Italy. Gianroberto Casaleggio, who founded the “non-party” Five Star Movement, died Tuesday at 61.

Goodbye to the father of the Five Star Movement

“He was crazy. Crazy for a new madness, where everything changes for the better thanks to the network.” With these words, Beppe Grillo described some time ago the beginning of his brotherhood with Gianroberto Casaleggio.

He recalled an April evening in 2004, when the businessman went to a dressing room at the Goldoni Theatre in Livorno to present the entertainer with his ideas about the future. That evening, Casaleggio must have uttered in a low voice and with sadness the words that made him the key player of recent Italian politics: a mix of esoteric, apocalyptic millenarianism and technological enthusiasm, albeit a bit dated. All seasoned with the tools of business motivation and with some knowledge of the philosophy of communication.

To understand the relationship of Casaleggio with the Five Star Movement, it is necessary to understand his ability to handle the opposites. The man who died Tuesday, at 61 years of age, could juggle the contradictions. He knew how to bust them on the enemy camp instead of on his own turf. He moved the agenda of conflicts and inconsistencies outside the fence of his organization. It is known that comedians play with paradoxes; they build up laughter by highlighting contradictions. Grillo moves in this space and in this same field. From his perspective of business leader, Casaleggio moved in that space as well.

Before catechizing the Genoan comedian, he had worked in Olivetti and was CEO of Webegg, a joint venture formed by the companies Telecom and Ivrea that offered consulting services to companies and public administration. Legend has it that he used to convene meetings around a round table in the Belgioioso castle, near Pavia, paying fitful attention to the little esoteric ceremonies typical of someone who has developed manuals on work organization and the basics of the sciences of exploitation.

Here it is, the first contradiction defused and made valuable by Casaleggio: He loved dosing out information while preaching maximum openness. He wanted to be at the same time unapproachable and “one of us.” Similarly, he constructed the Five Star Movement, a non-party where live streaming of the meetings and the promise of permanent openness coexists with the opacity of certain acceleration and with inexorable invisible hierarchies that remind one of the typical absolute monarchies of digital capitalism: open field to creative work but very few can contribute to the strategic decisions.

Casaleggio’s vision conquered Grillo from the beginning. He created it under the nose of communities of digital activists of the previous decade, and he attracted proselytes from the mass of new users approaching the Web at the beginning of the millennium. The Beppe Grillo site was launched in 2005, the year that would change the Internet forever, with the boom of Facebook and YouTube, social networking and viral videos, the network at the same time more and more participatory and increasingly in the hands of monopolies. Again, vertical and horizontal. So why not use the site of the famous character as an on-demand TV, in a strategy to reinvest the notoriety capital Grillo acquired in the years of primetime television, ads and theater shows? In the country where the most watched newscast is actually an outdated comedy program, it could not be otherwise: The site, after a few months of transmission, reached 10th place in a global blog ranking. After a few years, it became the backbone of a party that even today challenges the laws of political science and puts a strain on any attempt to analyze it through traditional lenses.

The two leaders, who could handle the contradictions, moved wisely between announced apocalypses and ideological minimalism, from extreme simplifications to spectacular shots. Casaleggio produced “Gaia,” a video that foresaw a world war, after which a minority of select people would survive and would have the task of building a world government online. While critics were giggling, the moves of Beppe’s testimonial went in another direction. Casaleggio knew that the network is used to gauge public opinion, to follow it rather than to form it. Combining the flair for humor of Grillo’s audiences and Web 2.0 instant polls, he smashed through the wide open doors of Berlusconian, sleazy Italy, pointing the finger to the abuses of the political class.

These are the years of the Casta campaign, launched by Rizzo and Stella from the columns of the Corriere della Sera. The great conflict was between “politicians” and “citizens”; all the other contradictions — including right and left categories — passed into the background, were undermining the unity of the “people” (i.e. of all Italians except “Casta”), they threatened to wrap up the Movement of People.

What will happen now in the infrastructure set up by Casaleggio around Grillo, from which the membership is informed, the expulsions are announced, and the thematic agenda of the M5S is announced? Davide Casaleggio, the son of Gianroberto, seems destined to pick up the family business, and therefore, the Five Star Movement. A couple of years ago, the book Tu sei Rete (“You are the network”) illustrated the possibility of managing companies and complex systems by “indicating simple rules of behavior.” The organization guru of the new labor economy synthesizes this formula with the expression “thrive in chaos.”

In the Grillo universe, this has always meant: Give free rein to the territories provided they do not discuss national hierarchies. The first expulsions from M5S date back to 2012, against Emilian activists (it seems that Casaleggio called them with contempt “the communists”) accused of wanting to “build a party” when they tried to convene a national assembly. After the efforts of the 2013 general election, dozens of elected flocked to Rome. By all means, Casaleggio wanted to control them since the first day he met them, when in a Roman hotel he imposed to a scared audience the first club rule: “No government alliance.”

It must be said that beyond the simplistic representations that described him as a disturbing big brother, he did not always succeed. He had to contend with the sacrosanct emergence of dissent, with an unsettling political naivete frequently in conflict with the emergence of personal ambitions. The “co-founder” (as he called himself) had to take note, not without friction, of the first lumps of power that were forming in parliament.

There is a term that comes from the management jargon of the HR department of the Casaleggio Associati offices in Milan that has been used to describe the ideal characteristics of the candidates in the upcoming municipal elections: The M5S politicians must have “soft skills.” So instead of clear competences, a consolidated identity or strong content, they are prized for their ability to adapt to the unexpected and to relate to a flexible organization.

The Five Star Movement that survives its creator is now crossed by infighting and poisons practically in every territory. These disagreements have always been balanced by the two founders: the strength of the testimonial actor (a little tired actually nowadays) and the organizational skills of the manager, with whom they will have to do without from now on.

You will once again find an audience willing to not see the contradictions in the name of an all-encompassing narrative, the narrative that Di Maio and Di Battista (to quote the two most prominent voices) continue to practice. Only in this way that strange, unpredictable animal made of oxymorons and contradictions called Five Star Movement will find a new balance.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!