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A Foreword to Sraffa’s Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 5th May 2015

Piero Sraffa’s classic Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities (PCMC) was published in 1960. It runs into 87 pages of main text (inclusive of the content list), 6 pages of appendices, less than 3 pages of Preface and a 3-page index. As we pointed out in A Foreword to Keynes’s General Theory, by foreword, we mean the following: ‘The introduction to a literary work, usually stating its subject, purpose, scope, method, etc.’ (Oxford English Dictionary).

The book is subtitled ‘Prelude to a Critique of Political Economy’. This slim book is divided into 3 parts: (1) ‘single-product industries and circulating capital’; (2) ‘multi-product industries and fixed capital’; and an untitled third part containing a single chapter titled ‘Switch in Methods of Production’. In the Preface, Sraffa acknowledges Keynes, A. S. Besicovitch (‘for invaluable mathematical help’), Frank Ramsey and Alister Watson. Sraffa was friends with Gramsci and Wittgenstein. [Ramsey, a friend of Keynes, supervised the 40-year old Wittgenstein’s PhD thesis at the age of 26 (source).] Appendix D contains the ‘references to the literature’ wherein works by Quesnay, Smith, Ricardo, Torrens, Malthus and Marx are mentioned. As Sraffa writes in the appendix, ‘[t]he connection of this work with the theories of the old classical economists have been alluded to in the Preface. A few references to special points, the source of which may not be obvious, are added here’ (p. 93). The orthodox economists mentioned by Sraffa are Marshall and Wicksteed.

With respect to method, Sraffa adopts the standpoint of the old classical economists – the surplus approach to value and distribution. This is contrast to the orthodox marginalist scarcity approach to value and distribution. In the surplus approach, one distributive variable is exogenously determined. This is in fact a realistic assumption because the rate of interest is set by monetary authorities and the rate of profit can be conceptualised as a sum of the riskless rate of interest (on government securities) and a pure rate of return on capital.

The conception of the ‘system of production and consumption as a circular process’, Sraffa notes in Appendix D, is to be found in Quesnay which ‘stands in striking contrast to the view presented by modern theory [marginalist], of a one-way avenue that leads from “Factors of production” to “Consumption goods”’ (p. 93) [cf. Kurz & Salvadori 2005]. The subject matter of PCMC is the theory of value and distribution – how are relative prices and distributive variables determined? More specifically, in an economy where the production of commodities is undertaken by means of commodities, how are prices and distributive variables determined? Sraffa’s correct solution is that ‘the distribution of the surplus must be determined through the same mechanism and at the same time as are the prices of commodities’ (p. 6). What are the data or givens? (1) size and composition of output; (2) methods of production; and (3) one distributive variable (either the wage rate or profit rate). The first two givens are mentioned in the Preface when Sraffa writes that his ‘investigation is concerned exclusively with such properties of an economic system as do not depend on changes in the scale of production or in the proportions of “factors”’ (p. v). The rationale for the third given is as follows: ‘…the practice, followed from outset, of treating the wage rather than the rate of profits as the independent variable or “given” quantity’ has been reversed because the ‘rate of profits, as a ratio, has a significance which is independent of any prices, and can well be “given” before the prices are fixed … in particular by the level of the money rates of interest’ (p. 33).

While the scope of PCMC is limited to the subject matter, its implications on general economic theory are far reaching; for instance, his work has implications for the theory of value and distribution (capital theory forms an important part of this). Therefore, his work has positively contributed to the theorising of economic growth and environmental economics. Also, Sraffa’s work is to be a ‘basis for a critique of’ ‘the marginal theory of value and distribution’ (p. vi). Sraffa’s work is a coherent articulation of the theory of value and distribution the classical economists attempted to solve. At the same time, it also forms the basis for a critique of the marginalist theory of value and distribution by underscoring the logical fallacy in treating capital as a quantity independent of prices.

In a sense, the purpose of Sraffa’s work depends on the use that is made of it and there is a growing body of literature emanating from PCMC (a useful survey is Aspromourgos’s 2004 paper titled ‘Sraffian Research Programmes and Unorthodox Economics’). The classical approach to economics has been made more articulate and coherent. By marrying the classical or ‘surplus’ approach to value and distribution with the principle of effective demand, an alternative explanation for the determination of activity levels and economic growth has been developed. Work is also going on in the areas of environmental economics, public debt, monetary economics and history of economic thought, all of which draws upon and/or are inspired by Sraffa’s work.

The Indian readers would be interested to know that an Indian edition of PCMC was published by Vora & Co. Publishers, Bombay (available online).  However, PCMC is out of print since 1996 according to Cambridge University Press.

