Art and Politics

The Upcoming Italian Elections and the Seamy Side of Satire

With the Italian general elections of 24-25 February 2013 around the corner, electoral campaigns are putting the country upside down. Nothing out of the ordinary, though competition among Italian politicians always seems to go a little further than elsewhere in the Western world. Only recently Berlusconi made a “shock” announcement, promising not only to abolish the council tax Mario Monti’s government introduced if his center-right coalition wins the elections, but even to refund Italians for the council tax that has already been paid in 2012. Just this week, a letter – highly reminiscent of an official income revenue document – with details on how to claim the money back was sent to millions of voters. In a more pathetic vein, various political leaders posed before cameras or appeared on TV shows cuddling puppies in an attempt to win over the Italian electorate.

With Italian media being largely compromised by political parties, cooperative companies, media and business magnates and financial strongholds, Italians have remained with only two real outlets for their frustration and disillusionment with contemporary politics and society, the Internet and satire. Blunders, scandals and a wide array of political issues that leak out into the public sphere instantly reach the web, where people vent their anger or have a (bitter) laugh at the guilty party by leaving comments on Twitter or circulating satirical cartoons on Facebook. And then there is satire, a particularly popular means of political criticism and contestation in Italy. Of course it is not new, and has been applied for a long time in the democratic world. Yet, with the various political scandals of the past year, as well as Monti’s harsh austerity policies and rigid attitude, seemingly unconcerned with the disastrous effects of these measures on the lives of many Italians, political satire in Italy is increasingly putting the finger on the sore spots, serving as a sort of mediatized vox populi.

And political satire is increasingly becoming a site of contestation. In mid-February, for example, Maurizio Crozza – best known for the satirical impersonations of politicians during his ten minute sketch on the weekly current affairs program, Ballarò, aired on the most left-centered of the three state-run RAI channels – was attacked by members of the audience at the yearly musical festival of San Remo. At the end of an unflattering imitation of a Silvio Berlusconi trying to buy the Italians’ votes, with which Crozza started his performance, people shouted that he should leave the stage, and that there should be no politics that night, making it apparently impossible for the comedian to continue. Although Crozza seemed affected and offended by the attack, and nearly walked off the stage, necessitating the intervention of host Fabio Fazio, it is likely that the entire scene was set up so as to boost audience ratings. Nevertheless, it shows how important satire has become in debates about politics, and in society as a whole.

Satire mostly surfs the web, though. One comedian in particular has drawn advantages from this, creating his own, grassroots political movement which communicates and organizes itself primarily on the web, completely knocking over traditional politics: Beppe Grillo. After a career in commercial television and (initially) without any apparent political conviction, in the early 2000s, Grillo began traveling across Italy, performing in theaters and out on the street where he unloaded his anger over ecological issues, warfare and Berlusconi. In 2005, he created, along with Gianroberto Casaleggio, an Internet entrepreneur who eventually became the guru behind Grillo’s “5 star Movement”, the blog. In 2007 and 2008 the duo organized the so-called V-day (where the ‘V’ stands for ‘vaffanculo’, the Italian F-word), an unofficial protest day against traditional politics – from left to right – that took place across Italy. Grillo indeed claims to promote neither left-wing nor right-wing ideologies. (Hence, his recent opening up to the neo-fascist Casa Pound movement in the name of non-partisanship.)

It is mostly on the web that Grillo’s anti-politics take shape. Journalist Giuliano Santoro – author of an interesting study of the Grillo phenomenon (Un grillo qualunque. Il movimento 5 stelle e il populismo digitale nella crisi dei partiti italiani, 2012) – claims that Facebook in particular favors Grillo in that it creates “a bond between the Comedian and the People which makes possible keeping together […] both the propagandist strength of the “logo” that is so typical of the classical relation of consumerism, and the emotive and intimate power of ‘friendship,’ typical of social networks such as Facebook.” Put simply, Facebook allows Grillo to provide people with a sense of identity and belonging to community, a “product” which he can sell without having to gain the consumer’s confidence, considering his notoriety and Facebook’s capacity to create online – and subsequently also real – communities. And what Grillo has to sell, sells well, particularly since the political scandals of 2012. Recent opinion polls indicated that the “5 star Movement” is gaining support and may do well in the upcoming elections, due also to Grillo’s so-called “Tsunami tour” across the peninsula, these past few weeks. Grillo’s returning to old-fashioned street politics and online democracy seems to be paying off.

Yet, there is a big downside to the “5 star Movement,” and to Grillo’s character. His blog, for example, is not really a blog, as Grillo himself admitted: it is mostly a site of communication and propaganda, with no interaction between Grillo and his followers. Nor did the two highly successful V-days originate “from below.” Rather, they were programmed and effectively “sold” by the Casaleggio-Grillo duo. Similarly, Grillo’s political rallies – which are often filmed and put online –are more a one-man show, which, again, do not promote interaction but simply reproduce the stand-up comedian format of television. Accordingly, the people who attend these meetings are spectators rather than demonstrators. His activities, therefore, represent no more than a shift from television to new media. Things apparently change, but are essentially the same.

The obsession with new media reached a climax when it was decided that people could present themselves as candidates for the 5 star Movement primaries in 2012 by uploading videos of themselves to the Internet, where they would receive votes, a form of democracy from below. But this failed horribly as only a very small number of Italians voted, which was to be expected, with Italy still lagging behind in Internet usage.

Grillo’s hierarchical and undemocratic nature, finally, was revealed when he expelled a regional and a communal councilor of the “5 star Movement” in the city of Bologna. One of them had participated in the abovementioned TV program Ballarò, a decision which clashed with Grillo’s number one rule of complete absence from the mainstream media, although he does not always apply that rule to himself. In October 2012, he pulled off a publicity stunt as he swam the Straits of Messina for the launch of his local election campaign in Sicily, where the “5 star Movement” would be very successful.

Clearly, Grillo is afraid of losing control. Or maybe he just doesn’t like it when someone draws attention away from him, as also became clear after a member of the “5 star Movement” was elected mayor of Parma during local elections in 2012, leading to polemics with Grillo who tried to dictate his next moves. The Movement does indeed come across very much as an army of little soldiers, who are dismissed as soon as they step out of line.

So how would they govern Italy, should they win the elections? Of course, they won’t, but if they would, Grillo-Casaleggio would probably dissolve the movement. It is indeed likely that Grillo has no intention to govern, but simply wants to obstruct other parties and bring about some kind of revolution. At a local level, though, the Movement is doing well, which illustrates an increasing call for local activism and participant democracy, due not in the least to a discontent with European politics in these times of crisis and austerity.

Grillo’s success also shows how traditional politics are being affected ever more by the power of satire and democracy via the web. In a way, this is not very surprising, Italy having been run for nearly 20 years by a man many consider a clown, and who has indeed built much of his popularity on the Italians’ (bad) sense of humor.

Yet, to a certain degree, Grillo’s assault on the political caste is a good thing. In a country where traditional political parties have exploited ordinary citizens for far too long, distracting them with semi-nude ballerinas or simply brainwashing them through television, it is time people wake up and smell the coffee. But I’m afraid Grillo is not our man. Although many of the things he says are true, they do no more than feed grudges. Grillo does not offer any real alternative, so that voting for him is not a vote for something but against, and that is never really productive.