Beppe Grillo’s anti-disappointment party

By John Lloyd
April 3, 2013

Jim O’Neill, head of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, thinks Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement is a greater threat to Europe and the euro than the trials of little Cyprus. That’s because Grillo received more than a quarter of the votes in February’s election in Italy and has since gridlocked the political system by refusing any dealings with the established parties. A government can’t be formed.

O’Neill warned that if growth does not come soon to the euro zone’s third-largest economy, stalled for longer than any other in Europe, even more people will start to support Grillo’s movement and its call for a referendum on membership of the euro zone. What, he asked, does Grillo think? His response: “Does anyone really know?”

I do, Jim.

Grillo and his collaborator, the slightly mystic Gianroberto Casaleggio, believe that the Web is the new form of democracy, infinitely superior to the representative parliamentary kind in which, they say, leaders frame the politics and politics fail the people. The Five Star Movement, said Casaleggio in a recent book, believes the word leader “is a word from the past, a dirty word that leads you astray. Leader of what? It means that you attribute intelligence and the power of decision making to others, so you aren’t even a slave, you’re an object.”

Grillo, Casaleggio and their movement may be a flash in an Italian pan, as brilliant and tasty as many other things in Italian pans, but it may disappear just as fast. Elsewhere in Europe, the Pirate parties, which have largely fallen to quarreling and collapsing, have done just that. But Italian political fads can catch on. Think of Christian democracy, fascism and communism-with-a-human-face. The latter was the forerunner of Mikhail Gorbachev’s politics, the unintended destroyer of the Soviet Union.

This present flash may illuminate the world because it says something about democracy, and not just Italy’s democracy. Grillo thinks politicians (and journalists) should get out of the way and let the people rule directly, through the Web. We who cleave to elections, parliaments and representatives find this horrifying. But we forget several things:

1.) Politicians (everywhere) disappoint. They promise much, and deliver little. Marine Bulard, the deputy editor of the leftist Monde Diplomatique, recently excoriated her country’s socialist leader. “In under a year in office,” she wrote, “President Hollande has abandoned all his election promises and turned towards the conventional, and rightwing, financial and social policy positions of his predecessor.” That this will happen is the assumption, especially of the young, about politicians. Yes, it’s often unfair, but it’s also sometimes not. Politicians in the 2000s identified global warming as threatening the future of the planet, and we were all treated to lots of pictures of sweet-looking polar bears standing mournfully on shrinking icebergs. The icebergs are still shrinking and the bears are still mournful, but the subject has receded.

2.) Politicians are corrupt. There’s a high level of political corruption in Grillo’s Italy; so, too, in France. There was a recent big money scandal in Spain that touched the prime minister. The new democracies of Central Europe –Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Romania – are bywords for the buying of politics. British MPs fiddled their expenses. German ministers fiddled their doctoral theses. Indian politicians corrupt most things they touch – at least according to Indian journalists, many of whom are themselves not above taking back-handers in return for favorable coverage. And those are just the examples from democracies.

3.) Politicians are slow. When they do their job properly, in modern democracies, politicians struggle to overtake snails. Democracies have become so democratic that it seems – certainly to politicians who want to do things – that their world is composed of two figures, Checks and Balances.

4.) Politicians – again, when they do their exacting jobs – are dull and middle-aged. They’re dull because most things they deal with are complex: They have to at least partially master the details; and they have to deal with them. Go to any legislature whose language you understand, and you’ll find that the speeches are as far from “government of the people, by the people and for the people …” and “We will fight them on the beaches …” as a mutt is from a borzoi. The men and women who mouth the rhetoric are middle-aged because they usually don’t get elected until they’re at least in their forties, since they have to work their way into their party’s good graces to be selected for election.

5.) Worst of all, politicians now mostly can’t do what democratic politicians in the West have been able to do since World War Two: ensure that the children of their voters will have a materially better life than the voters themselves. Youth unemployment in the southern European countries is rising at an alarming rate. Few European governments look forward to the summer, season of riots and angry youthfulness.

Grillo’s movement, whatever its immediate fate, is on to something large. Democratic politics cannot continue to be seen (and too often to be) corrupt, out of touch, unresponsive and unsuccessful in protecting living standards – and survive. Hectoring, arrogant and impatient, Grillo infuriates those who know how hard doing politics is – and enthuses millions who know nothing about that, except that it doesn’t seem to work.

In office, the Five Star Movement would be worse than the disease. But the disease does rage. Politics is very often a group of overworked people who believe in representing and serving those who elected them. But they’re presently seen to be failing, and Beppe Grillo and his comrades think they have a much better way of running our societies. They will not be alone in this.

