Edoardo Nesi and Guido Maria Brera are classic liberals. They believe the free market works, that minimal regulation is good, that ultimately penny-pinching efforts by governments to get out of debt can be a good thing. Brera is an investment manager; Nesi inherited a textile manufacturing company, which he was ultimately forced to sell, and more recently pursued a career as an award-winning author and politician.
The fact that it comes from two stalwart believers in traditional liberal, socially-conscious capitalism makes their savage attack on its globalized, neoliberal offspring somehow all the more satisfying. Everything is Broken Up and Dances is almost poetic in its straightforward denunciation of the double-speak of contemporary bankers and politicians, of their bureaucratic insulation from the first-hand cruelty of the austerity politics they practice.
Nesi and Brera open with a vignette from 1999 — the beginning of the end, they note. They yearn to go back to those good old days, or perhaps a bit earlier, when the mistaken path of neoliberalism could still have been avoided. They’re not calling for socialism, but for a kinder capitalism (one which acknowledges the “rights conquered over the course of the twentieth century… a high-quality education available to one and all, universal health care, the right to a job and a home”).
Neverthelessm their book is essential for any critic of the contemporary situation, because they achieve more ably than most a clear-sighted and beautifully expressed explanation of how untenable the present situation is. They’re angry at corporations that try to avoid paying their fair share — Brera, as an investment manager, understands clearly how his discipline has come to engage in the destructive delusion that undermining the social contract in pursuit of higher profits can ever be a good thing.
“During the growth years… what had happened was that private citizens had enriched themselves while the state was growing poorer,” he writes. His analysis is broad and comprehensive; he even takes the ‘sharing economy’ to task.
“It’s a form of self-exploitation disguised by the deceptive mantra that preaches the transformation of every individual into a company, and creates a labor force that’s amateurish and therefore easily extorted, uprooted, and subject to total mobility, which instead of generating new employment opportunities tends to offer low-cost versions of professionals and structures that already exist, ultimately eliminating reliable, long-term jobs, thereby impoverishing society…”
The book is engaging in its simplicity and straight-forwardness. While deeply intelligent, it’s written as a series of brief exchanges between the two authors. Brera offers his economic analysis of what’s gone wrong, while Nesi offers a more sociological analysis. Both write in simple, clear, fashion; Nesi at times achieves a crescendo of poetic beauty. Drawing on personal experiences, they also couch their analysis in moral and ethical terms. The notion that we should want to have as much as we can for as cheaply as possible is what has made consumers — who are now the angry, dispossessed, poor people electing Donald Trumps and other reactionary fascists around the world — complicit with their own dispossession. It strikes home for Nesi, whose family-run textile manufacturing business had its fate sealed when Italians decided they no longer wanted to save up and pay well for professionally tailored, high quality clothing, and instead opted for cheap knock-offs from China.
Big-name Italian designers, he explains, “were now turning their backs on us to save pennies on production costs for overcoats they were selling at three thousand euros apiece, all the while declaring themselves, on newspapers and on TV, to be the proud standard-bearers of Italian style.” Italian designers opted to manufacture in China, dooming the Italian clothing manufacturing industry.
Indeed, much of the authors’ collective anger is directed at China; they cite China’s entry to the World Trade Organization, with no strings attached, as the death-knell of western industry. The only claim made about globalization that’s true, writes Nesi, is the one that it would lift people out of poverty. But the only ones it lifted were Chinese, he observes.
Their critique is an economic one, and they mostly skirt the potentially xenophobic road down which it risks leading. Indeed, an amusing afterword describes the authors’ panicked discussion about whether to cancel the book after Trump’s election: Trump’s criticism of globalization was spot-on (albeit hypocritical, as one who made his fortune from it) and almost identical to theirs, but his proposed solutions are horrifying, and they feared that their own critique might also mistakenly lead readers down an angry, selfish, xenophobic path.
But ultimately their strongest criticism is reflected inward: we’ll never be able to break out of neoliberalism’s destructive cycle, they warn, as long as our greed and narcissism as consumers outweighs our common sense and our sense of collective solidarity. So long as we buy the cheap clothing and demand the latest technological gadgets made to order in China (or wherever they are mass-produced cheaply for export), we’re ensuring our own continued impoverishment of soul, society, and personal security. Nesi wonders what people of the future will think about.
