Formal and Real Subordination and the Contemporary Proletariat: Re-Coupling Marxist Class Theory and Labour-Process Analysis

By Neilson, David | Capital & Class, April 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Formal and Real Subordination and the Contemporary Proletariat: Re-Coupling Marxist Class Theory and Labour-Process Analysis


Neilson, David, Capital & Class


Introduction

Traditionally, Marxist class theory defines the proletariat as 'the class of modern wage labourers, [who] having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live' (Marx & Engels, 1952:40) .This definition focusing on 'formal subordination', appended by Engels in a footnote to the 1888 English edition of the Communist Manifesto, became the orthodox view, and is reinforced to the present day by the continuing spread of waged work. However, in the Communist Manifesto prognosis, and as developed further in Capital Volume I, the formal proletariat of wage-dependent workers becomes a circumstantially homogeneous or well-formed 'class-in-itself ' encompassing the 'immense majority' only as a result of 'real subordination' driven by industrialisation.

The persistence of work and life experiences among the 'proletariat' that diverge significantly from those of really subordinated industrial factory workers raises problems both with the 1888 definition and the Communist Manifesto prognosis. In the 19705, neo-Marxist scholars became particularly concerned with the increase in 'middle class' wage-earner positions that were ambiguously located between labour and capital (Poulantzas, 1975; Carchedi, 1975;Wright, 1976). On the one hand, these were waged positions and therefore proletarian; but on the other hand, such 'workers' performed capitalist functions. Erik Olin Wright's concept of'contradictory class locations' became the mainstream neoMarxist solution.

While the original formulation drew explicitly on labourprocess theory, Wright's (1985, 1986, 1989) secondgeneration analysis conflates the class concept with a narrow distributional reading of exploitation that marginalises the themes of work and subordination. Bob Carter (1995: 35) succinctly identifies a corresponding and 'growing divide" between labour-process analysis and class theory:

It is the contention here that the emergence of a revitalized class analysis during the 19705 represented a crucial development in social theory. The central innovation was the perception of the integral relationship of changes in the labour process to changes in class structure. Subsequently, the increasing separation of these perspectives has left Marxist class theory abstract and formal, a spectator rather than a crucial interpreter of the increasingly rapid changes to work processes. Labour process analysis, on the other hand, has become (over) sensitive to the myriad changes but unable to relate them to wider class theory.

This paper contends that, inconsistent with Marx's own work, Wright's second-generation analysis has fueled this divide by constructing the field of class theory in ways that systematically remove labour-process themes. Wright's approach is challenged here through a re-examination of Marx's class concept and his thesis of proletarianisation, bringing labour-process themes back into the foreground of an empirically adequate Marxian class theory. Wright's approach is examined first, and provides a critical point of departure for identifying a Marxian class concept and analytical method that can be applied to test Marx's proletarianisation thesis. Next, Marx's lifetime published writings that support the dominant proletarianisation thesis-particularly the Communist Manifesto and Capital, Volume I-are briefly summarised. The thesis is that the spread of formal and real subordination will generate a well-formed proletariat that encompasses the immense majority.

From this basis, a more critical inquiry into the proletarianisation thesis can be undertaken, and this task is begun in the third section of the paper in an examination of the tension within Marx's work itself. Consideration of Marx's overarching intellectual project, and of specific arguments that he touches on, especially in the Grundrisse, significantly qualify the proletarianisation thesis by indicating stages beyond real subordination that imply proletarian diversity and division. …

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