martedì 30 settembre 2014

"February 2013, The Explosion of Digital Populism" by Obsolete Capitalism



The explosion of digital populism Read or download FREE E.BOOK here

On 24th and 25th of February 2013, the general elections for the XVII legislation of the Italian Republic were held in Italy. The election result was defined by most political observers as an earthquake of unprecedented dimensions. For the first time in the history of the West a newly born political association, the Five Star Movement (5SM), which define itself to be an anti-party, ran in a parliamentary electoral competition and won it by a narrow margin; it became the first party in the Italian Chamber of Deputies5 with 25.5% of the votes. Despite the fact that, considering the total amount of votes (including those from Italians living abroad) the Democratic Party – the leading center-left party – received only 150,000 more votes than the Five Star Movement, the Italian electoral system conferred a substantial ‘majority premium’ on the DP. Regardless of this action, the infant movement led by Beppe Grillo affirmed itself firmly enough to deeply subvert the Italian political panorama. It is suitable, if not even obvious, to define Grillo’s anti-party as a new form of digital Populism. To understand this one only need look at the sharp innovation of the devices used by politics, which has been introduced by the Five Star Movement, such as the extended and innovative use of communication channels provided by the Internet. This has been combined with both the brutal simplification of the political message, in order to attract political consensus, and the dissipation of all acquired forms of institutional-systemic ratio. It is clear that following the unsettling result of Italy’s general election in February 2013, a new time has violently knocked on the door of Italian society, and it is now interrogating real problems with unusual and fast-paced questions. 

The beginning of a Big Data Era in the Western political scenario

The early analyses of the explosion of the 5SM phenomenon appeared in February 2013 and weren’t satisfying. The vehement accusations of populism directed to Grillo’s anti-party by the center-left and left-wing intelligentsia above all, seemed to only partially grasp the historic success of the Five Star Movement; they hastily linked it to the crystal clear fragility of the political and institutional landscape and to the incessant work of deconstruction of the Italian society, which has been operated by Berlusconi’s vast authoritarian mediascape. The first innovative, engaged and somehow controversial analysis of the phenomenon was published shortly after the election result, on March 8 2013 by the writers' collective called Wu Ming. It was entitled Grillismo: Yet another Right-Wing Cult coming from Italy.6 We used this anti-5SM pamphlet as a basis for a major non-linear investigation that looks at very diverse authors, including Antonio Gramsci, Mario Tronti, Gabriel Tarde,7 Wilhelm Reich, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Fèlix Guattari among others. These thinkers had already examined the systematic penetration of fascism, irrational mass behaviour, collective hypnosis, national identity and capitalism, combining them with the similarly dense and controversial notions of people, crisis, organization, societies of control and data science.

However, in our opinion, even the best post-electoral analyses of the Five Star Movement left a margin or a void, something that encouraged us to undertake a supplementary investigation; we felt the need for a revelatory study, one which could disclose aspects of the rising phenomenon of digital populism and of the future post-democratic system that seemed to appear on the horizon of the Big Data era. A disturbing question emerged among us: if an unlikely techno-couple of Italian cool operators caused such a big electoral tsunami, how would the champions of the Society of the Query, such as Google, and other social giants, such as Facebook and Twitter, actually affect democracy, were they to run for Western elections? Are we, perhaps, at the beginning of a huge political shift in the way the masses are governed and, ultimately, of representative democracy as we know it? Populism, in both its analogue and digital version, is a firmly European phenomenon with an extremely seductive English variation, namely the UK Independence Party, a party which is as dangerous as other anti-establishment right-wing organisations can be.

Therefore we have posed to Italian and British intellectuals – of varied political backgrounds and disciplinary skills – six questions8 which concern the foundations of digital populism and the relations existing between masses, power and post-democracy at the dawn of the 21st century. What you will read is the result of conversations with Tiziana Terranova, Luciana Parisi, Lapo Berti, Simon Choat, Paolo Godani, Jussi Parikka, Saul Newman, Tony D. Sampson and Alberto Toscano.

The two sides of the five-starred cosmology: analogue & digital populism

As it is generally known, the five-starred cosmos features an interesting dual-axis core: Beppe Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio. The couple is de facto a novelty in the crowded, bon-vivant world of Italian politics. A duumvirate is in itself a relevant fact in the context of political organisation and leadership.9 Furthermore, the division of fields of intervention between the two 5SM leaders is equally worthy of note: Grillo is the cowboy interfacing between the physical world of electors and the digital one of data wizardry; Casaleggio is the architect of the mining, processing and storage of the huge mass of data, which are collected by the same computation means that are governing the World Wide Web. The traditional side of populism, which can be identified with the former comedian Beppe Grillo, will be defined as analogue populism; while the murkier side which have been conceived and organized by Gianroberto Casaleggio according to the functioning of networked cultures, will be defined as digital populism. Here lies the novelty of this movement: such digital populism does not align, if not loosely, with the political discourse of the various European Piratenpartei, in other words the newborn parties that convey idealized views on net cultures and practices.

The Five Star Movement exploits the Internet and its experiences in order to gain power and overcome the Italian society for its own authoritarian ends. The mixture of analogue and digital populism is truly effective and incisive. Gianroberto Casaleggio has had, since the very foundation of the movement, a strategic flair. He realised that the increased theoretical and scientific ability of the digital world is ineffective unless it is corroborated and supported by the more dynamic and functional impact of the analogue populism on everyday reality. In other words, the computational world needs the faciality10 of the capture apparatus of analogue populism, since the latter provides the switch that directs and organizes the input of raw metadata channels it and subsequently outputs it into the physical world. Grillo’s face is therefore the screen through which the algorithm becomes part of the tangible world.11 The 5SM may be seen as a political device, that is input: Casaleggio —> output: Grillo.

