This is a period of cataclysmic crisis for capital, yet it is one in which the old projects of a programmatic working class are nowhere to be seen. This inescapable fact compels us to trace the discontinuities between the past and the present. Understanding what distinguishes the current period can help us to “bury the dead” of the failed revolutions of the 20th Century, and put to rest any wandering spirits that still haunt communist theory.
What is most at stake in periodisation is the question of where the past stops and the present begins. The identification of historical ruptures and discontinuities helps us to avoid the implicit metaphysics of a theory of class struggle in which every historical specificity is ultimately reduced to the eternal recurrence of the same. Yet periodisations can easily appear not as the recognition of real historical breaks, but as the arbitrary imposition of an abstract schema onto the dense fabric of history. For every line of rupture that is drawn, some remnant or holdover from another historical epoch may be located which appears to refute the periodisation. Then, satisfied that such declarations of rupture cannot hold absolutely, we may feel justified in falling back on the comfortable idea that nothing really changes. Since here it is difference against which the sceptic can set herself, the historical same takes on the default certainty of common sense.
Alternatively, perhaps, the rupture is something to which we make a show of facing up; of recognising the misery of retreat, and holding ourselves in the melancholy recognition of the passing of all that was good, meanwhile nursing a flame for its eventual return. Either way it is the same: whether as presence or lack, the past shrouds the specificity of the present.
That a rupture with what some have called “the old worker’s movement” — or with what Théorie Communiste (TC) call “programmatism” — occurred some 30-40 years ago confronts us as self-evident. But it is not enough to hold to the immediate self-evidence of historical rupture. The question is how to think rupture without either sliding into a dogmatic and abstract schematism, or an equally dogmatic appeal to immediate historical experience. This problem needs to be confronted theoretically, yet we should perhaps be wary of leaving the partial standpoint of the present, this side of the rupture; of rushing too quickly into the universalising standpoint of a historical schema that would claim to abstract from particular standpoints.
For us, the periodisation of TC has been of central importance in facing up to the character of the capitalist class relation as it exists, not metaphysically but historically. Their division of the history of capitalist society into phases of subsumption has proved useful in identifying real shifts in the character of the capitalist class relation. And, whilst it may often appear as precisely the kind of abstract schema which we should aim to avoid, TC’s periodisation is less that of the disinterested intellect, pushing each historical datum into its arbitrary taxonomic container, than a partisan declaration of historical break by communists who lived through it, compelling them to grapple with this rupture as a real problem.
If then, in what follows, we criticise some core categories of TC’s periodisation, we do not do so in order to deny that the shifts which TC identify with these categories actually took place. For us — as for TC — the reproduction of the capitalist class relation is something which has changed over time, and the character of struggles has changed with it. We can hardly doubt that the proletarian movement passed through a programmatic phase — a phase which is no more — or that class struggles today no longer carry the horizon of a “workers’ world”. The identification, beyond this, of exactly how this reproduction has changed is a task which cannot be accomplished merely through the deployment of different categories, or the exchange of one abstract schema for another. We need to remain attentive to the detail of the real movement of history, without shying away from the need to adequately theorise this movement.
In the 1970s — in the midst of the historical break with the programmatic epoch of class struggle — the concept of “subsumption” emerged in Marxist discourse in the process of a general return to Marx, and in particular to the drafts of Capital. In a moment of rupture, the need to periodise the history of the capitalist class relation was evident. Since the distinction between the “formal” and “real” subsumption of labour under capital — which was prominent in texts of Marx which were only then becoming known — seemed to identify something important about the historical deepening of capitalist relations of production, it provided an obvious starting point for such periodisations. Thus the concept of subsumption was employed not only in the periodisation of TC, but also in those of Jacques Camatte and Antonio Negri — periodisations which often overlap significantly. We will here examine the concept of subsumption and its employment in these periodisations; first by excavating the philosophical roots of this concept, and examining the systematic role it plays in Marx’s work, then by drawing out some problems in its employment as a historical category.
In its more general usage, “subsumption” is a fairly technical philosophical or logical term, referring to the ranging of some mass of particulars under a universal. As such, some basic logical or ontological relations may be described as relations of subsumption: whales, or the concept “whale”, can be said to be subsumed under the category “mammal”. In German idealist philosophy — where it appears in the work of Kant, Schelling, and occasionally Hegel — the term is often used in a more dynamic sense to indicate a process whereby universal and particular are brought into relation. It is from this thread that the concept of subsumption makes its way into Marx’s work.
