Show Hide image

Death by data: how Kafka’s The Trial prefigured the nightmare of the modern surveillance state

We live in a world of covert court decisions and secret bureaucratic procedures and where privacy is being abolished – all familiar from Kafka’s best-known novel, The Trial.

A 1915 portrait of Franz Kafka. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“Kafkaesque” is a word much used and little understood. It evokes highbrow, sophisticated thought but its soupçon of irony allows those who use it to avoid being exact about what it means. When the writers of Breaking Bad titled one of their episodes Kafkaesque, they were sharing a joke about the word’s nebulousness. “Sounds kind of Kafkaesque,” says a pretentious therapy group leader when Jesse Pinkman describes his working conditions. “Totally Kafkaesque,” Jesse witlessly replies.

If the word is widely misused, it is also increasingly valuable. Last year, when the attorney and author John W Whitehead wrote about the US National Security Agency scandal in an article headlined “Kafka’s America”, the reference to Kafka clearly made sense:

“We now live in a society in which a person can be accused of any number of crimes without knowing what exactly he has done. He might be apprehended in the middle of the night by a roving band of Swat police. He might find himself on a no-fly list, unable to travel for reasons undisclosed. He might have his phones or internet tapped based upon a secret order handed down by a secret court, with no recourse to discover why he was targeted. Indeed, this is Kafka’s nightmare and it is slowly becoming America’s reality.”

We live in a world of covert court decisions and secret bureaucratic procedures and where privacy is being abolished – all familiar from Kafka’s best-known novel, The Trial. This year marks the centenary of the book’s composition, though it was not published until after Kafka’s death, in 1925.

Kafka’s texts age far more slowly than those of almost any other author of his era. In The Trial, we are drawn so compellingly into a story of pursuit and fear that it seems like a nightmare we all share, even though most people in the postwar west have not been subjected to anything nearly as extreme. Readers under communism, however, pictured a situation that they knew all too well, in which the fundamental rights of the individual had been stripped away. Many gravitated to a political interpretation of Kafka, bolstered by his friend and literary executor Max Brod, who had proclaimed Kafka a prophet. Those in power did not appreciate having a mirror held up to them and attached the label of “bourgeois decadence” to Kafka; his work was banned in eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The communist literary scholar and social scientist Georg Lukács was one of Kafka’s strongest critics but after his arrest in 1956 in Budapest, he is said to have admitted, “Kafka was a realist after all.” This about-turn was as narrow-minded as his earlier indictment because both missed the point of Kafka’s work.

Kafka was not a prophet. He did not foresee the systematic persecution and annihilation of the Jews to which his three sisters fell victim. As a teenager, he experienced pogrom-like conditions in Prague; his family had to barricade itself in the apartment for days on end and his German-Jewish high school was vandalised. But these persecutions had yet to turn murderous. The state-sponsored killing of Jews, which was occurring in Russia on a regular basis, was considered unthinkable in the multinational Austria-Hungary and the “highly civilised” German empire.

It is easy to see how The Trial resonates with those living under a dictatorship. However, even the most cursory look at the novel reveals that Kafka was not depicting the sufferings of innocent victims. The protagonist, Josef K, is not especially likeable; he does not have any relationships with others and he is clearly tormented by some hidden guilt of which the court incessantly reminds him. The execution at the end takes place with K’s assent and as such is a suicide. Kafka went to great pains at this juncture to show that the court is merely reacting. Nothing occurs in this novel against the unequivocal will of the accused man.

Kafka did not merely portray how people become victims; he also showed the extent to which power relies on the complicity of its victims. This phenomenon goes beyond the political and touches on the insights of psychoanalysis. If a son continues to obey his father long after the latter’s death, it means that he has taken into his own hand the whip that once held him down. Freud explained how this could be possible with the existence of the superego, a psychological entity that represents the father and renders him immortal, ensuring that his repressive values system is passed on to the following generations.

Kafka was deeply sceptical of the therapeutic promises of psychoanalysis but he was captivated by the way it described the propagation of power, which chimed with his own experiences. Someone who keeps getting told that he is incapable, inferior or guilt-ridden will have to expend a good deal of energy to resist such a self-image and not make himself guilty in his own eyes. He has to struggle not because the forces of power have violated or diminished him but rather because he has been infiltrated by those forces. The poison lodges in his own body.

