[OPE-L:895] constant capital and levels of abstraction

Michael A. Lebowitz (mlebowit@sfu.ca)
Wed, 31 Jan 1996 09:52:12 -0800

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I've been unable to participate for a while now but am
one of those who have been quite absorbed by the exchanges
about the valuation of constant capital, moral depreciation,
etc and the issues revealed in the discussion. I have a few
points I would like to add in this and subsequent messages.
In 832, Jerry called attention to the fact that the Vol
3 discussion of moral depreciation occurred in Ch. 6, S 2,
which Marx opened by noting that "the phenomena under
investigation in this chapter assume for their full
development the credit system and competition on the world
market", that these concrete forms require us to first
understand the general nature of capital and therefore "it
is outside the scope of this work to present them---they
belong to a possible continuation". (penguin/vintage,205).
As Jerry noted (particularly trying to provoke me), it
raised the interesting question of whether the subject
wasn't really meant for a continuation of CAPITAL.
There's no question that at the time Marx wrote the
notes that Engels heroically constructed as Vol 3, he still
was thinking in terms of his original plan for dealing with
capital in competition after completing the study of capital
in general. (He says much the same--- that "the actual
movement of competition" lies outside the plan and he is
presenting there only the "ideal average" of the system-- at
the end of "the trinity formula", pp. 969-70.) *However*, it
is not clear to me if Marx felt the same way at the later
point when he worked on Vol. I or whether he felt that Vol.
3, ch 10 had succeeded in conveying much of what he had in
mind in terms of the mechanisms of competition (even if the
full development was not there).
What we *do* know, however, is that matters relating to
competition and similar phenomena do not properly belong in
Vol. I. Aside from what we can develop logically, Marx tells
us so directly in Ch. 12 (p.433), where he stresses that we
first have to "grasp the inner nature of capital" and thus
"the general and necessary tendencies of capital" *before*
we consider the external movements of individual capitals,
the manifestation of the inner laws, the coercive laws of
competition, the forms of appearance. (There is a similar
caveat in Ch. 25, p. 777 where Marx notes that the laws of
centralization of capitals "cannot be developed here" -- an
obvious point since if you can't discuss the repulsion of
individual capitals in Vol. I, you can't say much about the
attraction of those capitals.) Nevertheless, for purposes of
exposition, Marx could not resist talking about individual
capitals in competition, and it is thus that the matter of
"individual" and "social value" (which, as Alan notes in 841
is what moral depreciation is all about) is introduced--- as
a way of talking about Vol 3 matters in the midst of the Vol
1 discussion of capital in general.
All this suggests a point which is implicit in a number
of exchanges--- that *the category of moral depreciation is
a category relevant to competition, the world of many
capitals, rather than to capital in general*. Ie., I think
the question of levels of abstraction is important here.
Moral depreciation (like profits and prices of production)
is a category of the surface, relates to matters appropriate
to individual capitals rather than to capital as a whole,
but there has been an intermingling of these levels in the
exchanges--- so much so that some of the responses to Fred
have verged on (as Paul suggested) methodological
Fred (805) is very clear in showing the consistency of
Marx's position--- that the value of constant capital is
determined by replacement value rather than historic value.
I think there is no question about this. However, it is
appropriate not only to establish this point but also to ask
*why*-- ie., why Marx insisted on this point. Just as it is
important to understand labour as underlying value and
surplus labour as underlying surplus value, it is also
important to recognise that for Marx the value of constant
capital contained in the value of commodities is the form of
that portion of society's labour which is required to
produce the means of production consumed--- a portion which
falls, all other things equal, as productivity rises in the
production of means of production. In this respect, Alan is
surely right (and Fred has indicated that he agrees) that
the value of constant capital is not determined by the most
efficient technique but, rather, by the *average* of the
techniques available at that point (because that is what
determines the quantity of labour required to produce the
specific use-values in question). (Gil may see here some
relevance to that old marginal vs average discussion of
John (808) responds to Fred's Marx-quotes by asking
practical, concrete questions. There is nothing per se, he
argues, that means an innovation causes a drop in price--
and he cites Vol 1, Ch 12 (the discussion of individual and
social value), suggesting that if the technical innovation
is not generalised, prices do not fall. We need, he
concludes, "to uncover the mechanisms that cause price
decreases within Marx's work." It is a point echoed by Alan
(828), when he also asks for the mechanisms-- how can the
rise in price in cotton at the end of the harvest react back
upon cotton stocks, *how* does a change in current
production techniques react back on pre-existing stocks
produced with different techniques?
But, what's all this talk about finding the mechanisms
when we're talking about value? Mechanisms are critical when
we are talking about prices, and they involve individual
capitals, supply increases (in the case of productivity
gains), competition and markets. When we talk about value,
we are talking about an inner category--- one inseparable
from labour, and we see clearly at this level that Dept. I
productivity increases = less necessary labour in Dept I =
reductions in the value of constant capital. (I use the "="
deliberately, and Gil may wish to suggest this is all true
"by definition".) The logic is one of simultaneity--- in
contrast to that at the level of price, which is one of
mechanisms and sequentialism.
Is, then, moral depreciation to be understood as the
extrinsic form of the decline in the value of constant
capital (the counterpart of innovations in Dept. I)? (I had
the sense at one point that Fred in 842 was prepared to
accept such a definition.) I think not---because moral
depreciation need *not* occur, ie., is a contingent
development. We will see moral depreciation when there are
producers in a particular industry who are uniquely able to
take advantage of cheaper methods of production as the
result of innovation; there is here, as Alan noted, a
transfer from backward to advanced producers, and the matter
relates to the discussion of individual and social values
(and the formation of market values). However, there will be
a decline in the value of constant capital but *no* moral
depreciation (with Dept I productivity gains) if all
producers in the sector have identical technology (including
their age distribution) and thus will replace their means of
production (eg., cotton) with the new, cheaper means of
production at the same time.
Do others agree that there has been a confusion of
levels of abstraction in this discussion?
in solidarity,
PS. Sorry for being so long-winded; clearly the result of
being silent for so long.
Michael A. Lebowitz
Economics Department, Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, B.C., Canada V5A 1S6
Office: (604) 291-4669; Office fax: (604) 291-5944
Home: (604) 255-0382
Lasqueti Island: (604) 333-8810
e-mail: mlebowit@sfu.ca