Sorry for the extended radio silence. Life got in the way of blogging, as it does from time to time. And this post itself is just a heads up to say that I’m working on an essay on the troubled relationship between the green movement and austerity that will be up in a few days, so keep your eyes peeled.
In the coming days, I’ll also have a piece on the trap of neo-Gaullism that some left-wing critics of EU austerity have fallen into. It is a response to this article on national democracy by my genial and perspicacious colleague Craig Willy (his piece taking down the myth of Baltic austerity ‘success’ is a must-read) that, despite this geniality and perspicacity, is wrong, wrong, wrong.
But in the meantime, do have a look at the relaunch of the Statewatch journal, the publication of the venerable European civil liberties/home affairs watchdog. The new issue takes a look at the civil liberties fall-out of austerity, and there are some great pieces on what has been happening in Spain, Italy, Greece and Belgium. In it, I have an extended essay (11,000+ words, eep!) on European ‘post-democracy’ and its flipside, anti-politics, which can buttress post-democracy or transcend it.
Here’s a taster, an excerpt from the essay on the use of the term ‘populism’ in European discourse and a warning against viewing Beppe Grillo as any kind of alternative. The full version of the essay, in all its TL;DR glory, can be read here.
Anti-political and pan-ideological
There should be no time for the lazy category of ‘populism’ that the EU political class, and their useful idiots in the commentariat, apply without ever really defining it, but to really any politics at all that does not fit within the narrow confines of the liberalising Brussels centre-left-centre-right consensus. So for example, both Syriza and Golden Dawn, two parties of radically different perspectives on almost all questions, are lumped together, as are the Front de Gauche of Jean-Luc Melenchon and the Front National of Marine Le Pen, and the Netherlands’ Socialistische Partij and the Partij van de Vrijheid of Geert Wilders. And now, since the Italian elections in February, Beppe Grillo and even Silvio Berlusconi, have been cast as ‘clowns’ out to destroy the eurozone by both Bild, the German tabloid, and the Economist magazine1. When the category of ‘populism’ is so broad and encompasses such widely differing sets of politics, it ceases to have any meaning.
And let us be clear: the soft-Keynesian policy proposals of the likes of Syriza, Melenchon and the Dutch SP are crisply to the right of the positions of the post-war social democratic parties of northern Europe that ushered in the welfare state through to the end of what the French call Les Trentes Glorieuses – the 30 glorious post-war years of labour-capital compromise. A useful comparison is the 1945 election manifesto of the British Labour Party, which declared that it would nationalise great swathes of the economy, take the Bank of England under democratic control, deliver public healthcare, full employment and progressive taxation that would squeeze the rich until they squeaked. Their continental homologues were scarcely different. By this logic, Clement Atlee, Olof Palme, Willy Brandt and Bruno Kreisky – the giants of European social democracy – were all populists and demagogues. For contemporary European social democrats to describe the likes of Melenchon and Tsipras as populists is to deny their own origins and to denigrate their greatest achievements.
The success of Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement) in the February elections, winning the most votes of any party, has thoroughly destabilised the political ecology of the country (or it could be argued that the destabilisation of the political ecology of the country allowed Cinque Stelle to succeed). The centre-left coalition led by the Democratic Party of Pier Luigi Bersani barely mustered more support than the scandal-ridden Berlusconi and is unable to form an effective or durable government. Markets had their predictable ‘Democracy – what a bitch’ moment, with share prices swooning across the continent and sovereign bond yields spiking across the eurozone periphery to levels not seen for months.
Again we heard the demand “Tutti a Casa!” (Again: Que se vayan todos! / Kick ‘em all out!) as M5S soared from 1.8 percent support in 2010 to 24 percent within two years; almost two out of three voters backed anti-austerity parties; and a full 90 percent did not vote for the party of European austerity – the Monti coalition. Grillo’s intransigence, refusing to join any coalition (as of the time of writing) makes the country effectively ungovernable at least in terms of the Brussels-Frankfurt consensus. This is, without question, the first major victory of the anti-austerity resistance. Not the Indignados, not the Greek general strikes, not Tsipras or Melenchon have achieved this.
We could even say that Grillo has been braver than Tsipras in that he campaigned on an explicit platform of withdrawal from the euro, and says that Cinque Stelle would buy back €600bn in Italian bonds from foreign holders while delivering a painful haircut to them – in effect a default, while Syriza has been more coquettish on these questions. That a plurality of Italians – historically one of the most pro-European of EU member states – could confidently endorse a break-up of the euro, is a remarkable change in fortunes for the bloc. It changes everything. It is transparently clear that the European elite is losing popular consent for the union even amongst its most committed subjects. The challenge to the political legitimacy of the European Union has arrived at the heart of the project.
