Italy’s populist firebrand Nicholas Farrell
Nicholas Farrell profiles Beppe Grillo, the Italian former stand-up comedian who is making traditional politicians quake
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