Alessandro Bellini on Sraffa and The ‘Capital-World’


{The following is excerpted from Bellini’s dissertation (supervised by François Laruelle), entitled “Suspension of the Capital-World for the Production of Jouissance” (pp. 35-41; abstract here), shittily translated from the French by moi. I’m interested to hear what philosophers (e.g. Lyotard) have to say about Sraffa, but although Bellini’s description is initially quite interesting it eventually resorts to shameless straw man arguments, as well as rejecting Sraffa’s position purely on the basis of metaphysical preferences. I’ve added a couple of translator’s notes specifying the most egregious distortions of Sraffa’s work, and my more lengthy criticisms can be found at the bottom of the post, above the endnotes.}

§ 3. Production of commodities by means of commodities

The interpretation that the Italian economist Claudio Napoleoni has given of Piero Sraffa’s Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities[20] is a very radical interpretation, in disagreement with both the apologists of the Cambridge economist and their neoclassical adversaries, and it is rooted in a vision of political economy as critical knowledge that seeks always to emphasize the philosophical issues that relate to the theory and that constantly pushes its way forward with inexhaustible political authority.[21]

What should first be noted is the way in which Piero Sraffa places himself in the classical tradition of the history of economic thought, which follows from the perfect circularity of his model, and unfolds through the role played by surplus; yet “the fact that the image of the economic process based on the concept of surplus is presented in the classics in a way logically untenable but historically significant, whereas in Sraffa it is presented in a way that is logically rigorous but historically silent” was for Claudio Napoleoni one of the fundamental features of the theoretical context in which the 1960 Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities appeared.[22] A solution such as Sraffa’s must therefore be interpreted as a break with the Marxian structure – in its Classical sense – rather than as its extension.

Let us try then to go a bit into details of the book, despite its level of abstraction, paying very specific attention to its use of the language of classical economic theory, of which we have already given an overview [in §2]. According to Claudio Napoleoni, what the Sraffa model presupposes is a given configuration of production – that is to say, a system of algebraic equations which represent the contributions that each branch of the productive system provides to the aggregate of economic processes, without including demand for goods – through which we may define a “net product” or a surplus in physiocratic and Ricardian terms. Sraffa’s theoretical aim is to show that if one separates the determination of price from the general problem of equilibrium one performs an operation endowed with meaning, because it is precisely by this link that prices are determinable.[23]

Indeed, the operation performed by Sraffa is a revival – through its definition of surplus – of Ricardian theory, though abandoning the pretension to link price-formation to quantities of labor objectified in commodities. It consequently eliminates any circular reasoning, thanks to the simultaneous determination of the rate of profit and of prices.

In particular, according to Claudio Napoleoni, the Sraffian “reduction to dated quantities of labor” can be used as a critique of the labor theory of value, although Sraffa does not make explicit his criticisms of Böhm-Bawerk’s theory of capital. From the ‘reduction equation’ used by Sraffa, it seems clear that in fact the price of a commodity depends not only on the amount of labor contained in it, but it also depends on the distribution of labor between direct and indirect labor: therefore, if there is a change in the distribution, the reasons for exchange between commodities vary, even if the quantities of work contained in the commodities does not change.[24]

It is then possible to state that “Sraffa’s system is the first theory of price that is formulated entirely outside of a theory of value, or at least the two theories of value that had previously been presented in the history of economic thought.”[25] In this way, the possibility of developing a theory of economic foundations vanishes. From this there arises, in fact, a definitive fracture between scientific analysis and the philosophical dimension, in the sense that Sraffa’s model no longer refers to any philosophical position; it simply adapts to the reality of capital to explain its pure functionality.

