Techno-populism refers to the political movement whereby ‘anti-system’ and ‘anti-establishment’ rhetoric is conversed over digital means, is at the forefront of the ideology. The movements stem from focusing on societal cleavages such as inequality and economic decline and combines the use of populism and technocracy. Various techno-populist movements include the Five Star Movement (Italy) and the AfD (Germany), Podemos (Spain) in Europe, Occupy Wall Street in the US and One Nation in Australia through online communication. The diverse range of movements along the political spectrum indicates that techno-populism can be used as a tool by any ideology that presents itself as a party for the people.
The combination of populism and technocracy to form techno-populism is a recent phenomenon and has seen its developments from the end of the 20th century up to recent years. With the advent of the internet and its common use in the 21st century, techno-populist movements have been particularly been enabled to the spread of social media as independent coverage of populist movements can be shared quickly and seen by millions.
This has presented an ability for populist politics to access audience through the mass networking capabilities of social media which was previously unattainable before the digital age. Communication and digital media provided by advances in technologies has also given new opportunities for political inclusion for citizens in participating in democratic processes and ultimately the creation of a new public sphere centered on discursive and participatory practices.
Giovanni Bello writes in an article that globalization and technological progress are the phenomena responsible for the creation of two forces that are transforming the liberal democracy: technocracy and populism and adds “Nowadays the liberal democracy is threatened by two main forces: the populism and the technocracy, which respectively claim for more legitimacy and for more efficiency. According to him, this double pressure on institutions takes the name of ‘techno-populism’ and it will be the playmaker of the next future.”
“The democracy is bridled by these two megatrends directed by the “logic of democracy” that is the political exploitation of the new forms and tools provided by the society and the technology to reach the consensus, and “the logic of discipline”, namely, the non-elective bodies which discipline the political power through rules, directives and management of money as the national banks and supranational authorities,” says Bello and explains “Then is not a causality that the current political debate is dominated by issues concerning both populism and technocracy.”
Bello defines as techno-populism the result of these contrasting forces which exercise pressure on the institutions in order to obtain promises of radical change in public policies and the substitution of the current ruling class with a new one. According to him, in this scenario we have the friction between the efficient, rational and unpopular technocratic proposals on one side; and on the other, the populists’ claims, at times irrational, humoral, instinctive but surely more popular, for a democratic change against the policy and institution of the old political-bureaucratic class, expression of the traditional parties. Bello concludes “in mankind history, democracy represents almost an exception. It is the technology of power which let the maximum degree of liberty to their citizens than any other forms tested insofar… Democracy is already adapting to the techno-populism, the neologism which describes the tension generated by these two megatrends.”
Marco Deseriis distinguishes between two variants of techno-populism in an article: a technocratic and leaderless variant, which pursues and enacts meritocratic forms of democratic participation; and a leaderist and more strictly populist variant wherein charismatic leaders play a critical role in conferring unity and identity to their parties. According to Deseriis, the first tendency is materialized in the modes of governance of small techno-parties such as the Pirate Parties, free and open source software development projects, open content communities, and the emerging discourse of Liquid Democracy. The nationalist-populist tendency is most evident in Southern Europe, where mass parties such as Podemos and Five Star Movement (M5S) have successfully combined charismatic leadership with participatory uses of networked media.
Deseriis says each variant has a distinctive politics of its own. The leaderless-technocratic variant pursues an agonistic politics of forking, which is derived from the development process of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). The leaderist-nationalist variant of techno-populism believes that networked participation is essential to the achievement of a fully realized democracy. But whereas the technocratic-leaderless variant attributes to the network itself the task of producing a shared political line, the leaderist-populist variant endows political leaders with the task of synthesizing different and conflicting positions that may emerge from the network.
Meanwhile, according to an article by Christopher J. Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti, which analyzes M5S and Podemos, the notions of ‘anti-system’, ‘anti-establishment’ and ‘populist’ are not able to capture what makes this parties distinctive. For this reason, the authors argue that these parties are best understood as belonging to a new party family, which they label ‘techno-populist’. The authors say that “this party family is distinguished by the manner in which members of it mix ‘anti-system’, ‘anti-establishment’ and ‘populist’ elements with a seemingly irreconcilable ‘technocratic’ discourse that shuns explicit ideological confrontation, insisting instead on the ‘competent’ solution of practical problems.”
Bickerton and Accetti also assert that the M5S and Podemos ought to be distinguished from both the ‘far left’ and the ‘far right’ strands of ‘anti-system’ or ‘anti-establishment’ ‘populism’. Because, “both movements are symptoms of the decline of confrontation between rival ideological platforms as the structuring element of political competition, which has been underway for some time in advanced democratic systems,” they explain. According to the authors, as well as sharing with the M5S an enthusiasm for wireless communication as a means to build new political communities, Podemos has its own ‘technocratic’ characteristics, which make it another clear exponent of the ‘techno-populist’ party family.
Arthur Lipow and Patrick Seyd also employed the notion of ‘techno-populism’ in an article to refer to a distinctive brand of ‘anti-party sentiment’ that developed in connection with the emergence of new technologies. This sentiment hoped that the availability of ‘more direct’ forms of political communication and organization would render parties obsolete. According to Bickerton and Accetti, both the M5S and Podemos feed on this kind of technological utopianism and the anti-party sentiment that sustains it, but they use it in the service of party-political projects. Thus, the M5S and Podemos can be classified as exponents of a ‘techno-populist’ party family. They also say that “the M5S and Podemos are most adequately described as ‘techno-populist’ parties are therefore not meant to highlight only (or even primarily) their use of advanced technologies but the fact that they eschew ideological confrontation and present themselves primarily as ‘competent’ problem-solvers.”
Bickerton and Accetti conclude that “what distinguishes these two parties is their combination of ‘anti-system’, ‘anti-establishment’ and ‘populist’ features with a distinctively ‘technocratic’ conception of politics as problem-solving allied to a form of ‘technological utopianism’ which assumes that the Internet will offer a more effective way of mobilizing ‘collective intelligence’ compared to what can be achieved using traditional political parties. For the M5S, this combination occurs under the discursive heading of the ‘citizen-expert’; for Podemos, it is via the deployment of ‘common sense’ as a rhetorical political tool.”
‘Techno-populism’ as a new party family: the case of the Five Star Movement and Podemos — Bickerton, Christopher John; Accetti, CI Apollo – University of Cambridge Repository; Apollo – University of Cambridge Repository 2018.
“Techno-Populism. The New Logic of Democratic Politics,” Carlo Invernizzi Accetti & Chris Bickerton, Oxford University Press, under contract.
‘Techno-Populism as a New Party Type: The Five Star Movement and Podemos’, Carlo Invernizzi Accetti & Christopher Bickerton, Contemporary Italian Politics, 10: 2, 2018.
Lipow, Arthur & Seyd, Patrick. (1995). Political Parties and the Challenge to Democracy: From Steam-Engines to Techno-Populism. New Political Science. 17. 295-308. 10.1080/07393149508429755.