A couple of years back, while writing my book Radicals, I secured an interview with Beppe Grillo, leader of the Italian Five Star Movement. M5S (its Italian abbreviation) is the radical anti-establishment party that’s on track to top next week’s general election. We met in the restaurant of the hotel he always stays when in Rome. There was a small crowd outside as I walked in, hoping to get a glimpse of the man. Beppe wandered in late – he enjoys daily siestas – waving his smartphone. ‘This,’ he said, as he sat down, ‘this is what changes everything!’ Then something weird happened. Before I’d even pressed ‘record’, he picked up the small spoon that came with his espresso, and starting staring at it, making it bend like a la Uri Geller. He looked at me, and then back at the spoon, and then back at me, and laughed.
Beppe has been one of Italy’s best-known comedians since the 1980s, partly due to his wildly popular TV show. Back in 2009, frustrated with Italian politics but enamoured with blogging, he set up Five Star, hoping to spark a digital revolution in politics. Thanks to the internet we can do away with political parties and corrupt media, he said. Big decisions can be taken on my blog via frequent plebiscites. Ordinary people can set up their own local branches of the group on www.meetup.com and select their own candidates. Five Star crashed through Italian politics like a tsunami. By the 2013 election, it won roughly 25 per cent of the vote. It has come first in the last 96 consecutive opinion polls. (Although it still might not win the upcoming election because of a centre-right alliance).
People often say that Trump is the perfect politician for the digital age. I also say that. But Grillo is a better sign of what’s coming. He’s the personification of the problems and opportunities that digital technology lays out to our ailing democracies. On one hand, he’s using all the new kit to get more people involved, circumnavigating crony party politics, and rallying people together. Bravo. But he’s also a populist iconoclast who wants to smash the system. ‘Politicians are parasites,’ he says. ‘We should send them all home!’ A few years back he held a successful ‘Fuck Off Day’ directed at the establishment. He called previous Prime Minister Monti ‘Rigor Montis’. To be fair, that’s quite a good one.