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

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.

On Economic Growth and Development

There exist disagreements about the role economic growth plays in socio-economic development. Among economists, a divide exists between those who consider economic growth to be a necessary condition for economic development and those who do not. This blog post tackles this issue from the perspective of the ‘surplus approach’, an approach embedded in the works of economists such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Karl Marx, and revived and improved in the 20th century notably by Piero Sraffa and Pierangelo Garegnani. For our purposes, it is enough to focus on the concept of the social surplus.

Deducting necessary expenses (subsistence wages, raw material costs and depreciation) from the annual gross product of an economy leaves us with the surplus. In the work of classical economists, this surplus consisted of profits and rents. Wages could also contain a ‘surplus’ element when the economy is growing or when collective bargaining favours the working class. Most importantly, the surplus could be utilised freely (or for any purpose) without it affecting the ability of the economy to reproduce itself. Of course, for the economy to grow, some of that surplus will have to be reinvested. This reinvestment of a part of the surplus results in an expansion of productive capacity. When this expansion in productive capacity is matched by an equivalent aggregate demand, there will be economic growth.

In physical terms, the volume of the surplus depends on the methods of production in use and the magnitude of subsistence wages. The methods of production specify how much of output can be produced with a certain combination of inputs (given by the technical know-how and blue prints available with the firms). (To use marginalist terminology, the production function in classical economics is of fixed-coefficients; that is, labour and ‘capital’ cannot be substituted for each other such that the same commodity is produced.)

Leaving rent aside, the distribution of the surplus between capitalists and workers will depend on the strength of the labour unions and other labour market conditions. For instance, in India, it will also depend on the gender and caste determinants. Also, the distribution will vary depending on whether the firm is formal or informal. There exist sectors where productivity gains entirely accrue to the capitalists. Whereas, the distribution of the surplus between private individuals (both workers and capitalists) and the government depends on the prevailing income and corporate tax structure.

The surplus, as mentioned previously, can be used for reinvestment (to produce capital goods) or for luxury consumption (in the production of non-capital goods). Also, the surplus can accrue as taxes to the government. And we have seen that if the surplus is reinvested, there will be economic growth as long as there is adequate aggregate demand. How much of economic growth is good? Are all kinds of economic growth desirable? Are all kinds of economic growth sustainable? By ‘kinds of economic growth’, we refer to several combinations – driven by agriculture; service-led; consumption-driven; debt-induced; foreign trade-driven; or productivity-driven. These issues will not be addressed in this blog post. More precisely, we do not examine the difficulties associated with any of these drivers of growth.

So far, we have not discussed development. Let us define economic development to be the rise in the standard of living of the people in an economy/nation state. An overall increase in real incomes is necessary for an overall improvement in the standard of living. If all workers and capitalists have sufficient (real) incomes to access their as well as their dependents’ educational needs, health needs besides the basic needs of ‘decent’ food, shelter and clothing, we can safely say that the economy is ‘developed’. In an economy where workers do not have sufficient (real) incomes and/or there are socio-cultural impediments to access/consume any of their needs, development needs to take place.

What is the source of (economic) development? There has to be monetary resources available to build the lacking infrastructure or to directly import them where possible. One of the means of generating such resources is through economic growth. But, generating a surplus is clearly not sufficient. The manner in which the surplus is distributed among workers and capitalists as well as redistributed by the government is extremely crucial. There is no predefined way of going about this. It is determined by wider social, cultural and political factors. For example, if trees are felled during the creation of infrastructure, some of the surplus can go towards planting new trees. Or, some of the surplus accruing to the capitalists can be reinvested for improving the working conditions. The important point to note is that there are no automatic mechanisms which ensure such allocations. The market has no such interests or objectives. In short, the decision of ‘development’ is primarily undertaken in the socio-political arena. And, as long as we aspire for better standards of living, economic growth is necessary so that it generates adequate monetary resources in order that our aspirations may be met. But, yes, economic growth by itself cannot guarantee or ensure development.