By lambert strether, who blogs at Corrente.
The following YouTube of Beppe Grillo’s 1998 show, in Italian, is captioned in English by d574 and German — Hi Angela! [waves] — by johndoe3k5. I turned the English captions into a complete transcript, tweaking the prose occasionally, and adding some annotations. (See here and here for background on Grillo, the most interesting political figure in Europe today.)
Note the date: 1998, before the Euro, which was introduced on January 1, 1999. I think that makes the show all that much more interesting, because as we shall see, there are more targets for Grillo’s japery. (I was in Paris that New Year’s Eve, and the French were projecting a big blue € on the Pont d’Arcole. They seemed so happy!)
Frankly, I’m not quite sure what to make of it all. My knowledge of the Italian political and cultural scene isn’t even rudimentary, and I can’t imagine I’m getting very many of the jokes, so I’m going to annotate with a very light touch. But boy, can Grillo sure pull in a crowd! (No wonder the MMTers were able to fill a large hall.)
At least in the beginning, though, the atmosphere, and Grillo’s demeanor and hoarse voice, hardly seem comedic; were things truly that Serious back in 1998? If so, the Italian body politic must have been inordinately stressed for a much longer time than we in this United States imagine. Perhaps, readers, you can help with interpretation (see the bibliographical note at the end).
Oh, I did bowdlerize the language a little; as a foul-mouthed blogger of the left, I hated to do that, but I don’t want NC banned from the workplace, either.
To the transcript:
GRILLO: These people count for little.
“Count for little” seems like a multi-dimensional pun, but since I know so little of the context, I’m not going there, or anywhere near there, here or below.
GRILLO: We’re actually in the hands of things that we can’t even imagine… IMF, World Bank… People who will be deciding, far away from us, what f*cking kind of water we will be allowed to drink in the next decades. We will never be able to know who they are. Why? [Because] we think that [the rulers] are these ones [the politicians]. Yet the powers are going to wake up. We are getting to the big turning point. This is it! The end of the second millenium and the beginning of the third one, they are waking up… Just as in 999 A.D. everyone was prepared to die before the coming end of the world, they are waking up for the second time. Who knows if we’ll be faring better, who knows… The hour horsemen of the Apocalypse are waking up! Waking up is the Great Dragon!
[Thunder and lightning sounds. Jumbotron displays a dragon with four human heads.]
Here are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, you can’t even identify them! Be honest, do you know them? No, you can not…. We have never seen them either. Yet, look at them well. They’re four bankers. Once there used to be “gangster,” [English], today we have “banksters” [English]. [laughter] The first on the right…. Please, look at their faces, let’s go back to our instincts… Look at this face…. Greenspan, American Fed’s Chairman. Look at him! Is the one over there a man or a sled dog? That one is a dog! Yet, the difference between a dog and a banker is that if you throw something, the dog will bring it back to you, no f*cking way the banker will do it! [applause]
That “bankster” and “gangster” are in English is, I will venture to say, significant, because English is the language of neo-liberalism, the Washington Consensus, etc.
GRILLO: Second one… The big bank of our Heaven, Tietmeyer, from the BUNDESBANK! [thunder] What are you laughing for? [To audience member] Excuse me, what is your bank? What Bank?…. Banco Ambrosiano? Sh*t, the parish recreation place! [laughter] I mean… Do you realize that your bank is the Banco Ambrosiano? And you travel around Europe with the Banco Ambrosiano? What the f*ck? That one over there is the BUNDESBANK! But he laughs, he has the Banco Ambrosiano! This one is Tietmeyer! Tietmeyer has already been appointed, on the payroll with our money! Duisenberg as Chairman of the Frankfurt-based European Central Bank. A man who will be deciding if your house is worth something, if your son can join a university, or if you can make your hair grow! It will be decided by one man appointed by this kind of rotten würstel, Tietmeyer!
Third banker… Matsush*ta. Involved in some mess, Governor of the Bank of Japan, the first bank in the world. Look at his face!
And then, let’s go on… Over there… Out of the dragon’s *** comes this sort of human hemorrhoid… who is our governor of Bank of Italy… Fazio, the “great” Fazio…
Somehow, I’m not able to imagine Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, or the SNL scriptwriters calling Lloyd Blankfein a human hemorrhoid. American political humor is very deferential.
