Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 21, 2016

Anglocentrism and the real subsumption of labor

Filed under: transition debate — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

An antidote to Anglocentrism

Yesterday an old friend from my misspent Trotskyist youth sent me an excerpt from Harry Harootunian’s “Marx After Marx” that he described as “a further contribution to the transition debates and a polemic against Western Marxism, stagist theories, and by implication some aspects of Political Marxism (but no index entries for Brenner or Wood).” He warned me, however, that before tackling it I review Marx’s discussion of formal vs. real subsumption. This was in something called “The Results of the Direct Production Process”, which is part of a third draft of Capital that Marx wrote between the summer of 1863 and the summer of 1864, based on a plan Marx made for the work in December 1862 according to its introduction in MIA.

Needless to say Charles Post was someone who obviously had read this material on the evidence of having invoked “real subsumption” in his speech at the Ellen Meiksins Wood Symposium where he took on the “critics of Political Marxism” who harped on “the persistence of legally coerced labor under capitalism.” He referred them to Mike Zmolek’s recently published book on the history of capitalism in England from a Brennerite perspective, where the “the state plays a crucial role” in primitive accumulation by using “legal-juridical forces…necessary to ensure the sale of labor-power.” Once the state has finished playing this role by kicking the workers in the teeth, the markets can kick in after “capital has achieved real subsumption of labor.” Now, anybody who has not read Marx might scratch his or her head about this “real subsumption” business. What was it while the state was still a player? Unreal subsumption? No, Marx called it formal subsumption. Don’t ask me why. I have trouble enough with Hegel.

And if you read Marx on this, you still might end up scratching your head:

The labour process becomes the instrument of the valorisation process, of the process of capital’s self-valorisation — the process of the creation of surplus value. The labour process is subsumed under capital (it is capital’s own process) and the capitalist enters the process as its conductor, its director; for him it is at the same time directly a process of the exploitation of alien labour. I call this the formal subsumption of labour under capital. It is the general form of any capitalist production process; but at the same time it is a particular form alongside the developed mode of production which is specifically capitalist because the second involves the first, but the first by no means necessarily involves the second.

Got that? I hope so because I am going to give you a test later. When you come to what Marx wrote about real subsumption, it is a bit easier to fathom since it refers to the absolute versus relative creation of surplus value, topics that are explored in V. 1 of Capital, a work relatively easier to absorb than the thickets of the Grundrisse.

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.

In any case, if each of the two forms of surplus value — absolute and relative — is considered for itself, in its separate existence and absolute surplus value always precedes relative — we can say that 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.

After I read this, I finally got it. Basically, the formal subsumption of labor refers to the creation of absolute surplus value and the real subsumption refers to the creation of relative surplus value. Which in turn refers to the contrast between the lengthening of the workday to extract profits, particularly through the exploitation of unskilled labor on one hand and the use of machines (dead labor in effect) to allow fewer workers to produce equivalent profits on the other. It would be illustrated, for example, by the difference between Black plantation workers working 12 hours a day during Jim Crow and the heavily mechanized cotton production of today. But keep in mind that when Marx wrote about formal subsumption, he was referring to what happened in Britain as wage labor was exploited under conditions that largely prevailed under feudalism. In other words, commodity production took place under artisanal conditions that were necessary to “subsume” under conditions in which the worker’s skills were reduced and became more like the replaceable parts of the machines they worked on–the conditions that created the Luddite revolt. What this might have to do with sugar plantations in 18th century Jamaica or Mexican silver mines is anybody’s guess.

Indeed, Post refers to such examples of “formal subsumption”:

Legally coerced wage labor also persists in capitalist agriculture, where the disjuncture between production and labor time makes non-market coercion necessary to secure adequate supplies of labor power during crucial periods like planting and harvesting. Legally coerced wage labor is also found in situations where capital has command of industrial labor-processes, but where workers are only partially separated from landed property. For example, in apartheid South Africa, workers were not “free” to enter or leave labor contracts at will.

So basically Post is admitting that in modern capitalist societies, non-market coercion can exist alongside market coercion. This, as a psychiatrist might say, is a sign of making progress.