The new prestidigitator: a travelling virtuoso and entertainer

Who is Grillo? Giuseppe Piero Grillo – an accountant born in Genoa sixty-six years ago (1948) – is the irritable and cranky genius behind the 5SM ‘non-party’. After his success in the general elections of February 2013, Beppe Grillo is the new prestidigitator of Italian politics and society. In the novel Mario und der Zauberer, published in 1930 by Thomas Mann, the figure of the magician Zauberer blatantly anticipates the traits of Grillo himself. Someone hides behind the rascal figure of the magician: it is ‘Cipolla’, ‘a virtuoso traveller, an entertainer, an illusionist.’ Although the short book presents a clear allegory of the histrionic figure of Benito Mussolini,12 the spectacular avatar of Cipolla sums up the characteristic features of the mass hypnotist in the Era of Consensus. The salient features of the magician Zauberer can be found, in fact, in Benito Mussolini, Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo13 – yet only the latter embodies them at the purest level.14 Let us briefly dwell upon two key aspects of the text by Mann.

The eternal charlatan

Perhaps more than anywhere else, the eighteenth-century is still alive in Italy, and with it the charlatan or mountebank character; this was indeed the characteristic type of that period. Only in Italy, at any rate, does one still encounter really well-preserved specimens of this kind. Cipolla’s whole appearance had much in common with this historic type; his very clothes helped to conjure up the features of this traditional figure, for example his blatantly and fantastically foppish air.The first aspect we are to enquire upon briefly is the historical context in which Thomas Mann places the pictorial cliché of Cipolla. The stage magician of the Era of Consensus is nothing else but the direct descendant of the popular phenomenon of the charlatan, w hose clever-talker attitude had already been described by Niccolò Machiavelli:

At last a certain quack doctor – for many such can every day be seen here – promised his father to make him well. And since those who promise benefit are always believed…16

Poorly-deployed pretentiousness and the virtuosity typical of an upside-down carnival were spotted by both Alberto Toscano – who saw in Grillo the deeds of the infamous Braggadocio-,17 and Saul Newman, who paralleled the lively spectacle of the raucous clown from Genova to that of the Pope of Fools, namely Victor Hugo’s repugnant Quasimodo.18

Mass psychopathology and fascist lyricism

The social and cultural context in which the magician’s actions occur is the second aspect to be examined. György Lukács19 has correctly emphasized the novelty of the powerful scenery that was outlined by Thomas Mann in Mario and the magician; in the book mass psychology intertwines with fierce charisma, hypnotic suggestions and an electric social atmosphere that is polluted by nationalist mythologies. The piercing power of the magician Cipolla evokes those affective powers of grotesque and uncontrollable behaviours, which can provoke animal-like reactions, as well as hysterical subjugation of the masses.20 The specificity of Mann’s depiction of the 1920’s Italian landscape is more successful in highlighting the collective psychological dynamics of allegiance and akrasia than in describing the historical-military characteristics of fascism, such as the ‘deterrent action’ of militant squads and Fasci of combat. Nor did Mann describe – in an environment that was already lyrically fascist – the economic, reactionary and classist coming together of the agrarian, capitalist and bourgeois classes against the revolutionary multitude of Gramscian doctrine. At the end Cipolla forces a mesmerized audience to perform a delirious and obscene dance, showing how the compulsive and disturbed conduct of this epicurean crowd emerges from a wish to impose and deprive; a wish that acts through hypnosis, imitation and a playful-grotesque entertainment.

Microsociology: the ballistic contagion and widespread catatonias

'In homage to Gabriel Tarde (1843 – 1904)' opens the chapter on Tarde’s microsociology in Deleuze and Guattari’s 1933: Micropolitics and Segmentarity – a reference text for this very collection of writings and interviews. Gabriel Tarde is an avant-garde French sociologist who in the late nineteenth-century suggested a bold sociological theory that was based on micro-relationships and on the contagious power of those everyday influences that occur at infra-social levels. Tarde’s emphasis is upon individual acts and imitation as a ‘phenomenon of contagion of belief and desire,’ otherwise defined as ‘non-logical nor teleological phenomenon of transmission of two intimate forces.’21 Therefore, the obedience of crowds – seen as a perpetual process – no longer takes place on large macro segments, such as classes, but rather on ‘infinitely delicate’ cerebral sub-levels. According to Tarde, sociology must sink ‘its roots in the heart of the most intimate and dark psychology and physiology. Society is imitation and imitation is a kind of sleepwalking.’ At the dawn of mass society, Brownshirts and Blackshirts understood and successfully exploited this reading of society on a molecular level. Authoritarian mass-parties enacted the occupation of every social dark corner as a daily practice – as Deleuze-Guattari rightly describe in their chapter on micro-fascism, which is inspired by the sociological analysis of Gabriel Tarde:

Rural fascism, city fascism, neighborhood fascism, youth fascism and war veteran's fascism…Fascism of the couple, family, school, and office. Only the micro-fascism can answer this global question: why does desire long for its repression? How can it desire its very own repression?22

