First, the Stand-Up
Things are looking good for Movimento Cinque Stelle, Italy’s leading anti-establishment party. (In Italy, being anti-establishment is a competition.) After years as a theatrical, mostly gestural project, M5S is on the cusp of its first real trophy: the mayoralty of Rome, the least attractive job in Italian politics. The city has €13.6 billion in debt, and a trash problem so toxic that if Don DeLillo ever returned to the homeland, he’d be inspired to write a sequel to Underworld. Virginia Raggi, M5S’s young candidate, won 35 percent of the vote on Sunday, and though this wasn’t enough to win outright, the second round—on June 19—will probably be a formality. Raggi will face Roberto Giachetti, the runner-up Partito Democratico candidate, who couldn’t manage more than 25 percent in the first round.
Movimento Cinque Stelle—the Five Star Movement—has the dumbest name ever. The five stars they want to see shine are connectivity, environment, water, development, and transportation. The party began as a grassroots movement founded by recently deceased internet entrepreneur Gianroberto Casaleggio and the contrarian comedian Beppe Grillo, a guy who used to lash out at corrupt politicians in his stand-up routines in the ’80s, and was, as a result, all but banned from television before he became something more respectable: a party-founder.
M5S’s aesthetic is consistently, admirably ugly: its ads and videos look like they were pulled from MySpace in 2007, or like low-rent vaporwave music videos, but without the knowing, hipster vibe.1 The party preaches honesty and change on behalf of the people, so its aesthetic has to be bad. Otherwise, it would seem too elite, or, as the party calls it, “casta”—caste—short for “the caste of elite conniving politicians.”
Over the past few years, Grillo has started picking up the votes of the jaded left in both local and national elections. He isn’t as inspiring as the guy from Podemos, and his rudeness approaches Trumpian heights, but the jaded left still votes for him and his party—or movement, or whatever it was until recently—as a gesture of their (our) rage against the center-left. Grillo has acted as a kind of spauracchio—a bogeyman designed to scare the Democratic Party into getting its shit together. Some of us vote for him secretly and only tell our closest friends, who then rat us out to our other friends.
And it’s not just the jaded left. The M5S has been gaining ground, and Grillo’s loud, aggressive stand-up routine—against his opponents, against the whole system, against all parties, from the sad Italian ones to the greedy, plutocratic European ones—has begun to appeal to a vast public. The show is a mess, utter propaganda, but he doesn’t care. Neither do the people. The dispossessed like M5S, as do the abstracted left-wing voters—the kind with no personal stakes, a fetish for the high ground, and the violent desire to punish their own side.
The PD tried to win via half-assery.Tweet
And now, for the first time, a real taste of power. I’m not a pundit, so I can’t say that victory for Raggi seems assured, but the signs are good. Sinistra Ecologia e Libertà, a bonafide left-wing party, got 4.5 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Matteo Renzi, the Prime Minister and PD leader, said on Monday that he’s “not satisfied” with Giachetti’s 25 percent. The optics are bad: Rome should still look like it belongs to the PD. Fair enough, but Giachetti never really had the chance to become a household name, and no one in the city feels any connection to him.
The center-left has run Rome since direct mayoral elections were introduced in 1993, with the exception of one term a few years ago when our mayor was an ex-fascist thug named Gianni Alemanno. But this time, the PD tried to win via half-assery. Some of my deep throats in Roman politics suggest that this was deliberate, and that the Florence-born Renzi threw the election to fulfill his deadly desire to kill off the party’s Roman chapter. Who cares if it’s true? It’s urban mythology, and I love it.
The deep throats also report that if Raggi wins, she could still end up a spauracchio, even in victory. She won’t last long, my friends argue, and we’ll get new elections soon, and those will be more serious. The wake-up call will have worked. Aren’t these two pieces of political analysis self-contradictory? Probably, but this is what I’m told.
