avoirdupois

James Miller jamiller at igc.apc.org
Thu Nov 23 13:28:08 MST 1995


THE TECHNICAL COMPOSITION OF CAPITAL

   For a long time John insisted that Juan and I answer
the question: "does the technical composition of capital
increase at a faster or slower rate than productivity?"
At the same time, John declined to explain how the TCC
could be measured, i.e. what units could be used to
calculate the quantity of the means of production.
   Juan and I explained that meaningful quantitative
measurements of the whole of the means of production,
as use values, were not possible, or were very difficult,
due to the variety of raw materials, auxiliary materials,
machinery, tools, power supplies, etc.
   Then, remarkably, in a post on Nov. 15, John comes up
with an unexpected concession to the point that Juan and
I had been making. He responded to Juan's example of
replacing ordinary hammers with electrical hammers,
saying, "assuming that an electric hammer has the same
mass as the 'ordinary hammer' and, thus, hammers seem
to more than triple as even more inputs are added, it
would seem that this part of constant capital is more
than doubling, which means it is growing faster than
output which is doubling."
   Here John is comparing the old hammer with the new
hammer in units of mass, which can be expressed as
pounds or kilograms. As John pointed out (in his
post of Nov. 15), Marx "defined the term [technical
composition of capital] as the mass of the means of
production per worker." This is right. _Capital_,
Vol. I, Chap. 25. But the question might be raised:
what did Marx mean by "mass"?
   Marx didn't define "mass" any further. As far as I
know, he didn't say the term should be used the same
way as in physics. Yet, I don't think it would be too
far off to use it this way. It could be argued that
the complexity, diversity and organization of the
means of production is part of the technical compo-
sition of capital, and, for some purposes, this is
undoubtedly correct. Yet, aside from that, Marx did
say that the mass of the means of production per worker
would grow as capitalism develops. And I think one can
measure this mass as a physical mass, in kilograms and
tons. And if it is measured in this way, one can see
that this mass grows in relation to living labor. At
the same time, however, it must be kept in mind that
the effectiveness, or productivity, of the machinery,
tools, containers, conduits, etc. is related to design
and function, not just to mass. Productivity is related
to both mass and function of the productive apparatus.
   With regard to measuring the technical composition
of capital, it is interesting that, although John (and
Juan and I, as well) referred to "mass," no one before
now suggested measuring TCC as tons per worker. But
I'll just proceed on the assumption that this way of
measuring the TCC can be used until a better suggestion
comes along.

