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Italy’s Five Falling Stars

Arthur Borriello
Jeff Bate Boerop

In just ten years, the Five Star Movement has risen from nowhere to become Italy’s leading party, and then collapsed again. Its volatile support and eclectic politics aren’t just an Italian quirk — they show how voter binds to political institutions are crumbling across the West.

Luigi Di Maio with Francesco Silvestri, and Stefano Patuanelli, of Five Star Movement, speaks to the press on August 30, 2019 in Rome, Italy. Simona Granati / Corbis / Getty Images

On March 4, 2018 — the day of Italy’s most recent general election — David Broder published the provocatively titled article “Italy Is the Future.” This was, indeed, a bold claim. How could this country — burdened by a vast public debt, with near-zero economic growth, ridiculed for its cronyish management of its public resources, marked by deep regional inequalities, prey to a succession of populist movements, and powerless before the rise of a neo-fascist far right — embody Europe’s future? The assertion was all the more unsettling because it so conflicted with the dominant narrative — conveyed by the extreme center from Tony Blair to Emmanuel Macron — holding that the future lies in the “knowledge economy,” in flexibility, in opening up, in “rationalization.”

Yet on closer inspection, matters seem rather different to what this narrative tells us. After all, il bel paese was marked very early on by all the same traits that political scientists now consider to be the structural features of Western democracies: a decline in political participation; the collapse of traditional parties and especially the historical left; the personalization of political life, now dominated by mass media; the rise of technocracy and populism; and the resurgence of the far right.

The interplay of these changes and the economic crisis of 2008 do much to explain the rapid rise of the Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement, M5s), culminating in its entry into national government in 2018. Though it was an atypical movement, M5s was able to present itself as a unique alternative to “the establishment.” It channeled citizens’ deep-seated disaffection and built itself in the empty space between the individual and the state, left behind by crumbling party apparatuses.

The honeymoon between M5s and the Italian electorate now seems to be over. The May 2019 European elections radically altered the balance of power between the two forces which then made up the Italian government, namely the M5s and the Lega: while the former saw its ratings plummet from 32 to 17 percent since March 2018, the latter instead rose from 17 to 34 percent. Lega leader Matteo Salvini sought to take advantage of this situation by precipitating a government crisis, only to produce a new coalition which may, paradoxically, help revive the moribund M5s.

This movement thus presents a major intellectual challenge: Is it possible to understand both its lightning-fast ascent and its disappointments through the same analytical lens? Delving deeper into the Italian political context of the past thirty years, we can understand its capacity for adaptation, as well as its inability to genuinely transform the Italian political landscape.

The Post-Democracy of the Void

Italy has long been described as a “particracy,” the site of confrontation par excellence between strongly organized and ideologically situated parties (particularly Christian Democracy and Eurocommunism, from the 1940s to the 1990s). These parties embodied the classical form of the twentieth-century party: a powerfully rooted organization, with a deep and stable social and territorial anchoring. They functioned as links between social groups and the state, in both directions: on the one hand, they acted as vehicles for the expression and representation of the demands of their base within state institutions; on the other, they controlled and politicized this base while seeking the satisfaction of its demands through the distribution of public resources. They were to democracy what guilds were to the ancien régime.

The country has changed a lot since then. The corruption scandal of the early 1990’s (Tangentopoli) — which broke just after the proclaimed “End of History,” symbolized by Achille Ochetto, last secretary of the Italian Communist Party marveling at Manhattan’s skyscrapers — provoked a political earthquake. It led to the disappearance of each of the opposing forces who had dictated the rhythms of politics in the previous forty years. Italy entered a new era, in the space of a few years becoming a political laboratory for trends that all Western democracies are today experiencing to greater or lesser degree.

The formations that emerged after this system imploded no longer corresponded to previous models. This moment instead saw the “phenomenon” of Silvio Berlusconi and his “non-party,” Forza Italia. Berlusconi was in the vanguard of a new populism built around wealthy businessmen — the most obvious recent successor being Donald Trump — and began a profound transformation of the Italian political system, now turned into a “leadership democracy.”

