Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 24, 2016

Once again on the formal/real subsumption question

Filed under: economics,transition debate — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 3.20.57 PM

Definitely not found in a medieval guild

In my post on “Anglocentrism and the real subsumption of labor”, I mistakenly attributed Marx’s discussion of formal and real subsumption to the Grundrisse. It actually is contained in “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, and is based on a plan Marx made for the work in December 1862. After reading it, I find myself troubled by how it fits into Marx’s more general analysis of the exploitation of labor in light of his statement:

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.

Returning once again to Charles Post’s reference to Marx’s definitions of the two forms of subsumption, you find what is commonly understood as “handicrafts”, the most elementary form of labor exploitation that emerged out of the bowels of feudalism:

As long as capital’s subsumption of labor was formal and the actual labor-process was in the hands of skilled artisanal wage earners—legal-juridical forces was necessary to ensure the sale of labor-power and capital’s ability to command production. [emphasis added]

Skilled artisanal wage earners is obviously the words that would describe men and women who worked in “cottage industries” spinning wool and making garments out of the raw materials supplied by an early capitalist, one that Marx considered rooted in usury. The next step would be gathering all of these artisans under the same roof and paying them a wage to make garments with both machinery and raw materials supplied by the capitalist. With their skills, they conceivably could go into business for themselves as many surely did.

In “The Results of the Direct Production Process”, Marx describes the world in which “formal subsumption” operated:

Finally, the relation of capitalist and wage labourer can replace the master of the guild type and his journeymen and apprentices, a transition accomplished in part by urban manufacture at its very beginnings. The medieval guild relation, which developed in analogous form in narrow circles in Athens and Rome as well, and was of such decisive importance in Europe for the formation of capitalists on the one hand, and of a free estate of workers on the other, is a limited, not yet adequate, form of the relation of capital and wage labour. There exists here on the one hand the relation of buyer and seller. Wages are paid, and master, journeyman, and apprentice confront each other as free persons. The technological basis of this relation is the handicraft workshop, in which the more or less skilled manipulation of the instrument of labour is the decisive factor of production.

In between such a relatively primitive form of class relations and that of “real subsumption”, there is a huge gap:

We already noted when considering machinery, how its introduction into one branch brings about its introduction into others, and at the same time into other varieties of the same branch. Mechanical spinning, for example, leads to mechanical weaving; mechanical spinning in the cotton industry leads to mechanical spinning in wool, linen., silk, etc. The wider employment of machinery in coal mines, cotton manufactures, etc., made necessary the introduction of the large-scale method of production into machine manufacture itself. Leaving aside the growth in the means of transport required by this mode of production on a large scale, it is on the other hand only the introduction of machinery into machine manufacture itself — particularly the cyclical prime motor — which has made possible the introduction of steamships and railways, and revolutionised the whole of shipbuilding. Large-scale industry throws as large a mass of human beings into the branches not yet subjected to it, or creates in these branches as large a relative surplus population, as is required for the conversion of handicrafts or of the small, formally capitalist business into a large-scale industry.

So, on one hand you have formal subsumption with its quaint guilds and skilled artisans turning out garments by the dozens each day like something you would see in London circa 1450. On the other, with real subsumption you have the “wider employment of machinery” that makes possible the production of thousands of garments each day in an age when the same advances are yielding the modern steamship and railway lines that can transport them to markets.

If you want to produce 12 shirts a day in the world of formal subsumption, the recourse is to lengthen the workday. This is called the creation of absolute surplus value. If you want to double production in the world of real subsumption, you introduce mechanical looms and a division of unskilled labor that makes the process even more efficient, such as having some men or women assigned to dying and others to operating the machines and still others to putting the finished product into boxes.

After having read “The Results of the Direct Production Process” the other day, something nagged at me. I hadn’t read Capital in over forty-five years but the chapter on the creation of absolute surplus value, where the term formal subsumption appears nowhere, seemed to have little to do with the guilds of the late middle ages and much more to do with what William Blake called the “satanic mills”. Sure enough, a rereading this morning confirmed my suspicions. There’s a section in chapter ten titled “Day and Night Work. The Relay System” that hardly sounds like what was going on in Tudor England.

The Relay System was the term Marx used to describe keeping factories going 24 hours a day: “To appropriate labour during all the 24 hours of the day is, therefore, the inherent tendency of capitalist production. But as it is physically impossible to exploit the same individual labour-power constantly during the night as well as the day, to overcome this physical hindrance, an alternation becomes necessary between the workpeople whose powers are exhausted by day, and those who are used up by night.” That doesn’t sound like any medieval guild I’ve heard of. In fact, it sounds much more like Chinese factories today.

Nor does it sound like the small-scale operations of handicrafts or early manufacturing:

Mr. J. Ellis, one of the firm of Messrs. John Brown & Co., steel and iron works, employing about 3,000 men and boys, part of whose operations, namely, iron and heavier steel work, goes on night and day by relays, states “that in the heavier steel work one or two boys are employed to a score or two men.”

As it turns out, Wikipedia has an entry on this guy’s business, which was founded in 1844. By 1859 it was producing rails for the rapidly expanding railway industry that Marx referred to as an exemplar of real subsumption. Like most leading edge factories in the steel business, John Brown and Co. used the Bessemer process. Does the Bessemer process sound like it belongs to the world of formal subsumption with its handicrafts and skilled artisans? I don’t think so.

In fact Marx refers to the Bessemer process in V. 3 of Capital as a key breakthrough in the productivity of labor:

The chief means of reducing the time of production is higher labour productivity, which is commonly called industrial progress. If this does not involve a simultaneous considerable increase in the outlay of total capital resulting from the installation of expensive machinery, etc., and thus a reduction of the rate of profit, which is calculated on the total capital, this rate must rise. And this is decidedly true in the case of many of the latest improvements in metallurgy and in the chemical industry. The recently discovered methods of producing iron and steel, such as the processes of Bessemer, Siemens, Gilchrist-Thomas, etc., cut to a minimum at relatively small costs the formerly arduous processes.

I think that Marx probably understood that there is no Chinese wall between the creation of absolute and relative surplus value as he pointed out in chapter 16 of V. 1 of Capital that is titled “Absolute and Relative Surplus-Value”:

From one standpoint, any distinction between absolute and relative surplus-value appears illusory. Relative surplus-value is absolute, since it compels the absolute prolongation of the working-day beyond the labour-time necessary to the existence of the labourer himself. Absolute surplus-value is relative, since it makes necessary such a development of the productiveness of labour, as will allow of the necessary labour-time being confined to a portion of the working-day. But if we keep in mind the behaviour of surplus-value, this appearance of identity vanishes. Once the capitalist mode of production is established and become general, the difference between absolute and relative surplus-value makes itself felt, whenever there is a question of raising the rate of surplus-value. Assuming that labour-power is paid for at its value, we are confronted by this alternative: given the productiveness of labour and its normal intensity, the rate of surplus-value can be raised only by the actual prolongation of the working-day; on the other hand, given the length of the working-day, that rise can be effected only by a change in the relative magnitudes of the components of the working-day, viz., necessary labour and surplus-labour; a change which, if the wages are not to fall below the value of labour-power, presupposes a change either in the productiveness or in the intensity of the labour.

In plain language, Marx is saying that if profits are declining in a highly mechanized factory, the capitalist will use “extra-economic” coercion to make sure that the workers conform to the treadmill norms of the above mentioned Relay System:

Right now, in Shanghai, China, a factory owned by the Taiwanese Pegatron Group is pushing out millions of units of the iPhone 6s for Apple. There, its young production workers toil six days a week in 12-hour shifts. Each day they are paid for 10 and half hours of work, not counting 15 minutes of unpaid meetings. The mandatory overtime shift runs from 5:30 pm until 8:00 pm. Most workers will not eat dinner before doing overtime because the 30-break given for a meal is not enough time.

Before overtime pay, workers making the iPhone earn only the local minimum wage of $318 per month, or about $1.85 per hour. This is not a living wage. Even if the factory did not mandate overtime as it does, workers would still depend on their 60-hour workweeks to get by.

