Commentary. The yellow vest hastily put on by the M5S’s ‘political leader’ looks no less ridiculous than the firefighter’s uniform worn by Salvini as a propaganda stunt.

Yellow vests and yellow politicians: An Italian drama

In Five Stars-style politics, nothing is what it seems. The “universal income” is not a universal income; “direct democracy” is not direct democracy, but rather—in the most generous possible interpretation—a video game which tries to simulate it, and their much-vaunted notion of local participation in decision-making is actually stifled under an unassailable principle of vertical hierarchy. Not even the “movement” that gave the Five Star Movement its name can truly call itself a movement. What has taken place in Italy has little in common with the experience of the Spanish indignados, with the Gezi Park protests in Turkey, with Occupy Wall Street—in short, with anything that would actually transform a collective mobilization into a social movement. Such a movement is always and necessarily in immediate friction with the existing legal order and the iniquities that are part of it, and has no qualms about disrupting public order. None of that could be seen in the events, the meet-ups and the rallies that ended up giving birth to the M5S, a party that has gotten an ever-larger presence in the institutions, and which has rallied behind an undisputed “political leader.” It is a party in thrall to a perennial McCarthyism—however, this is less and less due to an obsessive idea of ideological “purity,” and more and more a sign of marching in lockstep with the leaders’ claimed omniscience about who is “colluding with the enemy.”

It is true that many Five Star activists have been sincere participants in real movements, with very different histories and forms of militancy: from Val di Susa to Liguria and Puglia, from the anti-high-speed-rail to the anti-gas pipeline protests and the opposition towards drilling in the Ionian Sea. But the lack of principle displayed and the compromises agreed to by the Five Star Movement on all these issues after joining the government are a clear demonstration of just how little they were tied to these movements, and of how much of their own claims to be a true movement were unserious or self-interested.

Di Maio, in a much-derided but revealing statement reported by the Espresso and other media a few weeks ago, boasted that the M5S brought Italy’s “yellow vests” into the government. However, the truth is that there has been no sign at all in Italy of anything like the “yellow vests”: a radical and generalized social struggle against the economic policies of the government and the executive’s overwhelming power. There has been nothing like that, neither before nor after the “era-defining” political elections of 2018. This type of claim has a long history with the M5S: it often happens that Grillo, followed by the “colonels” of the Movement, tends to proudly put forward the claim that what they actually are is a bulwark against the tide of mass social unrest. If it wasn’t for them—they say—the anger of the people would rise up in some uncontrollable form. In a certain sense, they are right. Grillo and his followers have actually worked as an antidote against the social movements, acting as a neutralizing substitute for the independent grassroots activity and impulse towards conflict that are properly theirs. This neutering has worked so well that it allowed the party led by Di Maio to enter into an alliance with a far right party which aims to guarantee the current order of property ownership and the hierarchy which it implies, without this registering as shocking or leading to a worsening of the state of social conflict in the country.

Now, those who used to call themselves the “bulwark,” more and more worn out by the facts of sharing power, are changing rhetorical strategy and pretending to be, instead, the raging waters they had been supposedly holding back—making like their true place is out there, among the rolling waves. But the yellow vest hastily put on by the M5S’s “political leader” looks no less ridiculous than the firefighter’s uniform worn by Salvini as a propaganda stunt. Compounding the hilarity of the situation, the M5S vice-prime minister has offered the services of the M5S’s Rousseau online platform to the French protesters—as if a movement that relies entirely on itself and on its autonomous status, suspicious of everything and everyone, would willingly trust the Casaleggio IT company with their communications, just because the platform happens to usurp the name of the great French-speaking philosopher from Geneva. Everyone has understood by now—the French government, the German government, policy analysts of all stripes—that the yellow vest movement is different from the nationalist-populisms that have spread widely all over Europe. It is not as much a reaction against the old and outmoded party system, but rather one against what billed itself as a “change government.” There are some elements of similarity with the Italian yellow-green government—for instance, the rhetoric of wanting “a new approach” and the reduction of politics to personalities—while others are clearly different.

While the French movement is a complex case, and it cannot be said to be free of the germs that have led to the outbreak of European national-populist parties across the continent, as a whole, the yellow vest movement seems to be moving in a different direction, in many ways antithetical to these parties. Thus, instead of appeasing the dissatisfied base of the Five Stars, Di Maio’s invoking of the gilets jaunes might actually fan the flames of discontent even higher. If one compares both the form and the substance of the uprising that is happening across the Alps to the uninspiring performance of the Five Stars, the latter will not come out looking good—quite the opposite.

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