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“Anyone looking through the Table of Contents of this volume might be forgiven for thinking that this is a book about the silk industry during the course of the last hundred and fifty years. In fact it is not – or not precisely”. So Anna Cento Bull and Paul Corner open the floor in their book on the links between peasantry and entrepreneurship, whose remote origins trace back to the years when they were both teaching at the University of Reading.
Indeed, this book is more than a case study. In Bull and Corner’s account, the silk industry is the exemplification of a particular form of social production, capable of forging the economic and political outlook of the peasants in the Eastern provinces of Lombardy: Como, Brescia and Bergamo. What Bull and Corner address here is the pattern of industrialization and modernization of the area, as opposed to the development of the great industry of the North-Western area of Italy.
When this book came out in 1993 the usual approach to the question of industrialization was still based on the assumption of a separation between industry and agriculture. According to this approach, the development of industry implied the gradual marginalization of agriculture and eventually its disappearance after creating the conditions of capital accumulation that would finance the establishment of big factories.
The silk industry, as described by Bull and Corner, is a form of industrialization in which peasants remain involved in agriculture and at the same time engage themselves in part-time non-agricultural work. The intertwining of peasants and factory workers’ conditions opens the way to a political outlook that differs a lot from one based on deep class divisions. In the case of the silk industry, the dependent status of the workers is actually a means of safeguarding the semi-independent status of the family. Thus, the political attitudes deriving from this social form of production make more of an identification with the values of the family than with the purposes of a political organization or a trade union.
Indeed, the “pluriactive” family provided the peasant-workers with the ability to relate to different cultural values and retain those which would increase their chances of survival and social advancement. It also allowed them to take on political themes and change their original meaning to fit them to the value system of the household.
Bull and Corner’s book provides us with a first-rate study on the links between agriculture and industry. It also represents a powerful insight into the political attitudes of the peasantry and a secure reference for the study of society in Eastern Lombardy throughout the Nineteenth and early Twentieth century.