The problem is that it does not address the nature of societies where non-market coercion dominated. This in fact is just about the entire colonial and postcolonial world throughout most of the last half-millennium. In Latin America, Africa and Asia, the creation of absolute surplus value was the norm as people cut sugar cane, picked cotton, chopped lumber, or mined silver under conditions of non-market coercion. Forget about an eight-hour day in 19th century Mexico. The army or police enforced the rules dictated by the man who owned the plantation or timberland. They worked under conditions just one step above slavery. Was it capitalist social property relations to use the Brennerite jargon? Certainly it was whatever they think.

From the time this academic smart kids club began, the emphasis has always been on real subsumption, even to the point of explicitly identifying it with capitalism itself. In Robert Brenner’s 1977 NLR article, which was his nailing the 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg Church, he made formal subsumption a virtual catechism:

Now, there is no doubt that capitalism is a system in which production for a profit via exchange predominates. But does the opposite hold true? Does the appearance of widespread production ‘for profit in the market’ signal the existence of capitalism, and more particularly a system in which, as a characteristic feature, ‘production is constantly expanded and men constantly innovate new ways of producing’. Certainly not, because production for exchange is perfectly compatible with a system in which it is either unnecessary or impossible, or both, to reinvest in expanded, improved production in order to ‘profit’. Indeed, we shall argue that this is the norm in pre-capitalist societies. For in such societies the social relations of production in large part confine the realization of surplus labour to the methods of extending absolute labour. [emphasis added]

Leaving aside Brenner’s confused reference to absolute labor time that simply means the lengthening of the workday, you can assume that he is simply establishing a ruling as a judge does in a courtroom: Formal subsumption/creation of absolute surplus value through the extension of absolute labor belongs to “pre-capitalist societies”. In the Belgian Empire of King Leopold, there was capitalism and pre-capitalism. In Brussels, there was real subsumption as men on assembly lines converted rubber into bicycle and then automobile tires, while in the Congo it was pre-capitalism as a variety of taxes and other repressive legislation violently dissolved the self-sustaining villages and forced men to climb trees and tap rubber with a knife.

That a popular consumer product would have a dirty secret hidden far from end users’ eyes in the Global South is almost to be expected these days.

A century ago, the bicycle was high on this list.

1890 was the year that a company called Dunlop Rubber formed primarily for the purpose of producing a newfangled and incredibly popular product — the inflatable bicycle tire, which provided a much smoother ride than their predecessors, the aptly named “boneshakers.”

The demand for bicycles surged. The first golden age of cycling had arrived. Many in Europe and North America — particularly the women’s movement — found liberation in having access to cheap, fast transportation for the first time.

This freedom came with an external price that was paid, in this case, by millions of workers and their families on rubber plantations throughout what was then the colonial world.

“The Rubber Terror” is what activists at the time dubbed the situation in central Africa. The Congo was, from 1885 to 1908, the private colony owned by (though never visited by) King Leopold II of Belgium. In the early 1890s, the king responded to the ever-growing demand for rubber by pressing millions of workers into unpaid labor, enforced by his brutal private army that was quick to mutilate, torture, and murder workers deemed slow or rebellious — or their families.

The resulting holocaust is calculated by some to have claimed the lives of 15 million people — over two thirds of the vast region’s population.


One of the most depressing things about the PM people is their utter lack of interest in the colonial world. I think Jim Blaut erred a bit when he characterized them as Eurocentric. Indeed, a better term would be Anglocentric since their entire effort seems to be the creation of a template based on British history, the latest installment of which is Mike Zmolek’s tome. If the Congo does not match this template, then it must be put into a Procrustean bed in which it ends up ideologically butchered as “pre-capitalist”.

