• Gianni Agnelli—The Grand Contradiction

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By Gaither Stewart

It was raining in Torino. A North European rain. The kind that lasts. Through the restaurant’s great windows the wide avenue lined by plane trees points in the direction of the whitened Alps on the horizon. The rain, the trees, the distant mountains, and the silence create a sensation of nostalgia. Nostalgia for things that once were and can be again. Also the handful of journalists are unusually silent; they nibble at the delicate nouvelle cuisine appetizer served quietly by slim young waitresses in one of Turin’s best restaurants.

The restaurant atmosphere reflects above all good taste. The good taste of restraint and limits. The good taste reigning in Gianni Agnelli’s Turin, the city of Agnelli’s FIAT and the Juventus Football Club. Foreign journalists in the 1980’s encountered frequently the good taste of events sponsored by FIAT and Gianni Agnelli: visits to the great FIAT automobile factories of the traditional old Lingotto in southwestern Turin and the nearby FIAT Mirafiori; annual art exhibits in the FIAT-owned Palazzo Grassi on the Grand Canal in Venice, restructured as an art palace by Milanese architect Gae Aulenti. A natural Turinese-Agnelli good taste never acquired by Milanese business shark, Silvio Berlusconi. Gianni Agnelli was an effortless and early fashionista.

This was the heyday of the “Avvoccato” as Agnelli was popularly called. He was in his prime. Agnelli entrepreneur, Agnelli politician, Agnelli playboy. Agnelli womanizer—Anita Eckberg and Jackie Kennedy allegedly count among his conquests. Agnelli in constant movement: lunch in Venice or Paris, a day in Rome for a vote in Parliament as a Senator For Life or a dinner with his friend, Giovanni Berlinguer, chief of the PCI, the Italian Communist Party, or a long weekend in his beloved New York in his Park Avenue apartment, In the winter it was skiing at St. Moritz. Summers, sailing with his son, Edoardo, or yachting with international VIPs on the Mediterranean.

Giovanni “Gianni” Agnelli (1921-2003) was a capitalist, as was the Agnelli family and their associates. Enlightened capitalists. And Gianni thought of himself that way. In turn he had gained the love and esteem of his workers because he showed a personal interest in their well-being, which, in turn strengthened his ties with the PCI and the trade unions.

Agnelli saw himself literally as an exceptional man, living his life outside the boundaries of class and history itself…

Yet he himself lived a life of fable. His great family home on La Collina, or hill, in the low mountainous area across the Po River where the Turin rich live. The Agnelli country estate in Piemonte. An apartment in Rome. Another on Park Avenue. A palazzo on Venice’s Grand Canal. All luxurious. All tasteful. The Agnelli fortune was immeasurably enormous.

In fact the extent of Agnelli’s fortune is today a matter of dispute and mystery. Audits have not resolved the riddle. Financial investigations have not gotten to the bottom of the diaspora of a hidden part of the Agnelli fortune. One estimate is that the “black” part amounts to much much more than a reported four billion—black funds stored somewhere in the offshore firmament. In such a case, if and when proved, it would mean a case of tax evasion for funds stolen from Italian workers and public. The amount of stolen monies is of minor importance. Important is that fiscal authorities were defrauded—Italian or foreign—and became ordinary under-the-table administration.

Again, Gianni Agnelli was a capitalist. A good capitalist. He even befriended the Italian Communist Party, especially its leader, Giovanni Berlinguer, beloved of Italian workers and Italians in general. And Agnelli befriended the still powerful trade unions and dealt with the social problems of his workers. At the same time—at the roots of the evil of capitalism—he was stealing. Not only from worldwide fiscal authorities, but he was pocketing and adding to his personal fortune part of the surplus value his workers produced throughout the world—from Russia to Latin America—surplus value created with their labour.

So if capitalist society projects Gianni Agnelli as a symbol of “good capitalism”, he was without any shade of doubt a symbol of capitalism tout court. A symbol of capitalism at its worst, because he was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, making meaningless distinctions between good or bad capitalism.

Moreover, there were blatant cases in which Agnelli’s benevolence degenerated into malevolence, from worker-friendly to the capitalist exploiter of the working class, again underlining that the interests of the working class have never been and can never be reconciled with capitalism. Class struggle exists today, has always existed and will continue to exist. No “good capitalism” can alter that reality.

While in the nouvelle cuisine restaurant the slim waitresses served quietly the delicate unidentifiable main course, the journalists rehashed in subtle tones the 1980 general strike—a rara avis in the Bel Paese. FIAT workers had marched up and down the tree-lined avenues of Torino like the one outside the restaurant windows. The strike had lasted thirty-five days and blocked all production at FIAT, when the so-called Marcia dei quarantamila materialized, the forty thousand workers who marched through the streets of Turin, demanding “the right to go to work”. Scabs at work. The general strike fizzled out.

