OF IDENTITY IN A GLOBALIZING WORLD:
AN OVERVIEW OF
THE ITALIAN-AMERICAN BUSINESS COMMUNITY
For all of us modernity turns even the smallest choices and the most fundamental values into “risky freedoms”. On the one hand, individualization means dissolution of pre-established forms of social life. On the other, we wonder which are the ways of life that emerge when the former ones, established by the old tradition or the State, fall into pieces. The dissolution of known styles of life does not entail a social void, but, if anything, “exceeding fullness”. The options that modern subjects have at their disposal are many, and the distinguishing characteristic of this situation is that the subjects have to learn to incorporate this “exceeding fullness” into their biographies. At times, exceeding fullness can be perceived as chaotic and menacing, but it can also be perceived as a rich opportunity for personal mobility and enhancement.
In these pages I sketch a portrait of the Italian-American global business community. I see it as one interesting starting point for a renewed understanding of the making of identity in modernity, i.e., in the context of the unprecedented combination of greatness and danger which caracterizes our globalizing world. There is a wealth of sociological and philosophical literature dealing with the subject of modern identity. This literature seemingly draws two different patterns: on the one hand, we are presently climbing to a higher level of social integration, a higher level of social life as opposed to mid-1900s, on the other hand, societies are now declining. Losing and forgetting important features they are threatened by social disintegration.
I am myself dissatisfied with both of these views. Sociologists – I believe – still have to come to grips with and capture the unique combination of greatness and danger, individualization and new community bonds, single-mindedness and ambiguity, which caracterizes modern age individuals, or better. A growing number of social actors acquire in modernity a sense of oneself as a being with inner depths, as well as being in the context of enormously growing possibilities of risk and freedom. Italian-American entrepreneurs are a very good example of this.
There is another important reason why a portrait of the Italian-American global business community makes an interesting point for the making of identity in modernity. As Charles Taylor has put it,
There is a question about ourselves – which we roughly gesture at with the term ‘identity’ - which cannot be sufficiently answered with any general doctrine of human nature. The search for identity can be seen as the search for what I essentially am. But this can no longer be sufficiently defined in terms of some universal description of human agency as such, as soul, reason, or will. There still remains a question about me, and that is why I think of myself as a self. This word now circumscribes an area of questioning. It designates the kind of being of which this question of identity can be asked.
The Italian-American business community is made of entrepreneurs, who are restless and mobile individuals, active in a globalizing world. As I will try to show in the following pages, speaking to them, listening to their experiences and perceptions of the economic and social context in which they live and to which they relate gives us rich access to identity. This is privileged, not because it defines identity once and for all, or because it applies a better and more accurate universal description of human agency, but merely because we are thus invited to listen to them to comprehend their ways thinking and see them as selves.
Hence, my stronger claim is that in order better to understand globalization and the Italian contribution to it as an instance of modernity, we must go back to the words, lives and experiences of concrete, ordinary people.
I have followed the development of the Italian business community with great curiosity, passion and scientific interest. This interest was originally stimulated by a research that the Association of the Italian Chambers of Commerce in the world commissioned, in 1990 with the University of Rome in which I was engaged. The research used an explorative approach to investigate the characteristics of an emerging global community. Global, in this context, meant that the business community crossed over various identities, different national territories and several economic spaces, all of which were relevant to its action. Emerging referred to the fact that, as we would later verify, although the business community wasn’t conscious of behaving like a community, it already had all the characteristics. Since then, I have constantly monitored this subject.
By “Italian global business community” I refer to the body of companies and entrepreneurs who operate in different countries while maintaining constant connections with Italy. Piero Bassetti has defined it as Italicity, meaning a wide group of people who identifies with the values and lifestyles directly related to Italy: “a millenary culture, a lifestyle targeted to quality, a taste for beauty in its uniqueness, the predilection for values of peace rather than war, and an innate charm, because unlike other people, Italians don`t consider foreigners as enemies, but interact with them in such a way that facilitates communication”.
1. The “ethnic” entrepreneur, who is born in, and closely linked to the Italian-American community.
2. The “modernizing” entrepreneur, who in spite of being born within (and belonging to) the community, follows an economic and a social model which we could define as globalizing.
3. The Italian citizen who moved abroad.
4. The American citizen who does business with Italy.
Each type is characterized by particular traits, and the first two types include some interesting sub-types. The entrepreneurship of the Italian Diaspora has risen to such levels of social integration that it can no longer be considered “ethnic” in an old-fashioned sense. In the context of this paper, ethnic acquires the new meaning of rooted, as opposed to disembodied or “indipendent” of any particular place or region. Here I will use the most general meaning of the expression “Italian-American business community”. All the excerpts are taken from interviews with Italian-American entrepreneurs.
