Formal subsumption corresponds to absolute surplus value, extracted by lengthening the working day; real subsumption produces relative surplus value, by intensifying the productive process.
This helps clarify some Marxist terminology that has always stymied me. I’ve always understood formal and real subsumption in terms of how the exploitation of labor was organized and where capitalists intervened. At first, craft production starts to be funded by capitalists and only eventually is the production process reorganized for the purposes of growth for growth’s sake, prioritizing accumulation (over sustainability and harmony with some sort of organic community, if you believe that such a thing exists and is worth pursuing) as capitalists must.
So this helps explain that far more concisely. Real subsumption is about increasing productivity of work process (using division of labor to increase output while deskilling workers); formal subsumption is about getting workers to work longer for less money (using leverage to make skilled workers accept a bad bargain for their labor power). Another way of putting that is that under real subsumption, work depends on the capitalist organization of labor and distribution (you are a cog in a big wheel; e.g. you get a job at a bread factory pouring bags of flour into giant mixing machines), whereas under formal subsumption, value-generating work can still be “invented” by the worker (you bake your artisanal bread but must sell it to capitalist middlemen).
According to Endnotes, Marx defines it as “the subsumption of the particularities of the labour-process under the abstract universality of the valorisation-process of capital.” In other words, capitalism makes labor into some generic input, giving inherited/accumulated capital more leverage in claiming the results of the production process (aka profit). This can simply mean converting craft work (small business entrepreneurship) into waged labor.
This, in turn, may drive workers to try to differentiate their specific labors, to make their particular labor seem uniquely significant — it can make workers prefer to become personal brands within neoliberally organized production. (Everyone is an enterprise in a small-business society, though some have way more “human capital” than others.) Are such workers really subsumed or formally subsumed, or maybe both, and does that matter to non-Hegelians?
The periodization of formal subsumption being supplanted by real subsumption is a bit misleading, because these forms of management coexist in capitalism; if real subsumption is “destined” to replace formal subsumption, the development is unevenly distributed across time, space, and industrial sectors. And it is not clear that one is worse than the other, whether real subsumption is destroying the more “authentic” possibilities of work under formal subsumption, or whether real subsumption is leading toward some sort of apotheosis of subsumption upon which capitalism turns itself inside-out and becomes communism, because capital has forced all workers to be both collaborative (subordinating self-interest to the productive needs of a group) and autonomous (self-managing) to such a highly efficient degree.
It is not clear to me whether the terms have any usefulness at all, quite frankly, but still I keep trying to clarify them in my mind, because of the unintuitive ways they link the forms of work and the forms of value, suggesting ways these could be shifted away from accumulation (which requires intensified exploitation) toward some other end.
I’ve tried to write about this stuff before, using subsumption as a way to try to explain capitalist subjectivity — how we seem to be pre-formatted to become what Lordon calls “willing slaves of capital.” If the production of subjectivity has been made subject to “real subsumption,” then capitalism and its incentives is built into the very processes of self-knowledge, as one’s own self-interest. I thought that new technologies, social media and so on, showed how that real subsumption has occurred and integrates new technologies to reinforce that ongoing process.
Though now I am confused. It’s clear that social media support a neoliberalist “person as enterprise” conception (see Dardot and Laval), that also seems to be an effort to counteract the abstractification process of “real subsumption.” It seems as the subsuming has gone to a third level for which there is no standard Marxist jargon for. (Need to discover some more unpublished prophetic Grundrisse.)