Italy’s Hybrid Democracy Leads The Way

The participatory power of social networks complements representative democracy — and compensates for its waning legitimacy.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

In Italy, perhaps even more than elsewhere, the relentless COVID pandemic exhausted the body politic. The public yearned for a stable government to tame the outbreak, recover from the economic losses of the lockdown and return to the convivial lifestyle which is that Mediterranean nation’s cultural mainstay.

To that end, a historic compromise was reached earlier this spring between anti-establishment forces seeking to overturn the status quo and the paragon of that status quo itself, Mario Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank. Together they joined in a technocratic government of national unity to fairly and competently dispense $272 billion in aid from the European Union.

Yet, no sooner had that historic compromise been consummated than the Five Star Movement — the largest anti-establishment presence in the governing coalitions of recent years — began to splinter. Though the majority of the internet-based Five Star members voted through its online platform, Rousseau, to join a Draghi-led government, discontent roiled the ranks in different ways. Going forward, some want to remain in the parliamentary club to which they have been admitted through elections by forming a traditional political party replete with a hierarchical structure and set ideological program. Others insist on sticking with the FSM’s roots of “platform politics” — a direct-democracy, bottom-up citizens movement linked through online technology.

It is not uncommon, of course, for what animates protest movements to fade once their issues are addressed and leading members are installed in the halls of power. What distinguishes the Italian case is that it stands at the nexus of a transformation of politics itself as a result of the participatory power of digital connectivity that levels the playing field among amateurs, career politicians, professionals and experts. As a platform open to all, it challenges the custodianship of elites and even the legitimacy of representative democracy.

Several years ago, the late Five Star cofounder, Gianroberto Casaleggio, wrote a book imagining a future in which social networks would empower direct democracy across Europe while the same technology would be used to disempower citizens and construct a surveillance state in China. If Italy is any indication, we may be seeing that prescient scenario unfolding today as governance opens up to civil society in the West while China consolidates its one-party autocracy.

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In an interview in Noema this week, Davide Casaleggio, Gianroberto’s son, who runs Rousseau, discusses the ongoing controversy within the movement.

Shortly after forming a new government in 2017 after Five Star garnered 33% of the vote in elections as the largest political force in Italy, Casaleggio the younger wrote for us that “direct democracy, made possible by the Internet, has given a new centrality to citizens and will ultimately lead to the deconstruction of the current political and social organizations. Representative democracy — politics by proxy — is gradually losing meaning.” 

Current events, as noted, suggest that the lost meaning of politics by proxy is occurring more gradually than he would have expected. “I don’t hope for a breakup,” Casaleggio says, “but I must admit there are different views on how power should be exercised, and even the nature of power. The perspective from inside the rooms of power seems in some cases to be different from outside, but I think the signal change we are experiencing with our platform society is that the very definition of power is changing. It’s not power over others anymore, but the power of citizens themselves, connected through the latest digital technology, to take back control and shape the world they want and must live in.”

Clearly, something new in democracy is evolving in Italy. The participatory power of social networks may well be laying the path toward post-party politics. Or, perhaps, what we are witnessing is how the present hybrid of platform and parliamentary politics can appropriately balance each other. In a referendum sponsored by Five Star last year, voters agreed to reduce the size of Italy’s parliament by a third, from 630 to 400 in the chamber of deputies and from 315 to 200 in the senate. In short, less delegation and more participation is already baked into the emergent system.

“We have been testing this hybrid system with various tools on the Rousseau platform,” Casaleggio points out. “For example, more than two dozen laws proposed by citizens were taken up and sponsored in legislation by Five Star members of parliament. For at least two months before making such proposals to the parliamentarians, members of the movement deliberate them online. This participation is the added value enabled by platform politics. To take just one example, a proposed law on basic income for Italy’s poorest was discussed by thousands of members before it was passed on to legislative sponsors.”

Representative democracy is not going away any time soon. But the tendency in all such democracies to favor the organized special interests of an insider establishment with the time and money to dominate political life is being challenged as never before by the enhanced capacity for direct citizen engagement in governance. Once awakened and empowered by digital connectivity, that genie will not just be put back in the bottle. 

As Casaleggio concludes, citizens will use the new tools available to them to press on. “We need to create and share the culture of online participation. We need to steadily innovate, creating new ways to interact and exercise our new rights and mechanisms of digital citizenship. And we need to involve all members of the community in public life, from the bottom up, and no longer confine citizen engagement in democracies to voting every four or five years.”

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