Italy’s Five Star Movement: Government as ‘Social App’
February 26th, 2013 by Paul Daniel Ash

Beppe Grillo, the surprise winner in this week’s Italian parliamentary elections, built a movement from scratch using the web, in a country where Internet access is only now becoming readily available to average citizens. And though his techno-optimism reminds me of nothing quite so much as the excitable American cyber-utopians at the end of the last century, there’s one big difference between here then and there now:
Italy’s political order is on the verge of collapse.

Grillo’s revolution might actually have a chance.

There is very little in English that really goes in depth about what is now referred to as the “Five Star Movement” (MoVimento 5 Stelle, or M5S), so I’ve taken it upon myself to translate the following article from La Repubblica, Italy’s largest newspaper. The cadence of Italian journalistic writing can be difficult to translate directly, so I’ve combined fragments and surgically separated run-on sentences.

Any errors are the fault of the translator.

How the 5 Star Movement’s “horizontal democracy” works: from the web to Parliament

More than eight million votes, 109 seats in the House and 54 in the Senate. The organization of the 5 stars Movement, from groups at the base to the summit. The management and the vision of Casaleggio, co-founder of the platform. And above all: the Internet and the renewal of the political generation

by Tiziano Toniutti

“The web is more a social creation than a technical one.” So says Tim Berners-Lee, the “father” of the World Wide Web, one of the forms of the Net as we know it today. This definition can be without difficulty compared to that of the 5 Star Movement of Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio… and of the more than eight million voters who marked their ballots, allowing the first “non-party” to enter in such a massive way to the Parliament. It calls for a redefinition of the foundations of democratic participation in the life of the country, going beyond the perspective offered by traditional political parties and going forward on the basis of “direct democracy:” horizontal rather than vertical. And its members speak of participating in the houses of Parliament “as citizens and not as ‘honorables,'” by consulting the Internet and the work of the spokesmen of the people in their institutions.

How it works.

The “precedents” that the entry of the Movement into national institutions will bring are important. First, the M5S is not a party, and is based on a “non-charter,” which is published on Beppe Grillo’s website. Every activity of the Movement is still based on this document, as well as the political agenda of the M5S. The fundamental elements of the M5S are spelled out in the non-charter, including the lack of a physical location (replaced by one in the “cloud:” Grillo’s blog). Rather, the infrastructure – which is to say, the Internet – defines the basic structure above all else. It is established via the candidate lists determined by Meetups: digital communities that organize meetings and activities in each area. They are open to anyone, one simply registers on the site to be informed of issues and activities in their area. It is a vision of hyperlocal politics which effectively replaces the ‘circles’ and ‘sections’ of traditional Italian political parties, disseminates the activities of individual cells globally, and operates within the scope of neighborhoods and districts. It is a dream of a digital Agora, of a piazza of telecommunication; or simply the Web applied to the world, by means of the web and mobile applications, such as those for managing Meetups. And it is how politics might be in the coming years: a social app, in a world that updates its apps – economy, energy, work, health – when new versions are ready, as is the case with smartphones. It’s a vision which now must stand the test of facts and the daily life of a country.

5-Star Government.

As far as parliamentary activities go, the 5 Star Movement will probably lean towards the same methods by which local consultations and the election of candidates were carried out: the process called the “Parlamentarie.” In this experiment, candidates for the House and Senate posted text and video presentations on the web, which were then submitted to the members of the Movement. This selection raised some doubts about the method of management: applicants were required to have participated in previous administrative consultations of the Movement; the door was closed to others. For Parliament, things may work in a similar way, or may involve the registration of citizens and stakeholders to express their views on the Movement’s website, which presumably will be an open space to propose information and discussion about what is happening in Parliament. Through this platform, the citizen-user would be directly involved in the political decisions that then the deputies and senators (or, in other words, the spokesmen) of the Movement will carry out in Parliament.

Elected officials, citizens and “citoyens.”

