Italian Elections 2013

by Mario Fusco

Italian Politics 2013

Beppe Grillo

Beppe Grillo

On February 24 Italians went to the polls to elect a new government. The results were widely decried as inconclusive, resulting in a gridlocked Parliament that would be unable to govern effectively and lead Italy out of the economic morass in which it has languished for several years. Press and blogs were awash with opinions about the “two clowns” who had prevailed over the Social Democrats, Beppe Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi. Particularly offensive was the cover of the Economist, which prominently featured the “two clowns” and luridly highlighted their supposed shortcomings, in an echo of Peer Steinbrueck’s remarks.

It’s hard to defend Berlusconi’s record, so it’s advantage Economist here. It is equally hard, however, to accept the dismissive attitude toward Grillo, and not to see in it a continuation of the policy of ostracism by established interests towards the comedian-turned-politician. A policy that began in the early 90’s and that has manifestly failed to muzzle Grillo. One would hope that Grillo’s past life as a comedian should not weigh on anyone’s judgments of his achievement and of his importance to Italy, not any more, in any case, than Ronald Reagan’s career as a B-movie actor should weigh on any judgment of his achievements as Governor of California and President of the United States. Besides, weeping clowns are a staple of the Western cultural panorama, and we should pay attention to them.

The fact is that Grillo has tapped into a deep vein of unhappiness, anger, and frustration in the Italian electorate. This is by now a truism, but it bears repetition here because it makes the dismissal of Grillo by the Economist that much harder to understand. Grillo can no longer be dismissed as “fringe” or “populist” or merely as the beneficiary of a protest vote. Because of circumstance peculiar to Italy’s civic and political situation, the things he says resonate particularly powerfully with Italians, but many would make sense in other political mileus and could be profitably studied by other countries and governments.

In the end, Grillo is just too anti-establishment for the establishment, of which the Economist is a prominent part. The overweening predominance of capital over labor, exacerbated by the “crisis”, and with all its negative consequences for the “people”, is not something we want to put on the table for discussion. But I think that Italy’s salvation lies just in the re-examination of some of the basic, unspoken assumptions upon which its political and economic systems rest, assumptions which are untouchable bedrock to the Economist and to other establishment structures. Italy’s problem, in my view, is its uncritical acceptance of the Anglo-American capitalist and consumerist paradigm and its rejection of traditional values in favor of a social ethos which is in large part subservient to the exigencies of economic growth.

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