Kant considers the relation between the “manifold” and the “categories of the understanding” to be a relation of subsumption.1 This subsumption involves a process of abstraction through which the truth of the manifold is obtained. In terms of this process, the relation of subsumption here has some formal resemblance to that which Marx finds between particular use values and money as universal equivalent: in both cases, some “particular” is brought into relation with some otherwise external “universal” by being subsumed under it. The homology perhaps stretches further: concerned with the problem of how a pure concept of the understanding might be related to the appearances which it subsumes, Kant posits the transcendental schema as a “third thing” uniting the two sides,2 just as Marx posits labour as the “third thing” enabling comparison between two commodities.3
For Hegel, the process of subsumption and abstraction performed by the understanding in Kant is problematic precisely because it takes an abstracted universal to be the truth of the particulars which it subsumes, and thereby transforms and obscures the very thing that is supposed to be thereby known:
Subsumption under the species alters what is immediate. We strip away what is sensory, and lift out the universal. The alteration underway here we call abstracting. It seems absurd, if what we want is knowledge of external objects, to alter these external objects by our very [abstractive] activity upon them. [...] The alteration consists in the fact that we separate off what is singular or external, and hold the truth of the thing to lie in what is universal rather than in what is singular or external.4
There is something absurd about a relation of subsumption. When the particular is subsumed under a universal, that universal presents itself as the truth of this particular; indeed it is as if this particular has become nothing other than an instantiation of the universal that subsumes it. Yet it seems that there must be something left over in this process, for the abstract universal is still just what it was at the start, while the particularity which the particular had in opposition to the universal has now been abstracted away entirely. Subsumption thus appears to involve a kind of domination or violence towards the particular.5
Hegel, it seems, wants to see the movement of the concept less as the abstractive process of the subsumption of particulars under a universal, in which the universal ultimately is seized upon as the truth of a thing, than as the finding of a “concrete universal” present already in such particulars, necessarily mediating and mediated by its relation to these particulars. On Hegel’s reading of Kant, it is the externality of the manifold to the pure categories of the understanding which means that the process of knowledge must be one of subsumption, since particulars must somehow be brought under the categories. That Hegel does not himself describe the movement of the concept in terms of subsumption may be taken as an example of his attempting to get beyond the epistemological divides characterising the standpoint of “reflection” with which he frequently identifies Kant’s philosophy, and with which Lukács would go on to identify bourgeois thought per se.6
In the Philosophy of Right however, Hegel describes a relation that involves a subsumption of the particular under the universal just as external as that of the manifold under the categories in Kant’s conception — indeed, this relation is one of fairly straightforward political domination. This is the relation between the “universality” of the sovereign’s decision and the “particularity” of civil society. In this case, rather than struggling to present the sovereign’s decision as a concrete universal already immanent within particulars, Hegel presents it as an abstract, external universal to which particulars must be subordinated by the executive power, acting through the police and the judiciary:
The execution and application of the sovereign’s decisions, and in general the continued implementation and upholding of earlier decisions[...] are distinct from the decisions themselves. This task of subsumption in general belongs to the executive power, which also includes the powers of the judiciary and the police; these have more immediate reference to the particular affairs of civil society, and they assert the universal interest within these [particular] ends.7
We might infer from his usage of a category which he seems to associate with a problematic, external relation, that Hegel is being critical of the relation between sovereign and civil society, but it is far from clear that this is the case. Indeed, for the young Marx, as for many others, the Philosophy of Right represents the most conservative moment in Hegel’s oeuvre, where political domination is given the seal of approval of speculative philosophy. In Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx criticises Hegel’s usage of the concept of subsumption here as the imputation of a philosophical category onto objective social processes:
The sole philosophical statement Hegel makes about the executive is that he “subsumes” the individual and the particular under the general, etc.