Those of us who are dissatisfied with mainstream neoclassical economics will find valuable insights and an economically superior but modest basis in Sraffa’s work to develop a coherent alternative to the mainstream approach to economic thinking. Particularly fruitful is this research programme when combined with the rich insights of the classical economists and Marx as well as the principle of effective demand of Kalecki and Keynes.

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Posted in Adam Smith, Classical Economics, Classical Political Economy, David Ricardo, Economic Thought, Economics, History of Economic Thought, Karl Marx, Keynes, Malthus, Sraffa, Thomas Malthus | No Comments »

Robert Torrens: An Introduction

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 30th September 2013

Robert Torrens’s An Essay on the Production of Wealth (1821) is an important contribution to economic theory, in particular, to classical economic theory. Torrens was involved in the founding of the London Political Economy Club along with James Mill, David Ricardo, Thomas Tooke and others. Torrens has written extensively on monetary issues, on colonisation and on price theory. He is also credited with having discovered the comparative costs principle independently of Ricardo. This blog post focuses on his contributions to the theory of value and the possibility of a general glut in his debate with Ricardo.

Torrens is one of the very few (to be precise, nine) economists mentioned by Piero Sraffa in his Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities; Sraffa approvingly cites him for his method of treating fixed capital. Fixed capital is conceptualised as a distinct commodity (a joint product) alongside new commodities which emerge from the production process. Torrens utilises a theory of value based on ‘capital’ as opposed to Ricardo’s labour theory of value. But, how is ‘capital’ to be measured without the knowledge of values/prices? Ricardo recognises that when labour-capital ratios are not uniform across sectors, value will not be proportional to the embodied labour. And, as Carlo Benetti writes in his entry on Torrens in The Elgar Companion to Classical Economics, when the rate of profit is zero, the labour theory of value holds; however, the existence of positive profits does not per se invalidate Ricardo’s labour theory of value. A satisfactory resolution of this problem in value theory is to be found in Sraffa’s simultaneous determination of profits and prices.

The macroeconomics of Torrens, built on his theory of value and distribution, suggests the possibility of a general glut in the economy. On general gluts, Torrens writes: ‘a glut of a particular commodity may occasion a general stagnation, and lead to a suspension of production, not merely of the commodity which first exists in excess, but of all other commodities brought to the market’ (Torrens 1821: 414; as quoted in the Benetti entry on page 473). The underlying reason for this is a disproportion between the different sectors of the economy. Owing to the structural interdependence prevalent in an economy, a disproportion can lead to a fall in ‘effectual demand’. This will lead to a glut in commodities in that particular sector and in other sectors as a consequence of a fall in sales and incomes in that sector. This, evidently, is in direct contrast with Say’s law, loosely understood as – supply creates its own demand.

Other notable commentators on Torrens include Giancarlo DeVivo and Lionel Robbins. The latter published his work in 1958 entitled Robert Torrens and the Evolution of Classical Economics. In 2000, DeVivo edited and put together the Collected Works of Robert Torrens. Studying Torrens will certainly prove invaluable in gaining a deeper understanding of classical economics, and especially his views on general gluts might have contemporary use in relation to the economics of Keynes and Kalecki.

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Posted in Classical Economics, Classical Political Economy, David Ricardo, Economic Thought, Economics, History of Economic Thought, Keynes, Macroeconomics, Michal Kalecki, Sraffa | No Comments »

Economics: The Study of Commodities

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 18th December 2010

The study of commodities has been central to economic theory. Mercantilists considered gold, a commodity to be wealth. Later economists argued that an increase in commodities, both agricultural and manufactured, implied an increase in wealth. The increase in the production of commodities is still the most widely used indicator of economic growth/progress. This indicator is none other than the real GDP. In 1985, Amartya Sen published a book titled Commodities and Capabilities. In this work, Sen challenges the dominant view in economics regarding the role of commodities, i.e. he maintained that an increase in commodities cannot be taken as the sole factor in assessing economic development. Sen emphasised the importance of examining capabilities, which subsequently led to the creating of the Human Development Index (HDI). This post discusses the rationale behind economists’ obsession with commodities. It also examines Sen’s critique of commodities and how his (Aristotelian) concept of capabilities differs from it. This post concludes by arguing for a strengthening of classical economics, which studies the production, distribution, exchange and consumption of commodities, for the considerations of ethics can be easily integrated into this approach.

