Mute Compulsion [Excerpt]

Mute Compulsion, by Søren Mau, is now available from Verso Books.


The bosses are those who wield direct, tyrannical power over the majority of your waking life. The people who have the power to cast you into poverty, who can force you to endure all manner of degradation and danger to avoid that fate. Some argue that increased worker participation in decision making, or mandatory minimum benefit programs could make this problem go away—“stakeholder capitalism.” But things are not so simple. The position of “boss” itself is the problem to be overcome. You and your boss alike are subject to a form of domination, a form of compulsion. Maybe not the direct, interpersonal compulsion you experience in the workplace, but the impersonal domination of capitalism itself.

This, and so much more, is the argument of Danish communist philosopher Søren Mau in his landmark new book Mute Compulsion (Verso, 2023). The work draws its title from a passage in Capital in which Marx states that  “the mute compulsion seals the domination of the capitalist over the worker.” Mau, drawing on thinkers like Michael Heinrich, Andreas Malm, and Ellen Meiksins Wood, asserts that capitalist domination extends beyond class domination and in fact molds and dominates, compels, capitalist and worker alike. Instead of ideology and violence—the primary paradigms in which many think about indirect and direct domination, respectively—Mau focuses on economic compulsion as an independent (though related) form of domination, which, instead of acting directly upon the subject, shapes the subject’s context, mutely compelling a certain set behaviors and attitudes.

Protean is pleased to host an excerpt from Mau’s rich, incisive, and, for all its theoretical insight and deep research, surprisingly readable work. The following passages elucidate the way in which the despotism of the workplace is both a form of interpersonal and abstract domination, how the figure of the boss is both a person well as a persona, an avatar. As Mau writes, “The authority of the capitalist within the workplace is merely the form of appearance of the impersonal power of capital.”

Jake Romm

The following is excerpted with permission from Mute Compulsion: A Marxist Theory of the Economic Power of Capital by Søren Mau. Courtesy of Verso Books.


Søren Mau
The Despotism of Subsumption

In the preceding chapters, I have presented a somewhat static picture of the capitalist mode of production—a sort of synchronic analysis of the essential social relations presupposed by the subjection of social production to the logic of valorisation. This analysis enables us to see why the power of capital takes the form of the mute compulsion of economic relations. But there is more to it than that. Capitalist relations of production set in motion certain dynamics, or ‘laws of motion’, which express themselves on all levels of the economic totality, from the most minute processes in the workplace to global restructurings of capital flows.1 These dynamics will be the subject of this as well as the rest of the chapters that make up part three of this book. […]

The power of capital exhibits a peculiar, circular form: the effects of capitalist relations of production are also causes of those same relations. Or, in Hegelese: capital posits its own presuppositions. ‘Every moment [which is] a presupposition of production [is] simultaneously its result,’ as Marx put it in his attempt to summarise the Grundrisse manuscript in headlines.3 In this and the following chapters, we will try to understand this paradoxical circularity of the power of capital, and the important conclusion it yields: one of the sources of the power of capital is the very exercise of this power.

A Unity of Anarchy and Despotism

Let us begin by examining relations of domination within the workplace. Recall that we are concerned here with the analysis of capitalism in its ideal average, which means that we are only concerned with relations of power within the workplace insofar they are implied by the core structure of capitalism. In real life, there are of course a wide variety of sources, expressions, and forms of domination in the workplace.

From the perspective of the market, there is no essential difference between the buyer and the seller of labour power: like every other market relation, theirs is just a voluntary transaction between market agents. The peculiar thing about labour power as a commodity, however, is that, unlike most other commodities, it cannot be separated from its seller. When its buyer wants to realise its use value (i.e., consume it), it thus involves domination and the confiscation of a part of the seller’s life.4

In this manner, the very equality of the seller and the buyer of labour power is the basis of their inequality as soon as they enter the sphere of production, where ‘the buyer takes command of the seller, to the extent that the latter himself enters into the buyer’s consumption process with his person as a worker’.5 This transition from the sphere of circulation to the sphere of production thus involves a change in ‘the physiognomy of our dramatis personae,’ as Marx puts it in Capital: the seller becomes a worker, and the buyer a capitalist.6 Capitalist production is thus a unity of the ‘anarchy’ of the sphere of circulation and the ‘despotism’ of the sphere of production.7

Power hierarchies within the workplace represent an anomaly for neoclassical economists, who can only understand power as a consequence of imperfect competition. Some economists, such as Armen Alchian and Harold Demsetz, even deny the existence of such power hierarchies by interpreting interpersonal relations within the firm as nothing but a concealed form of voluntary market transactions.8 Such a position is, as I pointed out in the introduction, only possible on the condition that we abstract from the class domination necessary for the existence of a labour market. As soon as we dispense with this abstraction, it becomes possible to see relations between workers, capitalists, and managers for what they really are: relations of domination.

