I’ve blogged about this a fair bit here and there, exclusively or almost exclusively in relation to Antonio Negri’s work, maybe also the work of some other recent Italian writers. I’ve got some other things I need to get to (grading, sleeping, watching Scrubs) so I’m going to be a bit lazy. At some point I’d like to write something proper about this, review the literature then show up the problems on it. For now, just a blog post and a start.

Here’s most of the definition of real subsumption that I wrote for the glossary of Constituent Imagination (via).

Marx defined real subsumption of labor in the “Results of the Immediate Process of Production,” the so-called unpublished sixth chapter of Capital Volume One (a translation here). Real subsumption is defined in contrast to formal subsumption of labor. Formal subsumption occurs when capitalists take command of labor processes that originate outside of or prior to the capital relation via the imposition of the wage. In real subsumption the labor process is internally reorganized to meet the dictates of capital. An example of these processes would be weaving by hand which comes to be labor performed for a wage (formal subsumption) and which then comes to be performed via machine (real subsumption). Real subsumption in this sense is a process or technique that occurs at different points throughout the history of capitalism. For some thinkers, such as Antonio Negri, real subsumption of labor is transfigured into real subsumption of society such that all of society becomes a moment of capitalist production. In this version of real subsumption is an epoch, a stage of capitalism within a historical periodization, analogous to postmodernity.

Like I said, being a bit lazy, so not looking up any references to where this particular thing is done, but I know I’ve seen it…. I’ve seen folk talk about “real subsumption of society” as something Marx talked about. I don’t know that he did, at least not in explicit terms and in a way where he recognized his object as real subsumption of society. So I’m unconvinced on Marxological grounds. I don’t know if Negri himself is so bad on this, I think he may imply and allude more than actually say “Marx said…” or “Marx characterized…” but I know I’ve been in conversations and read things where people say that. Like I said, I don’t think that’s correct, I think it’s a distortion of Marx.

In the so-called unpublished sixth chapter of v1 of Capital Marx doesn’t say “subsumption of society.” He says “subsumption of labor.” (Likewise in the published sections of v1, which as far as I’m concerned should get priority over the unpublished works; in the published parts Marx refers to real subordination – I’m pretty sure I’ve checked on this and found that the word in German is the same, will look up the references etc another time).) It’s reasonably clear that Marx is not talking here about all of society or any given society. Rather he’s talking about the level of individual enterprises or industries, and at most all of capitalist social relations rather than all of society. It’s also very, very clear that he doesn’t mean this as an epoch.

For instance:

Just as the production of absolute surplus value can be regarded as the material expression of the formal subsumption of labour under capital, so the production of relative surplus value can be regarded as that of the real subsumption of labour under capital (….) two separate forms of the subsumption of labour under capital, or two separate forms of capitalist production, correspond to the two forms of surplus value. The first form of production always constitutes the predecessor of the second, although the second, which is the further developed form, can in turn form the basis for the introduction of the first in new branches of production.

That is to say, these terms are bounded spatially (or in terms of social space anyway) – they apply to some branches of production, some sites, not all of society. And while formal subsumption precedes real subsumption, real subsumption can be the cause of formal subsumption in new locations. Not epochs.

All of this was sparked by the following quote from Christopher Tomlins’ book The State And The Unions. Tomlins writes about a railway strike in the 1890s that

“the strike was fought over who should organize and control the work process. In this regard, the shop craft strike symbolized the themes of the entire labor-management confrontation. As Bryan Palmer and many others have shown, during the latter part of the nineteenth century a “culture of control” built around craft traditions and, increasingly, unions and union rules, had spread through many industries regulating the performance of work. It was this culture which employers had to confront if there were to secure control at the point of production for themselves.” (16-17)

What Tomlins is talking about here is tied to part of what Marx is on about with regard to formal and real subsumption, and part of what Negri and others are on about with those words (though I think their ideas differ from Marx’s). I’m pretty early in the book so I don’t know all the details but I expect that Tomlins will argue something about employers winning and the role of the Wagner Act. Which is to say, the employers more or less won. I think in this particular strike and over all. I wouldn’t say that real subsumption of society happened, but in the terms used in this post, real subsumption happened. And it happened well before Negri’s placement in his periodization. (I’ve already argued to the point of tedium that a lot of the analytical categories and the aspects of society highlighted in Negri’s work and related work don’t actually have the historical specificity that they’re alleged to have – they don’t just apply to the recent so-called Postfordist past. Along similar lines but maybe not quite as dull, I’d bet that a lot of the characterizations used in making claims about so-called real subsumption of society would fit the New Deal, that’s one for another day.)

One other thing: this is arguably real subsumption. But it’s not preceded by formal subsumption. (Of course all of this depends on where we set the parameters.) The railways were capitalist enterprises from the outset. There wasn’t a pre-capitalist railway which was taken over – formally subsumed – and remade – really subsumed. There was a capitalist railway which was restructured to give more control to employers. This is a remaking which doesn’t follow the formal/real distinction in one sense. In another sense it does, if that distinction is redone as a matter of power and control, and the temporal claims are mostly thrown out.