Journal of Emancipation | Spanish

Formal and real subsumption of labor under capital

Marxist Dictionary

Phases through which capital passes first to direct and then to transform the labor process by absorbing a pre-capitalist productive structure, going from focusing its growth on the increase of absolute surplus value to the growth of relative surplus value, revolutionizing for this purpose the processes of labor and the means of production.

Formal subsumption of labor under capital

When capital absorbs pre-existing production, characteristic of a previous mode of production and under characteristic relations, at first it simply subordinates, subsumes it, placing itself in the midst between what is a basically intact productive process and the market in which capital realizes surplus value in order to accumulate. This subordination, this subsumption, is still “formal”:

The labor process becomes the instrument of the process of valorization, of the process of the self-valorization of capital: of the creation of surplus value. The labor process is subsumed under capital (it is its own process) and the capitalist places himself in it as a leader, a driver; for this is at the same time, in a direct way, a process of exploitation of the labor of others. This is what I call formal subsumption of labor under capital. It is the general form of all capitalist processes of production, but it is at the same time a particular form with respect to the specifically capitalist mode of production, developed, since the latter includes the former, but the former does not necessarily include the latter.

The process of production has become the process of capital itself, a process that unfolds with the factors of the labor process into which the capitalist’s money has been transformed and which is carried out, under the direction of the capitalist, in order to get more money out of money.

When the formerly independent peasant who produced for himself becomes a journeyman working for a farmer; when the hierarchical structure characteristic of the artisan corporate mode of production is eclipsed by the simple antithesis of a capitalist who makes craftsmen work for himself as wage earners; when the former slave-owner employs his former slaves as wage earners, etc., we have to see that socially determined production processes have otherwise been transformed into the production process of capital. […] The yesterday independent peasant falls, as a factor of the productive process, under the subjection of the capitalist who directs it, and his very occupation depends on a contract that as a commodity holder (labor power holder) he has previously concluded with the capitalist as a money holder. The slave ceases to be an instrument of production belonging to his employer. The relationship between master and officer disappears. The master, who previously distinguished himself from the officer by his knowledge of the trade, is now confronted only as a holder of capital, just as the other is confronted purely as a seller of labor. Before the production process all of them faced each other as possessors of goods and maintained only a monetary relationship; within the production process they face each other as personified agents of the factors that intervene in that process: the capitalist as “capital”, the direct producer as “labor”, and their relationship is determined by labor as a simple factor of capital that is self-valorized.

The capitalist also ensures that labor reaches the normal degree of quality and intensity and lengthens the labor process as much as possible in order to increase the surplus value produced by it. The continuity of work increases when, instead of the old producers, dependent on particular customers, the new producers, who no longer have any goods to sell, acquire in the capitalist a permanent buyer.

The mystification inherent in the capitalist relationship also makes its appearance. The ability of labor to conserve value is presented as the ability of capital to self-preserve itself; the ability of labor to generate value, as the ability of capital to self-valorize itself, and as a whole, and by definition, objectified labor appears as if it uses living labor.

Despite all this, with this change there has not been an essential change in the form and real manner of the work process, of the real process of production. On the contrary, it is in the nature of the case that the subsumption of the labor process in capital is operated on the basis of a pre-existing labor process, prior to this subsumption of labor in capital and configured on the basis of various previous production processes and other production conditions; capital subsumes a certain existing labor process, such as for example artisanal work or the type of agriculture corresponding to the small autonomous peasant economy. […] That labor becomes more intense or that the duration of the labor process is prolonged; that labor becomes more continuous and, under the interested eye of the capitalist, more orderly, etc., does not alter in and of itself the character of the actual labor process, of the actual mode of labor.

There arises in this, then, a great contrast with the specifically capitalist mode of production (large-scale work, etc.), which, as we have indicated, develops in the course of capitalist production and revolutionizes not only the relations between the various agents of production, but simultaneously the nature of that work and the real modality of the labor process as a whole.

It is by opposition to this last one (to a labor modality developed already before the capitalist relation arose), that we call the subsumption of the labor process under capital, until here considered, the formal subsumption of the work under capital. The capitalist relationship as a coercive relationship that aims to extract more surplus labor through the extension of working time -a coercive relationship that is not based on personal relationships of domination and dependence, but simply arises from various economic functions- is common to both modalities, but the specifically capitalist mode of production knows however other ways to plunder surplus value. On the contrary, on the basis of a pre-existing mode of labor; that is, on the basis of a given development of the productive labor force and of the labor modality corresponding to that productive force, surplus value can only be produced by resorting to the extension of labor time, that is, in the form of absolute surplus value. As the only way of producing surplus value, this modality is the formal subsumption of labor in capital.

