…from the quill of Antisthenes the Younger
Traditionally people get to the political power through violence, corruption, demagogery or accident, so why not try something new like humor? At least at the begining, and at least in a seriously sick Italy. Francesco Sisci in Il Sole 24 Ore analyses the new Italian phenomena (my non-expert comments interspersed therein):
“One … wonders whether the new Italian political entity the “5 Star Movement”, created by comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, will also lead to something else – and what that could be. The “5 Star Movement” scored a huge success in the recent Italian elections while refusing to reach out to voters through talks and debates on TV, the traditional means of political campaigning for the past five decades.
It canvassed votes by means of old-fashioned public meetings and by modern web chats and Tweets shot through the Internet and mobile phones. He and his followers explained that this is the new web democracy. In fact, there is something extremely modern in Grillo’s political movement. Certainly, US President Barack Obama understood the importance of the web and relied on songs spread on Facebook and Twitter slogans. But he still went on TV and engaged in all the traditional campaign activities.
Grillo, conversely, refused TV appearances, political debates, and even interviews in the Italian press, and this magnified his image, bringing him almost 25% of the vote. The Internet is and was the ground for internal debates. Candidates were selected through mock elections on the web among Grillo’s supporters; policy discussions were held in web chats rather than in smoky rooms. There were no meetings, no cells, and no steering committees.
Actually, this is not the only new element of Grillo’s party. Contrary to all past practices, Grillo and his main partner, Gianroberto Casalegno, chose not to run for parliament.”
In 2008 Grillo and Casalegno wrote the party rules, which prevents, for example, a person with a previous conviction to be a party candidate. Grillo was convicted in 1980 of manslaughter arising out of a traffic accident.
“Notwithstanding that, these two extra-parliamentary leaders control all their elected deputies in parliament through a series of binding agreements.”
Similar to our trade union apparatchiks demanding from the candidates a signed, but undated letter of resignation, prior to financing their campaign from the union members’ funds.
Meanwhile, the few top leaders decide the party line in informal gatherings on phone calls. It may not sound good – the party looks more like a private entity than an organization to promote political change and effective popular participation – but it has so far provided an organization that works similar to, if not better than, the old party systems.
That is, Grillo’s party organised only over the Internet, without any of the traditional trappings of old fashioned politics. Then this kind of association could also be possible in any country where traditional party organisations are forbidden, but the Internet and telecommunications are highly developed – so why not China?
We may pause here. Why not Australia? The fate of the One Nation party shows that all established parties will unite against a new kid on the block, viciously and vindictively. And, of course, the fourth-world level of our Internet and telecommunications could be a problem. Still, should not somebody give it a try?
Mr Sisci then discusses at length the implications on Communist China, which I shortened but can be read in full here.
“…Here political, social, and economic debates are so widespread and pervasive that they are impossible to check. Then the policy so far has been, wisely, to let these debates surface more or less unhindered in order to make the opposition clear and thus provide a warning to the leadership of possible dangers. These dangers can be in policies that need to be adjusted or in people who should to be recruited into the leadership or sidelined.
In a way, then, these web debates in China are becoming the training ground for greater democratic political debate, even without open debates on TV or in newspapers, which remain quite conservative compared to the web. Here the party leadership, party members, and common people are learning to engage with one another and to feel engaged in the country and its policy. Thus they all start to develop a wider sense of belonging, orguishugan (see Xi has to get the party started, Asia Times Online, December 22, 2012).
But in Grillo’s experience there are other elements that may be worrisome for China or any other country experimenting with web democracy. In the Grillo experience, one can see that the prevailing voices of the movement are the ones most active on the web, posting the most in chats, the most vocal, and the ones with the most barbed comments.
In a way, it is the same situation one sees in the emergence of leadership in a crowd, as literature Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti noted in his classic Masses and Power. In its chaotic, ebullient, lava-like form, the masses find their leader among the most extreme, radical, spirited people and discard, reject, and even destroy the most reasonable, cooler minds.”
Sounds reasonable. However, the “most reasonable, cooler minds” are also increasingly venal, and, most importantly, prone to a failure. Democracy atrophies in their oh so reasonable hands and the people suffer. Unsurprisingly, a British think-tank Demos found that Mr Grillo’s followers were more educated than the Italian average, and more likely to be unemployed males.
“This is evident in Grillo’s rhetoric, which is full of irony, jokes, and extravagant remarks, which the reader doesn’t know whether to take at face value or not. There is no cold analysis or clear proposals, but sloganeering meant to stir emotions for revolutionary times-and not to rule a country…”
When a few days ago Italian parliamentarians re-elected ancient Napolitano to the unprecedented second presidential term, Grillo described it as a coup and called for protests, saying that the traditional parties were planning a grand coalition that would “muzzle” the judiciary. “There must be millions of us,” Grillo wrote. “Don’t leave me alone or with just a handful of people. We either make democracy here or we die as a country.”
“Then with or without Grillo, the yearning for revolution is growing in Italy. The social and economic fabric of the country is certainly too strong to suggest a real revolution in Italy. With about five million small and medium enterprises, over 80% of the people owning at least one house, and menial jobs granted to second-class citizens (some two million foreign immigrants with little or no rights), there is just nobody who really wants to turn the country upside-down. But that doesn’t mean there are no aspirations for dramatic change, and so far only Grillo has been able to give a voice and a shape to this aspiration, as the national economy is spiralling down and making everything worse.
Here, there is no clear path ahead. Nobody is clear about what Grillo wants to do if he gets power; possibly he himself doesn’t know….
That is highly unlikely. The Big Finance is uniformly against him, so they know.
“Grillo could well steer Italy out of the euro and thus start a breakdown of the currency and a global financial crisis with unpredictable implications.”