Previous intermediary structures gave way to formations highly dependent on a charismatic leader, in the context of sharply increased mass-media coverage (to which the media tycoon Berlusconi himself greatly contributed) and a general personalization of political life. Unsurprisingly, these changes were accompanied by corresponding ideological shifts. Political cleavages built around the broad orientations of society were erased, in favor of a pro-/anti-Berlusconi cleavage that determined the pattern of Italian political life until the early 2010s.

These developments are emblematic of the “hollowing out” of Western democracies described by the Irish political scientist Peter Mair — the disappearance of the forms of leadership, representation, and media coverage that had characterized the party-democracy model at its height. The European Union has played a key role in sharpening these tendencies, encouraging national political elites gradually to isolate themselves from popular pressure, thus indirectly feeding the growth of so-called “populist” and “anti-establishment” parties across Europe.

In particular, membership of the Economic and Monetary Union considerably shrunk the space for economic policy at the national level, prohibiting unilateral currency devaluation and imposing strict standards of inflation control and public spending. An inflationary economy, Italy had been accustomed to competitive devaluations and has suffered the impact of this neoliberal new deal more than any other country.

After the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, while the Italian public debt was consistently rising, a chorus of new political elites adhering to neoliberal dogmas — from center-left to center-right — praised the European Union as an “external constraint” (vincolo esterno), promoting a salutary “rationalization” of the public finances. Yet after 2008, with the explosion of the “sovereign debt crisis” in the eurozone however, elites went a step further. Though Italy’s social situation was deteriorating, in fall 2011 — under strong pressure from European institutions — all establishment political forces supported the appointment of a technocratic government, led by Mario Monti, which combined austerity measures with unprecedented structural reforms.

It was in this very specific context, at the intersection of long-term transformations in the political landscape and the discrediting of the Italian political class after the economic crisis, that M5s scored its first electoral victory.

An Atypical Movement

M5s was the brainchild of a duo: Beppe Grillo — a comedian and actor known for his diatribes against the Italian political class — and Gianroberto Casaleggio, an entrepreneur and IT consultant. After founding a blog in 2005 (which soon became one of the most widely read blogs in Italy), organizing a series of events through online platforms, and following the predictable rejection by the Democratic Party (PD, of social-liberal orientation) of Grillo’s bid to stand in its internal elections, the name and symbol of the Five Star Movement were first announced in October 2009.

The success of the Movement grew from that point onwards. After encouraging results at the local and regional levels, at the 2013 general election — following the interlude of Monti’s government — it became Italy’s third political force, with a quarter of the vote for both houses of parliament. These were the best first-time results in a national election for any party in Europe since 1945. It confirmed its rise during the 2014 European elections, and in 2016 even managed to win the mayoralties of both Turin and Rome. The culmination of its progress came with the general election of March 2018. Benefitting from the spectacular collapse of the PD and the decline of Berlusconi, M5s became Italy’s leading political force, with 32.7 percent of the vote. It then formed a coalition with the main right-wing party, Salvini’s Lega (17.4 percent).

The M5s was, however, extremely atypical in its organizational and ideological profile, confusing most observers. Its organization — a self-described “movement” — has since the outset been characterized by the near-total absence of intermediary structures between the leader (and his blog) and activists on the ground. Projecting the image of a movement controlled by activists — based on their online decisions — the movement is in fact above all characterized by an extreme centralization around its leader, who exercises an exclusive right to control the selection of candidates and to draft programs.

After entering parliament in 2013, M5s saw the appearance of a third “pole” between leader and activists — its parliamentary group. It thus engaged in a rather timid “institutionalization” process, adopting criteria for the rotation of responsibilities, the establishment of codes of conduct for officials, as well as the appointment of a “board of directors” to provide oversight. However, the death of Casaleggio in 2016 raised questions around his management of his business (as the formal owner of key party structures), at the same time as these same structures became more complex. These combined processes have driven tensions between the three “poles” of the party.

On the ideological and programmatic level, the profile of M5s is no less atypical. The party’s program is a mix of classically left (environment, degrowth, social protections) and openly right-wing themes (Euroscepticism, economic chauvinism). The result of this double anchoring is that its main political measures place M5s towards the center of the political spectrum (though tilted slightly to the left). However, this seems to result from an uneasy balance between left and right-wing positions, rather than its claimed position of “neither left nor right,” and varies considerably among the components of the party (leadership, parliamentary group, activist base, and electorate) and over time.

