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Alessandro Bellini on Sraffa and The ‘Capital-World’

Who_Can_Hold_These_Words_For___by_Versatis

{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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Prelude to a Non-Standard Economics

[I recently received the following question on my tumblr blog:

Hi. You seem to have a better understanding of economics than most of the people here on tumblr, an understanding of how misrepresentations of how economics works can lead to misrepresentations of the actions/attitudes we should take to solve the problems of our current economic system.

Admittedly, I sympathize with the leftist and Marxist sentiments espoused by those on tumblr and with authors such as the one you just ridiculed, but that’s mostly due to my cursory understanding of economics and the fact that when one has such sentiments, leftism and Marxism are the first theoretical positions one comes across. I think you agree that capitalism leads to Huge Problems, but could you shed some light on what you take to be the proper route of critique?

The following is my answer. I’m cross-posting it here because due to midterms it will probably take me quite some time to write a full post fleshing out all my arguments.]

I’m working on a lengthy blog post in response, but it’ll unavoidably be very dull and tedious, and I don’t want to act like I expect people to read it. The question of an alternative to Marxism is one I’ve been puzzling over for several years now, and what I’ve found is that the question is inherently problematic, and needs to first be deconstructed before the practical result it hopes for can be provided. The main problem is the necessarily philosophical nature of the answer it expects: I’m supposed to provide a philosophical theory of economics which can reconcile its different schools of thought and which somehow fits within the Continental tradition. But I don’t think that this can be done. Yahya Madra, for example—a very intelligent guy—has for some years been trying to apply Lacanian psychoanalysis (plus Derrida and D&G) to economics, but hasn’t been able to come up with anything substantial. So the following will first talk about philosophy’s inability to meaningfully speak about economics, then point toward how philosophy caricatures economics in order to speak about it at all, and finally offer some rules of thumb for getting beyond such caricatures.

Laruelle writes in Mystique non-philosophique that “The identity of the with (the One with the One, God with God), is the true ‘mystical’ content of philosophy, its ‘black box’.” (His examples are stupid, but you get the point.) My claim is simply that the statements comprising marginalist economic theory are not conceptual per se, but rather, they operate within the prepositions of a philosophical sentence (in, with, by, to, from, etc.): that is, within the black box of philosophy. As such, economic statements are constitutively inaccessible to philosophy as a discourse. All philosophy can do is to latch ahold of an ‘object’ used in economics (e.g. labor, utility, commodity-form) and try to relate it to other philosophical concepts—but from the point of view of economics, this is just to just to create an alternate model, one which can say nothing about the model it’s ostensibly ‘critiquing’ unless it can hold up to economics’ standards of operativity. (For more on the latter, see below, paragraph five.)

In short, economics is a form of antiphilosophy. This should be clear even historically, since marginalism (contemporary orthodox economics, the kind that uses calculus to measure ‘marginal’ increments between abstract ‘units’ of things such as ‘utility’ or ‘marginal propensity to save’) was designed specifically to circumvent the problems (e.g. exploitation) that Marx raised. For example, due to marginalism’s theory that value is determined solely by the intersection of supply and demand, this implies that all wages are at their proper value—thus eliminating the possibility of exploitation a priori. Likewise, dispensing with the inverse relation of profits and wages undermines the foundation of anyone who would argue that class struggle constitutes a fundamental component of the business sphere.

963-14, by les brumes

Of course, the results of economic theory are apparently susceptible to critique. But are they? I can attest from long, frustrated experience that to write about economics (without writing in economics) is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible—unless you resort to some form of pre-packaged philosophical discourse (or journalistic tripe). The main quasi-conceptual ‘discourses’ about economics are Marxism and Austrianism, and I argue that this dyad is symptomatic of the structure of philosophy, particularly when viewed through Laruelle’s concept of philosophical decision. Put in way-oversimplified terms, the Decisional structure is when philosophies invent a third term of ‘immanent transcendence’ to mediate between two objects, one of which is transcendent, the other immanent. In economics, however, the economy is both transcendent and immanent, thus screwing up this neat little pattern and forcing certain reductionisms on the part of each theory. There’s not much of substance that one can say without getting immensely technical (since it’s not just a cut-and-dried case of each theory favoring one over the other), except that when you compare Mises’ and Marx’s conceptualizations of the economy in terms of immanence and transcendence, there are distinct differences, and once these are straightened out (which I haven’t yet had the chance to do rigorously), it will help us to analyze these discourses as forms of thought, as well as to pinpoint why they have become as entrenched as they have in political discourse.

