Between Hegemony and Distrust: Representative democracy in the Internet era

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Nadia Urbanati in Eurozine:

Democracy is undergoing a series of metamorphoses, even though its fundamental norms are not subject to legal and formal changes. From Italy comes my third example. In the 1990s, Beppe Grillo, already known to the wider public as a comedian, gave up national television and re-invented his career in theatres and public demonstrations as tangentopoli (the nationwide political corruption that public prosecutors brought to light in 1992) directed the broader public's attention toward just how corrupt and corruptible politicians had become. In the early years of the twenty-first century, Grillo came to the fore of a movement that reacted against the proliferation of political corruption with satirical condemnation. By 2005, he had transformed himself from a soapbox speaker into a real political agitator. This was in no small part thanks to the creation of a personal blog, beppegrillo.it, designed and sponsored by Gianroberto Casaleggio's Internet and publishing firm, an operation at the forefront of communications management and digital marketing. (The blog attracted the interest of the international press, which rated it one of the best of its kind and earned the admiration and support of Joseph Stiglitz). Thus Grillo integrated two kinds of forum, the physical piazza and the virtual piazza, and made participation through the expression of opinions the engine of a new movement of contestation and participation. However, Grillo did not merely want to lead a movement of protest and opinion. He used his experience of technological innovation in a truly original way: to create a brand new and unique political actor. In just a few years, Grillo's blog became an arena of opinion formation, communication, propaganda and mobilization: it conveyed information on and criticism of local and national politics, global capitalism and consumerism, speculation related to pharmaceutical patents and the destructive exploitation of the environment, among others. Thus Grillo broached issues that were traditionally the concern of the Greens in a country that, in contrast to protestant European countries, has never had an ecological party capable of influencing national politics. Indeed, Grillo's blog was exceptional for the way in which it married ecological and political criticism and made environmental themes central to the charge that democracy as practised in capitalist societies, and especially in Italy and Europe, had suffered a loss of legitimacy.

Within a few years, Grillo's initiative transformed itself from an opinion-based movement into a political movement without losing its original non-party and increasingly anti-party character. Going by the name “Movimento 5 Stelle” (Five-star Movement or “M5S”), Grillo's group first scored well in administrative elections, and won control of the borough council and the position of mayor in Parma, one of the richest industrial cities of the North; finally, it reached parliament with the equivalent of 25 per cent of the vote in the elections of 24 and 25 February 2013. Although it didn't formally rewrite the constitution, M5S did effect the revision of political practice as organized and run by political parties. That is, M5S introduced an element of “directness” into representative democracy, giving birth to what I shall use an oxymoron to describe: direct representative democracy. Since “directness” pertains here to the visual and communicative, we may also refer to this as the birth of a live broadcasting representative democracy, as distinct from direct participation in the sense of the classical meaning of political autonomy.

More here.

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