The expression “business community” is in fact a paradox, as it juxtaposes a “cold” element (business) and a “warm” one (community). Thus, economic exchange can be described as a network of vertical lines (indicating rationality, i.e., attention to profits and meticulous calculation of costs and advantages), and horizontal lines (indicating values, i.e., attention to all those mutual relationships among individuals who share a strong sense of belonging to the same place or group). Two examples of this intertwining of cold and warm lines follow:
1) T. M., majority shareholder of an important company for technical servicing of agricultural and industrial machinery on the East Coast, says: “The beginning of my love-story with Fiat was quite accidental. In Boston there weren’t many Fiats, and everybody used to call them “Fixit It Again, Tony” because the machines used to break down quite often. My name is Tony. Consequently, people at the workshop where I worked at the time, used to say ‘Well, now Tony is here, he can fix the machines’. I took this joke quite seriously. I understood that there was a real need, and I began to study in the evenings in order to understand how these Fiats were built and which were the most common faults. So, after a while, I could fix Fiats for a third of the price. This is how it all began”.
2) M.P. is a businesswoman who was born in Italy and moved to America with her parents when she was only a few months old. She and her sister are the owners of two metallurgical establishments. When she had to buy new machinery for the production of iron rings, she compared an Italian company with a German firm. Finally, she chose the Italian product, mainly because, being already familiar with the culture and the language of our country, she found the contacts much easier. “When we deal with Italians, it is easy to understand each other – she says – we speak the same language, we come from the same country, we share a Latin origin”.
What we have here, then, are two examples of a network consisting of the cold dimension of “business” and the warm dimension of “community”. In the first example, it seems as if it is the community that enables the future entrepreneur to identify a market need, as well as his ability to satisfy it. In the second example, the community becomes an informal network of contacts and a privileged channel for reaching the market. These cold and warm lines intertwine. Warm lines do not disappear in the globalizing world, but on the contrary are reinforced.
The business community is a societas, that is to say a free association of individuals deprived not only of the State’s presence, but also of a specific territory. However, although it is without an organized hierarchy and is rather dispersed, its identity can be considered neither uncertain nor weak. The business community is not a “steady and factual reality”, but, rather, a project, and this is what, as we shall see, determines its identity. By saying that the business community is dispersed, I mean that it does not originate from a particular territory, although it obviously belongs to many. The manipulation of various symbols such as money, professional specialization, the label made in Italy and so on, therefore helps the construction of identity as a project. As a consequence, it facilitates its re-introduction in those socio-economic spaces within which it can recognize itself.
From a theoretical perspective, I find the distinction between values and interests unsatisfying; it has lost its heuristic power. However, I will not go deeper into this, but will list some of the fundamental values/interests which act as the fuel, and sometimes the glue, of the Italian global business community.
The taste for beautiful things guides the entrepreneur. He or she believes that customers buy Italian products because they are more beautiful, made with greater care and better refined. The Italian way of life, which distinguishes Italian people from the rest of the world, is actually determined by good taste and by an harmonious approach to life. In some cases, the entrepreneur buys an Italian machine (and not, for example, a German one), because it is more beautiful: “It was better made, more beautiful, the seat was more comfortable and it wasn’t made of some horrible plastic, but of fabric”.
This is how the owner of one of the largest Italian restaurants in Chicago, that developed into a successful catering and entertaining business, understands his mission: “My lasagna is better than other people’s lasagna, but also, “I have fun while I eat your lasagna”... This is not a small-sized, fashionable restaurant, high class cuisine. I don’t think this is Italy. In Italy everything must be happy and must have a touch of bonanza. And bonanza doesn’t make you feel bad.”
For every entrepreneur the family really is a fundamental element. Very
often, the family is, or has been, the first economic resource of the
entrepreneur. When the company was born, the entrepreneur`s wife and his
children started working in it, even if that implied making huge sacrifices.
More often than not, the children carry on their father’s business, thus
making the company less ethnic and more globalizing. Only the loyalty towards
the family is as intense as the attention to profit.
As one interviewee clearly stated, “I went to work in my father’s restaurant
because I loved my father, I really loved him. I believe in love, it is really
basic. There is nothing cleaner than mother and son, father and son. There is no
egotism, it’s there.”
relations that are above and beyond profit and economic interest can also
explain the extraordinary capabilities for strain and success of the Italian
global entrepreneurs. They are not alone but are emotionally supported; they can
face risk and strain for, in any case, they can always count on unconditional
acceptance by their family. “Italian people can do whatever they want because
they can always go back to their families”.