Some Notes on the Two-Party Scam
Whenever I come to America, my friends complain to me about the two-party system. Everyone tells me how great everything would be if only they had multiple parties and an army of independent candidates. Poor Bernie! He wouldn’t have had to slog through the Democratic primaries.
In Italy, we feel you; we never bought into the two-party system ourselves. The whole thing was a late import from English-speaking countries, which I’m sure didn’t mean any harm. For years, our structure of choice was the sistema proporzionale—the proportional system—which had been in use throughout the duration of our democracy. We’d vote for the parties, and once they got to Parliament, we’d leave them to figure out a way to run the country and pick a Prime Minister. Occasionally, in the ’80s, we’d get to experience the Pentapartito—five parties governing together, a five-headed monster. We didn’t care less about your Pepsi-Coke-style elections, in which both parties always tasted the same.
But then, in the ’90s, everyone started getting into European unity, and Italians too felt the urge to be modern. We wanted a system that was more accountable, more transparent—government as PowerPoint presentation. We didn’t end up eliminating any parties, but we didn’t have to: under the new rules, small parties now had to unite with one of the two big parties—the PD, or Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia. Coalitions were now formed before the elections, openly. We became informed consumers, entitled to know what we were buying. It wasn’t American, exactly. But it looked American.
And what did we get in exchange for our modernity? Twenty years of Berlusconi. The left was so thoughtful, so old-fashioned—it debated and negotiated (being a Communist party in a Western country means always having to negotiate), but it never figured out how to win. So we surrendered these last twenty years to Berlusconi and got a kick out of criticizing the shit out of him.
Berlusconi was the only one who enjoyed the new two-party system; everyone else hated it.Tweet
The irony was that Berlusconi was best buddies with Bettino Craxi, the most reviled politician of the previous era, and a Socialist (that’s the ironic part). The Craxi era ended with the Tangentopoli (Bribesville) scandal in 1992, which brought down some of our most corrupt politicians. As Craxi died in exile in North Africa, Berlusconi became the biggest winner of the new era, The Leopard-style: for things to remain the same, everything must change.
Berlusconi was the only one who enjoyed the new two-party system; everyone else hated it. Gone were the negotiations, the philosophizing, the sense that something weird could happen. But no one stays happy forever, and eventually, Berlusconi got old, and the center-left seized power. Enrico Letta won the election with a scant majority in 2013, but he resigned within a few months. Then Renzi came to power without new elections, which was pretty old-school. The former mayor of Florence, Renzi is a very modern figure: he has the jokey style of a Berlusconi, the hardcore stance of a Eurocrat, the smarts and the vapidity of a Blair. He emerged as the leader of a scrappy section of the PD that wanted to send old politicians into retirement, but now he’s just riding the no-election wave because someone has to get things done, you know.
Here we are, then, in a center-left run country where everyone hates the left, and in the center-left capital where everyone hates the left even more. Rome’s last PD mayor, Ignazio Marino, was forced out of his job after only two years. According to his friends, he was such a committed outsider that he pissed off the mobsters who run Rome. According to his adversaries, he was a jerk who had no connection with the city or its citizens—like Giachetti. Either way, Marino had the bad fortune of being mayor in 2015, when a major corruption scandal revealed that many big-time and small-time PD people were in the hands of several mobs. The investigation, called Mafia Capitale, wasn’t really news, but still, it’s the kind of thing that’s better imagined than known.
So it’s a complicated picture. Italians hate the left, they hate the two-party system, and they find this new-old system, where anyone can come up and reclaim power, very puzzling. Also, it’s June, and in June, we’d really just prefer to go the beach.
It feels liberating writing about all this in a foreign language.
A Personal Anecdote
My wife and I have a friend who’s a longtime publicist for the PD. Not long ago, he invited us to a symposium at campaign headquarters, with Giachetti and Matteo Orfini, the president of the party. We were supposed to make pronouncements about independent bookstores (dwindling), publishing houses (too large), literary festivals (insufficiently subsidized), and our cultural dreams and visions.
