When we conceptualize the power that maintains capitalism, violence and ideology readily come to mind. Despite the vast inequality, grotesque exploitation, contempt for life and the environment, chronic instability and the rebellions that repeatedly arise and sometimes take power, capitalism seems firmer in the saddle than ever, spreading its suffocating tentacles to virtually every place on Earth.
“How is it even possible that a social order so volatile and hostile to life can persist for centuries?” asks Søren Mau in the introduction to his book Mute Compulsion: A Marxist Theory of the Economic Power of Capital. Violence has been with capitalism since its beginning — indeed, capitalism could not have taken root without massive coercion through violence, draconian laws, slavery and colonialism. The ideological constructs that keep so many in thrall become ever more sophisticated, with a vast apparatus of mass media, “think tanks” and other institutions perpetually reinforcing bourgeois mantras, supplemented by schools, militaries, workplaces and other applicators of social conditioning.
Yet violence is not necessarily ever faced by a typical working person in the advanced capitalist countries, the core of the global system. Violence was used copiously in earlier days of capitalism, both to establish its foundation, enable its growth and to put down strikes, but today is generally reserved for those in the Global South. Ideology is ever present, but keeps bumping up against the material realities of life; that the propaganda telling us no other system is possible seems to get ever more frantic is a clue that capitalist ideologists are perhaps less certain of their mantras than they would let on in public.
Saying this is not to suggest that violence and ideology haven’t been, and still aren’t, crucial props for capitalism. Of course they are and will be. But is that all there is? Dr. Mau, a philosopher and researcher based in Copenhagen, argues persuasively there is more. That there is more beyond violence and ideology really isn’t controversial, at least for those willing to open their eyes to the realities of capitalism. But how to conceptualize this? This is the task that Dr. Mau assigned himself, and Mute Compulsion is the result. In a methodically constructed presentation, he details the concept of “mute compulsion,” the impersonal power embedded in capitalist economic processes. Because violence and ideology are not always in operation, something else must keep the system in place — specifically, keeping working people in their deeply subordinate place — and that is the indirect social forces that maintain the system.
The power of capital is “operative even when ideological and coercive domination are absent,” he writes.
The book seeks to build on Karl Marx’s description of how other forms of power take over once violence has done its job. Quoting from Capital Volume 1, Dr. Mau translates from Marx’s German-language original as follows:
“[T]he mute compulsion of economic relations seals the domination of the capitalist over the worker. Extra-economic, immediate violence is still of course used, but only in exceptional cases. In the ordinary run of things, the worker can be left to the ‘natural laws of production,’ i.e., it is possible to rely on his dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them.”
The power to impose will in multiple dimensions
To grasp this concept, the definition of power must be expanded beyond defining it as simply referencing relations among individuals. The concept should be extended to “relations among social actors as well as the emergent properties of those relations,” Dr. Mau writes. “The power of capital can thus be defined as capital’s capacity to impose its logic on social life; a capacity which includes and ultimately relies upon, yet is not reducible to, relations among social actors in a traditional sense, such as the relationship between capitalists and proletarians or the relationship between an employer and an employee.”
Thus, he argues, power is not a simple dyad nor is it something possessed or exercised exclusively by people, groups, classes or subjects. Marx’s first breakthrough, Dr. Mau argues, is a turning from his original critique of bourgeois society based on human nature, permeated by a “Feurerbachian humanism,” following an 1845 break, “an important step forward,” after which Marx no longer criticized capitalism “in the name of the essence of the human being.” Leading thinkers among those following Marx, such as Friedrich Engels, Georgi Plekhanov and Karl Kautsky, tended to base their theories on “productive force determinism” and thus tended to see the state as the “ultimate locus of capitalist power.” Dr. Mau argues that tendency flows from the idea that capitalism had entered a monopoly state, as exemplified by Vladimir Lenin and Rudolf Hilferding, and remained influential deep into the 20th century, as exemplified by Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy.
