Northern Italy: A Preparatory Application of the Model
The course of development in northern and central Italy, the pioneering regions of the peninsula in the transition to liberal commercialism, shares an essential similarity with development in Britain. Northern Italy, like Britain, began its transition to liberal commercialism cleansed of the legacy of feudal relations in the countryside. As early as the tenth century the
nobles of northern and central Italy began to abandon manorial agriculture. They converted the obligatory labor services of their subordinates into rents. In the fourteenth century, as the economic influence of the buoyant urban communes encompassed much of the countryside, ownership of the land passed from the ancient nobles to new bourgeois owners. Despite the great variety in the size of holdings in different localities, most agriculture was dominated by small peasant farmers paying rents in money or as a share of the crops. The region was perhaps unique in its prolonged experience with a new rural civilization based on commercial exchange rather than formal legal privilege over persons. Peasants were, to be sure, dependent upon the landowners, but their relation was based originally on contract and did not include a model for the delivery of unpaid labor services.
As the Italian economy in the sixteenth century entered its secular decline, the countryside experienced what some observers have vaguely termed refeudalization. The peninsula's many small states, in their quest for revenue, sold rights and functions normally exercised by the central authorities, such as the levying of taxes and administration of justice. The buyers were thereby invested with a "fief." Despite the splintering of authority and the growth of byzantine networks of privilege, this process did not recreate the fusion of property and authority over labor that characterized land ownership in Germany and France. The feudatories received no estate holdings, no right to meddle in the property rights of the people in the fief, and, most important for the development of concepts of labor, no claim to exact dues in work. They acquired the license to levy taxes specified at the time of investiture, to collect fees from public facilities such as grain mills and inns, and to administer justice—although many subjects were exempted from the feudatories' courts or could appeal to central
authority. On the whole the peasants remained indifferent to this readjustment of administration, so inconsequential did these changes "on high" seem to them. In the centuries of Italy's economic regression the devolution of responsibility for collecting revenue and for staffing the courts created an interminable maze of privilege but did not alter the reliance in agriculture on contracts for labor rather than on obligatory services.
In the seventeenth century Italy diverged from Britain in its failure to develop a liberal market policy. The weakening of the Italian economy made it increasingly difficult to provision the towns with foodstuffs. Most states controlled prices of grain and imposed tariffs on grain shipments. In textiles, cultivators of raw silk had to dispose of their output to registered merchant guilds. In contrast to Britain's precocious development of an integrated national market, the Italian states regulated trade in such a way as to prevent the formation of interregional markets. The guilds continued to control the training and merchandising of labor power until the mid-eighteenth century.
As in Germany, so in Italy a period of rapid reform orchestrated by the state led to the simultaneous recognition of markets in labor and in other commodities. Venice began the gradual abolition of guild privilege in 1719. In Tuscany the government promulgated freedom of occupation in 1770 and abolished the guilds' exams, courts, and statutes. The administration in Lombardy removed the guilds through a series of bold decrees between 1773 and 1787. This period coincided with the removal of legal restrictions on the free marketing and pricing of goods.
Northern Italy's conjoint development of formal markets in labor and in finished products and its lack of a feudal legacy therefore combined aspects of the German and the British experiences. The effect upon the construction of labor as a commodity was perhaps foreseeable. First, the absence of a feudal legacy in Italy eliminated the cultural template for imagining that the employer lays claim to a service capacity and has the right of disposal over the person of the subordinate worker. Accordingly, the specification of labor that dominated Italian economic literature during the classical period of political economy bears a generic resemblance to the prevailing concept in Britain: labor was seen as being transferred from worker to employer as it was materialized in a product. Cesare Beccaria's reflections upon the division of labor, perhaps the most celebrated economic discussions from Italy's eighteenth-century bourgeois Enlightenment, are restricted to the example of independent producers exchanging their articles with each other. Yet the conjoint appearance of markets in labor and in finished products created a difference in development between Italy and Britain: when the concept of labor as a commodity appeared in Italy, it was not subsumed under a preexisting concept of material goods exchanged in a market, as happened in Britain. There the antecedent development of formally free intercourse in finished goods that were believed to be exchanged in terms of the value of the materialized labor they contained lent people of commerce the notion that if labor, too, was a commodity it must acquire its calculable value when it entered the market embodied in a ware. In Italy, by comparison, the transfer of labor occurred via the materialized product, but the value of the product was determined by the labor power people were willing to dispense for its acquisition. The simultaneous development of formally free intercourse in both finished products and labor power encouraged economic agents to see the expenditure of labor power and the amount spent on products as determined by the same utilitarian calculus. Since the amount of labor an individual was willing to disburse for a product could differ from the amount of materialized labor received in it, however, labor seemed to be a source of a product's value, but not its determinant. Yet a key similarity
between the Italian and British classical economists confirms that the Italians conceived of the conveyance of abstract labor via products: the Italians, like the British, were weak in analyzing the entrepreneurial function. The classical Italian economists, like the British, treated the employer as a capitalist investor rather than as a supervisor of the execution of work.
The development of Italian theories of labor's contribution to the prices of goods may have crested in the work of Francesco Ferrara, who received a chair in political economy at Turin in 1848. Ferrara supposed that labor is transferred between persons in the market via the transfer of articles. He proposed that "labor be considered as a product capable of being sold, the price of which is the wage." To be sure, Ferrara acknowledged that the expenditure of labor entered into the calculation of the value of a product, for value is measured by the sacrifice in effort that consumers are willing to make to obtain the product, whether by making it themselves or by working to make an exchange for it. Every person equates the price of something with their "individual appreciation" of the amount of their own "effort" that would be required to obtain that merchandise. Ferrara treated the fact that people hire services as analytically similar to their purchase of a finished ware in an equalitarian exchange:
Someone who uses the labor of another will not be disposed to pay more for it than he would pay to procure it in another fashion, that is to say, to "duplicate" it. . . . The labor that one must pay by means of a salary may be "duplicated" personally, just as the purchaser of a material object may, in certain cases, produce it with his own hands rather than purchase it.
As in theories of value, so in theories of practice. Industrial advisers who discussed the use of piece-rate scales in Italy focused on the employer's measurement of the materialized labor. In contrast to German commentators upon industrial relations who saw the piece-rate scale as a surrogate index of the labor activity, the Italian experts saw it as a measure of embodied labor pure and simple. Research in the future must examine the incarnation of labor's commodity form within the instrumentalities of life on the shop floor in Italy. This preliminary sketch suggests, however, that discourse in Italy about labor was cast in a distinctive mold that followed the logic of the region's route to liberal commercialism.