But who are the parliamentarians of the 5 Star Movement, and what experience in government do they have? For the second question, the answer is “none.” However, there are some areas, such as the cities of Parma and Palermo, that have gone beyond the level of a laboratory experiment and have melded the vision of 5 Stars and the reality of the world. Sicily in particular appears to be a test case, with Governor Crocetta noting that “we can govern with Grillo,” and with the spokespeople of the Movement who actively participate in the administration of the region. This is a scenario that could be replicated at the national level in light of the electoral results. The public profile of the elected officials, or rather the “citizens” – as the French revolutionaries of 1789 called their legislators – are already distinguished by their youth, with an average age of 37 (33 in the House and 46 in the Senate). Many are women, and all are new names. Among those who received the most votes in the “parlamentarie” was Paola Carinelli of Milan, a woman of 32 with a full-time job, and Giulia Sarti, a favorite in Emilia Romagna, who works in the summer as an entertainer. Also Federica Daga, the number one in the parlamentarie of Lazio region. There is the Roman “poet” Paola Taverna, who lives in Torre Maura. Roberta Lombardi, also a Roman, works in the “made in Italy” luxury sector. And also, Alessandro Di Battista, the author of Sicari a 5 euro (“The 5-Euro Assassins”), an investigative book edited by Casaleggio Associates. Then there is the case of Ivana Simeoni and Cristiano Iannuzzi, mother and son, respectively: she elected to the Senate and he to the House. And Azzurra Cancelleri, elected in Sicily, sister of the M5S group leader for the Sicilian Regional Assembly.

The summit.

The role of the Internet in the 5 Star Movement is represented at the summit by the two names of Grillo and Casaleggio, but does not appear to involve them. On the Internet, the non-charter recognizes the representatives’ role as that of “adherence to the Movement, consultation, deliberation, decision and election” which the document sets up as the beginning and the end of the Movement. The “management” assumes a role in the non-charter which is apparently purely formal, except with regard to the issues of ownership of the trademark of the movement which is registered in the name of Beppe Grillo. This has certain “corporate” overtones that have raised controversy in the eyes of some critics. The future of this “trademark” may actually indicate a sort of proprietary vision of the Movement: in this context Grillo and Casaleggio have their hands free to do… and undo. This is one of the most controversial aspects, one which is only partially resolved by the non-charter, which says that the M5S “is not a political party, nor it is intended that it will become one in the future.” It is, rather, a platform with an owner, a political leader and a staff that runs it: a return to bureaucratic reality, as opposed to the revolutionary vision of the country offered by the program of M5S. This is a subject which the new political identity assumed by the Movement will have to confront. And on this subject, the web responds with irony and satire. The first target is, of course, the “guru” Beppe Grillo, as well as the more cultish aspects of M5S, with activists portrayed as lovers of a new digital church, obsessed with problems such as “chemical contrails” and with the supposed efficiency of the Biowashball, suggesting that there are more serious issues that should occupy citizens’ minds: perhaps the comparison and contradistinction of other forces and other thoughts, and with the press, without distinction.


Gianroberto Casaleggio is the co-founder of the 5 Star Movement and head of Casaleggio Associates, a company that deals with network strategies. He us referred to as the ideologue of the movement. Casaleggio’s entrepreneurship was born with the boom of the new economy and changed after the bursting of the “bubble”. He was a prominent figure at computer maker Olivetti, and then manager of IT Telecom and director of its system integration subsidiary Webegg, but despite his long activity on the Internet he is not himself very active on the net. Several times, however, he has been the face of the 5 Star Movement, most recently in Piazza San Giovanni in Rome on the final day of Grillo’s “Tsunami Tour,” other times in interviews and letters to the editor. He drew attention when his connection with Henry Sassoon was revealed: Sassoon, now an ex-member of the board of Casaleggio Associates and  President of the Economic Affairs Committee of the American Chamber of Commerce in Italy, was a career executive at Pirelli and director of the journal Affari Internazionali, which is now under the guidance of Stefano Silvestri. Sassoon left the board of Casaleggio Associated after the controversy regarding his attendance at meetings of the Bilderberg Group, which includes the biggest names in heavy economy and international finance. These meetings, far from those of the 5 Star Movement, are not necessarily incompatible with the “new democracy”, but of a type considered at the moment of a different category.

But the character of Gianroberto Casaleggio (taken by surprise by Grillo on the stage in San Giovanni) is more complex than that shown by the media: an author of texts and multimedia on hypothetical scenarios for the world and for the web. A man who, in a world without nations and cultural barriers, would seem more accessible than Tim Berners-Lee. Not a guru or an ideologue, but a weaver of a network that is more social than technical. Or, more simply, a quiet consultant building Italy’s future: an unmentioned component, but one more present in this moment than in the dream planned by the 5 Star Movement.

One Response  
  • Mica Lee Williams writes:
    February 27th, 20132:22 amat

    Damn but that is an impressive piece of translation. I’m blown away by what’s happening in Italy. It’s what Occupy wants to be. Thanks for doing the work to share the details of such an important political movement. I feel richer for having read.

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