Under Capitalism, We’re All Dominated by the Invisible Threads of the Market

At times, capitalism resorts to exceptional violence to subordinate workers. Much more commonly, however, it exercises an impersonal, economic form of power that shapes our environment and compels our compliance on a daily basis.

The real challenge of a class-based politics in our world is that it is an inherently abstract, theoretical politics. (PATRICK T. FALLON / AFP via Getty Images)

The class structure of contemporary capitalism cannot be reduced to or explained by cultural, interpersonal, or discursive practices. This is the thesis of Vivek Chibber’s recent book, The Class Matrix. Chibber’s attempt to elucidate this thesis by identifying the specificity of the economic structure — and of the power dynamics that are proper to it — is not, I think, successful. But his failure to pin down what is distinctive about the forces confronting the modern class of wage workers is arguably less important than his realization that there is something there that needs to be pinned down. Even if Chibber does not solve the puzzle, he identifies, at least, the right puzzle.

Søren Mau’s approach in Mute Compulsion: A Marxist Theory of the Economic Power of Capital is quite different from Chibber’s. Where Chibber is combative and programmatic, Mau is collaborative and exploratory. While Chibber tries to resuscitate analytical Marxism, with its orientation toward mainstream social theory, Mau’s most important conversation partners are on the far left, with Endnotes, Andreas Malm, and Michael Heinrich supplying some of the most important theoretical materials.

That said, Mau and Chibber are dealing with a similar question: How can we make sense of the economic power that circulates and accumulates in — and animates — capitalism? Near the end of Capital, Marx claims that, “in the ordinary run of things,” capitalist societies reserve “extra-economic, immediate violence” for exceptional circumstances, relying instead on “the mute compulsion of economic relations” to enforce “the domination of the capitalist over the worker” (translation modified). Mau takes his title and his object of study from this passage. What, exactly, is the mute compulsion of economic relations? How does it enforce capitalist rule?

The economic power of capital is hard to understand with the standard concepts you encounter in an introductory course in political theory or political philosophy. Violence, coercion, and force — the things the state is supposed to monopolize — are not appropriate. Neither are the legitimacy, authority, and voluntary submission that are supposed to mark the relationship between citizens and government in most liberal and democratic theory. No one forces you to go to work every day, but that doesn’t mean you think your boss has a legitimate right to tell you what to do.

Unfortunately, the canon of Marxist theory does not do much better than Poli Sci 101 in this regard. The dichotomies of violence and ideology, of coercion and consent, of dominance and hegemony, of RSAs and ISAs litter the traditions of Marxist theory. They all reproduce the fundamental intuition of social contract theory, of modern economics, and of Weberian sociology “that power comes it two fundamental and irreducible forms,” the power to act forcibly on the body and the power to alter thoughts and act on ideas.

Mau’s book is driven by the conviction that economic power is irreducible to this “violence/ideology couplet,” and that its distinctiveness can only be grasped once we recognize that economic power “addresses the subject only indirectly, by acting on its environment” — in particular, by reshaping “the material conditions of social reproduction.” This is a valuable insight, and Mau’s careful attention to its elaboration and to thinking about its ramifications makes his book one of the most fruitful additions to Marxist theory in recent years. Economic power is indirect, mediated power. It shapes our choices by shaping the material and social environment in which we make choices.

Cass Sunstein — “Obama’s superego” — together with his University of Chicago colleague Richard Thaler, coined the phrase “choice architecture” to intervene in this domain of indirect power as a space of deliberate government. However, as Mau rightly argues, the choice architecture of capitalist society — despite the dreams of “libertarian paternalists” like Sunstein and Thaler — is mostly produced inadvertently. Capital is not a cabal of capitalists or government officials. Nor is it a supra-individual Hegelian subject acting of its own accord. Rather, it is “an emergent property of social relations,” a “fixation” of our own social activity. We make it — but we seem incapable of unmaking it. This is the power of capital — the ability of this emergent choice architecture to reproduce itself, even in the face of organized efforts to derail or transform it.


In order to understand how the economic power of capital works — how it persists — Mau argues that it is necessary “to trace the possibility of economic power back to the nature of social reality.” The chapters in which Mau pursues this apparent detour through social ontology (chapters three, four, and five) are the strongest of the book, and also the ones most likely to ruffle the feathers of the gamecocks of Marxist and socialist sects. Without sterile polemics, without rhetorical broadsides, Mau quietly and surgically demonstrates the necessity of grounding the critical theory of capitalism in a set of transhistorical claims while simultaneously demonstrating the futility of three of the forms that such transhistorical claims commonly take in socialist theorizing.

