Italy’s pop­ulist fire­brand Ni­cholas Far­rell

Ni­cholas Far­rell pro­files Beppe Grillo, the Ital­ian for­mer stand-up co­me­dian who is mak­ing tra­di­tional politi­cians quake

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

On the eve of Italy’s last gen­eral elec­tion in Fe­bru­ary 2013, some 800,000 sup­port­ers of Beppe Grillo were as­sem­bled in Pi­azza San Gio­vanni in Rome (and an­other 150,000 con­nected to it by in­ter­net) to hear the bearded dem­a­gogue bel­low his cam­paign mes­sage to the coun­try’s politi­cians, bankers and big busi­ness­men: ‘Sur­ren­der! You’re sur­rounded!’ Ad­dress­ing the crowd, he said: ‘We’re in Rome, where here you see them ev­ery day in their bul­let-proof cars, with no con­tact any­more with re­al­ity. They are dis­con­nected from ev­ery­thing. They still haven’t un­der­stood what is about to hap­pen to them. They haven’t un­der­stood! Sur­ren­der! Sur­ren­der! Sur­ren­der! You are sur­rounded!’

Af­ter shout­ing ‘sur­ren­der’, he burst out cack­ling like the pro­fes­sional co­me­dian he used to be, but now, at 68, he is also a po­lit­i­cal mes­siah – some­how re­mind­ing one of both Billy Con­nolly and Ben­ito Mus­solini. In his Mus­solini role, he has been highly suc­cess­ful. The protest move­ment he founded in 2009 – he in­sists it is a move­ment, not a party – won 25 per cent of the vote in its first elec­tion in 2013, com­ing only a few per­cent­age points be­hind the two lead­ing parties, the Par­tito Demo­cratico (PD) of for­mer prime min­is­ter Mat­teo Renzi and the Casa delle Lib­ertà of Sil­vio Ber­lus­coni.

Called the Movi­mento 5 Stelle (M5S) (af­ter the five, mainly en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues that most in­ter­est it), it achieved this suc­cess de­spite not even hav­ing an office, only a web­site for the hugely pop­u­lar and lu­cra­tive blog of its leader, called ‘Il Blog di Beppe Grillo’. There may have been no sur­ren­der so far, but M5S is now neck and neck in the polls with the PD, the rul­ing party, and an­other

gen­eral elec­tion has to be held within a year. Last year, when it won may­oral elec­tions in Turin and Rome, Grillo put on his web­site a video of him­self wad­ing in the sea – or ‘walk­ing on wa­ter’, as he put it – near his huge hol­i­day villa in Tus­cany, which he rents dur­ing the sum­mer for €14,000 a week. Al­though re­duc­ing pol­lu­tion is one of his pol­icy pri­or­i­ties, and his mayor in Turin has de­clared it a ‘ve­gan city’, Grillo owns a large cabin cruiser and sev­eral cars, in­clud­ing two Fer­raris.

M5S may well win more votes than any other party in the next elec­tion, but prob­a­bly not enough to form a gov­ern­ment, for Grillo re­fuses to al­low his move­ment to be cor­rupted, as he sees it, by join­ing a coali­tion; and what­ever hap­pens, he him­self won’t be prime min­is­ter be­cause he has ruled that no mem­ber of M5S with a crim­i­nal con­vic­tion may stand for par­lia­ment. In 1980 he was found guilty of man­slaugh­ter af­ter three peo­ple died in a car ac­ci­dent in which he was in­volved. But his con­trol of the move­ment is nev­er­the­less se­cure, for he is its owner as well as its founder. Its par­lia­men­tary can­di­dates, like sub­servient em­ploy­ees, have to sign a con­tract to obey his or­ders or be ex­pelled and made to pay a fine.

Com­par­isons be­tween Grillo and Mus­solini are not just fan­ci­ful; they have much in com­mon, and not only be­cause the catch­phrase ‘Sur­ren­der! You’re sur­rounded!’ was also a fas­cist slo­gan. Mus­solini was a rev­o­lu­tion­ary so­cial­ist be­fore in­vent­ing fas­cism, Grillo a com­mu­nist be­fore in­vent­ing M5S; and they both called in their new movements for the de­struc­tion of po­lit­i­cal parties. They both also be­lieved in di­rect con­tact with the peo­ple – Grillo with his blog, Mus­solini with his own news­pa­per – and sought to cut out in­ter­me­di­aries such as par­lia­ment and the rest of the me­dia. Grillo ad­vo­cates pop­u­lar tri­bunals to pun­ish jour­nal­ists who tell lies; and for a while he pre­vented his politi­cians from even talk­ing to the me­dia.

