Platform Vs. Party Politics

Italy’s Five Star Movement struggles to define a new kind of democracy for the digital age.

Tiago Araujo for Noema Magazine

Davide Casaleggio manages the online Rousseau platform from which Italy’s Five Star Movement emerged. In this interview, he discusses the future of digital democracy with Noema editor-in-chief Nathan Gardels.

Gardels: When the Five Star Movement became the leading force in Italian politics a few years back, you wrote:

Our experience is proof of how the internet has made the established parties, and the previous organizational model of democratic politics more generally, obsolete and uneconomic.

The platform that enabled the success of the Five Star Movement is called Rousseau, named after the 18th-century philosopher who argued politics should reflect the general will of the people. And that is exactly what our platform does: it allows citizens to be part of politics. 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.

In recent weeks, the anti-establishment movement, having governed now for a few years in coalition with others, has split apart. From afar, it looks like half the movement is oriented to the new platform politics of the future — digital citizenship and participation from the bottom up through technology — and half to traditional party politics, forming a new Green-type party to play the old game of parliamentary horse-trading among organized special interests.

Is this the right way to frame the breakup Five Star seems headed toward? 

Casaleggio: I don’t hope for a breakup, 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.

This type of power is not limited by the number of seats in parliament or at the city council. It is only limited by our imagination in making a society that works for all.

Of course, when an internet-based citizens’ movement elects members of parliament, those members are bound to follow the principles that their candidacy put forward. In the case of the Five Star Movement, for example, that means being limited to no more than two terms in office while also submitting to choices made by the citizen base through our online platform, Rousseau, including candidates, alliances or the nominee for head of government. These should all be taken by members of the movement, not the members of parliament. 

“The power of citizens is only limited by our imagination in making a society that works for all.”

Gardels: In the past, this was the usual way protest movements evolved, from the streets to parliament. As was the case, for example, with the civil rights movement in the U.S., which reached its apex when the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 only to fade as a force, represented here and there in the U.S. Congress and statehouses by veterans of the movement. But the movement itself petered out.

Will it be different now when citizens have the technological tools to act on their own behalf, unmediated by hierarchical party organization with an ideological program?

Casaleggio: Indignation and discontent bring people to protest in the streets. Connectivity has created many new ways to communicate efficiently to get people out of their homes and present themselves in the public square. That is the reason why so many new movements emerged in these last few years.

As you suggest, most movements end up dissipating because the people in power yield to some of their demands and simply give them what they want. In Italy, we started off with a protest in 2007 for a “clean parliament” with three requests: Candidates must have a clean criminal record to be elected, they can serve only two terms in office and citizens, not party executives, must be able to directly choose and elect candidates. 

We proposed a “citizens law” to achieve these ends, but it was never discussed in parliament. This lack of action actually strengthened the resolve of the Five Star Movement to put up candidates for parliament who pledged to make this law a reality. So, the resistance of the establishment actually drove us into power — because we sought what the public wanted — first in parliament and then into the government.

In Brazil, a movement of citizens proposed a similar law around the same time. Their parliament took up and approved the law, deflating the movement and dispersing its energy.

So, I suppose I’d say that, for a movement to be able to take power, you need to be unlucky at the beginning. And, above all, you need to have an online platform in which everyone has a voice, so all the important decisions don’t end up being delegated to just a few people. In Italy, we had a combination of both. 

Gardels: Do you see in the future a hybrid system of politics — citizen engagement that complements parliamentary politics and compensates for its waning legitimacy? How will these two forms of politics interact with each other?

Casaleggio: We have been testing this hybrid system with various tools on the Rousseau platform. 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.

“For a movement to be able to take power, you need to be unlucky at the beginning.”

Gardels: Some have said the technocratic government led by Mario Draghi is a “historic compromise” between the anti-establishment movement that overthrew a moribund political class in recent years and the technocratic expertise of the European establishment it rose to oppose.

Is this a temporary phenomenon, or do you see this kind of technocracy and direct democracy, in a sense, completing each other — legitimacy plus expertise?

Casaleggio: The actual situation in Italy is mainly based on two extraordinary facts. First, Italians want a stable government until the end of the pandemic emergency. Second, the big difference between present-day polls and the last electoral results suggests that the composition of parliament would radically change if an election were called. In a few months, parliament will elect the non-partisan president of Italy with a seven-year term, so many actual MPs don’t want to take the risk before that date. 

The Five Star Movement has indeed lost some electoral momentum, no doubt in part because of the inexperience of those new to power. That said, we have been working on a system to enhance the merit of people chosen through Rousseau, while keeping the direct democracy flowing from the bottom up. This “merit system” allowed us, for example, to present electoral lists for the last European elections with candidates that had higher education levels and better linguistic skills than any other party, yet, at the same time, greater adherence to the principles of the movement than previous lists presented. 

“We need to steadily innovate, creating new ways to interact and exercise our new rights and mechanisms of digital citizenship.”

Gardels: The visionary industrialist Adriano Olivetti, whose “utopian” company town of Ivrea you grew up in, had this idea during the postwar years of direct citizen engagement matched with technocratic administration. Such a combination was also the signature of the Progressive Era in the American states, when the direct democracy of citizen ballot initiatives — where citizens make laws directly — was joined with smart government, scholars who drafted laws and the introduction of professional city managers to run things instead of cronies who ran patronage networks.

Do you see Rousseau and platform politics as a way to realize that vision thanks to digital connectivity not available in the 1950s?

Casaleggio: Yes. I think we now have the tools to exercise the rights and duties of participation not available in Olivetti’s day.

Olivetti was a great entrepreneur who anticipated 50 years ago what today is being accepted as enlightened. Companies, he thought, should be sponsors of culture; he had people reading newspapers or poems out loud in his factories. He also thought companies should continuously innovate; one of the first personal computers was an Olivetti. And he believed companies should be part of their community; the last office building in the Olivetti complex was designed and built as a hospital so that one day, when it was no longer useful, it could be easily converted for healthcare in the town.

I would argue today that platform politics shares Olivetti’s sensibilities. 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.