Beppe Grillo

Italy’s Beppe Grillo

The enigmatic Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle, or M5S) is now Italy’s biggest political party:

One person notably absent from the Five Star Movement’s triumphant celebrations at a plush hotel in Rome in the early hours of Monday morning was Beppe Grillo, the comedian who less than a decade ago founded the party that seized the biggest share of the vote in Sunday’s inconclusive election. […]

Grillo, who was instrumental in turning the movement built by a rabble of rebels into Italy’s strongest political force, said in January that unless it won an outright majority in the election it should remain in opposition. “It would be like saying that a panda can eat raw meat. We only eat bamboo,” he said of the prospect of sharing power.

But Di Maio, said to have been groomed by Grillo for the leadership, has other ideas. On Monday he said he was open to talks with all political parties, and he has already presented his would-be cabinet – a list of what he calls “anti-politicians”.

In light of the news from Italy, I remembered this prescient article by Francesco Sisci — from April 2013:

Italy over the past century was a staging ground for experiments with new political solutions that had global consequences. Fascism was born in Italy in the 1920s, although it also flourished elsewhere and caused the start of World War II. In the 1970s, the Italian pro-Soviet Communist Party supported coalition governments that included pro-American parties, showing that communism could be adapted to a democratic environment. Thus, it inspired reforms in Gorbachev’s USSR some years later, something that led to the collapse of communism in Europe altogether.

One then wonders whether the new Italian political entity the “5 Star Movement”, created by comedian-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, will also lead to something else – and what that could be. The “5 Star Movement” scored a huge success in the recent Italian elections while refusing to reach out to voters through talks and debates on TV, the traditional means of political campaigning for the past five decades.

It canvassed votes by means of old-fashioned public meetings and by modern web chats and Tweets shot through the Internet and mobile phones. He and his followers explained that this is the new web democracy. In fact, there is something extremely modern in Grillo’s political movement. Certainly, US President Barack Obama understood the importance of the web and relied on songs spread on Facebook and Twitter slogans. But he still went on TV and engaged in all the traditional campaign activities.

Grillo, conversely, refused TV appearances, political debates, and even interviews in the Italian press, and this magnified his image, bringing him almost 25% of the vote. The Internet is and was the ground for internal debates. Candidates were selected through mock elections on the web among Grillo’s supporters; policy discussions were held in web chats rather than in smoky rooms. There were no meetings, no cells, and no steering committees.

Actually, this is not the only new element of Grillo’s party. Contrary to all past practices, Grillo and his main partner, Gianroberto Casalegno, chose not to run for parliament. Notwithstanding that, these two extra-parliamentary leaders control all their elected deputies in parliament through a series of binding agreements. Meanwhile, the few top leaders decide the party line in informal gatherings on phone calls. It may not sound good – the party looks more like a private entity than an organization to promote political change and effective popular participation – but it has so far provided an organization that works similar to, if not better than, the old party systems.

Social networking is devouring the political systems of the West, starting in Italy and the US. It’s easy to imagine that in another five or 10 years, online networks will have taken over the machinery of the major parties, turning politicians into puppets for internet movements/mobs. Which may or may not be an improvement over the existing, obsolete party systems.

In any case, China’s prescience in censoring the internet more severely than Saudi Arabia is now clear. China’s rulers are extremely uninterested in dealing with uncontrollable, socially networked movements that could destabilize the country and threaten the Party’s grip on power, so it has opted to wall off China from huge swaths of the global internet.

Under this brutal logic, all major foreign social media platforms are blocked, and the domestic platforms are heavily censored and monitored. Weibo, the closest thing to Twitter, has recently been chastened (again). The closed nature of WeChat, which now has a billion active monthly users, does not lend itself to hashtag activism. There will be no Beppe Grillo on China’s watch.

Striking while the iron is hot

Just about everyone has something to say about the recent political news out of China. This limerick pretty much sums it up:

I was impressed by this analysis by Jerome Cohen, expert on Chinese law and government, who (rather amazingly) practiced law in Beijing back in 1979:

Xi’s move will have a profound effect on world order. It will enable him to move more boldly and increases the risk of his acting arbitrarily and perhaps mistakenly in international relations. It will surely hinder China’s efforts to be respected for “soft power” as well as military and economic prowess.

Xi decided to strike while the iron is hot rather than wait for later in his new term when increasing problems might have made the change more difficult. His brash step has undoubtedly aroused profound concern among the elite. Many high Party personnel, bureaucrats, judicial officials, lawyers, intellectuals, academics and business people, mindful of the past Maoist dictatorship and the increasingly repressive and arbitrary government under Xi, have seen this coming and now, in social media and other informal ways, are showing their anxieties and opposition.

