Notes on Subsumption


Suzanne Duchamp, Usine de mes Pensees / Factory of My Thoughts

These notes were prepared for the following event 25-26 January 2013:

I drew extensively on the work of Endnotes, in particular a text entitled ‘The History of Subsumption’, Endnotes #II, available here:

Inherited from idealist philosophy (Schelling, Kant, Hegel) and used by Karl Marx to theorise the development of the capitalist mode of production, subsumption has emerged as an important term for contemporary theorists attempting to describe and periodise the development of technologies, knowledges and class relations under capital. These categories of human activity and society can be described as ‘under capital’ since ‘subsumption’, which can be translated as submission, domination or subordination, describes a process by which the particular (concrete labour) is subsumed by a universal (value or capital’s process of valorisation).

The shift from ‘formal subsumption’ to that of ‘real subsumption’ in our present moment is characterised by the profound separation of human needs from capitalist production, self-reproduction and expansion. Capital is no longer content to merely encompass existing forms of production in its pursuit of value, but must convert and transform all of life (production and reproduction) into capitalist forms. Through this ceaseless deterritorialisation, it finds ways to extract value across all forms of social, material and biological activity, radically altering them in its wake. Within this, our ways of relating, caring and of expression, of communicating and collaborating, are enclosed, templated and optimised. As ICT is folded into this process the creation of new forms of sociality, new edges, speeds and channels of communicating, and an endless wake of data are produced by and for subjects. ICT accelerates capitalist subsumption but also changes the nature of struggle against its domination, forcing it, and us, into more bound and arguably intimate confrontations.

Additional definition by Jacques Camatte:

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. — Jacques Camatte, ‘Capital and Community’

Marx theorises subsumption as a two-stage process by which capital takes hold of a existing process (formal subsumption) and begins to shape and transform it to its own ends (real subsumption).

‘If the production of absolute surplus-value was the material expression of the formal subsumption of labour under capital, then the production of relative surplus-value may be viewed as its real subsumption.’ Marx, ‘Results of the Direct Production Process’ (MECW 34), p.429.

Michael Heinrich

In the case of an already existing labor process being subordinated to capital, Marx speaks of the formal subsumption of labour under capital. The sole difference from pre-capitalist conditions consists in the fact that the laborers work for a capitalist rather than for themselves. […] If the labor process is transformed in order to increase productivity, Marx speaks of the real subsumption of labor under capital. Michael Heinrich, An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital, 2012, Monthly Review Press, pp.118-119.

Heinrich stresses that by increasing the productivity of labour, which is only possible by transforming the production process itself, then the value of labour power and the value of the means of subsistence can be reduced. Even so, in this situation productivity can increase, real wages can decrease, more surplus value can be appropriated by the capitalist even while a rise in the living standards of the working class has been achieved. A greater portion of the working day now consists of surplus labour. (see p.120)

Absolute and Relative surplus-value:

The dynamic emanating from the production of relative surplus value […] accelerated technical development, a rising standard of living of the working class simultaneous to rising profit) is subject, however, to a precondition not hitherto addressed: the majority of means of subsistence consumed in the working-class household have to be capitalistically produced. Heinrich, op. cit., p.121.

Heinrich indicates how this was only achieved in the 20th century. In particular Fordism illustrates the ability of capitalists to raise wages, change the consumption patterns of workers and (through constant technological improvements to the production process) see rising profits. p.121


[..] real subsumption brings into play the reproduction of the proletariat. […] Real subsumption establishes the systematic and historical interconnection between the reproduction of the proletariat and the the reproduction of capital. p.145

Thus TC can say:

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 labor process alone. p.145

There are many other accounts and ways of periodising this shift in historical terms.

Endnotes point out that those of Antonio Negri, Theorie Communiste, Jacques Camatte, and we could add Carlo Vercellone and many others, converge somewhat on the period of the early-1970s, with each maintaining that this moment represents a fundamental shift, yet, it cannot be that this corresponds to a beginning to real subsumption, since we would have to date that much earlier e.g. Fordism or even earlier e.g. Bourneville or numerous other examples in which capitalists attempted to model not only the production process but integrate health, education and leisure and subordinate it to the needs of production (Foxconn would indicate a parallel attempt to do this in the present).

For Negri the period after 1968 marks the “end of the centrality of the factory working class as the site of the emergence of revolutionary subjectivity”. Through the ‘total subsumption of society’ capitalist production has become diffuse and encompasses all activity – a factory without walls or social factory. Endnotes, p.

