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The Reinterpretation of Italian Economic History: From Unification to the Great War
Published by EH.Net (July 2012)
Stefano Fenoaltea, The Reinterpretation of Italian Economic History: From Unification to the Great War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. xxi + 296 pp. $85 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-521-19238-5. (First published in Italian as L’economia italiana dall’Unità alla Grande Guerra, 2006.)
Reviewed for EH.Net by Brian A'Hearn, Department of Economics, University of Oxford.
This book brings together four decades of research on Italian industrialization by Stefano Fenoaltea. The backbone of this research, and of the book, is the author’s well-known estimates of industrial value added. These are presented in Chapter 1, which details their construction and offers a lucid discussion of technical issues from “double deflation” to the treatment of unobserved sectors. Scrutiny of production and import series for individual industries reveals no evidence of the sort of supply-side discontinuity or “great spurt” predicted by what Fenoaltea terms stages of growth theories. Instead, supply responded elastically to variation in demand throughout the 1861-1913 period. Chapter 5 investigates the role of railroads in establishing stages-of-growth prerequisites for industrialization, and finds that they did not play this role. Chapter 2 sets out the author’s alternative explanation of the industrial upswings of the 1880s and 1900s. In a reinterpretation of the Kuznets Cycle, Fenoaltea argues that British capital exports drove construction and broader investment booms in the periphery in general and Italy in particular.
Chapters 3 and 4 deal with Italy’s protectionist response to globalization. The first argues convincingly that the much-discussed agrarian crisis of the 1880s never happened. The perception of one arose from the lamentation of landowners in cereal-growing areas (who really were harmed by the “grain invasion”) and an unreliable agricultural output series. In fact the 1880s were a period of structural change during which Italy followed its evolving comparative advantage into more labor-intensive production, not only in the booming industrial sector but also within agriculture, where an expansion of vineyards and citrus groves was underway. Chapter 4 shows how the tariff on imported grain from 1887 reversed these effects and contributed decisively to a growing tide of emigration. Internally, real wages were lowered; externally, the costs of labor-intensive exports, whether industrial or agricultural, were raised to the point that production in Italy became uncompetitive.
Chapter 4 exhibits as well as any other several of the book’s virtues. The writing is elegant and spare, with close logical reasoning and subtle argument throughout. And the range of scholarship and ingenuity on display is formidable: clever reasoning to coax from scattered evidence estimates of the quality of cotton textiles; polished expositions of various points of pure theory; detailed critiques of the Italian literature; minor asides on the history of economic thought (Hume, Ricardo, Marxist thinkers…); original applications of trade theory to migration (with a digression on the slave trade); and more besides.
The geography of industrialization is the subject of Chapter 6, which presents Fenoaltea’s estimates of regional value added in industry for several census years. The pattern discerned by the author in the earliest figures (for 1871) is that those regions were relatively industrialized which had recently hosted the national capitals (or in the case of Sicily a major regional capital) of pre-Unification states. Here were the markets wherein most of the agricultural surplus had been consumed in the ancien régime. So the now-familiar pattern of an Industrial Triangle in the Northwest observable in 1911 was not the perpetuation of an age-old pattern, but the emergence of something new. And it was not history but geography that drove this concentration, specifically the immobile factor of water power. A less-familiar pattern that emerges from the analysis, and a puzzle meriting further research, is what looks like a non-industrial economic boom in the Southern regions of Sicily and Apulia.
Much of this will be familiar to readers with an interest in Italian economic history; Fenoaltea is, after all, a well-known authority in the field. One element that is new in the picture is the author’s historiographical reflections. Of particular interest are insights into the way in which current events and current economic theorizing influenced the writing of history, as when 1960s concerns about balance of payments constraints on growth were inappropriately projected backward into a very different historical context. Another new element, and perhaps the aspect of The Reinterpretation of greatest interest to a general readership, is the author’s own model of development. Really, the model is not new; it runs consistently throughout Fenoaltea’s work. But it can be perceived much more clearly in the present collection than in the author’s separate publications. This approach might be called the “mobile resources” model of development.
In this approach all productive resources are viewed as mobile to a greater or lesser degree. In the late nineteenth century, a commodity like raw silk was highly mobile, coal less so. A factor of production like capital was highly mobile, craft labor less so. Only physical location and natural resources are truly immobile. Less mobile resources tend to attract the more mobile, and determine the profitability of different activities in a given location. Because technology and markets evolve over time and are specific to a particular moment, history matters for Fenoaltea. But it is the history of the moment, of an equilibrium quickly reached, rather than a historical process that is path-dependent or longue-durée. He offers the example of the Ruhr, where – given the technologies and markets of a particular historical moment – relatively immobile coal attracted capital, entrepreneurship, labor, and iron ore to a region with no particular industrial or commercial heritage.
The model, which is nowhere elaborated en bloc, deserves a more explicit and comprehensive treatment. One point that could be made clearer is that the goal of the model is to explain development rather than growth: an economy’s specialization (sectoral composition) and size (attraction or loss of mobile resources) rather than its productivity or prosperity. The questions are not whether real wages will be high or low, but whether they will be earned at home or abroad; not whether the economy will be advanced or backwards, but whether it will be large and industrial or small and agricultural. Giving greater salience to this point would help resolve what can otherwise appear as contradictions. For example, Fenoaltea states more than once that there is nothing magic about industry relative to other sectors, but seems to accept industrialization as the appropriate goal for policy, and studies only that sector. Or, he quotes approvingly the liberal pronouncements of late-nineteenth century economists regarding trade policy, but also presents a model that “fully justifies … (mercantilist) policies aimed at developing non-agricultural exports, the luxury-good industries and the carrying trade.” What reconciles these views is the common goal of enabling an abundant labor force to attract other mobile resources to a growing economy in Italy. Industry is not important, in itself; a labor-intensive service economy would have served just as well, had the technology and markets of the time permitted.
Beyond greater clarity on this point, there are two areas in which the model could be improved. First, given the key role of geography, it is curious that domestic market access, which is a key feature of most new economic geography models, is not considered. Because domestic market access is endogenously determined, it implies an even more important role for policy in promoting development. Second, institutions are equally neglected in the model. Are they flexible (another mobile factor, in a sense) or unimportant? If part of the book is a retrospect on a career’s achievements, the further elaboration of Fenoaltea’s mobile resources approach and its application to fresh issues or time periods is a prospect to look forward to.
Brian A'Hearn is an economics tutor and fellow of Pembroke College, University of Oxford. He is the author of a number of articles on Italian economic history.
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