“this full-fledged disease of our thought processes that has metastasized into a universal fixation on diving after the lowest price for any product and any service, with no regard for the concept of quality… They’ll depict us hunched over our smartphones, busy commenting on the bullshit that total strangers have posted, with little messages crowded with yellow emoji faces, dressed miserably because we’re so incapable by now of distinguishing between the beautiful and the unappealing that we’ve just decided to ignore the difference entirely, and they’ll laugh insanely at what happy victims we were of the vacuous enthusiasm that every great new technology unleashes, the unwitting grandchildren of those heads of household in the 1950s who would put on a jacket and tie to watch television in their living rooms.”
Their work also reveals a troubled, torn conscience which is probably characteristic of many liberals in this day and age. They cautiously embrace the principles behind austerity in the sense of saving, cutting back, and debt aversion; yet they’re horrified and angered at its consequences in the form of hunger, unemployment, homelessness. Brera offers the plain-spoken fiscal critique: “Austerity demands a compression of salaries and consumption which undermines the markets in goods and services, ultimately blocking them”. While Nesi offers the humanistic analysis: “We who had no idea how to cut costs because it was something we’d never done before, and so, in blind terror of going bankrupt, we cut at random and to excess, so that along with the money and entire divisions, we started losing the youngest and most valuable employees, and with them their energy, ideas, ambitions, and curiosity, and as a result we really did start galloping toward bankruptcy…”
How true of so many other jurisdictions around the world, that “blind terror of going bankrupt” that leads to cuts in public spending “at random and to excess”.
The authors remind us, constantly, to look at the big picture. Greece is in debt? Ludicrous, they say, because the western world is already indebted to Greece (culturally, if not fiscally) and that debt can never be repaid. “What, is that supposed to be a joke? Have we all lost our minds? Let’s hurry over to apologize, to our Greek brothers and our Greek sisters!” writes Nesi. “If anyone is in debt, it’s we who are in debt to Greece for everything we hold dearest, everything that has made us what and who we are: art and democracy and beauty and philosophy! And that’s a debt to Greece we’ll never be able to repay.”
Indeed, their critique is largely directed at the western world, a calling-out of the moral vacuity that now passes for politics and policy. “In God’s name, what has become of us Westerners?” writes Nesi. “When, exactly, did we abandon the idea of being able to face the future as a community? When did we decide to give up our values?”
The result of austerity and neoliberalism, and of the cultural and consumerist greed which makes it possible, expresses itself ultimately through the erosion of democracy, they warn that a lesson must be seen most glaringly in the election of US president Donald Trump and repeated in many other spaces around the world. “[T]he middle class has lost confidence and is impoverished and no longer believes in the overall ambition of the West, in the message of freedom and free markets and openness to the world as synonymous with progress,” writes Nesi.
Nesi and Brera represent the troubled conscience of liberalism, growing increasingly horrified at what it has wrought, and increasingly cognizant that the excesses of neoliberal capitalism could destroy everything liberalism once sought to achieve. Their solutions — a resurgent middle class, open free markets — are dubious ones at best. But their beautiful little book is not really about solutions, but rather about calling the problem out into the open. Brera, the banker, provides the economic heavy-lifting, while Nesi, the writer, puts the social consequences in a clear and moving voice.
“Anyone who once worked in manufacturing and has been fired has already discovered to their bitter surprise that they are not qualified to apply for those few jobs in the third millennium that are still performed by human beings and not by machines, and young people in search of their first jobs realize that their universities have done nothing to prepare them to enter this very new environment. Thus, the two ages, young and old, merge in an army of malcontents, a single indistinct mass, bewildered and angry, left snarling out their rage at the keyboard of a computer, incapable of finding a job that isn’t part time, temporary, poorly paid, and humiliating.
“Everything that once sustained these millions of women and men and kept them inside a society so that they could become its driving force — a job, the ambition to succeed, a better future than the present glittering before their eyes — now no longer exists. By now there are almost five million people, in Italy alone, living in conditions of absolute poverty, lost in a harsh present where the only position available for them is as losers.”
Their point of reference is Italy, but their subject and analysis is universal. And it is these condemned “losers”, they warn, who feel they have nothing to lose by banding together behind the likes of Donald Trump — or worse.
Everything is Broken Up and Dances, despite its liberal bent, is a beautiful diagnosis of the world’s grim contemporary condition. It’s an aesthetic delight, couching scathing social and economic critique in a near-poetic outpouring of creative rage.
The title, drawn from the lyrics of The Doors’ “Ghost Song”, hearkens both to the fragmentation of what came before our present uncertain moment, as well as the conviction that we can find creative ways to dance out of this contemporary mess if we so choose. But until and unless we do, we face the uncertainty and risk that arises when “people get angry, and they don’t even know who or what they’re angry at.”