A Preliminary Analysis of the Political Values Embedded in Rousseau, the Decision-Making Platform of the Five Star Movement (Part II)

In my previous post, I have outlined three distinct information flows (bottom-up, top-down, and horizontal) that are incorporated in Rousseau, the decision-making platform of the Five Star Movement (M5S). So far I have discussed Lex Members, the area that allows for a regulated exercise of direct democracy through the activation of all M5S members in the writing of a bill of law.

In the second part of this report, I will be focusing on the remaining flows (top-down and horizontal) through an analysis of the areas that are dedicated to the discussion and modification of the bills introduced by elected representatives (top-down) and of the areas that enable the sharing of information among elected representatives (horizontal).  Then I will develop some preliminary observations on the conception of democracy that Rousseau seems to embed and reflect.

2. Lex Europa, Lex Parlamento, and Lex Regione present identical functionalities so I will discuss their structural affordances as one. Even though the different jurisdictions (European, national, and regional) can activate different constituencies (for example, M5S members can only visualize the region where they reside) the modes of interaction between elected representatives and party members are very similar across the three sections.

After an elected representative has drafted a bill proposal she uploads it to her area and presents it with a short video. The videos have the function of making the proposal accessible to all members, who are invited to respond using one of five buttons: Addition [Integrazione], Modification, Objection, Suggestion, and Defect of Form. A sixth button allows for Off Topic comments. Members can also vote their preferred comments (using one to five stars) but cannot comment on other comments. This means that these areas of Rousseau are designed to enable an exchange of opinions between the MPs and their constituents but not to open up a larger discussion within the party.

schermata Rousseau

According to Nunzia Catalfo and Manlio Di Stefano, who are responsible for uploading the bill proposals to Lex Parlamento, Lex is intentionally designed to be an operational instrument rather than an outlet for extended discussions, which are usually relegated to social media, the Beppe Grillo blog, Meetups, and other forums. Nothwidthstanding this, the consultative process has a significant impact on the way M5S representatives draft bills. Indeed, each proposal drafted by an M5S spokesperson is discussed on Rousseau for sixty days. At the end of the consultation, the MP who introduced the bill is supposed to select the most significant comments (and here the selection process can never be entirely neutral) and use them to amend the proposal before introducing it officially in Parliament. This consulative process stretches the phase of bill drafting of about three months, but it allows for the elaboration of bills that are shared with the party base at a level of granularity that is unmatched by any other political party.

It should be noted that this process of extended consultation on the Web did not begin with Rousseau. The M5S bill for the introduction of a citizen income (reddito di cittadinanza) that is supposed to provide a minimal guaranteed income to roughly 9 million Italians who live below the povery line was drafted back in 2013 through an extended consultative process. According to senator Nunzia Catalfo, the proposal received roughly 9.000 comments (on the old M5S portal), some of which were used to amend the bill. Catalfo notes that in the future the M5S bills that will receive significant citizen input will list, among the bill proponents, the names of the citizens who contributed the most via Rousseau.

3. Finally, Rousseau plays a role in helping M5S members who run for elections or have been newly elected at a local level to acquire administrative competences that are essential to their job. The two main areas that are dedicated to this are E-learning and Sharing. The former is a series of clear and informative video tutorials led by Enrica Sabatini, an elected councillor in the City of Pescara and senator Nicola Morra. The tutorials go from the general to the specific and concern the Constitutional and legislative regulation of local administrative branches, the role of their governing bodies, all the way “down” to the functioning of committees and departments.

Although Sharing has not been activated yet, the area will be reserved to newly elected local administrators, who will be given the opportunity to share best practices and normative acts across the national territory. After Marco Piazza and Max Bugani ended the presentation of this area, it became clear that many newly elected M5S spokespersons have found it difficult to familiarize themselves with the bureaucratic machines of their cities. Thus E-learning and Sharing are meant to function as peer mentoring tools for an emerging class of citizens who lack the administrative capacities of more established politicians. In this respect, Rousseau can be seen as a co-training platform, which replaces to a certain extent a political party’s cadre school. To be sure, traditionally speaking, political parties provide their perspective cadres with a political formation which goes well beyond counseling for inexperienced administrators. Yet Rousseau could reserve this more strictly political educational function to other areas of the platform (including the still incubating Activism) in the future.

