Jonas Marvin reviews Mute Compulsion by Søren Mau, an important new book that recovers and develops Marx’s analysis of the economic power that capital wields over our lives.

Søren Mau, Mute Compulsion: A Marxist Theory of the Economic Power of Capital (London: Verso, 2023). 352 pp. £16.99

‘The swiftly developing revolution in America is like the gathering of a mighty storm,’ wrote former Black Panther Party ideologue Eldridge Cleaver in 1969, ‘and nothing can stop that storm from finally bursting, inside America, washing away the pigs of the power structure and all their foul, oppressive works.’

The socialist movement Cleaver inhabited before he became a Republican often used this phrase, ‘power structure’, but it’s prominence among contemporary radicals is remarkably limited. In its place sits a lexicon of ‘equality’, ‘redistribution’ and ‘justice’. The loss of this language of power relations speaks to a profoundly diminished sense of political horizons on the part of today’s socialists. It is into this somewhat forlorn vacuum which Søren Mau’s Mute Compulsion: A Marxist Theory of the Economic Power of Capital has been published.

Mau is discontent with the ideology/violence couplet which dominates most left-wing theorisations of power, in particular the work of Greek Marxist Nicos Poulantzas. The idea that ideology and violence are innate to capitalism isn’t at all in question, but the idea that they constitute a sufficient basis for understanding capitalist power is. The scaffolding of Mau’s intervention instead begins with a phrase from Marx’s Capital: ‘The mute compulsion of economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker.’

It’s from this insight that Mau sets out to develop an analysis of the social form which subjugates the proletarian in capitalist society. In conversation with a vast literature including Marxism, poststructuralism and feminism, Mau provides an intellectual excavation which furnishes the reader with an unrivalled – and refreshingly charitable – investigation of radical social theory.

Very early on, contrary to the academic literature on power, Mau asserts that capitalist power is not distinct from domination but intimately bound up with it. Taking his lead from value-form Marxists such as Michael Heinrich, Mau argues that capitalism isn’t simply a system of economic maximisation in which value circulates to the gain of the rich and at the expense of the poor.

The ‘power to’ of capital is always a ‘power over’, or in Marx’s own words from the Grundrisse, the ‘social relation, production relation’, between capital and labour, ‘appears in fact as an even more important result of the process than its material results.’ In this sense, Marx’s theory of value isn’t interested in accountancy, but in explaining how social labour is organised and on what terms the system is able to create modes of domination exerting material, impersonal pressures on the population.

For Mau, power relations are intrinsic to the tools, machines and energies which the worker makes use of, not because of their potential to rationalise but because of their immersion in the social relations of capitalist production. The economic power of capital isn’t possible without these social relations. In fact, it is only through the social that one is able to understand capital’s economic power. If the free worker can only reproduce herself by selling her labour for a wage, the reproduction of capital is the condition for the reproduction of human life.

For example, in Britain, the reality that a single mother on benefit payments is highly likely to have to also work to feed herself and her children, doesn’t just speak to the paucity of welfare payments, it also reveals the absence of any control over the means of her and her children’s reproduction. ‘The valorisation of value injects itself into the human metabolism’ and thus this ‘mute compulsion’ asserts itself as the governing precondition of our lives.

Whilst Mau is certainly indebted to a number of Marxist currents, he is by no means restricted to them. For example, he complicates Moishe Postone’s argument that capitalism at its most fundamental doesn’t consist of ‘the domination of people by other people, but in the domination of people by abstract social structures that people themselves constitute’. That is to say, that no matter our different social classes, all of us, our relationships, interactions and habits, are dominated by the reign of value and the commodity-form.

In tension with this view of class as a secondary form of domination, Mau argues that capitalism is made up of a series of dynamics – the production of surplus value, the domination of the proletarian, the competition between capitals – which cannot be made irreducible to one another even whilst they are incomprehensible without each other.

As Ellen Meiksins Woods puts it, ‘What the “abstract” laws of capitalist accumulation compel the capitalist to do – and what the impersonal laws of the labour market enable him to do – is precisely to exercise an unprecedented degree of control over production.’ From the authoritarianism of the line manager, to the employer cutting your wages, it is exactly these relationships of power and control which allow one to recognise, as Marx does, that ‘class domination is inscribed in the commodity form from the very first page of Capital.’

