Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Elections in Italy: the rise of networked politics


The recent Italian elections have seen the rise of the "five star" movement founded and led by Mr Beppe Grillo (shown in the picture above). The movement is a "non party" completely structured around Internet networking. We may call it "networked politics" and it is surely a revolutionary innovation. But will it make a difference?


The Italian national elections of this week have seen a clear winner: the "five star movement," founded by Mr. Beppe Grillo, former actor now turned politician. The movement didn't gain a majority, but it managed a stunning feat by gathering almost one quarter of the valid votes in its first appearance in a nation-wide election, nearly matching the results of the main traditional parties in Italy. More than that, Grillo and his colleagues were able to make the other parties look old, useless, and worn out in their desperate attempts of gathering votes by making promises that they knew they could never maintain.

This success is all the more surprising if we consider that the national political program of the movement is contained in just fifteen pages of generic proposals. The movement is a "non party" without a hierarchy and where elected members are seen just as spokespersons for the others. Most of the movement's candidates had little or no previous political experience and none of them is a known figure in politics or culture. The movement didn't do traditional media advertising and Mr. Grillo never even appeared on a TV debate. So, most voters seem to have chosen the movement as a reaction against the old parties, perceived as staffed with thieves, sex maniacs, and all sort of criminals. At least, this is the general interpretation of the results of the recent Italian elections. But, probably, the explanation goes somewhat deeper.

When we discuss "politics" we are discussing about ways to control the government. The term "control" may sound nasty, but it is what every voter does when choosing a party or a candidate: it is a way to steer government policies along lines that one finds desirable. But a whole country is an enormously complex system and history has shown that the control of complex systems requires complex control systems. At the level of entire societies, these control systems are mainly what we call "bureaucracy," which is the main factor that makes societies resilient - that is resisting to change. However, the increasing complexity of these control systems originates those "diminishing returns to complexity" that Joseph Tainter describes as the main cause of the collapse of civilizations.

Collapse is the rapid reduction in complexity of all the structures of a society. By collapsing, a society gets rid of its complex control structures that have become a burden and are no more a benefit. It is what happened when the Roman Empire fell: it was the disappearance of the expensive Imperial Court, with its even more expensive Imperial Bureaucracy. The result was the much less expensive set of local control structures that define the period we call "Middle Ages."

However, the collapse of a society doesn't occur all of a sudden: it starts with the weakest links which may collapse without necessarily generating the cascade of events that brings down everything. So, in modern Western society, political parties may have been among the first structures affected by a rapid reduction in complexity.

Think of the communist parties of a few decades ago in Western Europe: they had militants, cadres, leaders, and intellectuals; all focused around a set of ideas written in the ponderous tome called "Das Kapital". But this kind of parties is gone. They collapsed and disappeared because of the diminishing returns of complexity. The standard political party, today, is a simple structure that specializes in vote gathering by controlling the media. It has no strong leaders, rather it has good actors. It has no well defined ideas, except a vague slant on ill-defined concepts such as "left" and "right". Basically, all what it does is transferring money from lobbies into PR firms. No wonder that voters are disaffected with these parties but, so far, they had no choice.

Now, there come Beppe Grillo and his Web adviser Pierandrea Casaleggio, who have this idea of a completely Web-structured political party. It is all built using the "MeetUp" internet platform that is used as the vehicle for information exchange and for the decisional process based on on-line voting. The result is a peer-to-peer, purely horizontal network. The five star movement is the organizational opposite of the standard political parties as they are today. The movement has a base without a leadership, traditional parties have a leadership without a base.

The great advantage of the five star movement over its competitors is its low cost. Controlling the media is extremely expensive, especially in politics; consider that the cost of the last US presidential election ran into several billion dollars, mostly spent in advertising. Mr. Grillo and Mr. Casaleggio, instead, managed this nearly unbelievable feat of almost winning the national elections in a major country without spending a single dollar in traditional media advertising. All the advertising was done by the militants in their peer-to-peer network. It is the awesome power of the Web.

The structure that Mr. Grillo and Mr. Casaleggio built may be called "networked politics" and it may be the start of a new generation of political movements that will largely replace traditional ones. But is this a revolution that will solve our problems of energy, pollution, social unrest, impending collapse and the like? Well, this is a different question.

