Are-reading of Production of Commodities by means of Commodities has confirmed my initial impression that it is ‘things’ rather than ‘subjects’
To be sure, we do not have this impression when reading Smith and Marx, Marshall and Keynes, Walras and Pareto, or Böhm-Bawerk and Schumpeter. (The only exception, perhaps, is Ricardo: not by chance does Sraffa present himself as his descendant and continuator.) Yet Sraffa is undeniably a classic of economic theory, by the same right as the others. Perhaps one reason for this judgment is the feeling akin to liberation which springs precisely from his break with the subject-object relationship in economics. In turn, this feeling may be explained by the vexing diversity of ways in which that relationship has been conceived by economic science during its not so short life. Let us mention some of these, purely by way of example. For both Smith and Marx, the subjects are social classes: but how different they are in the two cases! In Smith, there is still an echo of the natural inequality among men: the labouring classes, who with their ‘productivity’ carry the rest of society on their backs, put into practice an inevitable distinction of social functions; and the ‘stupidity’ caused by the division of labour is balanced by the fact that this division allows the workers themselves to enjoy a standard of living which not even kings had among the ‘savages’. For Marx, in direct contrast, the classes of capitalist society are the end-result of the split between man and nature, and between man and man: they are the concrete manifestation of the product’s sway over the producer; of the disappearance of labour as a ‘primary need’ and its reduction to a mere adjunct of the means of production, with the reduction of consumption to mere maintenance of that which is not strictly human in man. However, the idea that the subjects are social classes—an idea common to both writers, and to the ‘classics’ in general—gives way in the epoch of mature capitalism to the idea that the subjects of economy are individuals. But even then, Marshall’s homo oeconomicus is very different indeed from Böhm-Bawerk’s: the former is an altogether empirical phenomenon, indefinitely differentiated according to the countless functions and classifications of a now extremely complex society; while the latter is rigidly defined by his fate as the supplier of an original ‘factor of production’. In Walras and Pareto, to take another example, the entire stress is laid upon individuals as the sites at which the (hopefully ‘optimal’) relationship between means and ends is actually organized. And so the list could go on.
Despite this great diversity, it is precisely the subject-object nexus which underpins the theory of value in economic science. Indeed, the conflicting twists and turns of the theory of value faithfully mirror the mutually incompatible modes in which that relationship is conceived. Thus, Smith’s notion of value as ‘labour commanded’ expressed the function of extending the labour upon which society rested—a function which he
Well now, Sraffa’s break with the subject-object relationship is a break with all the theories of value. It is as if somebody had (finally!) said: value-theories consume a great deal of energy in providing rather diverse and complicated interpretations of a very simple matter—namely, the proportion in which commodities are exchanged; in point of fact, that relationship can very well be determined without asking oneself ‘what lies behind?’. Hence the feeling of liberation to which I referred. Only we should be very clear about the meaning of this liberation, given that it involves a distancing from value-theories in the strong sense of the term: that is to say, the sense in which Sraffa’s theory is compatible with the essence of all such theories (even if it is incompatible with the contingent features of many). Since I do not think that this point is commonly accepted, I shall give just one example. In connection with Böhm-Bawerk, the fact that Sraffa is invoked to derive the impossibility of measuring capital in terms of a single quantity is rather less important than the fact that his ‘reduction to given quantities of labour’ confirms Böhm-Bawerk’s idea of the presence, in value, of both labour and an original element bound up with capital; less important, too, than the fact that Sraffa’s concept of surplus can very well be taken as providing a rational basis for Böhm-Bawerk’s explanation of interest in terms of the famous ‘third sphere’.
Of course, much is lost with this rejection of the theory of value. To be more precise, economics is lost. But if we take into account the status of economics before Sraffa, it is just as well that this loss has occurred; indeed, that is why Sraffa is already a classic today. For reasons which should by now be obvious, he forces us to take everything back to the beginning. True, he gives us no suggestions with which to begin again: he would not, I think, wish to give any; and I am not sure that he would be able to. We do have to begin again, though; and for this endeavour, we have a stronghold in the propositions of Production of Commodities by means of Commodities, and in all the others which are either deducible from them or share their basic character. At the same time, however, we need to overcome the temptation, now inevitably very strong, to consider these propositions as the framework within which the investigation of economic problems can be exhaustively resolved.