Populism has its ebbs and flows, waxes and wanes, but in the last few years, it has found a global stronghold, from Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the United States, to Marine Le Pen in France. Now, Italy is once again giving populism a try with the unique, but nevertheless flawed, Five Star Movement (M5S). Despite the deeply positive message that its name suggests, the Five Star Movement, if it gains control of the Italian parliament, can’t offer all that it promises.
M5S was originally started in October 2009 by Italian comedian Beppe Grillo as an anti-establishment party that intended to transcend Italian political norms in favor of meaningful political change. Perhaps the most important way the movement diverges from mainstream Italian politics is its use of the internet: M5S designates its parliamentary candidates (both for the Italian and European parliaments) and their policy positions through an online voting system. The goal is a form of direct democracy—overcoming the cronyism and party politics of representative democracy to create real change for the populace. This form of direct democracy is why M5S doesn’t want to be referred to as a party; the legislation and positions that it puts forth are not those of Grillo, who has been separating himself from M5S, or its recently elected leader Luigi Di Maio.
Since 2009, M5S has grown in popularity, and in the most recent Italian election, it garnered 32.6 percent of the vote, the most for any individual party, ahead of the 22.8 percent Matteo Renzi’s left-wing coalition, but behind the 37 percent of Matteo Salvini’s right-wing coalition. With no majority, M5S cannot yet form a government, but they are certainly in a position of negotiating power.
On its face, the platform that M5S has put forth appears reasonable. It calls for public water access, sustainable development, sustainable transportation, environmentalism, and a right to the internet (five star points). And M5S’s direct democracy makes that seem possible—if citizens want something, they can directly vote for it. But the internet as a tool of democratization and equality has a shaky history.
In 1995, English academics Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron wrote an essay called “The Californian Ideology,” which criticized the cyber-utopianism and neoliberalism of Silicon Valley. Barbrook and Cameron explain how members of the counterculture movement in the 1960s extended their beliefs in the form of technological optimism through the 1980s, becoming leaders in the tech industry. Crucially, the promises of these leaders were paradoxical. Primarily, they took from Canadian academic Marshall McLuhan the idea that “the power of big business and big government would be overthrown by the intrinsically empowering effects of new technology on individuals.” However, reality showed the opposite to be true. Leaders of the tech industry were in charge of increasingly huge corporations that, through the decreased regulation and government oversight that surrounds neoliberalism, simultaneously decreased social mobility, increased economic stratification, and strengthened the authority of corporations over people.
“Already ‘redlined’ by profit-hungry telcos, the inhabitants of poor inner city areas can be shut out of the new on-line services through lack of money,” writes Barbrook. “In contrast, yuppies and their children can play at being cyberpunks in a virtual world without having to meet any of their impoverished neighbours.”
Ultimately, the problem of the Californian Ideology is tied to the relentless desire of late capitalism to generate profit above all other needs and desires. Any claims that the internet, in combination or otherwise, could liberate people from poverty into a new utopia is, at the very least, absurd, and at the most, devastating.
Unfortunately for Italians hopeful for political change, the problems that plague the Californian Ideology are just as relevant to M5S. They claim that their internet-based direct democracy will overcome corrupt politicking in favor of what is best for the average person, but, as academics Simone Natale and Andrea Ballatore write, M5S’s discourse reproduces “internal tension between the ‘electronic agora’ of direct democracy and the neoliberal ‘electronic marketplace.’” Additionally, M5S “praises extreme economic competition online.” However, this extreme competition, especially without regulation, is what allows corporations to grow larger and larger at the expense of lower economic classes.
But M5S’s claims about truth on the internet are perhaps even more pernicious than its economic claims. M5S suggests that the web is a means of ultimate truth-telling, except for the occasional scam or piece of unreliable news. But this absolutely underwrites the fact that M5S is responsible for “a sprawling network of websites and social media accounts that are spreading fake news, conspiracy theories, and pro-Kremlin stories to millions of people.” It is true that the internet democratizes information, but it democratizes on the basis of shock value and contrast, not on truth. M5S will be unable to achieve even its basic political goals if the information its members are receiving are inconsistent with reality.
To top it off, M5S is currently led by Luigi Di Maio, a 31-year-old college dropout. His inexperience is palpable, his father a member of the post-Mussolini neofascist Italian Social Movement, and in the last year, he has upped the movement’s anti-immigration rhetoric.
Combined with the a reactionary culture that exists largely on the internet, M5S and its leader represent one of the more unstable and misguided political movements of recent. It has high aims, but until M5S abandons its neoliberal ideology reminiscent of California, it will fall short, strengthening the class of elites it aims to disrupt.
Cormac Chester is a member of the class of 2020 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.