“Italy sells well.” The Italian business community is founded specifically on the ability to transform a rich symbolic heritage into a strategic economic resource simply by manipulating it with great skill: the old recipe for homemade bread, the “Mamma Rosa” cake, Fiat, etc. can (and have) become, with time, small economic empires.
what is symbolically Italian? This is the implicit answer of one interviewee:
“At home everything is Italian. . . . No, not the electronic appliances or
things like that, those are things that are very well done by Americans and
Germans, no, I mean good taste things, things that give pleasure to life, like
furniture, sofas, curtains. . .
. Look at this curtain fabric, you can’t find this in America. . .
. The sofa, even the pans have a different style, Italian design this is what
they call it here. The more personal things are, the more they are Italian.”
The Italian community often “creates” both the entrepreneur and his/her skills; the latter are never imported from outside, but are born within the network of primary and secondary relationships the entrepreneur establishes with his/her context. The community is also, and quite fundamentally, the market-reference of the business community which over a certain period of time (namely from one generation to the other), becomes a global community.
the beginning our clients were the people who were coming from Italy. These
people used to eat a lot of bread. They were used to eating bread with anything.
It was normal to go to a house and deliver 6 or 8 loaves of bread 2 pounds each.
We delivered two to three times a week. Families were larger and there were more
people eating at home. It was easy, we knew exactly how much bread we needed for
the following day, so we made it and delivered it. We began by delivering bread
in the trunk of a Chevy ’56, and then we grew. We had four vans that visited
all the neighbourhoods. We went to Roselan, there was an Italian community
there... We went to Blue Island, Highwood and Highland Park, they were all
Italian communties. We chose places where we thought there were people coming
from Italy, who were still all grouped together: Chicago, Noridge, Cicero and
Berwyn... So these were the places where we concentrated”.
The economic sector of the Italian Diaspora can refuse to recognize itself as part of a “nation”, but it would never avoid acknowledging a common origin, as it would never refrain itself from considering Italy as its emotional, economic and symbolic referent. Emotionally speaking, i.e., when talking about their lived experiences and their memories, entrepreneurs replicate the same mixture of contradictory attitudes which characterize many emigrants. They hover between idealization and devaluation, nostalgia and refusal, memory and repression, love and resentment.
Italy is “the most beautiful country in the world”, “I am proud of its great past, great heritage”, “I was not born in Italy but I have memories as if I was really born there”. Or, in the touching words of an entrepreneur who owns a medium-sized winery firm in Napa Valley: “We went away from Sulmona because we wanted to. . . . We didn’t run away from it, it is just that, there, the land is like a milkless breast. Here in America, the land is generous and free. . . . I didn’t want to speak Italian with my children. Only sometimes, at night, I like to play Verdi, the opera, and nobody, really nobody can disturb me. Sometimes I spend so much time that my son comes and says “Dad, what are you doing? That language really has a special sound for you.” And then, I really don’t understand, tears come to my eyes”.
the case, Italy always plays the part of an economically stable referent, a
partner who is searched for and desired. “They used to tell me I had to
expand, to launch out on a larger market . . . because I had the ability. . . .
I thought about it and considered the possibility on paper. . . . Then I said
‘No. I sell Italian products to people who still have Italy in their hearts. .
. . I make dresses and shirts the Italian way. . . . I import Italian cheese and
Italian wines from the Southern Italian regions…because there are many people
from Calabria and Abruzzo. . . . Of course, I can sell my products to other
people as well, to Americans. Last Christmas, I delivered almost 60 thousand
packs of mixed Italian products, and at least half of those were delivered to
the American and Irish neighborhoods. . . . But I live and sell in the local
Italian community. . . . I am happy with this…with four good, modern
companies. . . .”
Entrepreneurs are individuals in the strongest sense of this concept. As such they are characterized by their ability to decide, their tendency to risk, the possibility they have of making different choices, a great enthusiasm for new projects, together with selfishness and discipline. “For me, the single, most extraordinary feature in business . . . really is the ability of fast decision-making. If you interview 20 managers and ask each of them “Are you able to take a tough decision”, they will all say “Yes, of course”, then you look at their faces and know that their interpretation of this ability is very limited. For instance, I worked for a man who used to say “Give me all the facts, and I will make a decision”. Well, why the hell would you need him, if you have all the facts? Decision comes by itself. . . . When I try to understand why I am not afraid of taking tough decision, and why I take them, and why they are fast, well, I do believe that every time an employee comes into my office with one problem, I owe him an answer. If I let him go without an answer, well it means he doesn’t need me”.
