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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.

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On the Vacuousness of ‘Neoliberalism’ as a Political Category: A Dialogue

Marxist: You want to know why the economy is in such dire straits these days? It’s because of this damn neoliberalism that all the countries of the world are uncritically accepting!

Capitalist: Whoa, now. That’s a really broad statement. Let me try to see if I fully understand what you mean. So you think that stimulus is a neoliberal policy?

M: Absolutely. All the Fed is doing is making more financial gimmicks in an attempt to help a structurally broken economy.

C: Okay, that’s a legitimate point of view, I suppose. So given that the USA has to somehow pay off its deficit, you must be in agreement with the people who say that austerity is the way to go.

M: Absolutely not! If the government tried that, me and my friends would be up in arms! Austerity is neoliberalism in its worst form!

C: Hmm. Well to me it seems like those are two very different policies, but you’re lumping them together under the same category?

M: Yes.

C: Okay, then. Let’s try a different tack. What would you say isn’t neoliberalism? Is North Korea neoliberal?

M: Of course not.

C: So dictatorships like Ethiopia and Guinea aren’t neoliberal either?

M: No.

C: What about communist countries like China?

M: Yes. They are neoliberal, or at least they have been ever since Deng Xiaoping took over. Besides, China shouldn’t be considered communist anyway.

C: Why not?

M: Because it’s not what Marx actually intended communism to be! Full communism and actually-existing communism are two completely different things.

C: Okay then. Let’s accept your definition of ‘full communism’. Now, it seems to me that what you mean by ‘neoliberalism’ encompasses any sort of social arrangement that might call itself capitalist, even if on the surface of things, different neoliberal countries seem to have strong disagreements. Is that accurate?

M: Yes.

C: So we could just as well say that in your definition (and excluding dictatorships), neoliberalism is any point of view that isn’t communist.

M: I suppose so.

C: That seems to make sense. So why do you insist that neoliberalism, in all its various guises, is a bad thing?

M: Well that should be self-evident! It’s because of the inherent contradictions in the commodity-form, plus the exploitation of workers’ surplus value inherent in the act of a capitalist purchasing labor-power from the proletariat!

C: Hm. I was never taught these sorts of ideas in business school, so could you tell me who came up with them?

M: Karl Marx, of course! Just as Darwin discovered the laws inherent in organic development, Marx discovered the laws inherent in capitalism!

C: ‘Inherent’ is a strong word, you know. I assume you’re aware that there are other ways of thinking about economic phenomena that don’t involve these sort of concepts.

M: Yes. But they’re wrong. It takes a refined eye to notice these sorts of things, not the sort of thing a vulgar capitalist like you would understand. *sententious tone* There are more things in this world, my dear capitalist, than are dreamt of at your business school.

C: *quizzical expression* Fair enough. Now what should I do if I want to learn about this point of view?

M: Read Das Kapital, of course! It’s hard going at first, but once you read it through about four or five times, it will be obvious to you that this is the truth. But after that, if you still insist on debating with us, you’ll have to be familiar with the literature! I’ve seen plenty of cases like yours. At first the thousands of books and articles on Marxism may seem so rife with confusions and question-begging that out of despair you may be prepared to believe anything, but once you’ve made your way through the basic authors (Althusser, Balibar, Deleuze & Guattari, Hardt & Negri, Poulantzas, Castoriadis, Adorno & Horkheimer, Debord, Gramsci, Eagleton, Callinicos, Jameson, Lukács, Luxemburg, Marcuse, and Žižek), you should be all set to think critically about the world! (And of course, by thinking critically I mean denouncing all existing conditions!)

C: *ponders for a minute* I think I finally understand.

M: That’s the spirit!

C: Let me sum things up: neoliberalism is bad because of the contradictions inherent in capitalism, as shown by Marx, which can only be grasped by a Marxist point of view, since all other perspectives take neoliberalism for granted.

M: By Jove, you’ve got it!

C: So in other words, any relatively successful form of social organization except communism is bad because it isn’t communism, and it’s impossible to see the truth of this unless you’re a communist, since all other positions besides communism take neoliberalism (again, defined as everything that is not communism) for granted.

M: Eureka! You’re one of us now!

Mistranslating Marx: The “idiocy of rural life”

Given the concern with changing conditions in rural society in much of this issue (as represented by the work of Amin and William Hinton) we thought that readers would be interested in the origin of a misunderstanding that surrounds Marx’s thoughts on rural life. One often hears the criticism that Marxism was from the beginning an extreme modernizing philosophy that looked with complete disdain on rural existence. Did not Marx himself in The Communist Manifesto, it is frequently asked, refer to “the idiocy of rural life”? Here a misconception has arisen through the mistranslation of a single word in the authorized English translation of the Manifesto. This issue is addressed in Hal Draper’s definitive, though little known work, The Adventures of the Communist Manifesto (Berkeley: Center for Socialist History, 1998)an expanded version of his earlier work, The Annotated Communist Manifesto. Draper’s Adventures includes a new English translation of the Manifesto, together with paragraph-by-paragraph annotations, and the most detailed history currently available of the various editions of the Manifesto in major European languages.