§ 4. Economic science

In the beginning of the century, in fact, Gustav Cassel had posed the problem of breaking free from the metaphysics which, in both theoretical traditions, sought a foundation in value as separate from price.[26] Sraffa was not the only one to realize the goal of Cassel, since at the same time a rigorous formulation of the theory of general economic equilibrium was achieved by Debreu.[27] The latter, through the explicit assumption of an axiomatic method, also obtained results leading to “a perfect conceptual identity, or a nullification of value by price.”[28] That’s why, starting from Gustav Cassel, both Sraffa and Debreu “seek to construct a non-founded economic theory—that is to say, one which does not require a foundation outside itself.”[29]

Consequently the idea that with Sraffa there is a definitive solution to the problem of a stable measure of value as the basis of relative prices – which according to Claudio Napoleoni takes the form of a suppression and not a solution to the question of value – represents unequivocally the final term in the history of political economy, as a science founded precisely on its decision as regards the problem of value: if we recognize that Sraffa’s theoretical proposal overcomes all non-empirical or purely metaphysical presuppositions so as to obtain full formal coherence, one is forced to recognize at the same time the end of political economy.

In other words, if the history of political economy was an attempt to establish a relationship of reciprocity between prices and income distribution by way of value theory, then with Sraffa any such reciprocity comes to a dead end, since prices can be determined independently of any reference to value, while the distribution of income becomes a problem exogenous to the model. The indeterminacy ‘discovered’ by Sraffa then definitively shows that if we want to remain strictly inside scientific knowledge there must be made an abstraction not only from philosophical presuppositions but also from any reciprocity between prices and distribution, and so from any kind of politics.[30] [Tn. from political philosophy yes, politics no.]

This condition in particular requires that we reflect on Sraffa’s role in an even more precise sense: what delimits and defines the objective scope of economic science also constitutes its cognitive limit, and after Sraffa and Debreu, economic science is obliged to stick to the ‘verifiable statements’ of economics.[31] Political economy, reduced to a science of prices, would ultimately become a pure social accounting: thus it would function as the science of things that are ignorant of their own origin, a science which in all its activity would reflect means-ends relationships, and where, conversely, the entirety of political economy would be the act of taking account of such relationships via accounting.[32]

These results thus represent both the endpoint of political economy, and the starting point of a new discourse that is no longer an attempt at a foundation of economic science, but which may thus return to research that exceeds its boundaries. This means that if, with Sraffa, political economy ends, finishes, it is then possible, firstly, to continue to operate within the framework that economics assigns, and secondly, to finally articulate a discourse around it. Suffice it to say that when economics postulates the need to “minimize costs to maximize profits,” one can easily deduce that this statement could not even be formed if it did not include in its models human labor as a negativity to be minimized. Even in Neo-Ricardian models, although we do not find the same finalization of the productive process, the problem recurs, since in their production equations labor is replaced by corresponding quantities of commodity-wages. In this sense only, insofar as labor enters the calculations of economics as a measurable parameter – in the same way as any other material – the science of economics is a criminal science.

The problem that then arises concerns the status that may still be assigned to labor, and this necessarily requires thinking about the job of Marx’s theory of value in founding his economic knowledge.

§ 5. Totality of capital

The symmetry between the position of Sraffa and the two traditions in the history of economic thought, consists in its positive acceptance of “the central aspect of both the classical theory, that is to say the production process as circular, and of neoclassical theory, namely the possibility, only implicit in Sraffa, to represent distribution as being governed by an objective law immanent to the market.”[33] [Tn. This is a shameless straw man! Sraffa would be the last person to make this claim.] The concept of production as a circular process[34] then means that capital is the totality, because in the economic process considered by Sraffa you cannot properly refer to productivity of labor.

However, the major discovery of Claudio Napoleoni’s critical work is precisely to say that this has consequences for the interpretation of Marx’s thought in that it forces us to withhold a key point of his work, that is: that the totality of forces of production is transferred from workers to capital.[35]

It can thus return to the vision of capital its extreme coherence, especially as Sraffa’s notion of surplus can resolve itself as pure profit:

“The model contained in the Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities offers a reality to the idea of Marx [according to which capital] is a totality of economic processes, in the sense that it is not a single aspect of this process (as neoclassical theory would like): capital defines the context in which is determined every aspect of capitalist reality. If this is true, the current interpretation (which, incidentally, coincides with the vision that Sraffa has his own project) can be reversed: it is not that profit exists because wages cannot absorb the entire net product, but that wages (insofar as they involve a division of the net proceeds beyond the reintegration of ‘variable capital’) exist because profits cannot absorb the entire net product. There is nothing paradoxical this: we simply apply the Marxian concept of productivity of capital. […] It is very important that the conception of capital as a totality is the only conception that allows the construction of a formally coherent theory, which is a decisive confirmation of this conception.”[36]

We see that according to Claudio Napoleoni this has a decisive impact on Marx’s thought, namely that we must therefore assume that the theory of alienation in all its meaning is not descriptive of the human condition, but is a representation of the essence of given historical conditions.