For TC a similar period indicates a moment of massive capitalist restructuring:

Phase 1 – 1913-18-1960s Formal and real subsumption are characterised by self-affirmation of the proletariat.
Phase 2 – 1968-1973 – Present capital as a social relation becomes more immediately internal and self-negation of the proletariat becomes the only possibility of revolution.

Carlo Vercellone:

From this results a periodisation in which three principal stages of the capitalist division of labour and of the role of knowledge can be identified (even if these phases in part overlap with each other).

i) The stage of formal subsumption develops between the beginning of the sixteenth and the end of the eighteenth century. It is based on the models of production of the putting-out system6 and of centralised manufacture. The relation of capital/labour is marked by the hegemony of the knowledge of craftsmen and of workers with a trade, and by the pre-eminence of the mechanisms of accumulation of a mercantile and financial type.
ii) The stage of real subsumption starts with the first industrial revolution. The division of labour is characterised by a process of polarisation of knowledge which is expressed in the parcelling out and disqualification of the labour of execution and in the overqualification of a minoritarian component of labour power, destined to intellectual functions.7 The attempt to save time, founded on the law of value-labour, is accompanied by the reduction of complex labour intssage=1
Cookie: wp-saving-post-poration of knowledge in fixed capital and in the organisation of the firm. The dynamic of capital accumulation is founded on the large factories (first of all, those of the Mancunian model, then those of Fordism), which are specialised in the production of mass, standardised goods.
iii) The third stage is that of cognitive capitalism. It begins with the social crisis of Fordism and of the Smithian division of labour. The relation of capital to labour is marked by the hegemony of knowledges, by a diffuse intellectuality, and by the driving role of the production of knowledges by means of knowledges connected to the increasingly immaterial and cognitive character of labour.8 This new phase of the division of labour is accompanied by the crisis of the law of value-labour and by the strong return of mercantile and financial mechanisms of accumulation. The principal elements of this new configuration of capitalism and of the conflicts that derive from it are, in large measure, anticipated by Marx’s notion of the general intellect.

Carlo Vercellone, ‘From Formal Subsumption to General Intellect: Elements for a Marxist Reading of the Thesis of Cognitive Capitalism’, Historical Materialism 15 (2007) 13–36.

Temporality and Limits to Periodisation

Here Endnotes make clear their differences with the above theorists:

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. […] Nothing external to the immediate production process actually becomes capital nor, strictly speaking, is subsumed under capital. pp.148-149

Endnotes deny subsumption as a linear historical process, secondly questioning the simplistic applicability to historical development of class relations at all.

[…] 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.

Marx himself described real subsumption as a revolution which is both ‘complete’ and ‘constantly repeated’ in the Results.

Patrick 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.

Surreal Subsumption or Surreal Domination

This playful term was developed by the occasionally London-based group Melancholic Troglodytes to characterise the present coexistence of formal and real subsumption and apparent return to prior forms of primitive accumulation (direct appropriation of wealth and resources by capital-in-formation):

The Melancholic Troglodytes pick up on this dynamic, calling it ‘surreal subsumption’ – the co-existence of ‘real subsumption’ (a phase of capitalist development in which all of life becomes subject to exchange value) and ‘primitive accumulation’ (a stage in the transition to capitalism in which value is accumulated through theft or looting). From Josephine Berry Slater, Proud To Be Flesh, Mute Publishing, 2009.

The surreal phase we have postulated will come to replace the real phase of capital domination. What is interesting about this emerging phase is that it consists of four methods of surplus value extraction thus giving both capital and labour more flexibility. The two common forms of surplus value extraction (formal and real) are now becoming sandwiched between two more, provisionally named the pre-formal and post-real methods of extraction. Melancholic Troglodytes, ‘Disrespecting Multifundamentalism’, in Proud To Be Flesh

Istvan Mézáros

Mézáros calls real subsumption the ‘advent of the second order of mediations’ and identifies it with a specific, but unnamed period of human history. He stresses the total subordination of social reproductive functions and relates it to the separation and subordination of use value to exchange value (this is also an important theme for Vercellone). In this sense, limitations of (human) need do not constrain the reproductive expansion of capitalism.

