Roberto Casaleggio turned a comedian's fan club into Italy's second biggest political force in just over three years.
“It’s like Jesus Christ and the apostles,” said Roberto Casaleggio. “His message, too, became a virus.”
With a shaggy mane of black, grey and silver hair that reaches to his shoulders, Casaleggio himself would make a good messiah. As it is, he is perhaps the most distrusted man in Italian politics: the web guru who, in just over three years, has turned a comedian’s fan club into Italy’s second biggest political force; an eminence grise with seemingly magical powers who has never before allowed himself to be interviewed by a newspaper.
Last May, the Five Star Movement (M5S), inspired by the comic Beppe Grillo, astonished pundits by storming to victory in a local election in the city of Parma. In October, it topped the polls in the regional election in Sicily. And, with around 17% of voters telling pollsters they will back it in the snap general election next month, the M5S is on course to win between 90 and 100 of the 630 seats in the lower house of the next Italian parliament.
As a newcomer, however, the movement needs tens of thousands of officially certified signatures to enter the contest. Last month in Casaleggio’s consultancy in a fashionable part of Milan, his employees were mounting a nationwide operation to push through the necessary paperwork.
Most of what has been written about the M5S has put its success down to the euro crisis and Italians’ anger at the austerity measures imposed by Mario Monti’s government, a favourite target of Grillo’s witty, ranting monologues. By this reckoning, it is an archetypal protest movement that will disappear along with the cause that promoted it.
But for Casaleggio the M5S is part of an altogether more durable phenomenon – the erosion by the internet of all forms of mediation. Just as newspapers, he argues, are doomed to extinction because they stand between journalists and readers, so parties are heading for annihilation because they stand between the electorate and the authorities.
The M5S is pioneering “a new, direct democracy that will see the elimination of all barriers between the citizen and the state”. Like Julian Assange, Casaleggio combines unshakable confidence in his ability to interpret the impact of the internet with an air of boyish ingenuousness. The latter is particularly noticeable when he smiles to reveal a gap between his two front teeth.
He first met Grillo “about 10 years ago” after the comedian read a book he had written. By then, Casaleggio was a successful information technology executive, former head of the Italian operations of the British firm Logica. In 2004, he founded his own company, Casaleggio Associati.
“Without the web, Beppe and I would not have achieved a thing,” he said. “It is the web that has altered all the balances.”
The first step was the creation of Grillo’s blog, which by 2007 had become the seventh most popular in the world, even though written in the language of a country with less than a fifth of the population of the US and one in which fewer than 40% of households had a computer.
Casaleggio ascribes the blog’s success to the unique situation in Italy. For five years, from 2001 to 2006, Silvio Berlusconi had controlled six of Italy’s seven main television channels.
“It was like living inside the Matrix,” he said. Grillo offered information and comment that was free of self-censorship.
“And when people saw that what he said was true, they began to doubt the other information they were getting.”
The blog also stimulated an extraordinary degree of participation: one post attracted some 10,000 comments. A community – and a very big one – had formed whose participants, guided by Grillo and Casaleggio, started using the social networking portal Meetup to form local groups. There are now almost 650.
The next step was to approach so-called liste civiche, slates of independent candidates in local elections, to see if they were interested in being endorsed by Grillo. Many were.
One result, said Casaleggio, was that some of the Meetup groups asked to put up lists of candidates of their own. A meeting in Florence in March 2009 agreed on a set of principles, strong on environmental protection, that would be common to all the slates bearing the Grillo “trademark”.
The community was ready to become a movement (Casaleggio disavows the term party). For the foundation of the M5S later the same year, he and Grillo picked the feast day of St Francis of Assisi on 4 October.
So far, the movement has remained faithful to the Umbrian’s mystic disdain for money. Casaleggio said it was about to return €800,000 to which it was entitled because of its success in the Sicilian election. “Our MPs will take salaries of €5,000 a month and give back the rest,” he added. The M5S had no need of money since the only input it required was the time and effort of his employees.
Their latest exploit has been to organise the online selection of the movement’s parliamentary candidates, “which I don’t think has been done anywhere else in the world”, said Casaleggio.
The operation was not a total success, however. According to a post on Grillo’s site, the M5S has more than 255,000 members. But only 31,612 registered to take part in the selection process and, of those, only 20,252 did so.
In addition, Casaleggio has had to contend with bitter accusations from the rank and file that the process was not subject to independent verification – a row that came on top of another resulting from Grillo’s insistence that the movement’s representatives should not take part in TV talk shows.
Casaleggio is unrepentant. “The statute contains rules. If they want to change the rules, they can create another movement,” he said.
And who wrote the statute? “Grillo and I,” Casaleggio replied.
The affair has revived claims that the M5S is inherently undemocratic and that Casaleggio, in particular, has a hidden agenda.
“The problem with these people is that they think everyone does something to have something else in return,” he said. “The only thing we get is the warmth of the people. It’s the only thing we get in exchange.”
And he smiled his boyish smile.
Roberto Casaleggio’s five golden rules for building a successful, internet-based political movement:
1 Create participation. You need a community to start with.
2 Understand the internet, including its sociology. Don’t think of it as something additional, but as a new reality – a new world.
3 Speak the language of the internet. In particular, do not say things that cannot be verified on the web.
4 Keep the rules of your movement simple.
5 Realise that you are empowering. The cells you create will take on a life of their own.