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  • February 18, 2019

Anarchism & Autonomy

So-called “digital parties” are seeking to radically democratize party politics — but a new book points to serious flaws and dangerous pitfalls along the way.

This is a review of Paolo Gerbaudo’s book “The Digital Party: Political Organization and Online Democracy” (Pluto Press, 2018).

In the 1960s, German student activist Rudi Dutschke put forward the concept of “the long march through the institutions,” described by Herbert Marcuse as a strategy to work “against the established institutions, while working within them.” It referred not simply to subverting existing order, but to something much more elegant: to do one’s job properly and learn how institutions work while at the same time remaining critical. In order to change the rules of the game, one first has to master it.

But as social movements’ scholar David Meyer noted, the problem is that marching through the institutions usually transforms the marchers more than the institutions.

Fifty years later, transforming radical indignation into positive change seems no less challenging. In the aftermath of the Great Recession, activists came up with a techno-utopian vision, a brave new idea about how to institutionalize, while preserving their critical impulse and democratic inclusiveness.

The solution was to radically “update” and democratize the party form itself through the use of digital media and advanced online platforms for decision making. Following the example of the Pirate Party’s Liquid Feedback software, The Five Star Movement in Italy set up its own platform called Rousseau, while Podemos in Spain created Participa.

But have these “digital parties” become really more democratic? Has “marching through the platforms” not created its own power imbalances? The Digital Party, the latest book by Paolo Gerbaudo, lecturer at King’s College London, addresses these thorny questions on the basis of 30 interviews with party insiders and experts and a comprehensive analysis of party publications.

The Greatly Exaggerated rumors of the Party’s demise

The Digital Party revisits Gerbaudo’s earlier work on power relations and the movements of the squares, some of which have now re-emerged as political parties. Entering in a productive dialogue with the recent book by della Porta et al., Movement parties against austerity, Gerbaudo analyses the rise and organizational structure of digital populist parties, including the Pirate Party in Germany and Sweden, the Five Star Movement in Italy, Podemos in Spain, La France Insoumise in France and the digital campaigns of British Labour and Bernie Sanders in the US.

In times when political scientists were despairing about declining party memberships and general apathy in society, the political party made an impressive comeback in a radically transformed form. As Simon Tormey and Ramón Feenstra have shown, despite fierce criticism of party politics, 295 new political parties were registered in Spain between 2009 and 2010 alone, and this number nearly doubled in the period of countrywide protests that occurred between 2011 and 2012.

Yet it is safe to assume that, apart from people with expansive knowledge of Spanish politics, no one has even heard of most of these parties. The case is different when it comes to digital parties that managed to rise from obscurity and gain thousands of members in very short time with their particular brand of techno-populism. How did they do it?

To begin with, the rise of the digital party reflects the appearance of a new political cleavage in response to two separate and yet intertwined events: the Great Recession beginning in 2008 and the “digital revolution.” The new cleavage observed is the one between the “political and/or economic insiders” and the “connected outsiders” — the people who

though having levels of education and internet access above the average of the general population, often face serious economic hurdles, precarious working conditions, spells of unemployment, low wages and more generally a sense of alienation from the political system and its forms.

These young and educated but often broke people have found in digital parties a channel to voice their demands on digital freedoms (privacy and transparency above all), real democracy, and economic justice — demands that mainstream parties have failed to respond to and that have become the basis of digital parties’ impressive electoral success.

Taking a broader historical perspective, Gerbaudo shows how the digital party differs both from the mass industrial party of the Fordist era and the neoliberal TV party of the late 1990s. He draws parallels between the main form of party organization and the dominating form of production, with the digital party being the logical response to the rise of platform capitalism, dominated by few giant monopolies such as Facebook, Google, Amazon, and others.

The digital party resembles online platforms in fundamental ways. To begin with, the digital party promotes a free membership model that is similar to joining Facebook or any other online behemoth. Moreover, the digital party gathers political data and relies on free political labor in much the same way as online platforms depend on our contributions and participation in order to function. The digital party looks like democracy and talks like democracy, but to a large extent, it is Facebook in disguise.

Creative Destruction

The digital party has both destructive and constructive aspects. In the chapter “Death of the Party Cadre,” Gerbaudo analyzes the broader transformation in which digital parties get rid of — or rather do not bother establishing — classical attributes of the party such as highly symbolic party headquarters, local party cells and physical meeting spaces.