There are also aspects of Grillo’s movement (or movement of movements – a coalescence of different campaigns over public water, green energy, etc.) that appear at first glance to have replicated the best horizontal, maximally democratic aspects of Occupy and the Indignados and the resistance movements that have come before: the Seattle-to-Genoa altermondialist movement of the late 90s/early 2000s. His ‘Grillini’, the 163 fresh-faced new deputies and senators, most of them in the 20s and 30s, selected through online voting and arriving in Rome to take up their seats bringing with them little more than backpacks and sleeping bags. Grillo repeatedly declares: “We’re not a political party; we’re a civic revolution.”
There are those who would say that at this early point in the Cinque Stelle’s career, it is too soon to be overly judgemental or sectarian towards the phenomenon. That it is not an expressly progressive movement does not – so far – undermine its theoretical transformative potential goes the argument. A number of progressives emerging from what autonomist commentator Federico Campagna2 (a critic of Cinque Stelle) describes as the Italian “ruins of the post-2001 movements” (altermondialist, Rifondazione Comunista, Tute Bianchi, No Globo, autonomist, anarchist, etc.) have involved themselves with this new force.3
But I want to argue that there is sound reason for reticence regarding Grillo and Cinque Stelle. For the purposes of this essay, I am less interested in some of the political positions of the grouping than the question of whether Cinque Stelle represents a transcendence of the anti-politics that buttresses liberal/technocratic and/or fascist/authoritarian post-democracy – in other words, a progressive/self-governing anti-politics – or whether instead it represents some sort of as-yet-unresolved contradictory hybrid form.
Nevertheless, the party’s political prescriptions and the particular anti-political flavour of the Cinque Stelle are not unrelated.
Rejection of austerity and corruption combine with a focus on public water, environmentalism and a sort of copyleft, digital-rights activism and emphasis on broadband development. Many commentators have referred to the similarities between parts of a Green programme and the Pirate Parties in Germany and Sweden (which are themselves also the beneficiaries of the anti-political mood), and they are not wrong. But Grillo and his Grillini cook up a pan-ideological salmagundi of ideas.
Notably, he is not unfriendly toward the fascists of Casa Pound, a far-right social centre squat named after the fascist sympathising American poet Ezra Pound, whose estimated 5000 members are known for their murderous attacks on immigrants, but which also provides housing for impoverished families.4 Simone di Stefano, a Casa Pound leader and candidate for president of the Lazio regional government, came up to Grillo and said: “They ask me if you are a fascist.” Grillo responded “This is a question that doesn’t regard me. We are an ecumenical movement. If a guy from Casa Pound wants to enter the M5S, and he meets the criteria, he can do that.” The pair chatted in front of cameras for some time, with the pair endorsing many of each others’ positions.
Grillo approvingly quotes Mussolini, opposes citizenship rights for the children of immigrants born in the country, and has said: “The unions are outdated. We no longer need them. We should do as the US does.” So long as workers are represented on company boards, in corporatist fashion, unions can be done away with.
Even the anti-austerity position is not as thoroughgoing as it seems. Grillo backs a slashing of the public debt via “cutting waste and with the introduction of new technologies”. His desire to see a break up of state firms such as the railroads, Telecom Italia and the public power companies surely is no different to the programme of Monti and the demands of Brussels, Frankfurt and Berlin. The M5S mayor of Parma, Federico Pizzarotti, elected in May 2012, has overseen a programme of municipal cuts.
And he is silent on questions of taxation and appears not to have any analysis of the global economic crisis other than an unexceptional fury at the mysterious puppet-masters of ‘Big Finance’.
These perspectives are clearly a contradictory mess. (Public water but private electric?) Were the M5S to extend its position in an election in six months’ time say, and rather than complete its ‘civic revolution’, a collapse of the Second Republic, in fact be the superintendent of further austerity and structural adjustment – can we be confident that it would any greater popular support than Monti?
Internally, the movement is run on a rigidly hierarchical basis, the personal property and will of Grillo and his partner, web marketing guru Gianroberto Casaleggio. There are no conferences or branches. Members that diverge from the duo’s perspective are briskly and pitilessly drummed out of the party.
All this put together, this appears as less a replication of Syriza, the Indignados, the Portuguese demonstrators, the Front de Gauche, et al – an anti-austerity movement with Italian characteristics – than a genuinely novel phenomenon, an authoritarian pied piper dressing up his charges in red, green, yellow and black livery. Red for anti-austerity, green for environmentalism, yellow for the liberalism, and black both for the flirtation with fascism and dalliance with anarchism.