The eschewal of transhistorical claims by capitalism’s critics has been a by-product of the collapse of orthodox historical materialism, and of the criticisms directed at theories of universal historical development in general. Those older paradigms saw capitalism as a necessary consequence of the preceding history of economic development, an inevitable stage in a much larger arc. The growing power of the forces of production, the dialectical development of the material powers of labor, the real freedom of human beings — these were the driving forces behind capitalism’s emergence, spread, and eventual downfall.

These narratives fell out of favor for good reasons — both political and theoretical — but their retreat has left many critics of capitalism with an impulse toward purely immanent critique. All of the developments traced by Marx in Capital, all of the categories in which the critique of political economy has been articulated — value, labor, the forces and relations of production, even production itself — have been reinterpreted as “only valid in relation to the capitalist mode of production.” The effort to understand capitalism on the basis of law-like explanatory factors that run through both capitalist and noncapitalist societies has been replaced by the effort to understand everything through capitalism, conceived as a unique and totalizing social form.

Mau astutely points out the self-undermining character of this “absolute historicism.” The more critics want to insist on the uniqueness or “specificity” of capitalism, Mau notes, the more they are compelled to posit both “differences between” and “elements common to capitalist and non-capitalist societies.” The only alternative is to eternalize capitalism by claiming that it is “impossible to conceptualize other situations and compare them with the current one.” Situating capitalism as a historical locality requires concepts that refer to the larger historical territory out of which capitalism emerged and into which it could disappear.

Granting the need for transhistorical categories, Mau argues, however, that these should not take the forms they commonly do in anti-capitalist discourse. There is not a transhistorical and original human essence from which capitalism represents a temporary loss or alienation and to which we must return. Nor is there a set of basic human needs that drive human history by giving rise to and then overriding specific social relations. Finally, there is no natural mode of production from which human beings have departed and that we must recreate at a higher level. Capitalism is neither the alienation of the human essence, nor the temporary ascendency of artificial, socially constructed needs, nor the loss of our unity with nature.

The economic power of capital is only possible, in fact, because human beings do not have anything like an original human essence from which we can be alienated, or a set of basic, overriding needs, or even the possibility of living in unity with nature. Drawing on Marx, but also on the work of Kate Soper and Andreas Malm, Mau argues that what distinguishes human beings as a species is the socially mediated character of our relations to our own bodies and to the rest of nature. Human nature is social, and, far from this inherent sociability being the basis of a critique of capitalism, it is instead the basis of capital’s economic power. No other creature is so totally dependent upon tools, communication, and sociality. This complex of factors is so basic to what we are that we are as dependent upon tools for living as we are upon our lungs for breathing. Through this dependency, “human individuals are caught up in a web of social relations mediating their access to the conditions of their reproduction.”

Tools are both a “prolongation” or “extension” of the body and separate from the body. We need them to live — to carry out the metabolism with nature that establishes our existence — but we can be cut off from them in all manner of ways. We can also be connected to them in all manner of socially mediated ways. I may never touch a plow or a harvester and yet enjoy socially guaranteed access to the produce of plowing and harvesting. Or vice versa, I may operate a plow or a harvester, and yet have no access to the grain produced. Because we are dependent upon society and upon tools, human life is marked by an original cleavage between ourselves and the rest of nature. Our interchange with nature is necessary for our survival, but it must be established in a socially mediated form in order to exist at all.

This essential gap between human life and its conditions of reproduction is exploitable. The access of some people to the conditions of reproduction can be made conditional upon them using them in particular ways — to produce a surplus to be consumed by those who control access, for instance. Because “parts of the human body” — tools — “can be concentrated as property in the hands of other members of the species,” Mau writes, “power can weave itself into the very fabric of the human metabolism” with nature. Thus, a transhistorical fact about human existence explains how economic power is possible, though it does not explain why economic power takes a particular form in a particular mode of production.

This is why “capitalism does not contradict or repress the essence of the human being any more than any other mode of production, and communism will not be the realization of that essence.” The diversity of modes of production are the diversity of ways that human nature can be organized or realized. No one of them is more true to — or more alien to — the potentialities they mobilize than any other. Capitalism is just as natural — and just as unnatural — as any other mode of production. It is also just as human, and just as social. The distinctiveness of capitalism is not to be found in how far away it is from human or nonhuman nature but in how it mediates and organizes the relations among humans and between humans and nonhuman nature.

Vertical and Horizontal Power

Mau turns to the specifically capitalist forms of mediation and organization in parts two and three of his book. There is far too much happening in these chapters to summarize in a review. The spirit of Mau’s book comes out clearly in his “insistence on conceptual clarity.” In every chapter, he advances his arguments by drawing distinctions and refusing the tendency to assimilate all phenomena to any one key concept, be it exploitation or fetishism or subsumption. This entails a proliferation of side quests, in which now this, now that school of Marxist or critical theory is introduced, questioned, and acknowledged to make some contribution to the project of understanding how capitalism persists, but only on the condition that its limits are clearly recognized. As a consequence, there is something for everyone in these chapters. However, there is also a diffusion of the argument into numerous tributaries. The central current comes back together only in the conclusion.

