Pierangelo Garegnani

Piero Garegnani, a leading figure of the Cambridge School, died in Lavagna (near Genoa) on 14 October at the age of 81. His professional life was centred around the examination of a single theoretical problem: namely, the implications of the dependence of the relative prices of commodities upon the rate of profit. His work explored this problem within both the classical and the neoclassical analysis of value, distribution, output and employment. It propelled him to the forefront of the Cambridge controversies in the theory of capital of the 1960s and early 1970s. It saw him become the advocate of a return to classical ways of thinking about the relation between the real wage and the rate of profit. It led him also to suggest an approach to the theory of output and employment that liberated the Keynesian principle of effective demand from the narrow compass of the Neoclassical Synthesis.

Garegnani came up to Trinity College, Cambridge, in the autumn of 1953. He had earlier completed his laurea as a junior member of Ghislieri College in the ancient University of Pavia (where he wrote a dissertation on Ricardo’s theory of value). In the early post-war years it was rare for an Italian student to go on to study abroad, let alone to go to Cambridge — perhaps even more so for someone of Garegnani’s modest social and economic background. He was awarded scholarships from Trinity College, Ghislieri College and the British Council to support this move. At Trinity, officially under the supervision of Maurice Dobb, but also with significant encouragement and advice from Piero Sraffa, Garegnani embarked upon a research project that culminated in a doctoral dissertation that must be unique in the annals of Cambridge Economics.

When the time came for its submission in December 1958, an unstoppable force in the form of Garegnani’s need to say everything he wanted to say in exactly the manner he wanted to say it, encountered an immovable object in the form of the Statutes and Ordinances of the University of Cambridge which imposed strict limits to the length of doctoral dissertations. Neither flinched. The dissertation, entitled ‘A Problem in the Theory of Distribution from Ricardo to Wicksell’, was duly divided into two parts — but there were two Part Two’s. One Part Two was bound into the dissertation itself to accommodate the Statutes. The other Part Two was inserted (unbound) into a flap on the inside back cover to accommodate Garegnani. The examiners (Joan Robinson and Lionel Robbins) were cheekily invited by Garegnani to read both if they so wished.

The dissertation itself was never published in English, but in his 'Il capitale nella teorie della distribuzione' (1960) most of its main arguments appear. In English, the essential ingredients of Garegnani’s contributions are contained in three key papers: his paper on heterogeneous capital in the Review of Economic Studies for 1970, his notes on consumption, investment and effective demand in the Cambridge Journal of Economics for 1978-9 (originally published in Italian in 1964-5), and his essay on the classical economists and Marx in Oxford Economic Papers for 1984. These papers capture, respectively, his critique of neoclassical theory, his approach the theory of effective demand, and his account of the theoretical core of classical economic analysis.

Garegnani’s pursuit of the critique of neoclassical economic theory was nothing if not relentless. Each time he discovered an attempt to sidestep the difficulty neoclassical theory faced because of the dependence of the value of capital upon the real rate of interest, or each time he encountered a claim to have eliminated that problem altogether, he took up the challenge. There can be little doubt that his greatest personal satisfaction came in 1966 when Paul Samuelson conceded defeat in the reswitching debate — since it had been during an academic year spent on a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship at MIT in 1961-2 that Garegnani had first challenged Samuelson over the surrogate production function.

In addition to this critical task, Garegnani also engaged in a more constructive project. That project had two dimensions. On the one hand, he opened-up a route to the study of effective demand that turned upon recognising the analytical separability between the theory of output and the theory of value (something characteristic of Keynes and the classical economists). On the other hand, he revisited the classical theory of value itself in an attempt to build upon the foundations that Sraffa had laid down in Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities.

Sraffa’s influence on Garegnani’s thinking was, of course, profound, and their professional relationship was very close. Sraffa appointed Garegnani as his literary executor; a task to which his considerable analytical skills were uniquely well suited. Upon Sraffa’s death in 1983, Garegnani took up the task with a seriousness of purpose befitting importance of the Sraffa Papers — and he applied himself to it in his familiar painstaking, if unhurried, manner. His death has meant that those papers (which reside in the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge) still await publication.

Among those who knew him, Garegnani’s insistence on analytical precision and attention to detail was legendary. It was a propensity that led him to delay, sometimes for many years, the publication of his work. At times, it infuriated some of us. But it also stamped upon his work a meticulous and original flavour that is the hallmark of his writing.

Murray Milgate
Queens’ College, Cambridge

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