Italy’s Five Star Movement: Looking at an ‘unclassifiable’ political force from a marketing perspective

Beppe Grillo speaks in Rome on March 2, 2018.. Filippo Monteforte/AFP

The March 4 Italian elections were marked by the breakthrough of the Five Star Movement, which was the leading party with 32% of the vote. Known as “M5S”, after its name in Italian, the Movimento 5 Stelle, the party was founded in 2009 by the comedian Beppe Grillo and his fans. For many national and international observers, it’s unclassifiable in terms of the traditional left-right conception of political parties. For this reason, it is simultaneously defined as anti-party, anti-system and populist.

However, the M5S is a result of a general feeling coming from Western societies, which are less centred than they were in the past on work and the culture of production, on which the traditional political consensus is based, and are more focused on the culture of consumerism – thus the now-common expression “consumer societies” used by sociologists and marketers. In this regard, the M5S stands apart from many European populist movements because it is above all a fandom, a movement of activists who are mobilised by the messages of a brand-name celebrity from the culture industry: Beppe Grillo.

Origins and achievements

The M5S is rooted in Grillo’s blog, beppegrillo.it, which he launched in 2004. In the blog he discussed economic and social issues, but also denounces the failings of the Italian political class. By 2008 the blog had become, according to The Guardian, one of the most influential in the world.

From a marketing point of view, Grillo is a celebrity operating as a commercial brand, with his texts and public following. Since 2004, the comedian’s fans have organised themselves into groups of local activists, “Friends of Beppe Grillo”, who participate in local debates. In 2007 Grillo used the blog to launch a political program. The discussions concerned issues of public interest intended for presentation to the then prime minister, Romano Prodi, so that he would integrate them into the governmental agenda. This did not happen.

During the period 2007–2008, Grillo organized in Bologna and Turin, and streamed live for other Italian cities, two “V-Day” protest rallies. Signatures were collected for peoples’ bills to reform the political class, intended to be presented to public institutions, but once again this was not followed up. The year 2008 saw for the first time the inclusion of civic lists in local elections for Beppe Grillo. On October 4, 2009, M5S was officially established. In 2010, the parties’ activists participated in regional elections – Campania, Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, Piedmont and Veneto – with promising results.

In the 2013 national elections, and against all the odds, the M5S achieved the same scores as the traditional left-wing and right-wing parties, gaining about 25% of the vote. From 2013 to 2018, the M5S took a position within the opposition in the Italian Parliament, where it denounced acts it claimed were carried out against the interests of the Italian people and in favour of the groups holding power. In 2016, the party won local elections in major cities such as Rome and Turin. In 2018, in the March 4 elections, the M5S became the leading party with 32% of the vote, followed by the Partito Democratico, with just 18%.

Helena Norberg-Hodge of Local Futures speaks with Beppe Grillo, founder Five-Star Movement (subtitled).

A populist movement… in a consumer society

M5S is part of the wave of “populist” parties that have emerged in Europe recently. They range widely across the political spectrum, including the left-wing, anti-austerity Podemos in Spain, the Europhobe UK Independence Party (UKIP), the extreme-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the overtly neo-fascist Golden Dawn in Greece. All these movements appeared in response to crises within the traditional parties.

Yet M5S also has characteristics in common with the party of current French president Emmanuel Macron, La République en Marche, in particular its transversality between left and right. M5S also distinguishes itself through its origins: it was created by the comedian Beppe Grillo, with the support of a digital entrepreneur, Gianroberto Casaleggio, and the movement’s fans.

What seems unclassifiable in terms of traditional political alignments has proved to be reasonably consistent with current general feeling within Western society, which is, above all, a consumer society. Moreover, it is not simply by chance while the M5S found it difficult to gain ground among those over 50, it found its support among the young.

Fandom’s power

The relationship of Beppe Grillo to his fansin this case – known as “grillini” – and they to each other often plays out through the Internet. Fandoms are the result of mass or popular consumer culture, where media texts, and celebrities in particular play a central role. The fans claim ownership of media content, used in turn for the creation of new content, with the aim of challenging the establishment’s political, economic and financial powers. In this scenario, a large part of the media and news programming acts as a defending wall for the dominant elites, while the Internet is the weapon with which supporters wage their guerrilla war against the system, as they spread counter-information and an alternative vision of life within society.

As a fandom, the M5S has come up against the status quo and the mechanisms that govern it. The M5S subverts the traditional classifications of left and right, while at the same time proposes a universal income for all citizens living below the poverty line and support for small and medium-sized businesses. The Internet – including Grillo’s blog as well as its Rousseau platform – is not only a means of communication, but is also an infrastructure for the movement’s operations, the selection of its candidates, the proposal and discussion of its ideas and the development of its programs. The Internet is the means by which the M5S aims to replace one of the fundamental institutions of modern democracies, representative democracy. Instead, it will be direct democracy, enabled by the Internet.

Therein lies the difference between the M5S and other European “populist” movements. While they may have acquired more fluid forms adapted to contemporary society, they remain linked to political categories and/or the history of the traditional parties. The M5S is pure expression of the power that consumer culture – the brand and its fans – exerts on Western societies.

This article was originally published in French

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