Hegel contents himself with this. On the one hand, the category of “subsumption” of the particular, etc. This has to be actualised. Then he takes any one of the empirical forms of existence of the Prussian or Modern state (just as it is), anything which actualises this category among others, even though this category does not express its specific character. Applied mathematics is also subsumption, etc. Hegel does not ask “Is this the rational, the adequate mode of subsumption?” He only takes the one category and contents himself with finding a corresponding existent for it. Hegel gives a political body to his logic; he does not give the logic of the body politic.8
The irony here is that it is just such a usage of this category that Marx himself goes on to develop. From the 1861-63 draft of Capital onwards, subsumption, for Marx, is the subsumption of the particularities of the labour-process under the abstract universality of the valorisation-process of capital.9 The abstract category, it seems, really does find itself a body. Marx’s critique of German idealist philosophy is thus paralleled in his critique of capital. However, now the error is not on the part of the speculative philosopher, for it resides, rather, in capitalist social relations themselves. The abstract universal — value — whose existence is posited by the exchange abstraction, acquires a real existence vis-à-vis particular concrete labours, which are subsumed under it. The real existence of abstractions, which acquire the ability to subsume the concrete world of production under them — and posit themselves as the truth of this world — is for Marx nothing other than a perverted, enchanted, ontologically inverted reality. The absurdity and violence which Hegel perceives in a relation of subsumption applies not only to Hegel’s system itself, but also to the actual social relations of capitalist society.10
For Marx, the production process of capital can only occur on the basis of the subsumption of the labour process under capital’s valorisation process. In order to accumulate surplus value, and thus to valorise itself as capital, capital must subordinate the labour process to its own ends and, in so doing, transform it. The German idealist roots of the concept of subsumption are apparent here in the way that Marx conceptualises this process: the particular is subordinated to the abstract universal, and thereby transformed or obscured. The distinction between formal and real subsumption identifies the implicit distinction between two moments that we have here: capital must subordinate the labour process to its valorisation process — it must formally subsume it — if it is to reshape that process in its own image, or really subsume it.
In “Results of the Direct Production Process” (hereafter Results) Marx associates the categories of formal and real subsumption very closely with those of absolute and relative surplus-value.11 We can identify more specifically what distinguishes real from formal subsumption in terms of these two categories.
Formal subsumption remains merely formal precisely in the sense that it does not involve capital’s transformation of a given labour process, but simply its taking hold of it. Capital can extract surplus value from the labour process simply as it is given — with its given productivity of labour — but it can do so only insofar as it can extend the social working day beyond what must be expended on necessary labour. It is for this reason that formal subsumption alone could only ever yield absolute surplus value: the absoluteness of absolute surplus value lies in the fact that its extraction involves an absolute extension of the social working day — it is a simple quantity in excess of what is socially necessary for workers to reproduce themselves.12
The subsumption of the labour process under the valorisation process of capital becomes “real” insofar as capital does not merely rest with the labour process as it is given, but steps beyond formal possession of that process to transform it in its own image. Through technological innovations and other alterations in the labour process, capital is able to increase the productivity of labour. Since higher productivity means that less labour is required to produce the goods which the working class consumes, capital thereby reduces the portion of the social working day devoted to necessary labour, and concomitantly increases that devoted to surplus labour. The relativity of relative surplus value lies in the fact that the surplus part of the social working day may thus be surplus relative to a decreasing necessary part, meaning that capital may valorise itself on the basis of a given length of social working day — or even one that is diminished in absolute length.13 The production of relative surplus-value, and the real subsumption through which this takes place, are driven by the competition between capitals: individual capitalists are spurred on to seize the initiative by the fact that, while the value of commodities is determined by the socially necessary labour-time for their production, if they introduce technological innovations which increase the productivity of labour, they will be able to sell commodities at a price above their “individual value”.14
Despite their usage by Marx in close association with systematic categories like absolute and relative surplus-value, and their abstract philosophical provenance, there are at least two senses here in which we may consider the categories of formal and real subsumption to have a “historical” significance. Firstly, as capital’s simple taking hold of the labour process, the formal subsumption of labour under capital can be understood as the transition to the capitalist mode of production: it is “the subsumption under capital of a mode of labour already developed before the emergence of the capital-relation”.15 Marx describes the transformation of slave, peasant, guild and handicraft forms of production into capitalist production — as producers associated with these forms were transformed into wage-labourers — as a process of formal subsumption. It is only on the basis of this formal subsumption that real subsumption can proceed historically: formal subsumption of labour under capital is both a logical/systematic and a historical prerequisite for real subsumption.
Secondly, real subsumption has a historical directionality, for it entails a constant process of revolutionising the labour process through material and technological transformations which increase the productivity of labour. From these secular increases in productivity follow broader transformations in the character of society as a whole, and in the relations of production between workers and capitalists in particular. Real subsumption, as the modification of the labour-process along specifically capitalist lines, is exemplified in the historical development of the productive powers of social labour as the productive powers of capital. This occurs through cooperation, the division of labour and manufacture, machinery and large-scale industry, all of which are discussed by Marx under the heading of “The Production of Relative Surplus-Value” in volume one of Capital.