The main point of the latter paragraph is that we need a unified theory of philosophy and economics, of how the two ‘work’ in relation to one another. But to make this accessible to people who aren’t economists is very difficult. Let me be clear here that the problem is not just one of technical knowledge, but also that economists (even moronic econ undergrads like myself) are trained to view theories in terms of their operativity: all economic statements must be capable of being converted into mathematics, and of being used in a mathematical model of an economy. (Continental Philosophers, on the other hand, have no demarcation criteria to distinguish sense from nonsense, and they’re trained to take even the most whacked-in-the-head ideas seriously.) This is the main reason why the paper on “Darwin metaeconomics” is so self-evidently stupid to any economist. He takes freshman-level economic theory and dresses it up with grandiose (but completely vacuous) concepts in order to ‘prove’ a thesis (which he presupposes from the start, giving no evidence whatsoever) that any crackpot or art student at Occupy might make. There are plenty of respectable studies corroborating the idea of Wall Street corruption, centralization of power, and so on, but there’s an unwritten rule in economics that the more one’s conclusions go against mainstream ideas, the more rigorous your study must be—and for the pragmatic purposes of saving one’s resources for important matters and of weeding out crackpots, this is a reasonable rule to have.

Even the notion of a ‘critique’ of capitalism is very problematic, and Lyotard goes into better detail about this than I could in his Libidinal Economy. But since economics is the science of non-discursive social relations, and philosophy is discursive, to begin to critique capitalism from a philosophical starting point is, to a large extent, to determine one’s conclusions from the outset. Much philosophical hostility toward neoliberalism can be attributed to the latter’s inability to be thought philosophically. (And this besides the obvious bad faith of being a Humanities student.) What I don’t want to advise you is to read more about economics—this is the most banal thing in the world to say. Not that it wouldn’t help, but it’s ridiculous to expect that of someone who has no professional interest in the field (and I include due diligence in this clause), especially since laypeople will just gravitate toward books that confirm their preconceived notions anyway. But if you’re a philosopher and are curious about the economy, I recommend that you look at it through antiphilosophy, e.g. McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy, Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class (only the first few chapters though; as soon as he starts talking about racial theories, stop reading), or Lyotard’s Libidinal Economy. They aren’t perfect, but they aren’t autopositional in the same way as typical philosophical texts are. This is to a large extent because they don’t rely on concepts: implicit in every concept is a choice to emphasize some aspects of a thing over others. This is what I take Foucault to have meant when he called Anti-Oedipus “a book of ethics.” Hume’s Law holds absolutely—but only when we confine our purview to sensations and intuitions. In his radical empiricism, Hume denied that ‘other aspects’ of phenomena existed besides those which we immediately perceive; this is why (in its own terms) his argument is valid, but doesn’t hold in real life. So economic models do contain implicit values both positively (prioritizing things like efficiency) and negatively (the aspects of things they ignore).

a place only i can go - AnnCT 07.2012

So let’s get a bit more concrete. One of the things that Tumblr Marxists love to do is to attribute all the evils of the world to “capitalism.” Taking after Marx, they attribute a primacy of the economic sphere over the political sphere (even if they spend all the rest of their time insisting that culture is more important than economics). Yet, people like Chomsky make an excellent case for the primacy of the political sphere over the economic sphere, and thus can meaningfully argue that we’ve never had capitalism. Then again, every single economic argument Chomsky makes that isn’t either trivial or repeated verbatim from his friends (e.g. Ha-Joon Chang) is not only wrong, but really stupid. Much as I love Chomsky, he just has no understanding of economics whatsoever—yet, he’s absolutely brilliant when it comes to politics, and he’s a rigorous empiricist. And of course, Marx is hardly infallible either, despite being a genius. So I think that to think about the question of primacy in terms of being correct or incorrect is to look at matters the wrong way. Rather, the disparate discursive structures of philosophy and economics force any philosophical critique of the latter to be in the form of a model of one’s own; most people just don’t think of it that way. So the real question is what our conceptual model lets us say that other’s can’t (and perhaps more importantly, what our model can’t say that others can).