But not many public signs of protest can be expected, since he has stifled free expression in the past few years.

At least it’s a relief to be able to quit pretending that the spread of liberal democracy has ushered in the end of history. Nope, the party is just getting started… and it’s gonna be lit….

Term limits

Impressive shilling here:

What’s more, America’s belief in the redemptive value of term limits merits further examination. In some political jurisdictions, it has helped bring in new blood; but, in others, it has replaced seasoned leaders with fresh nonsensical amateurs, to the detriment of good governance.

Indeed, in the 20th century, most assessments of presidential performance would place Franklin D. Roosevelt, our 32nd president, at the top of the list. He was elected not just to three terms but four. In 1951, the 22nd amendment to the US Constitution was ratified, which seemed like a good idea at the time; and perhaps even more so now. But there were moments in-between when America had its doubts about the constitutional dogmatism of having to force someone out of office who was doing the job well.

The problem with citing America’s “doubts” about the wisdom of term limits to defend another country’s scrapping of term limits under completely different circumstances is that it’s risibly stupid. With the notable exception of FDR, the consensus in the US has always been that a president should not hold office for more than two terms. What this signifies is not a “belief in the redemptive value of term limits,” which is just a dumb strawman, but a profound unwillingness to be ruled by another monarch.

Formal term limits weren’t needed for most of American history because the informal convention of a two-term limit, established by Washington, prevented nearly all presidents from even seeking a third term until FDR. After FDR was elected for an unprecedented four terms, Congress adopted the 22nd Amendment creating a formal two-term limit in 1951.

The key point here is that Americans decided it was time to slap some term limits on their leaders, and then did so. The 22nd Amendment was enshrined in the Constitution through a lawful, public and consensual process, which required ratification by three-quarters of the states of the Union. And public opinion is strongly against repealing it.

Compare this process to the shady, unilateral power-grab that is the topic of Tom Plate’s article, and laugh.

Sakdina: a prototype social credit system

Reading about the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya, which reigned from 1351 to 1767, I was struck by a description of the feudal ranking system called “sakdina” that was put in place by King Trailok in the early 15th century. Here’s the Wiki summary:

Sakdina (Thai: ศักดินา) was a system of social hierarchy in use from the Ayutthaya to early Rattanakosin periods of Thai history. It assigned a numerical rank to each person depending on their status, and served to determine their precedence in society, and especially among the nobility. The numbers represented the number of rai of land a person was entitled to own—sakdina literally translates as “field prestige”—although there is no evidence that it was employed literally. The Three Seals Law, for example, specifies a sakdina of 100,000 for the Maha Uparat, 10,000 for the Chao Phraya Chakri, 600 for learned Buddhist monks, 20 for commoners and 5 for slaves.

China’s rulers may have learned something from Thai history, because they are now rolling out a dynamic, interactive, socially networked sakdina system for their own people. It is called the social credit system.

Whether it can successfully keep 1.4 billion people in line, in an advanced, high-tech and globally connected society, remains to be seen.

Social credit system

I used to think that between the two great dystopian novelists, Huxley was more prophetic than Orwell. Not so sure anymore:

First envisioned in the mid-1990s, China’s social-credit system would assign a ranking to each of the country’s almost 1.4 billion people. Unlike a Western rating based on financial creditworthiness, China’s social-credit backers want their system to be all-encompassing, to evaluate not just financial matters but anything that might speak to a person’s trustworthiness. In modern China, “trust-keeping is insufficiently rewarded, the costs of breaking trust tend to be low,” a 2014 Chinese government document describing the government’s plans notes.

The social-credit system aims to change that – raising the penalties for poor conduct and the rewards for deferential behaviour.

It is the most ambitious attempt by any government in modern history to fuse technology with behavioural control, placing China at the forefront of a new kind of authoritarianism, one that can mine a person’s digital existence – shopping habits, friends, criminal records, political views – and judge them according to the state’s standard of reliability.

One early encounter with the system is described by a Chinese journalist who found himself on a government blacklist after he (inadvertently) defaulted on a court fine:

What it meant for Mr. Liu is that when he tried to buy a plane ticket, the booking system refused his purchase, saying he was “not qualified.” Other restrictions soon became apparent: He has been barred from buying property, taking out a loan or travelling on the country’s top-tier trains.

“There was no file, no police warrant, no official advance notification. They just cut me off from the things I was once entitled to,” he said. “What’s really scary is there’s nothing you can do about it. You can report to no one. You are stuck in the middle of nowhere.”

More details on that here.

Another example of the nascent system at work:

It is hard to imagine a more perfect system of social control. This is not so much ruling with an iron fist as ruling with a joystick. The largest society in the world is being turned into a video-game simulation.

