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The Experiment

Jacopo Iacoboni

Italy’s Five Star Movement offers a hollow promise of democracy.

Five Star Movement leader Beppe Grillo speaks in 2011. Giovanni Favia / Flickr

Interview by
David Broder

In the run-up to Sunday’s Italian election, the Five Star Movement is the country’s largest single party. While the coalition arithmetic looks likely to block its path to government, since 2007 the M5S has seized a central role in Italian politics. It today holds the Rome mayoralty and stands close to 30 percent support.

Despite its opposition to “the caste” — an establishment ranging from politicians to journalists and European institutions — the M5S is difficult to define politically. If its galvanizing idea is its online direct democracy, standing in apparent contrast to Italy’s sclerotic institutions, it has not clearly assumed a collective identity.

Media often compares M5S to more clearly defined forces, such as Spain’s left-populist Podemos, or else emphasizes its connection to far-right and Eurosceptic forces. In reality, the M5S’s peculiarity lies in its bid to avoid such definition, thus remaining “intact” as a force defined against politics itself.

In his recent book The Experiment, La Stampa journalist Jacopo Iacoboni detailed the curious roots and often bizarre practices of the M5S, with technocratic pseudoscience and conspiracy theories underlying its apparently more optimistic vision of a purer, unmediated democracy. In this interview with Jacobin’s David Broder, Iacoboni explains the strange coalition of forces which have created this movement.


In your book The Experiment you describe the career of Roberto Casaleggio, who was the guru of the M5S until his death in 2016. Who was he, and what was his political inspiration?


Roberto Casaleggio was an IT manager who became the head of a British-Italian joint venture in the mid-1990s. This Webegg project emerged from Finsiel, linked to the Olivetti group, and the British company Logica. He was a man gifted with real intelligence and a measure of intuition.

Most important was that he understood the possibility of using networks to form, spread, and manipulate consent. He first of all did this within the workings of the joint venture itself, experimenting in its intranet forum. Then came the arrival of social networks (Meetup, an early 2000s social network which provided a platform for the M5S, and then Facebook). This allowed Casaleggio to extend this experiment in social engineering to Italy as a whole.

His original political inspiration was closer to the Right than the Left. He used to say that he was one of the few people to attend the first meetings staged by the Lega Nord, under its early leader Umberto Bossi. That is not to say that the M5S is right wing. Rather, it is a tool, an instrument that resulted from his experiment. What matters is not its (un-ideological) content, but its form. It is a skeleton to which any content can be attached.


You describe how already in the 1990s Casaleggio took a keen interest in “neurolinguistic programming” and manipulating consent. What role did the technologies drawn from this domain play in informing the “direct democracy” of the M5S, and its practical functioning?


Neurolinguistic programming is not a technology but a pseudoscience that emerged in the United States, in the books by Richard Bandler and John Grinder. Within the Webegg venture I mentioned above, Casaleggio organized periodic retreats — even in monasteries — which were always accompanied by a psychologist, who was himself an expert in neurolinguistic programming.

Many years later, upon Roberto Casaleggio’s instruction, neurolinguistic programming was also introduced among the members of the M5S parliamentary group. This was the work of Silvia Virgulti, a rather interesting figure who was long also the girlfriend of current M5S prime ministerial candidate Luigi di Maio.

Another very interesting practice within the M5S parliamentary group is the use of hypnosis.


Might we say that the crisis of the Italian parties in the early 1990s created a kind of “sandbox” for Casaleggio’s experiment?


Yes, we could, in the sense that the M5S experiment could make use of the conditions that already really existed in society. These ranged from dissatisfaction with the parties — especially those of the center-left — Italians’ rage against the establishment, the economic crisis, and the predisposition against journalists. But Casaleggio used these elements in a cynical way, directing the protest and resentment against some (politicians and journalists) while dissipating the protest against others (top public sector bureaucrats and managers).

For today’s M5S, ruled by Di Maio and Casaleggio’s son and heir Davide, the aim is to be part of the great game of power, at whatever cost. For them, the M5S is an instrument for establishing connections and securing power for themselves.

At the beginning we might imagine that Roberto Casaleggio had a different view of things: he envisaged a tool, as versatile as possible, that would be able to lead toward a more positive outcome, some sort of direct democracy in Italy — even if one guided from above, which is to say by Casaleggio himself. That is paradoxical, certainly. But today he is no longer there, and that phase of M5S’s existence is long gone.


During the 2000s, the sometime comedian Beppe Grillo took part in more traditional types of political movement, for example in the Italian mobilization against the war in Afghanistan. But then he created his own party, first through the “Friends of Beppe Grillo” meetups and then through the consolidation of the M5S itself. What linked him to Casaleggio, and what was this latter’s role in creating this party?


Really, it was not Grillo but Casaleggio who created the M5S. Grillo was picked out by Casaleggio, whose experiment needed an “influencer,” a megaphone. Grillo was the “patient zero” for the virus. Many years later, we can say that the M5S is a party-business, because it has a business behind it. The president of this business, Davide Casaleggio — Roberto’s son — is also the president of the ‘Rousseau Association” that manages the web platform on which all the M5S’s life plays out, including its online voting. Davide owns all the data, and knows everything about those who have signed up, and each of the M5S’s parliamentarians is obliged to transfer 300 euros a month to the Rousseau Association’s web platform. This is a total overlapping of the public and private spheres — a conflict of interest 3.0.


How did the notion of the “caste” arise? What drove the M5S’s hostility toward not only Berlusconi and “the parties,” but also journalists, TV in general, and intellectuals?


