The Labour Contract in Das Kapital: From Simple Illusions to Necessary Appearances (Part Three) — Facundo C. Rocca

The Juridical Form in Das Kapital

At the beginning of the previous section, I pointed out how the juridical act of the exchange contract interrupts the commodity form’s tendency to autonomize and reify human activity. The fact that commodities do not have an independent existence, that they need to be exchanged by human subjects, raised the question of the link of recognition of that exchange–a link that was not between commodities themselves, but rather between human subjects as commodity owners. Consequently, the movement of commodities re-encountered its dependency upon human activity and subjectivity.

In the production sphere, the internal dependency of capital (as impersonal power of objectified labour) upon the dynamic potency of labour subjectivity was also evident. Despite capital’s mystification, despite its unbounded control over the work process and the alienation of the social power of production, capital could not exist without the living labour borne by the conscious body of workers. Without it capital would cease to be a living dead, and would ossify as purely dead past labour, incapable of movement and of valorization.

The movement of the capital relation, which Das Kapital‘s logical exposition attempts to mirror, seems to imply this dialectic between the subjective, personal moment of activity and the autonomization of its objectified products in the form of impersonal (though personified) powers.

These personal figures appear frequently in the exposition, always disrupting the mechanical function of autonomous things: from the abstractly equivalent commodity owners to the exchange between commodity owners and money owners to the money owner who wants to increase its value facing commodity owners who have nothing to sell but their own labour-power, and from there to the classes of capitalists and proletarians who confront themselves in a civil war inside the material process. The development of the capital relation encounters dramatis personae who seem to be more than mere bearers [Träger] of mechanical and impersonal economic relations. [1] This is so precisely because the impersonal economic relations of capitalism rely upon their mediation by these figures of subjectivity: the free person, the right-entitled juridical subject, the externally unbounded worker, and the politically active class.

Inside this dialectic between the personal and the impersonal, the subjective and its autonomized objectification, the unbounded activity of the free individual and the determinations that the crystallization of its own activity as an autonomous power imposes on them, the juridical form finds new and recurrent figures.

After the original free labour contract, and the formal subsumption of labour to capital it enables, we encounter the problem of labour law, which concerns the duration of the working day in chapter 10.

What is interesting is that we find here, before the leap towards the social worker in the section to which Jameson makes reference, a form of collectivity in two classes that confront each other politically.

At the same time, in this political subjectification, what is at stake is a dispute over the original juridical terms and figures of the free contract. This is a full-scale political battle over the interpretation and the limits of the recognition implied in the labour contract. Against the ambition of the capitalist to make free and unrestricted use of the commodity he has purchased, the worker maintains that he has been recognised as a free person that cannot be fully subordinated to the voracious will of the buyer of his only commodity. The transformation of lawful dominium over commodities (and of labour as a commodity) into imperium over workers reveals itself as a space of conflict rather than an automatic effect of an objective economic link. Hence, rather than a mere illusion, the juridical form appears as a battleground, as a rule that can be polemically reactivated, acting as a support for an antagonistic subjectivity. [2]

Moreover, after Marx has set out the specific logic of the capitalist mode of production, the alienated existence of cooperation in the form of machinery and big industry that allows the real subsumption of labour to capital and the appropriation of relative surplus-value, we encounter once more legal rules concerning health, education, and working conditions. Here the reach of the law encounters the authority of the capitalist over the workspace, and can achieve effective generalization only through competition between capitalists themselves.

The persistence of these juridical figures and processes in Das Kapital suggests that there is more to the juridical than a mere illusion or subjective misrecognition. The apparently juvenile problem of the juridical form follows the mature Marx to the very “abode of production”. We need to develop these ideas, already advanced by Pashukanis [3], and attempt to see the persistence of the juridical form through the full unfolding of capitalist relations.

[1] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990 [1867]), 206; also available (in different translation) at

[2] “The capitalist therefore takes his stand on the law of commodity-exchange. Like all other buyers, he seeks to extract the maximum possible benefit from the use-value of his commodity. Suddenly, however, there arises the voice of the worker, which had previously been stifled in the sound and fury of the production process: ‘The commodity I have sold you differs from the ordinary crowd of commodities in that its use creates value, a greater value than it costs. That is why you bought it. What appears on your side as the valorization of capital is on my side an excess expenditure of labour-power. You and I know on the market only one law, that of the exchange of commodities. And the consumption of the commodity belongs not to the seller who parts with it, but to the buyer who acquires it. The use of my daily labour-power therefore belongs to you. But by means of the price you pay for it every day, I must be able to reproduce it every day, thus allowing myself to sell it again. Apart from natural deterioration through age etc., I must be able to work tomorrow with the same normal amount of strength, health and freshness as today. You are constantly preaching to me the gospel of ‘saving’ and ‘abstinence’. Very well! Like a sensible, thrifty owner of property I will husband my sole wealth, my labour-power, and abstain from wasting it foolishly. Every day I will spend, set in motion, transfer into labour only as much of it as is compatible with its normal duration and healthy development. By an unlimited extension of the working day, you may in one day use up a quantity of labour-power greater than I can restore in three. What you gain in labour, I lose in the substance of labour. Using my labour and despoiling it are quite different things. … You pay me for one day’s labour-power, while you use three days of it. That is against our contract and the law of commodity exchange. … I demand a normal working day because, like every other seller, I demand the value of my commodity.” Ibid., 342–43.

[3] Evgeny Pashukanis, The General Theory of Law and Marxism [1924], available at

Facundo C. Rocca is a doctoral student of philosophy at the National University of General San Martín and the University of Paris VIII, and a doctoral fellow at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina.