Category Archives: Quotation

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.

Read the rest of this entry

Lyotard on the Merchantilism of the Gold Standard

[Lyotard initially quotes the following letter from Colbert to Louis XIVwhich he takes as representative of the ‘merchantilism’ of the gold standard (Libidinal Economy, pp. 188-9). Paragraph breaks have been added.]

…The good state of Your Majesty’s finances and the augmentation of his revenues consists in increasing by all available means the amount of silver converted into money which is continually circulating in the realm, and in keeping in the provinces the exact proportion of this money that they require…augmenting the silver in public commerce by drawing it from the countries from whence it comes, retaining it within the realm by preventing it from leaving, and by giving men the means to draw a profit from it.

Since the greatness and strength of the State and the Magnificence of the King are composed from these three points, the expenditures for which great revenues provide the opportunity render State and King all the greater, because they deplete the revenues of all neighbouring States at the same time. In view of the fact of having just one constant quantity of silver circulating in all Europe, augmented from time to time by that which comes from the West Indies, it is certain and demonstrable that if there are only 150 million pounds of silver in public circulation, one can only succeed in augmenting it by 20, 30, and 50 millions at the same time as one removes the same quantity from neighbouring States….

I entreat Your Majesty to permit me to tell him that since he took on the administration of finances, he has undertaken a war of silver against all the States of Europe. He has already conquered Spain, Germany, Italy, and England, which he has thrown into very great poverty and destitution, and has grown rich from their spoils, which have given him the means to perform such great things as he has done in the past and still does every day. Only Holland still remains fighting with great forces: her northern trade…and that in the East Indies…that in the Levant…that in the West Indies…her factories, her trade in Cadiz, Guinea and an infinity of others in which all her strength consists and resides. Your Majesty has formed companies which, like armies, attack them on all fronts….

The factories, the canal for the transnavigation of seas and so many other new developments as Your Majesty has created, are so many reserve corps which Your Majesty created and drew out of nothing in order better to perform their duty in this war…. The sensible fruit of the success of all these things would be that by drawing, by means of trade, a very great quantity of silver into his realm, not only would he soon manage to reestablish those proportions which must exist between the silver in currency in trade, and the taxations which are paid by the people, but he could even augment each of them, in such a way that his revenues would increase and he would put his peoples in a powerful position to assist him more considerably in the event of war or some other necessity….

[Lyotard later comments (pp. 191-2):]

“[T]he quantity of metallic money which is ‘circulating in all Europe’ being constant, and this gold being wealth itself, in order that the king grow richer he must seize the maximum of this gold. This is to condemn the partner to die, in the long or short term. It is to count the time of trade not up to infinity, but by limiting it to the moment when all the gold in Europe is in Versailles. And it is to identify gold with the traditional form of wealth, which the earth. To draw gold into the frontiers of the realm is the same thing as to extend the frontiers up to the sources of gold. The earth being round, the conquest must in principle close up on itself, the armies progressing eastward establishing the empire of the world. Locking gold up within the limits of the realm is for Colbert the same operation relativized: it is the earth-gold or the golden earth which must come to complete its movement in the king’s coffers. In the first case, the realm is displaced over the earth, envelops it and becomes its coffer, in the second the gold which was displaced will become incarcerated in the realm.”

 [Later (p. 196) Lyotard also quotes Keynes’ General Theory (Ch. 23, §3):]

‘Never in history’, writes Keynes, ‘was there a method devised of such efficacy for setting each country’s advantage at variance with its neighbours’ as the international gold standard.’

[The moral of the story? The gold standard structures the process of acquiring wealth into a zero-sum game, where one nation’s gain is another nation’s loss. To endorse the gold standard, therefore, is to endorse imperialism, returning to merchantilism. I find it odd that these implications of the gold standard are not talked about (i.e. denounced) by the mainstream, despite the unanimity among orthodox economists that the gold standard is an awful idea.]

De Quincey’s Prolegomena to All Future Systems of Political Economy

For nearly two years I believe that I read no book but one; and I owe it to the author, in discharge of a great debt of gratitude, to mention what that was. The sublimer and more passionate poets I still read, as I have said, by snatches, and occasionally. But my proper vocation, as I well knew, was the exercise of the analytic understanding. Now, for the most part, analytic studies are continuous, and not to be pursued by fits and starts, or fragmentary efforts. Mathematics, for instance, intellectual philosophy, &c., were all become insupportable to me; I shrunk from them with a sense of powerless and infantile feebleness that gave me an anguish the greater from remembering the time when I grappled with them to my own hourly delight; and for this further reason, because I had devoted the labor of my whole life, and had dedicated my intellect, blossoms and fruits, to the slow and elaborate toil of constructing one single work, to which I had presumed to give the title of an unfinished work of Spinoza’s, viz. De Emendatione Humani Intellectus. This was now lying locked up as by frost, like any Spanish bridge or aqueduct, begun upon too great a scale for the resources of the architect; and, instead of surviving me as a monument of wishes at least, and aspirations, and a life of labor dedicated to the exaltation of human nature in that way in which God had best fitted me to promote so great an object, it was likely to stand a memorial to my children of hopes defeated, of baffled efforts, of materials uselessly accumulated, of foundations laid that were never to support a superstructure, of the grief and ruin of the architect. In this state of imbecility, I had, for amusement, turned my attention to political economy; my understanding, which formerly had been as active and restless as a hyena, could not, I suppose (so long as I lived at all), sink into utter lethargy; and political economy offers this advantage to a person in my state, that though it is eminently an organic science (no part, that is to say, but what acts on the whole, as the whole again reacts on each part), yet the several parts may be detached and contemplated singly. Great as was the prostration of my powers at this time, yet I could not forget my knowledge; and my understanding had been for too many years intimate with severe thinkers, with logic, and the great masters of knowledge, not to be aware of the utter feebleness of the main herd of modern economists. I had been led in 1811 to look into loads of books and pamphlets on many branches of economy; and, at my desire, M. sometimes read to me chapters from more recent works, or parts of parliamentary debates. I saw that these were generally the very dregs and rinsings of the human intellect; and that any man of sound head, and practiced in wielding logic with scholastic adroitness, might take up the whole academy of modern economists, and throttle them between heaven and earth with his finger and thumb, or bray their fungous heads to powder with a lady’s fan. At length, in 1819, a friend in Edinburgh sent me down Mr. Ricardo’s book; and, recurring to my own prophetic anticipation of the advent of some legislator for this science, I said, before I had finished the first chapter, “Thou art the man!” Wonder and curiosity were emotions that had long been dead in me. Yet I wondered once more: I wondered at myself that I could once again be stimulated to the effort of reading; and much more I wondered at the book. Had this profound work been really written in England during the nineteenth century? Was it possible? I supposed thinking18 had been extinct in England. Could it be that an Englishman, and he not in academic bowers, but oppressed by merchantile and senatorial cares, had accomplished what all the universities of Europe, and a century of thought, had failed even to advance by one hair’s breadth? All other writers had been crushed and overlaid by enormous weights of facts and documents; Mr. Ricardo had deduced, a priori, from the understanding itself, laws which first gave a ray of light into the unwieldy chaos of materials, and had constructed what had been but a collection of tentative discussions into a science of regular proportions, now first standing on an eternal basis.

Thus did one simple work of a profound understanding avail to give me a pleasure and an activity which I had not known for years; it roused me even to write, or, at least, to dictate what M. wrote for me. It seemed to me that some important truths had escaped even “the inevitable eye” of Mr. Ricardo; and, as these were, for the most part, of such a nature that I could express or illustrate them more briefly and elegantly by algebraic symbols than in the usual clumsy and loitering diction of economists, the whole would not have filled a pocket-book; and being so brief, with M. for my amanuensis, even at this time, incapable as I was of general exertion, I drew up my Prolegomena to all Future Systems of Political Economy. I hope it will not be found redolent of opium; though, indeed, to most people, the subject itself it a sufficient opiate.

This exertion, however, was but a temporary flash, as the sequel showed; for I designed to publish my work. Arrangements were made at a provincial press, about eighteen miles distant, for printing it. An additional compositor was retained for some days, on this account. The work was even twice advertised; and I was, in a manner, pledged to the fulfillment of my intention. But I had a preface to write; and a dedication, which I wished to make a splendid one, to Mr. Ricardo. I found myself quite unable to accomplish all this. The arrangement were countermanded, the compositor dismissed, and my “prolegomena” rested peacefully by the side of its elder and more dignified brother.


18: The reader must remember what I here mean by thinking; because, else, this would be a presumptuous expression. England, of late, has been rich to excess in fine thinkers, in the departments of creative and combining thought; but there is a sad dearth of masculine thinkers in any analytic path. A Scotchman of eminent name has lately told us, that he is obliged to quit even mathematics, for want of encouragement.

De Quincey – Confessions of an English Opium Eater, pg. 52-54

Thomas De Quincey’s manuscript was published posthumously as The Logic of Political Economy, and is available for free download here.

The Economist Who Refuted Wittgenstein

However, in the Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein abandons the idea of language as axiomatic representation of the world, and the idea of the ‘unspeakable’. Discussions with [Piero] Sraffa seem to have played their part in his abandonment of the latter. In this connection, there is an anecdote that Wittgenstein himself liked to tell his pupils, one of whom – Malcolm – recounts it thus in his biography of the master: one day, as they were travelling together on the train from Cambridge to London, ‘Sraffa made a gesture, familiar to Neapolitans and meaning something like disgust or contempt, of brushing the underneath of his chin with an outward sweep of the finger tips of one hand’.21

The gesture can only acquire a specific meaning from the context in which it is performed, thus contradicting Wittgenstein’s idea that every proposition had to have a precise place in the axiomatic order of rational language, independently of the various contexts in which it may be employed.22

21: Malcolm, 1958: 69.
22: According to Malcolm (1958: 69), the object of the discussion was Wittgenstein’s idea ‘that a proposition and that which it describes must have the same “logical form”, the same “logical multiplicity”’; according to von Wright, as Malcolm reports in a footnote, the object of the discussion was the idea that each proposition should have a ‘grammar’. In a conversation (21 December, 1973) Sraffa confirmed the anecdote, telling me that von Wright was right.

Roncaglia, A. (2000). Piero Sraffa: His Life, Thought, & Cultural Heritage. New York: Routledge, pg. 23, endnotes pg. 44.

For a brief skeptical discussion of whether Wittgenstein was really refuted, see here.

The Stakes of Grammatology

The well-known quarrel between Lacan and Derrida over Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” did not come from nowhere. Consider in this regard Lacan’s formulation from “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious,” that one is to grasp the letter à la lettre, that is, literally, and Derrida’s counter in the title to section one of his Of Grammatology, “Writing Before the Letter,” in French, avant la lettre, that is, before the fact, before, that is, the literal. Never to shirk a provocation, Lacan responded in the points edition of the Écrits by instating that his insight into the “instance/agency of the letter preceded any grammatology.” This in turn appears to have prompted The Title of the Letter: A Reading of Lacan by Derrida partisans Jean-Luc Nancy and Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe. The titular phrase, le titre de la lettre, might also be rendered as “the deed to, or rank of the letter.” Here is not the place to elaborate the stakes of this face-off, but suffice it to say that at issue is the nontrivial problem of whether philosophy can think the general economy of signs that conditions the possibility of language, whether spoken or written.

~John Mowitt, in Lyotard – Discourse, Figure, Editor’s Introduction, pg. 397, endnote 7.

Jonathan Friedman’s Panorama of Cultural Strategies

[I found this excellent chart in an obscure little book called Modernity & Identity, which is about modernism & postmodernism and how these permeate into different areas of culture. Rather than having it be lost, perhaps forever, I feel that it deserves some affection.]

0  Modernist:

(a) Progressive evolutionist, development of self and society and world.  Deviations from this life-strategy are classified as pathological or as just plain underdeveloped and infantile, in the sense that all non-modern states are ultimately reducible to a lack of the necessary means to achieve modernity: intellectually, technologically, motivationally.

1  modernism, can be expressed in general cultural terms; in terms of political institutions conducive to democratic solutions and efficient moral governance; in terms of economic growth; and social modernization, that is, modern institutions.

 (a) political debates in modernist discourse focusing on variant interpretations of the implementation of the modernist strategy; for example whether social democracy is more efficient and fair than liberalism, the role of the private vs. public sector, marxist vs. other approaches, etc.

2  Asian modernism displays most of the basic characteristics of the Western model, the main difference lying in the role of the individual as an instrument of the group rather than as an autonomous agent.


In the decline of modernist identity:

1  postmodern-modern-consumptionist:

(a) cynical distancing from all identification, but an acute awareness of the lack of identity

(b) consumptionist: narcissistic dependency on the presentation of self via the commodity construction of identity.  Highly unstable and can easily switch over to religious of ethnic solutions.

1  variation on the above is the consumption of roots as commodities, the creation of a life space reminiscent of a nostalgic vision or pastiche of eras based thereupon.

2  traditional-religious-ethnic

(a) solution to lack of identity, the failure of the modern project.  The individual feels the acute need to engage himself in a larger project in which identity is concrete and fixed irrespective of mobility, success and other external changes in social conditions.

1  traditionalist refers to the general aspect of this strategy, the emphasizing of concrete values and morality, social rules and cultural practices.

(a) religious: usually traditional, fundamentalist in form, sometimes tied to ethnicity.

(i)  local based, community oriented

(ii) international, mankind oriented, anti-ethnic yet concrete, i.e. species oriented

(b) ethnic: the constitution of concrete regional of historical-linguistic based identity-not so much connected to a value system as to a set of distinct cultural practices and beliefs.

2 closely connected with the traditionalist strategy is the ecological or green strategy.  If the former bases itself in culture the latter bases itself in nature: the correct relation between man and the ecosystem.  The overlap is clear and occurs in the evolutionist cosmology where traditional = close to nature = adapted to nature (that is, ecologically sound)

3  Third World – strategy of attracting wealth flows, strategy of attachment and dependency:

(a) state-class ranking system with chains of client in which sumptuary consumption plays a central role in defining position.

(b) strategy is unequivocally oriented to the centre as a source of wealth, and to the modern as the form of power to be appropriated and in the rank-strategy described above.

(c) strategy is thus pro-development defined not in terms of infrastructural growth but in terms of the consumption of modernity or its products that function as symbols of prestige and, as such, power.

4  Fourth World – strategy of exit from the system, the formation and/or maintenance of culturally organized communities that are self-sufficient and politically autonomous:

(a)  strategies usually take the form of cultural movements for the re-establishment of formerly repressed identity and lifestyle.

(b)  strategies usually reject all forms of modernity and especially the notion of universal development. They are traditionalistic, and attempt, further, to establish a functioning social order based on particular world-views and/or religious schemes.

(c)  tendency to egalitarianism, since there is no basis for ranking in such movements: often local history is re-envisaged so that an original state of existence without any form of social hierarchy is posited at the beginning of time.  If leadership is posited, it is invariably in the form of the charismatic leader who is the saviour or father or mother of his/her people and is the embodiment of their values.

Lash, S. & Friedman, J. (Eds.). (1993). Modernity & Identity. Massachusetts: Blackwell, in the essay  “Narcissism, roots and postmodernity” by Jonathan Friedman

Asian Modernism

In those areas of the East characterized by rapid economic growth there are new forms of modernism. These have to be seen in relation to the declining dominance of the West in order to understand the difference between their particularistic cultural character and the universalistic evolutionism they embody. On the one hand they have emphasized the moral core of the Confucian order, expressed in Neo-Confucianism, an order that stresses the ethics of the bureaucratic public sphere, an abstract morality, but one extracted from the ideals of the family and elevated to a set of generalized social principles. This has been linked to the notion that the NIC (Newly Industrialized Countries) lands, for example, have some special culture that is conducive to development, and even superior to Western individualism. There have, on the other hand, been numerous discussions of the relation between Confucian developmentalism and Western models. Neo-Confucianist ideology stresses the goals of democracy and rationalist development above practically all else. The particularistic property of this self-conscious programme of modernity is related to its ethnic base in Chinese civilization. There is an interesting logic in this new modernism. It might be argued that the problem with Western mediocrity is that its individualism tends to erode the moral values that render the entire project of modernity a genuine possibility. Such a view would dovetail with [Daniel] Bell’s analysis of the dialectical contradictions of modernity that generate, all by themselves, the postmodern dissipation that has now taken form in the West. In the Eastern model with its weaker, if clearly present, individual, entirely eroded to the project of the group, such disintegration ought not to be possible.

Lash, S. & Friedman, J. (Eds.). (1993). Modernity & Identity. Massachusetts: Blackwell, pg. 356