‘Mute Compulsion’: A Danish Marxist examines the economic power of capital
Establishing a Valmet plant in Tanzania was part of the development aid to increase agricultural mechanization in East Africa. Here, an engineer and workers in Kibaha, Tanzania, inspect a Valmet 604 tractor at the assembly line in 1963.

Why does capitalism not simply break down on its own internal contradictions? This is an age-old question for Marxists, and it instigated Søren Mau’s recent book, Mute Compulsion: A Marxist Theory of the Economic Power of Capital. In it, the author borrows from Marx’s Capital the phrase “mute compulsion” and develops its meanings as the logic of capitalism that is “transhistorical” and universal to all capitalist societies and absent any geohistorical specificities.

Mau is a Danish Marxist, editor of the journal Historical Materialism, and a member of the board of the Danish Society for Marxist Studies.

According to Mau, this “essential” ingredient refers to the economic power that compels us to reproduce capitalist social relations of production through labor exploitation. He describes this defining form of economic power as the nonviolent power that systemically causes the “social reproduction of the valorization of value through labor exploitation.”

Mau separates this abstraction from other concepts or social forms, strategies of rule, and techniques of power, focusing solely on those that directly stem from this fundamental concept. He also disconnects this economic power from the specific roles of social actors, underscoring systemic power over human choices (an intellectual temptation Marx refused to submit to even if he abstractly attributed subjectivity to systems or categories).

Mau obtains the phrase “mute compulsion” from a passage in Capital where Marx describes the transition from primitive accumulation (PA) as a historical process to capitalist accumulation (CA). (If you follow along in the International Publishers edition, see p. 689.) The two historical processes, PA and CA, are distinguished from one another by chronological progression, aims, and the degrees of violence and force used in expropriating labor, land, value, etc., from the proletarians.

Despite Marx’s brutal sarcasm in naming the proletarian—within the logic and circuit of capitalist accumulation—as free, unforced, unfettered, and voluntarily submitting to the daily reproduction of capitalist social relations of production by showing up for work, Mau emphasizes this condition as the “economic power” of capitalism that is its essential structure, true across all historical sites and spaces of capitalism.

Mau doesn’t acknowledge that Marx intended ideology, the state, and forced consent to function in tandem to produce this moment. Accordingly, he dispenses with concepts of the centrality of coercive violence of the state and the role of ideology that convinces us to reproduce capitalism. He discards theories of monopoly capitalism (which Marx specifically had linked as a spatial essence of the core logic of capitalist development) and historical materialism as concepts that do not derive from this precise conceptualization of the logic of capitalism.

Imperialism is not discussed significantly in the text nor included in the index. Ironically, Mau notes Marx’s later statement that his capitalist development model was geographically and historically confined to Western Europe. While Mau uses Marx’s statement to further prove his own “economic power” model, it is clear that Marx meant to say that his model of capitalist development was confined to Western Europe because the violence capitalists exerted on the imperialist side of that system was also an essential ingredient of capitalism’s core structure.

Mau takes on recent Marxist thought that defines gender oppression and racism as necessary features of capital’s logic. Mau asserts that while they are important concrete sites of oppression and technologies of power, they are not abstract enough, in his view, to fit his essential logical definition. They may be necessary, but they do not define it.

To show this, Mau engages with an intellectual tradition fostered by Marxian philosophers almost exclusively sited in Western European and North American academic settings whose cultural affinities are most closely shaped by those countries (with a tiny sprinkling of thinkers with cultural moorings that may be sometimes situated in non-Western countries).

Instead of a broader engagement, however, readers are treated to problematic dismissals, such as Mau’s treatment of thinkers who write about the relationship of racism with capitalism: “No number of empirical examples of the actual entanglement of racism and capitalism allows us to reach such conclusions”—that racism can be included in “the core structure” of capitalism. Mau doesn’t cite or discuss such studies.

To recover from this error, he must read and engage with scholars such as Angela Davis, Eric Williams, Oliver Cromwell Cox, Walter Rodney, Charisse Burden-Stelly, Franz Fanon, Barbara Fields, E. San Juan, Jr., Samir Amin, Fred Moten, Frank Wilderson III, and Vijay Prashad, among others. They have shown that capitalism and racism are so deeply connected, using concrete historical examples across geographical sites, that support modifying Mau’s narrow concept.

For example, Mau does not contend with Rodney’s theorization in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa of the racist basis on which capitalist development in the Western European countries depended essentially on the deliberate repression of “autonomous” and “spontaneous” capitalist development in the colonized countries. Nor does he address Cox’s assertion that capitalism could take root only to the extent that it had developed a geographical spatiality in relation to its other, a non-capitalist space with super-exploitable laborers and resources outside of itself or outside of its civitas.