From primitive fragmentation to impulsive and uncontrolled excitement 

The desires of the masses can unquestionably be progressive – better living conditions, a natural tendency to an infinite progress of society, a ratio enlightened by social choices and practices – and, at the same time, regressive – social involution, atrocious divisions between rigid segments, growing hatred and resentment ready to implode with great violence. The delay in considering Gabriel Tarde’s microsociological analysis has been partially recovered by the Deleuzian philosophical thought in Difference and Repetition (1969) first, and in A Thousand Plateaus (1980) later. However, an in-depth analysis of Tarde’s thought appeared only at the beginning of the twenty-first century amongst the most longsighted Deleuzian circles in Paris. Alliez and Lazzarato,23 among others in France, embraced the idea of curating the publication of the complete writings by Tarde, offering academic (and not only) seminars to study his theorizations, while critically connecting them to the current developments of the global economic-financial system. The primitive geometry of both the homogeneous Greek political sphere and Marxist culture – this based on the rigid fragmentation of a class society – is objectively completed and complicated by Tarde’s molecular analysis. The shift from macro to micro analysis, although one does not exclude the other, certainly indicates a profound change in the cultural paradigm; this variation is exploited by current digital systemic forces with great imagination and determination. In short, as Deleuze and Guattari put it, ‘everything is political, but every politics is simultaneously macropolitics and micropolitics.’24 Affective politics and the manipulation of impulsive and uncontrolled excitement have been suavely exploited; firstly by the total right-wing of Reagan’s universal California, and secondly by a traditional populism that is wary of anti-establishment recriminations virally active within the social corpus. The current populist rhetoric is, in fact, the consequence of the exclusion of large popular strata from the economic and inner-mental standards which were proposed by the post-1989 neo-liberal elites.

Admiration and revenge: the magnetic power of the winner and world-historical necromancy

How is it then possible that large popular strata obey and surrender without resistance to the new domineering subjects? Gabriel Tarde explains that ‘it is not fear, I repeat, but admiration, not the strength of the victory but the sensitive splendor of superiority, its bulky presence that gives rise to sleepwalking. So it sometimes happens that the winner is magnetised by the looser.’ As a consequence, a large part of Italy’s post-classist electoral substrate – who supported Berlusconi’s dominion until the day before – is today voting other authoritarian figures with equal sleepwalking passion, because of the same superiority and secret admiration towards the defeated opponent, ‘ since ‘the dominant character of sleepwalkers is a singular mixture of anesthesia and hyperaesthesia.’ As Tarde affirms, this phenomenon happens on a micro level thanks to the ability to quickly react of populism and its animal instinct; and on a historically-dilated macro level, as it happened in the Germanic tribes after the Conquest of Rome in the 5th Century or after the Romans’ conquest of Hellas in the 3rd Century BC. This deep disturbance, this intermittent and distant fascination can be found, albeit in a curiously reversed way, in Ernst Bloch’s drawing from Karl Marx’s ‘world-historical necromancy’: while Gabriel Tarde sees admiration as a deep cause of somnambulism, Ernst Bloch considers revenge as a stimulus for renewal movements and strong agents of change. He calls it the ‘original element’: because of it, the French harked back to the Consular practices of the Roman Empire, the Germans of the Müntzer peasants’ war looked at the deeds of the Jews of the Old Testament, and the Italian Renaissance artists and intellectuals were influenced by the Greek and Roman classics and to pagan culture. Complete revenge and hidden awe for the defeated are the incendiary ingredients of any revolutionary impatience, and yet they are still definable as political explosion of sleepwalking and imitation.

From the small bourgeoisie to the post-bourgeoisie. Autonomy of the post-bourgeoisie.

Is there a socio-political constant quality of the Italian populist and fascist ‘rank and file’ that runs throughout the twentieth-century and which is now looking adrift into the 21st? Antonio Gramsci believed that the matrix of Ur-Fascism25 as a mass movement was determined by the petty bourgeoisie’s desire of emancipation from both the ruling elite and the national and international establishment. According to his analysis, the socio-economic conditions which arose in the first two decades of the twentieth-century encouraged the Italian bourgeoisie – wearied by the post-World War I crisis – to want to be independent from the established and constitutional powers. The Gramscian analysis resonates, like a tuning fork, with other fragments proposed by other astute observers of the Italian customs from the past century. In an analysis of early Fascist Italian habits, in ‘Mario and the Magician’ Thomas Mann explicitly mentions a ‘middle-class bob’. During an ironic exchange from the short film La Ricotta,26 the director Pier Paolo Pasolini, indirectly answers the question of a journalist appearing on the stage, through the character of another director, played by Orson Welles:

‘What do you think of Italian society?’ ‘The most illiterate people, the most ignorant bourgeoisie in Europe.’

In a crisp passage, Lapo Berti describes this trans-generational segment of Italian society, which was before stigmatized in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s movie as unfinished modernity:

The unachieved process of modernizing civilization has caused hostile reactions among the deepest layers of society, where people’s opinions are formed. This group seemed to reject modernity in all its forms, although they would naively get excited for its inventions. These people were inflamed by the fascist narrative; they embraced the deep cauldron of Demo-Christian reformism without being changed by it; then they returned to exalt the anomaly of Berlusconism, which, once and for all, revealed its populist and undemocratic nature. They represent today, as they did yesterday, a good half of the Italian people. When active, they influence the destiny of the country, then as now.