When we got there, we found thirty-odd people sitting on chairs, explaining practical but important things to Giachetti and Orfini, like how bookstores that exhibit at street festivals can’t afford to pay the same rent that the food vendors pay, and if they have to pay, the bookstores should be allowed to sell food, too. It was a real and desperate conversation.
The headquarters themselves told me everything I needed to know about the modern PD. They’re located inside a huge complex called Ex Dogana, an event space that looks like a Centro Sociale, one of the squats that, in the ’80s and ’90s, made the Roman counterculture feel fun in a safe, corporate way. The complex takes its cues from places like Secret Project Robot, in Williamsburg, or more accurately, our versions of places like Secret Project Robot. The effect is high-functioning and high-energy: co-working spaces, DJ nights, and so on.
There are traces of fun, old leftism at Ex Dogana—communal areas, open-air activities—but it’s all been reimagined for an eminently apolitical age. The guys running the place are hard-working and well-meaning victims of our time. The “manifesto” they recently posted on Facebook, a transparent document of our new era of yuppismo, is worth quoting in full.
This space is designed for experimenting with ideas and mingling content without the burden of ideologies. It was never meant to have any political or intellectual stances (as its components are so diverse).
Recently, though, amid the overwhelming demagogy of the imminent elections, we have found ourselves in the middle of a bar fight about politics, and the subjects of absurd and fake news. This begs us to take a position:
We have no position.
We are attacked by the right-wing press because “we look like a Centro Sociale” and by the left-wing press “because we’re not a Centro Sociale,” and we get a kick out of that. We don’t care about it. You don’t find this dynamic everywhere you travel abroad, where there is work (as the first article in our constitution says) and where there are rules.
Our approach to our facilities is revolutionary precisely because it forgets Rome and Italy and looks nobody in the face. We are a group of professionals under 35 who don’t want to do politics and do want to experiment with an economic and social project by REALLY following the rules.
The hundred young men and women who work here make strategic choices because we don’t have fathers up high [in the elite], and that’s why we can only rely on free enterprise.
With our sweat, we have reclaimed and renovated 40k square meters with no public funding.
Are you enjoying this perfect mix of irony and conviction?
Some context for the communique: after Marino was ousted last year, Rome was taken over by a commissioner who has devoted himself to shutting down as many cultural spaces as quickly as possible. He’s exploiting the fact that the laws governing public space are complicated, and, in truth, most of these spaces aren’t perfectly legal. The Ex Dogana people state that theirs is. Here’s what they wrote about lending space to Giachetti:
We consider Congressman Giachetti a “client,” and we’d have regarded [the other candidates] the same way. We’re never going to lose this European and professional approach—because this is the only way to free this city from the chit-chat and demagogy that have suffocated it culturally in the past years.
I ragazzi dell’Ex Dogana
During our meeting at Ex Dogana, we, The Culture People, were crammed into a tiny room whose lone window faced an open courtyard where a swing concert was taking place. It didn’t seem like an accident that in this giant facility, politics was confined to a small, stuffy space.
It was an engaging chat—not a bad way to spend two hours. We got through the depressing stuff; the usual evil people were named and we joked in a familiar and friendly way. An honest portrait, I think, of what it’s like to work in the arts in Rome in the 2010s.
But then it was Orfini’s turn. His speech was a schizophrenic mix of old and new, the defeated ex-Communist drowning in neoliberalism.
As he droned on, I was reminded of the party meetings I used to attend in the ’90s. I knew from experience that a speech like this could go on forever, without once saying anything specific or actionable. Orfini seemed to be sniggering, rather than talking. He said that they knew the problems we’d mentioned very well and . . .
you know . . . [slowing down] you can have two kinds of approach . . . you can place culture in the market . . . and treat it as something that must produce profits . . . and that’s a . . . perfectly reasonable perspective . . . or you can, you know, consider it something that is not part of the market . . . and that is also a perfectly reasonable idea . . . and we have been through all this forever and [snigger] . . . but we must decide whether we want to treat it as a market or as a protected community . . . otherwise one risks . . .