Yet, it isn’t long before Mau takes issue with Wood’s own view of class, too. Based on a line from volume three of Capital, in which Marx argues that the ‘specific economic form in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship of domination and servitude’, Wood turns ‘an enormously important aspect of class domination in capitalism’ into a definitive one. Instead, Mau contends that class domination is defined by ‘the relation between those who control the conditions of social reproduction and those who are excluded from the direct access to the conditions of social reproduction’.

In this regard, Mau takes his cue from Marxist economist and historian Robert Brenner and his ‘rules for reproduction’. To avoid a simply economistic view of capitalism as a system of exploitation, one needs to take into account how, once particular social relations have established themselves at a societal level, they can then ‘act as limits on how people can gain access to life’s necessities’. That is to say, that the brutality of waged work under capitalism would not have been possible without the enclosures which saw whole populations violently torn from their land, their capacity to reproduce themselves removed and made conditional upon entering contracts of waged slavery.

Another set of dynamics critical to Mau’s multidimensional view of capitalist power, again following Brenner, are the ‘vertical relations between the immediate producers and the exploiters, and horizontal relations among producers themselves and exploiters themselves.’ The power relation between worker and boss might be central, but it isn’t singular. Alongside it, sits a set of competitive relations between the capitalists, Marx’s ‘warring band of brothers’, and this dynamic in turns constitutes a relationship of power over the workers, who are compelled to compete with one another for their survival.

One fruitful exercise in Mau’s intervention is his positive engagement with the French philosopher, Michel Foucault. Whilst Foucault frequently provokes an awkward discord on the radical left, Mau cuts through the noise. If Foucault understood ‘biopower’ as “the set of mechanisms through which the basic biological features of the human species became the object of a political strategy, of a general strategy of power”, Mau marshals a strong case that it is the ‘mute compulsion’ of Marx’s Capital that provides the realisation of Foucault’s research project.

Although Mau takes Foucault to task for his ignorance of ‘property’ at the expense of ‘process’, or his unwillingness to identify the social logics underlying the forms of power he so acutely describes, he also identifies a path of fruitful engagement between Marx and Foucault. This notion of biopolitics complements a Marxist analysis of power because it inserts itself at the moment when class domination takes form – the separation of human beings from control over their own conditions of reproduction.

As Mau says, ‘Capitalism introduces a historically unique insecurity at the most fundamental level of social reproduction’ at the level of health, hygiene, welfare, housing, and education, ‘and for this reason the state has to assume the task of administering the life of the population.’

Mau is also determined to uncover lost gems in Marx. For example, he takes us on a detour, rediscovering a Marx who saw the worker as an intrinsically indebted subject, who has ‘permission… to live only insofar as he works for a certain time gratis for the capitalist’. Preceding the debates of our financialised era, Mau revives a Marx who saw the debt relation as a ‘power relation in which the future is subjected to the present’, with the past constantly appropriating ‘the future in order to subjugate and neutralise the present’. Yet again, in every possible manner, Mau is keen to rediscover Marx as a thinker of power.

Whilst I was in the process of reading this book, I had a brief but infuriating spat with one of my line managers, which resulted in me furiously deciding that I wanted to leave my job in an instance. After a minute’s contemplation, I had already decided against this hasty move and walked away from the idea of typing ‘I quit’ on Microsoft Teams. The brilliance of Mau’s intervention is that he seeks to develop a theory for grasping that climb down I experienced in my head that day. If there is a frustration with Mute Compulsion, it is that Mau embarks on a research project which he couldn’t possibly finish.

Whether it concerns the relationship between racism and capital, political and economic power, or the integration of working class institutions into the mute compulsions of capitalism, an important task of radicals is to continue Mau’s research project. In a moment where populations are energised by slogans such as ‘Take Back Control’ and where the demand for a four-day working week is as majoritarian as it is unthinkable, there is an onus on organised socialists to rearticulate our project as a counterpolitics against capitalist power and domination, but for worker power and freedom. Mute Compulsion takes us some considerable way on this journey.

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