A fortnight ago Eric Schmidt took to the stage in Cambridge to preach hellfire and brimstone. He opened by describing a dystopian society shut off from the world - one whose population is kept in ignorance by an all-powerful state. This was hell, we were supposed to think. It was the kind of place whose nameless inhabitants must be known only by a number. It was, of course, North Korea.
Schmidt has recently returned from the country after one of multiple visits to quasi-dystopian internet black-spots around the world. His journey was a pilgrimage fit for a prophet of “connectivity”, the religion he has been both practising and preaching with the 20% of work time that each of Google’s employees is able to allocate to projects of personal importance. In the first five minutes of his talk, at breathless pace, he zoomed in on Mexico’s drug-blooded streets, post-civil-war Chad and the Great Firewall of China. No matter where he took us, increased connectivity would be an overwhelming force for good, even factoring in the benefit that the “bad guys” hiding in caves would derive from the virtual world. Presumably in none of these places did Schmidt suffer the ignominy of someone not knowing his name, even in the Google-less hell of the DPRK.
But as smoothly as his sermon was delivered, his performance was unsettling. True to the role Schmidt was performing, his speech was riddled with concepts he clearly took to be polar opposites: the good and the bad, the democratic and the autocratic, the virtual and the physical.Read more at the King’s Review
27th February 2011. Over five thousand Tunisian refugees have washed up on the miniscule island of Lampedusa. In Rome Nichi Vendola addresses a packed theatre. “Barbarians! Friends of dictators and of mafiosi! Barbarians!” Vendola thunders. He is talking about Berlusconi’s government, which for the last few weeks has desperately been pulling strings to prevent any more Tunisians from fleeing their country’s turmoil. A few moments before, he has told the audience how proud he is to be president of a region that welcomed Albanian refugees with open arms. He rages against the marginalisation of women, homosexuals, immigrants, prisoners – their sub-human treatment by the government, the chaos into which politics has descended. Almost everyone who is anyone in Italian politics has met with Vendola’s ire over the past few months. His message is clear: while the politicians occupy themselves with their own narrow portfolios, important issues are marginalised. He will use his platform to speak for these issues.
Nichi Vendola, currently regional president of Puglia, leads a dynamic strand of the Italian centre-left whose politics is frequently drowned out by the more familiar spectacle of flamboyant corruption and the clamour it provokes. Cutting a comparatively quiet path through this noisy political scene, Vendola has quickly become one of Italy’s most prominent left-wing politicians. His vision of a “better Italy” in which long-marginalised groups and issues are brought to the forefront of mainstream politics couldn’t contrast more starkly with Berlusconi’s regime. His talk of the need for a process in which politics becomes public property has attracted a significant following amongst younger voters, intellectuals, and even US diplomats. Vendola is now running to lead the centre-left’s 2013 challenge to Mario Monti’s technocratic government – a challenge that, with Vendola at the helm, looks like it could succeed. Last year opinion polls put his popularity above that of any other politician likely to become Italy’s next prime minister – except that of then finance minister Giulio Tremonti.
Despite these ostensibly positive omens, Vendola is not getting the attention amongst political commentators that his popularity seems to deserve. The Washington Post ran a piece on “The White Obama”, but this wasn’t a news story or even a political feature: it appeared in the “Style” section of the paper. Commentary on the state of Italian politics in the New York Times last year lamented the lack of serious alternatives to Berlusconi on the centre-left, neglecting to mention Vendola even once. The Guardian has given Vendola a platform, but tucked away in its online “Comment is Free” section. Berlusconi’s control over the Italian media may have had something to do with this in the past. In January last year, Il Giornale, a newspaper controlled by Berlusconi’s family, published a photo of a participant in a gay pride march attempting to lick Vendola’s ear. In February the same paper published another supposedly salacious photo: Vendola walking naked along the beach with friends in 1979. Il Giornale thought both exhibits provided a reason to question Vendola’s qualifications to pass moral judgement on Berlusconi’s behaviour.
Vendola doesn’t have it easy in the Italian press. But his relative international obscurity may be compounded by his estrangement from the leftist political establishment. In 2010, Vendola swept to victory in the presidential elections for the south-eastern region of Puglia for the second time; but this success came despite being dropped by the centre-left coalition as its favoured candidate. Vendola seems to have earned his unpopularity amongst the party nomenklatura by refusing to conform to a monochrome model of political identity: he is gay, speaks in heavily-embroidered prose, writes poetry, and wears an earring in one lobe. Hardly moulded in Berlusconi’s election-winning macho image then – and so hardly the best bet for president of a notoriously conservative, Catholic and mafia-ridden region.
But the importance of these differences has probably been overplayed. The centre-left did, after all, already have proof that Vendola could win in Puglia when they dropped him in 2009. Another of Vendola’s idiosyncrasies might shed more light on his political ostracism: like a sixteenth-century monarch, Vendola wears a ring on his thumb symbolising his devotion to Puglia – a gift presented to him by a Barese fisherman before his 2005 victory. With good reason the established centre-left may worry that Vendola’s devotion to his constituents will take primacy over loyalty to any political tribe, and that the battle he is fighting may disrupt their efforts to coalition-build through compromise. Is the Puglian ring the “glint of metallurgy” that Perry Anderson has searched for in what he characterised as an otherwise “invertebrate left”? Is it the symbol of a leader prepared to mount a muscular fight for the interests of his intended constituents after decades of a prevaricating left with no mettle?