One can follow this process of infiltration in The Trial in slow motion; Josef K’s voluntary walk to the execution site is only the unhappy culmination. The process begins quite subtly, with K being placed under observation. He is told that there is a large and powerful authority that will be dealing with him from then on. This is borne out by the way that many pairs of eyes are trained on him: neighbours peer into the window, work colleagues show up uninvited at his apartment, strangers know all about his case.

From the moment that he becomes the accused man and so the object of suspicion, he suffers the loss of his privacy. No one causes him harm, no one locks him up, even his initially belligerent outbursts at the court go unpunished and no one contests his right to keep his management position at a bank. Even so, K feels like a hunted animal, an impression Kafka steps up to the point where even the reader loses the ability to draw a clear distinction between real threats and paranoia.

Today, we are far more sensitised to infiltration that does not involve physical contact than the first generations of Kafka’s readers were. This is a result of atmospheric changes in our society. In 2004, the European Union decided to collect the fingerprints of all of its passport holders and take digital photographs of their faces. This came about as a result of enormous pressure from the US, which cited security issues. It is no longer possible to get a new passport in any European country without fingerprinting. Refusal to submit to this on the grounds that the state is not entitled to make baseless encroachments on the bodies of its citizens would make a person look ridiculous and suspicious. Not long ago, a character in a detective film being fingerprinted was an unequivocal sign of that character’s stigmatisation, a marker of social and moral failure.

Eyes in the sky: a security camera monitoring station in Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong 

Something similar is happening with facial recognition. The passport agency points a camera at me, an upstanding citizen. Other agencies point thousands of cameras at me as I walk through town. These cameras impart the message that everyone is a potential offender, including me and the nice lady sitting across from me in the subway.

A second message is that I am living more safely than before, since everyone else is also aware of being observed, even though it is unclear whether there are human eyes lurking behind all these cameras, or sophisticated recognition software, or nothing at all. Does one really want to know? Seeking the details could result in a fate like that of Josef K, who, in his desire to confront the anonymous powers, ultimately saps his vitality.

It does not take much imagination to fathom where the unrestricted accumulation of monitoring equipment will lead. Being suspect will become an inescapable and natural social condition, while surveillance staff will become invisible. That was apparent even before the NSA scandal, because data storage devices are voracious no matter whose hands they are in and electronic information tends to consolidate into increasingly detailed profiles. What ethical qualms would hold back a state with a serious security problem from using an instrument of this kind? Or a state that might some day be saddled with a problem like this?

Data collection has a crucial role in Kafka’s novels: in The Castle, there is almost incessant talk of record-keeping and the collection of personal data is shown in all its grotesque detail. This, too, has little to do with any clairvoyant abilities on Kafka’s part and instead a great deal to do with his professional experiences: he was an official at a state-run insurance company for workers and he quicklyrealised that the emphasis on statistical assessment was something new and daunting. In his office, individual lives and catastrophes became fodder for files and actuaries. Kafka, who was sensitive to the social implications of these modern means of bureaucracy, recognised that they also altered the thinking of people affected. Anyone who deals with this kind of agency has no choice but to adapt to its routines. Kafka was surprised that the system’s worst victims did not force their way into his office but instead filled out the forms submissively, then awaited their notification.

This can also be regarded as the result of infiltration. Kafka graphically portrays the process in The Trial, in which the accused man questions the proceedings quite forcefully at first but then less and less often. Like K in The Castle, he lets himself be bought off with a convoluted description of bureaucratic procedures and for a while labours under the delusion that this has brought him closer to an understanding of his fate.

Readers experience a shock of recognition as they travel down this blind alley. They know what it is like to be swamped with legal and technical details in public debates on surveillance and terror prevention, which often pivot on the notion that technical solutions are the answer. It is useful to know why the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which works in secret, has approved 34,000 government surveillance requests and rejected only 11 (in part because it has to provide written reasons for rejections – but not for approvals), or to consider the security of cloud computing and online storage. And it is legitimate for European governments to think about replacing US-based data lines with their own. Yet this single-minded focus on technical problems is bound to stupefy us in the long run.

