Sraffa: Production as a Circular Process

This is the second in the series of posts on Sraffa. The objective of this post is to clarify the assumption of scarce resources made frequently in neoclassical economics. This is then contrasted with the notion of mass-production in capitalist economies. This facet of capitalism is understood by concepts such as ‘circular production’ and ‘production of commodities by means of commodities’ in Classical Economics.

A brief look at the history of micro and macroeconomics becomes essential. Elements of Marshall and Walras are found in modern microeconomics. Specifically, partial equilibrium analysis comes from Marshall; whereas, Walras contributed ‘general equilibrium analysis’ to economics. Usually, emergence of macroeconomics is considered to have originated with the work of Keynes. This has been contested and it has been shown with considerable evidence that William Petty (1623-1687) was the first macroeconomist. [See Murphy 2009] And that economists like Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx were talking about macroeconomics when they discussed production, distribution and accumulation. Neoclassical macroeconomics can be loosely said to comprise New Classical Economics, Neo-Keynesian Economics, variants of Computable General Equilibrium Models (CGE), etc. One of the unifying features of the above mentioned neoclassical schools/models is the assumption of ‘scarce factors’. It is owing to the assumption that factors are scare, that optimization is carried out.

Lionel Robbins defined economics as “the science which studies human behaviour as the relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses.” Here, scarce means refers to scarce factors of production – land, labour and capital. Yes, land can be considered scarce in an economy where the pressure of population is high (or for environmental reasons). But, wouldn’t labour be scarce in some countries and abundant in others? Now for the tricky ‘capital’. Capital is understood as produced means of production. That is, tools, machinery, plants, conveyor belts, electrical appliances, tractors, etc are ‘capital goods’. Are they scarce? They would be scarce if nobody produced them. Usually, in a capitalist or quasi-capitalist economy, capital goods are produced by the private sector, the government and often, imported from abroad. Therefore, a priori, we have no reason to maintain that capital is a scarce factor. Or for that matter, even labour.

Marshall provided a theoretical partition through which one could say that factors are scarce. He introduced the concept of ‘short period analysis’. Till Marshall, the early classicals and neoclassicals analysed economies using the ‘long period method’. Through the short period, Marshall introduced an imaginary period wherein one factor is fixed (usually, capital) and the other factor (labour) is variable. In this period, it is as if one factor is scarce. In a later post, it will be shown that this sort of analysis is an improper generalisation of Ricardo’s theory of rent.

Sraffa’s Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities deals with ‘value and distribution’. That is, he focuses on the relationship between relative prices, wages/profits and technique of production. Throughout the whole analysis, output/quantity is treated as given. This is in tune with the ‘sequential analysis’ of classical economics. Value & distribution is one level of analysis or the ‘core’, as was popularised by Garegnani. Once, the foundation is well-established, the next level is growth & accumulation. In the first level, quantities are treated as given and in the second level, prices are assumed to be given. This is done keeping in view the complexity of the economic processes. Whereas, as we know, in neoclassical theory of general equilibrium, there is a simultaneous determination of quantity, price, wage rate, employment, rate of interest and quantity of capital. That is, all kinds of prices and quantities are simultaneously determined.

A set of equations from classical and neoclassical production theory is given below. This is so as to bring out the differences in a clear way.

Production function: Ya = f(La, Ka)

Sraffa’s equations:
(AaPa + BaPb + … + KaPk) (1 + r) + LaW = APa
(AbPa + BbPb + … + KbPk) (1 + r) + LbW = BPb
. . . . . .
(AkPa + BkPb + … + KkPk) (1 + r) + LkW = KPk

where A, B …. K are the output produced in various industries, L is the labour employed in each industry, Pa refers to price/value of output A and Pk refers to value of output K, r is the rate of profit. [As these are for purposes of illustration alone, some conditions have not been mentioned]

In the first case, it represents the transformation of inputs – labour and capital into an output Y. Let me reproduce what Sraffa writes about his particular conception of production: “It is of course in Quesnay’s Tableau Economique that is found the original picture of the system of production and consumption as a circular process, and it stands in striking contrast to the view presented by modern theory, of a one-way avenue that leads for ‘Factors of production’ to ‘Consumption goods’.” [Sraffa 1960, 93]

The concept of circular production also brings to the fore the web of connections between different production structures. Both classical and neoclassical economics attempts at reducing the complexity of economic phenomena. Neoclassical economics, at the outset abstracts away from interrelated production structures through the concept of ‘representative firm’ in microeconomics. In a similar way, in the area of consumption, man as a social being is reduced to man as an individual whose utility does not depend on that of others. Classical economics carries out its analysis by taking prices as given so as to analyse interrelated production structures.


Sraffa, P (1960), Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Murphy, A (2009), The Genesis of Macroeconomics: New Ideas from Sir William Petty to Henry Thornton, New York: Oxford University Press.

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