[OPE-L:829] Moral Depreciation Citations, excuse length

Alan Freeman (100042.617@compuserve.com)
Mon, 22 Jan 1996 10:11:14 -0800

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Re: Moral depreciation citations, Fred's request and John's

Please excuse a bombardment with citations, which isn't
intended as an exercise in erudition: it is one of the cases
where I think that Marx's order of enquiry is very important
indeed and that the textual information provides many clues.

What we need to establish is, what was the process of
thought which led to the formulation of this rather
underdeveloped concept. So the following citations may shed
light on my own line of enquiry and indicate where it has led me
so far, plus, I hope, suggest to others where useful material is
to be found, since there is a welcome degree of interest in this

I would welcome more light on the textual sources for this stuff:
if it is felt that citation-swapping on OPE is overburdening, please
send to me offlist and I can do the same.

First I ought to say I entirely agree with a point Fred has made
in several places: the 'Economic manuscripts of 1861-63' are
essential reading for study on this question. I think they are
the 'Grundrisse' of the 90s or the Paris Manuscripts of the 60s
for Anglophone readers: that is, when properly absorbed they will
in retrospect be found to have changed the entire outlook and
appreciation of Marx of a generation of thinkers.

I think the concept of moral depreciation is of vital importance for
two reasons:

(i) as John says, incorporating it into a complete analysis
gives a very different insight into Marx and, I believe, is
crucial to understanding his real dynamics; my view is that
moral depreciation is the fetishised form taken by transfers of
surplus value between backward and advanced capitals,
specifically the South and the North. A paper on this appears
shortly in the journal 'Links'. I can send copies
electronically to interested people but it may be a bit long to
post over OPE (10,000 words) It contains a full calculation showing
how capitalist accounts incorporate moral depreciation and how
these should (IMHO) be interpreted in value terms. Maybe I
should just mail the accounts; this could be briefer.

(ii) there is an important parallel; the word 'moral'
(moralische) appears in Marx, as far as I can see, only in one
other context, namely, the moral and historical value of labour
power. I am sure that the similarity is intentional.

I have asked various people to check out the origin of the word
'moralische' in Marx. I thought it might have come from Hegel
but the evidence seems against this. So it is an original idea
of Marx's. Any of the Grundrisse experts have any ideas? It
doesn't appear in 'Kritik'. I have requested the MEGA people to
check it out but no answer as yet.

In relation to labour-power, the 'moral' element is precisely
what differentiates Marx's theory from all the 'iron law of
wages' theories; it is the point at which a general social, as
opposed to specifically capitalist, determination enters the
wage and is therefore the terrain of the strictly economic
class struggle. This element of the wage is determined by what
society at a given stage of its development considers, as a
whole, a 'normal' human should be entitled to (eg television, a
car, a house, even clothes, etc.)

A parallel suggest itself: since moral depreciation is the form
in which the advanced capitals of the world rob the backward
capitals, this is also the point at which a general social, as
opposed to specifically capitalist determination enters the
relation between capitals. The social determination governs
when a product or process is determined to be obsolescent: e.g.
the writing down of capital over a five-year period, which is a
pure accounting, that is social, convention. There are limits
to this analogy because whatever society thinks, you can't use
a machine after it ceases to be competitive. But this in turn
is determined by what is considered a 'morally acceptable' wage
level, since with starvation wages one can make profits from
rather older machines, as is the case in most of the world.

A Southern capitalist may (and does) therefore claim that a
five-year write-down period is 'generally acceptable' (hence
'morally' imposed) and that the investment in the machine must
therefore be recovered over this period, wage levels being set
accordingly. But a little thought reveals this is a pure convention
established by the rate of technical change imposed by the
leaders, in the imperialist countries. If the Southern country
wanted to it could continue using the machine long after this
five-year period, but would find itself uncompetitive on world
markets. It would then face a political choice: either it protects
by so-called 'extra-economic' means the labour of its people from
being drained by the process of technical competition, which
means a political confrontation with the imperialists, or it buckles
down and accepts the 'moral convention'.

And this is also the site of a class struggle, a fractional
class struggle between the 'brother enemies' of capital for
their share of surplus value, which intersects and intertwines
with the struggle of the employees of the backward capitals,
not to have the cost of competing with inferior capital passed
on to their backs. Likewise the employees of the advanced
capitals struggle to raise the moral element of the wage in
their own country above the world average, and to maintain it
at this level by discriminatory and racist practices.

It is, it seems to me, the basis of the class alliances of most
countries in the world today. So its practical importance is
enormous. I think a lot of work in tracing its origins and
evolution in Marx would be exceedingly well repaid.