Therefore, the compatibility between Sraffa in the perfect circularity of production and the concept of totality of capital, and consequently the need for a recovery of Marx’s theory of alienation in all its force, then represents the authentic critical heritage left by Claudio Napoleoni, in which, for the first time, political economy is thematized relative to the oneness [l’unicité] of the Sraffian position.[37]

The question is then one of grasping the specificity of Marx’s theory of value in order to understand and isolate his use of the theory of labor-value, then trying to go beyond the structural unity of Marx’s work thanks to the analysis of alienation which gravitates around the concept of work as a real abstraction, which also refers to the phenomenon of the subject-object inversion, present in the Marxian analysis of exchange and in the transition from simple exchange to capital.[38]


[On pages 54-5, Bellini continues (note that I’ve omitted footnotes):]

It is understandable then why when it comes to finding a solution to the problem of attribution of productivity, Claudio Napoleoni argues that we are obliged to remember the essential point of Marx’s work, that is to say that all the productive forces are transferred from the worker to capital.

Marx says in general that “productive labor is that which produces surplus-value”, thus accepting the only definition “that is adequate to the reality of capital, whose specific product is precisely surplus value,” and rejecting “the idea that use-value is relevant to the concept of productive labor.” Yet in chapter V of volume I of Capital, “Marx describes the valorization process as consisting fundamentally in the fact that the value of labor-power is reconstituted before the end of the working day,” so that “productivity, as production of surplus, is seen as an attribute of labor.” However, according to Claudio Napoleoni “the problem is solved by stating that productivity in the proper sense falls within the sphere of capital and only in a metaphorical way to labor.” So – he concludes – “Marx’s intention was to develop a concept of historically determined productivity which implies that the subject to whom productivity may be attributed is capital, not labor.”

This vision of capitalist production then confirms Piero Sraffa’s thesis that capital is a totality, because the production envisaged in Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities, as a circular process, permits no reference to productivity of labor. However, that the conception of capital as a whole, “is the only design that allows the construction of a formally coherent theory” is a decisive confirmation of this view, which is why capital and alienation are only the names of the same thing—that is, abstract labor, as wage labor rather than capital, is nothing other than “alienated labor.”

[From this he develops the idea of ‘Capital-World’.]


[He also writes, on page 57 (footnotes omitted):]

However, this argument can be refuted by two different, but mutually compatible ways. First, by the fact that the formation of prices of production – as shown in economic science after Sraffa – is completely independent of the foundation of use-value, because even when the production of use values radically changes in its nature, the impact on price formation is zero. Then you can confirm this ‘external’ proof by an ‘internal’ proof: that is to say from the distinction in Marx between machinery and the capitalist usage of machinery. Against the illusion of production finalized to use-value alone, it is necessary to show that even the concrete character of need is determined by the totality of needs of capital itself.


My Thoughts:

Bellini’s dismissal of Sraffa is amusingly childish: he objects that 1) economics after Sraffa becomes ‘social accounting’, as opposed, presumably, to grand philosoph(astr)ical speculations relying on no data whatsoever; and that 2) labor can be measured ‘like any other material’—as opposed to being some transcendent entity accessible to philosophers alone. I’m shocked that Laruelle let this slide.

I love the parallel with Debreu (though need to look into it further), as well as the characterization of the history of political economy as a search (by way of value theory) for a reciprocal relation between prices and income distribution, though this again seems like an oversimplification.