TCC AND PRODUCTIVITY

   Now, what John wants to know is whether productivity
(material output per worker) increases faster or slower
than TCC (tons of means of production per worker). For
the purposes of answering this question we must divide
the means of production into two categories: raw
materials and the material elements of fixed capital.
(For the purposes of this argument auxiliary materials
can be subsumed under fixed capital, since they do not
bodily enter into the product.)
   Regarding raw materials: the greater productivity of
labor is synonymous with the faster processing of raw
materials. Except for losses due to unavoidable waste,
errors, etc., what comes in as raw material goes out as
finished product, so with regard to the faster
processing of raw materials, the change in the TCC is
the same as the change in the productivity rate. In
other words, if you start with a machine that makes
one ton of cotton into one ton of yarn per day, then
later you install a machine that converts five tons of
cotton into five tons of yarn per day, the gain in input
is the same as the gain in output, in terms of pounds of
material per worker. So the TCC increases at the same
rate as productivity, as far as the raw material is
concerned.
   But it is different with the material elements of
fixed capital. Productivity gains increase the
ratio of fixed capital per worker. The fixed capital
per worker accumulates from one generation to the next
as each worker operates a larger bulk, or mass, of
productive equipment. Of course, the increase in
productivity is not a function of the bulk of the
machinery, but its design and function. Nonetheless
the technological innovations have the effect of
increasing the mass of machinery per worker.
   In this respect, it may be relevant to recall what
Marx said about the growth of the means of production
in relation to productivity: "but those means of
production play a double role. The increase of some
is a consequence, that of the others is a condition,
of the increasing productivity of labor." (_Cap._
Vol. I, Chap. 25, 2nd page of Sec. 2)
   Thus, on the basis of the foregoing, I would say
that the tendency is for the TCC to increase more,
or "faster" than the productivity of labor. I say
this because, while the tons of raw materials
processed per worker increases both the TCC and the
productivity of labor at the same rate, you have to
add to that the growth in the material elements of
fixed capital, which registers the growth of the
TCC (tons per worker). In other words, for every
increase in material units of output per worker, you
have an equal increase in material units of input
per worker (raw materials), plus an increment added
to the material fixed capital as well.
   Thus I have finally answered the question John
asked. I say the TCC increases faster than the
productivity of labor.
   Now John has come to a different conclusion on
the basis of his reading of Marx. He has referred
to pp. 108-109 of _Cap._ Vol. III, and pp. 383-385
in _Grundrisse_. On the basis of what he believes
Marx said in these passages (and perhaps elsewhere
as well), John concludes, "for Marx, if we view
the accumulation process in material terms, the
inputs do not grow as fast as outputs for a given
labor force." (Post of Nov. 15)
   I think he is mistaken. Let's take a look at
the example cited from _Grundrisse_. Here Marx
discusses the transition from a hand printing press
to a self-acting press. The gains in faster
processing of raw materials and increments added to
the fixed capital are compared to living labor, here
measured as a period of four days. The raw materials
increase from 30 per four working days to 100 per
four working days. (The figures of "30" and "100"
here refer to values, but they can also serve as
indices of the quantities of raw material, as long
as it is assumed that no price changes take place,
i.e. that the "30" and "100" could just as well refer
to pounds of material as well as to their value.)
   Regarding the material elements of fixed capital,
the presses, here Marx does not indicate their
weight, but states that the hand press has a value
of 30, and the self-acting press a value of 60. If
we assume that the self-acting press weighs more
than the hand model, then the TCC (pounds of means
of production per worker, both in raw materials and
in added weight of machinery) has increased more than
productivity (output in pounds per worker).
   Of course, it is possible that the self-acting
press weighs less than the hand-operated machine.
In this case, the productivity of labor would
increase more than the means of production. And,
as I said, Marx had nothing to say about the weight
of the presses. But I think if you examine the
history of the printing industry, you will see that,
in general, the mass of the printing machinery per
worker does increase. And the same is generally true
in other industries as well.
   Juan's recent post against John once again returned
to the confusion of value with material that is evident
in the Ricardian tradition. Juan correctly points to
this as the source of John's confusion. I agree with
Juan, but my approach here is to try to find a way to
narrow down the discussion to terms which can be more
easily handled. Only when we gain some common approach
to measuring the TCC can we profitably discuss the
relation of TCC to the productivity of labor, and the
implications of this for the tendency of the rate of
profit to fall.
   This is particularly necessary since John has
indicated that he believes that the TCC can be
measured as "tons per worker" (see first quote from
John, above), but he has never explicitly stated it
in so many words. If we can reach agreement on this,
then we can proceed forward in the discussion.

ENGELS

   On Nov. 23 Hinrich Kuhls posted a response to John
regarding Engels's comment in _Cap._, Vol. III, Sec. 4.
John had posted an argument on pen-l saying, "...Marx
teaches that fixed capital does not grow as fast as
productivity and Engels follows with a few paragraphs
that state the opposite."
   John is mistaken here, as far as I can tell. But what
makes it difficult to argue with John is that he has a
tendency (and it's evident in this case) to make an
assertion regarding what Marx supposedly said without
attempting to quote, summarize or paraphrase Marx. We
are left in the dark as to why John thinks that Marx
believed that "fixed capital does not grow as fast as
productivity." John gives us his conclusion, but gives
no clue as to how he derived it.
   I'm still hoping that I can influence John to be
more specific in his references to Marx. If he can
make some progress in this area, then we can have a
more satisfactory exchange of views.

Jim Miller
Seattle


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