[OPE-L:1219] formal subsumption and the totality

Michael A. Lebowitz (mlebowit@sfu.ca)
Mon, 26 Feb 1996 00:55:44 -0800

[ show plain text ]

Here's more on the question of capitalism as an organic
system. In 1129, I argued:

"Until it produces its own specifically capitalist mode of
production--- which precludes the possibility that wage-
labourers themselves will be able to extract themselves from
their dependence upon capital, capital cannot rely upon its
own processes to produce its presuppositions. (As this
section notes, it accordingly must draw upon "the power of
the state" under such conditions.)"

In 1167, Gil responded:

"This isn't exactly true. As Marx points out in the first
part of ch. 25, Volume I, even without state action or the
specifically capitalist mode of production, the dynamic
logic of capital accumulation will support the relative
scarcity and thus the profitability of capital. Thus the
following passages are beside the point.

> The proof of all this, for Marx, was demonstrated in the
>colonies--- a demonstration which he sees as important
>enough to conclude the volume--- where capitalism in the
>absence of "artificial means" (937) could not be reproduced
>because the market conditions for labour permitted workers
>to extract themselves from wage-labour. Ie., that "great
>beauty of capitalist production" (935) , its production of
>a relative surplus population, which ensures "the social
>dependence of the worker on the capitalist, which is
>indispensable" was not present.

But contrary to Mike's representation, there would still be
persistent capitalist profits even given only formal
subsumption, in light of Marx's argument in the first part
of Ch. 25."

My initial reaction to Gil's point was to think---
well, of course, the first part of Ch. 25 is only a
heuristic device because, as we know so clearly, capitalism
inherently involves the substitution of machinery for direct
living labour. It didn't take long to recognise, however,
that Gil was right--- there is a case where this does not
happen, which is the case of merely formal subsumption and
the first part of Ch. 25 should be explicitly acknowledged
as referring to such a situation in which the specifically
capitalist mode of production is not present.
So, does the first part of Ch. 25 then support Gil's
challenge to my argument that capitalism is not an organic
system where there is merely formal subsumption of labour?
Only if taken by itself. The argument in this part is that
capital accumulation leads to wage increases to profit
declines to reduced capital accumulation (thereby restoring
the "relative scarcity and thus the profitability of
capital"). However, combine that with the argument in Ch. 33
and consider the side of workers: accumulation of capital
increases the demand for labour, drives wages up and allows
workers to extract themselves from wage-labour "which reacts
in turn very adversely on the conditions of the labour-
market" (which, is to say, it "restores the relative
scarcity" of wage-labourers). The picture is one in which
the accumulation of capital--- in the absence of the
reproduction of the reserve army via substitution of
machinery or the exercise of state power--- tends toward the
non-reproduction of capital and the non-reproduction of
Again, this is the point that Marx is making in Ch. 28,
when he talks about the need to regulate wages through the
power of the state when there is merely formal subsumption.
He reinforces this point on p. 902 when he comments that "in
the period of manufacture properly so called, the capitalist
mode of production had become sufficiently strong to render
legal regulation of wages as impracticable as it was
To remind folks why all this may be important, this
particular exchange began when I suggested that Gil's
version of "credit-market island" (and merchant-exploiter
island)--- which I regard as pre-capitalist productive
relations (more about that later)--- were not forms of
exploitation which could be the basis for capitalism as an
organic system... and that even "labour-market island',
where there is merely formal subsumption was not sufficient
for this.
Finally, one further point about capitalism as an
organic system. In 1166 Gil challenged my statement in 1128
that "if we begin with a historical presupposition..., the
point is to show that this condition is reproduced by
capitalism itself and thus, to this extent, capitalism is a
reproducing, stable system." Gil challenges here and
subsequently my use of the term "stable": "I deny that Marx
has any intention of depicting capitalism as a 'stable'
system. To the contrary, Marx understands the reproduction
of capitalist relations to be problematic."
I think Gil misunderstands me here. I suggest that Marx
sets out stability conditions for capitalism and that the
specification of these is important in understanding exactly
what makes the reproduction of capitalist relations
problematic. As Gil should know from reading BEYOND CAPITAL
(the inevitable plug!), I am not one who thinks that for
Marx the reproduction of capitalist relations was so
*unproblematic*; indeed, I think Marx was acutely aware of
the mystification of capital associated with the development
of the specifically capitalist mode of production. Rather,
the argument I make is that, in the absence of struggle,
workers are produced as products of capital (the essential
stability condition) and that a necessary condition for
shattering capitalism as an organic system is the struggle
of workers against capital, a struggle which transforms them
and produces them as actors who do not look upon capital's
requirements as "self-evident natural laws".
This seems a good note upon which to end this

in solidarity,
Michael A. Lebowitz
Economics Department, Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, B.C., Canada V5A 1S6
Office: (604) 291-4669; Office fax: (604) 291-5944
Home: (604) 255-0382
Lasqueti Island: (604) 333-8810
e-mail: mlebowit@sfu.ca