Josef K loses his case because he loses sight of what set it in motion. In The Castle, K wants to know why he was summoned to work as a land surveyor in a remote village where he is not needed. The circuitous answer he receives amounts to the idea that bureaucratic procedures of this kind are exceedingly complex and, as a result, fateful decisions are sometimes arrived at spontaneously. No one is responsible and there is nowhere to address complaints. (This reminds me of a Dilbert comic strip in which staff members suggest that their boss should set up a customer service line – but keep the number secret).

It gets even more problematic when those with power argue that they are only implementing what we have been secretly wishing for all along. For years, any criticism of how social media sites such as Facebook were dealing with personal data elicited the flippant response that the classic idea of privacy was outdated anyway – as if the technology of social networks was only reacting to a historic shift in our mindset that had already taken place and no one was being forced into anything.

There is an element of truth to that argument. I don’t have to let Google Street View make a digital record of my property and post the image online but it is such a hassle to prevent this from happening that I don’t bother. No one forces me to check a box confirming that I have accepted the terms and conditions of Facebook but I do it anyway, without understanding any of the mumbo-jumbo. As a result, I get used to entering into contractual obligations blindly – which is taken as proof of my trust. Eventually, I make peace with a historically unprecedented form of “pseudo-privacy” (as the German blogger Sascha Lobo has called it) and tacitly allow the state to scrutinise my private affairs – as long as the neighbours don’t learn anything about me.

This sense of moral isolation in an overly complex, obfuscating world is something we can relate to. Kafka was the first author to understand what it means when people are turned into statistical entities and when every move they make is compiled as data. For Kafka, the problem was not the machine – bureaucracy itself is blameless; it is not an active agent. The blame is ours. We are the ones checking the boxes, sharing our photographs and forgetting to delete.

Officially, we have the freedom to do as we please in our personal lives and yet we have grown increasingly beleaguered by the feeling that we have already given away this freedom. “So then you’re free?” someone asks Karl, the protagonist of Kafka’s novel The Man Who Disappeared: “‘Yes, I’m free,’ said Karl, and nothing seemed more worthless than his freedom.” For once, we must not let Kafka have the final word.

Written for the New Statesman, this essay was translated from the German by Shelley Frisch. “Kafka: the Decisive Years” by Reiner Stach is published by Princeton University Press (£16.95)


Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Show Hide image

Matteo Renzi, the scrapper in the swamp

 Italy’s prime minister – “Europe’s last Blairite” – vowed to take on vested interests and smash open the economy. Can he still succeed?


In the summer of 2009, Daniele Caponi graduated from Sapienza University in Rome. His CV looked impressive. He had a degree in languages, and was fluent in four: Spanish, German, English and Italian. But the timing of his entry into the job market was terrible.

The global financial crash the previous year had badly affected Italy’s already weak economy. Prospects for graduates were so bleak that the best work Caponi could find was as a taxi driver. Six years later, the situation remains so precarious – youth unemployment is running above 40 per cent – that Caponi says he is “proud and honoured” to have a job at all.

Intelligent, confident and articulate, Caponi would appear to be precisely the type of person that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has in mind as a beneficiary when he says he wants to jumpstart Italy’s economy by breaking it open to competition – with a war on entrenched interests and an influx of foreign capital leading the way to more jobs. Yet Caponi also embodies forces conspiring to defeat him. As a taxi driver, he belongs to one of Italy’s “closed-shop trades” (which also include chemists and lawyers) that hold back the economy, clinging to privileges and blocking outsiders from entry. For members of these trades, the benefits of the status quo are clear: Caponi makes enough money to wear smart clothes, eat at good restaurants and go trekking in south-east Asia or Latin America every year.

He is not willing Renzi, who has been called “Italy’s Tony Blair”, to fail, but thinks it is inevitable that he will. For the man at the helm of the centre-left Democratic Party, who a year and a half ago – at the age of just 39 – became his country’s youngest-ever prime minister has the task of changing not only Italy’s legislation, but its way of life. It is a struggle of allegiances versus globalisation; gerontocracy versus meritocracy; made-in-Italy quality versus stark economic efficiency – and the rule of law versus the tendency to bend it.

On the day I meet Caponi, he is illegally cramming extra passengers into his car because a transport strike has affected his takings. “You see, Italian politics mirrors Italian people,” he says. “Even me, you find me criticising politics. But look at what happened today. I pulled two rides into one – I did something I was not supposed to do.”


