Notes on Patrick Murray, “The Social and Material Transformation of Production: Formal and Real Subsumption in Capital, Volume I”

These are some notes I took on Patrick Murray’s chapter in Riccardo Bellofiore and Nicola Taylor (eds.), The Constitution of Capital: Essays on Volume I of Marx’s Capital (Palgrave, 2004), pp 243-72.

His chapter deals with the middle parts of Capital that we are now reading. He particularly emphasises the concepts of subsumption that Marx develops in this part of Capital.

The Social and Material Transformation of Production: Formal and Real Subsumption in Capital, Volume I

Patrick Murray

1. Why wealth is a poor concept: on the purpose of production (243)

  • What is the purpose of production?
  • Stocking up unpaid surplus labour.
  • Four questions about wealth:
  1. How much wealth is there?
  2. How is it divided?
  3. What is the specific social form and purpose of wealth?
  4. What is the measure of wealth?
  • The third question anwsers the fourth: surplus-value is the measure and purpose of wealth.
  • Marx sets out in Capital not with wealth in general but with a particular social form of wealth: the commodity-form.
  • If capital is treated as a general category it has nothing to do with the specificity of capitalist society. Economics treats capital as wealth that can be used to produce more wealth. This doesn’t say anything about capital in capitalist society.
  • Economics’ definition of capital is both too broad and too narrow. Too broad: it isn’t historically specific; too narrow: it only includes productive capital. “The effort to define capital in abstraction from specific social forms and purposes, then, breaks down in a twofold failure” (245).
  • “Marx’s profound brak with the discourse of economics” (245). The forms of subsumption under capital are not intelligible on economics’ definition of capital.

2. Absolute surplus-value and relative surplus-value

  • The concepts of absolute and relative surplus-value relate respectively to formal and real subsumption. “Between them, formal and real subsumption under capital bring about a continual hubbub of social and material revolution, yet in the same stroke, they enforce social stasis because they strengthen and expand the hold of the law of value and capital’s web of value forms” (246). This then explains the dynamism of Capitalism that Marx and Engels talk about in The Communist Manifesto.
  • The riddle of the source of surplus-value.
  • The working day: ABC. Absolute value is increase BC; Relative surplus value is decreasing AB. The value of commodities: the value of the use-values workers consume may fall while the quantity of use-values may rise. (This is important in debates about poverty etc.)
  • ASV and RSV are “flow concepts” (248); is an increase in surplus value due to ASV or RSV?
  • The productivity of labour. Again labour may produce a greater number of commodities, use-values, but the same amount of value.
  • The generation of relative surplus labour is an immanant tendency of capitalism; the individual and social values of commodities. “Scince Marx reaches this result solely by tracking the conesequences of capital concieved as a distinctive social form of wealth, we glimpse the power of his social form approach” (249).
  • The line ABC could suggest that Marx has only quantitiative interested in the portions of the working day: what is the necessary labour, surplus labour and their ratio? There is a prior question: what is the dimension of the line?
  • In any class society the labour of the exploited class is part necessary and part surplus. But this forgets the question of social form. Only one sort of class society produces value and surplus-value.
  • The qualitiative side of Marx’s theory of value is lost is value is collapsed into wealth; the specific character of capitalism is dissolved into the history of class societies.

3. Marx’s four subsumption concepts: formal, real, hybrid and ideal

  • Formal to real subsumption.
  • The middle third of Capital I treats formal and real subsumption. Chapters on co-operation, the division of labour and machinery all fall under the motion of real subsumption.
  • Etienne Balibar and Derek Sayer don’t acknowledge this distinction. They see formal subsumption as manufacture and real subsumption as large-scale industry. Here Murray distinguishes between the concepts of subsumption and historical stages of development: they do not map onto one another. “Because they conceive of formal and real subsumption as historical stages rather than concepts of subsumption, Balibar and Sayer lose sight of the fact that a production process must be formally subsumed under capital in order to be really subsumed.
  • Cooperation is the first form of real subsumption. Cooperation is a feature of both manufacture and large-scale industry.
  • Division of labour and manufacture are both forms of real subsumption.

3.1 Formal subsumption

  • “If formal subsumption under capital is the ‘general form’, what social and material transformations does it bring about?” (252). Formal subsumption is a social transformation under capital. It rearranges socity to the needs of capital.
  • The relationship between exploiter and exploited changes. There is no fixed political structure that determines the subservience of the latter. “The very idea of class is radically transformed” (253).
  • Nothing but the content of the sale of and purchase of labour power enter the subordination of labour to capital; viz. the determination of class relations is internal to the dynamic of capitalism.
  • Wage labour socially liberates the working class. It freely disposes of its wages, it works for itself, etc…
  • Capital becomes a fetish: it commands labour, has the powers of labour.
  • The distinction between formal and merely formal subsumption. The first applies to all forms of capitalist production; the second to those where real subsumption has not occurred.