We known that the Western society is undergoing a profound transformation driven by the reduced availability of natural resources, by the wreckage of the ecosystem, and by the increasing burden of complexity. If traditional political parties have largely collapsed, governments are still resisting change by increasing in complexity, adding layer after layer of bureaucracy. Eventually, the whole thing will crash down but, as Tainter notes, there are no mechanisms in complex societies that can be used to reduce complexity, only mechanisms to increase it.

Facing these problems, what can be done by networked politics? In the commercial sector, networks are known to be sometimes effective, but normally only on a small scale and they are usually short lived. Purely horizontal networks may be subjected to instabilities such as those described as "self organized criticality" and may undergo rapid and uncontrollable changes. These horizontal networks are themselves extremely difficult to manage. So, in politics we would require one of them to manage the gigantic, ponderous, and resilient entity that we call "government" (to say nothing of the powerful financial lobbies that lurk behind it). Not easy, to say the least.

But, who knows? In the great transition that we are living, anything can happen.







22 comments:

  1. Hey Ugo, great post! Did you vote? ;-)

    Alex

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    1. Yes, I voted. Mainly because a good friend of mine was a candidate in one of the lists. I knew it was useless (he didn't get elected) but I felt it was the right thing to do.

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  2. Very interesting. I'd like to know more details about the organisation and desicion making in the movement. Could u help (maybe provide a link in english) concerning such details?

    Movements usually susceptible to TPTB (built into system, or marginalised, or - rarely - become the Dragon themselves), and particularly I'm interested are there any mechanisms to prevent it, theoretically at least. 2nd question is preventing incompetence at particular questions.

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    1. Yes, these movements are usually easy prey for the powers that be. I am sure that, right now, a lot of plotting and scheming is going on on how to take over the movement. About more data, I don't know if the movement's political program exists in English. The site of the movement is at present impossible to access due to too much traffic - it will take a few days before things calm down a bit.

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  3. Dear Ugo, thank you for sharing these thoughts.

    The military coup that overthrew Fascism in Portugal in 1974 was lead by an officer called Otelo. He had great influence in the political programme that was put forward by the Armed Forces movement, committing to a political architecture similar to that proposed by the Five Stars Movement. Otelo still calls it Direct Socialism, but I believe the correct term in English is Democratic Socialism, that pre dates even Scientific Socialism. After the revolution the country was engulfed in a dispute between the USA and the USSR and promises of a new society were soon forgotten my most. Otelo soldiered on and in 1976 was a candidate for President, backed by the revolutionary parties. He got 17% of the vote, to date the largest turn out these parties managed together. Otelo was jailed in 1984 on charges of terrorism, for which material evidence was never put forward. He was amnestied in 1989 but never regained a political role in what he calls a Bourgeoise Democracy.

    There's an old picture starring Sean Connery that dives into Democratic Socialism in an interesting way. Society is divided in two tiers, a lower cast of conscienceless slaves and a top cast with a perfectly flat structure among themselves.

    The experiments by the Anarchist communities in the 1960s and 1970s showed that flat structures are not sustainable among humans in the long run, something that Complexity science would explain in detail later on. A "party" that promises such a structure together with a return to nationalism and isolationism is something to be always suspicious of; unfortunately, it sounds all too familiar...

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  4. Interesting story about Otelo... I didn't know about him. Periodically, anyway, someone thinks it is a good idea to create an egalitarian society - a flat structure with no leaders and no subordinates. It doesn't work, as it has been shown many times.

    Right now, we are experiencing how difficult it is to manage web based communities: trolls, cliques, power games, small coups and revolutions. In my experience, even managing ASPO-Italy turned out to be impossible. Imagine managing an entire country!

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    1. "Imagine managing an entire country!"

      I suspect countries are not really managed at all, at least not to the level we commonly believe they are managed, precisely because it becomes more and more impossible to do so the larger and more complex the country is. Belgium comes to mind: that country didn't have a government for more than two years and still everything went on as if nothing had happened. :)

      Have you read The Breakdown of Nations by Leopold Kohr? If not, it's an interesting read. He argues (quite convincingly, I think) that there are ideal sizes/size ranges for organisms as well as organizations and when that size is exceeded (or, less commonly nowadays, deceeded), internal cost of management rises disproportionately.

