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Italy’s Masses of Unemployed Can’t Live Off Start-Ups Alone

Italy's new premier, Mario Draghi, has pointed to "digitalization" as the key to economic recovery, heralding tax incentives to boost start-ups and foreign investment. But for all the breathless talk of digital revolution, Draghi's recipes are all-too familiar: rolling out the red carpet for the likes of Elon Musk while doing nothing to help the millions of unemployed.

Italian prime minister Mario Draghi attends the debate ahead of the confidence vote on the new Italian government at the Senate on February 17, 2021, in Rome, Italy. (Roberto Monaldo/AM POOL/Getty Images)

If you could measure a country’s worth by the number of vapid start-ups it has produced, Italy would come up short. While Britain once produced half a million mostly obscure technology companies over the course of a single year, Italy has only just edged nine thousand in total.

So, when new Italian prime minister Mario Draghi promised to expand on his predecessor’s work of “digitalizing” Italian infrastructure and encouraging foreign investment, pundits foamed approvingly. Entrepreneur Matteo Berlucchi hailed the premiership of Draghi, the former chief of the European Central Bank, as an “incredibly exciting opportunity,” while Vittorio Colao, a former Vodafone executive and Italy’s new minister of innovation, had already spent pretty much the whole year tweeting breathlessly about innovation, or, as he puts it in his imported LinkedIn-ese, “#innovation.”

But while it is true that much of Italian life is blighted by technological inefficiencies — vendors don’t accept debit card, bus routes bear no earthly relation to their schedules on Google Maps, local government seems scarcely able to use email — the digitalizzazione trope has proven over the years to be an obscenely wasteful canard, a dead horse that has been beaten, exhumed, revived, and then beaten again.

Silicon Valley in the Bel Paese?

Mostly, when neoliberals talk about “digitalization,” it means investing in unproven startups. It’s a trend that began in earnest in 2012, when Corrado Passera, then the Italian minister of economic innovation under the technocrat Mario Monti, passed legislation to deliver €200 million along with various tax incentives to young, underfunded startups, the aim being to “promote social mobility” and “attract foreign talent and capital.”

But the millions spent in an effort to compete with Silicon Valley were apparently millions wasted. While venture funding has grown in the years since, that didn’t translate economically: the number of young people leaving the country continued to soar, and Italy is still written off as a technological backwater — with the exception, perhaps, of the affluent North, where much of the taxpayer-subsidized Italian “tech industry” is based.

Meanwhile, as the number of tech workers and available tech jobs increased, youth unemployment rose regardless, reaching 30 percent last year. Nevertheless, the government has continued to hip-spray money in the general direction of tech, especially over the course of the pandemic, during which it was under the influence of a consortium of corporate lobbyists. Since 2019, the National Fund for Innovation, an investment arm of the Cassa Depositi e Prestiti (the Italian government bank), has committed around €245 million, out of over €1 billion under management, to over 480 startups.

But the barest of glances at the sorts of businesses being funded puts the lie to the notion that digitalization produces any social benefit beyond its titillating effect on venture capitalists’ bottom line. In the portfolios of Italian venture funds — themselves often propped up by government funding — are businesses that provide such dazzlingly useful services as “offer[ing] mobility solutions by turning all kinds of vehicles into connected cars” and “help[ing] leading enterprises extract actionable insights from any kind of consumer data, saving them 90 percent of the time when doing research about the consumer experience.” Tellingly, the funds involved have grown rapidly since their inception; the rest of the economy hasn’t.

Digitalization can, of course, entail positive change. There has been a well-intentioned effort to digitize the Italian bureaucracy, primarily by means of the SPID (Public Digital Identity System), which seventeen million Italians have adopted — despite the fact that, unhelpfully, the majority of public bodies haven’t. PagoPA, similarly, performs tax functions online — again, though, uptake is wanting.

Benvenuto, Elon Musk?

How much of the EU recovery fund money earmarked for digitalization will go into public rather than private coffers remains unclear. But Draghi heads a coalition which has so marginalized the Italian left that a great deal is certain to end up not only with startups and venture capital funds but “incubators” and “innovation hubs” and “accelerators.”

The previous government, under the dizzying influence of the techno-utopian fantasists of the Five Star Movement — the former minister for innovation Paola Pisano was a member — grew so infatuated with digitalization that, in focusing much of its energy on building digital super-banks and rolling out credit card cash-back schemes, it managed to leave the pandemic-struck health care system desperately underfunded.

Often, when pundits and politicians talk about digitalization, they’re actually talking about foreign investment. The perennial pleas for American megacorps to annex Italy’s workforce betray more than a hint of desperation. Recently, there was much adulation upon news that Elon Musk’s next big Gigafactory — the biggest in Europe — had been approved to be built in the province of Turin. Amazon, too, has been welcomed into Italy, although far from revitalizing the tech sector, the multinational is more likely to eat into small competitors.

“Digitalization,” viewed in this way, entails gig-economy wage slavery and unfulfilling work at the fulfillment center.

Such is the disease of the American cultural and economic monopoly. Gazing wistfully at California, countries like Italy feel the need to produce analogous Silicon Valleys of their own. But the real Silicon Valley doesn’t care, and the result is a hopeless, sallow knockoff, leeching off the money and energy that could be used to actually make things better.