Dr. Paolo Gerbaudo, Senior Lecturer in Digital Culture and Society & Director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of  “The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy” talks to ENA Institute for Alternative Policies about digital parties, their public, the prospects of their internal democratization and the difference between digital and transformative politics →

What is a digital party? How you discern digital parties from other parties that utilise digital practices?

The digital party can be describe the new organisational template seen across a number of new political formations that have been created in recent years, from the Pirate Parties that have emerged in many Northern European countries, to left-wing populist formations such as Podemos in Spain and France Insoumise in France, down to new campaign organisations such as Momentum, driving the surge in popularity of Corbyn’s Labour Party in the United Kingdom. Despite their manifest differences, these various formations display evident commonalities in the way in which they promise to a deliver a new politics supported by digital technology; a kind of politics that – as featured by different elements of this opening scene – professes to be more democratic, more open to ordinary people, more immediate and direct, more authentic and transparent.

Who are the public of digital parties?

The public is very diversified as is the electorate of these parties, which encompasses students, the urban middle class, and young precarious workers, but also the unemployed, industrial workers, and even pensioners. However, the most important component has been made of what in my work I describe ‘connected outsiders’, people who while often possessing a high level of internet connectivity and education, as well as being younger than average, is faced by economic insecurity and a perception of exclusion from the political process. They are the people who prize the most the culturaland social innovations brought by digital technologies and services,which have seeped into the most remote corner of their life. Yet, they also stand in the front line of the most obnoxious effects of this technologicalchange. Connected outsiders are  caught in a condition of dissonance between their cultural and socio-economic conditions and have been particularly responsive to the appeal of digital parties.

Does a party’s digitization lead to its internal democratization? What is the position of party leader?

The organisational template introduced by the digital party has the merit of updating the party form to the technological and social conditions of our era. The digital party has demonstrated the ability to operate efficiently despite extremely limited economic resources, and introduced new forms of membership involvement, as seen in processes of participatory legislation, where ideas for new parliamentary initiatives are crowdsourced from members. However, such organisational restructuring does not result, as some digital party advocates would like us to believe, in a radical diffusion of power in the organisation, nor does it lead to a situation in which ‘anyone is worth anyone else’, as suggested by the Five Star Movement slogan (ognuno vale uno ). Rather, we are faced with a more ambivalent trend, which may be described as ‘distributed centralisation’, to express the way which the opening at the party’s bottom is accompanied by an increasing concentration of power in the hands of the charismatic party leader, whom I describe as the ‘hyperleader’, and his or her immediate entourage.

What are the main similarities and differences between Podemos and M5S digital strategies?

The 5 Star Movement is in some ways the quintessential digital party. This is because it is the formation that has most radically dispensed of the traditional party bureaucracy. It has studiously avoided party offices and branches seen as an old vestige of traditional parties. Podemos in comparison is a more traditional left party. It has many of the typical bodies found in socialist and communist parties, a central committee, a guarantee committee, a general secretary etc. While the digital assembly of all online registered members is significantly larger in Podemos (500,000 people versus 100,000 in the Five Star Movement), in the 5 Star Movement the platform has been invested with a greater symbolical role, and this movement has conducted a far greater number of consultations. My belief is that an effective and democratic movement should try to reconcile the new organisational platform-based model with more localised structures of participation, so as to allow to also pursue tasks of social integration of the membership and the broader community of reference.

What is the relationship between digital political politics and transformative politics?

Digital politics is to a great extent at the heart of much of contemporary transformative politics. Social media, memes, chats, instant messaging have become the main channel for much of the new political organizing and communication that goes on, and this is not anymore just a hype, but the reality anybody who is involved in activism these days knows. This however should not lead us to celebrate nor fetishise digital technology. As we know all too well digital platforms are owned by the largest and greediest of corporations. But as in previous historical eras social movements do not have much of a choice but to engage with the existing spaces, and accept them as the necessary battlefield, especially if one aims at mobilising the mass. Digital platforms are the space where some of the most hopeful but also despairing aspects of our society are put on display. But they are also a powerful tool of social cooperation that can be partly wrested from the hands of its capitalist owners, and turned into a weapon for the popular classes.