‘Crazy Italians!’ you might think. Offered the choice between Bunga Bunga Berlusconi, an ex-Communist and a Brussels stooge, one in four of them went and voted for a stand up comedian.
Ever since Beppe Grillo’s shock success in the Italian elections, serious pundits in the mainstream media have been inviting us to disapprove. We are supposed to roll our eyes at the idea that Italians seem unwilling to accept austerity. We are meant to tut tut at the failure of their democracy to produce a stable administration willing to take instruction from the Eurosystem.
This only goes to show, imply the poobahs and the pundits, that Italian democracy is in crisis. Nonsense. What happened in Italy shows that politics is – thanks to the internet – being reborn.
Politics in the West, I speculate in my book on iDemocracy published last year, is going to be ‘shaped by groups of like-minded people, mobilising online’. The internet will allow new entrants to emerge rapidly and win a large share of the political market. Four months later, Italian blogger Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement came from nowhere to win over a quarter of the popular vote.
Merely attributing Grillo’s success to austerity and anti-politics tells us little. There has been a strong anti-politician sentiment in Italy for years. Those of us who have lived there know that strikes against government cut backs have been a regular feature of life in Italy for as long as anyone can remember.
No, the real game changer is the internet. It means that ordinary folk can do something about it all.
Before we had blogs and twitter, it was the job of established political parties to aggregate opinion and votes. The internet means that opinion and votes can now be aggregated online. In fact, the Five Star Movement seems to have done a better job doing so than the big corporate parties, for example allowing every Italian to help select its candidates by voting online.
In Italy, like in this country, politicians once had to communicate with the voters entirely thorough the media. That tended to favour the two (and a half) party system, acting as a barrier to new entrants.
Not any more. The digital revolution means that ‘what politicians say will no longer be assessed through pundits … but gauged by the crowds online’. Thanks to the internet, it is now possible to create a political brand, without massive amounts of money.
Sure enough, Beppe Grillo – whose party refuses to accept state funding for political parties – tends not to give mainstream media interviews, yet talks directly to an audience of millions on his blog.
‘But Beppe Grillo is mad!’ I hear you say. ‘He wants … um … a referendum on the euro. An end to bank bailouts. More local decision making. Less government.’
Is that really so daft? It sounds a lot more sane than those who insist that ordinary Italians must pay the price to rescue greedy bankers from their own euro follies. The citizen consumer class in Italy seems to agree.
Beppe Grillo might not be around in Italian politics in a few years. But the internet, and the profound changes that it is starting to bring to the way that we organise politics and society, has only just got started.
Douglas Carswell’s book on The End of Politics and the Birth of iDemocracy was published by Biteback in October 2012.