After their long shifts, workers take a 30-minute shuttle bus back to their dorms where up to 14 people are crammed into a room. Mold grows pervasively along the walls. Bed bugs have spread throughout the dorm, and many workers are covered in red bug bites.

The problem with the Political Marxists is that they are essentially “stagists” without even realizing it, all the more ironic since Post and Brenner are members of an organization that is led by veterans of either the SWP or the IS, two groups that were the best representatives of American Trotskyism. This whole idea of consigning formal subsumption and the creation of absolute surplus value to a virtual pre-capitalist stage as Brenner does in his 1977 NLR article is wrong. Capitalism began at the point when commodity production began to become universal. Workers across the planet were involved with the emerging system, from slaves in Mississippi to textile workers in Liverpool. If they have trouble understanding that, Marx did not:

Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry. Consequently, prior to the slave trade, the colonies sent very few products to the Old World, and did not noticeably change the face of the world. Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance. Without slavery, North America, the most progressive nation, would he transformed into a patriarchal country. Only wipe North America off the map and you will get anarchy, the complete decay of trade and modern civilisation. But to do away with slavery would be to wipe America off the map.

Letter from Marx to Pavel Vasilyevich Annenkov, 1846

 

 

7 Comments »

  1. Good analysis. The takeaway here is that Capital was not meant to be an historical account of the capitalist mode of production, rather a model for elaborating the labor theory of value and the varying repertoires of profit employed by capital. There is no excuse for a stagist interpretation. One could just as easily discover precapitalist instances of relative surplus creation in the archaeological record or, with greater detail, in Joseph Needham’s encyclopedic Science and Society in China. The distinction between formal and real subsumption is likewise Marx’s illustration of the dynamics inherent within the capitalist mode of production. They can be identified with historical moments absent any greater contingency than the capitalist’s need to extract profits. Yet they are not mutually exclusive or necessarily sequential. Analogous to jazz, capital is continually self-referential even when it improvises.

    The more interesting question regarding Results of the Immediate Process of Production is whether the formal and real subsumption of a labor process to any given mode of production would apply to socialism or communism.

    Comment by Bob Dannin — January 25, 2016 @ 12:48 pm

  2. As you say nothing about “permanent revolution” here, I’m not sure what the topic of this piece has to do with “stagism.” But since you mentioned it, I think Mike Macnair has done a good job of dispelling dogma regarding that term. See what he writes under the heading “Stages” in this essay:

    http://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1088/the-davidson-papers/

    And still, I don’t see what’s so controversial about the statement that under capitalism the “economic” and “political” are FORMALLY separated in a way totally foreign to feudalism or any prior society. Yes, the market can’t exist without the state. But it’s market forces which require most of us to go sell our labor power to an employer — the coercive apparatus of the state is usually merely “backup,” at best. I’m “free” to refuse employment — and then I probably starve to death.

    And honestly, having now read the Post speech that you link to, I don’t see a great disparity between his perspective and yours (though I do think he misrepresents what “non-reformist reforms” are about — I never read André Gorz as advocating “utilizing capitalist state institutions to abolish capitalism in some piece-meal manner”). Post quotes Wood talking precisely about the coercive apparatus of the bourgeois state. So I still don’t quite get your beef.

    Comment by jschulman — January 25, 2016 @ 1:00 pm

  3. And honestly, having now read the Post speech that you link to, I don’t see a great disparity between his perspective and yours

    This article was not primarily a critique of Post but an attempt to illustrate a certain amount of inconsistency in Marx’s discussion of formal subsumption especially when it is identified with the early stages of capitalism per se. The Bessemer process was 19th century, not 16th century. For my critique of Post, there is this:

    Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis, part 1 (Engerman-Fogel and Genovese)

    Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis, part 2 (Class and racial oppression prior to Reconstruction)

    Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis, part 3 (Reconstruction)

    Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis, part 4 (Marx, Lenin and various Trotskyists)

    Capitalism, slavery and the Brenner thesis, part 5 (Henry Villard: portrait of a Radical Republican)

    http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/origins.htm

    Comment by louisproyect — January 25, 2016 @ 1:28 pm

  4. Before reading your 5 part critique, some questions:

    Is the heart of your critique of Brenner that he’s wrong to insist that it’s only wage-labor in agriculture that triggers the emergence of capitalism? If so, fine. But remember that Brenner et al stress market dependency for basic necessities far more than simply wage-labor in their definition of what constitutes “capitalism.”