If they could possibly be lured outside of their comfort zone, I’d advise them to read B. Traven’s “Jungle Novels” that are about as good an introduction to Mexican economic history as any history book. I especially love this quote from “Government,” the first in the series, which refers to Don Gabriel, the tax collector in a small Chiapas town:

Don Gabriel quickly took to it. He saw there was a fortune to be made, without real effort and without the need of allowing a margin for losses. He did not consider don Ramón any brighter than himself; and no intelligence was required. There were thousands of indebted peons and independent Indians in the district he was best acquainted with. In his own village alone there were more than a dozen who were deeply enough in his debt to give him the right to proceed against them in any way and by any means not expressly forbidden by the law. It was not illegal to offer them the chance of contracting with a monteria [lumber chopping company] as a means of freeing themselves from debt. On the contrary, the government was glad to see debts paid off, and even more glad that the companies who paid it well for licenses and concessions should be kept supplied with labor, so that production could be maintained and exports increased. Exports were necessary to the finances of the country and kept up the value of the peso on the money markets of London and New York. It was therefore a highly patriotic activity to supply the coffee plantations and the monterias with labor and to keep the supply constant; it was just as important as dying gloriously and miserably for the honor of your country assured of the joys of paradise.

Let me end with a passage from “Trozas”, the fourth in the series that illustrates in biting, sardonic prose how capitalism was a world system when the novel was written and how foolish it is to see it otherwise:

Don Remigio left the men, who had been on the march since one in the morning to get there from their last bivouac by midday, standing in the tropical glare of the sun as if they were blocks of stone. Whether they were seriously sunburnt or even collapsed or went off their head, that didn’t seem to worry him. They cost so much of his money. He had to pay off each individual’s debts, since it was on account of them that the man had been sold or peddled to him. For each individual he had to pay the president of the municipality of Hucutsin the tax on the labor contract at a rate of twenty-five pesos, so that the authorities would arrest the man if he ran away. What is more, he had to pay a high commission to the advertising agents who bought out peons from the fincas, the estates and the villages, who were in debt to their masters, as well as other Indians whose police fines had to be paid in order to bring them here. No one could expect that the enganchadores, the advertising agents, would work for nothing, still less as they were in a business in which they hoped to get very rich. Finally, a cash advance had been paid to every man recruited by the agents, the better to tempt the men to confirm their contracts before the municipal president and thus, in the eyes of the civilized world, give the impression that it was a simple labor contract such as can be concluded anywhere on earth. The old cacique knew far better than the newly fledged dictators how to conceal the true conditions in his country from the suspicions of the other nations, helped by a gagged and self-corrupting press that groveled before him. What the workers themselves said or spread abroad was nothing but lies and slander. Truth was only what was written in the labor contracts, acknowledged by the workers, and stamped by an official authority. That the Indian workers could neither read nor write the dictator did not regard as his fault. Why didn’t they learn to read and write? They were too stupid for it and just didn’t want to learn.

All the amounts and payments that the contratista [contractor] laid out for a man he had recruited, that man had to earn back in the jungle. A contratista could not be expected to pay out all those amounts for an Indian, or even for two hundred of them, out of pure philanthropy, and then tell the man: “Many thanks for your friendliness, allowing me to pay your debts and give you an advance, which you take so you can get pissed and go whoring. Go back to your father’s house, increase and multiply, and live happy and contented to the end of your days!”

What would become of a contratista who did that sort of thing? In this world, where everybody has to fight for a crust of bread, even a contratista cannot give things away without there being something at the other end. He has to work damned hard to be able to live and to make something of it. If it happens that he has nothing once he is old, then he can go begging. So he must take care of his welfare as long as he is in a position to. Wife and children at home have to live too. And if he has to work hard himself, why not the peons? They’re not used to anything else anyway and do nothing but fool around. If they have no work to do, they just get pissed. Instead of thinking of something else, most of all how they can pay off their debts and escape from enslavement, they waste their good strength on nothing but bringing a crowd of kids into the world.

Besides, the people in New York and London want mahogany furniture. Why they want it has nothing to do with us contratistas. That is their business. But there is money to be made from it, a lovely mountain of money. Our jungles are full of caoba. We have no idea what to do with so much caoba. We have such an infinite amount of it that we actually make our railroad ties out of mahogany and ebony. Why shouldn’t we provide a few tons of our rich excess of this handsome wood for suffering mankind? Of course, it does have to be got out of the jungle. We contratistas can’t do that by ourselves. I least of all. I get great blood-blisters on my hands if I cut caoba just for three hours. Mahogany is as hard as iron, damn it. But those Indians, boozy fuckers that they are, are lucky to be able to do something for their fatherland and raise the exports figure.

