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When the Party Mimics Facebook

In an edited excerpt from his latest book “The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy”, Paolo Gerbaudo examines the ways in which the so-called tech revolution is changing how political parties operate and the benefits and risks that come with it.

For a long time before the 2008 financial crisis it was widely assumed by scholars and journalists alike that political parties were becoming relics of the past. As politics became increasingly centred around individual candidates, along with membership numbers of traditional parties experiencing a severe decline, it was believed that the political party was out of place in the post-modern and post-political era. Yet, among the many surprising political developments of the post-crash era was a revival of political parties. In recent years, new political parties such as the Five Star Movement in Italy and Podemos in Spain have been founded; meanwhile, parties with a long history like the UK Labour party are transforming as a consequence of the influence of grassroots organisations like Momentum. At the heart of this comeback is not merely a return of old organisational structures inherited from the industrial era but also a process of profound organisational innovation that reflects the rapid technological change we have witnessed in recent years as a result of the so-called digital revolution.

Despite its association with immobility and conservatism, the political party is a rather pliable organisational template that integrates the forms of organisation and communication that are prevalent at the time. While the industrial era saw the party styling itself after the Fordist factory, in these times of social media and apps it has come to adopt the quality of Facebook and other digital companies known under the collective acronym of FAANGs (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google). Looking at the workings of ‘digital parties’ such as the Pirate Parties, the Five Star Movement and Podemos, it soon become apparent that what these organisations propose is a sort of political translation of the operational model that brought to success figures such as Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. These political organisations apply the logic of the digital company to the political arena, to reap economies of scale in the way they reach out to their supporters and involve them in online discussions and decisions.

The disintermediation achieved by FAANGs in several areas of information – culture, knowledge, commerce, entertainment – is being translated by digital parties in the promise of a more direct democracy that would disintermediate between voters and representatives. By using the platform logic, these parties aim at doing away with the bureaucratic “third element”, described by Antonio Gramsci in his discussion of the “modern prince”, which was considered central to the operation of the mass party and which is now considered not only an unnecessary intermediary but also as a bias factor in projecting the will of the people. In the same way that social media bears the promise of eliminating bottle-necks in the system of communication and information, intermediaries, such as the mainstream media, retail malls, restaurants and the like, so does the digital party promise to use digital media to facilitate the direct participation of the citizenry in all the important decisions that concern the people. This project affects different facets of the party, such as its definition of membership, organisational structure, and the design of policy and political content.

The platformisation of the party.

Digital parties display evident analogies to the platform logic of digital companies. This is visible at the most superficial level in the way these formations have integrated in their operation a series of digital services – from social media  for purposes of external communication; to various instant messaging apps, such as WhatsApp and Telegram, for internal communication. Social media has been instrumental in the success of movements like Podemos, the Five Star Movement and Momentum. These organisations have managed to skilfully utilise these channels, often becoming the most popular political organisations on social media in their countries. But the turning towards a platform logic goes further and deeper than the adoption of corporate platforms. Digital parties have also established their own platforms, ‘participation portals’ that act as the gathering point for a digital assembly of registered members  to conduct internal discussions and deliberations.

Several structural similarities exist between digital platforms and platform parties. First, like digital companies these political formations are data driven. Not only are they organised around social media, given the importance it plays in their propaganda and internal discussion, they also adopt the logic of collecting and aggregating user data in the course of their decision-making processes. By establishing their own participatory platforms, platform parties leverage user data aggregation, not too dissimilarly from what happens with companies such as Facebook or Amazon. They unite in the same ‘database’ hundreds of thousands of citizens, organising them around common interests, demands and wishes. Furthermore, using the polling and rating mechanisms built into the architecture of social media and online platforms more generally, they engage their members/users in all forms of consultations, constantly charting their shifting opinions with the ultimate aim of adapting to their evolving tendencies.

