The many faces of Italy’s M5S: Post-ideology, populism, and the ‘government of change’

Variously described as far-left, left-wing, far-right, fascist, populist, techno-populist, left-populist, anti-establishment, and post-ideological, Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S, ‘the Five Star Movement’) has been puzzling commentators, and inspiring support from across the political spectrum, for nearly a decade.

With a name that refers to five key policies – policies which made the most minimal of appearances in March’s election – the party’s favoured term has always been ‘post-ideological’. Deliberately shirking the left-right binary, its alternative guiding principle was once summed up by Beppe Grillo, the comedian and founder of the party: “If a law is good, we vote for it; if it’s bad, we don’t.”

What might have seemed a refreshingly sensible and honest approach today appears vacuous. Now in government with the unambiguously, shamelessly far-right Lega, M5S’s junior coalition partner – a junior which is rather calling the shots – Grillo’s party is finally declaring the reactionism, and the weakness, that defines its political style.

M5S’s ‘post-ideological’ stance has revealed itself as ideological obfuscation

Indeed, rather than on policy – which has, over the years, been mercurial – M5S has traditionally built its name on its rhetoric of ‘direct democracy’ and transparency. In an age-old manoeuvre, it claims to have its fingers on the pulse of the popular will. Yet, it gives this trope a novel twist through its online voting system known as ‘Rousseau’ – the legitimating bulwark of their bluster of non-ideological political accountability – and through a proposal to replace actual parliament with a digital version.  

Framed in contradistinction to ‘the caste’ of corrupt and self-serving technocratic politicians, with whom any coalition was once anathema, they have been the avowed upholders of moral purity and ‘onestà’. But, that which was once construable as an honest, pragmatic, issue-based approach – presented in a rhetorical ambiguity, a wriggling refusal to be tied down – has long since become little more than a brutal, populist rage. A rage, incidentally, mobilised by politicians whose corruption-busting credibility is coupled with scandal, administrative incompetence, and notorious flip-flopping: M5S’s recent call for the President of the Republic to be impeached was immediately, embarrassingly, dropped.

In this way, M5S’s ‘post-ideological’ stance has revealed itself as ideological obfuscation. Whilst its past discourse has allowed it to be something of a floating signifier, a sign devoid of stable political referent, an empty name with a political sense that could change to that which people gave it – left, right, or non-aligned – its preferred coalition partner is now pinning it down to a programme.

Currently, this is a programme that promises the deportation of Africans and the closure of ‘irregular’ mosques. It is a programme that includes a flat tax with the admitted intention of benefiting the rich, and that only mentions in passing one of the stable pillars of M5S promise, the environment. It is a programme being implemented largely by unelected technocrats and Lega politicians with histories of clamorous homophobia, Mafia links, and hatred of southerners.

As such, it is also a programme that will sit a little uncomfortably with the twenty-five percent of M5S voters that identify as ‘left-wing’. Grillo, and the party’s current leader, Luigi di Maio, have long courted progressive support by appropriating the language of the traditional left – for example, Grillo describes his party as a ‘movement’, a ‘community’, a group of ‘revolutionaries’ – and by claiming sole responsibility for grassroots campaign across the country.

Although propagated by a party founded by millionaires and scathing of trade unions, this discourse has worked. At a gig I attended of an Italian band just before the election, the famous partisan song ‘Bella Ciao’ was introduced with a shout of “Vote Cinque Stelle!” In a context in which the traditional left party, Partito Democratico, has been shamed by its embrace of austerity, this discursive conflation – of the revolutionary and the politically vacuous, the progressive and the populist – has been deliberately cultivated by M5S to poach the left’s support.

In government, its vaguely progressive elements have been stymied

In coalition with Lega, however, M5S is showing its true colours. While Lega have never claimed to be anything but nationalist, socially conservative, and politically belligerent, M5S is finally making clear the dishonesty of its rhetoric of purity, the cynical pose that has been its revolutionary mask.

In government, its vaguely progressive elements have been stymied, councillors have quit in protest at the Lega alliance, whilst its promise to distribute a monthly €780 to the country’s poorest families has been quietly watered down by Lega. Ostensibly, Matteo Salvini – Lega’s leader – has become the M5S government’s de facto head, and the two parties for whom he now speaks riff continually and exclusively on the distillation of their minimal commonalities: Italy for Italians; less bureaucracy; deport the migrants.

We’ll see how this all pans out for M5S, particularly after this weekend’s municipal elections, in which both Salvini and the alternative left hope to make gains. If all else fails, by ventriloquising through Giuseppe Conte – the nominal prime minister, the technocrat non-entity without political history – M5S may still have safe-guarded its political elasticity: Conte may yet offer them someone else to blame.

On the other hand, Salvini has manoeuvred to have his own programme implemented under M5S’s licence. So now pinned down to ideology, maybe M5S, the self-proclaimed victors of the March election, will be the great political losers of this ‘government of change’.



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