In reality, M5s appears to rest on two pillars. Firstly, it promotes the inclusion of themes abandoned by other political forces, but which resonate strongly with the electorate. Secondly, it raises the promise of a renewal and “moralization” of the political class. The coexistence of this variety of sometimes contradictory themes is assured precisely by this focus on the “moral question” — the cement that allows seemingly irreconcilable positions to be joined together.

Beyond these specific characteristics, the M5s also neatly corresponds, in many ways, to the populist logic theorized by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. It thrives on profound social dislocation, and the dissatisfaction generated by the effects of the economic crisis. This dissatisfaction could not be processed through existing political channels due to the crisis of representation into which Italy has been plunged since the 1980s.

The M5s could thus build a new subject united by its opposition to political and economic elites — those held responsible for derailing popular sovereignty. It short-circuited the logic of confrontation between center-left and center-right by substituting a conflict between “honest citizens” on one hand, and “political and economic elites” of all stripes on the other, depicted as an undifferentiated and corrupt group.

It manages to cover almost the entire ideological spectrum by sweeping potentially divisive questions — like immigration — under the carpet and focusing on the need to combat elite corruption by giving the keys to politics to ordinary citizens. Given M5s’s vague and protean character, this focus allows it to maintain its own unity. Moreover, at the organizational level, it is the perfect expression of the “era of disintermediation,” for which Italy supplies a particularly precocious and advanced example.

Combining an extremely vertical, centralized form with a supposedly horizontal and participatory modus operandi, M5s represents the political form perfectly antithetical to the mass party of the twentieth century. These elements, which make M5s’s populism 2.0 particularly well-suited to the era of disintermediation, are key to the movement’s lightning-fast rise and success.

Thanks to its lack of any well-defined ideological tradition, M5s was able to create an ambiguous “big tent,” confounding any political conformity and extending its electoral appeal across wide swaths of alienated voters. At the same time, its original and innovative organizational strategy allowed it to mobilize and create a feeling of collective identification.

Government Crisis

Yet for all these strengths, M5s has now entered a far more difficult period. Throughout M5s’s first year in government together with the Lega, beginning in June 2018, Salvini’s party sharply tilted the balance of power in its own favor, becoming by far Italy’s leading party in terms of voting intention. Indeed, by the May 2019 European election, M5s’s vote share had fallen by half compared to the general election of March 2018.

After months of forcing the M5s to carry the blame on a number of issues and casting doubt on its political loyalties, in early August Salvini moved to split the government, hoping to force the quick return to the polls that would surely make the Lega the foremost political force in Italy. Yet this attempt failed, as the M5s — again showing its versatility — instead made a coalition with the PD, thus avoiding new elections and a likely defeat. Yet this temporary solution remains fragile and could, indeed, cloud the need for M5s to mount a critical assessment of why the governmental crisis was possible in the first place.

Indeed, there is a strong temptation to impute M5s’s reversals over the last year to Salvini himself, and in particular his talent for communication. As interior minister he showed his ability to attract media attention, to exploit the opportunities for direct communication offered by social media, and to force through his agenda. However, such an explanation is at best partial; at worst, it is tautological (confusing communicative power and political power, or taking them as explanations for one another), or even built on magical thinking (portraying the leader’s “charisma” in a mysterious and almost mystical light).

Such an explanation of M5s’s reversals does not take into account either the movement’s particularities — including its own communication skills — or, indeed, the numerous forewarnings of its current difficulties, such as its internal tensions and its turbulent experience governing cities like Parma, Turin, and Rome. If communication is indeed important, it is necessary to place it in a larger context and to think about M5s’s decline in terms of the structural issues we have discussed.

Cure or Symptom?

In this sense, it is worth advancing a series of hypotheses to explain M5s’s current sharp decline. Some relate to its youth, others to its organizational and ideological particularities, and others to the structural conditions of the new political “ecosystem” in which it is evolving — the era of the void described by Mair.

These hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. Set end to end, they form a picture of the complex political scene in Italy (and following the prophetic analogy mentioned at the beginning of this article, in Europe as well). The increased volatility of political loyalties makes it difficult to establish a lasting strategy capable of altering the terms of the new political deal without falling into the void of a “politics of marketing” divorced from any stable structure and ideological tradition.

