[OPE-L:6486] Re: Obsolesence

John R. Ernst (ernst@PIPELINE.COM)
Tue, 21 Apr 1998 13:44:42 -0400 (EDT)

I had written:

> Do capitalists waste resources as they abandon fixed capital
> when it is no longer profitable and not physically worn out?
> Maybe the answer to this question is obvious. But it hasn't
> been to me and, as I recall, to others on the list.Using it, workers
> can still generate surplus value. Indeed, they
> can do so until the price of the output drops below $6000 with
> the assumed input prices or until the machine is physically worn
> out. If the fixed capital is abandoned at the end of 6 years but
> can produce surplus value for 12 years, then half of the labor
> time that produced the fixed capital is, from a rational standpoint,
> wasted. That we often fail to take this into account simply
> shows that capitalist obsolescence is so ingrained that it
> seems natural.
> Given fixed capital is rendered economically obsolete prior to
> its becoming incapable of generating any surplus value, capitalist
> society wastes a certain percentage of the labor that goes into
> the production of fixed capital. That percentage depends on the
> the difference between the economic life of fixed capital as defined
> in capitalism and the life of fixed capital in a rational society.

Paul C. asked:

What evidence do you have that firms actually abandon equipment
that could continue to be used profitably?

John E. comments:

I suppose one answer to your question is -- why would they not?
If a capitalist can make greater profits at a higher rate of
return with a new investment than with fully depreciated
plant and equipment, why would the older process be used? One
reason is that the capitalist does not have and can not get
funds for the new investment. Note that what I am saying
follows from Marx's idea that new techniques are not introduced
merely to save labor but to increase profitability or the
production of surplus value.

In terms of evidence for this, I first point to the computer
industry here in the States. Often 8088 machines, daisy
wheel printers, etc. can be found in the trash even though
they work. You almost have to pay someone to take them

Here, in Manhattan, builders would be willing to take
down almost any building under 6 stories if they could
replace it with a larger one.

It seems to me that the attitude "...if it ain't broke, don't
fix (replace) it." stems from an inability to secure funds
to replace it. When a lot of old stuff is still in use
in a particular society, it may well mean that there is not
enough surplus value to actually replace the older technique.
To be sure, profits are still produced but not enough to
purchase new equipment.

Paul continued:

I would think, from what is an admittedly limited basis
- my membership
of the Scottish Industrial Heritage society,
that on the contrary they are very thrifty and will
go on using machinery far longer than you might
believe possible. Mules were still in use in the British textile
industry in the 50s and 60s, of this century
even though the invention of the ring spindle made
them obsolete at the end of the 19th century.
I have seen sleek black submarines being fitted out in
dry docks that dated from the 1790s.
I have seen a Watt beam engine that continued in use
as a colliery winding engine until the the mid 1950s.
The aluminum smelter at Kinlochleven is still working
( for Alcan) with a hydro electric plant installed in 1911 which
uses Peltier wheels driving DC generators at about 20 volts.
If it works, dont fix it!

John responds:

They may be thrifty but are they thriving? It seems that both of
us are in societies that cannot produce enough surplus value
to afford newer and more profitable fixed capital. Or, if
they can, the investment is made where the "business climate"
is more to the capitalists' liking. In this case, the older
technique may linger a bit but sooner or later it is doomed
much like many of the steel plants here in the States.

A question to you: Are you saying that obsolescence only occurs
when fixed capital is technically useless? Put another way,
are machines, etc. used until they are physically useless regardless
of profitablility?