Paolo Godani's interview on digital populism and recent European political phenomena, held on 24th January 2014 with the author of Obsolete Capitalism.
(Here! Godani's interview 4 download or online reading). All interviews on digital populism - in Italian language - are collected into a single file HERE.
(Here! Godani's interview 4 download or online reading). All interviews on digital populism - in Italian language - are collected into a single file HERE.
Crowd, Power and Post-democracy in the 21st Century
'Rural fascism and city or neighborhood fascism, youth fascism and war veteran's fascism... fascism of the couple, family, school, and office. Only the micro-fascism can answer the global question: "why does desire long for its repression? how can it desires its very own repression?’
— Gilles Deleuze, Fèlix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus
On the micro-fascism
Obsolete Capitalism Let us start from the analysis Wu Ming set out in their brief essay “Grillismo: Yet another right-wing cult coming from Italy” and which interprets Grillo’s Five Star Movement as a new authoritarian right-wing faction. Why did the desire for change of much of the electorate long once again for its very repression? We seem to witness the re-affirmation of Wilhelm Reich’s thought: at a given moment in history the masses wanted fascism. The masses have not been deceived: they have understood very well the danger of authoritarianism; but they have voted it anyway. Even more worrying is that the authoritarian Berlusconi's Freedom People (PDL) and Grillo’s Five Star Movement (5SM) conquer more than half of the Italian electorate together. A very similar situation arose in the UK in May 2013, with the UKIP’s exploit in the latest local elections. Why and in what measure are the toxins of authoritarianism and micro-fascism present in contemporary European society?
Paolo Godani I believe that the macro-political reflection, as is that of Wu Ming, and the micro-political analysis that you propose should be carried out separately. They should be considered, formally at least, as different floors, each having its own categories and inner organization. The consideration of Wu Ming and others after them — thinking for instance about the recent text by Alessandro Dal Lago, Clic. Grillo, Casaleggio e la demagogia elettronica (Cronopio 2013) — concerns the explicit and, as a result, exploits the same categories fed to ordinary political debate and reflects on the global and explicit distribution of consent as it emblematically appears in the general election. On the other hand a micro-political analysis ignores global partitions since it turns its attention to trends that are not instantly visible, or often unconscious, and that cut through the entire social field, returning a different configuration than that emerging from ordinary political discourse. In this sense it is essential to identify those micro-fascist instances crossing the Italian society precisely because they are found where they shouldn’t be, according to the macro-political analysis. I would then answer separately the question on authoritarianism and the one on micro-fascism.
I think it is crucial to understand authoritarianism as a systemic factor rather than as a localised and contingent tendency. Rather than this or that party or movement, it’s the government’s dispositif put in place in European countries at the time of the crisis that are authoritarian — in an attempt to limit ourselves to the here and now. Authoritarian is the fact that austerity policies, privatisation, cuts to social and cultural spending and so forth are largely imposed by governments devoid of popular legitimacy. The cases of Greece and Italy are emblematic — but even in France the situation isn’t too different. In short, traditional left and right political forces carry out the same kind of economic policies, which therefore remain totally indifferent to electoral alternation. This is, I believe, the reason why antisystemic political movements have been emerging in Greece, Italy and France. The fact that a significant part of these movements arises from the far-right can be accounted to the following: firstly the almost total lackness of any credible alternative system and secondly the fact that in times of crisis — one that is inseparably economic and psychic — the only tangible way out rely on unconscious investments of paranoid form which give rise to reactionary or, at worst, suicidal outcomes.
To my understanding, micro-fascisms are rooted precisely in this area of paranoid–reactionary investments. Which translates to something very simple: facing an issue arising from the current state of affairs, a challenge involving a transformation of self habits, categories and established practices one doesn’t play along nor even try solutions or possible mediations but rather withdraws into oneself with the feeling of being surrounded. This paranoic castling is as much a psychological as an economic and political move; and in any case it is the sign of a profound weakness. Here two examples: the closure of borders in the face of migration, and the proposal of leaving the Euro when facing the problems of the single currency’s imbalances and the global competition — resembling, and not just by chance, the “exit” from the world market advocated by fascist ideologies. It goes without saying that, on a political level, nationalism is a key ingredient for these kind of micro-fascisms.
