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.

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.

The German Pirate party leader Bernd Schloemer. Photograph: Getty Images.
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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.