Is Italy’s Beppe Grillo the future of democratic politics?

Beppe GrilloThe elections in Italy threw up an unexpected winner in the ‘anti-politician’ Beppe Grillo. His enthusiastic reception by 25% of the vote, and from a standing start, is one of the most remarkable election results of modern times. Sylvio Berlusconi also revived his political fortunes unexpectedly

Beppe is a self-publicist of genius. He has no media backing. His visibility to the electorate derived from his colourful stunts and lifestyle. The obvious explanation is that a quarter of Italians who bothered to vote had found a channel for their frustrations over the austerity programme conducted by the non-elected ‘technical’ leader Mario Monti imposed by external forces to ward off economic chaos.

One Italian journalist suggested that there would be imitations in other countries as a display of popular contempt for the choices on offer in democratic elections. AS a matter of fact there have been several such ‘creative radical’ candidates in other countries in the past. Protest votes generally swell during efforts by any political party to introduce unpopular changes.

The Raving Monster Loony Party

In recent years, disaffected voters in the UK have tended to support the hapless candidates of the Monster Raving Loony Party, the creative invention and publicity machine of the late Screaming Lord Such. The candidates always expect to fail badly enough in the polls to forfeit the deposit paid by each electoral candidate.

The RMLP added some fun and attracted voters who had been brought up on a satirical diet of Monty Python, often resurrecting the humor in their electoral performances and bizarre names of candidates.

Mr Grumpy

In Brazil, a popular TV personality and comedian known as Tiririka, or Mr Grumpy, stood in the elections of 2010 and won, on the slogan “things can only get worse” and won election as a deputy.

A Postmodern turn?

Postmodern theorists have examined the role of humor in deconstructing everyday realities. The German scholar Sloterdijk has explored the philosophy of cynicism as a defense against the dominant cultural belief in reason and rationality.

Nobel Prize winning Playwright Dario Fo was one of Brillo’s high-profile backers
.
“Grillo is like a character in one of my plays,” says Dario Fo, whose satires on medieval and modern life have seen him handed a Nobel prize and hounded off Italian stages in a career that has covered 50 years. “He is from that school of medieval minstrels who played with paradox and the absurd.”

Mr Grumpy, Screaming Lord Such, and now Beppe Grillo offer an alternative reality to the enlightenment vision of progress through rationality.

Does it matter?

In the short-term, the outcome of the election in Italy has sent a modest tremor through global financial markets, although much has already been discounted. Indeed, the market in The United States is more buoyant than it has been for some time.

The likelihood is that the resentment in Italy shown in the voting is against a political situation but is not coupled with clear plans for a substitute.

The specific and the general

I warn my students about generalizing from a particular event. There is wider dissatisfaction towards austerity measures in other countries. Greece and Spain face civil unrest. In the UK, the resentment is there, but not for the moment so much political vehemence in opposing the Government’s insistence that “there is no alternative” to current policies.

My suspicion is that Italy will eventually move to another fragile accommodation with the prevailing global orthodoxy of attempting to establish a more stable financial and political situation. As it is, the jokes are going the rounds about not one but two eccentric but charismatic politicians who won the popular vote, Beppe, and that most resilient of entertainers, Sylvio Berlasconni.

As the Economist put it [March 2nd-8th, 2013] Send in the clowns.

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