If this is current state of affairs it is easy to spot micro-fascist instances behind every corner, from the far-right to the far-left and passing through those hybrids, albeit very different from each other, such as the Lega Nord and the 5SM.
1919, 1933, 2013. On the crisis
OC In 2008 Slavoj Žižek said that when the normal run of things is traumatically interrupted, the field is open for a ‘discursive’ ideological competition. In Germany in the early 1930s Hitler won the competition to determine which narrative would explain the reasons for the crisis of the Weimar Republic — the Jewish conspiracy and the corruption of political parties. Žižek ends his reflection by stating that the expectations of the radical left to get scope for action and gain consent may be deceptive as populist or racist formations will prevail: the Greek Golden Dawn, the Hungarian Fidesz, the French Front National, the UK Independence Party are examples. Italy has had farcical groups such as the Lega Nord or the recent Five Star Movement, a bizarre rassemblement that seems to combine Reverend Jones People's Temple with Syriza, or ‘revolutionary boyscoutism’ with the disciplinarism of the societies of control. How can one escape the crisis? What discursive, possibly-winning narratives should be developed? Are the typically Anglo-Saxon neo-Keynesian politics an answer or, on the countrary, is it the new authoritarian populism that will prevail?
PG Let’s keep in mind that when talking about the current crisis we are referring to a variety of distinct phenomena. There is the contingency of the global economic crisis that erupted in 2008, from which most of the developed countries recovered and that can be seen as one of the many cyclical crises that have marked the history of capitalism. There also is what has been rightly called a permanent crisis, that is a crisis which identifies itself with a profound transformation of capitalism summed up in the formula ‘becoming rent of profit’: in response to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (due to at least partially different mechanisms from those analysed by Marx) the current capitalism responds with a kind of valorization taking place outside of the production processes and namely through financialization. This leads to a self-governing capital independent from social and political dynamics (from the conflicts on the ground of surplus value production i.e. labor, and from the institutional mediations) and to the installation of a restricted circle of private interests able to change the fate of global economy.
Finally, there is a crisis affecting Europe and, perhaps within this, one peculiar to Italy. A crisis of standing pat, of cronyism, of endemic tax evasion… characteristics of an Italian situation we are familiar with and don’t need to pause discussing on. The European problem may be of more interest because it is a political experiment that has no historical precedent (a political union merely based on a monetary union), because the failure of such an experiment could lead to disasters of no small account (if the European Union was born to prevent a recurrence of the conditions that led to two World Wars, one could argue its dissolution is likely to make those precise conditions relevant again) and finally, I believe, because this is the fertile ground for the previously discussed fascist instances. Briefly: newly born national movements in Europe are calling for the release of their country from Euro because the latter is undoubtedly fully identified with the neoliberal policies of cutting social spending, privatisation, precarization of labour and life, low wages… Under this light, to oppose European economic policies is not a reactionary move. Moreover, in addition to this first element, there is a second equally important aspect: the national strategy with which the German economic policy exploits the European situation to increase its supremacy.
I have no recipes to answer your question on “how to escape the crisis”. I hope that if the analysis I have tried to sketch makes some sense, if it is true, for example, that populist and reactionary nationalisms are signs of impotence in the face of the authoritarianism characterising the way European governments respond to the crisis — a direct consequence of the current transformation of capitalism to which I referred before; then the one option we have is to fight it wherever possible, trying to open spaces of conflict so to enforce participation and democratic decision. The fear that governs reactionary investments is only defeated with the conquest of a real change.
The social-democratic policies based on relative redistribution of wealth have always been a sort of asymmetric mediation: they allowed to maintain the structural inequality of wealth and power among social classes, while however guaranteeing hopes of improving the conditions of life and work to subordinates strata. During the second half of the twentieth century many social struggles levered the existence of this very mediation. Even when they had radical ambitions, the welfare was the ground onto which laying down the struggles. What changed with the financialization of the economy is that States are no longer able to govern the distribution of wealth. Therefore our challenge is to invent tools able to no longer distribute but rather appropriate the wealth produced by social cooperation, while being entirely absorbed by financial circuits. If in twentieth-century capitalism the segment appropriation—distribution was largely held by the States, in a way that let put pressure on them so that a more equitable distribution followed appropriated wealth (according to the almost banal scheme elaborated by Carl Schmitt), today the problem is to build a collective, Non-State power to act directly and immediately on the appropriation of wealth, that is to say capable of re-socialising what financialization has privatized.