According to Mau, capitalism is “the first mode of production in history to fully exploit the ontological precarity of the human metabolism.” Capitalism takes hold and persists only by means of two social cleavages. First, the creation and reproduction of the proletariat is synonymous with ensuring that the vast majority of the human population is reduced to, in Marx’s terms, “naked life,” separated from any direct access to the means of social reproduction. All access to these means of life is contingent on laboring for capital. Mau calls this the vertical dimension of capital’s economic power, the impersonal or transcendental class domination that is distinctive of this form of society.

The second dimension of capital’s economic power is horizontal. Intraclass relations among proletarians and capitalists are cleft by market competition and the value form. Proletarians must compete with one another for work and the wages that come with work. Capitalists must compete with one another for sales and the profits that are realized (or not) in sales. These relations of competition exhibit forms of power — forms of compulsion — that are not reducible to, even as they presuppose, the vertical domination of proletarians by capitalists. As Mau puts it, competition “transmits compulsory commands expressed in the language of prices.” Exposure to this form of power — being dominated by the market — is the lot of bosses and workers, the employed and the unemployed.

This analysis cuts through an obscurity in contemporary class politics. The current injunction to focus on class and to define class in terms of exploitation — as, for example, in the work of Ellen Meiksins Wood — is interestingly out of step with the desire to tackle capitalism. After all, neither class nor exploitation are specific to capitalism. They have been constitutive of almost all human societies to date. The corollary of tracing the fundamental dynamics of capitalism would be an emphasis not on class but on the proletariat. But naming the proletariat would emphasize what so much self-conscious class politics obscures: that the working class as the producers of things is not equivalent to the working class as the class of wageworkers, and neither is it equivalent to the proletariat, the class of people dependent upon wages for life, whether they are working or not. As Mau puts it, “the set of people capital needs as wage laborers” is always necessarily “only a subset” of the proletariat.

The conflation of class relations with work relations is an understandable but regrettable feature of the contemporary politics of class. It is understandable because capitalist class relations are clearly dependent on capitalist work relations, and work relations are more empirically tractable and politically salient. It is regrettable, though, because it leads many proponents of the working class to fall into a false opposition between “class-based” politics and other forms of political organizing. By shifting between features of the structural class relations basic to capitalism (between proletarians, capitalists, and landowners) and features of one or another work relation, advocates of a working-class political base make the political task seem easier than it is. To “class politics” is attributed both the immediacy of work relations and the universality of class relations. Like workplace organizing, “class politics” appeals to material interests, but unlike workplace organizing, it is also supposed to have a national and even international constituency.

The real challenge of a class-based politics in our world is that it is an inherently abstract, theoretical politics. Building a global alternative to the capitalist class relation is necessarily the most challenging and difficult political struggle imaginable. It is tempting to think that there is some local crystallization of this abstract, global struggle, some everyday struggle that does not have to be linked up with this global struggle because it is just this global struggle in bite-size form. Mau’s book demonstrates why this immediate discovery of the global in the local can never happen. “Struggles are never pure,” he writes; “one never fights racism — or anything else, for that matter — ‘in itself.’” The “anything else” most definitely includes capitalism.

The Question of Power

As persuasive as Mau’s analysis is, it is important to acknowledge its limits. I will note three.

First, while Mau is admirably intransigent in his opposition to romantic narratives of unity lost, he regularly invokes the notion that both nonhuman nature and human labor “possess an ineradicable autonomy” from capital that is also an obstacle to capital’s expansion, and against which “capital has struggled for centuries.” This same impulse also shows up in the scene-setting complaint that “the commodity form continues its creeping infiltration into new spheres of life.”

What is this but the romanticism that Mau explicitly criticizes? The autonomy of nature and labor are both conditions for the possibility of capital and the vectors of many of capitalism’s most egregious harms. It is labor’s autonomous capacity to produce a surplus that makes labor exploitable. Likewise, the uncommodified resources of nature — the natural powers and natural beings that feature in production as “free gifts of nature” — are precisely the resources that are wasted with utmost abandon, since they do not figure on any spreadsheet as a cost. As Alyssa Battistoni has been arguing in recent and forthcoming work, whatever is valued “beyond price” is therefore also devalued by capital as beneath all accounting. This indicates that, far from being an obstacle that capital must struggle to overcome or a sphere that commodification infiltrates and colonizes, the autonomous zones of noncapitalist life are the sacrifice zones that make capital possible.

