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Type
Essay
Category
Politics

The Net will save us

Members read the posts at beppegrillo.it. They socialise through Meetup. They upload their candidate profiles on YouTube. They vote on policy proposals using LiquidFeedback.

The Five Star Movement isn’t primarily a political party: it’s a software platform. And the platform isn’t merely a tool, nor just a form of organisation; it shapes the movement’s fundamental notions concerning democracy and the common good. It gives texture to the real and the social.

It is through this platform that the most explosive political force in Europe today is hatching its quiet revolution.

Beginnings

The Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle, or M5S for short) was founded in 2009 by comedian Beppe Grillo and internet entrepreneur Gianroberto Casaleggio. By now you’ve probably heard of Grillo. You might even know what he looks like, whereas you’re considerably less likely to know about Casaleggio. Many Italians don’t – or, at least, most didn’t until the election held this past February in which the M5S registered the second-largest vote, beaten for the top spot only by the Democratic Party. Since then, there has been a renewed and rather furious media interest concerning the inner workings of the movement. Nonetheless, the majority of voters still don’t know Casaleggio’s appearance nor the role he plays, particularly because the last point remains maddeningly elusive.

Grillo himself has a very limited position, formally speaking. The movement’s own rules, which bar anyone who has ever been convicted of a crime from seeking office, mean he cannot run for parliament (in 1981, he was found guilty of multiple manslaughter after a horrific car accident). The M5S’ so-called ‘non-statute’ indicates that the movement is headquartered at a web address bearing his name – www.beppegrillo.it – but this is registered to an Emanuele Bottaro, of whom we know only that he was sued for libel last year, likely due to something ‘Grillo’ wrote on the blog. (I’ll get to those scare quotes in a moment.) Then there is the M5S’ symbol, of which Grillo is apparently the legal owner. To him pertains also one of the principal stated aims of the movement, which is to select the candidates who will attempt to advance, through local and national government, ‘the social, cultural and political awareness campaigns promoted by Beppe Grillo’ or discussed on his blog.

Grillo has, however, always claimed to be the spokesperson rather than the leader of the movement.

To find the name of Casaleggio, one needs to look at the bottom of the blog’s homepage, where the only credits, in lieu of any claim of copyright on the published material, are given to ‘Casaleggio Associati’, a media company co-founded by Casaleggio. It was Casaleggio Associati that designed the blog. It is Casaleggio Associati that publishes the blog. It may be Casaleggio Associati that supplies at least part of the blog’s content (hence my use of scare quotes – ‘Grillo’ – above). The most persistent rumour, given further credence last year by a prominent former member of the M5S, is that Casaleggio is the all-controlling leader and intellectual driving force behind a movement supposedly belonging to no-one.

So who is Gianroberto Casaleggio? An online marketing expert whose only known past political sympathies lay with the right-wing separatist Northern League, he heads a company whose relationships – through its strategic partner Enamics – include JP Morgan, Coca-Cola, the American Treasury Department, BP and Shell. Not a bad client list for the co-founder of a political organisation that has consistently railed against the power of multinationals and investment banks. Casaleggio’s own specialty is the use of the web as an instrument of persuasion, a topic on which he has written several books, including the eloquently titled Web ergo sum (while his brother and business partner Davide penned Tu sei la Rete, ‘You are the Net’).

Casaleggio’s preferred topics range from the technical – for instance, the role of influencers in social media marketing – to the pop-philosophical, and his output is on par with that of the techno-visionaries operating out of Silicon Valley.

Of particular interest are two brief videos from Casaleggio Associati, ‘Prometeus and ‘Gaia’, which purport to paint a picture of what social and political life on Earth might look like around the year 2050. These frankly bizarre productions must be understood within the context of their very peculiar subgenre: that form of corporate promotion predicated on making provocatively bold statements on the future directions of one’s industry. And because Casaleggio Associati is in the business of selling the very idea of a new media revolution, its predictions amount to full-blown science-fiction scenarios about every aspect of human life.

The theme of both videos is that the internet has ushered in a new era, transforming not just media but also individual subjectivity, social interactions and politics. In ‘Prometeus’, the end point is a world in which citizens are permanently immersed in a virtual reality environment produced by the sole remaining global corporation (the final merger was between Amazon and Google) which, at the end of the video, sets off for some reason on a journey of interstellar exploration.

‘Experience,’ solemnly declares the voice-over, ‘is the new reality.’

Produced a few years earlier, the more truculent ‘Gaia’ proposes that by 2018 the world will be divided into two main blocs: ‘The West with direct democracy and free access to the internet. China, Russia and the Middle East with Orwellian dictatorship [sic] and controlled access to the internet.’

After a twenty-year global war that accelerates global warming and reduces the global population to one billion people, the West is declared the winner: ‘Net democracies triumph.’ The old order dissolves into thousands of communities linked by the Net. But this is no post-capitalistic utopia, for in this vision, too, it’s a corporation that emerges as the sole global power. By the year 2047: ‘Everyone has his identity in a world social network, created by Google, called Earthlink. To be you must be in Earthlink, or be not.’