- On the organisation
OC In his La Peste brune Daniel Guérin argues that the conquest of Hitler’s power in Germany in 1933 occurred primarily due to "micro-organizations giving him "an unequaled, irreplaceable ability to penetrate every cell of society." The movement of Mr. Grillo has branched into society thanks to the territorial formula of meet-ups borrowed directly from the American politician Howard Dean (see Wired). However the movement is even different from the meet-ups: is it possible to propose an analysis of its escalation as a new-energy carrier in swirling mutation (Félix Guattari would have called it "the absolute motion” of Grillo-machine)? What segments, threads, streams, leaps and heterodoxies make up Grillo’s abstract war machine?
PG I wouldn’t underestimate the 5SM phenomenon; however more than a war machine it seems to be a kind of catalyst that sped up, collected and concentrated, reactions in-the-making. To an extent, nothing Grillo says wasn’t already present in the political debate — except, perhaps, some issues related to innovation in the green economy, which unsurprisingly are not among the reasons of their electoral success. Anti-caste instances, for example, have been largely present in the justicialist left propaganda of the last two decades. The opposition to the jus soli was and is a strong point of Lega Nord and generally of the Italian right. The opposition to European economic policies is shared among the entire political spectrum. The only real innovation of the 5SM is to bring common people into the Parliament. I believe that this is a positive factor — especially at a time when democracy seems to be overdetermined by economic “technique”.
I also struggle to see particularly relevant innovations at the organisational level of the 5SM: their communication tools and modes can only appear novel to a political class which grew up before the computer era. Finally, the presence of a charismatic tribune such as Grillo himself doesn’t shine as a big news in an era during which the political show needs representatives able to communicate in an immediate and affective way.
Of another kind are the comments found in Grillo’s blog, undoubtedly manifesting the purest moral and social resentment: a paranoic and self-referential delirium expressed in many similar cases — Raffaele Donnarumma wrote about this issue in Le parole e le cose. Even this delirium isn’t surprising when almost all the ways to avoid it are barred: the only antidote to this kind of phenomena is a collective discussion and the construction of a shared vocabulary and a common project through which anger and despair can leave the individual sphere.
I think, to conclude, that the 5SM shares two underlying limits with traditional political forces that prevent it from effectively undermining the aforementioned authoritarianism: a virtual organisation that produces mass demonstrations as one off events — a similar issue to that of anti-globalisation movements, and an obtuse or opportunistic confidence in representative democracy.
- On tidal waves
OC Franco Berardi wrote on MicroMega.net that the defeat of “liberist” anti-Europe begins in Italy with the last general election. According to him Italians would have said: “We will not pay the debt”. Insolvence. According to your point of view, what happened in Italy on February 24th, 2013? Gianluca Passarelli conducted an electoral study for Istituto Cattaneo that showed how the Five Star Movement electoral datum was the most homogeneous in terms of votes on the whole national territory. The “party nationalization”, defined as the extent to which parties compete with similar strength across sub-national geographic units, obtained a score of 0.9 out of 1, more than the PDL (0.889) and the left-wing Democratic Party (PD) (0.881). How could a newly-born movement not only compete with, but even beat well-established voting machines such as the ones of Mr. Berlusconi and of the organized Left?
PG I am not persuaded Bifo has reason to hope that the defeat of neo-liberal Europe has begun. Almost a year after the general election, it is now clear that the unexpected and shattering victory of the 5SM was driven back, as of today, by a conservative coalition.
The key moment for the recent Italian political situation was the election of the President of the Italian Republic. Not only because the re-election of a very old president highlights the worsening of the Italian situation, but also because Napolitano is back to being president as a sort of shelter against the nomination of Stefano Rodotà. Albeit the on-line voting system put in place by the 5SM was a farce in terms of representativeness, it is significant that most preferences fell on a politician and an intellectual (Stefano Rodotà) who had nothing to do with the populism, demagogy and justicialism that seemingly characterised the movement. One could argue that this was the single smart move Grillo made — not his idea, in fact: as it otherwise happened with Romano Prodi, Rodotà nomination helped to shed light on the possible internal fractures of the Democratic Party. A move that, if I'm not mistaken, aroused some hope in environments other than those who voted for 5SM, hence the even more profound bitterness when back to normality.