Roberto Casaleggio skillfully exploited social resentment and directed it against two enemies: politicians and journalists. The field had already been ploughed by the great number of inquiries against the “caste” by TV programs like Report or the satirical show Striscia la notizia produced by Antonio Ricci — who, not by chance, is an old friend of Beppe Grillo.

Journalists, even more than politicians, have always been M5S’s main polemical target. But there has been a shift in M5S’s approach also in this regard: Grillo used to say “TV is shit” and Casaleggio in fact banned the party’s MPs and senators from appearing on TV and on talk shows. But especially in the last four years, we have instead seen M5S’s parliamentarians not only rushing to get on TV, but taking breathing technique classes to relax for their on-screen appearances, and indeed competing with each other to be selected to appear on TV.

At the same time, the M5S has begun to use means of pressure and intimidation against uncompliant journalists: now that the party is itself powerful they try to impose their own choices even on well-regarded interviewers and famous anchors. For example, TeleGiornale La7 director Enrico Mentana did an editorial piece to expose one M5S spokesman (someone who had made their debut several years before on Big Brother), who had threatened that Di Maio would no longer appear as a guest on the show because they had not allowed him to speak first.

To take another example, M5S Turin mayor Chiara Appendino’s press chief received a written protest from the FNSI (Italian journalists’ union) because he falsely told a RaiTre (public television) cameraman that the journalist meant to interview Appendino had left, and that he had word that the cameraman should just read out a set of questions that were agreed in advance.

These are just two of many well-evidenced examples. The M5S does not want to free up journalists, but just to make them servants for itself rather than the parties.


The M5S is well-supported among workers, the young (though its very highest support is among 35–44 year olds) and the unemployed. What explains the fact that these categories are less linked to the older parties? What about an M5S voter’s culture or background differentiates themselves from the rest?


The Movement’s voters come from across class boundaries. There are, indeed, many young people, but (judging by the latest study by Corbetti, for example) their strongest support is among those already in their forties. Without doubt they have a big vote among workers, but a lot of members of professional associations, protected categories (like taxi drivers), shopkeepers, and those employed by state companies (like Rome’s Atac public transport company and Ama waste service) have also voted en masse for M5S. It is also noteworthy that this party scores a very high vote in Southern Italy, and a lot less in Lombardy and Veneto, where it is instead the Lega that conquers the support of similar layers.


While the M5S was born in the period of the economic crisis, it does not seem to have defined clear principles for reviving the economy. Does this conceal a wider diffidence toward government action? Is it comparable to “qualunquismo” — the mindset of “the little guy” and opposition to “politics”?


I would instead compare it to a kind of “new dependency culture.” Not so much because they propose a citizen income (of 780 euros a month) but because of the way in which they put forward this measure. They estimate that it will cost €17 billion, which they say they will recover through some vaguely defined savings and spending cuts, whereas all economists say that it would cost at least €29.5 billion.


According to The Experiment, despite the way in which it likes to present itself the M5S combines the promise of direct democracy with a rather more opaque tendency to make tactical shifts. Does this correspond to its tension between being a party of protest and of government? Does it have internal factions? We can also note its strange about-turns, for example, when its members voted to join the most liberal and Euro-federalist group in the European Parliament, but then this was suddenly abandoned as it reverted to the right-wing bloc led by Nigel Farage. Is this a tentative “professionalization” of the party, detaching it from the promise of direct democracy?


In reality, the members have no real power. In reality, there is not any real direct democracy within M5S, but a totally top-down orchestration of the movement. Those who disagree are often simply kicked out (and Grillo is currently losing a whole heap of legal complaints over this). The means of expelling people is to … deactivate them on the website.

There is perhaps a more “movementist” wing within M5S, people like Grillo and prominent M5S MP Alessandro di Battista, and they grumble rather about Di Maio and Davide Casaleggio. But I think that this is a purely tactical distinction, essentially establishing a plan B for if Di Maio fails and is unable to enter into the battle for power.

There is a certain generational shift in the M5S, with the rise of Di Maio and Davide Casaleggio and Roman mayor Virginia Raggi. But this is a turn for the worse: they have very low levels of competence, and mostly mediocre records to speak of. Their prime ministerial candidate Di Maio is a case in point: he is indeed, young, [he is thirty-one], but has not finished his undergrad degree, and he has extremely scarce work or professional experience (he has previously been a webmaster and a steward at the San Paolo football stadium in Naples).


The M5S claims to stand above any left-right divide, and clearly does not have a left-wing program or identity. But do you think it has in a sense displaced the role of the traditional left, serving to aggregate social discontent, albeit without promoting values of solidarity, community, progress, and the like?


Certainly, it has taken a lot of its votes from the Left, a left that has long been without a voice. But the M5S attracts these votes to an indistinct hodgepodge, which mixes a new dependency culture, a few anti-migrant impulses, and a kind of vague, moralistic asceticism. This is anything but a modern left. Italians are disillusioned, sometimes angry, and in certain areas of the country they are ready to do anything. A lot of them think “Well, we have tried everything and seen how it’s gone, with every party. Let’s experiment with this lot — really, could they do any worse?” But no, they can — and could — do worse.

End Mark

About the Author

Jacopo Iacoboni is a journalist and essayist writing for Italy’s La Stampa newspaper. He is the author of L'esperimento.

About the Interviewer

David Broder is a historian of French and Italian communism. He is currently writing a book on the crisis of Italian democracy in the post-Cold War period.