Second, digital parties operate with a free registration model in which membership is disconnected from financial contribution. For example, in the case of France Insoumise, it is sufficient to write one’s name and email address, and hit the button ‘je soutien’ (I support) to become a member. Beppe Grillo has repeatedly celebrated the fact that becoming a member of the Five Star Movement is completely free as a move that opens up the formation to anybody, irrespective of their income and condition. However, the purpose of this move belies the less idealistic end of momentous growth. By adopting this free membership model, digital parties are also following on the track that has been paved since the late 1990s by digital advocacies such as MoveOn, Change.org or Avaaz, which enlist internet users as ‘members’ simply for agreeing to be on their mailing list and for having participated in any activity at any time – for example by having signed a petition.

The redefinition of membership has been key to allow these formations to grow at unprecedented rates and thus harness monstrous economies of scale. Like commercial platformism, political platformism is chiefly concerned with quantity and scale. It is geared towards gathering ever-increasing numbers of members in its ‘stack’. As argued by Rick Falkvinge in his 2013 book Swarmwise, “All swarms are a matter of quantity. Quantity of people. Like army ants in the Amazon rainforest, it is a matter of overpowering your opponents with sheer biomass through superior ability of organization and ability to channel volunteer energy.” Turning to the agreed registration model allows these parties to lift traditional barriers between members and sympathisers, such as those described by Maurice Duverger. However, this can also mean that membership becomes devalued, with the risk of enlisting a vast but largely de-responsibilised, and therefore de-mobilised, base, with little more commitment than the occasional petition signers of websites such as MoveOn.

Third, digital parties rely on the free political labour of their members, made available through their involvement in digital campaigning. In Swarmwise, Falkvinge explains that ‘a key aspect of the swarm is that it is open to all people who want to share in the workload’. He suggests that supporters should be “encouraged to pick work items off a public list, without asking anybody’s permission, and just start doing them”. A similar philosophy has been proposed by Bernie Sanders’ staffers Becky Bond and Zack Exley in their ‘distributed organising’ blueprint. As expressed by their flagship motto, “The revolution will not be staffed”, instead of relying on salaried organisers, progressive campaigns need to tap into the volunteer political labour available by their most ardent supporters, what they describe as “super-volunteers”. Besides, the contribution of these highly active volunteers, the smaller and extemporaneous interactions of sympathisers also play a significant role for the success of digital parties’ campaigning. This is due to the architecture of social media, and the importance played by social media ‘fans’, as ‘likers’ and ‘sharers’, thus making political contents visible to their own personal network of contacts.

Disintermediation and distributed centralization. 

‘Disintermediation’ has indeed become an oft-repeated keyword in the discourse of Beppe Grillo and other digital leaders. What is promised here is a direct participation of citizens in political decisions overcoming the distance between citizens and politics. Ushering in a more direct participation is seen as being premised on the elimination of the party apparatus, the so-called third element represented by the party’s bureaucracy and its local cadres which Gramsci considered as a necessary articulating texture between the leadership and the membership. In its stead, digital parties install participatory platforms, which in their apparent ‘horizontality’ and ‘openness’ are considered as providing a more direct and unmediated link between the base and the summit of the party.  However, also in this case, the discourse of disintermediation belies a reality of reintermediation in which doing away with previous forms of mediation is accompanied by the construction of higher-level mediations. Thus, rather than leading to an elimination of the so-called third element, the platform can be seen as a transfiguration of this intermediary structure.

First, as happens with FAANGs companies, the role of intermediation performed by digital parties consists in the centralisation of organisational functions, which is the necessary counterpart of more distributed and open access. This may be described as a “distributed centralisation”, a process of organisational polarisation that empowers both the leadership and ordinary members at the expense of the cadres and the bureaucracy. This counter-intuitive trend is echoed in Becky Bond and Zack Exley’s discussion of big organising, where “the plan is centralised and the work is distributed”. Namely, in the digital party there is a greater openness and flexibility in the way in which people can participate, but this goes hand in hand with a strong central control about strategy.

