«Preliminary notes on the surplus approach to value and distribution1 0. Introduction The “social surplus” is defined generally as a quantum of ...»
quite clearly when placed them side-by-side:
Sraffa’s peculiar mode of presentation here, which stands in contrast to that of some of his notes, muddles we think that what’s really going on is not the production of an extra quantum of output per se, but rather that this extra quantum of output represents a quantity that has not been paid for. This is the real “self contradiction” in the surplus producing society that Sraffa identifies.8 That this surplus represents a quantity that has not been paid for is seen in Sraffa’s assertion that “the surplus (or profit) must be distributed in proportion to the means of production (or capital) advanced in each industry” (Sraffa, 1960, p. 6; emphasis added). Here Sraffa directly identifies the surplus product with profit, which we argue represents magnitudes of unpaid labor. The distribution of this surplusqua-profit to the owners of the means of production is strictly along the capitalistic lines of a uniform rate of return on the capital advanced in each industry. It is in this way that the owners of the capital in the iron industry, although they produce no physical surplus, nonetheless share in the gains “produced” by the wheat industry in that the exchange values of both wheat and iron will include the general rate of profit (r*).9 Sraffa however sometimes engaged in different manner of exposition in unpublished notes, where the distributional aspect of the different commodity producing societies is highlighted over the physicalist surplus production aspect. A few passages from his archival notes should be sufficient to demonstrate this point. Consider first the Majorca Draft10 of March 1955, where the “physicalist”
approach adopted in his book is clearly advanced:
This more “physicalist” approach to the question is very close to the version of events that appears in his book. However, in notes written (we conjecture11) one year later in March 1956, we find a
very different approach to the question of the transition to surplus-producing society:
8 This has caused some confusion in interpretations of Sraffa seen, for example, in Meek’s (1973) “logico-historical stages” approach in his own reconstruction of the movement from “early and rude” production to that of capitalist production proper, where five separate “logico-historical” stages of commodity producing societies are sequentially advanced. We are of the opinion that this approach to the Sraffa system, although not wrong as such, is much too literal and dangerously broaches the “historical” LTV argumentations that Sraffa seems to have rejected (on the latter see above and Kurz and Salvadori, 2010).
9 Sraffa returns to a similar idea in critiquing the “two such opposite writers”, Joan Robinson and Friedrich von Hayek, on the question of whether or not the law of value would result in an unjust distribution in socialism. See section 5 below.
10 In March of 1955 Sraffa made a three week visit to the Spanish Island of Majorca where he cranked out a 31 page first draft of what would be Part I of his book on single product industries; we return to the importance of this draft below.
11 These notes appear at the beginning of an important file folder entitled “Balance of wages and profits (probably finished) 24.11.55 up to March 1956” (D3/12/59) and the particular pages cited above to not bear a date; but as is the case with many of Sraffa’s folders, the later versions of notes often appears at the beginning of the file folders, and progress in reverse chronological order. Certainly we know that the above notes were written in November 1955 at the earliest date (hence subsequent to the Majorca Draft of March 1955).
“REDACTED” (D3/12/59/22; note the latter part of this passage appears as a marginal note on the former part).
This second manner of exposition of the transition to a surplus-producing society reveals in our opinion the fact that for Sraffa the key was not necessarily the creation of “extra” output in the physicalist sense, but rather the emergence of part of the produced output conceived as a deduction from the “national income” that labor had, under “early and rude” conditions, commanded in its entirety. The surplus here thus emerges as a magnitude of product that has not been given an equivalent on the cost-side of the ledger; that is to say it has not been paid for.
Why the change in the manner of presentation? In particular, why did Sraffa in his book revert back to the physicalist approach, thus in our opinion muddling the fact that what’s really going on in the production of a surplus is not a manna-like accrual of “extra” (read physical) product, but rather a fundamental change in the social relations of property as direct producers “no longer” command the complete product of their labor? These questions continue to perplex us, and we cannot provide the rationale behind Sraffa’s decision to minimize social property ramifications inherent in capitalistic relations of production and distribution by depicting the change in one society to the other as one of surplus product creation as opposed to unpaid labor extraction.
That Sraffa did understand the social nature of the inquiry is evidenced by a surprising observation he makes in his model of Closed Vertical Combines written in October 1942. The closed vertical combine model conceives of all means of production and means of subsistence requirements
completely contained within what he terms “complete vertical combines”:
“REACTED” (D3/12/22/1 : 1).
Here we see an attempt to conceive of a pure date-reduced model where the only input purchased on the market is labor. Sraffa would expend a great deal of energy in the early 1940s on the reduction equations, juxtaposing his own treatment against that of Böhm-Bawerk and Wicksell. He recognized that the reduction to dated labor was a powerful idea, but also saw that in the hands of Böhm-Bawerk especially it could be dangerous.