In Draper’s translation the phrase “the idiocy of rural life” in paragraph 28 of the Manifesto is replaced with “the isolation of rural life.” His explanation for this correction is worth quoting at length:

IDIOCY OF RURAL LIFE. This oft-quoted A.ET. [authorized English translation] expression is a mistranslation. The German word Idiotismus did not, and does not, mean “idiocy” (Idiotie); it usually means idiom, like its French cognate idiotisme. But here [in paragraph 28 of The Communist Manifesto] it means neither. In the nineteenth century, German still retained the original Greek meaning of forms based on the word idiotes: a private person, withdrawn from public (communal) concerns, apolitical in the original sense of isolation from the larger community. In the Manifesto, it was being used by a scholar who had recently written his doctoral dissertation on Greek philosophy and liked to read Aeschylus in the original. (For a more detailed account of the philological background and evidence, see [Hal Draper], KMTR [Karl Marxs Theory of Revolution, New York, Monthly Review Press, 1978] 2:344f.) What the rural population had to be saved from, then, was the privatized apartness of a life-style isolated from the larger society: the classic stasis of peasant life. To inject the English idiocy into this thought is to muddle everything. The original Greek meaning (which in the 19th century was still alive in German alongside the idiom meaning) had been lost in English centuries ago. Moore [the translator of the authorized English translation] was probably not aware of this problem; Engels had probably known it forty years before. He was certainly familiar with the thought behind it: in his Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), he had written about the rural weavers as a class “which had remained sunk in apathetic indifference to the universal interests of mankind.” (MECW [Marx and Engels, Collected Works] 4:309.) In 1873 he made exactly the Manifesto’s point without using the word “idiocy”: the abolition of the town-country antithesis “will be able to deliver the rural population from the isolation and stupor in which it has vegetated almost unchanged for thousands of years” (Housing Question, Pt. III, Chapter 3).

Marx’s criticism of the isolation of rural life then had to do with the antithesis of town and country under capitalism as expressed throughout his work. See also John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology (New York: Monthly Review Press), pp. 137-38.

Monthly Review, October 2003, vol. 55 # 5: Notes from the Editors

This is fascinating. This point serves as an excellent support of Exchange Value‘s essay regarding misquotations of Marx by prominent business magazines in order to make him seem like he celebrates the bourgeoisie. As well, this quotation is apparently “often used by Greens to mischaracterize [Marx & Engels] as relentless modernizers.” Retranslating the sentence gives it an intriguingly collectivist resonance, making it worthwhile for Marxists and non-Marxists alike to readjust their views of Marx accordingly.

Max Stirner: The Problem of Realism & The Heuristic Response

“Ich hab’ Mein’ Sach’ auf Nichts gestellt.”

[I have set my course on nothing.] 

~Stirner, quoting Goethe’s poem “Vanitas! Vanitatum Vanitas!”

Max Stirner (the penname of Johann Kaspar Schmitt) was a member of the Young Hegelians (of which Marx & Engels were members), which believed that Hegel was a covert atheist, i.e. that his ‘theology’ could be removed from his system with no significant loss. As well, they abided by Marx’s now-clichéd line: “The philosophers have hitherto explained the world. The point is to change it”[1]. Feuerbach in his book The Essence of Christianity & Bruno Bauer in his book Critique of The Gospel History both rejected religion in favor of a humanism which is also evident in Marx’s earlier writings. Stirner worked as a teacher in a girl’s school, a job which he very much cherished, but which he left before publishing his magnum (and for that matter, only) opus, Der Einzige Und Das Eigentum[2] (The Ego & Its Own), in order to prevent scandal when the book’s authorship was traced to him. Indeed, it caused something of a scandal in Germany, and was entirely unexpected by Stirner’s fellow Young Hegelians, as Stirner was one of the most quiet and benign members: the book is a fierce invective toward each of the Young Hegelians, one of his arguments being that Feuerbach & Bauer had merely replaced God with ‘Man’, another hypostatized notion that was hardly better than before. 

Marx himself spent 300 pages arguing against Stirner in The German Ideology (at times in an embarrassingly puerile fashion), before ultimately leaving the book unpublished. Bauer & Feuerbach also countered Stirner, but were refuted in another of his essays, this one under the guise of a university student, called Stirner’s Critics. Bernd Laska and J.L. Walker’s introduction to The Ego & Its Own both argue that Stirner was a founding influence on the thought of Nietzsche, and it is Stirner’s book to which Foucault refers when he asserts that Nietzsche’s writings about the ‘death of God’ were actually obliquely referring to the death of Man. The book was also read by Adorno, who is reported to have said that Stirner “let the cat out of the bag”, as well as by Jürgen Habermas and perhaps Carl Schmitt.

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