Green Fascism: Beppe Grillo Is the Most Dangerous Man in Europe

A Commentary by Jan Fleischhauer

Five Star Movement leader and comedian Beppe Grillo speaks during a rally in Rome. Zoom
REUTERS

Five Star Movement leader and comedian Beppe Grillo speaks during a rally in Rome.

Beppe Grillo, leader of the populist Five Star Movement in Italy, prides himself on his ridicule of the parliamentary system. Yet while his anti-establishment rhetoric sounds appealing, at heart it's actually anti-democratic. And very similar to that of an infamous Italian from the past.

The man whom German center-left leader Peer Steinbrück called a "clown" does have entertainment value, that much we can agree on. Italy and the euro? "De facto, Italy is already out of the euro zone." Rome and the parliamentary system? "I give all the parties six more months, then it's over here." And these quotes are only the highlights from a recent interview with Beppe Grillo published by the German business daily Handeslblatt. When it comes to straight talking, even Steinbrück, reknowned for his lack of a filter, is surpassed by Grillo.

Steinbrück got a fair amount of flack for his clown comparison. If he had used the term to describe only Berlusconi, everyone would have simply nodded in agreement. But Grillo? The leader of the streets and hero of the youth, whose third-placed Five Star Movement demonstrated the degree to which Merkel's austerity diktat is pushing Italy to its limits? The advocate for shorter terms of office and a cleaner way of doing politics? Even within the ranks of Steinbrück's Social Democrats (SPD), people were calling for their candidate to be put in his place.

A part of the sympathy that Grillo enjoys in Germany is undoubtedly thanks to his proximity to the political left. Much of what the Five Star Movement espouses could easily be found in the platforms of the Attac movement or Germany's Green party: the passion for alternative sources of energy, the promise of more civic engagement, the protest against the "fat cats" of international finance and the calls to put them on a diet. But that's just the surface. Such fluff doesn't propel a party to the top in just a few short years, neither in Italy nor anywhere else.

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Photo Gallery: Italy Turns to Grillo
Grillo derives his energy from resentment. The real key to his success lies in the exploitation of anger -- at Germany, at Brussels bureaucrats, at the whole system. That is what makes him great, not the appeal to reason or the love of democracy.

As with all other revolutionaries, Grillo's answer to the malaise of the present age is extremely simple. You just have to do away with the politicians or, better yet, jettison everything that smells of power and privilege. "We are young," it says on his blog. "We have no structure, heirarchy, leaders or secretaries. We take orders from no one." Grillo's comparison of his movement to the French Revolution, which took its ideas of equality with bloody seriousness, is no accident. He relativizes by saying, "without the guillotine," but the stipulation means little. When people are incited into rage, those who fueled their passions never take the blame.

Good Politics Relies on Compromise

It's the puritanism of the radical moralist that distinguishes Grillo from his competitors and attracts the masses. "Every corner will be illuminated, every committee, every conference hall, every floor," one Five Star member decreed after the elections. The movement wants to "thoroughly clean up the state apparatus," read another explanation as to why so many people voted for the comedian.

In the real world, politics is an arduous, rather unappetizing business. It depends on compromise that, by definition, not everyone is happy with. Sometimes you have to ask the people to accept things they don't understand or want. The Social Democrats in Germany are a case in point. Ten years ago, the SPD passed a controversial package of job-market and welfare reforms. They strengthened the country, but hurt the party. The idea that the votes of the street are somehow more democratic than the votes of representatives sent to parliament in a democratic election is an illusion that has found adherents in Germany as well.

In his best moments, Grillo talks like a cult leader. When he speaks of being "not a commander, but a guarantor," he sounds like a swami who could just as easily be leading the penitant to an ashram. But with a bit of historical awareness, one can see darker parallels.

Echoes of Italian Fascism

In the Swiss magazine Weltwoche, British journalist Nicholas Farrell draws a comparison between Grillo and another famous Italian who founded his own populist movement nearly a hundred years ago: Benito Mussolini. Farrell is an expert on the fascist dictator, having written a much cited 2003 biography of Il Duce.

Mussolini also claimed that his fascist group "Fasci di Combattimento" was not a party but a movement, because political parties were the problem, not the solution. He too saw himself and his followers as cleansers who would finally clean up the frail and corrupt system. And he likewise claimed to represent the youth and freethinkers, those who no longer believed in programs and statutes but in rejuvinating action.

Farrell even finds similarities in the two men's choice of words. Whereas Mussolini spoke of parliament as a "deaf, gray hall" that he refused to enter, Grillo describes his refusal to cooperate in a similar style: "The old parties are coming to an end. They should give back what they stole, and leave. Either they follow us, or they are doomed." The mockery of the parliamentary system under the guise of true democracy is a trick that all opponents of democracy espouse, regardless of where they come from.

It is easily overlooked nowadays, but fascism at its heart was a leftist movement. Mussolini never made a secret of his orgins: "I am and always will be a socialist. My convictions will never change. They are implanted into my bones," he told his comrades as they expelled him from the party at the outbreak of war in 1914 because of his pro-war stance. Farrell concludes that "Mussolini's fascism was black, Grillo's is green, but they both have a red heart."