Finally, in 2054, the first worldwide elections are held on the Net and a new planetary government named Gaia is installed: ‘In Gaia, parties, politics, ideologies, religions disappear. Man is the only owner of his destiny. Collective knowledge is the new politics.’

It is a hallmark of the genre that its predictions will terrify anyone but the most entrenched boardroom sociopath. I offer these excerpts, however, not because I deem them worthy of serious analysis but rather because ‘Prometeus’ and ‘Gaia are the closest thing we have to a coherent ideological statement for the M5S. It matters little that it is a form of corporate (as opposed to overtly political) ideology. If anything, this is fitting, since the most accurate description of Casaleggio’s role within the M5S is ‘owner of the platform’. It is Casaleggio’s company that publishes the blog that the movement identifies as its ‘home’. It is his company that runs the movement’s official social network and hosts its official television channel.

To be in the M5S you must be on Casaleggio’s platform, or be not.

‘The Net will save us’

Back in 2000, when he was a full-time comedian, and almost a decade before co-founding the M5S with Casaleggio, Beppe Grillo toured Italy with a show that featured the destruction of a personal computer on stage. First he would take to the case with a sledgehammer, and then invite somebody from the audience to smash the monitor and the keyboard. The apparent target of his cathartic rage was the built-in obsolescence of the machines – which he still occasionally laments today. More than that, it was the failure of computers to change people’s lives that drew his ire: ‘I thought I would at least save on paper,’ he sobbed, ‘and instead I print everything, including things I will never read.’

This was Grillo the anti-consumerist, Grillo the environmentalist, Grillo the iconoclast. He hasn’t stopped acting those parts. What has changed is that he discovered the internet, and the internet discovered him. It was Casaleggio who oversaw this mutual discovery. The two of them met in 2004, and shortly afterwards Casaleggio suggested that Grillo start a blog – under his expert tutelage, of course. And so beppegrillo.it came online in January 2005. Within a year, it had been recognised by Time magazine. In 2008, it was placed ninth on the Observer’s list of the world’s most influential blogs. It continues to have a mass following to this day.

Yet those beginnings were understated, awkward. One of the very first posts was entitled La Rete ci salverà, ‘The Net will save us’. It read as follows.

The Net is our safety.

They’ve already set their eyes on it. The Urbani Law. Search engines.

Technology must be usable, simple, invisible.

‘Urbani Law’ is a reference to the earliest attempt to regulate file-sharing in the Italian statutes, though I’m less clear on what the trouble with search engines might have been. But already you can see the pronouncements of the digital evangelist: technology needs to be an invisible, seamless part of our daily lives; the Net needs to be and stay free. And, above all, the Net will save us.

In this short post we find all the basic tenets of what Evgeny Morozov calls ‘Internet-centrism’: the belief that ‘the internet’ – defined in the vaguest possible terms – has triggered an irreversible epochal shift. As in Casaleggio’s delirious corporate videos, this belief is tempered by fears that anti-progressive forces – in this instance, a humble legislator – might prevent the promise from being realised. Thus the internet (or, in Grillo’s parlance, ‘the Net’) is both an irresistible historical force for change and a fragile ecosystem at the mercy of myopic public regulators and protectionist corporate dinosaurs.

In the grammar of Grillo and his movement, it is the Net that occupies the subject position. It will save us. In this same vein, Grillo told a journalist last year that, in the event that the occasional crook should infiltrate the movement’s candidate lists, ‘the Net would root them out in no time’. Through these two examples we can see how, in Grillo’s language, the Net is either endowed with its own agency or stands in metonymically for its users. But it’s not just a rhetorical figure. Recall ‘Gaia’: full personhood – or, in political terms, citizenship – is reserved for those who signed up to the network (‘be on it, or be not’). This is why one of the key proposals of the movement is ‘digital citizenship by birth’. Writes Grillo on his blog: ‘When a baby is born, she’s named by her parents. The UN or UNESCO ought to give her a personal email address, and free access to the Net for life.’

The social network

As Grillo’s readership grew into the tens of thousands, the blog’s comments feature struggled to keep up with demand. This is when Casaleggio suggested adopting Meetup, the social networking portal that was instrumental in the remarkable rise of Democratic governor and presidential nomination hopeful Howard Dean.

Meetup is not free. It costs US$19 a month to run a Meetup group, and since there are currently 1102 groups worldwide devoted to ‘the discussion of topics that [Beppe Grillo] proposes on his blog’ (including at least two in Australia), this translates into a yearly income of roughly US$250,000 for Meetup. But none of this was ever up for discussion: one day in July 2005, Grillo simply announced on the blog that this was the software that would be used.

In time, when beppegrillo.it spawned a political organisation, Meetup groups became the only bodies authorised to produce its official candidates for local government elections. And when it was decided that the M5S would take part in this year’s national election, these same local candidates – or, rather, those who had failed to get elected – were the only ones allowed to put their name forward as nominees. This is how deeply the idea of direct participatory democracy supposedly integral to the M5S is subservient to the platform and its limitations, as well as to the whim of the two ‘non-leaders’.