When Renzi took over as Italy’s leader in February 2014, many in the country felt it as a gale of fresh air after two decades of political tragicomedy and economic stagnation dominated by Silvio Berlusconi, whose main interest in power, his many disparagers say, was to protect his media empire and keep himself out of prison. That protracted era of zero growth, from 1994 to this year, left Renzi with enormous problems: more than one in every ten people out of work, chronic dips into recession, and a national debt that is 135 per cent of GDP, against 95 per cent for France, 90 per cent for Britain and 75 per cent for Germany. Add to that one of the rich world’s lowest fertility rates, at 1.39 births per woman – a demographic crisis that prompted the health minister to call this a “dying country”– and it may seem surprising that anybody would want the job of extracting Italy from the bureaucratic and parliamentary mess that Italians call il pantano, “the swamp”.

Renzi, however, seems to relish challenges that are the proper measure of his ambition, which was apparent from an early age. The son of a centre-right municipal councillor, he grew up in Rignano sull’Arno, a quiet Tuscan town outside Florence, where he became a keen Boy Scout. (His official website uses a quotation from Robert Baden-Powell,
the founder of the Scout movement, as its epigraph: “Leave this world a little better than you found it.”) The modest scope of this idealism provides clues to Renzi’s combination of pragmatism and engagement.

His passion for politics began in high school, and as a law student at the University of Florence he co-founded a committee to help Romano Prodi, a Democratic Party stalwart, become prime minister. Around that time, the 19-year-old Renzi appeared on the Italian version of Wheel of Fortune, raking in £20,000. It was a precocious sign of his penchant for games of risk.

His first break in politics came at the age of 24 when he became provincial secretary of the centrist People’s Party. From there, his rise was fast: president of the province of Florence at 29; mayor of Florence, a much bigger job, five years later. As mayor, Renzi shook up the city by cutting back sharply on the number of councillors, increasing the efficiency of public services and boosting welfare spending. As Italy began to take notice, the young mayor already had his eyes on a bigger stage: national politics.

In early 2013, he sensed the moment had arrived. In parliamentary elections, one in four Italians had voted for a comedian, Beppe Grillo, whose populist Five Star Movement proudly stood for little other than revulsion with the ruling elite. It was a turning point in Italian politics. After the Berlusconi era – and a brief technocratic government led by Mario Monti, who imposed austerity to pull the country back from a financial abyss – Italians were fed up with the political class and hungry for change.

Renzi, then still mayor of Florence, blitzed TV and social media with a vision of himself as the saviour of Italy, while his Democratic Party colleague Enrico Letta plodded along at the head of an unwieldy coalition government. Renzi promised to rottamare – “wreck” – the system (from this he acquired the nickname “The Scrapper”). He was bold and passionate and, like Berlusconi, he projected sunny optimism. Best of all, as mayor of Florence from 2009, he was an outsider, untainted by the machinations and scandals of national politics. Many Italians dared to hope again, as Renzi promised a bold reform programme that would generate jobs and revive the economy.

Late in 2013 he won the Democratic Party leadership, and quickly showed his ruthlessness by orchestrating what the Italian press called a “palace coup”, toppling Letta the following February. (A popular cartoon from the time shows Renzi in a relay race, handing his predecessor a stick of dynamite.) Days later, without ever having been even a member of parliament, Renzi was appointed prime minister.


While many Italians began to place their hopes in Renzi, there was also an undercurrent of suspicion about him that still prevails. One reason for this is his opportunism. On a stroll through Rome’s best food market, in the rough-and-tumble Testaccio district, I heard a story about him that went like this.

“A municipal councillor of Florence from the time that Renzi was mayor was once asked by a journalist: ‘Renzi – according to you, is he a capable man?’

“The councillor responded: ‘Yes, he is capable of anything.’”

Indeed, while Renzi purports to be a man of the left he often doesn’t sound like one. Besides smashing open protected sectors and taming the trade unions, he wants to overhaul the bloated and coddled public sector and attract overseas capital, which would inevitably entail foreign corporate takeovers. In the context of the rise of far-left parties in Europe, such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, and given Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to the Labour leadership in Britain, Renzi is increasingly looking like Europe’s last Blairite. (He got to know Blair when he was serving as mayor and Blair holidayed in Tuscany, and they became friends. Last year, Blair told the newspaper Corriere della Sera that Renzi was “the only way forward for Italy’s left”.) Indeed, on 21 September, Renzi appeared to be channelling Blair when he said that Corbyn’s victory was evidence that Labour “delights in losing”.

