The Story of My People
Opther Press, 2012, pg 163
Edoardo Nesi’s family owned a small textile factory in the Italian city of Prato in Tuscany. In September 2004 he had to sell it because there was no way to keep it running. In a world of global and free trade it was loosing money and he could not afford to keep it running, no mater how much he wanted. It was a sad moment for the Nesi family and one of many of the symbols of change that have come to the post war boom in Italy. No longer would Italy’s industrial resurgence after World War II be able to support the country. The world had changed too much and his act was one of many that ended the dreams of the post war generation.
What Nesi describes is an Italy of small manufacturers, often family run, that sprang up after World War II. Like his family, the owners of the textile mills in Prato were all small businesses that sold to countries like Germany and whose businesses relied on personal relations between the buyer and the seller. All of this was protected by the trade barriers and supports that supported not only Italian, but European manufacturers. Then came competition from China, but worse, as Nesi describes it, the Italian government lowered trade barriers without understanding the fundamental nature of the Italian economy, leaving the manufacturers without any defense against global competition. Even more irritating to Nesi, self proclaimed economic experts in leading papers spout pat phrases about learning to compete or the need to reinvest all the while having no idea how the businesses of Prato are supposed to do it. Germany, as he points out, was much more careful about its entry into world markets. Italy? They just threw away what they had and the small businesses had no time to change course. I think it was even harder for Nesi because from what he says, he leans conservative. In one of many of his attacks he says,
A world governed by the dogmas and the intellectual arrogance of economists, who on a daily basis set out to predict the future like so many shamans, or gurus, or prophets (and still, incredibly, continue to do so). Like seers, card readers, people possessed. Like sorcerers and wizards and haruspicies, these gentleman were predicting the future, evidently ignorant of the age-old lesson imparted by Francesco Guicciardini, from Resaissance Florence: he warned that de’ futuri contingenti non v’é scienza (there is no way to foretell the details of the future).
The Story of My People is not just an economic analysis of Italy. It is an analysis of all the assumptions that underlay the post war boom, both economic and cultural. In one particularly fascinating section he asks, what is Italy and can it survive on its reputation alone: a reputation for the finer things, as if everyone could be an Armani, and a reputation for culture. The idea of Italy the purveyor of style is silly. Not enough can live on that. And to live on culture (which I also think means the glories of the past as a kind of land for tourists only)?
Because all of us need beauty–we need it desperately. But I can’t bring myself to use the word desperately. Not is front of my daughter, not even after my second martini. So I take her hand and, with the tune of Dylan’s song in the background, ask whether she wouldn’t like to inhabit a world where everyone could live on culture alone, a wonderful world where you could pay the butcher with a short story, the barkeep with a poem, or even build a house for yourself with a novel–and she laughs and says what beautiful fairy tale that would be, indeed, and tells me I ought to put it all in a book, this whole thing about a world that runs on culture.
From this critique of culture as its own product, he moves towards the impacts on the workers. In a the chapter he calls Nightmare, he describes the imaginary confrontation between a laid off middle aged worker, Fabio, and a rich Chinese emigrant (it would be helpful to point out that Prato has the second largest number of Chinese in Italy). Through a series of accidents and frustrations the Italian beats up the Chinese man. It is unfocused anger. The Italian worker does not belong to a right wing party, he just snaps at a gas station, his feelings of uselessness (this is when the British term redundancy is the most evocative) getting the best of him. He captures brilliantly the phenomenon that is going on all over the Europe and America:
Jenny Holzer once said, in one of those very elegant truisms that she put on LEDs in the eighties, “there is a resentment at growing up at the end of an era of plenty,” but Fabio would be happy to tell her that there is an even greater resentment at growing old at the end of an era of plenty.
In one of the most poignant pieces he returns with the police to one of the old work shops he had sold. It has been converted into a sweat shop where Chinese emigrants work in dangerous conditions, both in terms of fire and sanitation. His description of it shows his skill as a writer. In the visit he finds all the contradictions of the new global economy: Chinese imported just so that when they sew the garments together they can say they were made in Italy. It is an ugly scene, and he captures details that are at once beautiful and sad:
It starts to get hot, and you perspire. All the windows are closed, to make sure that no one can look in from outside. In the barrel roof of the industrial shed, way up high, there’s a sort of porthole and through it you can see a single star twinkling, ridiculously alone.
Ultimately, Nesi has no one particular solution. The best he can hope for, perhaps the most realistic, is that the people of Italy begun to understand what is happening. How the politicians sold them out and changed the rules without thinking about the workers of Italy. To symbolize the need for a more communal action, one that eschews the selfishness of the post boom affluence he describes a rally the workers of Prato has. He is reluctant to join. But he knows the affluent times are over. The “Fitzgeraldian splendor”is over. He’s just going to be an observer at the rally, but it the last moment he takes hold of the great flag, the longest one ever made, one made in Prato with pride, and begins the journey towards a different future, one that will not be passive.