Vendola has certainly struck out on a distinct course. Instead of blaming all the country’s woes on its notorious prime minister, he frequently points out that the opposition has been complicit in Berlusconi’s dominance. In recent years the centre-left has slipped into a rut of reactive politics: jealously eyeing Berlusconi’s success it has tried to emulate the centre-right in an effort to court what appears to be an increasingly conservative support base. The largest opposition party on the centre-left, the Partito Democratico (PD), emerged in 2007 from the latest of a string of re-branding exercises that have gradually edged out issues such as gay rights for fear of losing conservative voters. During the 2008 election campaign the PD refused to ally with most of the smaller parties on the left, judging their politics too extreme, and fought on a platform that differed only marginally from that of the centre-right. Walter Veltroni, its then leader, was so concerned not to put off voters attracted to the strength and vitality associated with “Berlusconismo” that he referred cryptically to “my adversary” throughout rather than mention Berlusconi by name. These centre-seeking tactics failed. After an election in which the right-wing Lega Nord (LN) made significant gains in former communist heartlands, Berlusconi joined with the Lega in an alliance that has quite comfortably given a home to regionalism and hostility to immigration.
Keenly aware of this history, Vendola proposes a remedy for the left’s malaise that is almost the complete opposite of the PD’s. Rather than taking lessons from the centre-right, he seems to think that a successful centre-left will have to do something different. His solution is not to tinker with party image in order to enhance its appeal in an electoral market apparently hostile to progressive aims. It is not his intention to revamp a product that stares out from behind the glass at consumers – a party whose function is to provide social goods being sold to a civil society whose role is to be provided for. Instead, Vendola is talking about removing the glass: dissolving the distinction between buyer and seller. He and his team are trying to “re-construct” a movement where political party and civil society are interdependent and equal partners, and where each both provides and is provided for.
The strategy seems to be this: by treating voters not as consumers of government policy but as active participants in creating “a better Italy”, the centre-left won’t have to pander to the preferences that the Lega Nord’s success seems to reveal. If voters are attracted to the movement not only by what its parties say they can provide for the electorate, but by the possibilities opened up by partnership, this will take the pressure off parties to find a promise-laden identity that matches voter preferences. Constituents themselves will share some responsibility for refining and propagating a coherent political identity – something that will emerge with time. Electoral support will no longer rest on a top-down message governed by the opinion poll and the focus group. At last the array of policies that the centre-left has shied away from for fear of alienating conservative, predominantly Catholic, voters can be accommodated: although some of its target constituents may initially be put off by these policies, their participation in a broader movement will give them other reasons to stick with the centre-left.
To plough this maverick furrow, Vendola has explicitly shifted his focus away from party-centred politics. He has rejected the tactics of an established left that Perry Anderson accuses of failing to cope with late 20th-century shifts in the workplace and the arrival of a commercialised mass culture – a left that missed the opportunity to reverse its fortunes in the late 1960s because it would not stoop from its lofty idealistic perch to connect with movements uniting Marx with “the graffiti of the spray-can present”. When Vendola was narrowly beaten in elections for Chairman of the Communist Refoundation Party (PRC) in 2008, he split from the PRC to form “Sinistra e Liberta” (Left and Liberty) a loose party-cum-coalition of leftists, feminists and greens that has already mutated to reflect the independence of its various constituent parts, becoming “Sinistra Ecologia Liberta”, and finally “Sinistra Ecologia Liberta con Vendola”. Under Vendola’s captaincy, the very idea of the political party has been rethought. No longer a tribe with a clearly-defined sense of ideological direction, the ‘party’ now serves as a brand around which different political groups can collect for different purposes: in 2009 the European, 2010 the regional, and 2013 the national elections. Vendola has even announced the demise of party-centred politics, comparing the party to “il vecchio che non può più” - literally “the old man who is no longer able”.
Shifting his focus away from the party, Vendola has reoriented his efforts towards constructing a broad, sustainable partnership with the electorate. The centrepiece of this strategy is the “Fabbrica di Nichi”, a cluster of civil society groups that collect around facebook pages under the slogan “There is a better Italy”. It is no accident that this cluster is referred to as a “fabbrica” (a factory) – that something so concrete, so evocative of tactility and materiality, has come to represent these battalions: the purported aim of the Fabbrica is to downplay ideology and foreground concrete issues. Jagged factory icons swarm over Italy on the Google Map at the centre of the Fabbrica’s home page, setting the country alight with political activity. Factories have also sprung up overseas, sometimes representing nothing more than the momentary enthusiasm of an expat Italian in Brazil or Moldova who has since abandoned his creation (the factories are very easy to establish), but elsewhere assembling a dedicated community of ‘workers’.
