shown, in a different register from that of Berlusconi, what show business can do with and for politics. He’s shown that those to whom people now turn in chaotic political times are, often, those who have become famous outside of politics. And for all his ranting populism, for all the potential demagoguery, in his quarter of a century of turning over the stones of Italian politics and showing the corruption beneath, he has been proved right.

PHOTO: Comic and political activist Beppe Grillo marches on his way to dump rotten mussel shells in front of the Parliament in Rome, September 10, 2011. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico

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