If nothing else, Russell Brand has got people talking about politics. His repeated broadsides against a political class of "frauds and liars", and his suggestion that people shouldn't vote struck both a chord and a nerve.
Of all the varied criticism and comment that followed, perhaps the most pressing is what happens when anti-politics and politics collide? In short, what happens when people who profoundly dislike the political system decide to get involved in order to change it? What would the 'anti-political' politics he has in mind actually look like? Fortunately, recent events have gifted us an experiment. I turned home to find an answer: where a comedian, prominent blogger, rabble rousing anti-establishment candidate has recently turned the Italian political system on its head.
Beppe Grillo made his first public appearance as a stand-up comedian on a number of TV shows in the late 1970s. In 2009 he founded a new party, the 'Five Star Movement' (M5S), which according to its "non-statute" aims to implement "an effective and efficient exchange of opinions and democratic debate" outside the framework of mainstream politics.
He rails, too, against the system: he organised a series of "fuck-off days" directed at the Italian political class as a whole, called Berlusconi a "psycho sex dwarf" and said he would open up the Italian system like a "tin of tuna". Exactly the kind of actions you would picture Russell Brand to be engaging in if placed on a stand in front of a mob. Grillo selected his candidates online, and used social media to discuss issues and mobilise supporters, while refusing to give any interviews to the national media. His success was beyond the most optimistic assessments and in the 2013 general elections his Five Star Movement became the largest political party in Italy, securing around 25 per cent of the vote.
So what has he done since? Calling for a revolution is not quite the same as carrying one out. Even winning the elections is not enough. Since the M5S entered Parliament Beppe Grillo has taken very few steps to bring about any of the changes promised so vigorously in his election campaign. He started by refusing to even consider the possibility of forming a government with the Democratic Party - a solution preferred by the majority of Italians (and by many M5S supporters). Not only did he know that that was the only alternative to a fragile coalition government, hostage of Berlusconi's egoism and political blindness, but he actually welcomed a similar scenario, aware of its recruitment potential among those voters uncomfortable with such an unlikely alliance.
While opposing any kind of compromise with the other parliamentary forces, Grillo has repeatedly sought to isolate those M5S members perceived to be steering away from his rigid political line (his most recent target being a couple of MPs that rejected his far-right views on immigration). Grillo's pervasive online presence has played an important role in this effort to smother internal dissent and humiliate opponents. Especially after the elections, Grillo has used new media to perpetuate an old practice dating all the way back to the fascist era: extensive verbal violence and full contempt of political adversaries and institutions.
He now seems to be doing everything he can to postpone the desperately needed reform of the Italian electoral system - which allows party leaders, and not the electorate, to select candidates (a major cause of the country's political paralysis over the last decade). The mediocrity of the political figures he has so far assigned responsibility to is just a further sign of the typically Italian habit to reward 'yes men' at the expense of people of merit.
There is one more element of truth nestled in the harsh world-view put forward by Russell Brand: politics isn't just about voting. Politics is also about compromise, about confrontation and about dialogue. Brand and Grillo's critiques of the current political establishment are potentially compatible with the kind of revolution of politics we need. But the destructive rhetoric that characterises their views, built upon the idea of an 'us' versus an irresponsible and corrupt 'them', who are therefore not worth seeking a mediation with, probably is not. Michele Serra writing on La Repubblica two weeks ago summed it up best. Revolutions can often start but hardly succeed based on stark dichotomies: "every revolutionary manual, even the most mediocre one, has a small chapter entitled 'the politics of alliance'".