Finally, I don’t think the electoral success of the 5SM is particularly striking. At the end of the day it was the one movement who better was able to embody an objectively existing position in the political landscape: that is the opposition to authoritarian policies of austerity, or, at least, the rejection of consensus on conservative politics.
On the missing people
OC Mario Tronti states that ‘there is populism because there is no people.’ That of the people is an enduring theme which Tronti disclaims in a very Italian way: ‘the great political forces use to stand firmly on the popular components of the social history: the Catholic populism, the socialist tradition, the diversity in communism. Since there was the people, there was no populism.’ Paul Klee often complained that even in historical artistic avant-gardes ‘it was people who were lacking.’ However the radical critique to populism has led to important results: the birth of a mature democracy in America; the rise of the theory and the practice of revolution in the Tsarist Empire, a country plagued by the contradictions of a capitalist development in an underdeveloped territory (Lenin and bolshevism). Tronti carries on in his tranchant analysis of the Italian and European backgrounds: ‘In today's populism, there is no people and there is no prince. It is necessary to beat populism because it obscures the relations of power.’ Through its economic-mediatic-judicial apparatuses, neopopulism constantly shapes “trust-worthy people” similar to the "customers portfolio" of the branded world of neoliberal economy: Berlusconi’s “people” have been following the deeds of Arcore’s Sultan for twenty years; Grillo’s followers are adopting similar all-encompassing identifying processes, giving birth to the more confused impulses of the Italian social strata. With institutional fragility, fluctuating sovereignties and the oblivion of left-wing dogmas (class, status, conflict, solidarity, equality) how can we form people today? Is it possible to reinvent an anti-authoritarian people? Is it only the people or also politics itself that is lacking?
PG I dislike the term “populism”. I fully agree with Jacques Rancière when, in an article published on Libération, he shows how the notion of populism is a device for constructing a certain image of “the people", namely the image of ignorant masses, constitutively prey to their own instincts and to the dumbest demagogic sirens. Whoever makes use of the term populism should be consequent and affirm the necessity of an anti-democratic government of élites. Nobody openly claims this as a political principle since it would be “wrong", however that’s what happens in our representative oligarchies. There is only one result of anti-populist rhetoric: a full subjection to the government of élites, since it prevents the totalitarian drift to which a neglected people would lead.
Of course “the people” is neither good nor bad, for, as Rancière argues, “the people” doesn’t exist. “The people” as a single entity or mass unified by some sort of principle or tendency, does not exist; however “many peoples” do exist into one and, moreover, there are many pictures of what a “people” might be. As a consequence, one abandoned the term "people" replacing it with that of "multitude". Whatever political jargon one may adopt, the concept of populism undoubtedly has its precise governmental function in building the image of a people unified in its most brutal tendencies, thus to be subjected to the rationality of economics and political representation. Accepting the consequences induced by the use of this concept of populism considerably lessen the conditions if not of a revolt or revolution at least of a truly democratic politics.
As Deleuze repeats after Klee, the fact that “the people” is missing means that every political invention, together with every artistic one, is aimed at “the people to come”. In other words, it demands the creation of a new people. Perhaps, to oppose the use of the notion of populism means to refer to a new image of “the people”.
OC In Postscript on the Societies of Control, published in 1990, Gilles Deleuze states that, thanks to the illuminating analyses of Michel Foucault, a new diagnosis of contemporary Western society has emerged. Deleuze's analysis is as follows: control societies have replaced disciplinary societies at the beginning of the twentieth century. He writes that ‘marketing is now the instrument of social control and it forms the impudent breed of our masters.’ Let us evaluate who stands beyond two very successful electoral adventures such as Forza Italia (Berlusconi’s first party) and M5S: respectively Publitalia 80 owned by Marcello Dell'Utri, and Casaleggio Asssociati owned by Gianroberto Casaleggio. The incontrovertible fact that two marketing companies stand behind these political projects reinforces Deleuze’s analysis. Mechanisms of control, media events such as exit polls and infinite surveys, im/penetrable databases, data as commodities, continuous spin doctoring, influencers that lead consensus on the net, opaque bots, digital squads, dominant echo-chambering. Evil media. These are the determinations of post-ideological (post-democratic?) neoliberalism. The misery of the new control techniques competes only with that of the glass house of transparency (web-control, of course). Jacques Ranciere says we live in the epoch of post- politics: how can we get out of the neo-liberal cage and free ourselves from the ideological consensus of its electoral products? What will the reconfiguration of left-wing politics be after the exhaustion of Marxist hegemony?
