We all know that globalization has disrupted industries around the world, but we don’t always connect disruption to the destruction of ways of life—the social fabric that globalization can rend and tear. "Story of My People," by Edoardo Nesi, a polemic fueled by grief and rage at the devastating effect of globalization on the Italian textile industry, makes that connection tangible.
Nesi is the scion of a business family in the Tuscan town of Prato, which was a center for the design and manufacture of textiles for centuries. An award-winning writer, filmmaker, and translator, he knows the negative effects of globalization intimately: Nesi worked in and helped run his family’s textile business from 1993 to 2004, when he had no choice but to engineer the sale of the firm because it was no longer able to compete against lower-priced Chinese competitors.
With a literary mind and a flair for the visual, Nesi conjures up a vivid portrait of the fabric manufacturing company founded by his grandfather and granduncle, Lanificio T.O. Nesi & Figli SpA, and its long run of success in the fast-expanding economies of post–World War II Europe. It was a good time to be in business: Nesi recounts sales visits to Germany during which orders were written on the basis of relationships and price was rarely, if ever, discussed. This continued for three decades, during which time Prato became the center of a complex textile ecosystem, “insanely fragmented but incredibly efficient.”
No one profited more than Nesi’s family. He imagines familial ghosts taking their places at the empty tables around him, “drinking their martinis and their negronis and their camparis…miserably happy with all that they possess, their houses at [the seaside] and their Ferraris, their boats and their elegant clothing, their factories and their spectacular lovers.…” It reminds him of scenes written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. “If only novels and movies and paintings and poetry and opera and songs and even fashion—yes, even fashion—could ride to the rescue,” he writes, “preserving jobs and saving us all from a long, steady slide into, first, depression and ultimately poverty.”
There is, of course, no savior waiting in the wings, and Nesi’s grief over the loss of a way of life for his family, Prato, and, indeed, all of Italy turns to rage as he reflects on the causes of the economic catastrophe wrought by globalization. He shoulders part of the blame, admitting that the leaders of Prato’s textile industry mistakenly believed that they “could go on in the third millennium, selling the same fabrics…made out of the same raw materials and the same yarns, weaving them on the same looms, [dyeing] them the same colors…selling them to the usual customers in the usual markets,” never realizing that they were artisans, not industrialists, heirs to ancient traditions who had benefited from a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
However, he reserves the lion’s share of the blame for Italy’s technocrats, politicians, and economists, who spun tall tales of the infinite bounty of globalization and signed away the keys to the country. As it turned out, their reasoning that China’s markets would drive Italy’s economic growth was fatally flawed: The emerging Chinese middle class shows no sign of developing a taste for fashion “made in Italy.” Instead, Chinese apparel makers have knocked off the designs, copied the fabrics, and produced them in China for a fraction of the price. Yes, says Nesi, niche businesses with global brands, such as Ferrari and Armani, can still prosper. But their success can accommodate only a few people. “A country the size of Italy won’t fit.”
Prato’s textile industry is going to the Chinese, but not always leaving the city. Nesi points out that Prato now has the second-largest Chinese population in Italy, after Milan. In a city of 200,000 people, about 10,000 Chinese live legally and another 40,000 illegally. They work and sometimes live in about 3,500 businesses, often in squalor. “Even the most powerful words, the most elevated concepts seem to be emptied of meaning in the face of this horrendous story of indifference and exploitation among losers,” Nesi writes, “where all the characters are the victims of a chain of dishonesty that spreads out from a deeply rotten idea of work.”
What will happen next? Nesi has nightmares about an outbreak of ethnic violence between Italians and Chinese, but the story closes with a demonstration in Prato’s piazza, where he, along with thousands of others who have been displaced by globalization, carry a kilometer-long banner of Prato-made fabric. “I am not sure where we are going,” he says, “but we are certainly not standing still.”