PHOTO: The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement former comic Beppe Grillo waves as he arrives at Quirinale palace in Rome March 21, 2013. Italian President Giorgio Napolitano completed a first day of consultations with political leaders on Wednesday to try to find a way of forming a government after the deadlocked election last month left no party with a majority in parliament. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

9 comments

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Its frightening how politicians being boring is described as a bad thing. The most interesting politicians tend to be bad ones. They are scandal prone like Berlusconi, or crazy like Gingrich. Part of the problem with modern democracy is that marketing the message is more important then crafting good policy.

Posted by agsocrates | Report as abusive

I wish I could understand the point of your article, except to say that uneducated masses yearn for nihilism over status-quo. People with nothing to lose will always prefer to see power unseated. But this kind of untractable opposition that is perfectly willing to ACTUALLY stagnate govt is what is destroying politics – the politics of no compromise is what is destroying democracy. If opposition parties aren’t at least working to the same goals as ruling parties then the system is totally broken… careful what you wish for.

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

And the beacon of democracy, the U.S. of A, wasn’t even mentioned, probably because a lot more New York politicians
are awaiting arrest.

Posted by Biscayne | Report as abusive

Democracy is failing in part because of democracy. The vote of the crook is equal to the vote of the hard working person, the vote of the idiot is equal to the vote of the genius, the vote of the experienced is equal to the vote of the inexperienced. I doubt that the web will improve this dilemma,it will probably make it worst. Political parties are just as well to blame, they cater to the lowest common denominator, they are stale structures hell bent on keeping themselves in power even when they have nothing to offer and nowdays they will not negotiate nor compromise just so they can get themselves elected.

Posted by ofilha | Report as abusive

Let me get this straight, Mr Lloyd… Because Goldman executive Jim O’Neill has a problem with people voting against the corrupt, entrenched elites, we should take it seriously, right?

Isn’t Goldman the criminal enterprise that sold the swaps to the Greeks for them to hide their structural deficit? How many other train wrecks of countries, states, municipalities and pension funds have Goldman’s finger prints?

Hopefully the 5 Star Movement in Italy and Syriza in Greece come out on top when their governments fall again. It is a shame that the sheeple in the US don’t have those sort of options.

Posted by upstater | Report as abusive

“5.) Worst of all, politicians now mostly can’t do what democratic politicians in the West have been able to do since World War Two: ensure that the children of their voters will have a materially better life than the voters themselves”

Utter tripe. We might be worried that the next generation will be poor, but how is that different to the previous frights – killed by terrorists, overrun by communists, nuked, fried in an ozoneless planet, drowned by rising seas, saddled with debt of the .com boom, paying $100 a gallon, eaten by the Gordon Geckos, etc, etc, etc…

Politicians and people live mostly on fear, less often on hope. We always use the ‘your children’ will suffer for your sins if you don’t act now argument to ram home a good scaring. Nobody knew it would all get better after the war, for many it took a very long time, but we’re human and we get through adversity (sometimes well, sometimes bad) but does anyone really believe that the last 70 years worth of politicians had been saying – ‘its all good, your kids will be better off than you, no worries’ then all of a sudden in 2008 the world changes? They’ve always used the same argument you have – for our sins (be they debt, greenhouse gases, liberalism, conservatism, abortion, etc) our children will pay the price…

Posted by EJMR | Report as abusive

Grillo appears to be an idiot spoiler to the status quo folks, but he is right. The status quo, the stasis of thieving and mediocrity must go. Italy is a sewer of interconnected corruption with a government that costs, through the salaries and perks of the elected, more than is imaginable by a reasonable human.
Grillo must be asked to form a government, a minority government, that will propose, bring to vote, and see what hapoens. Whatever happens can not be worse than what the ugly dwarf and his criminal party have brought down on the children of Rome.

Posted by rpmcestmoi | Report as abusive

It’s an interesting thought, a combination of quality technocrats and sophisticated referendums could function much better that modern democracy. It’s impossible for Italy to get worse, the country is totally gridlocked. Throwing out all the politicians and having referendums might allow things to start moving again.

Posted by theoligarch.com | Report as abusive

Direct Democracy, i.e., government by peoples’ referendum, cannot produce results which can be administered in any practical fashion.

The whims and changing distractions of the citizens would outstrip the abilities of even the most responsive bureaus to produce the desired outcomes from a prior “vote” before the following conflicting vote was registered.

Reducing politics to the status of a TV “reality” show would certainly hasten our civilization toward its inevitable end, which is the likely collapse of anything resembling Democracy and the return of the dictatorial strong “man” (or panel, or tribunal, or committee).

Democracy is very likely the best post-revolutionary form of government organizing technique available to mankind. But, its shelf-life is short, and its ideals are unsustainable because the very “market” it intends to serve tires of its controlled and predictable outcomes.

Italy’s current political “stalemate” is likely the most stable form of government it has had since the Allied Administration of WWII…how could direct referendum possibly improve on this?

Posted by kbill | Report as abusive