It is for these reasons that the categories of formal and real subsumption may seem appropriate for employment in the periodisation of capitalist history. There is undoubtedly a certain plausibility to schematising the history of capitalism broadly in terms of categories which identify an initial extensive taking hold of the labour process by capital, and a subsequent intensive development of that process under a dynamic capitalist development, for at an abstract level it is absolutely fundamental to capital that these two moments must occur. Such an employment of these categories also has the apparent virtue of staying close to the core of Marx’s systematic grasp of capitalist value relations, while grasping key moments of their historical existence: they seem to suggest the possibility of unifying system and history. It is undoubtedly for some — if not all — of these reasons that TC, Camatte, and Negri all formulated periodisations of capitalist history oriented around the concept of subsumption.
In the course of an interpretation of the Results, Jacques Camatte sketches an abstract periodisation of capitalist history on the basis of the formal and real subsumption of labour under capital. For Camatte, what distinguishes the period of real subsumption from that of formal subsumption is that, with real subsumption, the means of production become means of extracting surplus labour; the “essential element” in this process is fixed capital.16 The period of real subsumption is characterised by the application of science in the immediate process of production, such that “the means of production become no more than leeches drawing off as large a quantum of living labour as they can”.17 Thus for Camatte the real subsumption of labour under capital is characterised by an inversion: real subsumption is the period in which workers become exploited by the means of production themselves.
Yet Camatte goes further, speaking of a “total subsumption of labour under capital” in which capital exercises an absolute domination over society, indeed tends to become society.18 This period is characterised by “the becoming of capital as totality”, in which capital is erected as a “material community” standing in the place of a true human community.19 It is as if capital has come to envelop the social being of humanity in its entirety; as if subsumption has been so successful that capital can now pass itself off not only as the “truth” of the labour process, but of human society as a whole. It is easy to see in this theory of total subsumption and “material community” the logic which would propel Camatte towards a politics involving little more than the abstract assertion of some true human community against a monolithic capitalist totality, and of the need to “leave this world.”20
Camatte is not the only theorist to describe the latest epoch in capitalist development in terms of a certain kind of completion of capitalist subsumption; indeed, this is a common theme across divergent Marxist traditions. Though he does not use the term “subsumption” itself, in Jameson’s Marxist recasting of the concept of postmodernity, “those very precapitalist enclaves (Nature and the Unconscious) which offered extraterritorial and Archimedean footholds for critical effectivity” are colonised, and the individual is submerged in the ubiquitous logic of a capitalist culture.21 As with Camatte, it is as if the very success of a kind of capitalist subsumption means that we can no longer grasp that which subsumes as an external imposition. In the form of the “social factory” thesis, Tronti presents a conception of the historical epoch as that of a kind of completed subsumption but — with the customary sanguinity of operaismo — this is understood as a result of the essential creativity and resistance of the working class. In the moment of its total victory, where social capital has come to dominate the whole of society, capital is forced by the resistance of the working class to extend its domination beyond the factory walls to the whole of society. Echoing Tronti’s social factory thesis, Negri describes a “total subsumption of society” in the period beginning after 1968.22 This, argues Negri, marks the “end of the centrality of the factory working class as the site of the emergence of revolutionary subjectivity”.23 In this period, the capitalist process of production has attained such a high level of development as to encompass even the smallest fraction of social production. Capitalist production is no longer limited to the sphere of industrial production, but rather is diffuse, and occurs across society. The contemporary mode of production “is this subsumption”.24
Although he frequently employs the categories of subsumption historically, Negri warns against “constituting a natural history of the progressive subsumption of labour under capital and illustrating the form of value in the […] process of perfecting its mechanisms”.25 Apparently attempting an autonomist “Copernican turn” within the periodisation of subsumption, Negri thus describes specific class compositions and models of contestation corresponding to each period of capitalist history. To the first phase of large-scale industry corresponds the “appropriative” phase of the proletarian movement (1848-1914) and the “professional” or “craft worker”; to the second phase corresponds the “alternative phase of the revolutionary movement” (1917-68) and a class composition based on the hegemony of the “mass worker”; and finally, to the current phase of capitalist development corresponds the “socialised worker” (operaio sociale) and the “constituent” model of proletarian “self-valorisation”. Similarly for TC, the periods of a history of subsumption identify not only the history of capital itself, but also of specific cycles of struggle. Rather than the result of a “Copernican turn” to the positivity of the working class however, for TC this is because the categories of subsumption periodise the development of the relation between capital and proletariat.