The map depicts a vast network of support that overflows national boundaries. Each of the nearly six hundred factories is discrete and organisationally independent, but all are part of the same Fabbrica – a single workforce operating from multiple sites of production. And the ‘product’ is as diverse as the factories themselves. In Bari, the original (and leading) factory has turned its hand to Guerilla Gardening. The Gorizia factory is organising a nationwide series of flashmobs to promote public ownership of water. Elsewhere, ‘workers’ meet to watch documentaries about the recent strikes at FIAT, to look at photography aimed to provoke discussion about immigration, and to hear prominent speakers tackling the proposition that a better Italy is possible. Berlin’s factory recently launched a campaign encouraging the Italian diaspora to buy produce from ‘Anti-Mafia’ agricultural co-operatives that Vendola established in Puglia; if successful, this kind of initiative might deliver a real dent to the Mafia’s exploitative trading practices. These are just a few examples of Vendola and the Fabbrica starting to retrieve what Perry Anderson calls the “dangerous tools of the carpenter and the farmer” discarded by the post-war Italian left – the glint of metallurgy Anderson hoped to see. Yet these tools have not solely been put to work through a party structure, but through a decentralised network that partners party-based politics.
This way of doing politics has met with acute criticism from the left. Rather than deep political engagement, the Vendola-Fabbrica pairing is viewed by commentators, the sociologist Onofrio Romano amongst them, as a distraction from the substantive issues that have traditionally concerned leftist politics. By shifting the party into the background and foregrounding an ill-defined cloud of facebook messages, meetups and campaigns, it can seem as though Vendola and his team are gutting the left of its vital structures: those mechanisms that enable it to represent constituents that would otherwise be marginalised by mainstream politics. On first glance it looks like participation in Vendola’s Fabbrica actually distances citizens from the great cogs and levers of state power. There are no formal mechanisms to ensure integration of the policy ideas produced by the factories into Vendola’s politics. Meetings at the Fabbrica’s Bari headquarters are ostensibly held to consider its members’ suggestions, but final decisions are always made behind the administration’s closed doors.
According to its critics, Vendola has disempowered his constituents by moving away from party-centred politics. Parties bridge the divide between formal political institutions and civil society, reaching out to those with weak voices and taking account of their views. They are there to structure deliberation, sculpting the interests of those they represent into coherent demands and programmatic policy; any rivals to party-centred politics had better demonstrate that they provide just as good a bridge between represented and representation. But if a process of aggregating and sculpting constituents’ views into a coherent political programme is really going on in the Fabbrica, it’s difficult to detect. Instead, a structural hole seems to be opening up between Vendola and any real understanding of his constituents – a dangerous prospect in any partnership.
If you are convinced of this disconnect, its symptoms are easy to spot. Though the Fabbrica is a hive of activity, its actions are not obviously connected by an underlying strategy driven by a shared diagnosis. Examining the wake trailing behind the factories you could – in a glass half-empty kind of way – see the disparate petitions, protests and interventions as a line of failures to agree what constitutes the promised “better Italy” rather than an encouraging wave of citizen-led change. Vendola has published a book in collaboration with the Fabbrica entitled “Cè un’Italia migliore” (“There is a better Italy”), but fans of clean narrative lines in politics – of five-, six-, or even eight-point plans - will be disappointed: Vendola’s text runs to 189 pages. His manifesto for running the region of Puglia comprises no fewer than 35 “programmatic declarations”, each spread over about three pages of text.
This fragmentation could be a worrying sign that the problems in most urgent need of political representation are passing under-examined through Vendola’s political machine, resulting in the emergence of nothing but a shallow populism. At worst the Fabbrica may be held together by a mixture of Vendola’s charisma and the superficial satisfaction that its overwhelmingly young participants derive from a feeling that they are doing something. Far from being a revolutionary new form of democratic politics, perhaps the Fabbrica is just another political tribe that feeds off the need of Italy’s younger generation – 30% of whom are unemployed – to feel like they belong, generating a ripple of activity that disrupts the surface of Italian politics but skates over any engagement with systemic problems.
In which case the real story of the Fabbrica becomes a story of Machiavellian calculation: the story of the young communications strategists who have become embedded in Vendola’s administration – puppet-masters who have created a brand that enrols Italy’s youth into a production line whose real goal is not policy output, but voter turnout. The Fabbrica appeals directly to the children of a commercialised mass culture, placing one of the key ‘low culture’ tools of contemporary consumerism – the brand – at its centre. If this story is accurate, then the real power shift has not been towards marginalised constituents but towards the unelected group of advisers whose virtual identity is veiled by a facebook account held under the name “La Fabbrica di Nichi”. If this isn’t a depoliticising move – one that shuffles decision-making out of the public realm and into the hands of a closed-off elite – then what is? Representation of marginalised issues is surely worse served by this participatory form of politics than by the parties it draws attention away from.