It may be useful to look separately at

(1) use of the word 'moralische' in other contexts such as the

(2) the evolution of the *concept* of depreciation as well as
just the word as such. The concept of depreciation, I would
say, is the idea that fixed capital imparts its value to the
product in proportion to the physical exhaustion of its use

The problem is that, once one gets beneath the surface, one
finds that the capitalists' depreciation includes an element
which is not physical exhaustion, namely technical obsolesence.
This Marx confronts, I think, as soon as he looks at Relative
Surplus Value, which is why I believe the manner in which is
line of enquiry can be recaptured is by reconnecting the
concept of Relative Surplus Value to the concept of
Reproduction, which will allow us to study, as Marx wanted, the
concept of Expanded Reproduction in its full context of
technical change.

The road is a long one. But I think it the right one.

The first place I find the *words* 'moral depreciation' is in
CI, at the place John cites (p528 Penguin edition, ch 15
section 3 part b); I couldn't find John's p404 citation which
makes me wonder if the International edition might be page
numbered different to the Penguin one: I had always assumed
them to be the same.

Volume II contains two indexed references, in the L/W edition
under the slightly abberant heading of 'wear and tear [moral]' (!)
and in the Penguin edition under the less abberant heading of 'Fixed
Capital (moral depreciation)' Penguin gives250 and 264, L/W
gives 173 and 188: they are the same.

The first CI citation (p528) mentioned by John says:

'The material wear and tear of a machine is of two kinds. The
one arises from use, as coins wear away by circulating, the
other from non-use, as a sword rusts when left in its scabbard.
The latter kind is due to its consumption by the elements. The
former is more or less directly proportional, the latter to a
certain extent inversely proportional, to the use of the

"But in addition to the material wear and tear, a machine also
undergoes, what we may call a moral depreciation. It loses
exchange-value, either by machines of the same sort being
produced cheaper than it, or by better machines entering into
competition with it. In both cases, be the machine ever so
young and full of life, its value is no longer determined by
the labour actually materialised in it, but by the labour-time
requisite to reproduce either it or the better machine. It has,
therefore, lost value more or less. The shorter the period
taken to reproduce its total value, the less is the danger of
moral depreciation; and the longer the working day, the shorter
is that period. When machinery is first introduced into an
industry, new methods of reproducing it more cheaply follow
blow on blow, and so do improvements, that not only affect
individual parts and details of the machine, but its entire
build. It is, therefore, in the early days of the life of
machinery that this special incentive to the prolongation of
the working day makes itself felt most acutely.'

The word Marx uses for moral depreciation in German is
'moralische Verschleiss', somehing like 'moral despoiling' I
think gives the flavour of it. This doesn't come over properly
in English because its physical counterpart in Marx is generally
simple 'Verschleiss' translated as 'wear and tear'. Thus 'moral
depreciation' might be more accurately rendered 'moral wear
and tear'.

Hence the German 'Der Verschleiss (abgesehen vom moralischen)
ist der Wertteil, den das fixe Kapital allmaehlich durch seine
Vernutzung an das Produkt abgibt' means literally 'wear and tear
(excepting the moral variety) is the portion of value which fixed capital
gradually gives up to the product in the course of being used up.'
But L/W renders it 'By wear and tear (moral depreciation excepted)
is meant that part of the value which the fixed capital, on being used,
gradually transmits to the product'. And Penguin renders it
'Depreciation (apart from moral depreciation) is the portion of
value that the fixed capital gradually gives up to the product
as it is used'

Verschleiss doesn't seem to be the technical German accounting
term for depreciation (Abschreibung, I think. But I'm not sure. Where
English citations using the word 'depreciation' are rendered into
German by the MEGA authors it is simply rendered 'Depretiation')

There is a translator's footnote somewhere in Capital which to
my disgust I have lost, explaining the two terms used by Marx.

In Marx's own usage I think there is a gradual separation of 'Verschleiss'
from 'Entwertung' or 'devaluation' which is the term I think he uses to
signify the passing of value into the product by constant capital,
as it is destroyed in production. This separation proceeds as he
develops the distinction between fixed and circulating constant
capital, in the process departing from Smith's usage in which fixed
capital is taken to include 'idle' capital such as money stocks.

The first reference I find to the *concept* of depreciation as
distinct from 'devaluation' is p648 of the Grundrisse, not long
after the concept of 'turnover' starts making its appearance.
Here we have the expression that fixed capital is 'slowly worn
out'. p63 of vol30 of the collected works says: "The labour
process also destroys the machine, but as a machine." The
concept is clearly expressed by p119 of this volume where Marx
discusses the 'transformation of money into capital' and
therefore confronts squarely the question of machine production
I think for the first time in a fully organised fashion. Here
we find references to 'the worn-out machinery=L1' so that the
concept is that the *physical* wearing out of the machine
passes value into the product.

