Dordrecht, July 12
From Florence I kept traveling northward by local train. Every time it’s harder to find them. Local trains are growing scarce.
Because of European legislation, the Italian state railways have been dismembered in various layers of subsidiary companies, all of which are still controlled by the state. There is one for the management of the tracks, one for the operation of the trains, one for the exploitation of the big stations, one for the mediums stations, and various for maintenance, security etc.
Private capital has taken over forty percent of the companies running the stations. In the last few decades a lot of money has been invested to give all the major railway terminals a complete overhaul, so as to turn them into shopping malls.
All the Italian stations used to have drinking fountains. What the overhaul practically came down to is that they closed the water as an incentive for you to buy it in a plastic bottle from one of the vendor machines. It makes me incredibly sad.
In recent years the railroads have started to cut local trains to ‘convince’ people to travel by freccia – ‘arrow’- the high speed trains that connect all of Italy from Milan to Naples. It’s three times as fast and more than three times as expensive. There are high speed trains departing from all the big cities all day long, but just two local trains connecting Rome to Florence.
Many of the high speed trains only carry a few dozen passengers. The remaining local trains are generally cramped.
I was lucky this time. It was the hour of siesta and not many people were traveling on board the regional train to Milan. I was snoozing a bit after a short night on the docks in Venice, content to have caught the slow train. I’m not in a hurry. Then from Lake Garda onward the carnival started. In six, seven, eight, they invaded the coach and planted themselves all around me. Political activists. Loud political activists.
I pretended to sleep. “How can you sleep with all this noise? Har! Har! Har!”
“I can’t. I’m pretending.” I opened an eye to spy around for clues about their political colour.
They couldn’t have been members of the Lega Nord, the xenofobe regionalists, because their supporters have been forced to lower their voices lately. For twenty years the Lega has accused the government of being a big bloodsucking thief, and now it has turned out that the governing Lega has been as corrupt as any other political party before them.
The loud people on the train don’t look like old fashioned lefties either. They lack seriousness. They are having fun, making jokes. A button worn by one of them betrays them. They are grillini, members of the Five Star Movement.
We had already encountered them on the march, in Terracina. They are friends. I ask where they are going.
To Milan. There is a protest against the ‘satrap’ of Lombardy, who has been running the region for twenty years. A few years ago he changed the law so that he could stay in office, and every year the Five Star Movement stages a protest to say that he should pack his bags and leave.
During the march I described the grillini as a type of ‘proto-indignados’. They had started to reclaim their democracy over a year before the Arab spring began, inspired through the web by comedian Beppe Grillo.
Grillo is something like a guru who acts like a clown. He doesn’t enter in discussion with politicians. He makes fun of them. He exposes them for what they are. Petty little crooks, in most cases.
His idea is that we don’t need politicians at all. We don’t need a caste of incompetent parasites. We can do politics ourselves, starting at home, in our neighbourhood, our towns, all united into a movement through the internet.
The homebase of the movement is Grillo’s daily weblog. They say it’s 6th most visited blog in the world, with about 2,5 million hits daily. That would be about as much as all the copies of Italy’s three largest newspapers put together.
Grillo’s virtual pulpit and his daily comic sermons are a point of reference, but the movement itself is built up of locally organised branches. When the train stops at the next station, the comrades from Brescia are welcomed into the family with laughs and embraces.
What the local branches have in common are the five stars (public water, connectivity, development, transport and environment), plus certain rules on political representation, like ‘No convicted fellon should run for office’ and ‘No-one should be allowed to stay in office for more than two terms.’
This means that Grillo himself cannot run for office. He has been convicted of involuntary manslaughter after causing a traffic accident years ago.
In recent local elections the movement keeps growing fast. Apart from supplying numerous city councilor’s all over the country, they have also conquered one of the big cities, Parma.
The policy of each branch of the movement is decided by the members. Any elected councilor or mayor is tied to this policy. He cannot take decisions on his own. Elected members only accept a reasonable retribution, which amounts to a fraction of the salaries that Italian politicians normally grant themselves. All the rest goes into community development.
“So, you are trying to change things the institutional way?” I ask.
“We don’t know yet. Our movement is only two and a half years old. We still have to learn how we can change society. We will see.”
According to many activists, the core of the problem is not politics, it’s the economy. In many places in Italy the people of the Five Star Movement are thinking about an alternative economy based on local products and barter. Some people even want to facilitate this local economy by introducing their own currency, free of interest. Now that sounds pretty revolutionary to me.
“It doesn’t really matter how we make a change, as long as we do, and as long we do it peacefully.”
The train arrives in Milan. The grillini move to the city center. What I noticed is that they have copied Beppe Grillo’s satiric way of talking about politicians. They don’t take them seriously any more. They don’t want anything from them, except that they go home. Politicians are dinosaurs, remnants of an old style of politics. The members of the Five Star Movement have already evolved to another level. With childlike enthusiasm they have started to shape a new way of politics together.