A different kind of politics
But it is possible to construct an equally convincing argument that the lack of formal rigour in Vendola’s political machine actually accommodates marginalised issues better than the party-centred alternative. Unsurprisingly, this is closer to the alleged Machiavellis’ own account of what they are up to – an account that contains an implicit critique of the existing party system. According to Dino Amenduni, one of the Fabbrica’s principal architects, the Fabbrica is a brand. But rather than selling Vendola to the electorate, it is a brand designed to empower people who may be neither experts nor ideologically driven by creating a self-managed space connecting political institutions to people’s broader, everyday practice of politics. The hope is that a collective and “glocal” narrative will emerge from the local narratives of each factory, and this remains the objective “whatever political direction Nichi and the factories may take”.
The idea is that a brand can be more than just a way to sell politics to the electorate: if it is designed well enough, a brand can also be a tool used by constituents. Instead of marketing a clear and uncompromisable party identity, Vendola’s team have opted to provide people and issues with the means to market themselves. The practice of politics is to be changed through a revolution in political branding, encapsulated by the slogan “a brand is not what you say, but what they say”. By connecting a broad base of constituents with Vendola and SEL, the brand is supposed to provide a canvas where the spray cans of civil society meet the words of Marx. Of course this approach has its detractors on the left. It sacrifices a purely ideologically-driven politics in favour of what can seem to be an unreflective and disorganised outburst of grievances and knee-jerk solutions. But it is nonetheless a radical approach, because it sets itself against a different, more cynical, but perhaps more accurate interpretation of the role that contemporary centre-left parties perform.
The cynical view alleges that these parties don’t simply sculpt their constituents’ interests into coherent programmes. Instead, they present prefabricated, identity-shaped moulds skewed disproportionately towards the revealed preferences of swing voters. The PD’s recent tactics provide a prime example. Constituents must crop their views so they can be squeezed into these moulds if they want to be represented: empowerment means adopting a party identity. Issues that cannot easily be cropped to fit the party’s prefabricated mould are labelled “extreme” and become marginalised. But by downplaying the role of the party in steering centre-left politics, Vendola and his team are holding off from marketing a pre-packaged identity to the electorate. Instead, issues themselves are given an opportunity to come forward, with identity playing an important but no longer central role. This is how Vendola intends to bring long-marginalised issues back into the politics of the centre-left – in theory at least.
Vendola’s 2010 campaign to retain the Puglian presidency shows this theory being put into practice. Instead of organising the campaign around an identity constructed from points of view and promises, the communications agencies attached to Vendola (Proforma and FF3300) intended to focus on “reality, facts, information”. This strategy was a viable option for Proforma and FF3300 because Vendola had already accrued several high-profile successes in Puglia. Over the past five years the region’s renewable energy sector has expanded, supplying 13% of Italy’s solar energy and 24% of its wind power, and attracting the attention of foreign investors. Puglia’s youth have benefited from extensive job stabilisation and creation programmes, the most high profile of which has established agricultural co-operatives on land confiscated from the local mafia, the Sacra Corona Unita.
But the focus on facts and reality rather than identity was more than just an opportunity to trumpet Vendola’s past successes. It was also the means by which the media strategists at Proforma could scale up a very personal project: the innovative participatory platform they had trialled a year earlier with Michele Emiliano, the mayor of Puglia’s regional capital, Bari. “EmiLab”, a networked “under-30 electoral think tank”, was created by a team of six new media specialists assembled in Emiliano’s campaign headquarters in 2008. With an average age of 23, these specialists were social network natives. In order to orientate its strategy, the group began by asking itself a question in which it had a very personal interest: why did so many young people feel the need to leave Bari to live better lives? It is difficult to disentangle professional and personal motivations for the network-building project that followed. All six young specialists had been born and brought up in Bari, and all still lived there. Via word of mouth and through existing friendship networks, the core team enrolled skilled young people with a love for their home city into the EmiLab network, which quickly became a formidable campaigning force.
EmiLab expanded by enrolling friends, then friends of friends, then friends of friends of friends (and so on) into a network – a Chinese-whisper process that will have allowed a different enrolling message at each stage of expansion. New media and extensive opportunities to participate allowed the EmiLab co-ordinators to focus on tangible and even marginal issues of personal interest to constituents, instead of selling the electorate the kind of identity-based package that can squeeze out issues that fail to fit the mould. The strategy paid off. Emiliano was re-elected mayor with nearly 20% more votes than Simeone Di Cagno Abbrescia, his opponent in the runoff elections, having trailed Di Cagno Abbrescia by 8% in summer 2008.
The 2010 Puglian presidential campaign was an opportunity for to repeat this success on a wider scale. Through both traditional and new media Vendola’s team cast political identity into the background, foregrounding a way of doing politics that was playful and experimental. Refrains – rhymes, catchphrases and icons – were hung around images representing particular issues, intended to be repeated and adapted by voters. Vendola’s face didn’t appear on campaign posters until the final weeks of the campaign – and even then only in collage form, pieced together by icons representing different issues. This suggested a way of doing politics whose principal focus was on issues themselves: on foregrounding their complexity, their simplicity, their beauty and their ugliness rather than hiding these attributes behind principle and personality.
