[OPE-L:7278] [OPE-L:806] Re: Technical Change and Productivity Change

Gerald Levy (glevy@pratt.edu)
Wed, 31 Mar 1999 09:26:44 -0500 (EST)

Re: John's [OPE-L:802]:

> My comment: I'm a bit unclear on what you are saying. Let me
> see if I can reword things a bit as I add a comment here and there.
> 1. Technical change may or may not cause the productivity of labor to
> increase.
> 2. Should the productivity of labor not increase, there is no tendency
> for the rate of profit to fall.
> 3. We're unclear about the general case but even with this unclarity
> we're able to determine that technical change without an increase in
> productivity is "interesting."

To all of the above: Fine.

> 4. To say that, in general, technical change is labor-saving is a bit
> like saying -- At night, all cows are black.

True, it's only a saying that holds under particular circumstances -- e.g.
if the moon is full and/or there is starlight, then one should be able to
discern both shape and, to a lesser extent, color. Also, this is dependent
on both the latitude and the season. Thus, for example, in the "high
latitudes" of the Arctic (not far, as the eagle flies, from Mike L) and
the Antarctic (a short fly away for a wandering albatross from Brendan and
Bill C), there is light all day long during some parts of the year.

More seriously ...

> The issue is capital-
> saving versus capital-using given labor-saving in both cases.

I am not sure that this is the issue.

I think, rather, that there are # of issues:

A. (Some) Marx questions:

1) when discussing technical change *in the context of the level of
abstraction of the law of the tendency for the general rate of profit
to decline (LTGRPD)*, did he believe that technical change was in

a) labor-saving and capital-saving; or,
b) labor-saving and capital-using?

Why or why not? In other words, what is the logic -- as well as
textual evidence -- for each position?

2) did Marx hold that on a *more concrete level of abstraction* that
technical change would be (in general):

a) labor-saving and capital-saving; or,
b) labor-saving and capital-using?

B. Non-Marx questions:

1) what is the logic that can be developed -- aside from looking at
what Marx had to say -- about this question? E.g. what do we
expect to happen in general during the course of accumulation to
the capital- output ratio and why?

2) what is the historical and empirical evidence concerning whether
technical change under capitalism is in general labor- saving and
capital-saving or labor-saving and capital-using? Note that this
involves looking at the historical/empirical evidence before
Marx's time, during his lifetime, and after his death. In other
words, we have to see what type of technical change occurred
during different periods of capitalist history.

> My comment: I think you're jumping a bit too quickly to "late capitalism."
> Given the development of the world market since Marx's time, the notion of
> stagnation and the non-accumulation of capital should be viewed more on
> a global basis.

Fine. We can look at the development of "late capitalism" on a global

> We also need to look at the world-wide production of
> raw and auxiliary materials.


> Note that with "lower costs, constant output", you may well have capital
> saving and labor saving as well. Hence, no falling rate of profit. Indeed,
> no accumulation of capital. Do you really think that the accumulation
> of capital has stopped in "late capitalism"?

I'm not sure that this "Hence, no falling rate of profit" is the case. As
for the accumulation of capital, how are you defining the term here? (you
might recall that Paul Z and others, including myself, once had an
extended exchange on this list about that question).

> My comment: We seem to have more than enough problems dealing with technical
> change and productive labor. I am reluctant to jump to unproductive
> labor. To those who think the unproductive is of a "large size", I'd
> like to know how they determine this. If it is by simply looking at
> "capitalism in one country", then I think we need to consider the global
> economy as well. We, in US, seem especially prone to generalize from the
> US case.

I think you are right, in general, when you assert that "We, in US, seem
especially prone to generalize from the US case". Yet, there have been a
number of empirical studies on this question using data about many other
countries. Indeed, many of those studies have been authored by

If what you are saying is that we need to have accurate data on all
capitalist economies, then my answer is that that might have to wait until
after the revolution. Yet, the empirical evidence that we have seems to
suggest very strongly that there has been a trend for the percentage of
unproductive laborers (in relationship to the total working population) to
grow very significantly over time.

If you (or others) have empirical evidence to the contrary, then I would
like to see it.

> 2. There is a limit to how much you can reduce "the consumption
> of constant circulating capital." That is, with growing output you have
> to use more raw materials as you economize on auxiliary materials.

Granted -- if output is increasing, we would expect to see in general
that constant circulating capital is also increasing.

> If
> your idea is that capitalism produces no or very small changes in output,
> I do not see this.

Capitalism can be growth prone during certain periods and not in others.
If that were not possible, then when capitalist economies stagnate, they
would breakdown.

> 3. Of course, Marx did recognize the existence of unproductive labor;
> however, he never used the category to develop his notion of the
> falling rate of profit. Should we?

Good question. I think that if we want to consider the capital
accumulation process, then we will have to include the categories of
productive and unproductive labor. If this is a subject appropriate for,
for instance, a consideration of the process of capitalist circulation,
why shouldn't we consider it when we move to the level of abstraction
where there is capitalist production as a whole?

> If we are unclear about how technical change can be both capital-saving
> and labor-saving in the period of large scale industry with a falling rate
> of profit, then I fail to see how dragging in the concept of unproductive
> labor can help us resolve the unclarity. Indeed, it would seem to a way of
> avoiding the issue.

Didn't Marx believe that there would be both a absolute and relative
growth in unproductive labor in the period of large-scale industry? In
other words, wasn't this one (important) part of what we think happens
during the course of accumulation? If so, then we avoid it only at our

In solidarity, Jerry