Parts of Cinque Stelle appear to represent a progressive anti-politics, but parts of Cinque Stelle repeat a neo-liberal-technocratic and authoritarian anti-politics as well. In this way, it is different from pretty much anything that has gone before.
It is anti-politics, ne plus ultra.
My best guess though is that Cinque Stelle is unsustainable.
The ideological contradictions are too profound. The pressures on the party now that it is in the role of kingmaker will be considerable, and, unlike Syriza or the Front de Gauche, it simply does not have the structural analytical chops to deal with the economic and political tempest that surrounds it.
This is not to suggest that the likes of Syriza or the Front de Gauche are not also having difficulties dealing with the world-historical nature of the circumstances they find themselves in as well. But even the sharpest progressive critics of the paths that Syriza and the Front de Gauche have chosen could not deny that within their ranks and in their leadership there lies a defined analytical framework to describe the crisis that Cinque Stelle does not have.
If M5S can be said to have any analytical framework, it is a base, uninformative accusation that there is “La Casta”, an ill-defined ‘caste’ of venal characters, traitors, who need to be done away with. It is La Casta versus the ‘honest people’. It is the anti-political analysis of Vaffanculo! (Fuck off!)5
Why is the Italian case important? The matter goes beyond the scale of the Italian economy, its debt levels and its role in the global economy, which puts Greece in the shade. This case is important because Cinque Stelle is just the extreme example of the weakness that is common to all the resistance movements.
In many ways, Cinque Stelle’s categorisation of the enemy as a ‘caste’ of traitors is not so different from Occupy’s nebulous ’99% versus the 1%’, but where the latter is a useful slogan on a homemade cardboard placard, the starting point for a more thoroughgoing analysis that is beginning to deepen its understanding of class, markets, financialisation, unemployment, and, in the case of the Indignados and the rest of the European anti-austerity resistance, the eurozone and the EU’s structures, Grillo’s ‘caste’ is a moralistic endpoint. But the 99% analysis is still structurally weak as well and needs to be transcended.
In the years leading up to the crisis, there was a desire, usually unspoken but sometimes explicitly expressed, for a fresh disaster, a true catastrophe to rock international capitalism that would ‘wake people up’. The more sensible analysts reminded that economic crises tended to be very bad indeed for progressive forces, that the empirical evidence shows that it is actually during the high points of economic cycles, with the accompanying near full employment, when progressive demands are achieved, and that in downturns, dark, fearful ideologies take hold. Moreover, heading into the last economic crisis of the current scale, the Great Depression, progressive forces were markedly more hegemonic. There were mass social democratic and Communist parties, and even sizeable anarchist sympathies in many jurisdictions, linked to militant trade unions confident in the power they wielded. Heading into the current crisis, progressive forces were scattered, weak, minoritarian and on the defensive.
This is to say: Anti-politics is not enough. It can be swayed, bent in some very anti-democratic directions.
Some have argued that Beppe Grillo and Cinque Stelle have prevented the birth of a domestic version of the Indignados or Syriza. They have it the wrong way round. It is the lack of a domestic version of the Indignados or Syriza that gave birth to Grillo.
When Cinque Stelle collapses under the weight of its incoherence, there will still be nothing in Italy on the level of these other European movements that can begin to imagine, let alone construct, an alternative.
My great fear is the arrival of a combination of a nationalist Keynesian response to the crisis and a vicious anti-immigrant programme. A variety of anti-politics that arrives with this set of ideas, fronted by a charismatic figure and/or movement, will be very popular indeed.
1The Economist 2 March, 2013 “Send in the clowns: How Beppe Grillow and Silvio Berlusconi threaten the future of Italy and the euro” http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21572763-how-beppe-grillo-and-silvio-berlusconi-threaten-future-italy-and-euro-send
2Campagna is a collaborator of the Italian autonomist philosopher Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi and the co-editor of the collection of anti-austerity resistance manifestos What We Are Fighting For (2012 Pluto Press).
3Novara radio programme “’Five Star Shaman’ – The Meaning of Beppe Grillo” 5 March, 2013 http://novaramedia.com/2013/03/five-star-shaman-the-meaning-of-beppe-grillo/
4‘Italy’s fascists stay true to Mussolini’s ideology’, The Guardian, 6 November, 2011 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/nov/06/italy-fascists-true-mussolini-ideology
5No, really. See for example his Vaffanculo Day: http://www.beppegrillo.it/eng/2007/06/vaffanculoday.html