Every entrepreneur underlines the Italians’ tendency to anarchy, their constant inclination to assume the role of free riders, free from any obligation and community encumbrance. The rule is “among Italians, every man for himself, and God for us all”.
To remain, quite concretely, within the boundaries of a local environment, is the entrepreneur`s “cognitive cunning”. He/she thus achieves an efficient economic action. This cleverness plays two fundamental roles. On the one hand, it maintains the tension between the two discontinuous levels of “globalization” and “localism” (to which correspond the related paradigms of “modernization” and “tradition”). On the other, the concretely lived experiences of the local environment, its warm emotional dimension and face-to-face relationships, and the (at times denied) involvement of the economic actor with the community – prevent the entrepreneur from falling prey to the same inflexible model of procedural rationality, which sometimes seems to distinguish globalization.
Such abstract rationality is, in fact, only apparent. By remaining within a local environment, the entrepreneur is able to maintain his/her flexibility, and he/she is able to make decisions in very difficult situations, relaying not only on rationality but also on intuition. As one of the people we interviewed beautifully put it, “Whenever there’s a difficult decision to be made in the company, I never make it rationally, with a business plan at hand and a consultant sitting next to me, but I guess. I guess because my roots are strong”.
Localism, embeddedness into an ethnic community can enhance “economic rationality”. Here, again, is a paradox of italicity. As one entrepreneur living in Toronto beautifully put it:
“My company has offices in nine countries, and contacts in more than 20. . . . My employees from the different offices in the States come to see me, I look at their faces, they try to hide their surprise but I can see it. . . . It’s my office, it’s so small, you see, the furniture is old, . . . the couch you sit on is uncomfortable, some springs are broken. . . . And also, this building is not at the right address, like . . . the business district . . . near the Fair, it is still in the Italian neighbourhood. . . . I laugh when I see their surprise. I don’t say anything, but I can say it to you. This is the office I stay in ever since I began, and my father was next door. . . . This is where we began. . . . Caffè Italia at the corner is just the same. . . . Many things have disappeared, the neighbourhood is changing, and even Englishmen come to live here . . . . But I find the smells, I don’t know, some things that are in the air or in front of my eyes and, how can I say it?, they make me rest. . . . This is a hideaway, and I will go on staying here. . . . You see, tomorrow I will be in Chicago and the day after tomorrow in Los Angeles, but just thinking that my office is here and that I will come back to it, is something that helps me. . . . On Saturdays and Sundays I don’t want to go away. . . . I take a walk in the streets and I feel good”.
Or, in the funny words of another entrepreneur: “Ethnic community is like parmesan cheese on tagliatelle. . . . You can always not have it. . . . Now my clients live in a great number of North American cities, . . . but if you don’t have it is worse, it doesn’t taste as good”
Because of the absence of public and civic participation and loyalty, entrepreneurs tend to deny the existence of a manifest Italian business community (understood as their privileged and primary circuit of action). The internal contacts which develop horizontally within the Italian-American community are in fact presented in a fairly reductive way. And yet, the same business people who deny the community, admit that among “Italian people” one feels very rapidly at ease. There are no misunderstandings, but a sort of agreement determined by the same way of approaching problems, the same ability to adapt to different situations, the same flexibility, the same taste for the risks and the pleasures entailed by every human relationship.
community among us entrepreneurs, is that what you mean? Well maybe cooperation,
maybe for a project which is too large for only one of us. . . . But this never
happens, we are all so individualitic here in Philadelphia. . . . Maybe
solidarity, if somebody has a problem and other people in the same field think
that they too could be bound for the same risk, then we have solidarity . . .
here, among us who know each other from childhood. . .
. With other people is much more difficult.”
among Italians, everybody for himself and God for all, and God must have a lot
of work . . . Irish, Germans, Koreans, they really are united, they move as a
block, we are not able to do that: work, our family, and that’s all”
Italian entrepreneurs define themselves as outgoing, capable of understanding intuitively some fundamental aspects of their customers, co-workers, possible partners etc. This “Italian spirit” is identified by many entrepreneurs as a fundamental aspect of a supposed “national character;” quite often it is really a project, and not a natural given. For example, when the entrepreneur still occupies a marginal position in the local society, he/she learns to use this Italian spirit to cope with risky and complex situations in which rationality and dominance are not at hand. “We are the greatest of all; we should not say this aloud . . . but we are the greatest. . . . Nobody can beat an Italian entrepreneur. We are creative, practical, astute; we are fast in letting go, but we are also very determined and other people don’t expect this. I think we are fastest, we immediately see things as they are. . . . They talk, calculate; we use intuition. Besides, we know people, we can “feel” them at first glance and we are seldom wrong”.
