Can Beppe Grillo’s internet democracy work?

The political experiment of an Italian ex-comedian has adopted the internet as a platform for direct

Beppe Grillo founded the anti-establishment Five Star Movement in 2009 [AFP]

There is a lot of talk about a crisis of democracy in Europe. The majority of the people do not feel represented through traditional democratic institutions and there is a general need to re-define, if not re-discover, the meaning and the functions of democracy.

As a wave of dissent and protest swept through the continent, calls were made for a return to direct democracy. Various democratic projects were proposed, including some which focus on the internet as a powerful democratic tool. Italian comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo has been one of the proponents of “internet democracy”.

In a recent post on his famous blog, which is the ideological and operative heart of his organisation, Grillo argued that his Five Star Movement (M5S) is the only remaining democratic force in Italy. This came after the Italian Senate voted in favour of Prime Minster Renzi’s sweeping reforms that could lead to a dramatic reduction in the size and power of the upper house of parliament.

For Grillo and the M5S, this is another step back for democracy, since they see this reform as an obstruction to the citizen’s power to participate in the political process. That is why Grillo announced that the M5S will start a “Long March”, to bring authentic democracy to the Italian government so that the M5S can become the political guide of the country.  

Web democracy

Grillo’s star rose on Italy’s political scene as the country sank into an economic crisis in the late 2000s. He founded M5S in 2009 and in less than five years managed to turn it into Italy’s third most powerful political group in parliament. And Grillo’s charismatic, communicative personality is not the only factor that made his movement so popular.

His ideas of a transparent political system with direct consultation and participation through the web appealed to many Italians and contributed to the success of his party. It is no surprise that his ideas struck a chord in a country like Italy, which is ranked only 49th in the world for freedom of the press and which suffers from persistent political corruption scandals and chronic inefficiency.

One of the leading ideas of the movement is that Grillo’s blog is a platform, an open space where laws can be proposed and discussed, where decisions can be shared and taken together. The internet allows people to do all this directly, without intermediaries. In this way, the traditional parties automatically lose their usefulness and can be simply dismissed. This could not only reduce considerably what Grillo calls the “costs of politics” (an important point in times of economic crisis), but also eliminate once and for all the (again in Grillo’s jargon) “caste of politicians”.

This all sounds great, but can e-democracy really be called a government of the people, if 40 percent of Italians do not have access to internet? To limit democracy to the internet is to exclude those who cannot (or do not want to) take part in this “technological revolution”.

Even supposing that this problem could be solved through a promotional or educational campaign, the question remains whether this initiative can indeed push for a renewal of democracy. Can an internet initiative really fulfill the functions that the ancient Greek agora had?

It is important to remember that the agora, the economic and political centre of the ancient Greek city, was a place where citizens met, built assemblies and discussed law proposals, and other public matters and problems. The internet has become a platform where more people today can express their opinions publicly (as opposed to before the internet revolution).

But there is an important qualitative distinction between the agora and the internet. As soon as the group of participants gets bigger, it will be harder to hear each one of their voices and consider and discuss everyone’s proposals. Grillo has been an actor for a long time; he should know very well the difference between dialogues and a series of monologues , where people fail to hear each other.

Who sets the rules?

Or maybe Grillo is aware that there have to be rules that guide an internet discussion. And the ” non-statute” of the M5S has rules, indeed. But who wrote them? Grillo and Gianroberto Casaleggio, an internet and marketing expert, who is seen as the guru of the M5S.

Article 3 of the non-statute says that only Grillo owns the rights of the symbol and name of the M5S. Thus the logic consequence is that only Grillo can decide who is allowed to talk and act on behalf of the M5S. Even if the M5S shows participative elements, its fundaments are definitely not as democratic as it is advertised. Everyone can participate in the discussion, but some can participate more than others because the blog belongs to Grillo. Or more precisely it belongs to Grillo and the Casaleggio Associated, the internet company which finances the blog, and which also pockets the ever growing revenues that the blog generates.

Italy struggles to house refugees

So is this really a political project for e-democracy? I think, rather, it is an attempt at democracy under the guidance of a pater familias. Grillo, like a thoughtful father, provides his family (the M5S) with a house (the blog) where everybody can live together. He takes care of the members of his group; he assists them in their first steps into the big world and protects them against threats and traitors. Thus, as soon as somebody acts against the rules of the family (or is suspected to have done so), he has the authority to send them out of the house because it is and always will be his house.

That explains many internal conflicts in the M5S, the most notable of which was the expulsion of a group of senators in March 2014 because of their disagreement with Grillo. It can be debated whether this was a dictatorial move, or not, but it is for sure not democratic.

It has been written, said and repeated by his critics, that Grillo acts like a populist dictator, manipulating his followers and steering his political movement in the direction he chooses. Whether he has “good intentions” or not, there is no way to know.  

But one thing is sure: Wherever Grillo’s “Long March” takes Italian politics, it will not be in the direction of a real participatory democracy. Of course, the internet can be a useful emancipative medium, but democracy asks for more than what Grillo’s blog and his ironically untransparent movement can deliver. 

Silvia Mazzini is a lecturer at the Humboldt University and at the University of Arts in Berlin. She is the author of Fur eine mannigfaltige mogliche Welt. Kunst und Politik bei Ernst Bloch und Gianni Vattimo (“For a Many-fold Possible World. Arts and Politics in Ernst Bloch and Gianni Vattimo”) and of numerous articles on aesthetics, political philosophy, theatre sciences and rhetoric.