The first hypothesis relates to M5s’s pristine character. In this view, M5s is simply a victim of its overly rapid rise, presenting it with major difficulties in managing its own institutionalization. How should M5s choose candidates and hold them accountable, when they are often novices to public office? How should it maintain its own coherence and organize the coexistence of its different components (a fickle leader, online activists, and a still-developing group of elected officials), and if need be, resolve conflicts between them?

Dealing with these issues is all the more complex as M5s has made transparency its raison d’être, and the most minor conduct violations risk being judged much more severely than among its competitors. Informative in this respect was M5s’s recent “zero mandate” farrago, which saw its leader Luigi di Maio mired in a convoluted justification for allowing its elected officials to exceed a previously imposed two-term limit.

The second, more fundamental, hypothesis concerns the organizational and ideological characteristics of the movement. These were considerable assets for rapidly building a majority force in a period of political and economic turmoil, but soon became the main obstacles to solidifying M5s in the long term as a radical force with a transformative project.

At the level of organization, the choice to construct itself as a “movement” created a disadvantage for the M5s relative to its competitors. Certainly, none of the political parties that emerged in the 1990s and 2000s (center-left, center-right, and the Lega) have the regional or social base, or the organic links to civil society, that characterized the mass parties of postwar Italy. Nonetheless, even these were able, in their twenty-five years of existence, to build up relatively stable clienteles of voters.

M5s, however, has no faithful electoral base on which to rely in difficult periods, and no lasting constituency networks to facilitate the exercise of power at the regional or local level. This is a stark difference with Salvini’s Lega, more able than any other force to combine a solid and stable organizational model (in its Northern heartlands) with an updated communication strategy, based on the fiction of a direct exchange between the leader and the citizen.

At the level of ideology, M5s’s ambiguity has acted as a double-edge sword. Indeed, this ambiguity abruptly turned against M5s as soon as it rose to positions of power. Faced with the need to seal alliances and to promote specific public policies, the M5s found itself forced to take sides — abandoning its image as pure outsiders against the actors in “the system” — and to determine which compromises were acceptable and which were red lines. While the left-right logic is less significant than before, it still exists, and most political actors and policies continue to bear connotations of this logic.

Indeed, M5s’s claim to be “neither right nor left” conflicts with its concrete experience in power. Choosing whether to ally with the far-right Lega, with the extreme center (PD) or with a small radical-left group like Potere al Popolo is hardly neutral, and nor is a vote on a tax reform or on a security and immigration bill. Yet once the smallest choice is made, its internal solidarity crumbles, part of its electorate defects, and internal dissent appears.

Notable in this regard was the effect of Salvini’s emphasis on immigration issues: the M5s, whose activists and voters are notoriously divided on the subject, felt cornered, and the party itself could only think about its own self-defense. Unsure of its identity, or its territorial and social base, during its coalition with the Lega, M5s was unable to strike back in the area where its coalition partner was weakest — its emphasis on the regional decentralization of Italy, to the advantage of wealthier Northern climes.

In short, M5s’s characteristics were particularly well-suited to a rapid conquest of executive power in the context of deep economic and political crisis, but cruelly lacking in consistency when it came to promoting a project capable of challenging neoliberal dogma. It was unable to resist either the orthodox version of this dogma as promoted by the forces of the political center or its nationalist transfiguration as embodied by the Lega.

In Antonio Gramsci’s terms, M5s focused on a premature “war of movement” and totally neglected the necessary foundation for a “war of position” over the long term. For this, they would have had to patiently recreate a truly popular counter-culture, along with its infrastructure, networks, and intellectual resources, on a terrain deserted by the decline of the historical organizations of the Left.

Rather, M5s sought to do exactly the opposite, building an organizational and ideological model that was, in theory at least, capable of forgoing this long-term endeavor. In so doing, it helped sharpen the trends intrinsic to contemporary democracy: atomization of the electorate, disaffiliation from parties, decline of intermediary institutions, personalization of politics, and so on.

With the benefit of hindsight, it will perhaps appear obvious that a movement so clearly bearing the symptoms of the degeneration of democracy could not itself be the force to treat it. Today, M5s seems to have fallen victim to the volatility to which it has itself contributed. It has become the prisoner of those very attributes that seemed to be its strengths. This will be neither the last nor least of its paradoxes.