On p326 of this volume where Marx is for the first time
discussing relative surplus value we find this:

'It is with the coming of machinery that social production on a
large scale first obtains the power of introducing into the
labour process in their entirety, wholly as means of
production, products which represent a large amount of past
labour, hence large masses of value, whereas only a relatively
small aliquot part of those products enters into the
valorisation process taking place during the individual labour
process. The capital which enters in this form into every
individual labour process is large, but the proportion in which
its use value is used up, consumed, during this labour process,
making necessary the replacement of its value, is relatively
small. The machinery functions in its entirety as means of
labour, but it only adds value to the product in the proportion
to which the labour process diminishes its value, a devaluation
which is conditioned by the degree of reduction of its use
value through wear and tear during the labour process.'

This is the earliest clear formulation of the concept I have
found, in which Marx connects the manner in which fixed capital
passes its value to the product to the erosion of its *use*

The *concept* of moral depreciation appears directly after this
on p322 of the same volume

[parenthetical remark: Marx almost
invariably ties the question of technological obsolescence to
the lengthening of the working day. I have numerous collected
citations on this if of interest to individuals. His view is:
the capitalists have to drive the workers as fast as possible
to get all their invested value back, before their rivals
invest in more productive equipment.
Thus, contrary to the neoclassical production function, investment
in new machines for Marx is the *cause* of the extension of the
working day. I had a brief exchange with Tom Walker on the
empirical evidence for this neglected idea of Marx's, that longer
hours vary directly with capital investment and particularly
innovation, instead of inversely as neoclassical theory predicts.
This would be a dramatic empirical confirmation of Marx. Anecdotal
evidence supports it]

Anyhow, to the citation:

"Machinery, etc, is valorised over a lengthy period, during
which the same labour proces is constantly repeated in order to
produce new commodities. This period is determined by
calculating the average time it takes for the whole value of
the machinery to be transferred to the product. The extension
of the labour time beyond the limits of the normal working day
shortens the period over which the capital laid out in the
machinery is replaced by the total amount of production...
Hence [if 15 hours a day are worked(!)] the capital laid out in
machinery would have been replaced in 8 years. Either it has in
fact been used up in that time. Then the reproduction process
has been hastened. If not - if the machinery is still capable
of functioning - the ratio of variable capital to constant
capital is raised, because the latter continues to function
without however having to enter into the valorisation any more

[Gil please note: constant technology, changing values!]

This brings about an increase, if not in the surplus value
(which has already grown as a result of the prolongation of
labour time) at least in the ratio of that surplus value to the
total amount of capital laid out - and therefore an increase in
profit. And additionally: when new machinery is introduced the
improvements come thick and fast. Thus a large part of the old
machinery constanty loses part of its value or becomes entirely
unusable *before it has passed through its circulation period*
[my emphasis, AF] or its value appears in the value of the
commodities. The more the reproduction process is curtailed,
the slighter this danger is, and the more the capitalist is
able, the value of the machinery having returned to him in a
shorter period, to introduce the new improved machinery and
sell cheapy the old machiner, which can again be profitably
employed by another capitalist, since it enters into his
production as from the outset the representative of a smaller
magnitude of value..the capitalist is by no means concerned
merely to get back the amount of value laid out in the fixed
capital as soon as possible, so as to protect it from
*devaluation* [my emphasis, AF}

Thus at this point Marx is still using the *word* 'devaluation'
(entwerten, I would guess: I don't have the German for this
volume) which is ambiguous, as he uses the same word to cover
the transfer of value to the product. Later, I think, he adopts
the distinction between depreciation and devaluation. But in this
passage, I think the *idea* is clearly there.

In CI the *concept* appears, I think, for the first time on
p210 where he says:

"If in consequence of a new invention, machinery of a
particular kind can be produced by a diminished expenditure of
labour, the old machinery becomes depreciated more or less, and
consequently transfers so much less value to the product. But
here again, the change in value originates outside the process
in which the machine is acting as means of production".

As regards wage-labour the following is one of, I think two,
where the word as such is used. The concept is, I think, quite
general. Perhaps Mike L can shed some more light on this. It
would be very interesting indeed if we found the concept of
moral and historical element of the wage earlier on.

Capital I (Penguin/International) p274-5:

"The value of labour-power is determined, as in the case of
every other commodity by the labour time necessary for the
production, and consequently also the reproduction, of this
specific article... On the other hand, the number and extent of
his [Man's-AF] so-called necessary requirements, as also the
manner in which they are satisfied, are themselves products of
history, and depend therefore to a great extent on the level of
civilization attained by a country; in particular they depend on
the conditions in which, and consequently on the habits and
expectations with which, the class of free workers has been
formed. In contrast, therefore, with the case of other
commodities, the determination of the value of labour-power
contains a historical and moral element. Nevertheless, in a
given country at a given time, the average amount of the means
of subsistence necessary for the worker is a known datum."