This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.
Television networks played such a major role in shaping public opinion in Berlusconi’s Italy that dissent rarely found its way into the limelight. This is not to say that it didn’t exist. But in such a heavily mediated state traditional means of resistance employed by civil society, such as public gatherings, picketing, or even strikes all but lost their effectiveness because television networks refused to report them properly.
Consequently, civil society actors were forced to find new ways to connect with each other; to operate and manifest their dissent; to infiltrate the system with the information it censored; and ultimately, if parties kept ignoring them, enter the political fray directly. The Internet provided the ideal space for this new course of action.
Silvio Berlusconi’s rise to power, hand in hand with his monopoly of mainstream media, had the unintended consequence of “forgetting” the Internet. Berlusconi and his coalition were exclusively interested in silencing the mainstream media. For them, the voters that counted watched television (most of them) and some (very few) read newspapers. Capturing the Internet was not essential to winning elections. Such rare freedom from Berlusconi’s tight grip on national media subsequently made the Internet the favourite harbour for nonaligned audiences and dissident voices.
Just a blog
In 2005, renowned comedian Beppe Grillo exploited the government’s apparent lack of interest in the Internet in his own favour. He used his personal blog (beppegrillo.it) to openly challenge the status quo. The blog’s appeal grew very quickly among the dispersed members of a fragmented and disillusioned civil society that had been pushed to the fringes by the setbacks of the past years. It took only a few months for the blog to establish itself as a new fertile ground through which to defy the government’s monopoly of the media and cultivate viable political alternatives in the process.
Both Grillo’s charisma and following were key to the blog’s swift success. He was already widely popular when he first began blogging. In fact, for many years he was one of the most beloved and most controversial stand-up comedians to ever appear on Italian television. His career began at the end of the 1970s, but it was during the second half of the 1980s that high audience ratings and critical acclaim made him a national TV celebrity. Grillo was not afraid to defy censorship. His satire cut deep into the corrupt practices of prominent Italian politicians and big corporations. Grillo appeared to be uncompromising, and eventually he ended paying for it. Mounting pressure from politicians and advertisers against him forced TV producers to send Grillo into unofficial TV exile.
By the end of the 1980s, the comedian was no longer welcome on mainstream media. He shrugged, laughed and, apparently without much regret or economic damage, he moved on. He began touring Italy from north to south, consolidating both a very lucrative career of paid shows and a special bond with the public, who for many years could only see him perform live in theatres, sports arenas, and public squares.
When he began blogging in 2005, Grillo’s long-standing popularity with the public as an outspoken, vociferous critic of political and economic corruption made him an instant Internet celebrity. The fact that Casaleggio Associates, one of the most prominent Italian public relations firms, was behind Grillo’s Internet foray was also of no little significance. Grillo, Casaleggio, the Internet and Berlusconi’s weakness for mainstream media were the perfect ingredients to breed new life into Italian civil society and set forth a new radical counter-hegemonic strategy.
Grillo was a fervent critic of the lack of democratic openness in contemporary Italian politics and quickly his blog became the repository of all the information and issues that rarely appeared on mainstream media. The people who read his posts saw in him someone who spoke truth to power. Some of Grillo’s main ideas were the product of the blog’s active discussion. Each post received thousands of comments. The line seemed clear: politicians (and high rank civil servants) should be held accountable for their actions; these actions should be fully transparent; and civil society and the parties should once again be able to talk with each other, openly and constructively.
Empowering the grassroots
In 2004, against all odds, Howard Dean, a rather anonymous former Governor of the state of Vermont, became the frontrunner of the US Democratic Party’s primaries for that year’s presidential election, and in turn, an international phenomenon. For a few months during that campaign, Dean and his strategists showed the world that the combination of Internet media and grassroots could be a game changer in politics. Grillo and his followers mimicked and expanded the strategies adopted by the Dean’s campaign.
Like Dean, Grillo’s community produced a hybrid of offline and online activities. In an age yet to be marked by Facebook and Twitter, the group relied on other tools to organise events and to make their presence known. The offline work and organising framework of the community was (and still is to some extent) strongly facilitated by a direct link with Meetup.com, the online portal that had become the defining tool of Dean’s successful grassroots campaign. The website’s main function is to facilitate social networking by helping people with similar interests find each other through regular face-to-face meetings.
To date, the Meetup.com category “Friends of Beppe Grillo” is still very active. It has around 160,000 members, with another 60,000 declaring their interest in joining if a group opens in their city. There are over 1,300 groups organising regular meetings in 1,000 cities worldwide. Nowadays, they also use Facebook and Twitter. Back then they relied mainly on Meetup, Skype and YouTube.
The multitude of Meetup groups helped to shape a self-aware and committed grassroots network of activists capable of organising itself beyond geographical boundaries and independently from the blog.
From Civil to Political society
From the beginning, Grillo and his followers were very active. Their aim seemed clear: to inject new life in the political parties of the left by rebuilding the communication link between parties and civil society. To achieve their goal, the hybrid community of citizens that followed Grillo started a number of grassroots campaigns, the focus of which ranged from protecting and sustaining scientific research to economic and political issues. By forcing to the fore an open discussion on matters that had been long underrepresented or misrepresented by the partisan mainstream media, the campaigns sought to reinvigorate the public sphere and make the politics of the state more representative of civil society demands.
