“Who can say whether there was ever a moment, an hour, a day when we reached the apex of our economic lives, and from that day forth, our dreams became chimeras, our successes privileges, our future an imaginary quantity?”
So begins the climactic chapter of Edoardo Nesi’s Story of My People (Other Press, 2012), an eloquent, emotion-laden, and, I think, essential addition to the globalization bookshelf. Just released last month in the U.S., this slim memoir won the 2011 Strega Prize—the first time a work of nonfiction has received Italy’s most prestigious literary award since it was established in 1947.
At its core this book is an elegy to Nesi’s family business, a fabric manufacturing company whose roots in the small city of Prato in Tuscany stretched back to the 1920s. The family sold the company in 2004 after reading the writing on the wall, which told them that globalization would soon destroy it. Indeed, inexpensive fabrics from China have since gutted Italy’s textile industry.
The book is also a sort of Ginsbergian howl. By the way, Allen Ginsberg grew up in Paterson, N.J. A century ago, Paterson produced 30 percent of the silk made in the U.S., and grew to about the size of Prato, before the mill owners got hip to labor arbitrage and took off for sunnier climes. But getting back on point, what I love about Nesi’s howl is that it’s shot through with clarity, as well as an ageless, Italian shrug of resignation.
Nesi has no illusions about the nature of the success that put his extended family in Ferraris for decades. He writes, “...practically all the companies born in the booming postwar years were still being run by their founders...a generation of wild entrepreneurs who knew perfectly well that the miraculous growth that their companies had enjoyed was the result of a set of extraordinarily favorable, once-in-a lifetime conditions...a wave of epochal growth that sprang from the ruins of postwar Italy and which had lifted everyone, capable and inept, industrialists and employees, well beyond their own limitations.”
Nesi has no illusions about the globalization advice offered by Italy’s economists. Told that consumers in emerging economies would clamor for Italian brands and that the nation’s companies should go global, he responds, “Evidently, the economists didn’t know that our small-scale industrialists, manufacturers of fabrics and shoes, bathroom fixtures, and household appliances and ceramic tiles and so on, had neither the money nor the lines of credit from banks, nor the ambition nor the luxury, neither the personnel nor the talent, nor the courage nor the recklessness, and neither the vision nor the faith in the future to risk everything they’d built up until that moment.... As if it were random chance that there’s only one company in the world called Ferrari. That there’s just one, inimitable Giorgio Armani.”
Finally, Nesi has no illusions about the chances of beating back the Visigoths of globalization. The Italian government should have fought tooth and nail to protect its industries, he argues, while paying lip service to open trade. “Then, of course, we’d have eventually hauled down the flag all the same. Like the Luddites, we’d have admitted defeat, but we would have won better terms of surrender, and we’d be better off now, and we’d live in a different Italy.”
If I was a publisher, this is a book I’d be proud to put out. Heck, I’m proud to recommend it in my inaugural post on s+b’s new blog. Other Press was kind enough to post the full chapter on Scribd. If you are seeking to understand a facet of the global economy that has rarely been covered and never so intimately, do read it.