One of the controversies used by the campaign to illustrate this issue-based politics centred on plans to build oil platforms off the coast of Puglia. The Mediterranean is a sea whose associated and unpredictable problems (immigration, pollution, even invasion) often overflow the frames imposed by pre-packaged political identities. But Vendola’s team nevertheless managed to represent the oil-platform problem in the political mainstream. One of their 2010 campaign billboards simply reads:
“Non si può
scavare il fondo
del più bel
mare del mondo.
No alle piattaforme petrolifere al largo della costa pugliese.”
drill the bed
of the most beautiful
sea in the world.
No to oil platforms along the Puglian coast.”
In a move away from the anthropocentric models of sustainability that Vendola has criticised and towards the “biocentric” understanding he favours, the poster doesn’t even attempt to provide an economic cost-benefit analysis, or a direct appeal to self-interest or ethical principles. To represent the issue thoroughly means engaging with an ineffable environmental conservatism that has long been anathema to leftist parties but which they may ignore at their expense. It is a conservatism that, if it were incorporated into an over-arching political identity, would probably alienate another broad swathe of voters keen not to let NIMBYism rein in progress. But Vendola’s poster makes it clear that this conservatism is issue-specific: it does not expect to mobilize voters based on what the issue says about Vendola’s political identity.
Instead, it trades on the way of doing politics that this form of publicity represents. The poster is a provocation designed to lodge an image of the Mediterranean and an accompanying rhyming couplet in the mind of its readers. Its aim is to generate conversation about the freshness of this approach: its simplicity, its humour-friendliness and its bold acceptance that issues cannot always be represented in all their complexity if they are forced to conform to or reinforce an already-articulated identity. Sometimes an appeal to beauty – an appeal that could sink or swim – is the only way you can really represent an issue. What’s being sold here is the absence of an overbearing political identity imposed from the top: the absence of a serious, hectoring tone issuing forth moral generalisations. Vendola’s face was absent from billboards specifically because FF3300, the collective of communications designers working on the campaign, thought it “invasive” and were happy to leave Vendola’s opponent, Rocco Palese, to “look at all the Puglians from on high”.
The Fabbrica was designed to give reality to the politics promoted by the poster campaign: a lightweight network without any clear structure imposed from the top down whose politics was to revolve around the “daily activities” of each factory and Vendola’s specific achievements. Again, the idea is to foreground issues rather than identity, a strategy that could successfully provide a political representation for previously marginalised issues. How this will affect Vendola’s chances of success in parliamentary politics is another matter; an electoral strategy that diverges so sharply from the PD’s may not go down so well in the chamber of deputies. But if the Fabbrica performs the function intended by its architects – if it does provide better representation than traditional party-centred politics – it could put pressure on the established centre-left to change. For this reason it is important not to dismiss the Fabbrica as a hopelessly insubstantive gesture simply because it’s hard to see how it can thrive in its current environment. By changing its environment there’s a chance it could establish itself as a new model for left-wing politics.
Democratising a brand
Since the Fabbrica is still in its infancy it is difficult to judge its significance. The different factories’ activities are so dispersed and often of such low intensity that it may never be easy to say what effect they are having on policy. But what can be examined more closely is the architecture of the Fabbrica: how conducive is its design to a kind of politics that rivals the party-centred system for efficacy and improves on parties’ inadequate form of representation? The Fabbrica’s architects claim that their construction is designed to foreground issues rather than identities. A brief look at the Fabbrica’s structure suggests that this claim is true. Like their more tactile equivalents, the various factories serve as sites of mobilisation; but in this case their machinery, bricks and mortar can be tinkered with by participants: the design of the factories is neither settled by original architects nor preserved by original owners. Participants (or lavoros - “workers” - as they have come to be known) can remodel their tools and surroundings to facilitate activity for which the factory’s designers never conceived its use. Rather than a surreptitious enterprise in which a pre-formed mould shapes young people into loyal voters, the Fabbrica’s branding has a depth and complexity with points of access that allow “workers” to reshape it.
This is exemplified by the malleability of the basic Fabbrica logo. The logo has been modified by many groups to produce variations that incorporate the outline of a local building or monument. Milan has the Duomo etched in the background, Turin the Mole Antonelliana, and Paris the Eiffel Tower. Genova has even chosen to relegate Vendola’s name to square brackets and a small font, as if an afterthought. The usual legally-enforced restrictions on adaptation and imitation that make a brand a form of permanent mark have not been brought to bear here: an absence of legal ownership of the factories and their livery prevents their original design from dictating the activity that plays out within their virtual walls. In very concrete sense, politics really has become public property.
The wide distribution of control over the brand’s use is more than just cosmetic. Every factory derives public exposure from association with such a prominent politician: constant updates about their activity are listed on Vendola’s website. And yet by altering its logo a factory can use this elevated platform to broadcast that Vendola and SEL are only part of what they are about. Greeted by a local monument whenever you follow a link to the factory, you are put in mind not just of an Italian politician with an election to win, but of the concrete reality of a shared place: Milan, Turin, Paris. As a participant you are assembling not just around a political identity, but around direct engagement with common world that gained your loyalty long before a charismatic leader swept you into his outsize entourage, and probably long before you knew you were “left-wing”, “liberal” or even “Italian”. And whether you know it or not, you and the brand work in tandem (through your facebook profile, for instance) to communicate this. The opportunity for gentle subversion is woven into the factories’ re-weavable fabric from the outset.