Yet there are signs that Renzi may not be winning his own battle. Another reason for Italians’ growing scepticism about him is that six months into his premiership the country slipped back into recession. This year, according to the European Commission, Italy is projected to eke out 0.6 per cent growth. By contrast, Spain and Portugal, which also have suffered severe debt and austerity crises, are forecast to grow at 3.1 and 1.6 per cent, respectively.

Meanwhile, unemployment remains stubbornly high despite the passage in the spring of Renzi’s signature “Jobs Act” – a package of laws that aims to generate employment by scaling back job protections and offering tax incentives to companies that hire long-term workers (as opposed to the surging number of people on precarious short-term contracts). And reform means nothing unless people believe it will work. Foreign investment has increased but Italian businesses are clinging to their capital. After rising early this year on the back of the imminent labour reforms, business confidence slumped again over the summer.

Critics say that whatever growth Italy does achieve this year may be due less to him than to another Italian: the European Central Bank chief, Mario Draghi, who has sought to invigorate the eurozone economies with a flood of easy credit. Some economists say that without a cheaper euro to boost its exports, Italy would still be in recession.

Meanwhile, in times of uncertainty, Italy’s business cliques hunker down to their old ways – hostile to hiring young people and preventing newcomers from encroaching on their turf. Renzi is fighting hard to tame these entrenched interests. The problem is that he may be running out of time. His approval ratings have nearly halved, down from more than 60 per cent after he became premier to around 32 per cent today.

“If nothing happens, especially in terms of kick-starting the economy, then people will start saying you’re just hot air,” said Vincenzo Scarpetta, an expert on Italy based at the Open Europe think tank.

One might imagine that students here would be among Renzi’s biggest fans, given that he is promoting policies that would help them find work. But on the Sapienza campus, Caponi the taxi driver’s alma mater, I cannot find a single student who believes that Renzi could improve their prospects by the time they enter the workforce. The overwhelming message: once I graduate, I’m out of here.

Beatrice Parsi di Landrone, studying chemistry, shakes her head at the thought of change being possible in Italy. The economy, she says, is built on patronage and favours that keep talent out of the best jobs. She wants to move to England and apply her skills in cosmetics, working for Max Factor.

“You can’t work here unless you have an inside track,” she explains. “For 20 years now, the government has been ruining Italy, even if we’re the best in the world in so many things. Overseas, it’s our brains that make a difference.”

The message on the sweatshirt worn by Mirko Mandarino, a medical student, speaks for his generation: “F**KIN’ PROBLEMS”. He is from Calabria, in the deep south, where people are poorer on average than in other parts of Italy. That makes it even harder for him to succeed in this country, where
many northerners hold southerners in contempt. Under Renzi, the gap between north and south has widened: national GDP fell 0.4 per cent last year but the south suffered a 1.3 per cent decline. “Renzi?” Mandarino says with a chuckle. “He’s an opportunist. A social climber. That’s how he’s gotten to where he is. My future? Outside of Italy. There are no other alternatives.”

Like Parsi di Landrone, Mandarino laments a culture of vested interests that blocks young people from achieving their dreams. “Nobody wants to give up anything,” he says. “They’re clans. The mentality is mafioso.”

Still, he feels sympathy for older Italians who cling to jobs and power. “In Italy, an old person can’t give way to the young, because at his age he wouldn’t find anything else. I have an uncle in Canada. He got fired at age 48. The next month he found a new job. That kind of thing doesn’t exist in Italy.”

Christian Abete, a classics student, sums things up: “We export wine and graduates.”


Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist and president of John Cabot University in Rome, meets me on the terrace of Vanni, a café in the genteel Prati district. Of the dozens of Romans I speak to, Pavoncello is the only one who believes that Renzi will succeed. “I am bullish about Italy,” he says.

The professor presents a heroic narrative of the prime minister, calling him a “revolutionary figure” – and only time will tell whether he is right. But he does make a basic point that it is hard to argue with: “He’s the only game in town. The right is dead. Completely melted. The left continues to be the usual communist left. It’s a disaster.”