TC follow Marx in drawing a relation between the categories of formal and real subsumption and those of absolute and relative surplus-value. The key to TC’s historical periodisation lies in their interpretation of this systematic interrelation of categories. For TC, absolute and relative surplus-value are conceptual determinations of capital, and formal and real subsumption are historical configurations of capital. Thus while the formal subsumption of labour under capital proceeds on the basis of absolute surplus-value, relative surplus-value is both the founding principle and the dynamic of real subsumption; it is “the principle which gives structure to and then overturns the first phase of [real subsumption]”.26 Thus relative surplus-value is both the principle which unifies the two phases into which TC divide real subsumption, and that in terms of which it is possible to explain the transformation of real subsumption (and its consequent division into phases): “real subsumption has a history because it has a dynamic principle which forms it, makes it evolve, poses certain forms of the process of valorisation or circulation as fetters and transforms them”.27
TC posit a conceptual distinction between formal subsumption and real subsumption in terms of their extension: formal subsumption affects only the immediate labour-process, while real subsumption extends beyond the sphere of production to society as a whole, just as it does for Camatte and Negri. Thus formal subsumption for TC corresponds to the configuration of capital based on the extraction of absolute surplus-value, which is — by definition — limited to the immediate labour-process: capital takes over an existing labour-process and intensifies it or lengthens the working-day. The relation between real subsumption and relative surplus-value is more complex however. The increased productivity of labour resulting from transformations in the labour-process can only increase relative surplus-value insofar as this increased productivity lowers the value of commodities entering into the consumption of the working class. As such, real subsumption brings into play the reproduction of the proletariat, insofar as the wage becomes a variable quantity affected by the productivity of labour in industries producing wage goods. Real subsumption thus establishes the systematic and historical interconnection between the reproduction of the proletariat and the reproduction of capital:
The extraction of relative surplus-value affects all social combinations, from the labour process to the political forms of workers’ representation, passing through the integration of the reproduction of labour-power in the cycle of capital, the role of the credit system, the constitution of a specifically capitalist world market…, the subordination of science… Real subsumption is a transformation of society and not of the labour process alone.28
The reproduction of the proletariat and the reproduction of capital become increasingly interlocked through real subsumption; it integrates the two circuits (of the reproduction of labour-power and the reproduction of capital) as the self-reproduction (and self-presupposition) of the class relation itself. Thus TC define the real subsumption of labour under capital as “capital becoming capitalist society i.e. presupposing itself in its evolution and the creation of its organs”.29
The criterion for the predominance of real subsumption — itself defined in terms of transformations of the labour-process — must thus be sought outside the labour-process, in the modalities (both political and socioeconomic) of reproduction of labour-power which accompany, and are to some extent determined by, the material transformations accomplished in the labour-process. Examples of such modalities include social welfare systems, the “invention of the category of the unemployed”, and the importance of trade unionism. These all help to “ensure (and confirm) that labour-power no longer has any possible ‘ways out’ of its exchange with capital in the framework of this specifically capitalist labour process”. It is these modalities of the reproduction of labour-power which are fundamentally altered by the restructuring of the capitalist class relation which begins in the 1970s. And it is on this basis that TC argues that “the broad phases of transformation at the level of the modalities of the general reproduction of the proletariat” should serve as “criteria for the periodisation of real subsumption.”30
TC’s dating corresponds closely to that proposed by Negri. For TC, the phase of formal subsumption of labour under capital, up to the turn of the century or around the First World War, is characterised by the positive self-relation of the proletariat as pole of the class relation. In this period the proletariat affirms itself as the class of productive labour, against capital, which is an “external constraint from which the proletariat must liberate itself”.31 Proletarian self-affirmation can never beget proletarian self-negation and the negation of capital; thus — in this phase — the communist revolution was impossible, or rather the communist revolution as affirmation/liberation of labour carried within it the counter-revolution. The period of transition to communism proved to be nothing other than the renewal of capitalist accumulation, and was determined as such by the very configuration of the class relation and the (counter-)revolutionary movement that this configuration of the class relation produced.