Semi-barbaric topology: cruelty and miasmas from Italian society

This portion of Italian society is competitive, fertile, unnerved, violent, Catholic and hypocritical. And at the same time, it is factious and deeply individualist, permanently supporting forms of anti-statism and against political parties. This very part of Italy is seduced by hazardous political discourses, such as the latest Grillismo, which guarantee to it both a radical presence in the social field and the continuous exploitation of the post-classist and post-bourgeois situation of autonomy; it is distant from the concept of ‘modernity’ and of ‘people’ as conceived by Western political philosophy. What happened then in the last one hundred years? In the April of 1921, Gramsci already wrote in vain:

It has by now become evident that fascism can only partly be assumed to be a class phenomenon, a movement of political forces conscious of a real goal; it has overflowed, it has broken loose from every organisational framework, it is superior to the will and intention of every regional or central committee, it has become an unleashing of elemental forces which cannot be restrained within the bourgeois system of economic and political governance. Fascism is the name for the profound decomposition of Italian society which could not but accompany the profound de-composition of the state and which can today be explained only with reference to the low level of civilisation which the Italian nation has reached in sixty years of unitary administration. Fascism presented itself as the anti-party, it opened the doors to all sort of candidates, it allowed an uncompounded multitude, with its promise of impunity, to inlay vague and nebulous political ideals onto the overflowing of wild passions, hatreds, desires. Fascism has become a habitual fact, it has identified itself with the barbaric and anti-social psychology of certain strata of Italian people not yet modified by a new tradition from school, from a shared life in a well-ordered and well-administered state.

With the eruption of the populist movement one may find demagogues in every corner of Italy. The country is a fertile laboratory of creative solutions considering the massive size of its post-bourgeois formless group: ‘coal sales or even racket appear when a party is closed’. The harmonious landscape of Italian populism has recently been gifted with a new rhythm: the Forconi Movement (Pitchforks Movement).28 This is composed of various social strata, including ultra-populists, tax-resisters, neo-fascists, hooligans, Mafiosi and a wide range of impoverished and unemployed people. They control the media landscape and the meatspace of Italian squares. Has a new phase of the populist protest already begun with the Forconi? After it had been temporarily taken away by the rapid successes of the 5SM, the far-right is now claiming its considerable political space back, 

Dictatorial psychopathology and collective sleepwalking

There is a clear difference between the old-media version of traditional populism – well represented by the Italian Berlusconism – and the new five-starred analogue media populism.29 In this regard, a mention to the concept of the psychopathology of dictators is needed,30. This term indicates the atypical ability of the leader, in this case Beppe Grillo in his digital-pop version, to move its followers from a position of inferiority – due to the overpowering action of the corrupt power and the honest and helpless nature of the citizen – to a position of superiority. This superiority is ensured by the double effect ability of the ex-comedian: on the one hand he make s use of sharp mockery techniques, which enable the audience to take down their political opponents and make fun of their most disadvantageous aspects; on the other hand, Grillo underlines the ethical and moral superiority of the Maximum Leader and of its followers, comparing it to the inferiority of the opponents, who are identified in an old-fashioned way: 31 politicians/corrupted people, bankers/usurers, immigrants/thieves are seen as the hypothetical adversaries. While the main reasons of Berlusconi’s followers’ state of hypnosis were complicity, identification and a dark use of the law – this includes frequent amnesties and inefficiencies of a State certifying impunity for everyone – the 5SM hypnosis is due to the viral transmissions of a feeling of passivity and vague truths. This is the result of unique communicative abilities in a society that is in an advanced state of decomposition. Once again the Cipolla’s eloquence is sharp and pointed:

The capacity for self-surrender, he said, for becoming a tool, for the most unconditional and utter self-abnegation, was but the reverse side of that other power to will and to command. Commanding and obeying formed together one single principle, one indissoluble unity; he who knew how to obey knew also how to command, and conversely; the one idea was comprehended in the other, as people and leader were comprehended in one another. But that which was done, the highly exacting and exhausting performance, was in every case his, the leader's and mover's, in whom the will became obedience, the obedience will, whose person was the cradle and womb of both, and who thus suffered enormous hardship.32

How many similarities to the fateful figure of the dux Grillo! He is obediently directing his voice through a megaphone, trying to convince a mass of people who are already-hypnotised… Mr. Grillo does not practice politics for himself; instead he laughs and fights for us. He has become the instrument33 of a virtual will: ‘I'm just amplifying the voice of the young generation.’

The golden dawn of the Net strategist

Who is Casaleggio? Gianroberto Casaleggio was born in Milan sixty years ago, in 1954. He is the founding member of Casaleggio Associati srl (2004), a marketing and communication company that handles the tech side of 5SM. He is the undisputed leader of the movement's digital world: it is possible to talk about digital populism thanks to him. Casaleggio is an expert of Network and IT-driven economy; he is an out-and-out manager of Italian dot-com companies, Olivetti and Webegg among others; he is the ambitious headhunter34 of Beppe Grillo; after meeting Casaleggio in 2005, Grillo defined him as ‘either a mad person or an evil genius’. Casaleggio is possibly the single Italian politician to have read carefully and diligently Marshall McLuhan and Wired, the geeks’ bible. His ideological references are such as Negroponte, Philip K. Dick and Chris Anderson. His business card reads Net Strategist. His only ambitious anthropological and political project is the disintermediation of the ‘zoon politikon’: the reduction of the intermediaries available to the political animal.