More damningly still, the idea that Meetup groups are a democratic tool is false. Each group is implicitly hierarchical due to the requirement of having an ‘organiser’. This is simply the person whose credit card is charged monthly for the service. Though not formally the leader, in practice, the organiser wields a more or less arbitrary power – as much as the group will stand for. And judging from the testimonies of former members, such as those collected in the 2008 book Webbe Grillo, systemic dysfunction and abuses of power are frequent.

Reading the materials of the movement’s more well-functioning Meetup groups, as I have done in preparation for this essay, can be a sobering experience. Discussions inspired by a sense of shared citizenship and a desire for social equity are not uncommon. There are issues – such as immigration – on which the base appears broadly to the Left of its charismatic leader. There is, above all, a diffuse and admirable desire to achieve change by means of collective action. But even in their best moments, the groups are weighed down by a localist perspective that almost invariably scales up into populism whenever the discussion turns to national problems.

And then there are the not-so-good moments. I have been following for some time a particular thread of Grillo’s thinking, the one concerning medical science and vaccinations. A long-time critic of the latter, Grillo has continued to publicise on his blog the risks of vaccinating one’s children, including long-since discredited theories about the link between vaccinations and autism. When such topics are discussed by the Meetup community, the pattern is as predictable as it is dispiriting, with the few members who attempt to ground the debate on the best available evidence being gradually drowned out by opinions that range from anti-corporatist scepticism to downright conspiracism. The issue here is not just the inability of these small activist communities to agree on common protocols for accessing and evaluating expert opinion, but also the limits imposed by the ideological vacuum in which the movement operates. Ultimately it is the form of the conversation that replaces ideology; it is discourse itself that replaces the political. The logic operates as follows: for every issue there has to be a solution; the means of finding this solution is open discussion; the place in which to have this discussion is the Net. Therefore, via a quasi-automatic conflation, the Net equals truth.

The search for solutions

In its simplest formulation, ‘solutionism’ – another term I borrow from Morozov – is the belief that all social and political issues can be recast as quantifiable problems whose objective solution involves the application of a particular technics. In the case of the M5S, it translates into the belief that every institution that stands in the way of direct democratic deliberation by the citizens is the problem, and the only solution is information technology. This has led to the paradox of a political organisation that has filled a quarter of the Italian parliament with failed local government candidates, put up for selection via a highly opaque top-down process and nominated on the strength of their home-made promotional videos, all the while presenting itself as a self-evident triumph of transparency and democracy.

The movement’s single policy document, which is the product of more opaque deliberations and which failed to be updated in the lead-up to the election, is another illustration of the solutionist approach, substituting breadth and detail for structure and strategy. The M5S doesn’t have a coherent policy on the environment or economic development or education. Rather, it just numbers things that its members find desirable. The introduction of class action lawsuits. The eradication of stock options. Extramural learning on the internet. A universal living wage that is not supported by any change in the way the state collects revenue. The unspecified ‘backing’ of non-profit organisations. The unspecified ‘promotion’ of local products. Several measures relating to universal internet access. But not a word on immigration. Not a word on industrial policy. Not a word on foreign policy or the European Union. The document itself is little more than a talisman to be symbolically waved by members in front of critics to prove that the movement is democratic and not a channel for the at times fascistic pronouncements of its figurehead.

For all its solutions, the M5S has no actual answer to the prolonged crisis that has afflicted the country for the last two decades, producing a generation of Italians doomed to a humiliating and exhausting precarity. This generation happens to coincide with the movement’s electorate: 47 per cent of young people and 40 per cent of factory workers and labourers gave the M5S their vote. The Left, or more accurately what’s left of the Left, has to content itself representing older public sector workers and those whose jobs still enjoy benefits that are worth defending. It too doesn’t have answers, but hasn’t had them for longer, and so the success of the M5S comes down in large part to this: exasperation with the existing parties and their vocabularies; cynicism concerning traditional politics and ideologies; a desperate lack of political and industrial representation.

What the movement has to offer its supporters in return for this faith is a nebulous yet at the same time epochal change, which, absent a political economy, can only take the form of the reorganisation of public life in the image of the Net, or of the movement itself. This is the ‘reset’ for which Grillo so often screams. In his Gaia-like vision, entire layers of the state machinery, including regulatory authorities, will be purged. Citizens will make law proposals and vote on their implementation directly. Everything will be online, and being online will be the primary right and duty of the citizen.

This is the core of Grillo’s solutionism. This is his revolution. Given the movement’s lack of any sense of the limits of its own internal democracy, there is every risk that the project will result in a state even more authoritarian and even more vulnerable to the demands of financial markets and corporate capitalism than the one we have. As for whether or not the movement will last long enough to achieve any of its goals – or whether or not its extraordinary fortunes will be replicated in other countries (thus further complicating the immense task of saving Europe from its austerity death spiral) -– that is much harder to say.