Economics as a distinct form of inquiry begins with the works of Sir William Petty in the 17th century. Petty was interested in assessing the comparative wealth of England and Ireland. Some of the indicators he chose were the number of houses and population. The idea behind this being that a surplus of food results in more population and therefore more houses. Having a large population was considered to be beneficial to the state. His successor, Richard Cantillon, an economist par excellence, pointed out that wealth of a state is reflected in the quantity and nature of commodities it produces – necessities, comforts and luxuries. This brief historical excursus is to point out the nature of economic inquiry, which is essentially an analysis of quantities and prices. Examples of quantities are employment, income, exports, investment, money supply, etc. Examples of prices are WPI, interest rates, foreign exchange rate, commodity prices, share prices, etc. That is, an analysis of commodities is an examination of quantity and price at the same time. Therefore, an analysis of commodities subsumes an examination of their production, distribution, exchange and consumption. Production includes the structure and relations of production; distribution pertains to the process and mechanism through which the incomes/surplus from production is divided among its participants; exchange refers to the mode and institution through which commodities are sold; finally, consumption illuminates the channels through which consumption of commodities aid production in the next period and how production in the current period aids current consumption. Thus, classical economists such as Petty, Cantillon, Quesnay, Smith and Ricardo were interested in the theory of production, distribution and exchange of commodities. Their interest was motivated by the need to find out ways of improving the general well-being of their respective societies.

According to Sen, the kind of analysis posited above looks at opulence as the sole indicator of economic development. A shift in economic analysis came about in the 1870s with the emergence of marginal analysis, independently developed by Jevons, Walras and Menger. Terms such as utility, choice, scarcity, margins, etc made inroads into economics. In fact, standard microeconomics texts are nothing but a combination of Walrasian and Marshallian economics. In any case, the maximization of utility began to be seen as the objective of individuals, for attaining economic progress. The internal justice of free markets was imbued to this form of economic analysis. Based on utilitarian principles, the maximization of utility by individuals was seen as a way to improve human well-being and welfare. This conception of development, according to Sen, emphasised the role of utility.

Both the above mentioned analyses, according to Sen, deal with “the relation between commodities and people” (p. 1). The former approach argues for more commodities which leads to more production, which raises the incomes of the people and hence their consumption. The latter analysis points out that “more is better” and hence availability of more commodities imply more utility. The idea of “more is better” is intricately connected with their idea of economics, as a science of choice. Economics, for marginal/neoclassical economists, refers to the allocation of scarce resources amongst alternative uses, as Lionel Robbins points out. For Sen, both these analyses are limited, since they do not address the heterogeneity in the capabilities of different people, which leads to “a confounding of the state of a person with the extent of his or her possessions” (p. 16). It is precisely this argument of Sen developed in his 1985 book which widened the scope of mainstream economics. I write mainstream economics because for classical economists, economics or political economy formed only one way of looking at growth/progress/development. For classical economists, as pointed out earlier, an analysis of production included the state or condition of the producer. The best example of this form of theorising can be found in Marx, the last of the early classical economists. However, with the advent of marginal analysis, the analyses of the structure of production took a backseat. The sphere of exchange came to the forefront and along with it the explanation of the formation of all kinds of prices and quantities through the apparatus of demand & supply.

It is interesting to note that the idea of capabilities has been intrinsic to classical economics. As mentioned earlier, an increase in the production of commodities translates into an increase in income generated. In contrast with neoclassical economics, the economic processes is visualised in a circular way as opposed to a one-way street. One needs to look into the structure of production to find out to whom (which class) this increase in income accrues (theory of distribution). However, the manner in which Sen develops his capabilities approach is rooted in mainstream/neoclassical economics – via the sub-domain of welfare economics (See Benicourt 2002 and Omkarnath 2007). Although, Sen deserves credit for bringing back humanitarian concerns into the discourse of neoclassical economics. Omkarnath further points out that the capabilities approach rooted in the Walrasian tradition is static in nature, for it mainly concentrates on the formation of capabilities. Whereas, classical economics has numerous insights on the relation between capabilities and commodities. This sort of analysis calls for a careful examination of the structure of production, distribution and exchange present in various economies in the classical political economy tradition, which has more scope for including social, cultural and political factors as well as ethical concerns.


Benicourt, E (2002), “Is Amartya Sen a Post-Autistic Economist?”, post-autistic economics review, issue no. 15, September 4, 2002, article 4. http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue15/Benicourt15.htm

Omkarnath, G (2007), “The Formation of Capabilities”, Indian Journal of Human Development, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 389-399.

Sen, Amartya (1985) [1999], Commodities and Capabilities, Oxford University Press: New Delhi.

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Posted in Adam Smith, Classical Political Economy, David Ricardo, Development Economics, Economic Philosophy, Economics, Francois Quesnay, GDP, Karl Marx, Neoclassical Economics, Political Economy, Prices, Richard Cantillon, Utility | 4 Comments »