This attitude of the contratistas is thoroughly comprehensible; it shows reason and a profound insight into the confused laws of world economics. Of course, the Indian thinks about it differently. But then he is only a wretched proletarian, not a director of a bank. And it is simply incomprehensible to any normal-thinking man that those goddamn proletarians simply won’t ever grasp how reasonable and right and patriotic are the ideas and opinions that are hatched out with so much trouble and worry and sleepless nights by dictators and factory managers, for the good of the fatherland. Goddamn it all, all those proletarians should just be shot, then there would be peace in the country at last. Why is the miserable dog a proletarian anyway? It’s his own fault after all. It certainly isn’t the fault of the contratistas that the peons are permanently so deep in debt to their masters. The master needs his money too, and if he finally loses patience and wants to have his money, because he has to have it, and so sells the peons to the contratistas for the amount of the debt, then there is an outcry and a lot of screaming about the slave trade and slavery.

It is all so clear, so simple, so logical, so reasonable, that one has only to wonder why the proletariat won’t understand it when they are dictated to. Once they understand for the first time and fully accept that everything done is done only for their good, that no dictator, no shareholder, thinks or has ever thought of impinging on the value of the worker or making him into a beast of burden, once they begin to see that people only want their good, even their best, then the time will at last be ripe when they may be counted among the reasonable, and every single proletarian will have the prospect of actually becoming a factory manager and chairman of a board of directors. But as long as he does not, or will not, understand, he must keep his mouth shut and let himself be managed and dictated to.

Everything here was therefore going right. No one was treated unjustly. No one had any cause for complaint. All the business, that of the advertising agents, of the contratistas and the companies, was carried on, always and in all circumstances, within the framework of the law. If gaps showed in the legal network, there was a dictator who mended those gaps with a signature. And what the dictator did was always right, for all his activities were confirmed by the Cámara de Diputados. If by chance one of the Diputados raised an objection, he ceased to be a Diputado, because he was hindering the order and the well-oiled progress of business. Only yes-men were accepted in the Cámara and the Senate. It was a joy to live, and anyone who didn’t like it had no right to live, and was shot. If there were moderating circumstances, then he went to the concentration camp, El Valle de los Muertos, an area fenced in with barbed wire, in the middle of the best-chosen fever swamp in the south of the state of Veracruz. He went there never to return. It was the golden age of dictatorship.



  1. Good post, Louis. Yes: the subsumption of labour is dealt with a lot more clearly in Capital volume 1 (it’s actually in the ‘The Results of the Immediate Process of Production’, a chapter that never found it’s way into the original edition of the book but which is now routinely included in current editions as an appendix). My notes on that part of the ‘Results’ are here: https://readingmarx.wordpress.com/2010/10/31/capital-volume-1-results-of-the-immediate-process-of-production-part-1-the-commodity/ . My glossary for volume 1 also deals with subsumption: https://readingmarx.wordpress.com/2010/10/31/capital-volume-1-an-interpretive-glossary/

    Comment by Ed George — January 21, 2016 @ 8:16 pm

  2. Ellen M. Wood on “Eurocentric anti-Eurocentrism”: http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/993/print

    Comment by jschulman — January 21, 2016 @ 8:51 pm

  3. She wrote this attack on Jim Blaut six months after he had died of pancreatic cancer. That is when I figured out she was a political coward.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 21, 2016 @ 8:55 pm

  4. You are driving at the same point that Harootunian stresses – that formal subsumption and the production of absolute surplus-value are to be found everywhere throughout the history of actually existing capitalism on a global scale from its 15th century origins down to the present day; that real subsumption is only ever partially achieved by capital; and that it always coexists alongside formal subsumption. This lays the basis for Harootunian’s critique of 1) stagist theories that posit the need for real subsumption to be fully achieved before socialist revolution can be put on the historical agenda; and 2) the Frankfurt School/Western Marxism’s assumption that real subsumption had been fully achieved under modern capitalism, hence their preoccupation with commodity reification and mass psychology, and lack of interest in non-Western social formations. Harootunian: “Both perspectives remained within the shadow cast by the Second International’s commitment to historical stagism and to the achieved completion of bourgeois revolution as a necessary condition in the final transition to proletarian socialism. It should be noted that the turn to philosophy also meant an abandonment of the expected withering of the state and the realization of a revolutionary transformation. During the Cold War, this viewpoint became enmeshed in a larger comparative strategy that sought to set the agenda for a developmental schedule for newer, nonaligned nations by showing them how they would be able to ‘catch up’ with societies in the West that had completed the course. For its part, the Soviet Union promoted a Stalinist version of the bourgeois modernization scheme but recommended pursuing the route leading to revolutionary conflict [sic] to compete with the evolutionary change sponsored by bourgeois modernization.” (Marx After Marx, p.73)

