Subsumption is the process by which the social relations of production penetrate the labour process itself. Marx distinguishes between the “formal” and “real” subsumption of the labour process by capital.
This concept is central to how Marx conceives of how capitalism establishes itself. In the chapter in Capital on “Primitive Accumulation” Marx showed that genuinely capitalist accumulation could only take place on the basis of productive forces and social relations which themselves could only arise on the basis of capital. At first, capital draws into itself an existing labour process – techniques, markets, means of production and workers. This Marx calls “formal” subsumption, under which the whole labour process continues much as before, but by monopolising the means of production, and therefore the workers’ means of subsistence, the capitalist compels the worker to submit to the wage-labour, and by using the existing markets, is able to accumulate capital.
Capitalism as such, however, cannot develop on the limited basis it finds in the already existing forces of production. The pre-requisites for a real capitalist labour process can only be created by capital itself. Thus, capital gradually transforms the social relations and modes of labour until they become thoroughly imbued with the nature and requirements of capital, and the labour process is really subsumed under capital. This is Marx’s solution to the paradox that only capital can create the conditions for capitalist production.
Marx defined real subsumption of labor in the “Results of the Immediate Process of Production,” the so-called unpublished sixth chapter of Capital Volume One (a translation here). Real subsumption is defined in contrast to formal subsumption of labor. Formal subsumption occurs when capitalists take command of labor processes that originate outside of or prior to the capital relation via the imposition of the wage.
In real subsumption the labor process is internally reorganized to meet the dictates of capital. An example of these processes would be weaving by hand which comes to be labor performed for a wage (formal subsumption) and which then comes to be performed via machine (real subsumption).
Real subsumption in this sense is a process or technique that occurs at different points throughout the history of capitalism. For some thinkers, such as Antonio Negri, real subsumption of labor is transfigured into real subsumption of society such that all of society becomes a moment of capitalist production. In this version of real subsumption is an epoch, a stage of capitalism within a historical periodization, analogous to postmodernity.
Below philosopher Ray Brassier talks about what might be possible under real subsumption