PG It goes without saying that marketing plays a central role in contemporary society, not merely claiming to direct but also produce social practices and lifestyles. Current power links are much more pronged and intertwined than they already were at the time of industrial capitalism and the disciplinary society. However the principle according to which no form of domain is ever entirely master of its means still holds true: to consider the control apparatus omnipotent certainly leads to impotence, rather than a search for escape routes or new weapons for the revolt.
When Rancière speaks of the end of politics he isn’t repurposing this diagnosis: he says that there is a dominant discursive regime that aims to get rid of politics, that is radical dissent, social conflict, egalitarian utopia and the idea of a new common life; and he says that this discursive regime can not be distinguished from the wish of those claiming a purely technical politics, one that is ordinary and rational management, fiercely separated from the toxic ideas of those who understand politics as a transformation of the existing, a rupture of the established and a production of dissent. The latter in particular is of evenemential nature: in a specific time and space a novel political entity emerges to organise the revolt field. Like all events, these of a political kind have a great margin of uncertainty: it isn’t just hard to predict but almost impossible to produce in a voluntarist fashion. A tactic, I believe, is to carefully look for those very small displacements, anxieties and microfractures that occur constantly and that, following uncertain reasons, could come together.
In Deleuze’s text you mentioned, modern-day capitalism is said to no longer depend on production but rather on the product, on sales and on the market; moreover, the subaltern subject is said to no longer be the confined man nor the exploited worker, but rather the indebted man. Such analyses go in the same direction of that becoming rent of profit we discussed above. It is the same process of transformation of capitalism which corresponds to the transformation of work and production — growth of social cooperation, immaterial production, harassing life, affections and so on — and to which a transformation of the political strategies of conflict corresponds.
We need to go a step forward. It is not about extending the logic of a frontal collision between power and counter-powers, nor about reversing a model suggesting, as some Italian post-workerist do, that capitalist restorations respond to those innovations brought by social cooperation and class conflict. It is about acknowledging, as Marx did, that capitalist development awoke social, technological, productive and inventive forces that no other social formation had produced. As well as understanding that the very same capitalist development raising those powers does everything possible to hold them back, enslave them to a short-sighted, destructive logic and produce an immense wealth, alongside an immense misery. This is the double jump forward needed to escape the neoliberal cage: to be fully contemporaries of our time and welcome all of capitalist modernity while seeing that the current phase of capitalism may be the basis for the emergence of a post-capitalist society. One must be on top of one’s time to be able to overcome it. In this sense I am in perfect harmony with what Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams wrote in their Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.
Paolo Godani, Italian, philosopher, he has been a research fellow at the Department of Philosophy, University of Pisa, Professor of Aesthetics. It is now a researcher at the University of Macerata. The areas and topics of his studies are: aesthetics, contemporary and theoretical philosophy. The authors he has studied are Heidegger, Nietzsche, Schmitt, Bergson and Deleuze. Among the books he has published: Il tramonto dell’essere. Heidegger e il pensiero della finitezza (ETS, Pisa, 1999), Estasi e divenire. Un’estetica delle vie di scampo ( Mimesis , Milano, 2001), L’informale. Arte e politica ( ETS , Pisa, 2005), Bergson e la filosofia ( ETS , Pisa, 2008) Deleuze (Carocci, Roma, 2009). In collaboration with Delfo Cecchi he has published Falsi raccordi. Cinema e filosofia in Deleuze ( ETS , Pisa, 2007); with Dario Ferrari, La sartoria di Proust. Estetica e costruzione nella Recherche ( ETS , Pisa, 2010). He has translated and edited: Jacques Rancière, Il disagio dell’estetica ( ETS , Pisa, 2009); Pierre Macherey, Da Canguilhem a Foucault. La forza delle norme ( ETS , Pisa, 2011). His forthcoming book will be released (May 2014) by Derive e Approdi: Senza Padri. Economia del desiderio e condizioni di libertà nel capitalismo contemporaneous.
—Painting by Stelios Faitakis: The Happy Slave, 2014