Prototypes of disintermediation at the turn of the 20th century

In the last two decades, cybertech economy has transformed our conception of the flow of contemporary capitalism. Starting from the late nineties, entire established sectors of the twentieth-century’s economic system have collapsed or have been totally rethought, following the continuous development of the cybertech revolutions. Among the fields that have been disintermediated the most are music, publishing, finance, communication and the most classic of intermediation sectors: credit. Since the end of the past century, what used to occur over long economic cycles has begun to take place at a much faster pace; this is partly caused by revolutionary technological breakthroughs. In the case of the rise of MP3 – the most emblematic of all cases – this change happened over a two-year period. For example, the impact of Napster on the industrial market between 1999—2001 was incredible.35 Internet allowed the sharing among millions of people of a single musical work through peer-to-peer sharing. This rapidly erased all marketing issues, such as copyright, national and international regulations. The new standards abolished the previous ones: the sudden collapse of the music recording industry facilitated a change of the overall system economically-bound to the music world, from the label to the recording studio, the distribution, the retail trade, communication strategies, video-clip and finally phonographic media and artists’ management techniques. It is a real hi-tech revolution that has turned artificiality into reality while fostering a pirate-sharing communication of data. Such cyber-disintermediation is detrimental to established markets and it is also at work in the 5SM: a sort of Napster platform of the twenty-first century politics with Beppe Grillo and, above all, Gianroberto Casaleggio as Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker.36 Their aim is to provide a free social service to the political industry.37

Disintermediation of the zoon politikon

To disintermediate the political animal – which represents the minimum unit and conscious singularity in politics – is not exactly the same as to disintermediate single sound units in the music industry. All the democratic mechanisms that have been developing for the zoon politikon in the last 2500 years – from Cleisthenes’ Boule to the Roman Senate, to the British House of Commons and the French Assemblée nationale – acted as functional, and often radical, reforms of the political representation of their subjects; thus they conformed to the social composition of their times. Those agents that act within the current representative systems – namely the political parties – are the expression of mediated territorial and social interests. Unfortunately, the general decay of Nations under the expansion of the global financial-economic machine has deprived of credibility the legislative and representative bodies, and also those organizations operating in these contexts; organised forces from other segments of society are strengthening instead. The widely addressed idea of reducing the costs of politics was born from such West weakness. But within the economic downsizing of the political-institutional subjects, another factor is at work with its own goal: the sovereignty of the world market, which is enacted by the financial-economic machine and is achievable through the de-regulation38 of economic flows and their separation from the interest of corporate nations. This factor allows for the highest level of disintermediation39, since it eliminates those intermediate administrational and representative bodies that are perceived as superfluous. If a total disintermediation has been pursued by the economic and financial capitalism for decades and has become chronic, how can digital populism contribute to it? In Its authoritarian and fascist guise, traditional populism matched the criteria of disintermediation, which were imposed at the macro level by twentieth-century industrial capitalism: in this case the figure of the dictator directly approached his people, thus avoiding social, political and institutional mediations. 40 What new figures of power can digital populism point to at the dawn of the Petabyte Age? Mr. Casaleggio suggests two answers: direct e-democracy41 and network-inspired self-creating political movement.

All models are wrong: obsolete mass parties

Casaleggio’s action of disintermediation addresses political parties first, which he considers as obsolete models of representation. The modern political party traces its roots back to the nineteenth-century and subsequently it affirmed itself within modern mass society in the twentieth century. This organisational model was then shaken – especially the one of the left-wing parties – by the decline of industry and the crisis of the working class. The Internet-savvy Casaleggio read George Box: ‘All models are wrong, but some are useful.’43 But how wrong should such models be to be no longer needed? General elections are the benchmarks against which the usefulness of parties and the quality of the competing models are measured. Yet a further risk must be considered, that is, s the possible failure of the entire democratic system due to the collapse of these models.44 In addition to the post-1989 crisis, Italian political parties have been affected by the crisis resulting from the long-running and endemic corruption in Italian society: in 1992 Tangentopoli45 wiped out an entire ruling class. During these two crises the Italian political laboratory offered Forza Italia46 as a fresh party model: a marketing-oriented47 organisation, based on a hierarchical business model that makes full use of television as a communication medium and which has little local representation. Forza Italia’s target audience was the same as described in the previous passages on analogue populism: the post-bourgeois formless multitude that constitutes the majority of Italian society. The downfall of Silvio Berlusconi’s party was caused not only by the high corruption charges against him and his main collaborators, but also by the advent of the Internet and the subsequent diffusion of social networks, which displaced Berlusconi’s real source of power: television. New media killed the old media. As a matter of fact, Mr. Casaleggio believes that newspapers and television belong to the past and should be regarded as niche communication tools. The successful marketing experience of Forza Italia became obsolete48 in the short span of two decades. It is time for a fresh experiment:49today Casaleggio Associati has the same role within the 5SM as Publitalia had within Berlusconi’s party: it provides a new organizational model and communicative power in the digital era of the infosphere. However, times have radically changed since 1993 – 4 – the biennium of the development of a top-down corporate party’s analogue populist model. All models are wrong, and none are now useful. ‘They don’t have to settle for models at all’50 affirms Chris Anderson: data will provide a (posteriori) model, as Google shows.

