Real subsumption

A quote from Moishe Postone (2012: 18-20) See also Endnotes for a useful overview.

“In tracing the development of production in capitalism, Marx distinguishes what he calls the formal and real subsumption of labor under capital. In formal subsumption, although production is geared toward the production of surplus value, that goal has not yet informed the process of production itself. As capital develops, however, the process of production becomes molded materially by capital, by the goal of producing surplus value. At that point, the real subsumption of labor, the process of production, has become intrinsically capitalist.

Real subsumption does not mean that all possibilities of emancipation have been choked off. Such a view implicitly presupposes that the totality is a unitary whole. However, capital as totality in Marx’s analysis is not at all unitary, but emphatically contradictory. Indeed, that contradiction only really begins to emerge with real subsumption. It is the case that, within this framework, the issue of overcoming capitalism no longer can be understood in terms of abolishing private ownership of the means of production alone, as was maintained in the social democratic and, then, communist traditions. Those traditions did not recognize the material molding of production with real subsumption and, instead, regarded the form of production and technology developed under capitalism to be purely technical. Contrary to such positions, overcoming capitalism should be seen as entailing a fundamental transformation of production itself.

The possibility of such a transformation is rooted in the dynamic of capital itself, in the dialectic of the value and use-value dimensions. In the first chapter of Capital, Marx outlines that dialectic with the example of weaving. In a situation in which handloom weaving is the predominant form and determines the standard of socially necessary labor time, that is, of value, the introduction of a power loom that doubles productivity generates twice as much value per unit time at first, so long as socially necessary labor time remains determined by handloom weaving. Once the new level of productivity spreads and becomes general, however, the value produced per unit time falls back to its original level, even though the amount of cloth produced has doubled.

This movement is an initial determination of the complex dialectic of time I outlined above. One corollary I would like to emphasize at this point is that the reconstitution of the amount of value produced per unit time entails the reconstitution of the necessity of the same amount of labor-time expenditure. This dialectic of transformation and reconstitution only becomes historically significant in Marx’s analysis with the transition from absolute surplus value (where increases in surplus value are effected by lengthening the working day) to relative surplus value (where increases in surplus value are effected by increasing productivity). With relative surplus value, science and technology become increasingly integrated into production.

With this dialectic Marx attempts to explain several basic characteristics of capitalism. The first is that, unlike other forms of life, capitalism is marked by pressures for ongoing increases in productivity, which constantly revolutionizes production and distribution and, more generally, social life. Marx seeks to elucidate this characteristic of capitalism with his theory of value as a function of time rather than the amount of goods produced. At the same time, this theory helps explain an apparent paradox—that the invention of generations of “labor-saving devices” has not lightened the burden of labor nearly as much as might have been expected.

As I mentioned above, if value is a function of labor time, the reconstitution of the abstract time frame means the reconstitution of the necessity of labor regardless of the level of productivity. With these categories, Marx is laying the groundwork for understanding why it is that in capitalism, on the one hand, you have this immense apparatus marked by ever-increasing levels of productivity that increasingly depend on the application of science to production; yet, on the other hand, the necessity of labor is reconstituted even if productivity increases by a hundred-fold. This is evident even on the surface. Workers in England fought for the ten-hour day in the 1840s. Later, workers fought for the eight-hour day. Yet since 1973, at least in the United States, this tendency has been reversed: labor time has increased and there is a growing unequal distribution of labor time. Many people work longer and harder than before, while others are chronically under- or unemployed. This is a complex problem, but it does indicate that, as capitalism develops, there is less and less direct correlation between the level of productivity— the amount of goods being produced—and labor time. One could imagine an inverse relationship, at least potentially, between the level of productivity and the amount people have to work. But that is not the case here. Instead, we have an incredibly productive apparatus that retains the necessity of labor. This latter necessity, which is a function of labor, comes under increasing pressure as capital develops.

As abstract time is moved historically, the production of material wealth becomes increasingly a function of knowledge and less a function of muscle or artisanal skill. At the same time, according to Marx, proletarian labor remains absolutely essential for capital. Note that proletarian labor does not represent the other of capital; it is the basis of capital. What Marx outlines is a growing contradiction between the wealth producing capacities of capitalism and its continued reliance on proletarian labor. The latter becomes increasingly anachronistic and yet remains necessary for capital. This is the most fundamental contradiction of capitalism. It generates a growing discrepancy between the potential of the system and its actuality. The abolition of capital would involve the abolition of both capital’s quasi-automatic logic of history and the mode of producing based on proletarian labor.”