Italy's web politicians post their dystopic vision

First a third world war, eco-disaster and mass death. Then global government for the lucky...

Six weeks after the general election, Italy remains without a government. And the only man capable of breaking the deadlock – at a stroke – refuses to lift a finger.

Comedian Beppe Grillo’s non-party, the web-based Five-Star Movement (5SM), came from nowhere three years after its formation to become Italy’s biggest single political formation with 26 per cent of the vote. It has been put under intense pressure to cut a deal with the centre-left Democratic Party (DP) and its coalition partners, who won a majority in the Camera dei Deputati. With Grillo’s support, the PD could obtain a healthy majority in the Senate as well, leading to the formation of a relatively strong coalition government.

Some voices inside the 5SM have lobbied for a deal of this sort. But while the movement claims to be the vanguard of a new form of electronic democracy which is going to take over the world, for now there is no doubt about who is boss: the man whose blog,, is the movement’s running manifesto. And Mr Grillo is not for turning. “Why did you vote for 5SM?” demanded a recent post. “To make a government of the old parties? To vote in parliament for the least bad?...To legitimise a ruling class that has made the country fail?” The questions were purely rhetorical. And the impasse goes on.

5SM’s rallying-call was for a political revolution, and while its success has condemned the country to a spell in limbo, Grillo has no regrets. On Friday, to underline his good humour while the leaders of the established parties fret and fume, and the DP in particular seems on the brink of splitting, he took the bulk of his new MPs on a magical mystery tour through the countryside outside Rome. Once they had consumed a lunch of paccheri pasta with porcini mushrooms en route and arrived at an agriturismo called Villa Valente, their destination (undisclosed until arrival, like much else about the movement), Mr Grillo got down to business.

“Total unanimity in the movement” was not something he had expected, the leader said, attempting to defuse widespread fears that he is an authoritarian. “It’s legitimate that some people think differently…You are at liberty to define the [movement’s] political line” Yet he left no-one in doubt that its unanimity –under his fiat – was a great asset. “It’s not we who are splitting but the others,” he said. The new MP who is the group’s leader in the Camera, Roberta Lombardi, said the excursion had done its job. “Even those who were wavering due to pressure from the media today had a peaceable and serene encounter,” she said. “We are all part of the same network…we foresee that there will be a government of broad agreement.”

But how and when that might come about she did not explain. Italy has been through many political crises over the years, but commentators agree that there has never been one like this one. And the deadlock in parliament is aggravated by the fact that the seven-year term of the head of state, President Giorgio Napolitano, the 88-year-old ex-communist whose role has been crucial in navigating through recent crises, ends next month. He is now a lame duck, without the power even to dissolve parliament, and 5SM refuses to play ball in facilitating the election of his successor: Grillo wants the next President to be chosen not by parliament but by a nationwide popular vote on the web.

While Mr Grillo is the unquestioned leader and figurehead of the movement, he launched it with a 58-year-old internet expert called Gianroberto Casaleggio. Known in the Italian press as Grillo’s guru, Mr Casaleggio is the movement’s visionary.

Unlike his partner, Mr Casaleggio has no love of the limelight: with his curtains of lank grey hair and his brooding, introverted air he bears a marked resemblance to Snape, the ambiguous figure in the Harry Potter films played by Alan Rickman. His only recent appearance with Grillo was at the movement’s last, vast pre-election meeting in Rome on 22 February when Grillo produced him like a rabbit out of the hat. Casaleggio limited himself to a single oracular statement, amply justified by events: “We are going to change Italy.” The applause was deafening.

Since then the Italian press, especially the part controlled by the Berlusconi family, has gone to great lengths to pin something sinister on him, but without success. Mr Casaleggio lives in a modest flat in Milan, drives a red second-hand Volvo,  and has been married twice, once to an Englishwoman called Elizabeth Birks, from whom he is divorced. Yet despite his shyness, Mr Casaleggio has plastered his extraordinary ideas about humankind’s future all over the web. They are entirely congruent with the line his movement has taken since the election. And they are highly disturbing.

In a seven-minute YouTube video entitled Gaia, Casaleggio expounds his vision of a world under the sway of the net. “With the net,” the female narrator explains, “power belongs to all the people.” Mr Grillo’s celebrated nationwide V-Day (“Fuck-off Day”) protests of 2007, were “the biggest political event…brought together using the internet,” she claims. “Two million people took to the streets to demonstrate for a clean parliament.” And this is the way of the future.      

In 2043, “grassroots movements emerge all over the world to solve problems connected to energy, food, environment, health,” she goes on. This will be a world of gentle, ecological, net-based anarchism: “The planet is subdivided into thousands of communities linked by the net…in 2051 a world referendum is held on the net to abolish the death penalty…2054 – world elections on the net – the world government, called Gaia, is elected.” And with this we will have arrived at the New Jerusalem, where “every person can become president and control the activities of the government through the net. Man is the only owner of his destiny. Collective knowledge is the new politics.” Finally on 14 August 2054 – on which day, if he survives, Mr Casaleggio will turn 100 – “the new world order will be complete.”

One drawback: by now the identity of the entire population will be in the hands of a hypothetical new Google social network, called Earthlink. “To be, you must be in Earthlink,” the narrator explains – “or be not.” On the other hand, we won’t need to carry passports.

The other drawback is more serious. “2020: the beginning of the Third World War”, the video foresees: war between the enlightened west, where the internet is free, and the “Orwellian dictatorships” of Russia, China and the Middle East, where it is still controlled. This war will go on for 20 years, with “acceleration of climate change, arriving of the sea at 12 metres, starvation, end of the fossil fuel era.” Oh yes: and “reduction of the world’s population to 1 billion.” Six out of seven human beings now alive, in other words, will die.

Let no-one accuse Grillo and Casaleggio of deluding the Italian public with false hopes.

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