3.2 Real subsumption

  • Real subsumption revolutionises the production process in such ways that more suplus-value is produced. Three uses:
  1. Materially transforming a formally subsumed process to increase the rate of surplus value
  2. A particular process that has been really subsumed; McDonalds and the prefixing of really subsumed processes with ‘Mc-’, as in McJobs.
  3. A historical period.
  • Cooperation is a concept of Capital’s systematic dialectics whereas its concrete forms relate to its historical dialectics.
  • Everything about formal subsumption applies in real subsumption.
  • As capitals grow, viz. formally subsumped capitals, they develop cooperation, the first form of real subsumption.
  • Capitalist production begins both historically and conceptually with cooperation.
  • Lists seven qulitative changes of real subsumption:
  1. the law of valorisation comes into its own,
  2. economies of scale,
  3. a collective productive power is created,
  4. animal spirirts increase efficiency internally within the labour force,
  5. speed of production,
  6. scale of production,
  7. space of production.
  • Cooperation is a social productive power that costs capital nothing. Real subsumption is about the development of the power of social labour.
  • Capital becomes materially in charge of the labour process, their organisation of workers into work becomes a condition of the labour process. Workers no longer organise their own work.
  • The capitalist is both incharge of producing the greatest quantity of surplus value possible in the social arrangement of production, or its formal subsumption under capital, but the actual process is materially transformed to this end, or is really subsumed under capital.
  • Real subsumption places the social form of industry to the fore. Commerce and industry treated as generic categories by economics. Marx insists that there is a specifically capitalist mode of production. Two deep conceptual mistakes interfere with understanding this.
  • One: the idea that use-values mutually exclude values; but consider productivity.
  • Two: “Technological naivite”: the idea that real subsumption doesn’t in fact mould the production apparatus to the accumulation of surplus value. “This romantic coneption fails to recognize that, if production for the sake of surplus-value were overtrown, it would have to be replaced with some new and definite social form of production with a definite social purpose. That new purpose would have to be thicker than just producing use-values” (262).
  • “Understading real subsumption can also be blocked if we fail to see the inseperability of production and exchange” (262).

3.3 Hybrid subsumption

  • Hybrid sumsumption is when capital gains surplu-value indirectly. It is subsumption without formal subsumption: the social relations of capitalism do not obtain.
  • Transitional and accompanying hybrid subsumption. Transitional forms are merchant and usuerers’ capital. They profit by their position in circulation but no-one is under capitalist relations. Accompanying forms are these forms continuning alongside the capitalist epoch.

3.4 Ideal subsumption

  • Ideal subsumption treats non-subsumed labour as if it were.
  1. treating non capitalist relations with terms like value, profit etc…. The dominance of the discourse of economics leads to this. Bad science is unable to see the difference between general and determinate abstractions.
  2. ‘self-employed’ or ‘contractor’ is an imagined category; as is the ideal subsumption of all sorts of organisations in the era of economic rationalism.
  3. Capitals that treat their individual branches as exchanging commodities, ideally subsume their internal departments.

4. Results and peculiarities of the specifically capitalist drive to increase productivity

  • The result of real asubsumption is the development of social labour and the quantitative increase of production.
  • These results appear asocial, as generic aspects of social labour.

4.1 Production for the sake of production. Productivism and wealthism

  • The goals of capitalism appears to be production and wealth. “Capitalism’s specific social forms seem to be written in invisible ink” (267).
  • Ideological shadow forms, derivative of the value forms, are generated simply by participation in everday capitalism.
  • Production for production’s sake is the necessary appearance the drive to accumulate surplus-value.
  • The imperaative of the mode of production as such lead to production bearing no relation to social need; whereas for Aristotle and Aquinas, “humans are not made for wealth; wealth is made for humans” (268).
  • Marx sees this outstriping of social need as positive. “Here Marx sides with the moderns over the ancients. But the universality of capitalist needing, while a progressive development, is, for Marx, an inadequate kind of universality” (268). A bad universality, a bad infinite? “Marx has a very different universal measure of wealth in mind [contra surplus-value], one that synthesises the Aristotelian emphasis on the development of human capabilities with the modern emphasis on universality and the opnness of human nature” (269.

4.2 The drive’s selectivity

  • Production for production’s sake is false because in capitalism it is rather production for the sake of surplu-value; ‘production’ therefore selects those avenues that will return the greatest surplus-value.

4.3 The drive’s contradictory character

  • Barriers. Increasing productivity can decrease the rate of profit leading to crisis, etc., that set back ‘production for production’s sake’. If it was production for production’s sake, overproduction wouldn’t be thinkable and yet it is. “In crises, production declines because of its actual purpose (surplus-value), not in violation of its purported purpose (production as an end in itself)” (269).

4.4  The drive’s exclusivity

  • The drive to accumulate surplus value shuts out any other value. Everything takes on the image of value.

4.5 The drive’s domineering character

  • It is independent of anyone’s will: the law of value operates one everyone, capitalists included, as a force we cannot reackon with.

4.6 The drive’s false generality

  • Capitalism posits a form of universalism. But it a particular universalism, interested in generating a specific social form of production. The universalism, though, opens the possibility of a genuine universalism, the sort that shears away at the particularity of capitalism’ apparent generality.
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