Project Description:

The field research will be undertaken in Vicenza. The site is part of the so called “North-East” economic region. In a region of rather uniform environmental and economic characteristics (family based, export oriented, small medium enterprise), the research will address how historically embedded forms of sociality, and political traditions, articulate distinct interpretations of life projects and strategies of economic survival.

Departing from households, the research will irradiate to larger sectors of the local societies and institutions, in order to record discourses, observe practices, actions, and interactions. The general attempt will be to explore -in a diachronic and historical perspective – the ways in which global and local forces, institutions, and different actors, concur in setting the conditions of possibilities for individual and collective action, life projects, and economic enterprises

Fieldwork: Vicenza

An Entrepreneurial Region

Small and Medium sized businesses are the fundamental economic structure which has supported this territory’s frenetic development from agricultural poverty to industrial world leadership in many sectors, from the late 1960’s onward.

During my fieldwork I encountered different cases of small and medium enterprises variously integrated in the larger economy and with different degrees of structural autonomy and financial sustainability. Their use of personal networks and public resources for accessing labor, contracts and capital was also very different.

CSC Business in Schio works under commission by constructing (and often also designing, or participating in design with their commissioners) pressure vessels, heat exchangers, autoclaves, reactors and other hi-tech products for the chemical, petrochemical, naval, food and pharmaceutical industries. They are largely an export oriented firm (about 90% of production is sold abroad) and have been constantly expanding, since their foundation in 1976, when the four owners decided to open their own business, initially using the porch of the house of one of them as a workshop. The history of CSC somehow epitomises the mythical narrative of Veneto SME, with metal-mechanic workers parting ways from the original firm, with a very small initial capital (10.000 lire: more or less 5000 euros, in this case), and slowly occupying a smaller and more specialised niche of that same industrial sector. Initial bond between the founders was a personal friendship, developed in the working place, but soon after they started the business the wife of one of them was also brought in. Nowadays the enterprise is headed by a second generation, one son for every initial associate. They appear to be successful contractors within a high-tech commodity chain.

AZ spa in Thiene, is world leader in the construction of crankshaft grinding machinery for energy, locomotive and marine fields, and, since 2006, for the aerospace. This business is even more export oriented than CSC, as the founder and owner tells me that 97% of their business is abroad, priding himself of having been able to sell his machines in every single country in the world. They count on about 20 employees, equally divided between engineering/administrative personnel, and metal mechanic workers. The funder, Walter, has a very rooted history in the industrial district, which he navigated audaciously, by opening and closing (or selling) numerous businesses. Initial capital was provided by his uncle, as well as from bank loans. The last and most enduring one was AZ, of which he is still the director, despite having passed by basically all of his operational functions to their daughters.

One of these entrepreneurs once pointed out “in the Schio district you can construct anything you might want in the world: you want to build a shuttle? None of us alone will be able to build it, but among all of us we have the know-how, the technology, the machinery, to build whatever you want”. It seems that – at least within this Thiene – Schio district, there are a number of entrepreneurs that still control an important margin of the surplus created through production, branding and commercial proficiency.

From the perspective of the center/periphery debate, this peculiar history of small and medium enterprises successful accumulation may be what could define the region as part of the “center areas”, rather than of the semi-periphery (although it also questions this framework if we consider the commodity chain theory and the contract dependencies that support it). This alleged “entrepreneurial success” has implications and outcomes in social reality and in the ways in which “the crisis” is faced both in informal and institutional ways by the various agents in this region. Indeed, the affluence and ease of livelihoods in Vicenza seems to consistently have declined during the past 10 years.

In contrast with CSC and AZ spa, the area includes very small family businesses. Among them is one run by a couple which receives financial and advisory help from Caritas (Catholic Charity). Their business prints advertisement stickers for shop windows and commercial vehicles, posters and signs. The workshop is small, poorly equipped, and since computer technology (IT tools) has become cheaper and widely accessible in the last 10 years or so, the couple has struggled to overcome the self sufficiency of former clients who have increasingly become able to do themselves the work they used to externalize to the shop. The 2008 crisis has hit their business so hard that the intervention of Caritas is probably the reason it has not closed down yet.

Another intriguing case is that of a medium/small construction XXX Costruzioni enterprise based in a small town in the western segment of Vicenza’s industrial belt. Until the 2008 construction bubble collapse, Veneto was known for real estate de-regulation policies and crazy booming. But since then, a large majority of medium to small businesses seems to have disappeared, or to be in a situation of irreversible crisis. What is the secret then, of this small business that presents itself as “successful”? After talking to the family that runs it, I realized that they were not doing as well as they claimed. Despite clearly having overcome the worst phase of the economic troubles which hit them in 2007-2011, they still are fighting to keep afloat. To resist the crisis, Giancarlo, the owner of the firm, has involved his son and one of his daughters, “to bring fresh energy in”, as well as their knowledge and technological skills. Basically, the strategy to survive the economic turmoil of those four years, was about “presentation” of the firm.On the one hand his sons re-made the webpage of the firm, making it “sexier” and more modern; on the other, they all made an effort in the communication strategy, in order to enhance the value of the firm’s reliability. This was the secret – Giancarlo tells me – of XXX Costruzioni survival: “every quote we give to clients is carefully explained to them: we might be a bit more expensive than others but that’s because we invest on quality. We have better materials and higher level competences on processing techniques: right now we are working well because people know that they can trust us.” And “trust”, indeed, seems to have become a key word in post-crisis Veneto.

