Enterprise & Society 4.3 (2003) 563-565
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Andrea Colli. I Volti di Proteo: Storia della piccola impresa in Italia nel novecento. Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2002. 313 pp. ISBN 88-339-1405-4, € 27.50.
Since the mid-1970s, small and medium-size businesses have been rehabilitated as essential components of many Western economies' industrial structure. "Small" was equated with "beautiful," and its virtues were set in direct opposition to the stagnant performances of big businesses. Italy was at the forefront of this revisionist movement. A rich and refreshing series of studies on industrial districts and small-scale productive systems followed Armaldo Bagnasco's Tre Italie (1977) and Giorgio Fuà's Industrializzazione senza fratture (1983). These studies shifted the focus of research from capital-intensive and large-scale productive units to small-scale and labor-intensive light sectors. It was in this period that, as Andrea Colli emphasizes, small business passed from being a residual category of analysis into mainstream political and economic debate.
This is surely a classic starting point for a book aspiring to much higher aims. Colli does not do justice to himself when he suggests that this is simply an overview based mainly on secondary sources. The volume clearly shows the author's familiarity with a large and complex literature, but at the same time it proposes a clear narrative based on an original analytical structure. By shifting the topic of the book from small business to the "myth" of small business, Colli creates an engaging text resting between what is real and what is perceived. The topic of the book is not small business but the politics, policies, and popular attitudes concerning one of the most powerful [End Page 563] concepts in Italian life in the twentieth century. He accomplishes all this through a well-balanced mix of history, political economy, and discourse on industrial development. Readers are shown Proteus' many faces—alluded to in the title—without masks or embellishments. Colli catches the dynamism of small businesses through a thorough interpretation of economic, social, and cultural variables. Hundreds of individual and collective stories illuminate the plethora of conditions, evolutions, successes, and disasters that affected the life of industrial districts, workshops, garret systems, and virtual industries.
Colli shows how much and how frequently the perception of what is small business (and its positive and negative attributes) changed during the last century. He underlines how the discourse on small business and economic development has always been particularly difficult to delineate. The late nineteenth-century liberal thought on the so-called natural industries or the ambiguous attitude and "benign neglect" of the Fascist regime were no better alternatives to the multifaceted and incoherent policies of the post-World War II period. The central chapters of the book, dedicated to small business in town and country, respectively, are particularly successful in conveying the idea of Italy's enormous geographical and social variety. Colli presents the relationship between agriculture and craft production as one of the main features of an "Italian way" of economic development. Backyards and back kitchens are transformed into workshops when the land is thorny or work is not abundant. The culture of the "saper fare" (know-how) becomes at times the need to "know what one can possibly do" to secure a living. For most of the twentieth century, Italy appears to be the land of self-help. It is also a country rich with enterprising and colorful business people who do not always follow rational or scientific business strategies. The reader smiles when reading of the small shoemaker from central Italy who started a prosperous export business to the United States thanks to the samples transported by friends and relatives migrating to the New World.
Other chapters are dedicated to mechanization and technology, markets and merchants, networks, trust, and family ownership, the environment, and the relationship between large and small businesses. What comes out of these chapters is the peculiar nature of Italian small businesses, leading one to wonder how peculiar this type of capitalism is. Although the interesting biographies of individual...