The construction of identity relates to the constitutive symbols and the unifying and collective representations of a social system. This corresponds not necessarily to the material conditions of life of a social system, but to its own representation of itself as a cohesive whole. On a personal level, the making of identity is a question about ourselves. It is, simply, what I think of myself as a self.
Under what conditions is the making of identity a successful project? Or, better, under what conditions does it give rise to strong, independent, rooted, organized and self-centered individuals who are able to navigate in our globalizing world and make the most of it for themselves? When is it that individuals do not feel menaced by globalization but, on the contrary, have the ability to face risk and overcome it? What is the specific contribution of Italian culture to this?
Summarizing what we have seen so far, then, we can say that for the Italian global business community, identity is constituted by:
The sense of identity is reached thanks to a fairly unstable balance between total dispersion and an extremely strong sense of “Us”. A global community is capable of maintaining the sense of belonging to an original group thanks to a paradox: a “double belonging” and the spatial distance which characterizes it. As we have seen above, the Italian business community is characterized by a multiple register which can become contradictory and, occasionally, openly conflictual, but never in an aggressive or violent way. The register can therefore range from the sense of belonging to the community to its denial, from the emphasis posited onto the individual to the acknowledgment of a strategic “Us”, from the exaltation of the family to the acceptance of the individual’s total responsibility, from love for Italy to resentment.
As a conclusion, I would like to summarize the main traits that, in my view, make this possible, i.e., help the construction of a vital, symbolic, locally rooted community within the process of globalisation. We have seen traits in the words of our interviewees, and how they speak about themselves. These traits are:
This is the paradigmatic value that the business community has for the study of Italian culture and values in a globalized world. The business community is, so to speak, a fiction which allows a strong sense of “Us” in a world which tends to the individualization of the ways of life. But there is a lot of truth and passion in this fiction! There is a lot of energy which is used to deny it and, simultaneously, to keep it alive!
The entrepreneur belonging to the Italian-American business community constructs his/her identity as a project. He/she constantly moves between different levels (local/global), opposed loyalties (community/profit), and split nationalities (USA/Italy). The sense of the community is intermittent, as it goes on and off according to necessity and the (always economic, occasionally social) convenience dictated by the circumstances. Global identity is a dynamic process, a permanent tension which is never solved. It is an incessant and exhausting work, and it corresponds to the risky assertion of freedom.
It would be very interesting to compare this Italian-American business community model with other economic global models, based on ethnic or Nation-State identity. Are they also based on paradoxes, double loyalties, global-local dynamics? Or, rather, are they organized by rationality and domination, prestige and power?
But this, of course, would be the aim of a different paper.
 Ulrick Beck, I rischi della libertà. L’individuo nell’epoca della globalizzazione (Bologna, Il Mulino, 1997).
 Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), p. 184.
 Consuelo Corradi and Enrico Pozzi, Il mondo in italiano. Gli italiani nel mondo tra diaspora, business community e nazione, I quaderni di Impresa e Stato (Milano, 1995).
It is thought that there are 50-60 million Italics in the world. Even though we do not have satisfactory estimates regarding Italic entrepreneurship, it is worth remembering that our research considered, on the ground of all five continents, over 5,000 companies and 180 businesspeople, who were interviewed in North and South America. In 1995, the companies members of the Italian Chambers of Commerce in the world were 25,000. Today, they are more or less 30,000, with a critical mass of almost 200,000 contacts.
 Consuelo Corradi, “La business community italiana: dati e caratteristiche”, Affari sociali internazionali, 2, 1997; and “La rete delle business communities italiane nel mondo: una risorsa strategica per il Paese”, Politica internazionale, December 2001.
 Piero Bassetti, Globals and locals! Fears and Hopes of the Second Modernity (Lugano: Giampiero Casagrande Publisher, 2002), pp. 64-77.
 Ibidem, p. 66.
 Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 19.
 Cf. C. Corradi and E. Pozzi, Il mondo in italiano.
 Cf. Corradi and Pozzi, Il mondo in italiano, p. 93.
 Ibidem, p. 140.
 Ibidem, p. 111.
 Ibidem, p. 182.
 Ibidem, p. 118.
 Ibidem, p. 136.
 Ibidem, p. 137.
 Ibidem, p. 167.
 Ibidem, p. 98.
 Ibidem, p. 160-161.
 Ibidem, p. 168.
 Ibidem, p. 132,
 Ibidem, p. 170.
 Ibidem, p. 104.