    Comment by Fred Murphy — January 21, 2016 @ 10:40 pm

  5. Two issues regarding the real v. formal subsumption of labor.

    1) Can we find a connection here with Trotsky’s idea of “uneven and combined” development? Can anybody shed some light on this possible connection (of lack thereof)? If I understand Trotsky’s idea of “uneven and combined” development, it argues that old social modes of extraction of surplus do not necessarily die out after the rise of capitalism, and capitalism can and does ‘subsume’, if you like, any and all forms of extraction of surplus if and when/where necessary. Please correct me if I am wrong here.

    2) Another issue is that, even in the most advanced capitalist formations on earth (e.g., the U.S.), it seem that the state is *always* interfering in the production process in one form or another. For example, regulations that require certain standards of labor practice, etc., are interventions by the state (in the form of laws and regulations that *must* be followed). In this example, of course, the state intervention may work to the detriment of capital’s profit margins (due to social pressures, etc.), but even this shows that the state is never totally removed from the factors determining the modes of production and reproduction of capital.

    But, the flip side of this is what we have been observing for the last thirty years or so of *deregulation* on behalf of capital in order to increase its profitability. Take for example the repeal of labor rights laws in state legislatures of Republican-dominated states like Wisconsin. If the Political Marxist analysis were correct — in that in the U.S., for example, we have long reached a stage of real subsumption — then capital would have no need for the state to intervene on its behalf to get rid of laws that bite into its profits.

    To the extent that any capitalist formation must be backed by a state apparatus (including the police and the security forces) and the expansive legal system of that state, to the same extent we can say that ALL capitalism is simultaneously in a state of BOTH real and formal subsumption of labor at all times. Hence, POLITICAL-economy.

    Comment by Reza — January 22, 2016 @ 1:01 am

  6. 1) Can we find a connection here with Trotsky’s idea of “uneven and combined” development? Can anybody shed some light on this possible connection (of lack thereof)? If I understand Trotsky’s idea of “uneven and combined” development, it argues that old social modes of extraction of surplus do not necessarily die out after the rise of capitalism, and capitalism can and does ‘subsume’, if you like, any and all forms of extraction of surplus if and when/where necessary. Please correct me if I am wrong here.


    Absolutely. Although they don’t mention subsumption, Anievas and Nisancioglu’s “How the West Came to Rule” is based on Trotsky’s theory. More to the point, the early stages of capitalism were marked by a dialectical interpenetration of extra-economic and market coercion. That was the point of Eric Willians’s “Capitalism and Slavery”.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 22, 2016 @ 1:11 am

  7. Here is another example of the role of the state in creating venues for capital accumulation: charter schools.

    If there were not laws and regulations legalizing the transfer of public funds from public schools’ budget to privately owned schools, billions of dollars of public wealth could not be turned into private capital.

    Comment by Reza — January 22, 2016 @ 1:32 am

  8. “She wrote this attack on Jim Blaut six months after he had died of pancreatic cancer. That is when I figured out she was a political coward.”

    You’re not speaking to the content of the article.

    Comment by jschulman — January 22, 2016 @ 4:21 am

  9. I will leave the Marxism to others, and merely say that the Jungle Novels are amazing. Compelling from beginning to end through all 6 novels. The one about the cart driver who has to leave his wife to pay the debt of his father by working in the timber plantation is heart wrenching.

    Comment by Richard Estes — January 22, 2016 @ 5:11 am

  10. […] my post on “Anglocentrism and the real subsumption of labor”, I mistakenly attributed Marx’s discussion of formal and real subsumption to the Grundrisse. […]

    Pingback by Once again on the formal/real subsumption question | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — January 24, 2016 @ 8:40 pm

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