GRILLO: Well, these four share one amazing thing. They are Chairmen of four banks which issue money and lend it out. They issue money and lend… Issue and lend… We can’t any longer perceive what truth is, we can no longer realize if a medicine is good or bad for us, if a piece of news is true or not, we can no longer tell a debt from a credit, can we?
Cf. Ezra Pound, Canto XLV: “With usura hath no man a house of good stone…”
GRILLO: Is it true that we’re endlessly told that our national debt is about 2.5 million billion lire? If there’s a borrower, there’s supposed to be a lender, right? Who the f*ck do we owe this money to? [laughter] I mean… To whom the f*ck do we owe this money for which they have been pissing me off for ten years? To us ourselves? Fine then, I owe it to myself, I claim a f*cking nothing any more, we’re square and go to hell! Right? It’s a debt system, this is an awful system. [applause]
Or lend money, thereby issuing it, some would say. Sequence counts!
GRILLO: We can no longer perceive… Should I now ask someone “What is gold?” They have changed all the standards by revaluing gold! Weigel has done it… We’ve revalued gold by 3,000 billions in name only. What is gold? Is it a resource? We’re all convinced that it is a resource, aren’t we? It is, let’s be honest, c’mon… So, what is gold? We take gold by making a hole in South Africa, Turkey, or Amazonia… The ones over there are gold diggers… Gold is a resource, these are… OK, stop the video here… These ones are 40,000 persons who dig a hole to find gold. Two pounds of gold are equal to 700,000 pounds of waste. Waste made of cyanide and mercury. In nature, the thing with the highest environmental impact is gold. OK, but gold is a resource, fine.
It’s interesting that during a complex and lengthy sketch, Grillo is simultaneously in the midst of the crowd with a mike, on camera, and working a video (at one point, he also cues some thunder). I never bought into the teleprompter riffs a lot of people were running, but… Just saying. These are mad skillz.
We dig and we take gold from a hole, and after taking it from a hole, we take and put it in a hole under a bank. I mean… From a hole to another hole. Holy sh*t, let’s build the bank upon the first hole and f*ck off! [laughter] What’s the point of doing all this? Gold is not a resource if you take it from a hole and hide it under a bank. It is only a huge cost! It would represent a esource if you gave it to dentists to get some f*cking crowns from it, or to goldsmiths to manufacture it, or to electricians. But if you put it in a safety vault instead?
I think it’s safe to say that Grillo is not an Austrian. I mean, if he were, he’d be projecting the 800-number for his bullion site on the Jumbotron, eh? Kidding!
GRILLO: These people get revaluing. But they revalue a mere nothing. In the banks there is nothing anymore, not even your savings. Today money stems out of thin air, banks create it with a few keystrokes on a PC… Beep! One thousand billions to Mexico, Mexico goes bankrupt; beep! One thousand billions to Thailand, Thailand goes bankrupt; South Korea gone bankrupt; in Indonesia people are “eating” their rupees; in Yugoslavia there’s an inflation as there was in the Germany of the 30’s, when people used to buy cigarettes by carrying money in wheelbarrows.
Keystroke money, eh? In 1998….
GRILLO: All this might happen also here, tomorrow. In the banks there is nothing anymore. A Ligurian farmer had put aside savings during his lifetime, it’s nres from ten days ago,. He had everything put on his savings book, about 600 million lire, his lifelong savings. He went to the bank, he hadn’t even ever been there and they didn’t even know him, he had put aside everything on his savings book. He resolutely entered the bank and took out his savings book, the bank manager looked at him ans asked: “What can I do for you? Do you want to withdraw, by chance? To deposit, maybe?”
“No! Just let me see my money!” [laughter, applause] “But… What do you mean? Do you want to withdraw some of it?” “No! I just want to see all my money before my eyes.”
What a mess! Huge panic. They had nothing, they had to call in the Carabinieri to arrange security vans, to raoe up the 600 millions at the branch offices. They put all the money in front of him, he remained there to see it, to stare at it, then he said “Fine, now that I have seen my money, I can go home!” And he went back home. [laughter, applause]
Here’s where I start getting a bit worried, since Grillo’s Ligurian farmer just rendered fiat money absurd. Which is fine for a comedian, but not perhaps for a policy maker. And Grillo keeps shooting down theory after theory. (Making me wonder if he has some expert and/or guru and/or crank on call for later.)
GRILLO: Amazing! Holy sh*t… Once we used to issue money only when there was gold in the lock boxes, we used to issue money only when there were our savings to back the f*cking checks or credit cards. There’s nothing there anymore! They issue money and lend it to us.
