Mystification and Populism

James Walston looks at two populist politicians, Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo. See Walston's blog for the original version paste below and all its links.

Yesterday a group of about 150 parliamentarians demonstrated outside the Palace of Justice in Milan. They then moved into the building to the office of prosecutor Ilda Boccassini. They were members of Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party and were protesting against what they call the persecution of their leader by the judiciary.

When dozens of angry people, privileged members of the legislature, appear in front of an office, this is no longer a protest, it is a threat towards the individual and her institution even if there were no explicit physical threats.

Before the elections, Beppe Grillo quoted Cromwell’s dissolution of the Rump Parliament approvingly “Take away this bauble” screamed Grillo in January. Since taking a quarter of the Italian vote, he has been no less tender about Parliament and above all its political parties.

Italian institutions – the courts and the parliament are under siege and the easy description is “populism” but it’s not always an easy concept to define.

At the theatre, we grant the performance a willing suspension of disbelief. In politics, the successful demagogue forces us into that unwilling suspension of disbelief. This election campaign gave the stage to two masters of the black art of mystification which is at the basis of any populist movement.

The secret of mystification in politics is to present an argument and a narrative that our rational selves can see are true and then to embellish them in order to make non-logical deductions and reach false conclusions with a performance which obfuscates the faulty reasoning. Berlusconi and Grillo have the conjuror’s sleight of hand and hide the workings of their magic.

Berlusconi started from the premise that Italians who pay taxes get a lousy deal. So he promised to reimburse the IMU property tax either from the state or even personally implicitly suggesting that he is the state (or better and more generous than the state).

He promises “freedom” meaning freedom from taxes; freedom of religion meaning public support for Catholic schools; freedom of expression means his media may write or broadcast anything. But we all like “freedom” don’t we?

For his part, Grillo lies… about the past and he fudges the future. He attacked La Repubblica for claiming that he had invited al Qaeda to target the Italian Parliament and given them the coordinates. All La Repubblica had done (along with most other Italian media) was to put the clip of him doing just that on their site as I did too, for what it’s worth). For the future, like Berlusconi, he promised material support, a €1,000 dole for the unwaged, more than many Italians get by working.

Grillo also uses the hardy perennials of populism, targetting Jews, women and immigrants.

He has been rude about Jews in a spat with journalist Gad Lerner and Israel in an interview with Menachem Gantz and happily leaves extremely offensive antisemitic remarks on his blog. Recently he refused to even talk about the question to AP’s Frances D’Emilio.
In a different way he is as sexist as Berlusconi when he expelled Bologna city councillor, Federica Salsi after she had taken part in a television talk show. He accused her using the television as the G-spot for an orgasm.

He is against giving citizenship to children born in Italy to immigrant parents, he was at the very least unwise when he suggested that when carabinieri want to beat up a Moroccan, they should do in private and not it in front of a camera. And he has made friendly remarks to members of the neo-Fascist Casa Pound.

Both Grillo and Berlusconi refuse dialogue. Grillo has never been on a talkshow and though he has been interviewed (rarely and only the foreign press), he has never accepted difficult questioning. Berlusconi had rarely been off screen but like Grillo refuses to face hard questions and often attacks the interviewer.
Berlusconi started his career proposing a “partito leggero” (the best translation I could come up with was “nimble party”). Grillo wants no party at all and wants to get rid of all political parties.

Their populism is defined by their unmediated contact with their followers. They refuse any form of reins, neither party nor parliament nor courts. Their power and authority comes from the their supporters. Berlusconi put it very clearly when he won the 1994 elections – he was “unto dal popolo”, anointed by the people, not elected or given a limited mandate within the rule of law, and like the king anointed by god, Berlusconi’s oil too, could not be washed off.

Grillo goes in the other direction – he talks about popular democracy, web democracy but he is still claiming Rousseau’s “General Will”. He is a Robespierre without the smart knee britches and thankfully without the guillotine.

Despite their methods which earned them the epithet clown from The Economist and the German SPD leader, Peer Steinbrück, they are as Gianfranco Pasquino said “political entrepreneurs” and very successful ones too. In their different ways, they have interpreted popular discontent and mobilised it

They are sirens or pied pipers. Both metaphors are valid. They seduce passersby with their songs and Berlusconi at least, has wrecked the country or brought Italy very close to sinking. Grillo might complete the wreck. And he more than Berlusconi promises to rid Hamelin of the political rats “tutti a casa… arrendetevi, siete circoncondati!” “everybody go home – you’re surrounded” he shouted at parliament.

Now his supporters are in Parliament and are trying to work out what to do while Berlusconi’s are threatening to boycott the place.

The Italian constitution is robustly constructed but its institutions have never been more at risk.

James Walston is Chair of the Department International Relations and Global Politics at the American University of Rome.