Commentary. Without Gianroberto Casaleggio’s leadership, the M5S is struggling to maintain a coherent idea of its role and nature. Being in government presents an existential risk for any force that presents itself as transformative.

Five Star’s dream of a techno-utopia crashed against political reality

The Five Star Movement has always been an experiment, a political invention: the first “digital party.” Di Maio’s resignation from the party leadership Wednesday marks a point of no return, a “before” and “after” in its history. What is irreversible is not so much the crisis the party finds itself in (as there is little that can be called irreversible in contemporary politics), but how far it has strayed from its origins.

Accordingly, the crisis has a revealing character, shedding light on both the nature of the party and, more generally, on the idea it represented and worked to spread.

In the first place, the nature of the leadership of the Movement is being put into stark relief: there has only ever been one true leader, the late Gianroberto Casaleggio. He was the inventor of the experiment, he gave it its ideological and organizational character. Without his leadership, the M5S is struggling to maintain a coherent idea of its role and nature. Casaleggio’s successor, his son, is unable to make even his pet project (the digital platform) work well.

Secondly, being in government turns out to be the position that brings the greatest risk for any force that presents itself as transformative (whether it is so or not). The promises of immediate and total change crash and fall apart against the limitations, inconsistencies and slowness of government action nowadays, which is subject to enormous economic and international constraints—especially so when one is allied with political forces that have no intention of fighting against those constraints, like the Democratic Party. Therefore, in general terms, what is happening to the M5S is precisely what happened to the radical left under the second Prodi government: disappointment and disillusionment.

More generally, the crisis of the Movement reveals that the original constitutive elements of politics in the past continue to be fundamental to it: namely, ideology and organization.

In a stark paradox, the Five Star Movement was perhaps the most ideological of the current Italian parties. Its ideology revolved around four notions, two of them proactive and two antagonistic. The first two were environmentalism and the technocratic utopia of a completely digitalized society. The techno-utopia described by Casaleggio, almost entirely drawn from the discourse of the large IT companies, promised a society in which digitization would solve almost all social problems and conflicts. This was a new society, a new world, and Casaleggio and Grillo presented themselves as its prophets, those who saw something no one else could. These two elements of the Five Star ideology have disappeared from both its political discourse and its actions in government, which have shown the party’s betrayal in the great environmentalist battles.

The two antagonistic ideological elements were anti-partisanship and anti-ideologism. The former is out of the picture entirely, with the M5S becoming allied with any party just to stay in government. What the M5S is lacking right now is the “Them” of the “Us vs. Them” equation, an opponent to fight—and, as a result, it no longer has its own identity.

Against whom is this party fighting today? And who is it fighting for? And what is it, in the end? Anti-ideologism, i.e. the notion that right and left no longer exist, that there are no partisan ideas but only good or bad ideas, that there are no interests of social groups but only the interests of citizens, that there are no abstract and general values but only effective solutions, is proving just as unsuitable for the party’s situation in government, when it is necessary to clarify “for whom” one is governing.

Paradoxically, while it continues to define itself as neither right-wing nor left-wing, the Movement has unintentionally occupied the symbolic space of the left: it claims that its measures are “left-wing,” it is being abandoned by its right-wing voters and it is inclined towards an organic alliance with the center-left. The course of events is pushing it towards a position of symbolic partisanship, without admitting it and without being able to acknowledge it openly: an unsustainable condition at the level of identity.

The issue of party organization shows the same problem. Casaleggio’s technocracy called for the birth of a party form without an organization, without headquarters, institutional structures and official responsibilities. However, all these things are indispensable for political action. As a result, substitutes were introduced, or were set up in an underhanded manner, or justified with puns that were hard to take seriously. On this level as well, the result is that the Movement has become something it did not want to be, something unrecognizable to both voters and activists.

There can and must be innovation in terms of ideology and organizational forms, but the only way to eliminate them entirely is if one eliminates politics as such. That, in the end, was Casaleggio’s dream.

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