The point can be extended beyond analysis of the Fabbrica logo. The software used by the factories is not standardised: there is no single platform that might drive out particular forms of debate by being poll- or petition-focussed, by neglecting words in favour of images or by restricting the length of participants’ contributions. It seems that Vendola’s page will host any link given to it by the factories themselves. There is no restriction on how many factories may be established within a given geographical area, so anyone who wants to do things differently has the option of striking out alone and accessing the same opportunities for publicity. At this relatively superficial level at least, the Fabbrica’s openness to different and even discordant forms of representation is difficult to challenge.
The power of a partnership
Making room for the representation of marginalised issues is certainly an achievement, but virtual representation on the internet is very different from being represented in the chambers of power. Without providing that crucial link between constituents and institutionalised politics, the Fabbrica would surely mark little improvement over party-centred politics. So it can be worrying to see that those hallmarks of a healthy democratic process that give voters power over politicians (and not vice versa) – transparency and accountability – are not formally implemented within the Fabbrica.
But these concerns probably misinterpret what the Fabbrica is about. They suppose that the only way in which the factories can empower their participants is by enabling them to influence policy – that if the Fabbrica doesn’t provide this function, it is a regressive form of representation. They assume that the way for established politicians to improve politics is for them to improve already established political institutions, rather than to use established political institutions to promote extra-institutional forms of politics. Vendola seems to assume the opposite. Nothing about the Fabbrica suggests that it is predominantly a space for cultivating grass-roots policy that can later be harvested and adopted by Vendola. If it were just a policy-producing machine geared up to serve regional or national executives, participation in the Fabbrica would not have the attraction that it does.
To see how the Fabbrica trades on a different form of empowerment, return to the brand. These are factories, not research units. The point is to produce tangible, real-world interventions by using their own tools rather than to propose ideas about how the unwieldy machinery of state can be employed to address issues. In Viareggio the factory provides free tuition twice a week to primary-school children; in Florence the focus is a microcredit scheme run by a non-profit co-operative; in Rome the focus is a skill-swap time bank. “Good policy” is used in Fabbrica parlance to denote best-practice examples of “building from below”, the best of which were voted (by factory participants) not to become party policy but to become the objects of further publicity linked with the Fabbrica brand: a travelling “tour” of meetings and events that will highlight each innovation in turn. The Fabbrica is about “projects” and “activities”, not just policy. By combining his brand with the Fabbrica’s – on the cover of his books, on his website and in his campaigning material – Vendola has used his institutional platform to endorse a parallel but complementary way of engaging in political activity, not a rival to party-centred politics. So although an important part of this vision, the conduit between Vendola and the Fabbrica is not its centrepiece.
An altogether different kind of tie binds Vendola and the Fabbrica together – one that potentially empowers both. Rather than a tie of supposed subservience (politician as the servant of his people), common ownership of the “Fabbrica di Nichi” brand creates a tie of partnership for which the symbol of marriage on Vendola’s thumb is apt. Each partner brings something different to the partnership and pursues politics at different registers: Vendola hoping to operate the state machinery and the factories using much finer tools. But each also derives power from the other: if Vendola pulled against the Fabbrica’s actions, the ensuing contradiction would spoil their mutual brand’s image, damaging Vendola’s reputation by association. And vice versa. This interdependency gives both partners the potential for additional leverage over their respective domains. State machinery could, by enabling non-state organisations to operate with greater legitimacy and access to public resources, expand opportunities for groups like the factories to put their ideas into practice. Likewise the factories could, by sustaining participants’ ongoing engagement with politics, improve Vendola’s electoral prospects. Do the Fabbrica’s ‘workers’ recognise an enabling force in this brand-mediated partnership? Will this recognition at least in part sustain their participation? These are important questions for anyone wondering how the health of civil society can be improved – how a “big” or “good” society is cultivated.
Perhaps no group has a greater interest in sustaining the Vendola-Fabbrica partnership than the alleged Machiavellis on which the brand pivots: the new media experts. Inconsistencies between Vendola’s politics and the Fabbrica’s actions are likely to place direct and quite private strains on these specialists. These are people whose value depends on the success of the new media strategies they generate. If the shared brand begins to undermine Vendola’s chance of electoral success, the new media experts will lose their importance to the team. They could quite literally be made redundant. Because of this two-front dependency, these experts will probably take every precaution they can to preserve harmony between Vendola and the Fabbrica. And there is no reason to think that Vendola would always prevail in any disagreement. Though the experts have little control over the factories’ political activity, they do have direct access to Vendola: they are, after all, the black box at the heart of his political machine. So it seems just as likely that the experts will press on Vendola to align politically with the Fabbrica as that they will press on the Fabbrica to align with Vendola. The balance of power in this relationship does not obviously tilt towards the charismatic politician.
