Origins of the Proletariat

Why these readings?

For the first week of the D.C. Endnotes reading group I suggested we do some background reading on the origins of the European proletariat and working class, the subjects of so much of what will follow. The texts were:

I chose the Eley text for the simple reason that the authors of Endnotes cite it and it forms the backbone of the European Socialism and Communism Reader that Endnotes-affiliated persons were among the editors of. I take it that Eley is one influence on the Endnotes telling of the story of the rise and fall of the workers’ movement in A History of Separation.

I thought we should read Results for its explication of formal and real subsumption of the labor process by capital. The concept of formal subsumption makes intelligible the development of distinctively capitalist class structure, the fall of the lord and serf, master and apprentice, landowner and peasant, etc. into the orbit of the capital-relation. Real subsumption makes intelligible the attendant technical changes, and continual social tumult that ensues. Eley says “Industry brought the ‘social problem.’” 1 Marx explains why this should be so.

Moreover, for Endnotes and their interlocutors, rival conceptions of subsumption are used to justify rival periodizations of the history of socialist and working class movements, and it is to Results (inter alia) that they look for textual warrant:

In the 1970s — in the midst of the historical break with the programmatic2 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.3

In what follows I’ll try to provide some context for the discussion of subsumption in the Results drawn largely from a paper by Patrick Murray4. It is cited by the above-quoted Endnotes essay. I’ll defer an in-depth discussion of subsumption until the appointed time (Week #3).

Context and structure of Results

Results was intended as “a summary of Volume 1 and as a bridge between Volumes 1 and 2 [of Capital]”5 (italics original). It dwells at length on the subject matter of the “middle third” of Volume 16: the production of absolute and relative surplus value, which correspond to formal and real subsumption respectively. It sets the stage for Volume II’s discussion of the circuits of capital by adumbrating how such circuits could get underway, and in particular how existing labor processes could be incorporated within them.

In the first of three sections, Commodities as the Product of Capital, as in the Chapter 1 of Volume 1, the commodity is presented as the ubiquitous form of wealth in capitalist societies 7. That wealth should take the form of commodities is both a prerequisite and consequence of capitalist production:

The commodity, as the elementary form of bourgeois wealth, was our starting point, the presupposition for the emergence of capital. On the other hand, commodities now appear as the product of capital.

This circular course taken by our presentation, on the one hand, corresponds to the historical development of capital, one of the conditions for the emergence of which is the exchange of commodities; but this condition itself is formed on the basis provided by a number of different stages of production which all have in common a situation in which capitalist production either does not as yet exist at all or exists only sporadically. On the other hand, the exchange of commodities in its full development and the form of the commodity as the universally necessary social form of the product first emerge as a result of the capitalist mode of production.

If, in contrast, we consider societies where capitalist production is fully developed, the commodity appears there as both the constant elementary presupposition of capital and, on the other hand, as the direct result of the capitalist production process.

Commodity production antedates the development of capitalist production but the commodity only becomes “the general form of all produce” when capitalist production predominates.

As an example of the variety of commodity production capital finds ready to hand in its fledgling phase Marx twice refers to the division of agricultural produce into the producer’s means of subsistence and an excess which is sold. Commodity production of this kind predominates when producers are not yet dependent on the market. “If, e.g., capital has not yet taken control of agriculture, a large part of the product is still produced directly as means of subsistence, not as commodities; a large part of the working population will not yet have been converted into wage labourers, nor will a large part of the conditions of labour have been converted into capital.”

The commodity, an economic category “appropriate to earlier modes of production”, acquires a “new and specific historical character under the impact of capitalist production”. Where before sale of the product was more or less incidental (“Well kids, if the harvest is good we might have some corn to sell!”) it is now production’s primary purpose (“We’ll hire workers to plant corn if prices don’t keep dropping”). In the circuit syntax of Vol. 2, the exchange of one commodity for money with which another commodity is purchased (C-M-C) is supplanted by exchange of money for means of production and labor power used to produce a commodity chosen so as to engender a sale for more than the cost of the factors of production advanced (M-C(MP/LP)-P-C'-M').

For the production of commodities to proliferate, it must increasingly become production by means of commodities. It is only when the worker’s ability to work is “converted into a commodity for him”8 that “production of commodities leads inexorably to capitalist production”. Capitalist commodity production inexorably displaces the form of commodity production on which it initially depends - that carried out by producers with access to factors of production (i.e. land and their own capacity to labor) independent of market exchange.