My wife and I weren’t in a mood for vagueness, so we left. We found three friends outside, who had left the symposium for the same reason. Or maybe because it was too hot in there. But perhaps that was all part of the same strategy.
The following day, I spoke to a friend who had stuck around. He confirmed Giachetti had been equally bland. The result of the symposium was that the friends who thought they could stomach a vote for the PD no longer saw this as an option.
Last and Least, the Likely Winner
My best friend went to elementary school with Virginia Raggi, but he has no memory of her. Their public school was in a gorgeous public park just outside the Terme di Caracalla, one of the landmarks of southern Rome. My friend’s parents are retired left-wing politicians who refused to accept the mainstream left’s slippery slope toward the “center.”
“I don’t understand what is happening to society anymore,” my friend told me a few days ago.
I see people whose intentions completely elude me. Take Raggi. The way she talks is so fake, and she looks like someone who could have been a modern center-left politician—she’s totally like Renzi—but by some odd turn of events or calculated strategy I don’t understand, she’s with the anti-establishment. She looks establishment. And she never talks in public like someone who believes what she’s saying. I don’t understand her motives, and I don’t understand people. She’s like Kanye to me. I understand the different parts, but I have no idea why the result looks and feels like this.
Raggi is a 37-year-old intellectual property lawyer whose resume is strange for someone in an anti-establishment party. According to her official biography, her post-grad life began with a generous professor—whose name she never mentions—who gave her the chance to start practicing law in a very important unnamed firm.
According to a M5S-aligned (but Raggi-wary) newspaper, the firm in question was Studio Legale Sammarco, and the professor is Pieremilio Sammarco himself. Sammarco defended Berlusconi’s right-hand man Cesare Previti in a case related to several Berlusconi-related financial crimes, of which Previti was found guilty. The firm also sued a comedian named Sabina Guzzanti for libel on behalf of Berlusconi’s Mediaset media empire after Guzzanti made the mistake of joking about Berlusconi on late-night television show.
Rome, 2016: where the oppositional, anti-establishment candidate has seedy ties and talks like a robot.Tweet
All this suggests that despite her party affiliation, Raggi is the product of a bad system. She has said that the law firm was nothing more than a first job, joking that she didn’t include it on her resume for the same reason she didn’t list her babysitting jobs, but the same article reports that she kept working with the professor—that it wasn’t just a summer internship.
Rome, 2016: where the oppositional, anti-establishment candidate has seedy ties and talks like a robot. Raggi has worked with the left, claimed to have voted for the center-left, worked with the clique of a right-wing criminal, and is now the voice of the disgruntled, who are opposed to the very systems she comes from.
Understandably, her program is very vague. There’s a lot in it about honesty, and something about an aerial tramway connecting Casalotti and Boccea, two of Rome’s most heavily trafficked suburbs. But not much else.
On June 7, two days after the election, Concita De Gregorio, one of the biggest columnists for the avowedly center-left paper La Repubblica, wrote that the public’s support for two young women—Raggi and M5S’s mayoral candidate in Turin, Chiara Appendino—is a good thing.2 Positive words for a M5S candidate from La Repubblica would have been unheard of a few years ago, so strong is the paper’s allegiance toward the PD. It’s a big deal.
Second, Paolo Flores d’Arcais, editor-in-chief of the cultural magazine MicroMega, reported that Raggi has promised to appoint three highly respected people to her administration. The first is Paolo Berdini, an urbanist, who may finally defeat the palazzinari, the real estate moguls whose many bad decisions have historically influenced Rome’s urban development for the worst. The second is Tomaso Montanari, an internationally renowned art historian, who would get the Culture post. The third and most intriguing one is Raphael Rossi, an academic who studies trash and its afterlife. Which brings us back to DeLillo.
Full disclosure, I occasionally write literary criticism for the paper. ↩