Mario Monti
He was embraced by Italians as a change agent, much as Barack Obama was here in the U.S.

Appointed to replace maximally corrupt, ethically clueless, egotistically overwrought, picture-of-him-in-the-dictionary-next-to-the-word-“elitist” Silvio Berlusconi, Mario Monti surely seemed like a knight in shining armor: Here was a respected economist calling for reforms including higher tax rates and strong efforts to combat tax evasion.

Upon becoming prime minister, he even gave up his own salary.

But Monti also proposed pension reform and, backed by his technocrat cabinet – no member of which had ever been elected to public office – advocated “austerity” measures including the weakening or outright repeal of key labor laws. One ensured high levels of competency for cab drivers, pharmacists, doctors and lawyers. Monti’s reform, which was overwhelming approved by parliament, made it easier for less qualified people to attain licenses in these professions. It was done in the name of “increasing competition.”

Another reform targeted a longstanding law requiring employers to re-hire workers found to have been fired without cause.

Seems reasonable, right? If a company can’t say why someone is being let go, that person shouldn’t lose their job. Days ago, despite widespread worker and labor union opposition, Monti pushed the reform through, albeit a somewhat weakened version.

He argued that allowing companies to lay workers off more easily would open the door to more long-term work contracts.

(Individual workers negotiate contracts with their employers in Italy. Since the global financial crisis hit, companies have drastically cut hiring, and in the rare cases when a worker is added, market uncertainty coupled with the requirement to give cause when laying a worker off has led firms to commit to the shortest contracts possible. Still, Monti’s reasoning – that abolishment of the fire-for-cause requirement will somehow encourage employers to hire long term – is suspect at best, and makes contracts worth less than the paper on which they are printed at worst.)

Another Nude Emperor

It’s understandable that Italians trusted Monti on the way in – even that he seemed, to the man who appointed him (Italian President Giorgio Napolitano) a good alternative to the Berlusconi sideshow. When a person – or a people – is sinking, they cling to the most prominent piece of flotsam that happens by.

The principle of homeostasis shows that, faced with alternatives to drastic change, people will always opt for what seems more familiar, safest and most expedient. And Monti’s stature as an economist, coupled with the entrenched global depression (it’s really time to stop pretending it’s anything else) made him an easy choice. Much as Americans were upon Barack Obama’s election, Italians were happy to see bobbing before them, as they went down for the third time, the floating piano that was Mario Monti.

That’s now proving to have been a big mistake.

Less than a year into his term, and thanks largely to the facts that (1) his tax reforms have hurt the working class and not been applied to the rich, and (2) his labor reforms are seen by Italians as further punishment of the working class for the elitists’ crimes, the ice upon which Monti skates is getting thinner. Witness the rise of the Five Star Movement.

Beppe Grillo
It may seem strange – satire being what it is – that a comedian, of all people, could lead Italians in waking up to the charade that the Monti government has perpetrated on them.
Beppe Grillo
And it is strange. If, that is, you don’t know much about Beppe Grillo.

The Five Star Movement’s leader has a rich history of pissing off Italian politicians, starting with his outing of the fully corrupt – and now disbanded – Italian Socialist Party. Banned from Italian TV since the mid 90s thanks to his blunt honesty, Grillo turned to public performance and rallies – and ultimately to the Internet, where his movement continues to grow.

For anyone who has been paying attention to – well, anything – over the past several years, it’s easy to see why.

The movement’s five stars: Water, Environment, Transport, Connectivity, Growth. Grillo’s stated goal: To connect via the Internet people (Italians in particular) who agree with the movement’s basic tenets. These include such cockamamie notions as honesty, direct democracy, politicians being subordinate to the people; term limits; that politicians’ time in office be dedicated strictly to the interests of the people and nothing else (like, say, the next election); and that no convicted criminal can stand for election.

Grillo’s message has gained momentum at a – I’ll just say it – thrilling pace. His blog,
published in Italian, English and Japanese, is often among the 10 most visited in the world (per Technorati). In 2008, The Guardian newspaper ranked it among the world’s most powerful political blogs.

Of course, successful blogging alone does not a movement make.

But this does: Earlier this year, just two years after its founding, Grillo’s effort won three mayoral elections and seated 163 councilors.

Is This Radicalism?
People like Grillo are often chastised as “radicals” for being brave enough to point out the corruptness of the current system.

Paraphrasing the late Tommy Douglas, “When one suggests it might be time to vote for people more like themselves rather than members of the privileged class, it is often their own kind who are first to call them a Bolshevik and throw them in jail!”

Phil Ochs also did a nice job of describing the phenomenon:

“Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But now I’m older and wiser
And that’s why I’m turning you in”

By playing the “radical” card, entrenched political parties have – until now – staved off popular dissent that would finally expose them for the status quo-perpetuating charlatans they are. Movements like Grillo’s are further proof that only by refusing to accept what the powers that be put before us as “the solution” can we let go of the wreckage to which we stupidly cling and begin swimming for ourselves.

The momentum building thanks to Grillo’s efforts and those of others like it around the world can no longer be denied.

One day after celebrating our “independence,” let’s hope such dissent soon catches fire in America, creating “free radicals” – voters who finally exercise the independence – and power – so few seem to realize they possess.

Anthony Noel is a facilitator of the New Progressive Alliance.

Anthony Noel

Anthony Noel