Friday, September 15, 2006

Sraffa or Marx?

I think I'll demonstrate that a range of views exists on the relation of the ideas of Sraffa and the Sraffians to the ideas of Marx. I think Ben Fine is expressing a fairly traditional Marxist view:
"Volume III of Capital addresses the distribution of surplus value but not in the simple sense of who gets how much. Note, however, that even this superficial interpretation presupposes, correctly in line with Marx's method, that the surplus value has to be produced before it is distributed. If, though, the distribution is simply interpreted as a cake-division exercise, as in the (neo-)Ricardian (or Sraffian) interpretations, then the concepts of surplus value and profit collapse and the former simply servers as a superfluous accounting exercise. In contrast, Marx deals with distribution of surplus value as a refinement of value. The results of the previous Volumes are brought together and used to develop more complex and concrete categories in terms of the economic processes by which production and exchange are integrated." -- Ben Fine (2001)
I am amused by Alan Freeman (who is the co-inventor of a new mathematical economics interpretation of Marx):
"Variant b of step 7: the Value System is primary
We know values are primary because of all Marx's qualitative arguments concerning the nature of exchange, because of a wealth of empirical evidence, and because of many philosophical and socio-political arguments on the role of human labour. Let us therefore take the 'primary causal' role of value as an axiom. Let us postulate that, against substantial evidence from the texts, Marx unconditionally asserted that the value of every commodity is determined without the mediation of money.

This leads to a veritable garden of forking paths. We can discern at least the following variants

Variant 7b.I: philosophico-mystical
The determination of price by value takes place behind our backs. It is part of the internal workings of the capitalist system which are ever so mysterious and can only be understood by reciting das Kapital six times before breakfast and joining my group. There is no such thing as the transformation problem and it doesn't matter that the figures don't add up, but you wouldn't understand that because you are a bourgeois revisionist.

Variant 7b.II: pseudo-dialectical
The determination of prices takes place as the Sraffians describe it, and the determination of values takes place as Marx describes it. This can only be understood by reciting das Kapital twelve times before breakfast and joining my study circle. It is true that the figures don't add up, but that is because capital is inherently contradictory, and you should learn to live with it. You can't understand that because you haven't read Hegel.

Variant 7b.III: fake materialist
As Marx explains, the forces of production determine everything. This as Plekhanov explains is the basis of historical materialism. What Marx meant by the determination of value by labour time was the determination of value by technology as you will realize if you read Sraffa and buy my newspaper. The figures do add up. You do not understand this because you are not a worker." -- Alan Freeman (1996)
This is one Sraffian view:
"Therefore, to grasp the essence of the Sraffian revolution it is necessary to define more clearly Sraffa's position in regard to the classical and Marxian approach. The point is that a 'classical-Marxian approach' does not exist, if it is true that Marx considered himself to be a critic of Ricardo and Smith. In other words, was Sraffa a 'neo-Ricardian', as some orthodox Marxists and some orthodox neoclassical economists have argued? Or was he a Marxist, as many of his followers maintained?

The level of abstraction of Sraffa's model is defined, albeit with the usual cryptic conciseness, by Sraffa himself, in the subtitle of his book: Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory. It is the same as the first chapter of Capital, which is entitled 'The commodity', and which is the real prelude to the Critique of Political Economy. In that chapter, Marx tackled the analysis of the commodity and its value, and laid down the theoretical bases of all his successive work; he attacked the 'vulgar economists', whom he accused of looking for the explanation of the value of goods in exchange relations; and he linked himself explicitly to Ricardo in looking for it, instead in the production sphere.

However, even though Marx had clearly pointed out that value is a social phenomenon, Ricardo's influence induced him to determine the value of goods by ignoring the capitalist form in which they are produced. Value, according to the theory set out in the chapter on 'Commodities', depends solely on the quantity of labour employed in its production, its social determination being reduced to the way in which society allocates working activity among the various industries. In other words, value is not influenced by the way in which production is socially structured, nor by the way in which the social classes face each other in the production sphere. Thus, for example, the value of the social product does not depend on the way in which the product is distributed - a clear reminder of the Ricardian claim to measure value by making it independent from the variations in distribution. It is obvious that, in order to reach such a result, Marx had to rely on a high level of abstraction, and it is almost paradoxical that a book on 'capital' opens with a chapter in which capital is ignored. Now, it is almost as if Sraffa had rewritten that chapter, trying to reach the maximum level of abstraction, from returns to scale, growth, disequilibrium adjustments, even from the specific institutional structure to which the type of capitalist set-up may conform historically - exactly as in the chapter on 'Commodities'. However, he made it clear once and for all that the only thing which it is impossible to ignore in determining the value of commodities produced in a capitalist economy, is the fact that they are produced in capitalist conditions: that it is meaningless to abstract from the wage, as Marx did in that chapter. In other words, Sraffa took Marx seriously in his treatment of value as a social phenomenon - so seriously that he distanced himself from Ricardo more than Marx did himself.

It seems possible to conclude that, while on the subject of the determination of profit, Sraffa's theory does not bring to light any basic analytical differences between Ricardo and Marx, on the subject of value his work can be read in only one way: the Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory seems to us just like a first chapter of Capital which Marx would have written if he had been a little less Ricardian and a little more Marxist." -- Ernesto Screpanti and Stefano Zamagni (2005, p. 445-446)
  • Fine, Ben (2001). "The Continuing Imperative of Value Theory", Capital and Class, V. 75: 41-52
  • Freeman, Alan (1996). "The Psychopathology of Walrasian Marxism", in Marx and Non-Equilibrium Economics (Edited by Alan Freeman and Guglielmo Carchedi), Edward Elgar
  • Screpanti, Ernesto and Stefano Zamagni (2005). An Outline of the History of Economic Thought, Second Edition, Oxford University Press


dsquared said...

I've always taken the view that the transformation problem is the equivalent in Marxian (and classical) economics of the capital controversies in neoclassical economics; a genuine antinomy that demonstrates the problems in the system. AFAICS, the CCC shows that neoclassical economics is a disaggregated system that can't be aggregated properly and the TP shows that Marxian/classical economics is an aggregated system that can't be disaggregated properly.

Robert Vienneau said...

I have found some in the literature treating the labor theory of value as related to aggregation issues. Michio Morishima, in his mid seventies study of Marx, had some sort of claim that commodities could be aggregated if the processes used to produce them had the same organic composition of capital. And check out the Sraffa quote (from his unpublished notes) at the end of this essay of mine.