So the Machiavellis of contemporary politics may be just as much in hock to the people as they are to their prince. Through a brand that can be shaped and reshaped by the Fabbrica’s ‘workers’, the purported puppet-masters are themselves made to move in certain ways by their supposed marionettes, just as they intended. How this relationship will pan out over the longer term is anything but settled, and anything but predictable given the comparatively short time that the Fabbrica has been in operation. Still, we should watch the Fabbrica with interest. It is one of few promising solutions to our current crises of political representation, and one of few examples of a radical attempt to reconstruct the centre-left. Italian politics might be able to teach the world something after all.
This would make a welcome change. In his 1993 book “Making Democracy Work”, Robert Putnam helped establish Italy as the paradigm case for his work on civic decline. The research he presented lay the foundations for what became a highly influential argument: that the contemporary inadequacies of our democratic institutions are down to an enduring deficit of ‘civicness’ in society. Putnam’s initial conclusions emerged from twenty years spent studying a newly-established rank of regional administrations in Italy following their abrupt inheritance of responsibilities from national government. Puglia first appears on page 5:
“Even finding officials of the Puglia regional government in the capital city of Bari proved a challenge for us, as it is for their constituents… A rampant spoils system undermines administrative efficiency… Meanwhile, the region’s leaders engage in Byzantine factional feuds over patronage and posts, and offer rhetorical promises of regional renewal that seem never to reach reality. If Puglia is to become ‘a new California,’ as local boosters sometimes say, it will be despite the performance of its new regional government, not because of it.”
But a 2007 U.S. diplomatic cable tells a very different story:
“Apulia… is unquestionably the South’s success story, with government… demonstrably committed to innovation… The Region’s maverick President… realizes that Apulia’s most important resource is its people…”
During his five years as president of Puglia, Vendola has consistently undermined Putnam’s prognosis. In 2010 his patronage from the centre-left coalition was revoked. He and his team resisted rhetorical promises of regional renewal. Together they have managed to win state power whilst building civil-society support, working outwards from a hybrid new media unit that is rooted in both government institutions and civic practices. Their experience shows that Putnam’s “despite” or “because of” dichotomy is too simplistic.
It is this rootedness in civic practices that could give the Vendola-Fabbrica brand its edge over party-centred politics. Civic rootedness provides the potential for state machinery to work alongside non-state tools, increasing the opportunity for marginalised issues normally excluded by state-focussed politics to come to the fore. The Fabbrica brand acknowledges that the most sophisticated and practical way to address issues is not always through the bulky tools of the state – an argument that has now been accepted by the left in Britain and elsewhere. By encouraging its ‘workers’ to face outwards towards the issues around them and providing the political backing for this to happen, the Fabbrica can mobilise constituents to consider issues without the restrictions of an identity imposed in a top-down way by politicians. This clears the way for more sophisticated diagnoses of and solutions to important problems than party-centred politics alone could provide.
Bridging the divide between politician and constituents remains an important part of the Fabbrica’s remit, but not its guiding aim. It is still crucial to develop an overarching political identity of some kind; and it may only be through an identity connecting the Fabbrica to politicians that participants feel they have a realistic chance of making a substantial difference. Guiding narratives and values are still important, and Gramsci and Marx can be found alongside tales of the factories’ good works. But downplaying the importance of the party and a “strong” identity – emphasising a way of doing politics rather than a clearly-defined political programme – seems central to the Fabbrica’s success. Structures that partner state and non-state politics without channelling all politics towards government institutions provide this background identity.
In some ways this partnership politics is reminiscent of the early period of leftist organisation: the days when labour-based parties were set up to complement the politics of the union and the shop floor, not to replace them. Perhaps it is no accident that the politics of the factory have returned both in name and in spirit to Italy, the country whose “invertebrate left”, as Perry Anderson has called it, has struggled to find its way since the decline of workshop militancy in the 1970s and 1980s. If Vendola’s modus operandi is successful, he will have demonstrated from the least likely starting point – the Puglia of Putnam’s depiction – how the European left might re-root itself in civic practices, rebuilding a spine of partnership politics. But here we should draw a lesson from Putnam, and resist the temptation to judge the viability of Vendola’s politics prematurely. His strategy is a long-term one; if it doesn’t pay off at the next election, we should not dismiss it as hopelessly utopian. We may have been too quick to scorn Italian politics up to this point. Now might be the time to take it seriously.
Postscript: since this piece was written, Vendola has made an agreement with the mainstream Partito Democratico to form a single bloc in the 2013 parliamentary elections. The Fabbrica appears to have lost momentum as Monti’s government has secured greater popularity; but it has demonstrated a form of political engagement that is arguably being picked up by Bepe Grillo’s Five Star Movement and is likely to play a significant role over the next year.
The revelation that came to Joseph Jacotot amounts to this: the logic of the explicative system had to be overturned. Explication is not necessary to remedy an incapacity to understand. On the contrary, that very incapacity provides the structuring fiction of the explicative conception of the world. It is the explicator who needs the incapable and not the other way around; it is he who constitutes the incapable as such.Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster
Jacques Rancière’s 1981 book, The Ignorant Schoolmaster , follows the “intellectual adventure” of university professor Joseph Jacotot, an exile in the Netherlands during the years of the Bourbon Restoration. By accident, and after years as an instructor, Jacotot one day discovers that his teaching has all along been underpinned by a fiction: that learning begins with an inequality of intelligence and proceeds by reducing this inequality.
