23 February 2013

The Italian Spring?

It’s no surprise why the Italian economy is in trouble. Like many of it’s European counterparts, Italy has been subject to credit rating downgrades, hyperinflation with the switch to the euro, excessively high unemployment rates, soaring public debt and a slew of austerity laws in the works to really put the squeeze on the people. Where Italy differs from the others, however, is the gross economic inequality between the working class and the ruling class.

Italians have the lowest salaries of Europe. The average salary for an Italian is 1,000 euros a month (if they’re lucky enough to have a job), from which they pay 22% percent sales tax; rent or mortgage and property tax; annual trash tax; Italian television tax (RAI); the highest rates on electricity, gas and petrol than any other European state and to top it all off, about 36-42% income tax. Could you pay all that and live on 12,000 euros a year?

“I’m tired of seeing people lose their jobs…lose their homes!”
-Beppe Grillo

In sharp contrast, the Italian parliament members make some of the highest salaries in Europe, ranging from 6,000-16,000 euros a month. With the addition of allowances and credits, their pay scheme is an enigma that a specially formed committee couldn't even figure out. Not to mention the end of term pay-outs they receive which can range from 30,000-83,000 euros in one fat check (this gets repeated with each term they complete). This is compounded by the fact that parliament is made of 315 senators and 630 deputy ministers. Let’s do a little math: 945 members of parliament x (I’ll just average) 11,000 euros salary = 10,395,000 euros drained each month from the pockets of the people (for more information on parliamentary salaries, click here). A funny side-note: I multiplied this by 13 for the annual cost, but my calculator gave me an error message that the amount was too large to display! But they contend that they work hard and deserve every penny...

These privileged incomes were, of course, left un-touched by Monti’s sweeping austerity cuts (but they did find it worthwhile to cut the heat in elementary schools to cut costs).

"Let's give them a kick in the ass and send them all home!!!"
-Beppe Grillo

Then there is the precious position of President of the Republic, not to be confused with the President of the Consiglio (Mario Monti). I still don’t understand the point of this position, but it is a seven year position, not elected by the people, but by parliament. The current President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, has recently managed to come under fire. His LIFETIME salary of 248,016 euros just wasn’t enough for him. While the rest of parliament scuffles for excuses not to lower their salaries, they certainly wouldn’t have the audacity to raise it! Effective 2013, Mr. Napolitano raised his own salary by 8.835 euros, which brings his salary to about three times that of President Obama. Who knows, maybe the 87 year old found it hard to get by on 20,668 euros a month.
Politicians                   Citizens                    Banks        

But it doesn’t end there—all parliament members have their meals subsidized to the tune of 2 euros for a three-course meal of pasta and meat; they get most of their expenses reimbursed for themselves and their family members (like all transportation costs, medical, dental, orthodontics, elective surgeries, etc.--none of which is covered for the rest of the people). Additionally, members of parliament, as well as all judges and anyone in a high risk profession like prosecutors, are entitled to 24 hour police escort in what is called “auto blu”. The sum of the cost of these blue escort cars is 4 billion euros each year. With an economic hemorrhages like these, there isn’t much light at the end of the crisis tunnel. 

One thing is for sure—political reform is desperately needed.
Screaming for every Italian. We should all be screaming!

Enter Beppe Grillo. This dark knight of Italian politics was an unsuspected and much underestimated arrival. A comedian by profession, Grillo took on political reforms back in 2009. He started the proper, constitutional way by gathering signatures to propose reforms to the leading democratic party. But even with his 500,000+ signatures, no one gave him the time of day. In fact, any mention of him was ridiculed, even going so far as to call him a fascist-Nazi. His manner is gruff, his language shocking and he spends most of his time screaming like madman; which, of course, makes it easy to ridicule and pass him off as a flash in the pan. Any mention of him on the news uses shots of him in the middle of yelling and makes for an easy laugh and roll of the eyes. But what the mainstream politicians didn't understand, was that it didn't matter what was said on TV...the internet was his domain.

Here is a fantastic video with English subtitles about Grillo’s beginnings and the outright shut-out by the democratic party.

The 5 Star Movement (M5S) was born as a completely online, grassroots campaign. From Beppe Grillo’s blog to the pages of Facebook; from web radio interviews to the huge gatherings in public squares across Italy, this movement has taken off like a cross between Obama’s original campaign and the Arab Spring.