    Is your main critique of Ellen M. Wood that her idea that that there’s no such thing as the bourgeois revolution, that the bourgeoisie normally takes power by a mutation of an old elite, and the revolutionary crises which affected the Netherlands in the late 16th century, Britain in the 17th century, and France (and much of the rest of Europe) at the end of the 18th century were anomalous is wrong? If so, also fine.

    But even if both these theses are wrong, your universe-wide critique of “Political Marxism” doesn’t hold. The PMs are completely right that capitalism makes a radical separation between “the political” and “the economic.” This separation, as Wood argues, allows the capitalist state to present itself as democratic, because on “political” questions we’re allowed a vote, while “liberal democracy” in fact operates as an (economic) oligarchy.

    And it was Wood, no less, who wrote: “At any rate, the development of a rudimentary global society is, and is likely to remain, far behind the contrary effect of capitalist integration: the formation of many unevenly developed economies with varied and self-enclosed social systems, presided over by many nation states. The national economies of advanced capitalist societies will continue to compete with one another, while ‘global’ capital (always based in one or another national entity) will continue to profit from uneven development, the differentiation of social conditions among national economies, and the preservation of exploitable low-cost labour regimes, which have created the widening gap between rich and poor so characteristic of ‘globalization.’ So the capitalist economy has an irreducible need for ‘extraeconomic’ supports whose spatial range can never match its economic reach.” [Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002).]

    This doesn’t sound like anything you’d disagree with (“extraeconomic supports,” etc.). Nor does the PMs critique of “orthodox Marxist” technological determinism (derived from Marx’s Preface to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” 1859 — a piece which doesn’t square with Das Kapital whatsoever unless one really wants to clutch at straws). It really does seem to me that the most important part of the PM project has been to prove that capitalism was by no means inevitable — it was Wood, back in 1984, in NLR, who wrote the following:

    “the conventional ‘bourgeois’ accounts of economic and technological development have, since the very beginnings of classical political economy, tended to rely, implicitly or explicitly, on unilinear, ‘stagist’ conceptions of progress in which the improvement of the ‘practical arts’ and material prosperity has inexorably accompanied the unfolding of human nature, as humanity has evolved from primitive pastoralism (or whatever) to modern ‘commercial’ society. Contemporary economists may have jettisoned the historical and moral perspectives of their predecessors, but they are if anything even more dependent on hidden assumptions about the natural acquisitiveness of human beings, the ‘unlimited’ character of human desires, the necessity of accumulation, and hence the natural tendency to improve the forces of production.”

    And yet you accuse Wood et al of stagism! So odd.

    Comment by jschulman — January 25, 2016 @ 3:36 pm

  5. Is the heart of your critique of Brenner that he’s wrong to insist that it’s only wage-labor in agriculture that triggers the emergence of capitalism? If so, fine. But remember that Brenner et al stress market dependency for basic necessities far more than simply wage-labor in their definition of what constitutes “capitalism.”

    [Actually, the Brenner thesis is not about “wage-labor in agriculture”. It is about the contingent emergence of lease farming that forced the owner of the lease to compete and to therefore improve technically. Wage labor plays no role whatsoever.]

    Is your main critique of Ellen M. Wood that her idea that that there’s no such thing as the bourgeois revolution, that the bourgeoisie normally takes power by a mutation of an old elite, and the revolutionary crises which affected the Netherlands in the late 16th century, Britain in the 17th century, and France (and much of the rest of Europe) at the end of the 18th century were anomalous is wrong? If so, also fine.

    [No, my main critique of Wood is that she dismisses the importance of colonialism and slavery, and that she limits “primitive accumulation” to the emergence of lease farming alluded to above. In chapter 31 of V. 1 of Capital, Marx specifically attributes colonialism and slavery as key to the genesis of the industrial capitalist.]

