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. In a sense, the five star movement is like Middle Ages in comparison to the Roman Empire: a leaner, less expensive, and more efficient structure.
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.
Just as Middle Ages took over from the Roman Empire, network politics is an innovation that may well take over the political sector. The structure that Mr. Grillo and Mr. Casaleggio built may 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). Not easy, to say the least.
But, who knows? In the great transition that we are living, anything can happen.