“Chapter VI (unpublished) of Book I of Capital”, Karl Marx, 1867

That is, with the formal subsumption of the work process by capital, the peasant, the artisan, has become proletarian, but the way he works and confronts capital is not yet that of the proletariat. Capital has not yet transformed the organization of labor and increases in its profitability are produced exclusively by increasing absolute surplus value. In other words, capitalism for the first journeymen and worker-craftsmen subjected to capital, is presented as an aggravation of their situation, not as a new situation. This explains the birth, which has left deep scars, of movements like Lassallianism or trade unionism in the Germany of the first industrialization or in the United States.

Lassallianism represented the last artisan strata in the process of transition between the petty bourgeoisie and the proletariat, between the conversion of the feudal privilege of the qualified worker into an “independent” petty bourgeoisie and his proletarianization as a worker in disqualification within a chain whose objective is to reproduce money as capital through surplus value. He thus expressed ambiguous, if not openly reactionary, aspirations, such as that the bourgeois state would take “socialist measures” by creating cooperatives or providing child education, ideas that Marxists in the German party will have to face from the moment of the merger and even for a long time, as can be seen in Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Programme” and Engels’ “Critique of the Erfurt Programme”.
Transplanted to the conditions of the American South, that attachment to the feudal and identitarian distinction of the artisan, that faded aspiration to a democratic petty bourgeoisie, became racism and defense at all costs of small property hand in hand with the state. The Lassallian leadership went so far as to affirm that it would collaborate with the state authorities to avoid damage to property. Instead of helping in the force and disciplined organization of the workers, the Lassalians ended up dividing and paralyzing the workers in order to support the arm of legality and the state.

“The Birth of Socialism in the United States”

Real subsumption

However, it will be the search for an increase in exploitation in relative terms, of relative surplus value, which will form a specifically capitalist organization of production. This radical transformation of the workplace and organization of the workers in the productive process will be characteristic of rising capitalism and will shape the proletariat as a universal class.

We have explained in detail how with the production of relative surplus value (for the individual capitalist, insofar as he takes the initiative spurred by the circumstance that value = socially necessary working time that has been objectified in the product; stimulated by the fact that consequently the individual value of his product is below its social value and that, therefore, it can be sold above its individual value) the whole real form of the mode of production is modified and a specifically capitalist mode of production arises (even from the technological point of view), on the basis of which and at the same time as it develops the relations of production – corresponding to the capitalist productive process – between the various agents of production and in particular between the capitalist and the salaried workers.

The social productive forces of labor, or the productive forces of directly social, socialized (collectivized) labor through cooperation, through the division of labor within the workshop, through the application of machinery, and in general through the transformation of the productive process into the conscious application of the natural sciences, mechanics, chemistry, etc., and of technology, etc., for certain purposes, as well as the large-scale work corresponding to all this (only such socialized labor is in a position to employ in the direct process of production the general products of human development, such as mathematics, etc.), as well as, on the other hand, the development of these sciences presupposes a certain level of the material process of production); this development of the productive force of objectified labor, as opposed to the more or less isolated labor activity of scattered individuals, etc, and with it the application of science-that general product of social development-to the immediate process of production: all this is presented as the productive force of capital, not as the productive force of labor, or only as the productive force of labor insofar as it is identical with capital, and in any case not as the productive force of either the individual worker or the workers combined in the process of production. The mystification implicit in the capitalist relationship in general is now much more developed than it was and could have been in the case of the purely formal subsumption of labor in capital. Moreover, it is here that the historical significance of capitalist production first emerges in an obvious way (specifically), precisely because of the transformation of the immediate process of production and the development of the social productive forces of labor.

We have shown that not only “conceptually” but “effectively”, the “social” aspects, etc., of their work confront the worker not only as something alien, but also hostile and antagonistic, and as something objectified and personified in capital.

In the same way that the production of absolute surplus value can be considered as a material expression of the formal subsumption of labor in capital, the production of relative surplus value can be estimated as that of the real subsumption of labor in capital.

Be that as it may, the two forms of surplus value, the absolute and the relative – if one wants to consider each of them for itself, as separate existences (and absolute surplus value always precedes relative surplus value) – correspond to two separate forms of the subsumption of labor under capital, or two separate forms of capitalist production, of which the first is always a precursor of the second, although the more developed, the second, may in turn constitute the basis for the introduction of the first into new branches of production.

“Chapter VI (unpublished) of Book I of Capital”, Karl Marx, 1867

It is interesting to note how the preponderance of absolute surplus value, which returns temporarily during the brief crises of rising capitalism, regains prominence throughout decadence until it manifests itself as a permanent and generalized tendency towards precarization and pauperization.