Data is Data. Less is not more: more is more

At the climax of avant-gardes and minimalist design, Mies van der Rohe coined the famous motto ‘Less is more’. In the age of Data Deluge,51 Chris Anderson easily states that more is not just more. Besides, he suggests that today the unlimited availability of data requires a new connective intelligence Massive data interconnections ask to be thought differently, as Google teaches us; therefore, ‘the more’ of this era of data must be different52 How can a future political party – such as Casaleggio’s web-based organization – target its customers with accuracy if the party itself works as a business enterprise in a highly competitive market? Advanced Data Science answers this question with smart algorithms53 that collect, store, analyse and use widely scattered data from the web and its meta-dimension, which encompasses the entire social context.54 These algorithms produce users’ profiles by targeting the data they generate in a given environment. Such comprehensive and ubiquitous control creates two different data categories of the digital world: user data and user behaviour. It is necessary to distinguish between person and behavior. User data includes individual information necessary to thoroughly reconstruct one’s identity – this can be called the ‘user-voter’ figure; on the other hand, ‘user behaviour’ contains information on actions carried out by the user-voter. A general profile and model results from the intersection of these two categories. Furthermore, the individual and group user-voter classification is supported by Machine Learning, a discipline that deals with computational systems, which are improved by experiential learning. 

Politics as applied math

The puzzle starts to come together: every single piece of information is gathered and processed; afterwards, it is linked to a profile; a model or pattern is then generated; finally, cluster classification or homogenous grouping is performed. Unique kinds of information are extracted to contribute to a new knowledge. Unavailable to the public, this dark data is hidden from the user-voter, who unwillingly supplies it following a ‘rational’ economic agreement: free access to information on the Web is given in exchange of personal data.55 Dark data can then be sold to generic advertising companies – as in the notable case of Google; alternatively, they can be distributed to governmental and non-governmental control offices for alleged security reasons. Otherwise – as in our example – these data form the basis of the rank and file of any political movement based on network cultures.56 Data is data and the better are the data, the better are the analyses, the results; and, as in the case of Google, the better is the capacity and overall performance of search algorithms’ the more rewarded are its users. Why does a user-voter choose a certain party?57 Why does she/he feel more empathetic to certain topics rather than others? What are the user-voter’s personal inclinations? How much and how finely can a user’s profile be tailored?

The influence of Google on politics

What can politics learn from Google? Certainly it can absorb the neutral and uncritical relation existing among the disparate data of Google. Chris Anderson writes that Google won its current role of global advertising industry thanks to applied mathematics; in other words thanks to its famous PageRank algorithm. Google claimed neither to know the advertising industry nor to want to master it; it simply assumed that the best data – those processed with great analytical tools – would prevail in such a highly-competitive market. Google was right and it has achieved records results. It is hard to say whether a political version of PageRank58 will ever be put together; until this point, Mr. Casaleggio has been the politician most interested in the Google model. He has never claimed to know the politics industry or to want to master it; he simply assumed that the best data – those processed with great analytical tools – would prevail in such a highly-competitive market. Thanks to the successful strategies of Casaleggio’s digital populism, we are now witnessing the emergence of an impressive power; one that is rapidly moving from abstract cyberspace to socio-political reality.59 The influence of Google on politics is therefore part of the algorithmic regulation that controls our society It is not a mere, political choreography, nor a new complication of politics. Today we are, already and unconsciously, facing a reality where politics is approximated by computational techniques.

The paradise of web-marketing. Structural political movements as semantic networks

Web-marketing is a functional tool for the meeting between Google and politics. As analysed above, Mr. Casaleggio considers political parties as outdated models close to extinction, just like vinyl records, newspapers or dinosaurs. Why shall we bother with the future of dinosaurs?60 According to Mr. Casaleggio, the future of political representation lies in political movements; in the cyber-manager’s view, these movements are clusters of accurate voters’ profiles, which can be used as beta-testers of the human condition; this process is meant exclusively for his desire to achieve political power. The 50,000 people group of MeetUp members and 5SM militants is called ‘La Rete’: this celebratory name indicates the decision-making machine for all current and future political decisions, which is nothing else but a type of webocracy.61 This web-influenced choice was a consequence of the Parliament elections, – which took place sometime before the general elections of February 2013. and it had three specific objectives: enacting a first form of electronic direct-democracy, transforming63 the movement, or at least its core, into an self-determined 64 semantic network, 65 and monitoring the cluster analyses of the semantic network, as dictated by Casaleggio’s techware. This form of electronic surveillance is, in fact, determined by proprietary software that are developed, tested and managed by Casaleggio Associati; this despite the idea of a bottom-up open platform, which is often claimed to be the real 5SM model,66as in the best Piratenpartei tradition. There is nothing better for a techno-evangelist working at the intersection of data science, social network and e-commerce67 than such an experiment of political marketing: it isolates a large group of voters within a well-defined cluster, while observing and testing them in the context of their actions for a relatively long period of time. Here hides the true Data Deluge. The paradise of web-marketing.

