Schools of Athens: Surplus Approach, Marxism and Institutions

CSWP 62 (August 2023)

Author Sergio Cesaratto

Keywords Surplus approach; Historical materialism; Anthropology; Archaeology; Agency

JEL A12; B51; B52; Z13

Relying on the lessons of Marx, Polanyi, Sraffa and Garegnani, the paper moves from the material anchor that the classical surplus approach provides to economic and institutional analysis in anthropology, archaeological and economic history. In surplus theory institutions regulate the material basis of society and in particular the extraction and distribution of the social surplus. Marx’s historical materialism is a natural source of inspiration for this view expunged, of course, of teleological and mechanical readings. The Marxian concept of modes of production has been however object of often over-complicated disputes among Marxists. These are not easily solved since historical results in anthropology, archaeological and economic history do not always deliver uncontroversial pictures of the working of ancient economies and of their transitional dynamics. Since Popper, historical materialism has also been object of methodological criticism. While the suggestions to complement macro analysis with consistent granular accounts of individual choices must be welcomed, methodological individualism is a dead end for social science. Individual and class choices must rather be dealt with through historical analysis. The surplus approach may provide support to both macro and micro analysis

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