Of the many campaigns they initiated in those early years, the 2007 V-Day or Vaffanculo Day protest arguably marked the watershed moment that attracted the most public attention. Vaffanculo, the Italian equivalent of the English “fuck off”, was directed at the politicians in Parliament, who were guilty of ignoring people’s grievances.
Organised on the day commemorating the Italian armistice in World Word II (September 8, 1943), the protest aimed to gather enough signatures in a petition to propose a new law to the Parliament.
The proposed law had three different components: candidates convicted by courts of law should be forbidden from running for public office; political careers should be limited to only two terms; and that the members of Parliament should be directly chosen by the people (and not by political parties, as is routinely done).
V-day was a success both in terms of numbers and media exposure: over two million people gathered in more than 200 cities worldwide, though the final signature tally was only about 350 thousand (apparently the organisation ran out of forms as they had based their calculations on the legal required number to submit a proposal – 50,000 signatures).
The meetings were set up through the blog and through Meetup.com. In the aftermath of the event, the issue was debated in the pages of the Italian newspapers and on television. It sparked harsh reactions from politicians from both sides of Parliament. Grillo himself was surprised. He hadn’t expected such a big turn-out. “What happened out there” he commented “was the release of a virus that’s about to attack the political class. But in this case there’s no vaccine”.
V-day was an important step in the gestation process of the civil society that was inspired by Grillo. It showed that the political strength of the movement transcended the limits of cyberspace. The people who gathered in the squares shouting vaffanculo against the political establishment were real, they were citizens with the ability to vote in an election and influence others.
The protesters’ demands, however, (together with the thousands of signatures that had supported the petition) fell on deaf ears. Beginning with the then Prime Minister Romano Prodi (of the centre-left coalition that had won the 2006 general election), the old political class showed some mild amusement, but largely ignored Grillo and his followers.
The struggle for recognition continued in the following years, through other protests and campaigns. However, the outcome did not change. The Democratic Party (which by the end of 2007 had brought together most of the centre-left parties under one symbol) was not interested. Far from seeing Grillo’s people as part of their core constituency , the Party’s leadership saw them as a nuisance. So Grillo and his nameless movement decided to change tack. If the leaders don’t listen, let’s replace them.
In 2009, after Berlusconi won another election (2008), Grillo decided to run as a candidate for the leadership of the Democratic Party (which many indicated as the main culprit of the Party’s electoral defeat). His candidacy however was scorned and deemed illegal by the Party’s bureaucrats. Grillo was ruled ineligible because he had previously been a member of another party, not to mention because he was too critical towards the Democratic Party.
Neither the Right nor the Left fully understood Grillo’s nameless crowd. They failed to realise that the millions of people following Grillo were not a fluke, and that they were in fact representative of a large section of the electorate that cut across the entire political spectrum. These citizens felt deeply disconnected from the political elites ruling the country. The politicians in Parliament were not their representatives.
Piero Fassino, a former secretary of the Democratic Party of the Left (one of the many iterations of the old Communist party) succinctly summarised the attitude of the country’s official Left towards this new civil society. When asked about Grillo’s intention to stand as a candidate for the Secretary of the Democratic Party, Fassino replied with a dismissive smirk: Grillo’s candidacy is a comical stunt, he is not a serious person. A party is a serious endeavor; it needs committed people. “If he really wants to lead a party, he should leave us in peace and form his own party, let’s see how many votes he gets at the election?”
Fassino’s words were a turning point. They confirmed that dialogue with the Left was impossible. To change the country, the informal civil society organisation grown out of Grillo’s blog must abandon the failed tactic and enter the political fray from the front door, with a bang.
Following a strategy that has since become the norm for most anti-establishment movements throughout Europe, (see for instance the Indignados and Podemos in Spain), Grillo and his entourage formed a new political entity, the Five Star Movement, to directly compete at elections.
The movement started from the local grassroots level in 2009, concentrating mostly on cities and small constituencies. It won its first but significant victories in the 2012 round of local elections. But it was in 2013 that the movement really came of age. In the aftermath of that year’s general election, many indicated the Five Star as the virtual winner with over 26% of the national preferences, which translated to 54 Senators and 109 Chamber of Deputies representatives. It was an unprecedented feat for a first timer.
The movement’s grassroots work and its use of new communication media played a significant role in its unanticipated success. The new MPs’ experience in Parliament has not been free from controversy. Grillo and other members of Casaleggio Associates have been accused of ruling the movement undemocratically, of dubious selection practices and of political naivety. The movement’s imminent implosion has been predicted many times, but so far, despite a number of important defections, all doomsayers have been proven wrong.
The electoral trend has continued. In 2016, especially, the movement scored another major electoral success. It won 19 out of the 20 Mayoral contests against that very same Democratic Party that had rejected it. Unsurprisingly, recent polls indicate Grillo’s movement as a strong contender to win the next general election in 2018. The results (which include the capital city, Rome) confirm, one more time, that this politicised civil society (inspired by a controversial comedian’s blog) is here to stay.