Yet, Bellini’s characterization of capital as a ‘totality’ (which is a necessary step in order to posit the notion of ‘Capital-World’) is afforded solely by his straw man of Sraffa in which distribution is supposedly “governed by an objective law immanent to the market.” (In reality, Sraffa left distribution variables as exogenous precisely because of epistemological skepticism.) I’m not sure whether it still holds that any reference to productivity of labor is ‘illegitimate’ per se. It likewise seems irrelevant, introduced solely to bolster more grandiose arguments later on: contemporary marginalism makes no reference to productive vs. unproductive labor (though Marshall may have mentioned it once or twice, if memory serves). But at any rate, it’s simply false that capital as ‘totality’ is ‘the only conception that leads to formal coherence’. If this statement has any truth at all, it is limited to Napoleoni’s theory (who, embarrassingly, is the only Sraffa scholar considered by Bellini, who laughably states that all the rest are “apologists of the Cambridge economist”); but if this is the case then Napoleoni Sraffa, leaving open all the questions Bellini thought he had closed.

So in short, Bellini gets far too much mileage from very tenuously supported (if not outright false) ideas, to the point where his thesis is simply philosophy for philosophy’s sake.


[20]: P. Sraffa, Produzione di merci a mezzo di merci, Einaudi, Turin 1960. Translated into the French by S. Latouche: P. Sraffa, Production des marchandises par des marchandises, Dunod, Paris 1970.

[21]: Cf. A. Trevini Bellini. (2004). “Claudio Napoleoni e la tendenza fondamentale del nostro tempo,” CESMEP, Torino. In French, cf. A. Corsani. (1998). “Claudio Napoleoni, un économiste et philosophe marxiste.” Cahiers d’économie politique (33).

[22]: C. Napoleoni, Il pensiero economico del ‘900, Einaudi, Torino 1963, p. 201.

[23]: To provide a brief overview of his scientific approach, it suffices to note that in Sraffa’s model, at a certain point in his reflections, labor is highlighted, but separately from the means of production, so that wages become a contribution to the ‘net product’. It should be added that for this it is essential to consider the wages paid as post-factum. In this way, the work is no longer the price of an original resource for production, and the system has one degree of freedom—that is to say, it is not possible to determine the unknown variables if a variable for the distribution is not assumed as given. And the distribution of the ‘net product’ is no longer determined in the model, but becomes a problem exogenous to the model itself. Going through the steps required to build the standard commodity, it is possible to show how Sraffa obtains a linear relationship between wages and the rate of profit in a standard system. But, when wages and prices are measured in terms of standard net product, that is to say, in terms of national income of the standard system, such a linearity is also valid for the concrete system, which differs from the latter only by the proportions where the fundamental equations may be found.

[24]: For the algebraic proof of this, cf. Klimovsky, E. (1998). “Technique et salaires: limites de l’interprétation ‘classique’ de la théorie de la valeur de Marx,” Cahiers d’économie politique (32).

[25]: C. Napoleoni, Valore, cit., p. 177.

[26]: Cf. Ranchetti, F. “Dal lavoro all’utilità. Critica dell’economia politica classica,” in G. Lunghini (Ed.), (1993). Valori e prezzi, Utet, Torino, p. 159, note 59.

[27]: G. Debreu, Théorie de la valeur, (1959), translated into the French by J.-M. Comar & J. Quintard, Dumond, Paris 1984.

[28]: Ranchetti, F. (1993). “Lavoro e scarsità. Sul rapporto tra economia politiaca e filosofia nel pensiero di Claudio Napoleoni,” in Il pensiero economico italiano (1), p. 195; cf. also Ranchetti, F. “Dal lavoro all’utilità,” cit., pp. 157-160

[29]: F. Ranchetti, “Lavoro e scarsità,” cit., p. 196.