In conclusion, the coexistence of three distinct information flows in Rousseau (bottom-up, top-down, horizontal) bespeaks a hybrid model of democracy. Although M5S activists usually refer to Rousseau as a direct democracy platform, I believe it is more opportune to describe Rousseau as a platform that supports participatory democracy. I base this claim on the way the structural affordances of Rousseau (in short, what Rousseau allows users to do and not to do) have been designed.

As we have seen, only one of the nine areas that are currently available, Lex Members, is dedicated to proposals that come directly from the party base. Additionally, the Vote area allows members to express their opinion on decisions that are be taken by the MPs (most recently on two bills on the so-called biological testament and euthanasia). In the case of Lex Members, as we have seen, the MPs are in charge of pre-selecting the proposals based on the three requisites of constitutionality, financial feasibility, and non-contradiction with existing proposals. In regard to the Vote area, the MPs determine, along with the M5S political leadership, which parliamentary bills should be subject to a pre-vote on Rousseau and which ones should not. Further, the three areas Lex Parlamento, Lex Regione, and Lex Europa are dedicated to the discussion of proposals that have been formulated by the M5S “spokespersons.” Thus, since Rousseau protects the autonomy and foregrounds the initiatives of the elected representatives it seems inappropriate to define it as a direct democracy platform.

At the same time, it is important to underscore that the frequent consultations to which M5S members are invited to participate go well beyond the electoral process. To my knowledge, there are no other major parties in Italy and Europe that consult their party bases as frequently as the M5S. Yet it is also important to note that these consultations occur within a framework that does not allow party members to change the decision-making process. For example, it is signifcant that Rousseau tends to separate the moment of discussion (which is limited to user feedback on predetermined proposals) from the moment of voting. Not only voting and discussion are allocated in different areas but more complex deliberative processes which would allow users to co-write, amend and rank proposals (rather than simply voting for two proposals within a list of dozens) are ruled out from the beginning. Thus, in compartimentalizing debate and decision-making, Rousseau tends to separate what Chantal Mouffe calls the political–i.e., the unfiltered antagonisms that exist within societyfrom politics, understood as the shared institutional sphere within which these antagonisms are channeled and regulated. In this way, the antagonistic poisitions that may exist within the M5S are left out of the platform, whose ultimate function is to make political representation more transparent, accessible, and open to the input of all citizens.

Finally, let me close this preliminary analysis of Rousseau with a technical observation. As I noted, one of the most qualifying aspects of Rousseau is to be designed to easily allow M5S members to vote on a range of subject matters from the expulsion of dissidents to bill proposals that are drafted by members to official bills that are about to be voted in Parliament.  Even though the MPs vow to follow the indications that come from Rousseau the aforementioned lack of a verifiable voting procedure exposes these consultations to the accusation of being untrustworthy. Thus if the M5S wants to turn Rousseau into a model for participatory democracy it needs to do a much better job in this area. In an influential book of the late 1990s Lawrence Lessig coined a dictum: “Code is Law.” If the citizens-who-want-to-become-state are learning the legal codes (beginning from the Constitution), that allow them to run the state machine effectively, the centrality of the Internet to the M5S constitution and organization suggests that they also need to familiarize themselves with the underlying digital codes that regulate their remote interactions. From this perspective, for Rousseau to be a truly democratic platform, the release of its source code–its Digital Constitution, if you will–is a step that can no longer be postponed. This is not only a matter of transparency, but, as I said, of democracy. Indeed, as Nicola Morra says at the beginning of this video presentation of Rousseau, “since power that is not democratic fights transparency and sharing [of knowledge], it is our task to multiply transparency and sharing .”

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