Hopefully the above doesn’t just seem like unnecessarily abstruse nitpicking about your question. It would be nice if I could just drop a weltanschauung in your lap, but that’s not how economics (or non-economics) works. That said, here are some rules of thumb that I’ve found helpful:

  1. Try to view the concepts you use in their contingency as models.This is the basic idea of what Laruelle calls ‘cloning’, where (political) philosophies are made into material, and one’s focus becomes how the form of an argument determines its conclusions. The conclusions of all models are tautologies, derivable from their premises (the aspects of the world they focus on), and what separates a good model from a bad model is the extent to which it relies on ad hoc provisions and ‘deus ex machina’-like axioms that lie dormant for a while, then tie everything together in the last minute. What studying economics lets you do is see how ‘economic facts’ (e.g. statistics) are constructed—and this, again, is the meaningful content of economics that takes place within the black box of philosophy. So since philosophy has no way to explicitly speak of its tautologous (or: autopositional) nature, it becomes doubly important to make the effort to interpret issues through more than one theory, jumping from one view to the other the way one does with a duckrabbit.
  2. Avoid thinking in terms of linear causality. In the social world, X rarely ever causes Y on its own: rather, multiple lines of causation converge together thanks to certain conditions, occasionally leading to positive feedback loops and other nonlinear behaviour. This is George Soros’s big insight, as well as that of Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point. A corollary of this is that we should separate the goal we have in mind (e.g. support the working class) from the means of reaching it. It’s not that everyone who isn’t a communist wants to fuck over the working class: people like Milton Friedman just argue that Leftist measures like unions are counterproductive. It’s easy to treat political issues emotionally, e.g. that it isn’t ‘fair’ to give corporations tax breaks. But even a liberal like Robert Reich can agree with Milton Friedman (though for different reasons) that corporate income tax should be abolished. This is why I think that it’s useful to distinguish between the ‘letter’ of a partisan position (the typical goals it advocates) and its ‘spirit’ (the emotions and values it evokes to support its position). Iain Murray’s book The Really Inconvenient Truths uses original and data-focused arguments to back up conservative prescriptions traditionally supported by appealing to religion and other arbitrary value judgements. I haven’t come across any books supporting the letter of Leftism but not its spirit, but think that this would be an excellent technique to avoid falling back on stale tropes.
  3. Accept that philosophy is limited in its applicability. Philosophy’s inability to accept its non-transferability to certain domains is what Laruelle calls the “principe de la suffisance philosophique,” which may be translated as ‘principle of sufficient philosophy’ or ‘principle of philosophical arrogance’. As the Austrian economists argue quite well, markets are able to take account of tacit knowledge and inarticulable desires in a way that discourse (and central planning) just can’t. To a large extent, accepting that many social structures have evolved as they have for a reason (cf. Taleb, 2012: 212) is enough to start sympathizing—at least a little bit—with conservatives. If you believe that biosemiotics has no effect on your behaviour, dye a bowl of oatmeal with blue or black food coloring and then explain to me why it’s the bourgeoisie’s fault that you’re filled with an overpowering sense of aversion as you try to eat it. Not that these social structures are all desirable, but unless one holds a naïve base-superstructure theory, any practical efforts for social change have to keep these in mind, and try to find a way to reroute them.
  4. Make a point of avoiding paranoia. What I mean by paranoia in the context of social theories is when behind appearances is postulated some sort of absolute agency that controls everything (what Lacan calls the Other of the Other). This tendency is common among intellectuals, and I’ll give some examples. In Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine, once you remove the presupposition of malicious agency by the USA, her argument degenerates into the claim that regime changes tend to happen during economic crises—which is quite trivial. Likewise, Chomsky’s lecture on Colombia (entitled “An American Addiction”) degenerates into vacuous conspiracy theory once the reader takes into account that coca ≠ cocaine. Coca is, of course, a staple agricultural product in South America precisely because of all its useful applications, and Chomsky attributes its pervasiveness solely to the malevolent interests of the Colombian government (backed, of course, by the USA). This is NOT to say that the USA doesn’t use its hegemonic power for the sake of coercion, or that theories of a paranoiac form are always invalid. After all, people like Chomsky and Glenn Greenwald show over and over the naïveté of denying that the USA behaves in many respects like an Empire. What I am saying is that one’s personal pathologies influence the type of data one seeks out, and also that by indulging one’s pathologies one is apt to make shitty arguments. Moreover, any social theory should allow for the possibility of contingent events influencing an outcome—and Marxism rarely does. This is why things like falsification criteria and scientific method are so important—they’re constructed specifically to avoid all-too-human tendencies of adopting pet theories, or of convincing yourself that you’re valiantly fighting the capitalist beast.
Sargam Griffin - The Economy, 2010

Sargam Griffin – The Economy (2010)

So if I had to sum up all of the above into one little catch-phrase, it would be this: it is absurd to expect one kind of economic policy to hold for all countries and situations; instead, policies should be chosen on the basis of each country’s unique situation. This isn’t a crazy thing to suggest. There are some scenarios where the tenets of neoclassical theory just doesn’t hold, just as there are others (e.g. stagflation) where those of Keynesianism don’t hold; conversely, there are scenarios where communal business practices work very efficiently. As I’ve argued before, this perverse desire (reinforced by party politics) to impose one policy everywhere can be thought of as the ‘principle of sufficient economics’. Economics since Keynes has focused on developing a general economics—instead we need to develop a Riemannian economics. This is what I think a non-standard economics inspired by Sraffa can do.

Peter Lichtenstein, in fact, presents a very interesting Sraffian model of a pluralist domestic economy. It does become problematic when you consider its relation to global finance, plus how zero-growth would make it into a zero-sum game between capitalists and communes, and this is something I need to think more about. But it should be obvious that austerity is not generally applicable—if all countries cut consumption at once, the world would go into another Great Depression. So, much as I’m annoyed by Richard Wolff’s populist rhetoric, I’m fully in favor of his attempts to draw attention to scenarios in which communal business practices are more efficient than capitalistic ones. (And of course, we need not confine ourselves here to overly narrow definitions of ‘efficiency’ which, as Taleb [2012: 44-5] argues, leave much to be desired.) All that matters is what works best. But one should be suspicious of any political theory or policy that says it will only work when it is applied to the whole world at once. And if you object to the notion of economic pluralism by the Marxist fallacy of lumping together disparate economic policies under the heading of ‘capitalism’ or ‘neoliberalism’, then this is what happens.

Worldly Non-Philosophy: The Principle of Sufficient Economics

The key component of François Laruelle’s Non-Philosophy is its identification of the ‘Principle of Sufficient Philosophy’, which he claims has been presupposed by all philosophies throughout history. It is surprising, then, to see how simply it can be formulated: “Everything is philosophizable.” The PSP adopts its name from the ‘Principle of Sufficient Reason’ propounded by Leibniz, which stated that everything has a reason for being the way it is. The ‘sufficiency’ of philosophy, then, lies in its purported ability to apply itself (as a discourse) to every element of the Real: with philosophies of  ‘culinary materialismthe human voice, and even economics, the list of possibilities for “philosophy of x” seems limitless.

Laruelle’s innovation lies in his denial of the PSP: he states that the structure of philosophy is so constituted that it precludes itself from accessing certain elements of the Real, or more simply, that its methodological presuppositions lead to an overly constrained definition of what constitutes thought. Thus Laruelle posits that there exists a Non-Philosophy going beyond philosophy’s boundaries: his project aims to create new forms of thinking, as well as to comprehend the structure of philosophy by means of examining it from an outside perspective.

As this brief essay will endeavour to show, there also exists a Principle of Sufficient Economics (PSE), one identical in content with the Principle of Sufficient Philosophy (PSP), albeit different in its linguistic form. The following will describe why it is that the PSE takes a different linguistic form from the PSP (rather than being the simple transposition ‘everything is economizable’), how Sraffian theory demonstrates that the PSE is false, how Keynesian theory provided the initial break with the PSE, and how Austrian economics’ tacit assumption of the PSE entirely invalidates their criticism of Keynesian macroeconomics.

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Piero Sraffa’s Non-Economics: An Introduction

[A pdf version is available here]

In its break from political economy, economics as a discipline was able to make use of the most sophisticated mathematical techniques of its time. However, in adopting this form (doubtless to achieve the status of a science), it has come under fire for its tactic of applying an effectively closed system of mathematical relations to a set of market phenomena which, as contemporary microeconomists show, is growing ever more comprehensive. This in itself would not be a problem if this did not run the risk of distorting its objects: economics is lambasted for many of its heuristic presuppositions (and ‘metaphysical’ concepts such as utility) which appear blatantly untrue in practice, but nonetheless work well in making sense of empirical data. Milton Friedman famously declared that as long as a methodology works, it does not matter whether its presuppositions are correct, but to those who remain unsatisfied by this claim, the question arises of why the theorems of economics, despite their deficiencies, work as well as they do—whether it may be possible, by means of a new perspective, to gain an almost meta-economic view by way of starting from the phenomena themselves and only from there building a theoretical edifice.

The first steps toward an answer may be found in the economic theories of a man who not only convinced Ludwig Wittgenstein to change the views propounded in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus but who also provided the pens and paper (not to mention much of the reading material) with which Antonio Gramsci wrote his Prison Notebooks—namely, an economic methodology which does not require marginalist concepts of supply, demand, equilibrium, or capital. The initial part of this essay aims to outline in brief the life and work of Piero Sraffa (1898-1983), to unravel some of the theoretical implications of his work for the research programme of marginalist economics, and to portray in a new manner the import of his research programme: as a Non-Economics.