Forms of domination beyond the violence/ideology couplet slowly were developed late in the 20th century, with Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood, frequently cited throughout the book, discussed here. This development is seen as a break with the idea of the economy as a separate sphere. Having completed a discussion of philosophical development, Mute Compulsion then begins building its case. This construction begins with a discussion of tools. Humans use tools not for convenience but because of necessity. Because they are a necessity, tools are an organ, part of the human body, yet separated from it. Human tools are “absolutely crucial for understanding how such a thing as economic power is possible.” At the level of corporeal organization, “human individuals are caught up in a web of social relations mediating access to the conditions of their reproduction.”
The corporeal organization of humans “opens up an immense space of possibility” that makes “a succession of modes of production possible.” The author acknowledges the foregoing is not a full anthropology, but rather is intended to create a better understanding of what economic power is. A stress on the relations of production arises because through them people gain access to the necessities that keep them alive. This is not an “economist” view but reflects the necessity to counter the false bourgeois idea that the economy is completely separate from the rest of society.
Whatever the means used to subject workers — violence, ideology, mute compulsion — the production and extraction of surplus value is the object of capitalist production. Without the capacity of humans to produce more than what is necessary for their own survival, class society would be impossible. As Dr. Mau quotes Marx, again from Capital Volume 1:
“If the worker needs to use all of his time to produce the necessary means of subsistence for himself and his family, he has no time left in which to perform unpaid labour for other people. Unless labour has attained a certain level of productivity, the worker will have no such free time at his disposal, and without superfluous time there can be no surplus labour, hence no capitalists as also no slave-owners, no feudal barons, in a word no class of large-scale landed proprietors.”
After violence does its job, less direct means can substitute
The possibility of surplus labor explains the possibility of class domination, but not its actuality. Tools and machines outside the body forces a need to gain access to what are means of survival. That necessity results in a concentration of economic power in the hands of those possessing those means and employing those who don’t have them. Thus the worker must sell their labor power to a capitalist to survive. No violence at all is needed here; the need to survive is sufficient to impose the relationship. But this is not a personal relationship, because nobody is bonded to any single capitalist. Capital induces a “debt relation” that binds workers to “capital as such,” not any specific capitalist. The need of capitalists for a steady supply of labor meant that, in the early period of capitalism, peasants had to be violently forced, including through the use of law, to become wage workers and dispossessed of reproducing themselves outside of the market. Once the social pattern solidifies, less direct means of power can be deployed. Dr. Mau writes:
“In opposition to violence or ideology, the ‘silent, unremitting pressure’ of property relations does not directly address the worker; it rather addresses the material environment of the worker, or, more specifically, the material conditions to reproduction. … The power of capital does not just prevent the worker from following their will (although it often does that); it also facilitates a certain way in which they can actually follow that will. Mute compulsion only works because the worker wants to live. Only because of this can capital succeed in demanding surplus labor in exchange for the means of life.”
The subjugation of everybody — especially workers but also capitalists — to the market, unique to capitalism, is inescapable. Market competition is not only a result and cause of the power of capital, “it is itself one of its mechanisms.” There are vertical market relations, skewed by the unequal power of capitalists and working people, and there is horizontal competition among proletarians and among capitalists. That production is for the sale of products in the form of commodities for exchange value in markets adds to the dependence on markets. Competition confronts workers and employers — for workers, it is an alienating form because they are “confronted with the essence of capital,” and for capitalists, it is an inescapable force that requires them to cut costs, drive their workforce to work at a pace maximizing profit and incorporate ever larger portions of social life.
Competition strengthens class power because, although capitalists compete with one another, it also unites them as “hostile brothers” dividing “the loot of other people’s labor.” (A phenomenon that demonstrates this clearly is the stream of lawsuits in which industrialists and financiers fight over which gets the bigger share of the pie; the two representatives of capital are in full agreement that the workers, whose work created the profits they fight over, don’t deserve any of it.) Class domination is necessary “to secure workers’ appearance on the market as sellers of labour power in the first place.” Violence is no longer necessary to secure the supply of workers, Dr. Mau writes:
“Marx points out that ‘state coercion’ was necessary in the early days of capitalism in order to ‘transform the propertyless into workers at conditions advantageous for capital,’ since at this early stage of capitalist development, those conditions ‘are not yet forced upon the workers by competition among one another.’ In other words, competition has the same function as violence had in the original creation of capitalism, and competition is an absolutely crucial part of the mute compulsion of economic relations.”