The key point of the first section is the historic novelty of the generalization of the commodity form. In the second section, Capitalist Production as the Production of Surplus Value, it is the historic novelty of the capital-relation that’s emphasized. Put another way, Marx is keen to circumscribe the historical period to which the concept of capital can be applied without obfuscating social reality.

This approach distinguishes him from his contemporaries and the great majority of ours. Here, for instance, is how capital is defined in Samuelson and Nordhaus’ wildly popular introductory textbook, Economics:

An advanced industrial economy like the United States employs a vast array of buildings, machines, computers, software, and so on. These are the factors of production called capital - a produced factor of production, a durable input which is itself an output of the economy. […]

Use of capital involves time-consuming, round-about methods of production. People learned long ago that indirect and roundabout production techniques are often more efficient than direct methods of production. For example, the most direct method of catching fish is to wade into a stream and grab fish with your hands, but this yields more frustration than fish. By using a fishing rod (which is capital equipment), fishing time becomes more productive in terms of fish caught per day. By using even more capital, in the form of nets and fishing boats, fishing becomes productive enough to feed many people and provide a good living to those who operate the specialized nets and equipment.9

In other words: “capital is wealth capable of being used to produce more wealth” 10. The maker and user of “capital equipment” may be one and the same or they may be distinct, and if distinct, they may stand in any relation whatsoever to one another. A fishing rod made to feed oneself is no less capital than an Amazon data center. By knapping flints, the early Pleistocene residents of Olduvai Gorge could be said to have been creating some of the first “capital equipment”, a produced means of flayed carcass production.

The generality of this definition makes its employment hazardous. First, it “encompasses all human societies”10, so with it in mind we are liable to lose sight of what is extraordinary about our own era: that the social form of wealth in our society “revolutionizes [it], its goods and services, and the ways they are produced”. It is the latter of these revolutions that Marx terms “real subsumption of labor under capital”.

The second hazard is somewhat more subtle:

Marx observes that, under capitalism, wealth is produced not simply in the commodity-form but in the form of commodity capital, that is, commodities whose sale realizes surplus-value. Since goods for individual consumption, including luxury items, are produced in the social form of commodity capital, not all commodity capital is suitable as a means for new production. According to the commonplace definition of capital, then, such goods and services must not be capital. Because of the role they play in the realization of surplus-value, however, they do function as capital. Here the commonplace definition is too narrow. Were economics and everyday discourse to include commodity capital as capital, their concept of capital would collapse into that of wealth, since there are no distinctive natural characteristics of wealth in the form of commodity capital10.

For Marx, capital and wage-labor are two sides of the same social relation, and each can be understood only by reference to the other. Capital, passing through phases of circulation in which it appears as money and commodities in turn, is distinguished from money and commodities generally by the role it plays in the pursuit of surplus value by employment of labor power. It is this pursuit which explains the peculiar dynamics of labor process change - “real subsumption” - in the capitalist era.

  1. Page 47 ↩︎

  2. “Generally speaking we could say that programmatism is defined as a theory and practice of class struggle in which the proletariat finds, in its drive toward liberation, the fundamental elements of a future social organisation which become the programme to be realised. This revolution is thus the affirmation of the proletariat, whether as a dictatorship of the proletariat, workers’ councils, the liberation of work, a period of transition, the withering of the state, generalised self-management, or a ‘society of associated producers’… Programmatism is intrinsically linked to the contradiction between the proletariat and capital as it is constituted by the formal subsumption of labour under capital.” - Théorie Communiste, Much Ado About Nothing ↩︎

  3. Endnotes #2: The History of Subsumption, to be read for Week #3. ↩︎

  4. The Social and Material Transformation of Production by Capital: Formal and Real Subsumption in Capital, Volume I by Patrick Murray in Bellofiore, R., and Nicola Taylor. The Constitution of Capital: Essays on Volume I of Marx’s Capital. Houndmills, Balsingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave, 2004. Pages 243-273. ↩︎

  5. Mandel introduction to Results in the Penguin edition. ↩︎

  6. The middle third consisting of “Part III: The Production of Absolute Surplus-Value”, “Part IV: Production of Relative Surplus Value”, and “Part V: The Production of Absolute and of Relative Surplus-Value” ↩︎

  7. Page 949-951, Capital Vol. 1, Penguin Edition ↩︎

  8. Cf. Vol. 1 Ch. 26, The Secret of Primitive Accumulation ↩︎

  9. Samuelson, Paul A., and William D. Nordhaus. Economics. Boston: McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 2005. Page 33. ↩︎

  10. Page 245 in Murray4 ↩︎ ↩︎2 ↩︎3