As I noted in my survey of Marx’s terminology in chapter one, when he deals with relations of domination within the sphere of production, he often resorts to concepts, expressions, and metaphors related to the military or authoritarian forms of political power—as when he writes that the worker is subjected to ‘the thoroughly organised despotism of the factory system and the military discipline of capital’.9 He often describes capitalist management as ‘purely despotic’ and the workplace hierarchy as comparable to ‘a real army’.10 The point of using this kind of language is of course to highlight the glaring contradiction between bourgeois ideology and the brutal realities of life in the factories. It is, as Marx puts it in the 1861–63 Manuscripts,

precisely the apologists of the factory system, such as Ure, the apologists of this complete de-individualisation of labour, confinement in barrack-like factories [Einkasernirung], military discipline, subjugation to the machinery, regulation by the stroke of the clock, surveillance by overseers, complete destruction of any development in mental or physical activity, who vociferate against infringements of individual freedom and the free movement of labour at the slightest sign of state intervention.11

Marx is mostly concerned with industrial production in 18th- and 19th-century Britain, and he provides substantial empirical evidence in support of his claims about the authoritarian rule of industrial capitalists. Here, however, we have to ask: On what level of abstraction are Marx’s descriptions of capitalist management situated? Are they only valid for a historically and geographically specific variant of capitalist production, as Michael Burawoy has argued, or do they tell us something about the core structure of capitalism?12

Management practices have obviously changed a lot since Marx’s time, at least in certain sectors of the leading capitalist economies. Since the 1970s, the old-fashioned authoritarian and despotic form of management has gradually been replaced by seemingly egalitarian network-based forms of empowering management accompanied by an ideology of authenticity and innovation.13 The Hobbesian boss who treats workers as homogeneous cogs in the machine has given way to the casual manager who treats employees as friends, encouraging them to express themselves and bring their personal quirks and emotions with them on the job. If contemporary capitalism increasingly relies on forms of creative, affective, and immaterial labour which are difficult to reconcile with old forms of hierarchical control, as Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri, and Carlo Vercellone suggest, does that mean that Marx’s description of relations of domination within the workplace is outdated?14

Two important things should be noted here. The first is that we should understand the transition from traditional or Fordist to postmodern or post-Fordist forms of management as a change in the form of domination rather than a decrease in the degree of domination. Domination is inscribed in the very essence of the relationship between the employer and the employee. Competitive pressure forces capitalists to live up to certain standards in order to stay in business, and for this reason, it is not entirely up to the capitalists to choose how they treat their employees and what management strategies they use. Competitive pressures thus act as external constraints on how much freedom employees can be granted. ‘Capitalists cannot,’ as Vivek Chibber puts it, ‘leave it to their employees to work at an intensity consistent with profit maximization’.15 They have to ‘institutionalize direct authority on the shop floor, or within the office, as an intrinsic component of work organization’.16 This authority can, however, take many different forms. Acting like an absolutist monarch is one strategy, and in certain settings, this might be the most profitable thing to do. In other contexts, however, it might be more profitable to offer employees free mindfulness classes (as Google does), cultivate an emotional attachment to the company brand, grant employees a certain degree of autonomy (flexible hours, work from home, etc.), or encourage them to express themselves through their job.17 These are merely different ways of securing the same goal: the production of surplus value.18

The second important thing to note here is that we should not underestimate the extent to which authoritarian management practices like those examined by Marx are not only still very common but have even spread in the neoliberal era, where many of the victories won by workers’ movements in the first half of the twentieth century have been rolled back. In the production centres of the global South and the informal sector throughout what Mike Davis calls the ‘planet of slums’, despotic management is the still the order of the day.19 It is also widespread in low-wage jobs in the rich countries. A few examples borrowed from Elizabeth Anderson’s recent critique of authoritarian management in the United States: Walmart ‘prohibits employees from exchanging casual remarks while on duty’, calling this “time theft”; Apple ‘inspects the personal belongings of their retail workers’; and Tyson Foods ‘prevents its poultry workers from using the bathroom’.20

Interpersonal or Impersonal?

Marx’s use of a vocabulary and imagery associated with military command and pre-capitalist forms of political rule also poses another important question: what is the precise relation between the authority of the capitalist within the workplace and the abstract and impersonal domination examined in the preceding chapters? Marx’s description of the capitalist as ‘the factory Lycurgus’—a reference to the legendary law-giver of Sparta—and his use of words like ‘despotism’ and ‘autocracy’ seems to suggest that the power of the capitalist is similar to the power of pre-capitalist rulers.21

In capitalism, Marx explains, the ‘power of the Egyptian and Asiatic kings or the Etruscan theocrats in the ancient world has … passed to capital and therewith the capitalists’.22 If that is the case, however, in what sense can we say that the power of capital is abstract and impersonal? Is the power of the capitalist not a very concrete and interpersonal form of domination?