 1.    Sraffa

“Mr. Piero Sraffa, from whom nothing is hid…” ~John Maynard Keynes[1]

Sraffa was born in Turin in 1898, his father an influential Professor of commercial law and his mother a highly cultured woman from a distinguished family. He was given a liberal education, being taught French, English, and German by his mother, in addition to his first language of Italian. He was characterized, in a polemical paper by his friend Gramsci, as having a “democratic-liberal intellectual background, that is to say, normative and Kantian, non-Marxist and non-dialectical” (Potier, 3-4), though this account cannot be accepted without reservations; the intellectual milieu of his day was “dominated by ‘neo-idealism’ or neo-Hegelianism, represented by the thinking of Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) and Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944)” (ibid, 3). He went on to study Law at Turin University, near the latter portion in his studies (1919) striking a friendship with Antonio Gramsci, who studied linguistics at the same university, which would continue until the latter’s death (ibid, 5). Shortly after this meeting, Sraffa joined the editorial team of the journal L’Ordine Nuovo and had friendly relations with the main journalists.

During the same period, Sraffa worked on his doctoral thesis on inflation in Italy since the first World War, a text which “reveals a profound knowledge of the literature on monetary and banking problems; not only the Italian…but also the English and American…and Swedish literature” (ibid, 6). The research for Sraffa’s thesis eventually led to a polemic against the banking practices of his time, then under the fascist policies of Mussolini. This rather “salty” essay (as described by the Italian committee which later awarded Sraffa the status of professor) enraged Mussolini, who demanded a retraction, which was not given because, Sraffa told his father, the paper was based on verifiable facts. Sraffa is also known to have debated via an exchange of letters with Gramsci at that time in matters of politics, one exchange being published in L’Ordine Nuovo. Sraffa’s trenchant criticism was not only directed at the fascist government of his day, however, but also at the methodological orthodoxy beginning to pervade economics departments throughout Italian universities; this culminated in an essay entitled “On The Relation Between Cost and Quantity Produced,” revealing several flaws in the work of Alfred Marshall, at that time the paragon of mainstream economics.

Jean-Pierre Potier (13-14) provides a summary of this essay[2] (which was to earn Sraffa a full professorship at the University of Cagliari in Sardinia) that is fairly lucid even to the layperson in economics:

Between 1924 and spring 1925, Sraffa worked on a major essay that attacked the foundations of the orthodox analysis of the great English neo-classical theorist, Alfred Marshall…. Sraffa examined the law of non-proportional returns in Marshall’s model of static partial equilibrium, which established a symmetry between relations of demand and supply as regards the value of commodities. Previously, classical economists had given prominence to two separate laws of returns. The law of increasing returns was created by Adam Smith and associated with the process of the division of labour in industry―a problem of dynamics, in the category of ‘production’. The law of diminishing returns, on the contrary, set forth by Turgot, then by David Ricardo in connection with the problem of agricultural rent, is also a problem of dynamics, but in the category of ‘distribution’. Marshall tried to combine these two orientations in a single law of non-proportional returns, to set up his theory of prices. This law can be represented by a U-shaped curve, connecting average cost and output. The situation of a firm is studied, independently of that of other firms, in a framework of free competition. In this model, the normal case is that of diminishing returns (or increasing costs).

Sraffa foregrounded how Marshall’s explanation concerning the exceptional existence of increasing returns (diminishing costs) evolved ‘internal economies’ followed by ‘external economies’ of the firm. He nevertheless developed his attack to focus criticism on the problem of diminishing returns. In Marshall’s theory, the supply curve of a firm is independent of the supply curve of other firms and moving from the firm to the industry, the aggregate means a simple transposition. According to Sraffa, this analysis is unacceptable, because it does not take the interdependences into account: the conditions of production of a firm necessarily have an effect on those of its competitors. After having shown the incompatibility between the case of diminishing returns and the conditions of particular equilibrium, Sraffa concludes by considering, for the particular industry, ‘the case of constant costs as being normal, rather than that of increasing or diminishing costs’, in keeping with the opinion of Ricardo. This situation is, to his mind, the only one compatible with the equilibrium of free competition, or at least a ‘first approximation of reality’.

Sraffa was later invited by Keynes to write a summary of this essay in the Economic Journal―a prestigious opportunity granted due to the quality of an English version of his paper on the Italian banking crisis published several years before―which he entitled “The Law of Returns Under Competitive Conditions.” It is worth noting that Arthur Pigou was willing to reconsider his whole position in the light of this paper (Potier, 17). In addition to his summary, Sraffa attempts in his paper to “reformulate and rehabilitate” the concept of ‘surplus’—first developed by William Petty in the 17th century—and the notion of the economy as a circular process, first introduced by the physiocrat François Quesnay in the 18th century (Roncaglia, 31-2).

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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.