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Opening a can of worms: How a conjoined subsumption framework helps explain how the Ontario bait worm market operates

14:40, Thursday 11 May 2023 EDT (10 minutes)

Drawing on Marx’s distinction between the formal and real subsumption of labour under capital, the ‘subsumption of nature’ framework identifies the strategies by which nature-based industries harness biophysical processes to produce surplus value. In this framework, the formal subsumption of nature treats nonhuman natures as exogenous stocks of raw materials that produce absolute surplus value through ‘extractivist’ logics. The real subsumption of nature, by contrast, transforms the ecological processes to produce relative surplus value by increasing the productivity of nature itself. 

While useful in explaining the constitution of particular nature-based industries, the subsumption of nature framework largely sidesteps how human labour is deployed to devise new ways to subsume nature to capital (i.e. the creation of GMO seeds) and, conversely, how the subsumption of nature structures the organization and composition of labour. In this paper, I interrogate the subsumption of nature framework to explore the peculiar, unknown, and relatively profitable bait-worm industry in Ontario, Canada that exports 700 million ‘nightcrawler’ worms (Lumbricus terrestris) to recreational fishermen across the world. Curiously, the production process for extracting worms has not significantly changed over its 80-year duration; pickers continue to strap lights to their foreheads and tin cans to their ankles and scour farmer’s fields at night. The apparent inertia (yet longevity) of the bait worm industry’s organization of capital and labour, I argue, results from capital’s uneven ability to seize control and subsume the ecological forces of production (the worms and soil); in turn, this shapes the composition of labour, the working conditions, and labour’s share of the surplus. In sum, I argue the formal and real subsumption of nature and the formal and real subsumption of labour are dialectically related and co-constitute each other in the pursuit of surplus value.

A conjoined subsumption framework helps us better understand the diversity of natural resource geographies by arguing that the level of capitalist control and design over nature is dialectically related to capitalist control and design over the labour process. This contribution informs contemporary debates around the ‘subsumption of nature’ through an amusing and peculiar case study that underscores the tensions and contradictions inherent in capitalism’s attempts to commodify the living world — including the soil organisms that are inches beneath our feet.

University of Toronto Scarborough
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