Second, and more central to his argument, Mau’s general perspicacity about distinctions and conceptual definitions goes missing when it comes to power itself. What is power? It is a basic question, but one that goes unanswered in Mau’s book. In a baffling moment, Mau demurs from the task, claiming that, “in order to settle on a particular definition of power, . . . we would have to take into consideration a number of factors and issues which are not immediately relevant for our purposes, such as the question of whether power is a capacity or the actual exercise of a capacity.” A moment’s reflection, however, ought to tell us that power is a capacity which can be exercised or not — if power were the exercise of a capacity, what would that capacity be called? — and that this is directly relevant to analyzing the economic power of capital.

Notice, for example, that simply possessing the power to unilaterally affect someone’s basic interests gives them a compelling reason to act as you wish, even if you never threaten to use your power against them. If you know I have a gun in my desk drawer, and that my position in society insulates me from legal repercussions, then I don’t have to pull out the gun and order you to do my bidding in order to give you a compelling reason to do so. I can ask you ever so politely to do something for me, and my power will do the compelling for me. In fact, I may not even have to ask. You may anticipate what would please me and do so for that reason. I don’t have to make threats, or even requests, if you know I am a threat.

Much economic power is like this: it does not have to be exercised to be effective. Competitive pressures, for instance, operate via anticipation. A firm does not have to know the production costs of all of their competitors in order to feel the pressure to increase productivity and cut costs. Maybe no competitor is on the verge of applying new, more efficient production processes. Nonetheless, that some competitor could do so at some point is all the reason any firm needs to strive to introduce new efficiencies into their own production process. Likewise, your boss doesn’t need to fire you — or threaten to do so — in order for you to know they have the power to do so. Their possession of that power is usually sufficient to secure compliance. This is why “control over anything which ‘constitute[s] part of the meaningful environment of another actor’” can count as power in the first place.

Because Mau does not define power, and does not distinguish its possession from its exercise, his definition of the economic power of capital as power over the material conditions of reproduction never gets unpacked. Capitalists control the material conditions of production in the sense that they are able to check, regulate, rebuke, oversee, challenge, restrain, prevent, and overrule workers. Workers’ products and performance can be checked against standards set by the employer, and their activity can be regulated by rules established by the employer. If they fail to meet those standards or follow those rules, they may be rebuked by the employer. Their entire work activity may be overseen by the employer. Their claims and actions may be challenged at any time by the employer. They can be restrained and prevented from doing all manner of things by the employer’s power to terminate their employment. Anything they attempt to do or institute or propose at work may be overruled by the employer. All of these modes of control are either specific powers (or their exercise) the employer has or the employee’s response to specific powers. How might capital’s power over the material means of reproduction be similarly disaggregated? The closest Mau comes to doing this work are his chapters on the production of difference (chapter seven) and capitalist logistics (chapter twelve), but much more could be done here.

Finally, Mau not only fails to distinguish power from its exercise; he also does not differentiate economic power from domination. He claims that the distinctions between power and domination and between power to and power over are “irrelevant” to the project of analyzing the economic power of capital since “the power of capital always involves and relies on domination. Or, to put it differently: the ‘power to’ of capital is always a ‘power over.’” This betrays a confusion that must be cleared up. Power over people is not necessarily domination of those people, and the power “to reconfigure the material conditions of social reproduction” need not entail the “inscription” of social domination “in the environment of those who are subject to it.” Power over others can be non-dominating — if that power is responsive to the needs and interests of the people subject to it. The project of building a postcapitalist alternative must involve building powerful institutions of government that are also non-dominating, institutions that are responsible to the people governed by them. Forms of socialist government will also have to inscribe themselves in the environment of the governed as forms of housing, transportation, communication, etc.

I have no doubt that Mau knows these things. His inattention to the question of how to distinguish power from domination, however, leaves his readers in the dark as to how one might differentiate the domination of capital from benign or even beneficent forms of economic power. Indeed, there is a tendency in the book to treat the domination of capital as the only instance of economic power. This seems like a disservice to the concept, which could fruitfully analyze the ways the material environment might be reshaped to facilitate free and cooperative socialist forms of life. What might the “choice architecture” of socialism look like? This is an intelligible and worthwhile question to ask, but it is one that becomes impossible to even formulate if we conflate power with domination.

I hope I have made it clear, however, that these limits of Mau’s analysis are in no way fatal to his project. Rather, they are themselves provocations to extend and develop that analysis further. The nondogmatic and syncretic spirit of his book is admirable in itself, and when this spirit works in tandem with his penchant for conceptual analysis, Mute Compulsion makes for a thrilling read. I am confident that we will be grappling with and building on Mau’s contributions for years to come.