That October 14 marked a turning point and a brusque collapse of Italy’s trade unions with which Agnelli had maintained such good relations. Since that historic moment Italian trade unions have never again had the same influence in Italian society and national politics. Gianni Agnelli’s relationship with the Italian Left, especially with the PCI of Giovanni Berlinguer had previously represented the essence of industrial relations with the political world, and dramatically sapped the power of trade unions. That period came to an end.

Twenty years later, in the year 2000, another of many family tragedies struck the Agnellis: Gianni’s only male child, Edoardo, committed suicide at age 46. Born in New York, schooled in Turin and university studies at Princeton, Edoardo was the natural male heir to FIAT leadership, as per tradition passing from father to son. Yet he was both inept and disinterested in the business world. Edoardo’s interests were mysticism, Buddhism and Islam, defense of the poor … and furthermore he was allegedly anti-capitalist. His life was solitude and unhappiness, caught in the trap between what he wanted to do with his life and what his loving family expected of him: Edoardo was both the love and the desperation of his adoring parents. Yet no more than bourgeois capitalism can be compatible with the authentic interests of the working class, Edoardo Agnelli and the capitalism of which FIAT was the symbol were incompatible. Leadership of the Agnelli empire had no place in Edoardo’s world. On November 15 he drove his FIAT Chromo to a viaduct over the Torino-Savona autostrada and took the leap.

And three years later, on January 24, 2003, Gianni Agnelli died of prostate cancer, perhaps also from grief for his “wayward” son.

In that tasteful Turin restaurant à la Gianni Agnelli in the mid-1980s, the significance of Agnelli’s turnabout in 1980 weighed heavy. We foreign journalists were aware that he was too sophisticated and civilized to viscerally “hate” communists, since he loved life and relished human nature in all its forms. But still, he remained faithful to his capitalist class. The “good capitalist” was relegated to his indulgent, hedonistic youth.

Agnelli was a supporter of American intrusion in European affairs. His real associates were the Kissingers of the world. A Bilderberger himself. He gave his support to NATO, even if he also played with Russia and built factories there as he did in many places in the world—including Latin America. He saw no need of the risks implicit in a class struggle for real change in reigning socio-political arrangements. Never was Agnelli out of sync with the new bourgeois Italy, nor with the home of capitalism across the pond. For Gianni Agnelli, perhaps, capitalism could only progress from good to better.  Sitting at the apex of social power all his life, but shaped by historical forces he never came to fully understand (nor respect), he—like the rest of his class— remained stubbornly blind to the reality unfurling around him, an obstacle to the arrival of a desperately needed world.


About the Author
GAITHER STEWART Senior Editor, European Correspondent }  Gaither Stewart serves as The Greanville Post  European correspondent, Special Editor for Eastern European developments, and general literary and cultural affairs correspondent. A retired journalist, his latest book is the essay asnthology BABYLON FALLING (Punto Press, 2017). He’s also the author of several other books, including the celebrated Europe Trilogy (The Trojan Spy, Lily Pad Roll and Time of Exile), all of which have also been published by Punto Press. These are thrillers that have been compared to the best of John le Carré, focusing on the work of Western intelligence services, the stealthy strategy of tension, and the gradual encirclement of Russia, a topic of compelling relevance in our time. He makes his home in Rome, with wife Milena. Gaither can be contacted at gaithers@greanvillepost.com. His latest assignment is as Counseling Editor with the Russia Desk. His articles on TGP can be found here.

VIDEO: Gianni Agnelli and his dolce vita.

An opinion we agree with:

Che vergogna lodare un mito come lui. Era solo un sfruttatore, cocainomane, puttanieri. Se solo arricchito sulle spalle dei italiani.
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Parting shot—a word from the editors
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4 thoughts on “• Gianni Agnelli—The Grand Contradiction

  1. This wonderful article is an example of the lost art of writing that suggests so much more than it states, leaving the reader to make the connections to now and here in the U.S. While directly writing about Agnelli, Gaither Stewart evokes all those wealthy liberals who love their children and have the finest manners but whose wealth and work support the system of oppression, economic exploitation, and war that is the American Empire. Bravo! Gaither.

    1. Hardly a liberal that Agnelli, but a man who rose because of the US killing Communism in Italy. Read Gaither’s books on that history !

  2. This wonderful article is an example of the lost art of writing that suggests so much more than it states, leaving the reader to make the connections to now and here in the U.S. While directly writing about Agnelli, Gaither Stewart evokes all those wealthy liberals who love their children and have the finest manners but whose wealth and work support the system of oppression, economic exploitation, and war that is the American Empire. Bravo! Gaither.

  3. Like most USers, I know little about European political affairs that aren’t archaic histories taught in dry, pro-capitalist, Amerocentric, white-washed history classes. Reading Gaither is like a breath of fresh air. An artist with words, he paints truth in comforting tones that make you not just witness events, but feel immersed in them. As if you were there. A good teacher tells you something. A great teacher makes you hungry for more. I not only read, but googled for an hour during and after the reading of this.

    “What is a plane tree?” “Fiat strike 1980” “Agnelli”

    The idea of a “good capitalist” is as realistic as a “kind murderer” or “enjoyable starvation”.

    Gaither again illustrates the truth of that.

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