Capitalism Makes Everyone Bend to Its Will, Rich and Poor Alike
In his new book Mute Compulsion, Søren Mau argues that to understand and end capitalism, we need to analyze how it not only subordinates the poor to the rich but in fact exerts economic power over everyone — including capitalists themselves.
- Interview by
- James Rushing Daniel
Even amid the current outpouring of scholarship on Marx, leftist philosopher Søren Mau’s Mute Compulsion: A Marxist Theory of the Economic Power of Capital stands as a significant contribution. First published in German and Danish in 2021 and published in English by Verso earlier this year, the book meticulously develops a theory of what Mau calls “economic power,” a form of capitalist domination that is not strictly bound to notions of class and, unlike the forces of violence or ideology, that acts upon subjects indirectly.
Building on a diverse body of Marxist thought, Mau details how economic power shapes the terrain of social reproduction, influencing subjects by determining material conditions. In this rendering, subjects of economic domination are not directly restrained or blinkered by false consciousness, as they are often understood in the context of post-Marxism. Rather, they are subjugated by the oblique logics of capital. Forced to conform to capital’s demands, people are dominated insofar as, per Mau, “the worker wants to live.”
Both an insightful introduction to many of Marx’s core concepts and an original theoretical intervention, the book promises to substantively inform current conversations on capitalism, power, and resistance.
Mau recently sat down with Jacobin contributor James Rushing Daniel to discuss the book and the role of theory in the struggle against capitalism.
I’d first like to ask about the origins of Mute Compulsion. As you note in the book, the title comes from a passage in Volume I of Marx’s Capital: “the mute compulsion of economic relations seals the domination of the capitalist over the worker.” How did your reading of Marx, and of this passage specifically, lead to the theorization of what you call “economic power”?
I got the idea for the book not from that passage in particular but from reading works by scholars from the German “New Marx-Reading” or Neue Marx-Lektüre (NML) tradition, especially Michael Heinrich, as well as from reading political Marxists, especially Ellen Meiksins Wood. The idea that one of the characteristic things about capitalism is that it’s reproduced by means of an impersonal and abstract form of power is not new. Lots of Marxists have written about this before me; I just thought that this idea deserved more attention and that there was more to be said about how this form of power works.
So that was my idea with the book: to take this argument about power in capitalism that I had from others and expand on it. And then I just found that particular passage in Capital very useful for summarizing this entire analysis. Marx only uses the expression “mute compulsion” in that specific passage, and in other places he talks, for example, of “invisible threads,” which I also briefly considered as a title for the book.
But eventually I settled on “mute compulsion,” even though the passage in Capital isn’t perfect since it only highlights class domination: “the mute compulsion seals the domination of the capitalist over the worker.” One of the central arguments in my book, however, is that the power of capital cannot be reduced to class domination, since it also includes mechanisms of domination that everyone is subjected to, although in very different ways. But despite this I still found the expression “mute compulsion” useful as a way to sum up the idea.
One of the crucial interventions of the text is this distinguishing of what you call economic power from other forms of power such as violence or ideology, which have been dominant in leftist political theory for decades. Can you explain what sets economic power apart?
There has been a tendency to think about power as something that has two fundamental forms, namely violence and ideology.
In my book, I argue that economic power is a form of power that can neither be reduced to violence nor ideology. In contrast to violence and ideology, economic power doesn’t directly address the subjugated part in a relationship of domination. Instead, it addresses the environment of the subject, which means that it functions by shaping the material and social environment in a way that forces people to act in a certain way.
This is distinct from violence, which addresses the subject directly as a body, as well as from ideology, which addresses the subject by shaping the way in which it thinks or perceives itself and its surroundings.
A number of anti-capitalist theorists in recent years have centered the notion of class. Vivek Chibber and Erik Olin Wright are two prominent examples. Class domination is certainly part of your critique — yet, as you say, economic power transcends class.
Class domination is an extremely important part of the power of capital and an indispensable condition of capitalism, but it’s also important to see how capitalism is reproduced by forms of power that transcend class in the sense that everyone is subjected to them. I think what some of the theories that I rely on have demonstrated very powerfully is that Marx’s value theory and his analysis of competition illustrate how capitalist society or the capitalist economy generates mechanisms that help to reproduce capitalism that capitalists are also subjected to.
That does not mean that capitalists and workers are subjected to them in the same way. My point is obviously not to say that we should also feel sorry for the capitalists or something like that. They are not dominated in the same way as workers, but I just think if we want to understand why capitalism is so difficult to abolish, why it’s been so successful, and why it still exists, we need to understand not only how proletarians are dominated by capitalists but also how everyone is dominated by capital as such.
Michel Foucault has been undergoing a reevaluation in recent years. He was long seen as an indispensable lens for conceptualizing power under late capitalism, but today books like The Last Man Takes LSD: Foucault and the End of Revolution by Mitchell Dean and Daniel Zamora are very critical of his alleged endorsement of neoliberalism.
In Mute Compulsion, you are certainly critical of Foucault for resting his critique in the “microphysics of power” and bracketing the microphysics of power from the broader social currents of capitalism. But you nevertheless see value in Foucault’s notion of biopolitics, the idea that power operates at the level of the organism. I’m wondering how you see the utility of Foucault in this kind of critique.
I don’t really have any strong opinions about the whole debate about neoliberalism and Foucault. I think that his general concept of power has some advantages — it avoids most of the pitfalls of mainstream theories of power. But his refusal to take class and property relations into consideration also made him blind to certain fundamental aspects of power relations in modern society.
But there are many aspects of his general concept of power that fit quite well with what Marx is doing in his critique of political economy. I think it’s certainly possible and fruitful to combine Foucault and Marx, even though it’s not an important project for me.
Regarding his notion of biopolitics, I think he highlights some important aspects of how the state began to relate to the population in the modern era, which can be fruitfully combined with Marx’s analysis of the rise of capitalism.
I’m not the first to suggest such a perspective. Silvia Federici, for example, has also written about it. I think that what Foucault does is to highlight some interesting historical tendencies and facts, but without being able to explain them because of his resistance to considering classically Marxist topics such as class and property relations. So, I think that we can actually provide a better analysis of what he calls biopolitics by combining his analysis with Marx’s analysis of how the capitalist mode of production presupposes proletarianization, that is, the radical separation of life from its conditions.
Your book also addresses the concept of value in Marx. You argue that, for Marx, the labor theory of value is not a matter of reading the true price of labor but, instead, about illuminating the very essence of valuation as an expression of domination.
Here I follow what can broadly be termed value-form theory, an approach that interprets Marx’s theory of value not as a theory that attempts to explain prices but a theory about the social form of labor in capitalism or, in other words, a theory about how social labor is organized.
One of the unique things about capitalism is that production is organized by private and independent producers who exchange their products on the market. This is what the theory of value explains and tries to analyze, and with regards to power, the crucial thing is that such a system generates certain standards that everyone must live up to in order to survive. It does so by means of abstract and impersonal market pressures. So the theory of value is basically a theory of how the market is not an apolitical transmitter of information but a mechanism of domination that generates impersonal commands.
Value is a concept that highlights the horizontal relationships between units of production rather than the vertical class relations, even though the latter are presupposed by the former. The theory of value is a theory of how social labor is organized by means of real abstractions such as money, which subjects everyone in capitalist society to the demands of capital.
Competition, in your theory of economic power, is also vital to this kind of domination. This emphasis notably places you in the company of economist Anwar Shaikh, who centers competition in his assessment of capitalism’s core function. I’m wondering just how you see competition as functioning in the context of contemporary capitalism.
Competition is the mechanism that “executes the laws of capital,” as Marx puts it. That means that, on the one hand, we cannot explain the dynamics of capitalism only on the basis of competition but, on the other hand, it also means that we can’t explain the dynamics of capitalism without reference to the competitive pressures capitalists expose each other to.
Competition is an extremely important mechanism in capitalism and, basically, it’s another word for the horizontal relationship between units of production or between capitals. It describes the same relations that the concept of value is intended to analyze but on another level of abstraction. Competition is a relationship between sellers, regardless of what they’re selling. It’s also a relationship between proletarians, who compete against each other on the labor market. Competition is a universalizing mechanism that generates the standards that everyone must live up to in order to survive in a capitalist system.
One of the paradoxical things about competition is that it’s a mechanism that unifies by means of separating. It is the very split between individual capitals — the fact that production is organized by independent producers who face each other as competitors on the market — that transforms the power of capital into something more than an aggregation of the power of the individual capitalists into a social logic that no one is in control of and that imposes itself on the social totality.
I think that the centrality of competition in capitalism was overlooked for a long time partly because of the popularity of the idea that capitalism had entered a monopoly stage.
This idea was very popular from the early twentieth century until the 1970s, and one of its consequences was that competition was regarded as unimportant. The intensification of competitive pressures on all levels of the global economy in the neoliberal era has, however, made the theory of monopoly capital seem much less plausible and has led to a renewed interest in the crucial role of competition in capitalism.
Can you talk about why it’s important that we embrace a theory of economic power today?
As a Marxist, I obviously don’t think that writing books is what is going to initiate the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism — especially not writing a book as abstract and theoretical as Mute Compulsion. On the other hand, it would be meaningless to write a book about capitalism if I didn’t believe that it could, at least potentially, be useful for combating the world of capital.
I think we should be careful not to derive political tactics and strategies from the kind of abstract theory that I develop in Mute Compulsion, so in my view, the political utility of the book lies rather in the fact that it offers a conceptual framework that can hopefully be put to use in strategically relevant analyses of concrete situations. But although it is by no means necessary to understand the capitalist system in order to destroy it, I think that a certain understanding of the enemy can be useful when fighting that enemy.
If there are any strategic perspectives to draw from my analysis of the economic power of capital, it would probably be to underline the importance of building new, communist forms of collective reproduction at the same time as we’re dismantling capitalism. The concept of mute compulsion highlights how capitalism reproduces itself through economic processes that we’re all dependent upon and participate in on a daily level. In order to break the power of capital, we need to dissolve it at its roots.