Beyond left & right: Internet ideology, a posteriori meaning-making

The alleged neutrality of 5SM has already exposed them to ridicule. Someone said playfully that being ‘beyond left and right’ equals ‘qualunquismo’, political apathy, and therefore right-wing politics. What kind of politics does web-marketing produce? The controversy involving digital populism offers insightful views. The aforementioned Google approach implies that the only useful factor is correlation, since this large data set is impossible to understand by humans. The analysis of correlation systems is not supported by pre-existing scientific hypothesis, but by the sole analytic approach to confrontation strategies: there is no reason for a datum to outmatch another. Meanings follow the correlation between data and actions. Similarly, Google Search ranks a site according to the number of its existing quality links. As Elena Esposito rightly noticed, this type of correlative analysis contributes to a new web-geography: order is generated by f disorder. In the same way as Google places an object-website within a hierarchical grid and evaluates linkage data through PageRank, the geography of 5SM’s choices, is not affected by pre-existing ideologies or values that were ​​previously shared among its members and voters; instead, 5SM’s choices are influenced by the objective analysis of the dark data available to the leaders. An example of this process was suggested by Tiziana Terranova during her interview: in the Autumn 2013,the 5SM Senators had a dispute over the events of Lampedusa,71. On the3rd of October 2013, two 5SM Senators proposed the abrogation of the immigration crime, which had been sanctioned by the Bossi-Fini law. The majority of the Senate’s Justice Committee voted for the abrogation. However, Casaleggio & Grillo censored this independent initiative; on the blog, they stated that, the movement’s position on the matter couldn’t be that one of the two 5SM Senators. For Casaleggio & Grillo with this position the5SM would have collected an insignificant amount of votes72 in the previous general election of February 2013. It is likely that the dark data available to the leaders – and unknown to the elected representatives and their electors – prompted the duo to suppress immediately the Senators’ behaviour. What many considered a 5SM parliamentary success and celebration of civic pride was instead a crushing defeat for the two ‘dictators’… No emotions, no values: ‘The Movement was not born to seat some out of control Dr. Strangelove in Parliament!’ The elected representatives of the Italian people are neither Senators, nor spokespersons for this non-party: they are avatars. Data is data. In other words, with the advent of the Big Data era the history of politics can no longer be thought of in terms of production, but rather in terms of relationship.

The Net strategist becomes the manager of complexity

If data and politics are becoming more and more alike, what relationship will data and democracy have? Digital populism answers in different ways to the impact of data on the public sphere. Digital populism draws from Network cultures to build unranked organizations, militant practices, modes of communication, aggressive marketing strategies and new theoretical models. As Bruce Sterling notes, Casaleggio is the only Network theorist to have succeeded in his first attempt to seat a remarkable number of citizens in a Western Parliament; this was achieved through democratic elections. Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page did not succeed,73whereas Casaleggio did. His was an undoubted success. But to reach such an incredible result, the Net strategist had to reinvent himself as a manager of complexity. The 5SM, his creation and political device, had a direct impact on reality, addressing diversity and discontinuity with radical innovation. Casaleggio spent years studying network marketing, which introduced him to the guiding ideas of complexity management, such as autopoiesis, heterarchy and evolution at the edge of chaos. Among his objectives were: to create an anti-party with the same characteristics of a network; to employ a disrupting agent to direct the system-network; to manage the connections, relationships and dependencies of the system-network, making them smooth to ensure a future development; to establish a new political pedagogy, which originates from the architecture of the network-context. Casaleggio devoted himself to his experimental political laboratory between 2005 and 2013. 

Political connections between local sensors & social networks

Which political device can tackle the complexity of everyday reality? A self-organized anti-party, one that follows contemporary network logics, can. Casaleggio knows that an organization and its structure cannot arise and flourish in the vacuum. The digital part of his organization can hardly be compared to the other political forces. To put it briefly, it is not the time yet for a total digital populism: this change must happen gradually. Online and offline activities must share the political scenario. Political representation is therefore achieved thanks to the work of local ‘sensors’, which are opposed to the typical network of local sections of the traditional parties. The 5SM MeetUp borrows directly from Howard Dean’s grassroots movement; a former US Democratic leader, he is an iconic figure for American progressives. In 2004, Howard Dean used MeetUp groups as a secret and external strategy within the Democratic Party primaries. The online platform MeetUp.com74 had been created in 2002 by Scott Heiferman. At first, Dean created the context – an organisational platform – and at a later stage he developed his political project around it. MeetUp and his experience in electoral fundraising were s crucial to Barack Obama’s success in the Presidential Election of 2008.75 Unlike the two American politicians, Casaleggio did not have a party in which to place his movement. Nor did he want to set up one; he was already looking towards a post-democratic era.76 He was right to advance the need of a strong connectivity between the physical world and the digital/social world: by linking the latter to the physical communities of a given area, the potential of digital networks would increase tenfold, becoming the most powerful propagandist device. This can be seen as a classic example of how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.77

Heterarchical organisation

La Rete, which means the network, cannot have a hierarchical structure, not even when it is considered as social network. The network is horizontal; it has no reason to exist outside its nodes and horizontal connections; it can’t be a top-down model. Digital populism rejects the rigid traditional Fordist-Taylorist party organisation, to substitute it with a form of disorder, which is, nevertheless, under control; this system is effective when faced with the non-predictability of complex systems. 5SM requires an experimental model, an organisational prototype that encompasses the horizontal nature of social networks, as well as its discreet remote address. Besides the influences from Google, Casaleggio advances the hypotheses of ‘heterarchy’ and autopoiesis for this new model. It is a difficult challenge: even dot-com and 2.0 companies have traditional hierarchical business structures. A real network – one that is composed of real people rather than of bots and trolls – is a vital and spontaneous ecosystem made of interconnections and diverse elements. How can one rule over this ecosystem without a firm leadership, without that heroic approach that is shared by both analogue populism and traditional twentieth-century parties? The answer must lie in a heterarchical organisation. As it is widely known, ‘heterarchy’ means neither hierarchy nor anarchy. It suggests a subtle, almost covert leadership position, as obscure as the traditional hidden agenda of the Internet is. Heterarchy is polycentric; it multiplies the power nodes, so that they don’t become subordinate to the top. For example, within the Movement, the continuous frictions between parliamentary groups and Casaleggio Associati’s smart-marketing team, the communication between MPs and Beppe Grillo's bloggers and the s between Meetup and elected representatives, all exemplify autonomous power nodes in conflict with each other. The movement has a multifaceted nature: it is made of partial achievements of single sections, individual decision, attempts at autonomy, evasive attitudes, calls to order and expulsions. The political power of a single mp or militant is heavily constrained by the unpredictable policy pursued by Casaleggio Associati. The Movement’s experimental78 heterarchical model is now being tested and adjusted to the real world: since 2013, each of the 5SM’S political actions showed that a deep gap existed between a real heterarchical concept and a false heterarchical practice: the latter is what the two 5SM’s leaders have been putting into action. ‘Each one is worth one’ was the slogan coined for the five-starred mass; it glorifies the egalitarian decision-making power of the individual, yet it is contradicted by the evident authoritarian approach of the duo Grillo – Casaleggio.

