Contract farming (CF) has generally been understood as, essentially, a market institution—by both (approving) “mainstream” and (critical) “radical” perspectives. Analyses of relations of production have, meanwhile, tended towards a problematic “peasantist” frame, where contracts undermine farmer “autonomy” in processes of “flexible” corporate agro‐industrial restructuring. This paper argues that a materialist analysis of CF from within capital–labour relations offers a stronger conceptual foundation for re‐synthesizing questions of market‐power. It first argues that radical notions of “peasant subsumation” conceptually mirror Marx’s “formal subsumption of capital” but underplay dynamics of “real subsumption” accompanying capitalism’s wider development. Drawing on the “petty commodity production” concept, it then argues that CF’s “flexibility” rests in its differential content. CF’s fungibility to contradictory movements of “integration” and “dispersion” enables it to emphasize different methods of surplus appropriation under shifting conditions; each corresponding to a different dominant social tendency. On the one hand, conditions of market expansion inspire integration for relative surplus appropriation through raised productivity, and CF tends to act as a “tool of proletarianization” in the wider centralization of capital. On the other, conditions of contraction motivate the dispersal of unvalorized capital, prompting efforts to raise absolute surplus appropriation, and CF tends to act as a “tool of differentiation” to concentrate agricultural capital.
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