Key figures: Karl Marx, Antonio Negri, Guy Debord

The concepts of formal and real subsumption date back to Marx�s theorisations of the historical emergence of absolute and relative surplus value, produced as an appendix to Capital Volume 1. Subsumption is used to describe a real process within social relations where an element (labour for Marx) previously exterior or autonomous is integrated into a cycle of production changing the given determinations of power. One might compare it to an idea like Aufhebung where the other is preserved in a succession; when something is subsumed on the other hand, it does not necessarily retain any autonomy - it is overcome. Hence in Marx, formal and real subsumption refers to the real historical processes wherein the wage-labour relation becomes generalised.

Total subsumption is a more modern rendering. In the past on this page (Revised September 2009) we attributed this concept to Antonio Negri and others, to describe the full interiorisation of social relations to capital in Empire. However, Negri does not ever apparently actually use this term but discusses the real sumbsumption of society under capital (see for instance Empire pg. 255). Somehow, somewhere, in our eagerness perhaps to draw connections with Debord, and what we thought was implied by the idea of there being no outside, we started to talk of total subsumption. Others have clearly followed our lead, but the attribution to Negri is not correct and in fact he is concerned to point out the instability of the real internalisation of society under capital.

Total subsumption coincides with a new form of productivity, the social force of the multitude, whose subjectivity includes extensive affective labour and reproductive networks, not directly the result of capital, yet serving the needs of society where capital is the dominant form of production.�With Debord, the subsumption of society by the capitalist economy, is the basis of the spectacular universe, the real illusions which form a social relationship between individuals mediated by images (Thesis 4 Society of The Spectacle). A totality does not preclude change, so total subsumption shouldn't make you miserable. Rather, totalities express all the conditions of possibility of change. That all, rather than some of our social reality has a direct relationship with capital, does not imply they will not develop beyond it, but rather that it will condition the possible forms of development. Capital is essentially a system of ownership of human power and things, a particularly exploitative system but not a closed one impervious to change.

Erik Empson, September 2009