Camouflage and adaptability in the society of control

Dreams of power haunted Casaleggio in the early 2000s. These dreams have some aforementioned characteristics: they envisaged a network thickened by independent nodes and self-managed groups of militants – the Meetup network – which are connected within the architecture of the network. Between 2009 and 2012, 5SM became a dynamic subject inside both a highly competitive political market and a complex unstable society. The movement adapted itself to these socio-political conditions through a process of self-organisation which regarded both each single node and the network as a whole. It was a camouflage technique that allowed the 5SM to: (a) maintain its chaotic and plural identity, despite the socio-political inputs that were coming from external sources; (b) quickly respond to unexpected events, which the movement called ‘black swans’; (c) flourish within the neo-liberal context of Internet ideology; (d) support a mixture of inexperienced and inefficient policies that are typical of young autonomous organisations; (e) influence its followers’ behavior through three skillful actions, which put together a spectacular scenery, brand communication and a self-regulating mechanism; (f) decide for a strict membership policy, enlisting a series of minimum requirements that can lead to expulsions if not respected; (g)at last, stimulate, a bottom-up self-regulation and a lasting identification with the 5SM brand. An example of the 5SM political approach is given by the hacking policy that80 have characterised the first year of institutional activity of the group.

The following are episodes of hack politics: in April 2013, the movement used online ‘Quirinarie’ to choose a candidate who would rush into Parliament and unsettle the election of the President. Other examples are the live-broadcasted meetings between 5SM and DP delegations, which transmit tactical fractures and a lack of conversation between the five-starred MPs. The idea of disrupting the usual functioning of politics is rooted as much in the unusual idea that citizens can gain power from hacking institutions, as in the 5SM’s lack of those intellectual and professional skills that institutional politics require. Casaleggio’s main aim is not to balance the disorder of the political system, but rather to destabilize this system from within and keep it in a chaotic situation. The 5SM wants to amplify disorder and desires, as Luciana Parisi points out, ‘a new kind of nihilism.’

The disrupting agent

How to orient a self-organised network in which members are granted with autonomy and ‘horizontal’ leadership? How is it possible to control a self-regulated system without a top-down structure that dictates a program and guidelines to the bottom part? Casaleggio’s solution is a ‘disrupting agent’, namely Beppe Grillo. Grillo is an authoritative figure who provides the 5SM members with perturbations: these are discreet but significant disturbances, whose real goal is to prevent members to have political positions that are different from the 5SM’s orthodox message. Grillo was given the following tasks by Casaleggio: orient voters, disorient internal dissidents, absorb political differences and expel those unwilling to agree on the ‘disrupting agent’s opinions. In exchange, the former comedian can, practice and enhance his communicative power through his involvement in the multi-starred movement and network He is ‘sine die’, the showman on the stage of a theater, which he calls politics; this is what he is concerned with. His authoritarian influence on behaviours is indirect and hidden. Casaleggio, the manager of complexity, considers Grillo as an effective tool to communicate a robust brand identity to the user-voter. What matters is the marketing message, which is targeted on the end-user: it is pure commercial logic, pure B2C. Business-to-Consumer. It is faster and more convenient: it is the direct disintermediation of the market.81

The political pedagogy of a creator of contexts 


What role did Casaleggio play over the year of 5SM’s electoral success that saw a tsunami of digital data pouring into Italian politics? In that span of time, Casaleggio completed his own creative journey as e-politics theorist: he went from being a network strategist and manager of complexity to being a creator of contexts. Such an emerging figure aims at pre-determining the conditions in which new e-political practices 82 can arise. The creator of contexts is also the micro-political guide of specialist teams that are constituted by operators of relational processes. Here lies the movement’s main strength: the cluster of relations that Casaleggio’s staff manages to maintain with its network. On a political level, the 5SM’s communication strategy wants to dominate the symbolic nature of reality and reconfigure society by controlling it through mathematical models.83 In order to do so, it must absorb, neutralise and deflect the individual and collective’s potential to change; it must 84 dissipate the political desire for radical change by transferring it to other sectors. Therefore, it is essential for the 5SM to establish a political pedagogy that aggressively educates people to abide by the logic of Internet ideology. The most important results of this pedagogy are: efficiency, the imposition of techno-objectivity,85 the full disintermediation of markets, the destruction of political geographies, the elimination of philosophical ethics and preoccupations, the wide spread of communication and marketing strategies, the micro-physics of surveillance, the elimination of social uncertainties,86 the promotion of algorithmic regulation,87 and finally the inauguration of the era of autonomous social models. The final result of the Internet ideology is its taking over of public spaces, which are turned into relational-commercial ones. Thus, the future world will be described as a gigantic memory or as a stock of excessive amounts of goods. This political pedagogy88 won’t be different from the totalitarian systems that have plagued the past century. Digital populism is an effective means for the hidden agenda of the Internet; it defeats those who are still opposing to the algorithmic superdomain of Capital.

1 commento:


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