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In Italy, A Bold New Populist Plan Led By a Comedian Fires Up a Country

Default on the public debt, nationalization of the banks, and a citizen dividend could actually save the Italian economy.
 
 
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Comedian Beppe Grillo was surprised himself when his Five Star Movement got 8.7 million votes in the Italian general election of February 24-25th.  His movement is now the biggest single party in the chamber of deputies, says The Guardian, which makes him “a kingmaker in a hung parliament.” 

Grillo’s is the party of “no.” In a candidacy based on satire, he organized an annual "V‑Day Celebration," the "V" standing for vaffanculo (“f—k off").  He rejects the status quo—all the existing parties and their monopoly control of politics, jobs, and financing—and seeks a referendum on all international treaties, including NATO membership, free trade agreements and the Euro.

"If we get into parliament,” says Grillo, “we would bring the old system down, not because we would enjoy doing so but because the system is rotten." Critics fear, and supporters hope, that if his party succeeds, it could break the Euro system.

But being against everything, says Mike Whitney in Counterpunch, is not a platform:

"To govern, one needs ideas and a strategy for implementing those ideas. Grillo’s team has neither. They are defined more in terms of the things they are against than things they are for. It’s fine to want to “throw the bums out”, but that won’t put people back to work or boost growth or end the slump. Without a coherent plan to govern, M5S could end up in the political trash heap, along with their right-wing predecessors, the Tea Party."

Steve Colatrella, who lives in Italy and also has an article in Counterpunch on the Grillo phenomenon, has a different take on the surprise win. He says Grillo does have a platform of positive proposals. Besides rejecting all the existing parties and treaties, Grillo’s program includes the following:

  • unilateral default on the public debt;
  • nationalization of the banks; and
  • a guaranteed “citizenship” income of 1000 euros a month.

It is a platform that could actually work. Austerity has been tested for a decade in the Eurozone and has failed, while the proposals in Grillo’s plan have been tested in other countries and have succeeded.

Default: Lessons from Iceland and South America

Default on the public debt has been pulled off quite successfully in Iceland, Argentina, Ecuador, and Russia, among other countries.  Whitney cites a clip from Grillo’s blog suggesting that this is also the way out for Italy:

The public debt has not been growing in recent years because of too much expenditure . . . Between 1980 and 2011, spending was lower than the tax revenue by 484 billion (thus we have been really virtuous) but the interest payments (on the debt of 2,141 billion) that we had to pay in that period have made us poor. In the last 20 years, GDP has been growing slowly, while the debt has exploded.

. . . [S]peculators . . . are contributing to price falls so as to bring about higher interest rates. It’s the usurer’s technique. Thus the debt becomes an opportunity to maximize earnings in the market at the expense of the nation. . . . If financial powerbrokers use speculation to increase their earnings and force governments to pay the highest possible interest rates, the result is recession for the State that’s in debt as well as their loss of sovereignty.

. . . There are alternatives. These are being put into effect by some countries in South America and by Iceland. . . . The risk is that we are going to reach default in any case with the devaluation of the debt, and the Nation impoverished and on its knees. [Beppe Grillo blog]