Edoardo Nesi is an acclaimed novelist, translator, essayist, and filmmaker whose translations into Italian include David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. He has served as a member of the Italian Parliament’s Chamber of Deputies since 2013.
In his recent book, Everything Is Broken Up and Dances: The Crushing of the Middle Class, Nesi and his friend Guido Maria Brera, a prominent European asset manager, illuminate in alternating chapters how the neoliberal turn in Western economics and finance, far from lifting up humanity, obliterated many of the very things that make life worth living.
Nesi’s personal history is deeply connected to this tragic story—his family had a prosperous textile company founded by his grandfather before World War II that Nesi was forced to sell in 2004 when Italy’s proud tradition of skilled artisans and manufactures—along with entire cities—got wrecked by the inhumane process of globalization. The book’s title, borrowed from a recording of The Doors, “Ghost Song,” evokes the anguish of broken promises and a burning urge to reclaim the vitality of life.
The combination of Nesi’s lyrical storytelling and Brera’s elucidating economic discussions make this work a compelling contribution to the understanding of what is at stake if the current path, which has given rise to right-wing demagoguery in Europe and the United States, continues. Nesi shares his thoughts about the book and its message with the Institute for New Economic Thinking.
Lynn Parramore: You paint a picture of a prosperous 50-year period in post-war Italy when traditional artisans became manufacturers and helped to drive an economic expansion that seemed to fulfill the hope that capitalism could bring a good life to ordinary people. But in 2001, something in what you reference as the “celestial machinery” that had made this prosperity possible went wrong. What happened?
Edoardo Nesi: First, let me try to explain with a small, poignant example how the Italian prosperity I am talking about in the book was a quite remarkable phenomenon of sharing richness, well-being and optimism for the future. In 1991, the daughter of one of our plant workers—he was not a director, not an accountant, just an ordinary worker (and a fervent communist, by the way)—got married. Her father decided to give her a honeymoon trip to Polynesia. For two weeks. In a world without low-cost flights.
The system of small businesses was thriving all over Italy—with the unfortunate exception of a large part of the south, from where hundreds of thousands of migrants left to find a job and a house in the north and center of the country. This system’s success and industrial structure seemed to contradict many, if not all, laws of capitalism. In Prato, you could produce a fabric without having any machines or workers. There was a net of small companies that could spin, weave, dye and finish your fabrics for you. Using them was cheaper that setting up your own industrial chain of production, and their quality and service was outstanding.
And everyone was making money, so new small companies could spring up and start work at once. There were no barriers to entering the market, as credit was abundant and easy to obtain. The demand for textiles kept on growing in Italy and Europe and the U.S. and Japan for forty years and more.
Apply this system to every manufacturing sector, and you will see how Italy rebounded from the tragedy of the war and the stupidity of fascism and autarky.
Globalization changed everything in the sense that the ideological cancelation of all tariffs and duties and barriers that Europe adopted in 2001 towards Chinese imports swept away a large part of the Italian small businesses. This was done without even asking China to lift its own tariffs and duties and barriers that, of course, still exist to this very day. This also created massive unemployment and gave a foundation and force to the resentment towards Europe that has fueled the incredible outcome of the elections that we have just witnessed.
I had to sell my family’s company.
LP: This book is structured as a conversation between you and your lifelong friend, Guido Maria Brera, who comes from the world of finance and personally benefitted from the changes that were causing pain to so many, including your family. What did you wish to illuminate by weaving together your different perspectives?
EN: It was very important for us to tell the story of Italy’s decadence in the most complete way. When I was selling my company, Guido was becoming one of the Masters of the Universe, as Tom Wolfe used to call the most successful men and women of international finance. Yet even though he has only benefited from the extraordinary openness that came with globalization, he is not deaf to the cry of help that comes from the people that had a job and a future and do not have it anymore.
He also sees a huge problem at the roots of the world, now. Guido thinks that with the advent of globalization we lost social rights for millions in the western world, and all we had in exchange was cheap technology, economic and political instability and, consequentially, populism, a phenomenon which we must struggle to understand and which could rapidly change economic conditions in the whole world.
LP: Italy has long been thought of as a place where people enjoy the good things in life: beautiful art, delicious food, a magical landscape. What has happened to that Italy at a time of rising inequality and a social elevator that has been smashed?
EN: Fortunately, even the most horrible of times cannot cancel the beauty of Florence, the magic of Venice, the grandeur of Rome, the spirit of Milan, the coast of Amalfi, or the wonders of Sicily. But I often wonder if a country can live by just admiring its beauty and attracting tourists to come and see it in short sweaty trips, while forgetting about the extraordinary results of its industry and the preeminence of its design. LP: What parallels do you see between the economic and political situations in Italy and those in the U.S.?
Populists run both countries now, and I could not despise them more. In their simplistic, empty, angry, rude, infinitely tweetable messages which reduce to slogans the infinite complexity of life, the economy, and the civil coexistence between human beings, they are going after the very reason of our past greatness: the idea that individualism works perfectly only in a system that provides rules and enforces the idea of reciprocity between countries. Otherwise it just creates inequality, mass unemployment and, at the end, chaos.
LP: Your book makes clear that the current course of neoliberal capitalism is unsustainable and unworkable. What solutions do you see as viable? When everything is broken up, how do we dance?
EN: This is the hardest question by far. I have no solutions, as there are no easy ones.
I am probably too old-fashioned to accept the idea of a universal guaranteed income, which seems to me the worst of destinies for our younger generations. I also think I have lost the faith in technology I used to have when I was younger. After all, it took eight hours to fly from Milan to New York in the 1980s, and we need the same eight hours now. We now live in a world where we are continually asked to accept and adopt changes to our systems, implying that very little of the things - or programs – we use are new. We are just updating what already exists, and this cannot be called progress. I miss a world where a product took the place of the existing one only when it was measurably better.
But then, I miss almost everything from the world I grew into, and most of all Jim Morrison and The Doors.
LP: This discussion makes me think of another Doors song, the great elegiac epic, “The End”—in particular the line, “lost in a Roman wilderness of pain / And the children are all insane.”
EN: Yes, and that is the perfect description of my five years in parliament.