In the subsequent “first phase of real subsumption of labour under capital” (from the First World War to the end of the 1960s), the relation between capital and proletariat becomes increasingly internal such that “the autonomous affirmation of the class enters into contradiction with its empowerment within capitalism, in that this is more and more the self-movement of the reproduction of capital itself”.32 In the transition from formal to real subsumption the class relation undergoes a qualitative transformation, in that the reproduction of the proletariat is now increasingly integrated with the circuit of reproduction of capital, via certain mediations. These include the institutional forms of the workers’ movement, trade unions, collective bargaining and productivity deals, Keynesianism and the Welfare State, the geo-political division of the World Market into discrete national areas of accumulation, and — on a higher level — zones of accumulation (East and West).
Formal subsumption and the first phase of real subsumption of labour under capital are characterised by the programmatic self-affirmation of the proletariat; the first phase of real subsumption is increasingly revealed, however, to be the “decomposition” of this programmatic proletarian self-affirmation, even as the proletariat is increasingly empowered within the class relation. With the capitalist restructuring after 1968-73 — which must be understood as a restructuring of the relation between capital and proletariat — all these mediations are at least tendentially dissolved. The new period — the “second phase of real subsumption of labour under capital” — is then characterised by a more immediately internal relation between capital and the proletariat, and the contradiction between them is thus immediately at the level of their reproduction as classes. Proletarian programmatic self-affirmation is now dead and buried, yet class antagonism is as sharp as ever. The only revolutionary perspective afforded by the current cycle of struggles is that of the self-negation of the proletariat and the concomitant abolition of capital through the communisation of relations between individuals.
The periodisations proposed by Camatte, Negri and TC apply beyond the immediate process of production. Camatte and Negri hold real subsumption to be true of society, and for TC, formal and real subsumption can be said to characterise the fundamental relation between capital and labour in a sense that is not reducible to the immediate production process. There may appear to be some ground in Marx for pursuing such a usage of these categories, since Marx refers to transformations in the actual social relation between capitalist and worker — beyond production — that arise with or as a result of real subsumption:
With the real subsumption of labour under capital a complete revolution takes place in the mode of production itself, in the productivity of labour, and in the relation — within production — between the capitalist and the worker, as also in the social relation between them.33
It is evident that, with the constant revolutionising of production that occurs in real subsumption, the world beyond the immediate process of production is itself dramatically transformed. The important qualification here, however, is that these transformations occur with — or as a result of — the real subsumption of the labour process under the valorisation process: they do not necessarily constitute an aspect of real subsumption itself; nor do they define it, and indeed they may actually be considered mere effects of real subsumption. Though massively significant changes to society as a whole — and to the relation between capitalist and worker — may result from the real subsumption of the labour process under capital, it does not follow that these changes can themselves be theorised in terms of the concepts of subsumption.
As we have seen, subsumption has a distinct ontological character. The violence that is committed by a subsuming category lies in the fact that it is able to pass itself off as the truth of the very thing which it subsumes, to transform that particular into the mere instantiation of a universal. When the labour process is subsumed under the valorisation process, it becomes capital’s own immediate process of production. As Camatte argues:
Subsumption means rather more than just submission. Subsumieren really means “to include in something”, “to subordinate”, “to implicate”, so it seems that Marx wanted to indicate that capital makes its own substance out of labour, that capital incorporates labour inside itself and makes it into capital.34
The labour process in both real and formal subsumption is the immediate production process of capital. Nothing comparable can be said of anything beyond the production process, for it is only production which capital directly claims as its own. While it is true that the valorisation process of capital in its entirety is the unity of the processes of production and circulation, and whilst capital brings about transformations to the world beyond its own immediate production process, these transformations by definition cannot be grasped in the same terms as those which occur within that process under real subsumption. Nothing external to the immediate production process actually becomes capital nor, strictly speaking, is subsumed under capital.
Even if we were to accept the idea of an extension of real subsumption beyond the immediate process of production, the viability of subsumption as a category for periodisation is doubtful. Since formal subsumption is a logical prerequisite of real subsumption as well as a historical one, it characterises not just one historical epoch, but the entirety of capitalist history. Furthermore, according to Marx, though formal subsumption must precede real subsumption, real subsumption in one branch can also be the basis for further formal subsumption in other areas. If the categories of subsumption are applicable to history at all, this can therefore only be in a “nonlinear” fashion: they cannot apply simplistically or unidirectionally to the historical development of the class relation. Whilst we could plausibly say that at the total level, at any given stage in the development of this relation, the labour process is “more” or “less” really subsumed under the valorisation process than at any other given moment, this can only be a weak and ambiguous claim, and can hardly form a systematic basis for any account of actual historical developments.