Each claimed that his move­ment had grown nat­u­rally from pop­u­lar roots. ‘I didn’t in­vent fas­cism,’ said Mus­solini. ‘I ex­tracted it from the Ital­ian peo­ple.’ Grillo says that he merely pro­vided the hu­mus – in the form of the in­ter­net fo­rum – in which his move­ment grew. Grillo is a ded­i­cated con­spir­acy the­o­rist with vis­ceral hos­til­ity to Is­rael and who, as Mus­solini once did, re­gards ‘the Jewish lobby’ as a sym­bol of par­a­sit­i­cal cap­i­tal­ism. In 2013, the Con­seil Représen­tatif des In­sti­tu­tions Juives de France said that Grillo had ‘never hid­den his anti-semitism’.

Like Mus­solini, Grillo at­tracts sup­port from both Left and Right. He is in favour of in­tro­duc­ing un­em­ploy­ment ben­e­fit in Italy and of na­tion­al­is­ing the coun­try’s banks, which are in deep trou­ble with €360 bil­lion of bad debt. He op­poses in­ter­na­tional trade deals, which he claims ben­e­fit only multi-na­tion­als at the peo­ple’s ex­pense, and is a veg­e­tar­ian who be­lieves in man-made cli­mate change. But at the same time he re­sponded to the ter­ror­ist atroc­ity in Ber­lin be­fore Christ­mas by call­ing for the im­me­di­ate de­por­ta­tion from Italy of all il­le­gal im­mi­grants.

Like Nigel Farage, Grillo is a Euroscep­tic, so his M5S MEPS joined those of Ukip in the Europe of Free­dom and Di­rect Democ­racy group in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment. But out of the blue Grillo de­cided in Jan­uary to ditch Ukip and to join the Lib­eral group led by Farage’s num­ber-one en­emy, Guy Ver­hof­s­tadt, a for­mer Bel­gian prime min­is­ter and Euro-fa­natic. It was an ex­tra­or­di­nary volte-face, sup­ported nev­er­the­less by eighty per cent of M5S mem­bers who voted in a snap in­ter­net poll; and the deal would have gone ahead if Ver­hof­s­tadt’s MEPS hadn’t re­fused to ac­cept it. So Grillo and Farage made up, and the par­lia­men­tary al­liance sur­vived.

De­spite his Left-wing poli­cies, Grillo, the blog­ger, sees Don­ald Trump, the tweeter, as an­other pop­ulist cham­pion and ex­cit­edly ap­plauded his vic­tory. Re­fer­ring to his move­ment’s slo­gan ‘Vaffa’, mean­ing both ‘f*** off’ in Ital­ian and ‘vic­tory’, he wrote on his blog: ‘This is the de­fla­gra­tion of an époque. Trump has done a crazy V-day. We two are the real he­roes! Trump has told ev­ery­one to f*** off: the ma­sons, the big banks, the Chi­nese ... The world has changed.’ Like Trump, he is also an ad­mirer of Vladimir Putin. ‘Rus­sia is an es­sen­tial part­ner, not an en­emy,’ he wrote.

When he was a stand-up comic, Grillo, who has four chil­dren and is mar­ried to an Ira­nian, showed such dis­taste for in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy that he de­stroyed com­put­ers on stage as part of his act. He would never have achieved suc­cess as an in­ter­net dem­a­gogue with­out Gian­roberto Casa­leg­gio, a mys­te­ri­ous and se­cre­tive com­puter nerd who rarely ap­peared in pub­lic. Through his com­pany, Casa­leg­gio As­so­ciates, he owned and man­aged ‘Il Blog di Beppe Grillo’ and also its lu­cra­tive spin-offs, in­clud­ing M5S it­self, of which he was co-founder, from 2005 un­til his death, aged 61, last April. Once mar­ried to El­iz­a­beth Birks, an English trans­la­tor, he had a son, Da­vide, aged forty, who has now taken over the busi­ness; and the busi­ness and the move­ment are the same.

In his only tele­vi­sion in­ter­view, Casa­leg­gio said: ‘Di­rect democ­racy means bring­ing to the cit­i­zen the weight of de­ci­sion and par­tic­i­pa­tion, and of re­plac­ing par­lia­ment, which is a blank cheque. So it is the ir­rup­tion of the cit­i­zen into pub­lic life; the cit­i­zen be­comes a politi­cian him­self. No one can say or know how long this will take to hap­pen, but I be­lieve it is un­avoid­able.’

Casa­leg­gio was ob­sessed with sci­ence fic­tion and Genghis Khan. He be­lieved in aliens and thought it quite prob­a­ble that by 2054 the en­tire planet would be ruled, af­ter an apoc­a­lyp­tic world war, by a global gov­ern­ment elected via di­rect democ­racy on­line but by an en­light­ened despot. Parties, re­li­gions and ide­olo­gies will no longer ex­ist, he reck­oned. So pre­sum­ably one day all of us, not just Beppe Grillo, will be able to walk on wa­ter.

Beppe Grillo, the 68-year-old founder-leader of the Movi­mento 5 Stelle, which is now neck and neck with Italy’s lead­ing party

Friends re­united: Nigel Farage and Beppe Grillo in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment in 2014

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