[OPE-L:940] re: constant capital and levels of abstraction

Michael A. Lebowitz (mlebowit@sfu.ca)
Sat, 3 Feb 1996 21:58:14 -0800

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In message Wed, 31 Jan 1996 13:07:08 -0800,
"John R. Ernst" <ernst@pipeline.com> writes:

> Mike's post concerning "levels of abstraction" and
> "moral depreciation" makes me nervous. No, the
> feeling is not due to a fear that I've been
> harping about "moral depreciation" at the wrong
> level of abstraction but rather a fear, perhaps
> unwarranted, that I am about to see an all too
> familiar Marxist dodge. Let me explain.
> When a concept or though of Marx's doesn't fit into
> the standard interpretation of Marx, I have often
> heard that "it will be dealt with later when we
> reach that level of abstraction." My experience
> teaches me that we never will reach that level.

Talk about making a guy feel nervous! This is ad hominem. It's hardly a
theoretically compelling argument to say, effectively, I've dealt with your
type in the past. Hey, the only people I've heard talk about "Marxist
dodges" and the like on questions of this type are methodological
individualists, neoclassical economists, etc (if you want an ad hominem
response). 8-)

> I do note that Marx himself does introduce "moral
> depreciation" as part of the depreciation of fixed
> capital when he takes up the concepts of absolute
> and relative surplus value.

I thought I made an argument about the problematic character of the
discussion in Ch. 12 where Marx introduces the discussion of individual and
social value. I went on in 895 to note your focus on "mechanisms" and
suggested that this was quite appropriate to a discussion at the level of
competition and prices-- which is different to one focussing on issues
relevant to capital in general, which I take as Fred's emphasis.

> I would also point out
> that Fred and I have reached clarity about our
> disagreement without telling each other that we are
> on the wrong level of abstraction.

The issue is *differing* levels, not right or wrong. Maybe it's my choice
of terms that bothers you. After all, others have raised the question of
whether methodological individualism hasn't crept into the discussion of
moral depreciation.

> For the record,
> Fred and I have an advantage, we have been house mates
> and have discussed and argued about concepts in Marx's
> CAPITAL for over 20 years.

Well, that is an advantage I can't match, having generally not benefitted
in such a way from my housemates (with an exception being Malcolm Sylvers
many years ago).

> As I recall, we started
> this discussion about "reproduction values" in the
> summer of 1981. We are both clearer about the issue
> now than we were then.

This is not entirely encouraging.

> At the level of Vol. I, the issue is basic. Fred claims
> that as "moral depreciation" occurs it is a deduction
> from surplus value. I claim that much of it is
> anticipated and included in the value of constant capital.

Have you demonstrated that Marx supports your interpretation? As I
recall the point made in the section you stress (I am away from my books at
this point), all it suggests is that uncertainty as to the profitable length
of life of a given bit of fixed capital will lead individual capitals to an
intensive use (via extending the work-day) of the fixed capital. This is not
quite the same as your argument.

> Thus, as moral depreciation occurs, Fred and I would differ
> on the calculations concerning the rate of surplus value.

At the risk of igniting a flame (of the Marxism list's norm), don't you
(and Fred) feel that introducing the competition of capitals into the
consideration and determination of the rate of surplus value is a case where
differing levels of abstraction have been intermingled? Seriously. Do you
think that when Marx talked about profits being the form of surplus value
and prices being the extrinsic form of value that this was insignificant and
that it has nothing to do with differing levels of abstraction?

> This is the level of abstraction where we find ourselves.
> Thus, like Marx, I do not think the notion of "moral
> depreciation" can be put off entirely until Vol. III
> or some later work. It is thrust upon us as we discuss
> the division of the working day.
I'll have to go back over your arguments when I return home, but I'm not
convinced at this point.
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