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European anti-politics: reading the runes in Italy and Germany

The success of the Pirate Party and Italian comedian Beppe Grillo is symptomatic of our times.

The German Pirate party leader Bernd Schloemer.
The German Pirate party leader Bernd Schloemer. Photograph: Getty Images.

There is no denying that the electoral results in France and Greece last weekend will have a significant impact on European politics in the short- term. But to get a picture of how things will look further into the future, it may be wise to pay attention to two rather more minor elections that took place this weekend.

The poll in Germany’s Schleswig-Holstein region not only signalled danger for Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition; it also confirmed the establishment of a significant protest movement – the Pirate Party. Meanwhile in Italy, surprisingly high levels of background support for Mario Monti’s technocracy have combined with the emergence of a populist comedian, Bepe Grillo, as a serious political figure.

These developments, diffuse as they may seem, are intimately linked. They point to a growing backlash against the mainstream parties (also in evidence in Greece), but this backlash is not just about disappointment in the parties’ handling of the issues of the day – austerity, growth and the rest. It is tied to the long-term emergence of an anti-political culture that places a potentially dangerous amount of faith in supposedly “neutral” solutions to political problems.

In Germany, the Pirate Party runs on a platform of abolishing copyright restrictions and radically opening up access to information. Their manifesto is a challenge to the old way of doing things – they want to end what they call the “principle of secrecy” and usher in a new era of transparency that allows citizens to interact with government in an entirely open information system.

But in making this claim, the Pirate Party reveals its troubling belief that representative politics can essentially be replaced by technology. Their own method for formulating policy uses an online platform called Liquid Feedback, which allows members to formulate and vote for proposals – the most popular policies eventually make it into the manifesto. The implication is that this supposedly non-hierarchical structure is how politics in general should work. It is as if citizens – left to their own devices and without the interference of traditional parties and the state apparatus – would be able to reach entirely uncontroversial policy decisions.

But this process neatly avoids the question of how executive power is wielded in such a radically open political system – indeed, evidence suggests that certain members of the Pirate Party are rather more equal than others when it comes to policymaking. And it entirely circumvents the age-old democratic problem of how to protect minority rights in a majoritarian system.

The Pirate Party’s success in Schleswig-Holstein this weekend is symptomatic of wider changes in the way citizens are coming to view democratic processes. The belief that technology provides a route to “neutral”, uncontroversial policy decisions is linked to a more general lack of faith in the traditional toolkit of representative politics – values-based partisanship, interest representation and the political skills of negotiation and compromise.

Further evidence of this move towards anti-politics can be seen in the results coming out of Italy. Much of the media has tended to frame this weekend’s local elections as a chance for Italians to show their frustration with the Monti regime. But in fact it is impossible for Italians to vote against Monti’s government, for the simple reason that the government is unelected. Granted, lower poll numbers for the mainstream parties which shore up the technocracy may be an indirect indicator of dissatisfaction, but the fact remains that the government is once-removed from political accountability.

What the election results really show is a rejection of the mainstream parties in favour of a comedian running on a fervently anti-political platform. Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement plays on people’s distrust of politicians, proposing to give "the entire public the role of government and guidance normally attributed to a few". Grillo’s success in these elections is a marker of the disrepute into which Italian representative politics has fallen. When this is combined with surprisingly high levels of support for the technocratic government, the trend is clear: people are increasingly inclined to believe that there are non-political, neutral solutions to political problems. Whether these solutions come in the form of a finance-oriented technocracy or a comedy-oriented populist, the point is that the answers to Italy’s economic and social problems are seen as having little if anything to do with democratic politics.

The scenes from Paris over the weekend were a timely reminder of what real democratic politics can be: a contest between different conceptions of how society should be organised, and a means of mobilising large numbers of citizens to take a role, albeit limited, in their own government. The danger is that such exhibitions of the value of representative democracy will become fewer and farther between.

William Brett is a PhD candidate at UCL and a research assistant at the Centre for Financial Analysis & Policy.