Vladislav Talaev, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Antonio Serra wrote one of the most groundbreaking works of economic thought from a Neapolitan prison in 1613. Referred to in short as the Breve Trattato its full title on publication was A Short Treatise on the Causes that Can Make Kingdoms Abound in Gold and Silver even in the Absence of Mines.
Due to lacking records, there is some uncertainty about his identity. He was a legal scholar. There was a theory that he had participated in a failed revolt against Spanish rule, which others dispute, and another based on one record of an Antonio Serra imprisoned at that time, that he had been found guilty of counterfeiting. He likely died in prison and his ideas went unheeded at the time but they later inspired everyone from Karl Marx to Friedrich List to Joseph Schumpeter and were drawn upon as an inspiration in the project of Risorgimento, in Italian unification.
Serra wrote at a time of uneven development and his desire to find a way out of prison by submitting a great work to his rulers, and to find a way out of this broader economic decline, forced him to innovate. I’m drawing from an English translation by Sophus A. Reinert and summarizing from his brilliant introduction on the historical context and afterlife of the text. Reinert wrote that his desire in publishing the translation was to popularize the text outside of a small academic niche, so I hope that I can do the same in bringing it to my audience here.
It opens with a defence of the pursuit of knowledge and free thought.
“by exciting that desire for knowledge that is innate in all of us, and lifting from the intellect that veil in which ignorance keeps it bound, it makes the mind explore, through which, by reflecting, it comes to know perfectly whence and how effects may proceed from causes; a process from which philosophy, and by consequence the truth that we know through it, had its beginning”
And then proceeds with a simple observation of a puzzling contradiction.
“On considering a number of Italian cities, I noticed that some which one would have expected to be abundant were poor, whereas others which one would have expected to be poor abounded in money, although they did not work any gold or silver mines; and reflecting in particular on our own Kingdom, I found it in great poverty, although the surplus agricultural goods, which are produced there in large numbers, were constantly exported, and that various measures had been taken, but had never caused the desired effect”
“For although their country is barren, the Genoese have money in abundance; whereas the citizens of the Kingdom of Naples, although their land is fertile, are extremely poor.”
Serra was a Mercantilist but one of the most striking things about his text and its context is how similar these seemingly outmoded debates and ideas are to those we have today. Serra wrote in response to spiraling economic decline and social decline, including violent crime, at the end of the Renaissance. He argued against the analysis which was based on raw materials and agriculture as the source of wealth. He argued implicitly for human will, ingenuity and innovation as the route out of uneven development. He argued for what we would now call political economy, the primacy of politics in shaping economic outcomes, but most importantly for productive innovation against the finance based analysis pursued by Marc Antonio de Santis, who he argues against throughout the text.
De Santis argued that the economic decline of the day could be remedied by altering fiscal variables, specifically exchange rates. Serra countered that this tinkering missed the underlying weaknesses of the real economy and that these instead had to be addressed. As his argument unfolds, he outlines the concepts of what we would now call diminishing and increasing returns, that different economic activities operated under opposing laws and that raw materials were subject to decreasing returns while manufacturing innovation held the potential of multiplication. While of course others had discovered the value of manufacturing, he theorized why it was profoundly different.
“A multiplicity of manufacturing activities will make a kingdom or city abound in money when they are diverse and produce things necessary or useful or pleasing to people in quantities that exceed the needs of the country.”
“In my opinion, then, the accident of effective government, when it occurs to perfection, is the most powerful that can exist in any kingdom. In the same way as justice, according to Aquinas, contains the other virtues within itself, being their mistress and moving them for its own purposes, so this accident contains all the other accidents, and can cause them, move them for its purposes and preserve them.”
He lists the multitude of vital goods that were being imported from the wealthier states and describes an economy dominated by foreign powers in which external profiteers benefitted from domestic and international trade. He criticized economic refeudalization and the idle parasitism of the nobility.
He goes on to advocate a solution out of this trap with ‘a multiplicity of manufacturing activities’, ‘an enterprising population’, ‘extensive trade’ and ‘effective government’ and what economists would later define as import-substituting industrialization.
“If a given piece of land is only large enough to sow a hundred tomoli of wheat, it is impossible to sow a hundred and fifty there. In manufacturing, by contrast, production can be multiplied not merely twofold but a hundredfold, and at a proportionately lower cost”.
What was most revolutionary about Serra’s thought was its political implications for the world. If wealth was not a fixed sum but something that could be multiplied through innovation, greatness no longer required the conquest of other nations, leaving an alternative to the Machiavellian scenario, as Reinert’s introduction notes.
Inspired by Serra, one of Italy’s modernizers Antonio Genovesi advocated a vision of government to ‘increase the greatness, power, and wealth of the Nation, without at the same time aiming to enlarge the borders of what one possesses’.
Serra ends on an inspiring note for us today.
“Nothing, it is rightly said, is difficult for someone who has the will and power to do it; and nothing in life is achieved without effort. If the remedies for the shortage of money in the Kingdom were not hard to identify and put into effect, there would have been no need for me to strive so hard to explain them. It is the intellect’s function to make difficult things easy, and it can often achieve things that most people think impossible.”
“If anyone thinks that the introduction of these accidents is difficult, his mind must be of the kind I described earlier, which mistakes lies for truths and truths for lies. Or perhaps it is of that other kind which holds that anything it does not already know is impossible, not considering that all the inventions of ancient and modern times would no doubt have seemed impossible until they were invented.”
Serra was a Humanist, influenced by the Renaissance recovery of classical culture and thought, and the revival of the classical concept of magnificentia, magificence as a virtue. Reinert uses this nice phrase “Industrial humanism” to describe Serra’s vision, that “in turning to such base matters as trade and production, Serra in no way abandoned the scholastic and Renaissance political vocabulary of virtue, liberty, and the common good.”
Today, pessimism pervades all politics and because solutions seem impossible many revert to tendencies that Serra’s genius challenged - the suppression of innovations of the mind by dogmas, the substitution of productive innovations with financial fixes and trying to make up for the failures of the national real economy with military aggression.
“Serra was a watershed, plain and simple” as Reinert concludes, and “no similarly sophisticated work of political economy would appear in Europe for well over a century, if not more.”
Angela, I'm not going to say anything negative. I like you too much. I would merely like you to consider the possibility that the most advanced stage of capitalism WOULD IN FACT BE socialism in everything but name (and maybe in name too, eventually). For how that could possibly be so, you will have to do the hard work of reading my two books, The Seventh Millennium and Three Uneasy Pieces. Let me end with an epigraph: "If you will it, it is no dream." Luke