Understanding the Public Sector in Veneto: The Case of InOltre

The relation between public and private sectors in this region is an overarching and all pervading matter that opens up and encompasses a series of subordinated questions, especially when it is put in relation with the epistemological space of the crisis, and its transformative energy.

The best place to observe the functioning and emerging tendencies of the public sector is the InOltre help desk, a service that provides 24/7 assistance to entrepreneurs who are under the heavy pressure of economic distress.

The service is known locally as the anti-suicidal help-desk, and has become necessary since Veneto has experienced the most impressive epidemic of entrepreneurial suicides. In 2010 The Veneto region had 320 suicides. Official statistical data are not available after 2012, but according to a study of Link Lab Between 2012 and 2014 Veneto has kept the highest rate of economic crisis related suicides with 18,6.  InOltre offers consultancy to entrepreneurs that have reached a critical situation of indebtedness by providing psychological, economic, and also social advice. The main work they do is to “put things into context”, try to develop anticipation skills, and make entrepreneurs who contact them able to “use public resources, strategies, and instruments that are available in their ‘community’”.

In fact, it appears that people reach out to this service in a state of stunned isolation, paralyzed by a secretive attitude and the shame of “not being able to make it anymore”. All this seems to obstruct any ability to strategically handle the situation they find themselves in, pushing many of them to take their own lives. This epidemic of suicides is partly the product of the strong overlapping between a particular meaning of work and personal identity in a region like Veneto. Indeed, the worker-entrepreneur appears to be an ideal-typical figure around which the symbolic repertoires of Venetian identifications seem to be mostly organized. This is, very briefly sketched, part of the reasons why the InOltre public service was instituted as a LEA (Essential Level of Assistance) and ranks at the top of the Regione Veneto’s funding priorities.

The Patto Sociale per il Lavoro (PSIL)

The PSIL is a service established by the Provincia institution in 2010. Its purpose was to create an hub or space that would put into communication private and public social institutions in the area, with the aim of providing assistance to the weaker strata of the population. These were (and are) considered to be at risk of social exclusion because they are pushed at the margins of the worlds of both formal and informal labor, and are excluded from the possibility to access an income providing occupation. As we found for the case of small entrepreneurs, here as well it appears that “work” is a crucial reality not only at the material level, but that it is also a fundamental symbolic resource in the reproduction of both individual and collective life.

The workers in the PSIL social service provide institutional networking all over the territory of Vicenza Province, in order to find employment resources and help people that are suffering from being unemployed. The service (1) provides economic assistance (a kind of subsidy rather than a wage) in exchange for Lavori Socialmente Utili (services of public utility undertaken by the unemployed person); (2) helps unemployed people develop a planned strategy in order to aid them in getting a job. The latter service uses public/private networks and proceeds by introducing the unemployed worker to an enterprise and supporting financially a period of apprenticeship after which the worker is (supposed to be) hired.

Understanding the Public Sector in Veneto: Public libraries

Public library employees gave an astonishing account of the history of public libraries in the last 40 years, which seems a nice metaphor for larger and more general transformations also echoed in so many other spaces of the fieldwork.

From the early 1970s on, public libraries were progressively established in every Vicenza neighborhood. These were “pioneering public experiences” which eventually resulted in the public acquisition of the Catholic Bertoliana library, which is considered a “temple of knowledge”, at least in Vicenza. By the end of the decade, the acquisition of Bertoliana culminates in a public strategy of centralization and coordination, which federates them all into a network of which Bertoliana becomes the “central library”, while the other ones are de-centered branches. A revolutionary element of this strategy was the invention of the “library boards”, elected by and composed of citizens of the neighborhood. These boards became a driving force of the participation of citizenship in public cultural life.
During the 1980’s and 1990’s however – the years of the Venetian economic boom – this sudden expansion of the public sector came quickly to an end, and both the resources and the political will to sustain this public project appear to have become scarce. After proudly telling me about this “golden age” of the public sector in Vicenza, an employee stated that from 1983 to 1993 she has “worked in a library where there was no toilet”. She speaks with bitterness of the emergence of public accusations and scapegoating of public servants during the Berlusconi era (1994, 2001-2006, 2008-2011): “before that – she mentions – we used to be considered civil servants, but then they even took that title away from us”. Another employee talks about that period as “the beginning of the end”, as her library was moved to a basement in 1993. In 2002, finally, the institution of the library board – which was the crucial instrument of citizens’ participation in the control of these institution, was made optional by law, obviously leading to its abolition.

Researcher: Giacomo Loperfido