    But even if both these theses are wrong, your universe-wide critique of “Political Marxism” doesn’t hold. The PMs are completely right that capitalism makes a radical separation between “the political” and “the economic.” This separation, as Wood argues, allows the capitalist state to present itself as democratic, because on “political” questions we’re allowed a vote, while “liberal democracy” in fact operates as an (economic) oligarchy.

    [I am less interested in this question than I am in their analysis of the origins of capitalism where in my view there is no separation. There was no separation of the political and the economic when England colonized Jamaica and turned it into a huge sugar plantation using slave labor. I urge you to read Sidney Mintz who died last month.]

    And it was Wood, no less, who wrote: “At any rate, the development of a rudimentary global society is, and is likely to remain, far behind the contrary effect of capitalist integration: the formation of many unevenly developed economies with varied and self-enclosed social systems, presided over by many nation states. The national economies of advanced capitalist societies will continue to compete with one another, while ‘global’ capital (always based in one or another national entity) will continue to profit from uneven development, the differentiation of social conditions among national economies, and the preservation of exploitable low-cost labour regimes, which have created the widening gap between rich and poor so characteristic of ‘globalization.’ So the capitalist economy has an irreducible need for ‘extraeconomic’ supports whose spatial range can never match its economic reach.” [Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002).]

    [Like I said, I am far more interested in how capitalism got started than whether it uses “extra-economic” measures today. It would be very difficult for Wood or Post to deny that most immigrant labor such as is in Dubai relies on market coercion when the first thing that happens to an Indian construction worker is the seizure of his passport.]

    This doesn’t sound like anything you’d disagree with (“extraeconomic supports,” etc.). Nor does the PMs critique of “orthodox Marxist” technological determinism (derived from Marx’s Preface to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” 1859 — a piece which doesn’t square with Das Kapital whatsoever unless one really wants to clutch at straws). It really does seem to me that the most important part of the PM project has been to prove that capitalism was by no means inevitable — it was Wood, back in 1984, in NLR, who wrote the following:

    “the conventional ‘bourgeois’ accounts of economic and technological development have, since the very beginnings of classical political economy, tended to rely, implicitly or explicitly, on unilinear, ‘stagist’ conceptions of progress in which the improvement of the ‘practical arts’ and material prosperity has inexorably accompanied the unfolding of human nature, as humanity has evolved from primitive pastoralism (or whatever) to modern ‘commercial’ society. Contemporary economists may have jettisoned the historical and moral perspectives of their predecessors, but they are if anything even more dependent on hidden assumptions about the natural acquisitiveness of human beings, the ‘unlimited’ character of human desires, the necessity of accumulation, and hence the natural tendency to improve the forces of production.”

    And yet you accuse Wood et al of stagism! So odd.

    [This is what I wrote about Wood specifically: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/origins/Wood_interview.htm%5D

    Comment by louisproyect — January 25, 2016 @ 3:53 pm

  6. Re: Brenner (and Wood), colonialism and slavery. Curious if you’ve read this: https://guavapuree.wordpress.com/2011/10/25/the-brenner-debate-part-3/

    Comment by jschulman — January 25, 2016 @ 8:12 pm

  7. Sure I’ve read it. Guava, whoever he is, was on Marxmail–maybe still is. Anyhow, I found him incoherent:

    Slaves do not produce themselves; their availability is a function of class struggle elsewhere:

    “Had it not been for the outcome of processes of class formation and class conflict in Africa, the development of Southern society, indeed society throughout the Western hemisphere, might have been very different. Capitalism, itself, cannot account for it.”

    I have no idea what this is supposed to mean. Slaves do not produce themselves? Er, what? Their availability is not a “function of class struggle elsewhere”. It is a function of the British creating a market for commodities (slaves) in Africa among tributary societies that never used them as chattel but as extensions of their own tribal and ethnic enclaves. If you want to understand this process, you need to read Anievas and Nisancioglu.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 25, 2016 @ 8:46 pm


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