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Before Doing Business in Italy, Read this Book

Italy and Its Discontents - Paul Ginsborg

I’ve just finished reading professor Paul Ginsborg’s book Italy and Its Discontents 1980-2001.  The book is an in-depth study of the history of contemporary Italy and supplies great insight into the Italian mindset.  For those wishing to do business in Italy or even those considering moving to Italy, I’d say this book is a must-read.  I found it fascinating, as I’m sure anyone with an interest in Italian history would.

While Ginsborg’s Italy and Its Discontents is not that recent; it was first published in 2001; it is still highly relevant – which is something I suspect those who read the book will discover – especially if they have, like me, been living in Italy for a number of years.

As you may have gathered from reading Italy Chronicles if you are a regular reader, I’ve been in Italy well over ten years and have been writing about life and events here since 2005.  I also have my own small business in Italy.  Ginsborg’s book served to confirm what I have observed personally over the years and helped fill in some of the gaps in my own knowledge.  I found myself nodding in agreement more than a few times while reading.

The rise of one Silvio Berlusconi is charted albeit somewhat briefly (Ginsborg has devoted time to a more detailed examination of the Berlusconi phenomenon), as are events which led to the mid-90s bribery and corruption scandal which went by the name of tagentopoli.  I learnt somewhat disconcertingly from Ginsborg’s tome that the investigations into the tagentopoli affair were never really concluded, which means that while some “spring cleaning” was carried out, many of the cobwebs remained and the spiders which weaved them were left free to spin afresh.  This helps explain why stories of corruption are still an all too frequent aspect of life in today’s Italy.

Another aspect of Italy which Ginsborg covers in some detail is the messy politics.  Italy’s politicians have never really been the most efficient of workers it seems and what is happening in Italy now reflects this.

The Italian Psyche

Italy and Its Discontents - Paul Ginsborg
Italy and Its Discontents - Paul Ginsborg

Other subjects Ginsborg discusses are the Italian family and the mafia – both of which are intrinsic to Italy’s culture.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of Italy that is covered in the book is that Italy’s population trusts nobody.  Indeed, and this is backed up by research carried out by Gabrielle Calvi, not only do Italians lack confidence in their own abilities (heaven knows why), they also distrust each other, and are convinced their fellows are out to rip them off.  To counter this, Italians tend to take the attitude that it is better to rip someone off pre-emptively rather than risk the same person getting one over on them.  I can confirm that this mentality permeates Italy and there is no reason to believe that non-Italians will be regarded any differently.  Basically, when operating in Italy, watch your back!  If you have been in Italy for some time, you may have heard the saying:

Meglio che ti frego prima che tu me ne fregi – translated this is, more or less: “It’s better that I rip you off before you rip me off”

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Italians deal with this constant, culturally-instilled, fear of been ripped off by ensuring that, for the most part, business dealings take place between family and friends.  And they are not above buying trust either, which is something which is otherwise known as corruption.

Italy’s Evolution

After finishing Italy and its Discontents, I came away with the impression that while Italy has evolved to an extent in the 1980-2001 period Ginsborg covers, the evolution has not always gone in a productive direction.  Indeed, some aspects of Italy’s modernisation have been, and continue to be, negative.  And Italy finds change painful.

Hope for Italy

There is hope for Italy, but over the years much dust has been swept under the boot-shaped carpet and trying to dispose of the ever growing pile of detritus is proving more and more problematic as time marches on.  The reign of Berlusconi has not done a lot to help reduce Italy’s accumulation of dust.  Many, I feel, would argue that Berlusconi’s methods have added to it.  Future Italian governments are going to have to face up to the fact that Italy has remained pretty much static since Berlusconi came to power and this is not going to make their work easy.  Add in to this the reputation Italy’s politicians have for not really bothering to govern and Italy has a problem.  These aspects and more are covered within the pages of Ginsborg’s objective look at Italy between 1980 and 2001.

Italy and Its Discontents 1980-2001 is a history book, which is to be expected seeing as England-born, Cambridge-educated Ginsborg is a professor of contemporary European history at the University of Florence.  He is also based in Italy – which means his writing sits on the firm foundations of someone who knows Italy not only from an academic perspective, but also as someone who knows what day to day life in Italy is like.

In summary, if you are thinking of setting up business of whatever kind in Italy, or even if you are about to be sent to Italy to run the local office of a non-Italian company, you really ought to read Ginsborg’s book.  Actually, I’d suggest reading the book twice – once before coming here and then again after having passed a few years in Italy.  It’ll help you understand what you are up against.  Thoroughly recommended.

A Curiosity

I got my copy of Ginsborg’s book in Italy in English.  Strangely, Italy and Its Discontents does not appear to have been published in Italian despite the fact that it was first published in 2001.  Perhaps certain people in Italy would prefer Italians not to read Ginsborg’s insight into contemporary Italy?  Who knows.  Anyway, once the August break is over, I’m going to try and contact professor Ginsborg and ask him about this.  If I manage to, I’ll write about what I discover here on Italy Chronicles.

Get a Copy!

Ginsborg’s book can be found on Amazon.com, here Italy and Its Discontents it is available in printed and ebook versions.  The digital version can be popped on your Kindle, iPhone, iPad or whatever it is you use to read electronic books.  And you will help save a tree or two too.

Incidentally, my next Ginsborg book is going to be Silvio Berlusconi: Television, Power and Patrimony, which, alas, is only available in a print version at this time.  A shame, as my Kindle equipped iPhone 4 makes an excellent ebook reader.

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