Political activists instead work at a distance, from home, from coffee houses, always on the move. It’s a similar dynamic to what happens in the Silicon Valley and San Francisco, where more and more work is “outsourced” to different locations:

The party bureaucracy is substituted by a dispersed micro-bureaucracy — a ‘coffeeshop-cracy’ one may quip — that is everywhere, and nowhere in particular.

Participation is glorified but it is a highly individualistic form of participation that fits well with the neoliberal suspicion of “non-spontaneous” organization. The party becomes virtualized and its formerly structured organization turns into a process.

The “migration” to online digital platforms is what Gerbaudo calls the constructive part of digital parties. The promise of platforms to ensure more open and inclusive democratic participation however has fallen short of reality.

Platforms are never neutral objective intermediaries. Rules and power relations are encoded in the very software used. What is more, levels of professionalism vary significantly.

For example, unlike the more tech-savvy Podemos, the Five Star Movement’s participatory platform Rousseau uses a fork of proprietary software that is particularly vulnerable. Gerbaudo recounts a shocking incident from 2017, when a “black hat” hacker downloaded members’ personal data and put on sale the entire database of Rousseau for 0.3 Bitcoin, or around one thousand Euros at the time.

The Silicon Law of Benevolent Dictatorship

Probably the biggest contradiction between the web ideologies and the practice of digital parties lies in the predominance of plebiscitary democracy online at the expense of both representative and deliberative democracy. The most prominent use of online party platforms is to vote on yes/no proposals put forward by the party leadership.

Party leaders hold power over the timing of proposals, their substance and the way they are framed. They can also ignore the results of public voting when they are not satisfied with them. This is rarely necessary as most of the votes on digital platforms result in supermajorities in favor of the leaderships’ proposals.

Thus, the dismantling of old bureaucracies and forms of mediation has gone hand in hand with an unexpected centralisation of power. “Hyperleaders” — celebrity-like charismatic figures such as Pablo Iglesias or Bernie Sanders, have found their mirror image in the “superbase” — a faithful followship of party members that reacts to the messages of the leader, votes, likes and shares online in what can be best described as a form of “reactive democracy”.

As Gerbaudo notes aphoristically, “We seem to leave the iron law of oligarchy only to crash against the ‘silicon law’ of ‘benevolent dictatorship’”

The digital party has updated the party form but a lot has been lost in the process. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we should go back to the old version of the party. Gerbaudo makes several proposals how to improve the digital party. To begin with, bottom-up members should have more initiative and voice. What is more, the management of online platforms needs to be separated from the party leadership in order to avoid manipulation. Digital parties need also to meet more often in offline physical spaces in order to promote new forms of social integration.

Finally, digital parties have been so focused on reforming their own organizational structure that they have neglected the substance of their proposals. However, these parties must shed the illusion that they can represent everyone and focus more on developing coherent political programs, or “platforms” in the old sense of the word. Luckily, this is a feasible — even if difficult — task.

Political “white-hacking”

Gerbaudo’s research opens the floor for further important questions: How do digital parties, for example, fit within different national party systems and how is their success influenced by the relative strength of other parties? Why did the Pirates in Germany fail so spectacularly, while the Five Star Movement is now in a governing coalition in Italy?

Another issue to explore is the interactions between parties and social movements — how have digital parties in parliament responded to social movements’ demands?

Third, have “digital parties” made any important achievements in Eastern Europe, considering the high level of politicization of digital issues there? If not, why?

Most importantly, while The Digital Party has focused consciously on progressive movements in the West, it is highly important to examine the multiple ways in which radical right parties have made use of digital media and have co-opted “progressive” practices such as petitioning and crowd-funding. Gerbaudo’s innovative typology and analysis provide a solid basis for asking these further questions.

Ultimately, The Digital Party is a truly ambitious, broad-scale and imaginative work that does not shy away from big questions and avoids the biggest danger of social science — the focus on narrow issues that only a small circle of academics care about.

It would be fair to say that The Digital Party is a techno-skeptical book, yet it is never alarmist or pessimistic. It is rather a careful, reasoned account of the techno-political transformations taking place in front of our eyes. In a sense, Gerbaudo is like a political “white hacker” — he reveals faults in the mode of operation of the digital party and shows how they can be repaired. Hopefully, an updated version of the digital party will soon become available.

Julia Rone

Julia Rone is a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Politics and International Studies (POLIS), University of Cambridge. Her research explores conflicts of sovereignty in the European Union and social movements against free trade agreements. She has also written on the co-optation of left-wing frames and protest repertoires by radical right actors and on the rise of radical right media

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