words by Carol King
As a comedian and blogger, Beppe Grillo is not what comes to mind when thinking of the leader of an Italian political party. Yet polls indicate his party, MoVimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement, M5S), is now the second most popular in Italy. The current regional election in Sicily is an opportunity to for M5S to prove that it can turn the support indicated in the polls to votes. The election in Sicily indicates how people may vote in the general election next year.
Grillo is not a man without influence: his blog is one of the 10 most widely read in the world. A political activist, he launched M5S in 2009. The party is fielding candidates in the election to renew the Sicilian Parliament. Grillo has campaigned energetically: the 64-year-old arrived in Sicily on 10 October after swimming the Strait of Messina. He is crisscrossing the island visiting the cities of Palermo and Catania, as well as 34 towns, both large and small, including Agrigento, Enna and Trapani.
A showman, Grillo has used all forms of transport on the campaign trail: riding on a traditional Sicilian horse and cart, travelling by train to highlight the problems of infrastructure on the island and by boat to chat with hard-pressed fishermen. However, most of the time he travels in a camper van. Carol King from ‘Italy Magazine’ caught up with Grillo in his camper when he arrived in the small town of Modica in Ragusa on a rainy Monday evening.
You’ve talked about a cultural revolution. What do you mean by ‘cultural revolution’?
It means having a whole new way of thinking about the economic system, politics, banking. We’re forced to think of a different world; forced because this one has come to its end. The system of GDP, growth and debt no longer works. We’re in a debt spiral; either the debt will halt countries or countries will halt the debt. It’s necessary now: it’s time because people are disorientated, angry – they don’t know who to blame.
How are politicians responding to people’s discontent?
Now they’re all becoming really good. Everyone wanting to decrease their salaries, all wanting to delay retirement and give up annuities, all going to work by bicycle: the politicians. But this is a system that’s rotten in its entirety, hence it’s time to reconsider not only the political classes but also information. Because there wouldn’t have been this [kind of] policy unless there had been [this kind of] information. This is very important, to us in Italy at least.
Do you think that the current problems in Italy are because of the Italian system?
But it’s a global system that starts from the United States, from China. This system has imploded: it’s stopped, it’s degrading, causing thousands of deaths. Economic deaths I mean – thousands of people will disappear. So you really have to imagine a new world fast – starting with the need for schools – to have another paradigm of economic ideas. Namely, stop and say: ‘Enough of growth, stop producing to incinerate, burning to make energy.’ Use this energy to do things other than burn: to make energy. We have to have an epoch-making revolution in the next 20 years, easing off petrol and turning to renewable energy. This is a revolution of civilisation [itself]. So with all the competition for work projects, taxing oil and all the activities that can damage health and the environment, we have taxes as a tool.
What does politics need now?
We need other words in politics: friendly words to feel we’re community, we are Italians. We can’t end up like this: delegating monetary sovereignty, policies made up by foreign banks, by distant bodies that are 500km to 1,000km away. We’ve invented everything in Italy…
Besides, I’m from Genoa. So to talk about the economics with me: we were the world’s first economists in the world. When [Christopher] Columbus discovered the tomato in America, with today’s system he would have filled the ships with tomatoes. Instead, he took the tomato seeds – the ‘information’ – and planted them here. This is a conception of a modern, up-to-date economy: exchanging information not tons of products. Debt was born in Genoa: we came up with the world’s first bank – [the Banco di] San Giorgio – the first treasury bonds, insurance, voyages of discovery. We’re the champions of the invention of debt and economics.
So today, we must rethink everything with common sense, because common sense is revolutionary. If you’re someone honest, people look at you amazed: it seems that you almost have to be a little ashamed, or that you’re stupid or don’t understand.
What were you thinking when you swam across the Strait of Messina?
I thought let’s hope we don’t come across a giant sperm whale, it would have terrified me! But I showed that an overweight 64-year-old man that makes a living as comedian, that’s not sporty, that’s not an athlete [could do so]. I made a token gesture because if you have the desire to do something you can do it. Also, I did it for these guys who aren’t leaving Sicily anymore: they’ve had enough, they want other people to leave the island. Sicily is extraordinary. Italy needs Sicily, but Sicily doesn’t need Italy any more.
What are your hopes for the future of the 5 Star Movement?
Like all big changes it’s important. This is the politics of citizens with no money that organise themselves from the bottom up through the internet. So it’s a network of ideas, aggregating intelligence regarding problems. I act as aggregator. It’s a shocking new idea that can be done anywhere in the world where there is corruption, corrupt policy – practically all the Western world’s like that. We still don’t know where it will lead. However, it’s a virus: it doesn’t stop.
Do you think that communication via the internet is important for citizens today?
Yes, absolutely. It’s the only communication because here – for example in Sicily or this town – communications management is in the hands of politicians who go into government: they hold the energy industry, information, TV and newspapers. When you possess energy and communications, you have two threads that are the reins to lead humanity where you want. The web bypasses all these things.
With that Grillo left his camper van to face a crowd that had turned out to listen to him and M5S candidates. People turned out despite the rain and the town came to a standstill as people gathered under umbrellas. It was strangely silent bar the sound of Grillo’s voice met by cheers and applause from the crowd.
Grillo’s tour has continued through Sicily to packed squares. Thousands of people are logging on to the internet to watch live streams of the speeches given by him and M5S party members. Will the vote on 28 October see M5S win seats in the Sicilian Parliament? If so it will mark a sea change in Italian politics as citizen politics comes to the fore: traditional parties may have to rethink their electoral strategies and perhaps even their policies. If there is a change in Sicily it would be a sign that the general election in Italy next year could provide some surprises.
‘Italy Magazine’ will be reporting on the results of the Sicilian election next week.