One can only hope that Steinbrück was right when he said Italians had elected two clowns. Unfortunately it looks as if he was very wrong about one of them.

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1. Is this the Spiegel or the Sun?
ballymichael2 03/15/2013
Hey, "the most dangerous politician in europe". The Sun called Oskar Lafontaine that, back when he was Finance Minister. And various section of the british press call Merkel that now. Complete with the usual nazi analogies. It's not a good habit to get into, Mr. Fleischhauer. He's got 25% of the vote. Sure, he's a populist, but that earns him automatic respect. May I suggest an alternative approach. “Power without responsibility — the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.” (British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, speaking about Press Barons in the 1930's. That fits Mr. Grillo just fine.
2.
dasmerkelein 03/16/2013
Zitat von sysopBeppe Grillo, leader of the populist Five Star Movement in Italy, prides himself on his ridicule of the parliamentary system. Yet while his anti-establishment rhetoric sounds appealing, at heart it's actually anti-democratic. And very similar to that of an infamous Italian from the past. http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/beppe-grillo-of-italy-is-the-most-dangerous-man-in-europe-a-889104.html
This is the biggest bullshit i have ever read. Jan Fleischhauer is known in germany as an polemic, banks and fascism friendly journalist. people like him are much more dangerous. his contributions have nothing to do with the truth. He is only a hate preacher
3. What?
laif111 03/16/2013
I found it somewhat surreal to read this opinion piece. It seems to be a manifestation of the tension and misapprehensions that German people might easily feel toward the popular protest movements in other European countries. Germans are very hard-working, analytical, and efficient. The way that public issues are discussed in Germany is really admirable. However, you can't take the German culture and simply design a cookie cutter and give these other European nations the same values and sensibilities and manner of public discourse. It's a very common mistake that people make, that they psychologically project their own nation's culture onto their perception of other nations. Seeing how British papers report events in Germany often shows these types of misconceptions about how German politics works. Similarly, ZDF Herzkino dramas which are set in other countries often keenly illustrate German values instead of accurately portraying day to day life and social interactions in the foreign country. There are honest concerns that the middle class in Greece and Italy have with the austerity policies which are designed to keep their countries from going bankrupt and keep them within the shelter of the single currency. There are also more fundamental concerns about how current economic theory sees things, and how the financial sector is set up. People in developing nations around the world have been resentful toward the IMF and the World Bank, and now we are seeing that Europe is getting a taste of its own medicine. Lo and behold, it's dawning on people in Mediterranean nations that policies based on these theoretical models might indeed cause more problems than they solve. Even in Germany, there's a rising school of thought that says that a single currency without a true European federal state may not be workable, because places like Greece and Italy need the freedom to be able to devalue their currency in order to become competitive. I really admire Beppo Grillo. I think that even though his manner of speaking may be very foreign to German sensibilities, his ideas are very profound. He is an inductive thinker who speaks in a very simple manner, freely using metaphors and other figures of speech. Herr Fleischhauer, it seems to me, doesn't see the lay of the land very clearly. This article is written with him gazing through the haze of an inaccurate worldview. It is true that the command and control economies and oligarchic political hierarchies of the former USSR, Mao Zedong's China, and Mussolini's Italy were the put into place using the energy of leftist ideologues. The powerful leaders in those countries may have used the rhetoric of leftist ideology to insist to the public that their systems of governance had legitimacy. However, dictatorship is not democracy, and communism is not oligarchy. It's very much a nonsensical idea that people like Beppo Grillo can be compared to these other terrible leaders.
4. Ridiculous and simplistic comparison
ruud99 03/16/2013
I thought Spiegel was a respectable outlet. I would expect to find these types of silly comparisons on the Fox news website. Mussolini wanted to militarize Italy. He wanted power and quickly became drunk with power and wanted more and more. When he successfully decimated a significant part of the mafia, which is not a bad thing in itself, he stooped to new lows by condoning torture in order to get information on members of the mafia. Grillo doesn't want power. He wants to give the power back to the people. He talks and talk and walks the walk. He recently refused to accept over 40 million euros that his party were entitled to because he believes tax payers money is being wasted on the criminals who have taken over Italian politics. Italian politics has suffered from corruption for decades and Grillo is shining a spotlight on those who have caused or exacerbating the problems. Grillo is no Mussolini... not by a long shot. I don't know if this is a hit piece; I'm sure there are several misguided people who truly believe that Grillo is somehow similar to the fascist Mussolini but his opponents failed in labeling Grillo a clown so now they've moved on to the Mussolini comparisons. It's pathetic.
5. Beppe Grillo the clown
Marc Marchetti 03/17/2013
As an italian i have to agree with the SPD politician calling Beppe Grillo and Berlusconi two clowns. Still can not beleive there are actually people voting for clowns... I also agree with the "Spiegel online" analysis regarding the danger of Grillo's popular appeal to the angry young italian people. Grillo is a fascist clown, using the same populistic language of the other piece of shit of mussolini and hitler, i though the era of the clowns was over... but thanks God the majority of the people in Italy are very democratic and antifascist and ready to send the clowns back to where they belong: the circus.
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