With an eerie similarity to Garibaldi, the M5S took Sicily by storm and from Agrigento to Milan, Italians have been flooding the squares to show their support. Their message is clear: salary caps at 2,500 euros; eliminate the blue escort cars; reduce the number of parliament members; no convictions or open investigations for their candidates; make politicians accountable with citizen review; two-term limits; commitment to clean, renewable energy, and much more.

"We don't want your vote, we want your participation!" -Beppe Grillo

Here is their mission:

These logical values and their exploding popularity is scaring the mainstream parties.

As far as the media goes, there has been utter silence of the popularity of the M5S and the small bit of discussion has been reduced to snide remarks or outright insult. There has been an alarming amount of misrepresentation, under-reporting and literal “cover ups” of their message.

All across Italy, opposing parties have been covering over the M5S posters with their own. But it is to no avail. Although this movement started slowly, it has gained never before seen momentum. I remember Beppe Grillo speaking in La Spezia in 2010 to a modest crowd, but boy has he come a long way. While not running for any position himself, in just 2.5 years, he has created a real movement, unifying and empowering the Italian youth.

"We need honest transparency and this will bring change to Italy. But without it, we won't change anything." -Gianroberto Casaleggio

It’s now called it the “Tsunami Tour”, filling squares from city to city, people spilling into the tiny streets and ally-ways just to hear the words they have been longing to hear. Emotions filling their hearts and tears filling their eyes as the once lost and leaderless people have finally found their leader.

Just yesterday, the grand finale of rallies before Italians go to the polls, an estimated 800,000 people filled Piazza San Giovanni in Rome. But it didn't stop there--M5S live also streams their rallies to followers online. In total, there were 150,000 people watching the rally live on streaming video and via monitors, plus they were connected to 120 other piazzas across Italy. Grillo was moved by the sheer numbers of supporters: "I'm moved...This has never happened in the history of Italy! We have a real, non-violent, democratic revolution!"

"We share our warrior words, which have turned into powerful weapons of change. But these are words like community, solidarity, honesty, participation, sustainability..." -Beppe Grillo

Beppe Grillo is changing things. He’s screaming like a raving lunatic to wake people up and start a revolution. With his “warrior words”, he has sparked a fire inside the people that was snuffed out centuries ago.

"There is a new Italy waiting for us and it will be beautiful to be a part of it." -Beppe Grillo

Beppe Grillo is giving to Italians what Obama gave to Americans: Hope.

[2018 UPDATE: I have posted my thoughts on the future of the M5S here.]


  1. Very interesting and well-researched post. Though I am still undecided, my vote will more than likely go to Grillo. I doubt that these elections will resolve anything immediately but hopefully the issues that Grillo has brought to surface will continue to be addressed. I hope. I really do.

    1. Thanks Kate. There is definitely a long road ahead and I really hope they gain a lot of positions.

  2. Complimenti Nicole. Writing about Italian politics is more difficult than explaining than nuclear physics. This provides insight that is just not appearing in the international press. Thanks.

  3. Per essere una cittadina naturalizzata e soccombe, in parte, ad una politica cosi complessa che avrebbe fatto fumare il cervello anche ad Einstein; hai centrato il punto. Siamo stanchi di una classe non-politica ma opportunista nei confronti di chi deve correre ogni giorno per pagare le scelte sbagliate degli anni passati. Siamo un popolo forte ed intelligente e sono sicuro che arriverà il giorno del cambiamento, basta avere fiducia. Dato che stamani hai minacciato di divorziarmi se non votavo Grillo, posso solo rassicurarti che avrei votato il M5S anche senza la minaccia.. Love you Babe... Keep writing at your best....

  4. Hi, just wanted to stop by and thank you for posting my Marco Travaglio video about Grillo! You have a great blog!

    Saluti from Texas,

  5. Nicole,
    Thanks so much for this well researched and detailed description of the political stage of Italy. It all sounds complicated, but all change starts with a few individuals taking on a seemingly impossible task. All the best to you.

    1. Thank you Lenora. There was great hope for change, but unfortunately that has all fizzled. We are heading to elections again, and the M5S candidate is a front-runner. We'll see how it turns out in March... Thank you for your comment.

  6. While parliament is no longer a seat of power, political parties still wield considerable influence at the local level since they control appointments in banking foundations (the cornerstone of Italy’s credit system), health agencies, industrial agencies and scores of subsidiary companies. Many local politicians use this authority to ensure their long-term survival.

    Ira Jones

    1. Yes, that's true. And as we've seen since this post, as much support as they had, there seems to be nothing that can crack the shell of this country's web of corruption and favouritism. Or, as the Italians rightly call it, the mangiatoia. Thank you for your comment.


I really appreciate your comments.

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