Beppe Grillo

The Seeds of a New Left.

GIANNI CIPRIANO / NEW YORK TIMES

A comedian turned activist who sports unkempt hair, baggy denim and Gandhi t-shirts, is now shaking up the staid scene of Italian politics, leaving both outrage and hopeful excitement in his wake.

In the most recent national election in late February 2013, Mr. Grillo won a quarter of the votes. Italian voters rejected the two dominant parties, both of which sanction austerity and other means which favor the 1% at the expense of the 99%. Grillo's relatively new and unknown anti-austerity "Five Star Party" immediately became the third-largest bloc in Parliament, leaving the old-school politicians grumbling over if this was some kind of joke.

Don't let appearances deceive you, Grillo is nuanced, fresh, bold and committed as a politician – attributes which proponents believe will make up for his obvious lack of experience.

As Liz Alderman and Elisabetta Povoledo write for The New York Times:
Mr. Grillo typifies a new style of politician rising from the fires of the European Union’s long-running economic crisis and voter discontent in other countries. Like Alexis Tsipras, the young upstart in Greece who rode an anti-austerity wave to head the second-largest parliamentary party, or Yair Lapid, who tapped into a national frustration with social inequality in Israel, these politicians are not extremists but generally reformist leftists.

But Grillo's presence on the scene has not come without critique and controversy. He refused to join a government alliance put forward by Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of Italy's center-left Democratic Party, a plan that experts say could help steer Italy away from an even longer period of economic uncertainty. In a rare interview at his home in Marina di Bibbona, Grillo defended his decision, saying it would be “inadmissible” for Bersani to promise to ensure the stability of a future Italian government. “It would be like Napoleon making a deal with Wellington.”

Grillo's goal is to abolish the system that has "disintegrated the country" and to build something "new" that will restore true democracy to Italy. With a long history of radical commentary - and consequently, censorship, banishment from public TV, and notoriety - Grillo has nothing to lose in calling out the political corruption of his country today. For years Grillo has been dedicated to exposing banking scandals, financial frauds and nepotism, whether through satirical comedy or on his political commentary blog. Time chose Grillo as one of the "European Heroes 2005" for his unending commitment to fighting corruption. In 2013, he demands that the "existing political class be expelled immediately" such that he can serve people who believe in ideals like honesty, direct democracy, and a politics that serves the people.

Here are just a few of the many anti-austerity ideas put forward by Grillo's Five Star Party that countries around the world, from Greece to the USA, can look to for inspiration:
• Legislation to tighten laws against corporate and political corruption
• Laws that outlaw corporate influence in politics
• Rules that end “revolving doors” between business and government
• Incentives and regulations to clean up the environment
• Plans to expand and broaden the internet
• Development of sustainable energy and transportation
• Develop a consensus platform
• Develop a Citizenship Salary, a type of unemployment insurance
• Withdraw Italian forces from Afghanistan
• Capping State pensions at 5,000 euros a month
• Overturning tax amnesties
• Improvements in roads, bridges, water, sewer, and other infrastructure
• Reforms in banking laws – get private ownership (the Fed) out of the central bank
• Incentives for local businesses, transform Italy into a community

Retaining his gutsy, performance artist edge, Grillo is known to go to dramatic lengths to get his political message across. For instance, when a plan was put forward to build an expensive bridge over the Strait of Messina, which divides Sicily from the mainland, Mr. Grillo, in a wet suit, swam the entire strait, in the middle of winter, in just one hour. This stunt, he said, was to demonstrate that the bridge was hardly needed in the first place, that there are more pressing infrastructure improvements to consider.

Whether the it's bridges, public water issues, political and financial transparency, Internet freedom, the roots of the financial crisis, the environment – Grillo is dedicated to addressing issues that established politicians rarely take on, and with his own signature panache.

But Grillo is just one of many – a new breed of politician rising from the fires of discontent, disparity and austerity. Like Alexis Tsipras of Syrizia in Greece, or Yair Lapid in Israel, these politicians are planting the seed of a renewed – accountable, fresh, rational, responsible, energized – left, that we can hope germinates worldwide.

And if this all sounds too idealistic, if the hegemony of global capitalism and corruption just seems to damn entrenched, well just listen to Grillo's perspective:

We are the obstacle. They can no longer succeed against us. Let them resign themselves to that. They’ll be able to keep going for 7 or 8 months and they’ll produce a disaster but we’ll try and keep them under control. If they follow us they follow us. If they don’t, the battle will be very harsh for them, very harsh. They cannot understand . They cannot conceive of things. They need psychiatric analysis. They are failed people . . . But this won’t last long. This situation won’t last long at all."