Capital, as such, is nothing but a dynamic, all-engulfing and dominating mode and means of reproductive mediation, articulated as a historically specific set of structures and institutionally embedded as well as safeguarded social practices. It is a clearly identifiable system of mediations which in its properly developed form strictly subordinates all social reproductive functions – from gender and family relations to material production and even to the creation of works of art – to the absolute requirement of capital expansion, i.e. of its own continued expansion and expanded reproduction as a system of social metabolic mediation. Istvan Mézáros quoted in Ricardo Antunes, Meanings of Work, 2012, p.7


(updated for a talk at a workshop on subsumption, The Theory and Politics of Subsumption held at Birkbeck University, London
25 May 2013, 12 – 6pm)*

Capital’s interest can no longer be satisfied by merely encompassing existing forms of production in its pursuit of value, but must convert and transform all of life (production and reproduction) into capitalist forms. Through this ceaseless deterritorialisation, it seeks ways (not necessarily successfully) to extract value across all forms of social, material and biological activity, radically altering them in its wake. Within this, our ways of relating, caring and of expression, of communicating and collaborating, are enclosed, templated and optimised. We can see that organising Universities, childcare, hospitals along the lines of the capitalist labour process makes sense to capitalists desperately seeking profits from anywhere. However, on the present model this round of accumulation is likely to exhaust itself and deliver only rent rather than surplus value. There is a return to a despotic mode expanded, but this does necessarily spell success for capital. Without falling into vitalism, how can we disaggregate what has been described as life, or the human from the entropic descent of capitalism? Moreover, should we? Against the negative returns of capitalist futures, there is not necessarily a need to set against them, an overcoming affirmative force of life. Rather, could we consider what are the weak links in the chain of present social organisation and how to break them in the service of a movement of both negation and greater socialistion rather than a further decline?

Other questions:

Personification and the ‘runaway of capital’ – Camatte – Anthropomorphism of Capital / Mézáros discusses ‘personification’, of both capital and labour (the labourer / concrete labour as mere function).

Alienation, yes – but are we anymore or less alienated than when capital first began returning our products and capacities for social labour as alien?

Questionable status of sociality under these terms and framework. Is sociality counted, or simply counted as free?


Further sections on subsumption by Marx can be found throughout vols. 30-34 of Marx and Engels Collected Works (esp. Vol. 30, pp.54-348; vol 33, pp. 372-387; vol.34, pp. 93-121).

Chris Arthur, ‘The Possessive Spirit of Capital: Subsumption/Inversion/Contradiction’, in Re-reading Marx: New perspectives after the critical edition, Riccardo Bellofiore and Roberto Fineschi (eds.), Palgrave, 2009

Jacques Camatte, Capital and community: the results of the immediate process of production and the economic work of Marx

Enrique Dussel, Towards an Unknown Marx: A Commentary on the Manuscripts of 1861-63 (chapters 2 & 3), Trans. Yolanda Angulo, Routledge, 2001,

Endnotes – ‘A History of Subsumption’, Endnotes 2,

Andres Saenz De Sicilia, Time and Subsumption

Karl Marx, 1861-63 Manuscripts

Karl Marx, The Results of the Immediate Process of Production, 1864

Patrick Murray, ‘The Social and Material Transformation of Production: Formal and Real Subsumption in Capital, Volume I’, in The Constitution of Capital: Essays on Volume I of Marx’s Capital, Riccardo Bellofiore and Nicola Taylor (eds.), Palgrave, 2004

Massimiliano Tomba, ‘Historical Temporalities of Capital: An Anti-Historicist Perspective’, in Historical Materialism, Vol. 17 no. 4, 200
A Glossary of Subsumption,

Carlo Vercellone, ‘From Formal Subsumption to General Intellect: Elements for a Marxist Reading of the Thesis of
Cognitive Capitalism’, 2007


About anti

Anthony Iles is currently a doctoral candidate at the School of Art & Design, Middlesex University. A founder member of the Full Unemployment Cinema. A contributing editor with Mute / Metamute since 2005. He is the author, with Josephine Berry-Slater, of the book, No Room to Move: Art and the Regenerate City (Mute Books, London 2011), contributing editor to the recent publications, Anguish Language: writing and crisis (Archive Books, Berlin, 2015), and Look at Hazards, Look at Losses (Mute/Kuda, 2017) and a contributor to Brave New Work: A Reader on Harun Farocki’s Film A New Product. Recent essays have been published in Mute, Radical Philosophy, Rab-Rab: Journal for Political and Formal Inquiries in Art and Logos.
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