“REDACTED” (D3/12/22/1 : 2) The key point of difference between Sraffa’s approach to the reduction and that of Böhm-Bawerk is the latter’s belief that the reduction could be carried backward “long enough” so as to reveal at the “beginning of time” a pure dose of unassisted human labor, sort of a bourgeois original sin.12 Sraffa 12One implication of this approach is that it minimizes the class nature of capitalist society. It is also interesting to point out that in certain respects, this pure unassisted labor story has resonance with the first type of price system when the wage share is unity. The easiest way to see this is to consider the case what Malthus in an interesting lecture of 1825 calls “the product of appropriative industry” (Malthus 1829, p. 171). Here the product is immediately brought to market, thus eliminating the need to assess this unassisted labor at a general rate of profit as no time passes: wLb = pb Qb. This is very much in line with the above normalizations in equation 4.2, 5.2, and 6.2 above. In his lecture Malthus refers to “wild strawberries” and “wild fruit”; in correspondence with Ricardo he refers to gold picked up at the seashore and Ricardo refers to shrimp harvested in a single day (cite references: Works IV Absolute and exchangeable value pg. 365;
was able to anchor himself (he writes in his notes on various occasions of needing a “rock to cling to”) on the maximum rate of profit concept; that no matter how far back one reduces the dated labor, there will always be a commodity residue present. This has implications for Sraffa’s theory of labor commanded, which we return to in the fourth section.
Note that the superscript (n) refers to the nth date. We will have an opportunity to consider this model in some detail below. It is important to note that since the capital advance is pure wages, the rate of profit comes to coincide with the rate of exploitation and is upper-bounded by infinity.
This model reflects, argues Sraffa, a particular social and historical framework within which production takes place. He is surprised that simply by altering the social conditions within which production takes place, leaving the “technical” relations unchanged, a fundamental change takes
place in that maximum rate of profit becomes undefined:
“REDACTED” (D3/12/22/1 : 1-2; emphasis added) Notice here the emphasis Sraffa places on the “difference in ownership”. This seems to indicate that he was acutely aware of the importance the relations of private property, a social relation of the power of one class of people over another. Hence we read in this that it is not so much the technical conditions of the production of extra output that matters, but rather the social relations of capitalistically-arisen conditions of private property.
There are a few other hints towards the concept of extraction in relation to the surplus product in some of Sraffa’s early notes from 1928s, less than a year after his important papers of November 1927 that Garegnani (2005) characterizes as his “turning point”. In a 5 page document entitled “Surplus product” (archived as D3/12/7/161), Sraffa begins to contemplate the nature of the
concept of “surplus” in economic theory in general :
“REDACTED” (D3/12/7/161 : 1).
What Sraffa means by “vanish or remains unexplained” is given three pages later:
Works IX pp. letter 542 Ricardo to Malthus, Aug 15, 1823 for shrimp reference; unassisted gold picked up at the seashore, see Works XI, p. 107 on the fourth of the five measures of value that Malthus proposed.
13 The idea of a closed vertical combine has interesting resonance with Graziani’s (2003) monetary theory of production:
“If we consider firms as one integrated and consolidated sector, the only purchase firms have to make before starting its produce is to hire labour, and their only payment is the wage bill” (Graziani 2003, p. 27).
REDACTED (D3/12/7/161 : 3-4; emphasis added).
We read in this remarkable passage an understanding of the nature of “surplus” as consisting not so much in an expansion of output beyond subsistence, but rather as product that emerges out of the production process that has no cost-equivalent. Indeed, in the first paragraph of the above quote Sraffa is clear that all portions of actual output produced do in fact entail a “cost”, in the sense that there is a necessary expenditure of energy, muscle, and means of production consistent with the appropriate level of technology for all commodities produced.
Whether or not Sraffa means by surplus the surplus-labor (read unpaid labor) or the surplus-product we think is an open question. However the foundations for the approach of surplus as unpaid labor certainly can be discerned and developed from the analysis Sraffa presented.
3. Some modeling In modeling the surplus approach to value and distribution we can discern several different analytical variants, each with its own unique properties regarding exposition of surplus-producing
(i) Pure unassisted labor model (Malthus’s “appropriative industry”) (ii) One commodity “corn” model (iii) Consumption commodity (Department II) as non-basic (conventional departmental analysis) (iv) “Money” commodity as the product of unassisted labor (“silver found on seashore”) (v) Two-commodity basic system a. Actual system b. Sraffa’s Standard system c. Garegnani’s integrated wage goods sector (vi) General case (n-commodities) Schematic Diagram of Conventional Departmental Model (Department II as non-basic)
Discussion/critique of other heterodox interpretations of surplus approach (e.g. Fred Lee and Tae-Hee Jo) Other discussions Conclusion To be finished… Bibliography Carter (2009a). The Sraffa-New Interpretation Nexus and the Value of Labor Power, Unpublished Manuscript.
Carter (2010a). Mr. Sraffa’s “snow” and the exploitation theory of profits. Unpublished MS.
Carter, (2007, 2009b). From “pool of profits” to surplus an deficit industries: Archival evidence on the evolution of Piero Sraffa’s thought. Unpublished MS.
Carter, S. (2007). Real wage productivity elasticity in advanced economies, 1963-1996, Journal of Post-Keynesian Economics.