The discovery comes when Jacotot is faced with a number of students who want to hear him lecture - only they speak no French, just Flemish, and he speaks no Flemish. Instead of attempting to learn Flemish himself and then use this knowledge to teach his students French - or to lecture in Flemish - he simply sets them a challenge through an interpreter. He hands each student a bilingual edition of a novel, Télémaque, and requests that they learn the French text. Once they are able to recite the text, Jacotot asks his students to write in French about the novel. He is amazed by the results:
… how surprised he was to discover that the students, left to themselves, managed this difficult step as well as many French could have done! Was wanting all that was necessary for doing? Were all men virtually capable of understanding what other had done and understood?
Jacotot had discovered that his old ways of teaching were, faced with sufficient motivation from his students, redundant. The trouble with the explicative conception of the world was not that it didn’t teach what it set out to teach - this much it accomplished. The problem was much greater: the explicative fiction stifled learning in ways that couldn’t be predicted. It produced students who had been robbed of the opportunity to ‘conceive [their] human dignity, take the measure of [their] intellectual capacity, and decide how to use it’. What got taught was as much a habit of discipline - a restrictive self-stultification - as a body of knowledge.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising that the explicative fiction has held sway over education systems forged largely in the quickly-bureaucratising and fast-industrialising European states of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The advantage of an education built on the explicative conception is that it delivers what the teacher sets out to deliver. A more emancipatory education in Rancière’s sense is unpredictable - perhaps dangerously so for even an enlightened absolutist regime. Who knows what discoveries a student may make once emancipated? And who knows what they may remain ignorant of?∗
Paul Mason recently wrote a typically well-balanced contribution to the Guardian’s rather less well-balanced thread ‘The graduate without a future’. Although graduates almost certainly won’t enjoy the same secure benefits of an employer pension scheme, retirement in their early sixties and a welfare safety net of the kind we’ve become used to, Mason’s piece is not drenched in a lazy pessimism. He describes some of the graduates who are making their own futures rather than depending on a future laid out for them by previous generations. Oddly, though, he attributes this tenacity to the education system, writing that ‘[a]ll those tests, drills, teach-to-exam lectures, and the relentless vocationality of education, has made this generation highly entrepreneurial’. Is this sarcasm? I really can’t tell, but surely it must be.
The way we educate our students in this country still seems to me to run very much along the lines denounced by Jacotot. That arguments over education still revolve around who will develop curricula and what these curricula contain betrays the continuing reign of the explicative conception. Mason’s article is refreshing because it acknowledges the unpredictability of the future; it is unclear what the role of businesses and even what the role of the state will be in ten or twenty years’ time. But the explicative conception suits scenarios where the future is predictable, not where it is volatile.
If we take education at undergraduate level alone, we might look for ways in which students, instead of being led through canonical texts or theories in order to reach a baseline of knowledge assumed to be necessary, are engaged from the outset in addressing issues that really matter alongside their teachers. It is easy to say that entrenched baselines of knowledge are crucial for a ‘broader understanding’ of students’ subjects or for producing ‘well-rounded’ researchers. But perhaps it is more important now to acknowledge the unpredictability of education’s uses than to make assumptions about what knowledge is the best knowledge based on our own experience. Facilitating projects where students can take the measure of their intellectual capacity and decide how to use it might be the most important task.∗
Rancière’s book isn’t just about education in the traditional sense; it’s also about the role of ‘intellectuals’. By assuming the role of explicator, academics such as Pierre Bourdieu and Louis Althusser were not just labouring under the fiction that they were in a privileged position of enlightenment that the disadvantaged in society lacked - that they alone were able to see the underlying structures that perpetuate inequality. They were also, in assuming this role, contributing to a regime that stultified society by giving credibility to the myth of explication. In order to justify their own interventions, these ‘intellectuals’ needed the unenlightened masses; but by assuming that these unenlightened masses existed they in fact helped to prevent emancipation. Thus ‘[i]t is the explicator who needs the incapable and not the other way around; it is he who constitutes the incapable as such’.
A different conception of higher education would not just be a different conception of the relationship between student and teacher. It would involve a fundamental reassessment of the relationship of academics to those who are supposed to benefit from their work. It isn’t enough to assume that academic work contributes to worthwhile enlightenment so long as it tells us something we do not know - because it is not just what we are told but how we are told it that is important.
The conception of incapable school-leaving masses who must pay £9,000 to become capable strengthens the fiction of inequality between the intelligent and the yet-to-be-intelligent; the cost of tuition both presumes and purports to resolve this inequality, emphasising hierarchy over partnership. By funding universities in this way, the capable academics continue to constitute the incapable students that academic careers in their current guise depend on. If we are to adapt education to the unpredictable careers that students now face, academic careers and university funding must change too. The form of education, not just the content, must be reassessed. This was Jacotot’s lesson.