The social credit system seems perfectly adapted for a Confucian, group-oriented society, which also happens to lead the world in mobile payments and video surveillance. Of course, China is not the only country on the road to socially networked repression.

One possibility that occurs to me is that the government could use this apparatus to tackle China’s demographic crisis by pressuring people to have more babies. This piece in Wired talks about how Alibaba’s Sesame Credit (a potential precursor to the nationwide system) factors people’s shopping habits into an assessment of their character, an example being that “Someone who frequently buys diapers would be considered as probably a parent, who on balance is more likely to have a sense of responsibility.”

What if “a sense of responsibility” was defined to include having two or more children, and the nationwide social credit system linked your “score” to how many children you have and the age at which you have them? I could easily see this being rolled out if more traditional pro-natalist policies fail to boost China’s birthrate to an acceptable level. (Note that China ended its one-child policy in early 2016, allowing all married couples to have two children.) In fact, I would be surprised if it hasn’t already been considered.

This all reminds me of the “credit poles” from Gary Shteyngart’s 2011 dystopian novel Super Sad True Love Story. As he explains:

A credit pole is a way for the government to know what your creditworthiness is, because the big problem in the society is that nobody has enough credit. Credit poles are found on sidewalks in major metropolitan areas, and as you walk by they tell you what your credit rating is.


The apparat is worn around the neck as a pendant, and it has what’s called RateMe Plus technology. Let’s say you walk into a bar; it says, “OK, you’re the third-ugliest man in here, but you have the fifth-best credit rating,” things like that. Everyone is constantly ranked and constantly assessing everyone else’s ranking, which is similar to the society we already live in.

Life imitating Shteyngart…

Happy 100th birthday

…to one of the greatest disasters in human history:

On the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power, we need to remember that Lenin was not just a proponent of mass terror, but also a man who wanted to turn moral values on their head. For him, as for his heir, Stalin, the dead were just numbers. Human life counted for nothing next to the distant, all-important goal of a Communist future. “Our morality is new,” Lenin said in 1918. “To us, all is permitted. … Blood? Let there be blood … for only the complete and final death of th[e] old world will save us from the return of the old jackals.” As it turned out, the new revolutionary jackals were worse than the old czarist ones.

Lenin pioneered the use of mass terror for political control. A post-truth leader, he invented fake news. He proclaimed dazzlingly simple solutions: Destroy legal and institutional norms, expropriate the property of the rich, and Russia would be on the path to Utopia. “The peasants must seize the estates,” Lenin announced in the spring of 1917. “They must be masters now.” “Break the resistance of a few dozen millionaires,” he added, and workers could take over the factories. It was that simple. […]

Lenin wasn’t greedy, vain, or addicted to luxury, the usual motives that most of us attribute to the power-hungry. Lenin dressed shabbily, in a peaked worker’s cap and heavily worn suit. He and his wife, Nadya Krupskaya, lived frugally, unlike most of the Bolshevik inner circle. He enjoyed power. As Trotsky admitted, Lenin was in effect the dictator of Soviet Russia until a stroke incapacitated him in 1922. He wanted, and got, supreme power, convinced that he was the mind of the revolution. Rosa Luxemberg discerned in him, accurately, “the sterile spirit of the overseer,” rigid and fanatical.

Terrorist assassination seemed to Lenin an undisciplined and aimless tactic despite its popularity among Russian revolutionaries, who killed nearly 20,000 czarist officials during the last 25 years of the Romanov dynasty.

As it happens, this is far more than the number of people executed by the czars in the 92 years through 1917.

The Germans brought him from Zurich to Petrograd in April 1917, trusting that a Bolshevik victory would knock Russia out of the war. In the sealed train heading to the Finland Station with its cargo of 60 Bolsheviks, the impatient Lenin flew into sudden rages—his fits of anger, like his insomnia, were characteristic. He banned smoking in the train and issued tickets so that his followers could line up to smoke in the bathrooms: the first instance of Soviet bureaucracy, as Sebestyen notes.

This is pretty funny, for a couple of reasons.

The day after the Bolsheviks took power, Lenin began censoring newspapers, just a few days after he had proclaimed that the new regime would uphold press freedom.

Communists always lie.

On the Ukrainian famine:

Stalin had the eager help of Western journalists in his engineering of mass death. His key apparatchik was The New York Times reporter Walter Duranty, who had a luxury apartment and a mistress in Moscow. Duranty, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his political journalism, wielded influence: FDR carefully read his dispatches from the “progressive” Soviet state.

Heckuva job, Western journalists.

As a rule, no matter how bad you think Communism was, it was actually much worse. Let’s spare a thought for the 100 million victims of Communism on this somber centenary, and by all means read the whole article here.