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The Five Star Movement in Italy shows that the paths of fascism are infinite in their variety

The paths of fascism, like those of the Lord, are infinite in their variety. The spectacle of the Five Star Movement in Italy is a good example of this proposition. It was born as an expression, needless to say a vociferous one, of a desire for change in the face of a putrefied political system. Directed by the curious alliance of a humorist with a native gift for demagogy, Beppe Grillo, and a long-haired computer programmer, "the guru" Roberto Casaleggio, it came out of nowhere to obtain 25 percent of the vote in the last general election, and more than 160 seats in the national parliament. The left, under the former leader of the Democratic Party (PD), Pier Luigi Bersani, at first sees the new movement as a force for reform, and seeks to form an alliance with it. This turns out to be impossible. Apparently Grillo's overriding urge is to destroy what exists. Some voices then begin to predict splits in the Five Star Movement. But the splitter movements fail. The comedian’s iron hand prevails.

Now comes the hour of the first full-scale attack on the institutions: unlimited obstructionism - which, if cut short, will allow the movement to raise a clamor against tyranny. Riotous behavior in the parliament chamber; a campaign to impeach of President Napolitano and, above all, a noisy campaign against the speaker of the house, Laura Boldrini, conducted mainly on the internet, in language with the basest sexist coloring. In his blog Grillo asks what you would do with her in your car: sexual tweets pour in, many of them violent in content. And when she complains of this talk of rape on the web, the leader of the movement's group in the Senate tells her not to worry: “Even if we were violent sex maniacs, you would be in no danger.” Oh, and all women PD deputies are said to owe their posts to their talent for fellatio. Such is the language in which Grillo’s campaign is expressed. The fascist squads of Mussolini's day used the manganello (truncheon) to terrorize their opponents. We seem to be looking at a verbal manganello. Better than being hit with a wooden one, of course. But a bad sign all the same.

Obviously, if these methods work, it is because machismo of the crassest sort is well rooted among the Italian people. So is the crass xenophobia with which certain voices in the right-wing Northern League suggest that the minister for integration, Cécile Kyenge, a black woman, be given bananas to eat. The question remains as to whether the Five Star Movement is capable of achieving anything serious in terms of political regeneration.

One simple explanation would be to use Zygmunt Bauman's theory of a liquid society, which has lost its traditional guideposts - one of whose outlets lies in the hyper-affirmation of individuality on the internet. Indeed, the Italy of Berlusconi fairly drove you to seek alternative options, to express malaise and indignation in a free forum of communication. This raises the prospect of a liquid democracy, cohesive only through the leadership of a demagogue who, in his blog and his use of language, connects with a formless cloud of populist feeling; with the state of mind of a mass clientele he can lead to mobilization. At the local level, the result is positive: immediacy in the treatment of problems, effective denunciation of abuses and a new sociability between the people mobilized.

But the quantum leap to the national level seems likely to reveal the downside: uniformity is achieved by Grillo under a new form of charismatic leadership where, as in the old totalitarian movements, active obedience takes place in response to pressures exerted on the individual - pressures that are identity-oriented and aggressive in nature. Crass sexism, for example, may draw general applause, and act as a factor of unity and cohesion. That is how things stand.

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