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    2. Leopold Kohr? No, but I'll see to give a look to it. That is, of course, the fundamental point: how to manage large organizations. We don't know how to do that, and it doesn't seem that we'll ever learn

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    3. What we do know, is that we should at all costs prevent those who wish to manage things from getting their hands on the levers!

      Self-selection should mean de-selection!

      The selection process within parties seems to guarantee a poor quality body of senior politicians.

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    4. It is interesting to observe that Plato, more than 2 thousand years ago (Republic, Book IV), argued that the ideal city-state had to be of medium size, neither too big nor too small. The government had to enforce policies in order to keep the population stable. This is altogether surprising in his times, when city-states had at most a few tens of thousand people. It seems his concern was not overpopulation, but the possibility to rule the city as a unity. He would have considered aberrant a state of more than 1 billion people, such as China, but even modern day Italy would have been inconceivable to him. I suspect he was right...

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  5. Hugo - with Grillo declaring that 'his' movement won't co-operate with the centre-left party holding most seats, can you say whether this decision was voted on by the movement's supporters as a whole, or was it decided just by those elected by the movement, or was it just decided by Grillo and an inner group ?

    This matters of course not merely as the first test of Italian internet democracy, whose integrity is at best only as good as its verification of who exactly is voting for its policies, but in the impact of those policies. At present they leave the centre-left party with the choice of forming a coalition with the right, or going back to another election.

    Why Grillo should expect to do better in another election is beyond me - if he fails to impress the electorate with efforts for constructive radical change having just won a lot of seats, it is surely the right that will benefit electorally. But I know little of his declared policies - perhaps you could clarify just what they are and what is their appeal ?

    Regards,

    Lewis

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    1. Have no idea, Lewis. Everything and anything can happen at this moment. I don't think Mr. Grillo knows, either. They had built up all their plans on the idea of being the opposition, now that they have a chance to be the government, they seem to have no plans.

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  6. Spain really, really needs a movement like this, where, except for the Basque nationalist parties, disenchantment with politicians is at record levels in the wake of the most disgusting corruption scandals touching on all the main parties, but most of all those in power now and the Royal Family. But Spaniards buckle down too easily. Perhaps Franco beat the fight out of them?

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  7. Grillo is influenced by a primitivism communitarian, Massimo Fini who founded Movimento Zero.
    It's a sort of neofascism without the militarism.
    They praise talibans and similar heroes of anti-modernity.
    Italians are not aware of this, of course. And this speaks volume about the virtue of such "networked politics".
    Grillo got this large success because, you know, we are in a Malthusian trap, poverty is rising, and he is a carismatic leader.
    The movement targeted the costs of elected politicians.
    An easy target in Italy.
    But even if we would abolish all costs of elected representative this will not solve the crisis.
    Everyone with basic math skills knows this (maybe even Grillo).
    Italians don't and they voted him.

    I really hope that the european union steps in with solid sustainable development policies and measures.
    Sorry folks, I don't believe in de-growth.
    It will be a nightmare.
    As Marx said, the old shit will come back.

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    1. Anonymous. You may not believe in 'de-growth', 'but de-growth' is likely what we will get. And yes, it could be a nightmare, but then again it may not.

      We have a post-war political accommodation based on 1-2% GDP growth per head per annum. We have now seen flat to negative per annum GDP growth per head for a large swathe of OECD countries since 2008. This is gradually unpicking our social structures at the seams, and giving rise to such diverse phenomenon as Golden Dawn in Greece, Grillo in Italy and UKIP in my home country of the UK.

      Ironically, I think many of the political organisations formed at the start of the industrial revolution may offer models for a way forward. The kind of organised self help of the Quakers and Methodists proved remarkably successful at pooling labour, capital and information within a disciplined framework. This is anti-Marxist as it is not state-centric. In fact, I believe that the left needs to get used to the fact that the state will come under relentless pressure under the impact of resource constraints and climate change. Accordingly, running with a philosophy that is premised on the assumption that the central state can provide solutions to our problems will prove to be political suicide.

      Technology does give us the advantage of being able to share and distribute global information at any level; the centre is no longer the gatekeeper for information. And given the pressures from climate change and resource constraints that we face, local structures will become paramount in meeting the needs of the individual. I don't think the Transition Network is the right model since its hyper-democracy renders it almost impotent in decision-making, but it is thinking along the right lines.