It is the disarray among Renzi’s opponents not only on the right, where Berlusconi’s Forza Italia is fighting to regain relevance, but also in the crumbling old guard of the Democratic Party, that may allow him to press forward. “Nobody can stop this avalanche,” Pavoncello says.

That is an exaggeration, as the reform process is moving slowly. The big question is whether the Italian people will have the patience to endure a drawn-out and complicated overhaul – which promises pain to millions who benefit under the status quo – as the economy continues to stagnate. A stumble for Renzi’s party in regional elections in late May signalled threats hovering over his future. Voters are growing hostile to his pro-business ethos, alien to Italian tradition, and his own camp is beginning to bridle under a leadership style often described as dictatorial. Adding to his problems, the xenophobic, anti-euro Northern League’s vote share jumped across the nation, extraordinary for a party that long advocated a divorce between the affluent Italian north and the poorer south.

Pavoncello insists that Renzi has the political smarts and determination to be a transformative figure. But won’t he hit the brick wall of Italians’ cherished way of life?

“What way of life?” he fumes. “People staying at home? Fifty per cent youth unemployment? Taxi drivers who think they’re middle-class? In New York taxi drivers are not middle-class. Here taxi drivers make three, four, five thousand dollars a month. They feel they are shopkeepers. Taxi drivers are not middle-class. They are the bottom of the class! Can you remain middle-class when you have Uber? You can fight. You can try. But the world is going against you.”

Roberto Fabiani, the spokesman for Rome’s main cabbies’ association, who is a taxi driver, too, does indeed come across as middle-class. He wears Ray-Ban aviators, designer stubble and a crisp white shirt as he meets me at the Romana Tassisti headquarters on the outskirts of the city. Like Caponi, he is university-educated and asks why he shouldn’t have a pleasant family life after working a hard shift behind the wheel. He sees Renzi’s argument about reviving the economy by making it easier for firms to fire as being fundamentally at odds with Italy’s communitarian sensibilities.

“This is a philosophy that is molto liberal,” Fabiani says of the Jobs Act programme. “In Italy we have a vision that is very much to the left. Article 1 of our constitution says that Italy is a country founded on work. Translated, that means that every citizen should have the right to a dignified job, not extravagantly paid, but one that allows him to live in a dignified manner. ‘Dignified’ for me means not only to have an income that allows me to live, but also the security to know that I can live my life. If I’m hired, and in three months somebody says ‘you’re no longer needed’, that’s a problem.”

Italy’s commitment to social welfare, with its roots in age-old ideas about community and family, has provided cushions that allow people to live with dignity even in the midst of a sharp downturn. Yet millions of young Italians are living with precisely the indignity of uncertainty that Fabiani finds unacceptable. He is prepared to fight to protect his own. “If this happened,” he says of Renzi’s plan to break open closed sectors, “it would be the end. We’d take a hard position. Until the bitter end.”


There is no country in the world where cliques do not fight hard to keep their privileges. In Italy, however, the instinct is particularly strong; and this may present the greatest challenge of all to Matteo Renzi’s desire for reform. Italy’s historical experience as a jumble of city states and patches of empire has left a structure of allegiances and patronage that poses daunting obstacles to change.

Campanilismo, loyalty to the village bell tower, is central to Italian life. This signifies loyalty not only to your village, but to your trade association, your social circle, uncles and cousins, and, at the highest echelons, your political faction or business cabal.

“I’m not Italian, I’m a Roman,” says Caponi the taxi driver. “This is another thing that we are missing. We aren’t like the French or the Germans or the English, who are French and German and English.”

It’s a spirit captured in a song by the singer Luca Carboni called “Inno Nazionale” – “National Anthem”. You might expect a patriotic paean, but it goes like this:

“I’m too much of a Bologna man,

And you’re much too Neapolitan.

Him? Too much from Turin,

And you guys too stuck in Bari.

And if we’re all too proud,

They’re all too Venetian.”

The song continues in this vein, a hard rap with a techno beat. In its simplicity, this national anthem conveys how the Italian identity is precisely the lack of one. The paradox hits home in the song’s conclusion:

“We were once too fascist, and then

Too don’t-give-a-fuckists . . .

And then became too communist,

As well as too Christian-Democratic.

And even as time passes,

We’re still too ITALIAN!”

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide