Immersed in death: on a packed commuter train in New York on the day JFK got shot, there is only one headline. (Photo: Getty Images)
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The assassin’s creed

The killings of Abraham Lincoln, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and John F Kennedy all seemed world-changing events. But is assassination anything other than an act of petty vanity?

It was a grey January day in St Petersburg in 1878 when Vera Zasulich, a young nihilist, made the short journey to the office of the city’s governor, General Fyodor Trepov. Here the general listened to petitions and examined complaints. A crowd of people had gathered in the cold. Zasulich waited in line for her turn to approach the great man. At last they spoke, and just as Trepov was turning from her to deal with the next supplicant, she pulled a gun from under her cloak and fired at him at point-blank range. The bullet burst into his pelvis, wounding but not killing him. Zasulich threw down the gun, stood quite still, and waited to be arrested. They beat her, of course, and then bundled her into a room, and then wondered a little feebly what to do with her next.

As they deliberated in the immediate aftermath of her deed, Zasulich moved from moments of dissociation and strangeness to an honest desire to offer advice to her baffled captors. Her words are quoted in a collection of revolutionary-era Russian memoirs, Five Sisters: Women Against the Tsar, edited by Barbara Alpern Engel and Clifford N Rosenthal:

My foresight, and consequently my precise plan of action, did not extend beyond the moment of attack. But every minute my joy increased – not because I was in full control of myself . . . but rather because I found myself in an extraordinary state of the most complete invulnerability, such as I had never before experienced. Nothing at all could confuse me, annoy me, or tire me. Whatever was being thought up by those men, at that time conversing animatedly in another corner of the room, I would regard them calmly, from a distance they could not cross.

This mingled feeling of elation and satisfaction appears often in the personal accounts of assassins; the work has been done and, in the process, their own lives thrown away. A sudden liberation from the burden of self fills them; they ascend to a height above life. They have realised themselves in the perfection of a deed.

Zasulich’s act succeeded by virtue of its comparative failure. Her shooting of Trepov was an act of revenge, after he had ordered an innocent man to be badly whipped in the house of detention on account of a small act of insubordination. Put on trial for her retaliation, she found herself acquitted unexpectedly; indignation against Trepov and sympathy for Zasulich’s courage meant only one possible end to the trial, despite the weight of evidence against her. That she had only wounded her man no doubt also facilitated her acquittal.

At the end of the trial, there were wild scenes of jubilation in court. Almost everyone was elated; only the judge and Zasulich were suitably sober. The result depressed the judge, who knew that it made a nonsense of the law, and disheartened Zasulich, who had been deprived of her death. She was confronted by the terrible responsibility of living on; freedom had been returned to her.

Zasulich’s state of mind following her attempt at murder is symptomatic of the “archetypal assassin” from the French Revolution onwards, that is, the assassin who struck at a prominent political figure for idealistic and ideological reasons. It illustrates how the results of assassination were perhaps always less vital to the perpetrators than the sheer exhilaration and abandonment central to the deed. There is no question that they also looked for a kind of political “success” in such murders, but in fact such triumphs were always more limited and less vital than the psychological rewards: the desire, in a righteous deed, to justify the self and in the same instant to escape its trammels.

It is doubtful how far assassinations have worked as an instrument of political or revolutionary change. In most cases, such murders have made only a negligible impression on events; the chaos and instability they carry with them have nearly always meant more than the change brought about by the deed.

One of the Great Courses, those DVD lecture series advertised in the New York Review of Books or the LRB, is on Events That Changed History. Two of its 36 defining moments are assassinations – the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 and the killing of John F Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. Both events look world-changing, but were they?

The assassination on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo is a textbook example of contingency in historical matters. Along the Appel Quay, where the visiting Austrian archduke, his wife and their entourage were scheduled to drive past, waited seven adolescent assassins, some of them still schoolboys, all determined to kill their man and spark a situation that might lead to Bosnia joining a Greater Serbia. The car swept by, passing the first assassin, who could not act, as a policeman was standing by him in the crowd. The second assassin was more fortunate, and lobbed a nail bomb that landed on the opened bonnet of the car. The archduke swiftly scooped it up and threw it back on to the road, where it exploded as it hit the ground. One soldier was injured by the blast; 70 holes punctured the car. The bomb-thrower bit into a cyanide capsule but the poison was old and its potency was gone. He pushed past the bystanders and leapt over the wall to drown himself. But the summer’s heat had shrunk the river, and it was too shallow to drown. Vomiting from the unstable pill, he was pulled down by a throng of people and bundled into the custody of the police. When they asked him if he was a Serb, he replied, “Yes, I am a Serb hero.”

Meanwhile the car drove on. The next assassin it passed was moved by pity for the royal pair and failed to fire his gun. The fourth assassin’s nerve failed him and he ran off home. The others watched as the car sped past too fast, and the moment was gone. Disappointed, one of the would-be killers, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, feeling hungry now, crossed the Quay and ambled on to the entrance of Franz Joseph Street; there, at Moritz Schiller’s food store, he stepped in and bought a sandwich. He was still sitting and eating it when the archduke and duchess pulled up in their car, right outside the store. They were coming back from the city hall and the driver had taken a wrong turning. They tried to reverse, but there was too little room to manoeuvre in the narrow street. Princip stood up, strode over to the right hand of the vehicle and, from a distance of four or five paces, fired two shots directly into the car. The first one killed the archduke; the second, intended for Oskar Potiorek, the governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina, fatally wounded the duchess.

Some still believe that this product of accident and misadventure sparked a world war that killed millions. It is the case that some schoolboys playing the role of doomed heroes helped topple a civilisation; yet, on a grander political scale, the murder was very largely only a pretext for action. There had been brutal assassinations before. Such murders usually occurred within the body politic of a sovereign state, as an element in a coup or an outcome of insanity. By their transnational nature, the numerous anarchist murders from the 1880s to the 1900s offered no foreign country as a suitable target for retaliation; like the pirate, the anarchist was equally an enemy everywhere. As the assassins operated outside the boundaries of the nation state, the vengeance of armed retribution was meaningless in relation to the horrors of their actions. The murders in Sarajevo were entirely different. They occurred on Hapsburg soil but could easily be said to have their origin in the very existence of the Serbian state. The response to the killings potentially involved war – yet such a confrontation was always avoidable as long as everyone wanted peace.

However, far from aspiring to avert a war, the Austrians did all they could to invite it. The Austrian foreign minister, Count Berchtold, wrongly believed, or chose to believe, that the murders in Sarajevo had been carried out with the connivance of the Serbian government. With German backing, the Austrians were disposed to pick a fight. They thought they could bully the Serbs with impunity and quickly crush an upstart neighbour. They pressed for war, but even so meant only to settle scores with Serbia, a smaller enemy whose certain defeat would bolster the empire; they never intended the European conflagration that would burn down their power.

None of the young conspirators imagined that the assassination would provoke immediate war between Serbia and Austria; as for their deed sparking a worldwide conflict, it was beyond their powers to conceive such an outcome. Nedeljko Cabrinovic, the youth who threw the nail bomb at the car, lamented that “if I had foreseen what was to happen I should myself have sat down on the bombs so as to blow myself to bits”. Though he toughed it out in court, in private Princip was devastated by reports of the war. Yet, later, he could hardly believe that a world war could have followed on from their choices; he couldn’t really feel guilty for that bit of bad luck. They had aimed at a symbol, the embodiment of all their frustrations. They were too young and too naive to grasp fully the potential consequences of their actions; they were in love with the heroic deed, and their bloodily rose-tinted imaginations could not picture anything beyond that fair vision: at the trial, Cabrinovic remarked, “We thought that only noble characters are capable of committing assassinations.” Their most pressing motive in murdering the archduke and his wife was the desire to share in that nobility.

The “world-changing” consequences of the events in Sarajevo depended on the context in which the murders happened. The world was poised for war, and so the killings led to carnage. The deed resonated within the desires of others, and just then what others wanted was what they imagined would be the speedy resolution of questions of European dominance and prestige. If it had not been Sarajevo that pulled the trigger, it would have been something else, but war would have come in any case.

If assassination’s potency to alter history is questionable in Sarajevo, there must be even greater doubts in the case of the killing of John F Kennedy on 22 November 1963. Kennedy had mastered the new politics, offering charisma to the electorate. His final place in the national consciousness was as a symbol of all that was most desirable in the American myth. In terms of tangible achievement or foreign policy gains, however, he left almost nothing for posterity; at best, he founded the Peace Corps. The great legislative triumphs of the period, in civil rights, Medicaid, environmental law and social welfare, are all attributable to the much-disparaged and untelegenic Lyndon Baines Johnson.

In the cruellest interpretation, the single most important impact of Kennedy’s career is that his death handed Johnson, as his successor, the moral force to pass these necessary reforms – laws that Kennedy would have been unlikely to get through undamaged on his own. In foreign policy terms, it was almost certainly Kennedy’s weakness with Khrushchev that prompted the Cuban missile crisis, the resolution of which was his only victory. Even that success was not quite what the public perceived it to be, involving as it did the hushed-up quid pro quo removal of US missiles from Turkey. Meanwhile, Kennedy had already sparked an arms race with the Russians, and his policy on Vietnam helped to create the conditions for the disastrous war that followed. There were hints that he would have withdrawn from Vietnam if he had been re-elected; and later there were other hints that he had been murdered precisely because of this private intention.

To imagine that Kennedy could have ended the Vietnam war presupposes a strength of purpose in him of which there was little evidence in the first years of his presidency, other than the brinkmanship of the missile crisis and (on a much smaller scale) his confrontation with George Wallace over racial integration. In any case, Kennedy had fatally undermined the Diem regime in South Vietnam, with consequences that would have precluded such a sudden withdrawal. Otherwise, he inspired and launched the space programme – and that was about all.

Despite this paltry legacy, Kennedy still stands in the eyes of many as a “great president”, even one of the greatest. This owes more to marketing than delivery. Knowing that his Catholicism would prevent a straightforward coronation by the Democratic Party, he was forced to fight the 1960 election campaign on the basis of his national popularity. He had to win primaries and show his power. It was a new kind of strategy, and it hinged on the retailing of Kennedy. They were going to “sell Jack like soap flakes”.

On 26 September 1960, Kennedy triumphed over Richard Nixon, the Republican candidate, on television; radio listeners were more evenly divided on who they believed had won the debate. On the screen, JFK had looked like a superstar, and the sweating, stubbly Nixon, as one journalist put it, “a real middle-class uneducated swindler with all the virtues of a seller of fountain pens in Naples”. The smear on the Democratic posters – “Would YOU buy a used car from this man?” – stuck. The Kennedys’ relationship with the press and with television, their youth, their attractiveness, placed them in a position of mediated confidence with the electorate. However, it was the faux-intimacy of the television image, the allure of cinema. In 1960, in an article for Esquire, Norman Mailer put it like this:

Since the First World War Americans have been living a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull . . . and there is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation . . . if elected he would not only be the youngest president ever to be chosen by the voters, he would be the most conventionally attractive young man ever to sit in the White House, and his wife – some would claim it – might be the most beautiful first lady in our history. Of necessity the myth would emerge once more, because America’s politics would now be also America’s favourite movie, America’s first soap opera, America’s bestseller.

The Kennedys were stars, and John F Ken - nedy died on-screen. The assassination was an experience broadcast on television; two days later Jack Ruby’s murder of Lee Harvey Oswald was shown live by NBC across homes in America. Within half an hour of the JFK shooting, 68 per cent of Americans had heard the news, carried to them by the media. The television set that brought the outside world into the domestic space displayed the pathos to a nation. All could feel involved; the deed became an image.

Yet it was an image that could not be assimilated or understood. In one sense, apart from the tragedy of a young man’s murder, it was precisely its lack of historical significance that rendered it so potent. The plethora of conspiracy theories around Kennedy’s murder responded to genuine mysteries and unresolved problems in the story; the theories were also a way to inscribe meaning into the event, as though an unseen betrayal underwrote it, and they might produce the simulacra of significance. For, just as the assassinations of the 1960s were often assumed to be manifestations of a vague “climate of violence”, so it was that their significance lay chiefly in their effect on American mentalities – even, as Mailer suggests, on the dream life of the nation. It was not the political consequences of Kennedy’s murder, nor indeed all the various assassinations of that decade, that truly mattered, but rather the way they sustained and exemplified an atmosphere of panic, or of social disintegration. They worried Americans with a sense of things falling apart, of a polis under strain.

In the eyes of many, political violence, random killings and unrest seemed a constant factor in American life from the early 1960s to the early 1980s. As the journalist Jack Newfield wrote: “We felt, by the time we reached 30, that we had already glimpsed the most compassionate leaders our nation could produce, and they had all been assassinated.” The folk singer Dick Holler’s 1968 song “Abraham, Martin and John” links the deaths of Lincoln, JFK, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. It presents the four men as simple embodiments of goodness who were not allowed to live out their potential.

In America losing those individuals, irreparable damage was done to the possibilities of national political life. Other people failed to do what the man who was killed might have done. Similarly the history of assassination depends in two senses on the centrality of the individual: in the idea of the “indispensable person” who is assassination’s chosen victim, and in the fantasy that such murders gift their perpetrators with an undying, if ignoble fame.

Though there is a great deal of force to Newfield’s lament, the idea of the “indispensable person” runs counter to the strengths and resilience of democratic life. The American mood in the late 1960s was one of intense unease; and yet the fabric of social and political life held good. The anarchists who struck at presidents, monarchs or high-ranking officials were sometimes engaged in personal attacks, their killings a move in an ongoing vendetta between the government and revolutionaries. More usually they were simply aiming at the office itself: in their own judgement, murdering a symbol and not a person. Yet, seen as such, the deed was meaningless. The president was killed and another president took his place. The structures of power were always designed to take into account the fact of mortality, to maintain continuity; that death should be caused by an assassin’s gun altered little.

Even in the case of the many assassination attempts directed against Adolf Hitler, it is doubtful whether striking their target would have altered events significantly. Hitler’s would be assassins were as much involved in making a gesture, an indication of the survival of an internal opposition, as attempting to decapitate the Third Reich. Success would probably have led to succession by another, equally wicked Nazi. Where assassins did succeed in killing a leading Nazi – with the murder of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague in 1942 – the murder, for all its justice, merely prompted horrible reprisals, notably the massacres in the Czech villages of Lidice and Ležáky. Meanwhile, the “architect of the Holocaust” may have been killed, but the Final Solution continued apace.

In modern times, with very few exceptions (such as the killing of Abraham Lincoln in 1865), assassination has been a sideshow – although, I would argue, a highly significant one. Assassination has often been linked to a kind of “secret history”, contained in the romance of conspiracy theories. It seems instead that assassination belongs to another kind of concealed history – the history, in Norman Mailer’s terms, of the dream life of the west.

The assassins of the past 200 years were besotted with action, the power of deeds. It was part of the thrill of such action that no one could foresee to what it would lead. Killing was sufficient, even without the understanding of its consequences. Indeed, practical results were the last thing sought for by any assassin. For assassination long ago broke free of any idea of efficacy or political influence, and instead became the central expression of the extremists’ taste for action as such – a pure deed that annihilates both the victim and the perpetrator, even as it depends on the target’s fame and the fame and attention that it grants to the killer. It is an act of self-assertion that is simultaneously a self-negation.

In one respect, the historical importance of Zasulich’s action was limited: Trepov survived and the autocracy continued. However, as a muse of murder she proved a vital figure, her deed provoking attempts against the kaiser in Germany and arousing a broad campaign of assassinations in Russia which led to the murder of the tsar himself. Zasulich’s example was crucial in this swing towards the practice of terror. She was an inspiration to crime. A police official was murdered in Kiev in the spirit of emulation, and when in August 1878 a young man called Sergei Kravchinskii executed General Nikolai Mezentsev on the streets of St Petersburg, he was consciously following the line set by the courageous Zasulich.

For most within the movement, the heightening of stakes seemed inevitable and just. And yet, for Zasulich herself, there was no such easy acceptance of the killings. Soloviev’s infamous attempt to assassinate the tsar with a bomb at the Winter Palace in 1879 merely depressed her. As years went by, Zasulich’s position grew clearer. The assassin’s deed was without revolutionary merit. It led not to great social changes, but only to an ineffectual puff of violence. It exhilarated other revolutionaries, who sensed vicariously and inappropriately the retort of power. Conversely, it dismayed and sickened potential supporters among the masses, or rendered them passive spectators of outrage. The people were not roused to rebel by such deeds, but became mere witnesses to others’ glorious,  or infamous, violence. Worst of all was terror’s dependence upon a sickly illusion in the mind of the assassin herself.

Zasulich knew this at first hand. The assassin worked in a spirit of vanity or anomie: either conceited by an impression of their own potency or buoyed by the awareness of their own insignificance. The assassin embraced their victim’s death and their own, and both inspirited them with the weightless emancipation from the burden of having to live at all. Zasulich’s act of terror had sought to publicise another’s brutality; the danger was that such acts would only advertise their own horror. The injustice that prompted them would be forgotten in the impact of the assassin’s bullet. It was, she might have realised, only her own incompetence, in merely hitting Trepov in the hip, that had permitted her deed to appear noble.

Michael Newton is the author of “Age of Assassins” (Faber & Faber, £25)

Photo: Getty Images
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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.

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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