Now, let me ask you one thing: ? Who does its ownership belong to? To the State, fine [well, not with the anarchists] …. Then to us, we are the State. You know the State doesn’t exist, it is only a legal entity. WE are the state, then the money is ours…. Fine. Do you agree? Yes? Fine. Then, let me know one thing. If the money belongs to us… Why… do they lend it to us?
Asking does the the ownership of money (as opposed to mere money) belong to sounds a little meta, and it is, but it’s the key question. MMT answers that money should be created for public purpose, and so does Grillo. Can you imagine any legacy party politician in America asking this question?
There’s something not adding up, right? Once we used to have gold coins, they were ours, we had some gold and it was ours, fine… Now we have a piece of paper bearing the writing “100 thousand lire.” So, let’s check now who the money belongs to. I took the liberty of checking the obvious, as nobody ever checks self-evident things. And whoever could check what money is and what is written on it but a Genoese in great trouble? [laughter] Well then… On the 100 and 200 lire coins, there’s written Republic of Italy. That’s us, we are the Republic of Italy, do we all agree? On the 100 thousand lire banknote instead… Well, there’s no longer the writing “Republic of Italy,” but there’s “Bank of Italy,” the Governor’s signature, and then there’s the writing “payable to the bearer on demand.” If there’s that “payable to the bearer on demand,” it is supposed to mean something. So I take my banknote and go to the bank… I demand the payment, “I’m the bearer, can you pay me please? Heck, it’s you who wrote that writing!” No f*cking way will they pay you, they will give you nothing!
Arrighi, in The Long Twentieth Century, shows how Genoa was the origin of modern finance capitalism. Wray, in Modern Money Theory, remarks if you take a British five pound note to the Bank of England and ask for five pounds, they will give you a British five pound note. That’s what the writing says! Notice also that the United States has the same dual system that pre-Euro Italy did: Paper money is issued by the Fed; metal money is issued by the Treasury.
GRILLO: So why do they write such a thing? Yet, one might question: “Grillo, what the f*ck are you saying? The Bank of Italy is the Bank of the Italian State!” No way! The Bank of Italy is a private joint-stock company, whose ownership comprises ten insurance companies, ten foundations, and ten banks that are all joint stock companies, and whose owners are always the same… We will never know who they are, yet they are always the same ones… and whose seats are based in the Cayman islands. They issue money, out of thin air, and then lend it to us. It’s the state that is supposed to issue it, we need money to work, the State should say: “There’s a scarcity of money? I’ll issue some and put it into circulation.” Money is plentiful? I’ll withdraw and burn some of it.”
“Burning it” or shredding it is in fact the operational reality of what happens to “your tax dollars” as MMT teaches.
More importantly, Grillo is questioning the legitimacy of money printed by the Bank of Italy, because the Bank of Italy is private. Whatever the European Community may be, it is not democratic; one wonders whether Grillo will question the legitimacy of the bureaucrats and banksters managing the Euro, and for the same reasons raised here.
GRILLO: All this to keep money circulation stable, to keep prices stable. Money is needed to keep prices stable and to let us work, it’s about mere pieces of paper. Yet, money is issued by a joint stock company. Money shouldn’t look like that — “Bank of Italy, Governor, payable to the bearer on demand.” “Ownership of the bearer” and in the place of the f*cking Governor’s signature, “The President of the Republic.” It’s him that should sign. He would do something, for once, that would bring satisfaction to us all. [laughter, applause.]
Indeed. Fiat money created for public purpose: That, Grillo seems to get, and that could be seen as encouraging.*
NOTE * I know that MMT has no theory of the state, and that a tyrant could use fiat money for ill ends. Nobody said the politics were easy, mkay?
BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE This video now seems to be making the rounds. A quick Google search yields Financial Armageddon, Liberty Blitzkreig (!), The Daily Paul, and Mike Norman Economics. These are, however, all quick hits. The redoubtable Ellen Brown has a long form post on Grillo’s policy proposals here, but doesn’t address the theory of money, if any, that informs those proposals. So, I could be wrong, but Googling random bits of the show, I can’t come up with hits, so this post could actually be the first resource on Grillo’s theory of money, if any, in English. The following article on Grillo in the Italian political context is interesting too (hat tip reader Krasna). Grillo’s nearly nihilistic attitude toward all theories of money, as seen above, could be seen as a form of “confusionism,” destined to end badly.