The work of some theorists in the area of value-form theory or systematic dialectic — such as Patrick Murray and Chris Arthur — puts such periodisation further in doubt. For Arthur, though formal subsumption may well precede real subsumption temporally in the case of any given capital, real subsumption is inherent to the concept of capital from the outset.35 If real subsumption is thus something always implicit, which is only actualised in the course of capitalist history, this would further undermine any attempt to demarcate a specific period of real subsumption. Murray argues that the terms “formal subsumption” and “real subsumption” refer first to concepts of subsumption and only secondarily — if at all — to historical stages. According to Murray, Marx considers the possibility of a distinct historical stage of merely formal subsumption, but finds no evidence of one.36
If subsumption cannot rigorously apply to historical periods per se, nor to anything beyond the immediate process of production, we must conclude that it is not ultimately a viable category for a periodisation of capitalist history. We need other categories with which to grasp the development of the totality of the capitalist class relation, and in a manner which is not limited to the production process alone. Yet what is at stake is a great deal more than having the correct set of categories. That so many periodisations, regardless of their categorial framework, converge around the same dates37 — recognising, in particular, that some fundamental rupture took place between the late 60s and mid-70s — is a strong indication that there is more to periodisation than some aphasiac proliferation of terms, periods and arbitrary constellations of data. These periodisations — and that of TC in particular — are compelling because they tell us something plausible about the character of the class relation as it exists today. But categorial frameworks are of course not neutral, and a problematic core category will have implications for the rest of a theory.
TC’s phase of formal subsumption has much in common with the regulation school concept of a period of extensive accumulation, and indeed both locate a transition from these respective phases around the First World War. It is only at this point that real subsumption begins for TC, because it is at this point that the increasing productivity of labour begins to cheapen consumer goods, and thus to mutually implicate the reproduction of working class and capital. Similarly for the regulationists, prior to the proper development of mass consumption, accumulation must be primarily extensive. In both cases, a period of primarily absolute surplus value extraction is perceived as existing prior to the full development of the “specifically capitalist mode of production” and a shift of focus to relative surplus value. But there are significant problems with this notion of a period of extensive accumulation, as Brenner and Glick have forcefully argued.38 Capitalist production tends to commoditise and cheapen consumer goods from the outset, and agriculture is not something that is capitalised late, except perhaps in particular cases such as that of France, whose rural landscape remained dominated throughout the 19th century by small peasant owner-producers. It is tempting to surmise that the apparent “fit” of the French case to the concept of a historical phase of formal subsumption is the real basis for this aspect of TC’s periodisation. But if this is the case, the viability of at least this aspect of the periodisation for the history of the capitalist class relation per se looks severely in doubt.
Yet our criticisms of TC’s history of subsumption need not lead us to reject everything in TC’s theory en masse. We will need, of course, to think through the implications, for this theory, of doing away with a historical concept of subsumption. But it is in the concept of programmatism, and the analysis of the subsequent period up to the present that the heart of the theory lies. The concept of programmatism identifies important dimensions of class struggle as it was throughout much of the 20th Century, and thus helps us to understand the way in which the world has changed. Perhaps because of this recognition of rupture, TC have not shied away from confronting with clear eyes the character of struggles as they happen today, or from continuing to pose the fundamental question of communist theory:
How can the proletariat, acting strictly as a class of this mode of production, in its contradiction with capital within the capitalist mode of production, abolish classes, and therefore itself, that is to say: produce communism?39
Figure 1. Absolute surplus value extraction, on the basis of formal subsumption.
The necessary part of the working day (A-B) here is a given magnitude, so the only possibility of increasing the magnitude of the surplus portion (B-C) is by extending the working day ‘absolutely’ (A-C).
Figure 2. Relative surplus value extraction, on the basis of real subsumption.
The length of the working day (A-C) is a given magnitude, so the only possibility of increasing the magnitude of the surplus portion (B-C) is by decreasing the necessary part of the working day (A-B). Surplus value gained in this way is ‘relative’ surplus value.