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    2. " In fact, I believe that the left needs to get used to the fact that the state will come under relentless pressure under the impact of resource constraints and climate change. "
      I agree very much on that. The identificiation of "left" with strong state and high taxes is unfortunate. The third stanza of l'Internationale says: "L'État comprime et la loi triche
      L'impôt saigne le malheureux", but marxism and leninism corrupted that message.

      In general I don't think we should fear a collapse so much, it doesn't have to be a night mare. Perhaps the opposite. The collapse of the Roman Empire, was perhaps no good for "civilization", but it is less clear if it was bad for ordinary people, the slaves, the people in the fringes.

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  8. Rational Pessimist - your perspective is interesting, given the rise of populists across Europe this early in the curve of resource constraints. The more efficient distribution of resources via the practical expression of solidarity, such as the Quakers and Methodists deployed, certainly has much to recommend it at a local and national level.

    Yet beyond the simple resource constraints the legacy issues we face plainly demand more than effective local and national adaptive measures. With the legacies including both flourishing nationalism and global armaments, and timelagged and potentially self-reinforcing global warming, the need of effective negotiations between coherent states has arguably never been greater.

    I would agree that the current fashionable critique is increasingly focussed on government (for all it is the commerce perverting of the course of democracy that is much of the problem) but that critique also ignores the fact that it is only effective governments that can now forge and maintain the international agreements to resolve the legacy issues. And if they are not resolved, then with inevitable intensifying climate destabilization causing serial global crop failures in a heavily-armed global population boom, the odds of survival would be minimal.

    From this perspective, while as a Commoner I'd entirely decry the totalitarian marxist doctrines, it seems plain that we either succeed in bringing that crucial sense of solidarity to the core of government as the basis of international relations, or we retreat into enclaves increasingly besieged by impoverishment, shortages and conflict, and facing bitter attrition and inevitable collapse.

    I'd thus second your critique of the spurious 'hyper-democracy' which, by actually discouraging the focus of power in representatives (rather than assuring its accountability) directly obstructs the requisite changes in government while also providing a major sink for ill-informed dissent.

    Regards,

    Lewis

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  9. Tanks Lewis for your comments, I share this perspective.
    My quotation of Marx was a sideline, "the old shit" is one of his best lines (among many others, the guy was gifted),
    To clarify my political positions I'm a liberal democrat, not a marxist.

    On the resource constraint side, frankly, I don't see any insurmontable barrier to economical development.
    It's the current model that cannot be expanded: private transportation based on cars, excessive meat consumption.
    If we consolidate european institutions, if we adopt the best practices available (in terms of technologies, and life styles), and if we start a green new deal, then EU can lead the way for peace and prosperity.
    Keynesian policies must be carried out at the EU level, the corrupt states of the periphery (Italy, and the other usual suspects) must be kept on check.
    Public debts must be pooled and the PIGS forced to balance their books.
    In exchange, green investments at the EU level would spur economic development again.
    Otherwise, we know that collapse is near.

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    1. Lewis and Anonymous.

      I think I am less optimistic than you that existing political practices can solve the twin threats of resource depletion and climate change. Let's take resource depletion first. We are now in a secular uptrend in resource prices that has been going on for around 15 years. This is one of the principal reasons that real median incomes have stagnated or retreated in OECD countries. I would admit that there are other reasons: ageing populations, diminishing returns to technology, and income distribution effects of new technologies to name just a few—but let us put those on one side.

      In the face of resource constraints, monetarism, Keynesianism and deregulation, the post-war policy weapons of choice, are all ineffective. Note that the first two of these are forms of demand management, and we are not faced with a problem of demand. The latter is supply-side, but I think this policy has also become ineffective. Indeed, slowing growth is being witnessed across almost all OECD countries regardless of their friendliness or not toward free markets.

      Against this background, the post-war bargain between governments and electorates has broken down. Both the left and right offered their respective constituents continued economic growth at the expense of localism. In short, one’s labour would become just one tiny piece of an endlessly lengthening global supply chain in exchange for an SUV.

      The SUV can no longer be delivered (and indeed in Greece and Portugal very little can be delivered at all). Moreover, in creating a more and more complex globalized economy, risk for the individual has exploded as well. Here in the U.K., pensions, healthcare and stable employment are all under intense stress (and resource depletion is only in its first or second innings).

      By coincidence, the collapse of the grand growth bargain has happened at the exact moment that the internet has allowed the rise of network politics. This has given rise to such diverse phenomenon as Obama’s grassroots army, the Tea Party, UKIP and Grillo. But they are all basically following the same playbook of capturing the centre in a bid to kickstart growth. A doomed endeavor in my opinion.

      More encouraging, what I think network politics allows is a reinvigoration of political self-help groupings at the local level, which takes me back to the mutual support Mormons, Methodists or Quakers provided each other in the 19th century.

      Transition Network is a start, but it lacks one vital aspect of the 19th century self-help: a pooling of capital. I also think it is so democratic as to become almost completely ineffectual at times (this is a recurring theme on John Michael Greer’s blog). But the internet is now giving us an opportunity to bolt on completely new financial solutions such as crowd-funding to local initiatives such as Transition. Incidentally, Urgo has been cross-posting some posts by Paula that look at the place of money in local contexts, which echoes this theme.

      The solving (sort of) of the ozone hole problem is the complete antithesis of a local roots based movement. In short, the Montreal Protocol could be characterized as a bunch of policy-making elites and technical elites sitting in a room and thrashing out an agreement. Climate change activists have tried to use this as a model and it has been a complete and utter disaster.

      But again we can find perhaps an alternative model in how the local-led nonconformist movement in the U.K. provided the initial momentum that led to the abolition of slavery. Bill McKibben’s 350.org seems to be using modern network politics to follow a similar path, with divestiture from fossil fuel investment taking place one campus at a time.

      At its worst, network politics can give rise to charismatic populist leaders but without any new thinking. At best, I think network politics can revive localism and empower individuals to become much more engaged in determining their own economic future.

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  10. International press and media ignore (have to ignore?) the fact that Italy is a Cleptocracy until 20 years or more.
    And that Italians are really exausted /angry for this.

    http://demata.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/why-italians-like-movimento-cinque-stelle/

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  11. thanks for share.

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  12. Ugo
    I only just reached this post; so just a late comment.
    Firstly thank you very much. Your framing of the context was most succinct.
    I am only beginning to digest "self-organised criticality".
    I value all the comments as well.
    The observation (@ “The Rational Pessimist") of "slowing growth" (decline?) across the OECD perhaps should emphasise the word "across". Clearly there is a wider phenomenon behind the type of growth leading to 2007, as well as the subsequent stalling and hesitation. It is not surprising that such congruent realities must be reflected in institutions. I make the additional point, though, that we are still very close to, perhaps a little below, our collective 'zenith'. Economic activity in the UK using conventional descriptions is still about double what it was when our eldest daughter was born. Another way of putting it might be that there is still a lot of energy in the system(s)!

    Regarding complexity and peer-to-peer transactions using the internet; loss of enabling-complexity (affordability of mass-access infrastructure) would rapidly change this political device! Such a system could be ‘critically self-limiting’ if it undermined the economy that enables it, but I am not expecting that in the very near future. Postal services and connection of one urban area with another was a great part of "corresponding societies" (and religious and indeed family connections) in 19thC Britain and the USA and elsewhere, pre-dating what later became the more competitive mass media, and often forged ultimately 'successful' political agendas. This ‘correspondence’ still needed critical infrastructure of course. I guess that the previous communication networks but especially our very recent electronic versions will continue for a while yet. I guess they will win their battle with mass-media. Migration and resettlement that was such a feature of two centuries, and we see it very much again recently, also needed that infrastructure as well the bodily means for travel. The repatriation of money and purchasing power from migrant workers happened in those days and of course now uses the electronic system and recent currency exchange. I see these systems likely to continue in the next decade or so, though like you, think trends and later outcomes are unknowable. I guess there might be physical ways of controlling such systems, but probably only in the context of something like war. Well, we did that before; (and engendered what I think Greer calls the ‘Magic States’ – that briefly controlled their mass collectives).

    My money (sic) is on hybrid versions of what we see now. Many complex systems could continue working, but overall ‘management’ will become less affordable? Most of us will be much less comfortable than we are now, but still in a complex manner. Clearly the notion of 'employment' is under severe challenge in many of our countries, and if high rates of youth unemployment continue, this alone will radically re-structure our societies, of course trumping any expectations we might have of BAU.
    very best wishes

    Phil H

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