The key way in which this centralisation is attained is through the construction of a centralised database of members which is constantly queried by the various scripts used in their participatory platforms. This situation contrasts sharply with the custom of traditional branch-based parties in which lists of members were often maintained locally and local cadres had much influence over the decision-making process. On this front, digital parties seem to continue on a track of development that was already visible embryonically in the plebiscitary transformation of ‘cartel parties’, which introduced primaries and direct leadership elections. Although justified on the basis of greater organisational efficiency and a more direct membership democracy, this centralisation of the members’ list and of the decision-making process obviously raises questions about its consequences for internal power dynamics, particularly in view of the significant advantage it accords the existing leadership vis-à-vis possible contenders.

Secondly, even though the platformisation of parties is often presented as a means to allow the membership to be listened to in an unsupervised manner without any top-down control or bias, this is hardly the case. Advocates claim that digital platforms will champion spontaneous and authentic engagement, allowing ‘the people to decide’ on whatever issue, without any pre-defined decision or indication coming from the leadership. Hereby, emphasis is laid on the process, where “the workflow becomes an iterative, evolutionary process of trial and error, of constantly adapting and improving, without anybody’s supervision to make it happen”, as proposed by Falkvinge. This narrative casts an image of the platform as a transparent and purely technical apparatus, a digital version of the square of any physical gathering space that serves merely to bring people together. This metaphor of the agora often goes with proclaims of leaderlessness, voiced by politicians in the Pirate Party and the Five Star Movement, or more moderate attempts to say that leadership is simply a ‘spokespersonship’ or a ‘facilitation’ of what people have decided collectively. Yet this narrative serves precisely to conceal the persistence of power structures within the party, and of forms of management and influence of the decision-making process. Gramsci’s third element thus is not eliminated. Simply, it is the platform with its biases and hidden forms of control that becomes the intermediary.

This hidden bias becomes apparent at different levels: in the leanings inherent in decision-making software and the way it allows for certain behaviours while prohibiting others; in the process of management of decision-making and the way in which the party staff can influence the results of digital ballots through their timing and the formulation of questions submitted to the base. It highlights how, far from the edifying picture of a digital ‘basis democracy’, digital parties often correspond more to a model of plebiscitarian democracy, which is strongly top-down in its orientation. But there is a third important implication of platformisation that should not be overlooked. Platformisation results in a subordination of content to process, sometimes at the cost of the loss of a coherent party line. To understand this point it is worth musing upon the changing meaning of the term platform in party discourse. Traditionally, in political contexts, the term platform was used to indicate the set of policies pursued by a political party, typically presented before elections in the party manifesto. By inverting the order of the terms platform and  party, the digital party also inverts the meaning of the notion of platform.

Emphasis moves away from content and towards process. What keeps the party together is no longer the adherence to and pursuit of a given set of policies that are seen to embody the party’s objectives in accordance with its ideology, but rather the ethos of open participation and the members’ experience of common involvement in decision-making and campaigning efforts. The party becomes process-oriented, the temporary and never finished product of an ever-changing dynamic, constantly responding and adapting to the  transformation of the environment. And this proceduralism ends up carrying evident risks for the party’s identity and strategic coherence.

The digital party may profit much from its being cloud-like, which in turn is what allows it to be capable of almost wondrous growth, similar to the business model of start-up companies. However, by the same token it is also as inconsistent as the clouds. It can condense great popular anger and hope, and flash thunderbolts of rage, but just like a cloud it can also rapidly disperse into blue skies and thin air in response to the ever-changing winds of public opinion. Ultimately, unless the digital party manages to find a way to give solidity to its energy, either by routinising the charisma of the hyper-leader or giving weight to its organisational structure, it risks experiencing the same mortality rate of start-ups or, worse, could end up becoming a party just like the others it so vehemently criticises.

Paolo Gerbaudo is the Director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College, London. He is the author of Tweets and the Streets (2012) and The Mask and the Flag (2017)

Published 7th May 2019

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