The continuation of capitalism relies on impersonal domination as well as personal relationships of domination. The authority of the capitalist within the workplace is merely the form of appearance of the impersonal power of capital, Dr. Mau argues, adding that this realization enabled Marx to move beyond his early moral critiques of capitalism. Thus it is not personal lack of morality that compels a capitalist to introduce new technologies and surveillance techniques, or to “deskill” the workforce. Rather, relentless competition forces capitalists “to live up to standards in order to stay in business.”
As it grows, it can take over more aspects of life
As capitalism gains in power, it is able to subsume more and more of life and geography. Agriculture is now dominated by multi-national corporations, rendering most farmers subcontractors with little decision-making ability; the containerization of shipping has overhauled logistics and taken power from dock workers at a crucial choke point of distribution; and the ability of commodities to move freely while labor is constrained is detrimental to employees. Spatial expansion means increased competition, intensifying the power of capital over everything. Even the very instability of capitalism can rebound to the benefit of capitalists, as economic downturns increase unemployment and thus further disciplines workers. “The forces of capital know very well that a crisis is a splendid opportunity to strengthen capital’s grip on social life,” Dr. Mau writes. Capitalism is indeed “tremendously tenacious.”
Mute Compulsion is not easy reading but it is important reading, providing a welcome assistance toward understanding the ongoing power of capital and longevity of capitalism in all its dimensions. No book is perfect, and so it is proper to note a couple of weak points. One is that the author’s attempt to integrate racial and sex discrimination into his theory fell short, most notable in the muddled discussion of sex relations. The book gropes toward a declaration that the “hierarchical system of gender” precedes capitalism “yet nevertheless reproduces and is reproduced by it,” a certainly reasonable conclusion but one in which the preceding discussion does not lead. It is also jarring for the flippant and unwarranted one-line dismissal of “the radical feminist concept of patriarchy” (is the concept of structural male oppression of women really controversial?) and that the author believes himself to be a far better authority than feminists like Silvia Federici and Maria Mies who have written foundational books that have shaped the field. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves we are not experts on all topics. Hostility to feminism has sadly become fashionable on the Left, and it is difficult not to speculate if this phenomenon, conscious or not, has influenced this refusal to engage, uncharacteristic from the rest of the book.
The other weakness is in the brief discussion of deskilling, which is not understood in the phenomenon’s full dimension. Minimizing the tendency of deskilling, Dr. Mau writes that “capital is not interested in deskilling as such, but only in deskilling as a tool of domination.” That is true to a degree but is not quite right. Deskilling can mean changing work conditions such that skills are made irrelevant; a de facto taking away of a skill.
As I have decades of experience in the workplace, I have experienced this first hand. I once worked as an editor for a large publishing company that owned dozens of newspapers and magazines covering the legal industry. A new management decided to dismantle the staff of each publication, which were specialized in various subjects or geographical areas, and throw everybody together as one giant staff, with editors and reporters assigned to a general pool assigned to no particular publication. Thus our specialized knowledge was rendered useless by making everybody interchangeable. Unfortunately my attempts to raise this issue with my co-workers was met by blank stares and in less than a year mass layoffs began. That’s deskilling, at least in a white-collar environment.
The preceding critiques are not fatal flaws. It would be pointless to judge a book by whether we agreed with the entirety of the contents. What matters is the overall argument, content and presentation. Mute Compulsion succeeds marvelously at constructing a picture of the impersonal aspects of capitalist domination, a crucial aspect that requires full comprehension if we are to grasp the totalizing nature of capitalism. And without a full comprehension, how are we to rid ourselves of it? If you want to understand the workings of capitalism, you’ll want to read this book.
Søren Mau, Mute Compulsion: A Marxist Theory of the Economic Power of Capital [Verso, London and Brooklyn, 2023]