Let us approach this question through a brief detour. In his critique of the Subaltern Studies Group, Chibber argues that Ranajit Guha and Dipesh Chakrabarty misunderstand the relationship between interpersonal coercion and the impersonal power of economic relations. Guha and Chakrabarty hold that Indian colonial capitalism failed to produce the bourgeois forms of power dominant in Europe. Accordingly, they contrast the violent and personal authority of managers in colonial capitalism to the ‘the body of rules and legislation’ and the hegemonic bourgeois culture of European capitalism.23 Rather than dissolving traditional communal bonds, they argue, colonial capitalism reinforced caste hierarchies by mobilising them in the effort to dominate workers. Chibber points out—correctly, in my view—that this misrepresents capitalist authority in 19th-century Europe, which was often extremely violent and coercive.24 Chibber furthermore demonstrates that the reproduction or even strengthening of caste hierarchies in the Indian context is strikingly similar to the many ways in which Western capitalists have profited from racial, gendered, national, cultural, and religious divisions within the working class. As we saw in chapter seven, capitalists will always find it rational (i.e., favourable for the valorisation of value) to utilise differences and antagonisms among workers, regardless of the historical and geographical context.25

What is more important for our purposes, however, is Chibber’s claim that ‘the drive to dominate labor above and beyond the impersonal coercion of economic relations is indeed generic to capitalism, and that there is therefore no reason to exclude interpersonal domination from the category of “bourgeois relations of power”’.26 According to him, capital ‘has never been content to rely on the “dull compulsion of economic relations” to enforce its diktat’; it has rather always been ‘rational for capital to sustain and reinforce power relations resembling those of the feudal past’.27 In other words: the despotic authority of the capitalist within the workplace demonstrates that the reproduction of capitalism relies on a combination of historically novel forms of impersonal domination and (inter)personal relationships of domination similar to those found in pre-capitalist social formations.

Chibber is right in arguing that a despotic form of domination within the workplace is fully compatible with the impersonal pressures of capital, but his descriptions of the despotic authority of the capitalist as a form of personal power similar to pre-capitalist forms of authority is misleading. In the manuscripts for the third book of Capital, Marx insists that the ‘authority that the capitalist assumes in the immediate production process … is essentially different from the forms assumed by authority on the basis of production with slaves, serfs etc.’.28 The reason why they are ‘essentially’ different is that the authority of capitalists ‘accrues to its bearers only as the personification of the conditions of labour vis-à-vis labour itself’; or, as Marx puts it elsewhere: ‘The capitalist only holds power as the personification of capital.29 The relationship between the worker and the capitalist is, as we saw in chapter six, not a result of a personal relation of dependence but the result of a market transaction: ‘What brings the seller into a relationship of dependency is’, as Marx explains in the Results of the Immediate Process of Production, ‘solely the fact that the buyer is the owner of the conditions of labour. There is no fixed political and social relationship of supremacy and subordination.’30 This ‘subordination’ is thus ‘only of an objective nature’; in other words, it is not grounded in the specificity of the persons involved in the relationship.31 As Marx puts it in a passage which I also quoted in chapter six: ‘The slave is the property of a particular master; the worker must indeed sell himself to capital, but not to a particular capitalist.’32

Contra Chibber, the authority of the capitalist in the sphere of production is thus not a form of personal power, at least not in the sense in which the power of a feudal lord or a slave-owner is personal. It might be argued that the power of the capitalist is ‘personal’ in the sense that its exercise can be attributed to an identifiable person (the manager), in contrast to competitive pressures which express themselves in prices rather than work instructions. But this merely obscures the crucial difference between the authority of the capitalist and the power of pre-capitalist exploiters: whereas the feudal peasant or the slave is subjected to the rule of a particular person, the capitalist worker is subjected to the capitalist class as such. The authority of the capitalist within the workplace is merely the form of appearance of the impersonal power of capital. It was this ‘de-personalization’ of the notion of exploitation, as William Clare Roberts calls it, that allowed Marx to move beyond the moralistic critique of capitalists, according to which the origins of this relation of domination is to be sought for in their flawed character. The despotism of the workplace is nothing but the metamorphosis of the impersonal and abstract compulsion resulting from the intersection of the double separation constitutive of capitalist relations of production.♦

Søren Mau is a communist philosopher and postdoctoral researcher based in Copenhagen, Denmark. He is an editor of the journal Historical Materialism and a member of the board of the Danish Society for Marxist Studies.

All endnotes from this excerpt are available here as a .pdf.

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