[30]: Giorgio Lunghini states that “theoretical propositions and political propositions cannot coexist in one system, while retaining the rigor that algebra alone can obtain”—in this sense, Production of Commodities performs an operation comparable to that of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus—that is to say, “Sraffa writes only of things that can be written, showing how far the theory can go, and tracing a definitive limit to metaphysical propositions.” Lunghini, G. “Teoria economica ed economia politica: note su Sraffa,” in G. Lunghini (Ed.). (1975). Produzione, capitale e distribuzione, Isedi, Milan. Antonio Covi is of the same opinion when he argues that “it is the same operation performed in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: in Production of Commodities a rigorous definition of the speakable economic world shows that whereof we must be silent because of its impossibility to speak of scientifically.” Covi, A. (1989). “L’ordine dei discorsi economici: Napoleoni su Keynes e Sraffa.” Rivista internazionale di scienze economiche e commerciali (4-5).

[31]: C. Napoleoni, “Critica ai critici,” in La Rivista Trimestrale, n. s., 1986, n. 4 ; also in C. Napoleoni, Dalla scienza all’utopia, G. L. Vaccarino (éd.), Bollati Boringhieri, Torino 1992, p. 217.

[32]: Ibid., p. 217-8

[33]: C. Napoleoni, “La teoria economica dopo Sraffa,” in L. Pasinetti (éd.), Aspetti controversi della teoria del valore, Il Mulino, Bologne 1989. Translated into the French as Napoleoni, C.; Corsani, A. (trans.). (1998). “La théorie de la valeur après Sraffa.” Cahiers d’économie politique (33), p. 199.

[34]: From this point of view, it is also possible to identify a compatibility between Sraffa’s system and this particular development of the theory of general economic equilibrium models represented by accumulation, which is related to von Neumann, in whose work “capital is taken as two different moments or functions, that is to say both as inherited wealth from the past, and as the result of current production.” Napoleoni, C. Valore, cit., pp. 133-144; 176-178.

[35]: Cf. Napoleoni, C. “Valore e sfruttamento. Oltre la teoria di Marx,” in Dalla scienza all’utopia, cit. Translated into the French as Napoleoni, C.; Corsani, A. (trans.). (1998). “Valeur et exploitation: la théorie économique de Marx et au-delà.” Cahiers d’économie politique (33).

[36]: Ibid., pp. 222-223.

[37]: “The fact that Sraffa has appeared on the horizon of political economy, and has given a positive form to the question of measuring value in an exchange economy, and, at the same time, the fact that the question of alienation in Marx is aporetic, and thought to have been taken care of in a critical way, allows an essential delimitation of political economy’s operational domain as a science. It is only in this sense – that is, because it turns out to be determinable from nothing other than its own operativity – that political economy is finished. Being thus finished, there now becomes possible a potentialization of its functionality not only in its own rightful domain – since the fundamental questions that once engendered oscillations in the meaning of its operational concepts have lost all their weight – but also a discourse on (that is to say, about) political economy. Political economy as such is not thematized, neither in Sraffa nor in Marx either, but this is precisely the critical area left ajar by Napoleoni.”

Amato, M. (1994). “Quale eredità? Osservazioni su Napoleoni, Marx, Heidegger e sulla possibilità di un dialogo produttivo con il marxismo.” Il pensiero economico italiano (2).

[38]: Since 1970 Claudio Napoleoni has in fact begun a new phase of research in which issues of economic analysis are closely intertwined with the philosophical aspects. But the starting point for a new reflection on the work of Marx, performed by Claudio Napoleoni in this phase lies in the confrontation with the interpretation of abstract labor proposed by Lucio Colletti. Cf. Colletti, L. (1969). Il marxismo e Hegel. Laterza, Bari, in particular pp. 430-434; translated into the French as Colletti, L. (1976). Le marxisme et Hegel, Champ Libre, Paris, pp. 257-291. Cf. also Napoleoni, C. (1972). Lezioni sul capitolo sesto inedito di Marx, Boringhieri, Turin; Napoleoni, C. “Il problema della trasformazione dei valori in prezzi,” in Dalla scienza all’utopia, cit., pp. 109-116; and Napoleoni, C. (1973). Smith Ricardo Marx, 2nd ed., Boringhieri, Turin.


About Graham Joncas

We are a way for capital to know itself.

Posted on April 17, 2013, in Economics, Quotation, Review and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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