In other words, imperialism is a core structure of capitalism, which, on a new, racist basis, defined people outside of the civitas of the capitalist center (non-Europeans using geographical, historical, and racial categories) as super-exploitable. In other words, “mute compulsion” to reproduce capitalist relations applied to capitalist centers, while the non-reproduction of capitalist relations applied to non-white places and peoples.

These appear to be transhistorical conditions of capitalism (perhaps only reformed as neocolonialism and neoliberalism). Indeed, it might be worth reorganizing Mau’s thought and emphasizing the spatial-temporal specificity of “mute compulsion” as a form of capitalist reproduction.

The author’s intellectual reliance on Western Marxism and his dismissals of “orthodox Marxists,” may be a source of this misdirection. The historical development of the term “orthodox Marxism” is ill-defined. But suffice it here to say that it became a useful Cold War term, obscuring its ironically anti-communist intentions and origins through its substitution for more evolved discussions of the Communist Parties and their major thinkers.

The real unnamed issue here is that the phrase “economic power” to name capitalism’s “essential” structure links this book categorically with a specific strain of Marxist thought associated with the Second International whose theorists usually deployed evolutionist and economistic explanations for capitalist development.

Economism was a specific form of economic determination that said idealized contradictions within capitalism were the real engines of history that made socialism inevitable. These non-human elements were credited with the power that Lenin later (and Marx) assigned to the collective power of actual living human proletarians. Despite some wordsmithing, Mau hasn’t adequately disentangled himself from economism.

Mau’s simplistic dismissal of Lenin’s thought reveals his lack of engagement with it. He considers Lenin’s theory of the state to be too specific to the Russian condition to be generalizable. Further, because “monopoly capitalism” is not derived from the economic power of the particular moment in the reproduction of capitalist relations to sufficiently rise to the level of abstraction, it is insufficient. (Ironically, while Mau cites Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, to prove his point, he doesn’t discuss the concept of imperialism which Lenin had closely linked with monopoly capitalism.)

Lenin was too caught up in the material realities of his times to see the level of abstraction needed to define the essence of capitalism. Mau’s inaccurate conclusion is that Lenin never theorized the nonviolent economic power concept Mau believes to be a transhistorical and universal definition. Mau does not engage with Lenin’s clear understanding of that theoretical concept in his major historical-theoretical book, The Development of Capitalism in Russia. Doing so might have altered his impression of Lenin’s assessment of “mute compulsion.”

Mau acknowledges Marx’s habit of connecting theory with concrete historical examples. In Capital (Part 8 on “The General Law of Capital Accumulation”), for example, Marx used English capitalist development, its rootedness in colonial relations with Ireland, and its racist treatment of Irish workers (in England and in Ireland) as concrete examples of what he defined as the classic capitalist development model.

Author Søren Mau

While most Marxists contend that such a move is a peculiar Marxist thing to do—to historicize and concretize abstractions and to derive abstractions from concrete and historical patterns—Mau excludes concrete examples as unnecessary, even a hindrance to developing a theoretical concept. For example, he ironically acknowledges that racism is used as a tool of domination but suggests, in a very un-Marxist way, that its tendency to prove fatal to capitalists and capitalist power locates it outside of the conceptual essence he sets out to prove.

Mau pairs his discussion of racism and its non-essential functions with gender oppression in the same chapter. Though he does not make precise equations between the two, his assertion of their theoretical similarity in relation to the “mute compulsion” and the essence of capitalism’s logic is strong enough to warrant a similar assessment for the purposes of this review. One notable issue to his credit is that he concludes that even if gender oppression isn’t foundationally essential to “the social reproduction of the valorization of value based on labor exploitation,” it eventually became an indispensable feature to sustain capitalist development, accumulation, and social reproduction.

Mau’s treatment of that particular problem, like racism, is to see its operation as entirely “outside” the immediate circuits of capitalist production (reproductive labor is necessary for the social reproduction of capitalist relations of production). This assumes that gender oppression (perhaps even the very concept of gender itself) is rooted only in the reproductive labor of people outside of the capitalist-labor relation (in households, for example).

It problematically ignores the reality of gender differentials within the capitalist-labor relation (even in reproductive labor within circuits of capital, e.g., medical care, educational work, or childcare centers that produce value-laden commodities). He does not address the fundamental differential that lies in the value applied to the gender of commodified wage labor. Workers defined as women see an extortion of about $1 million per person throughout their lifetime. Workers defined as men do not receive this differential in the form of a pay bump; capitalists do. It is a source of intensified exploitation, rooted in a specific kind of valorization of value rooted in the exploitation of labor performed by people defined as women.

Even though it is a widely acknowledged form of inequality, no generalized political solution for it has been presented. Its continued function delays accumulation breakdown (except through increased working-class power obtained by the generalized withholding of work).

Like the partiality of his analysis of gender oppression, Mau relates racism primarily to its immediate effect within a given space and time. Such immediacy denies to it the necessary “transhistorical” universality necessary for inclusion in Mau’s concept of economic power. It may be a critical feature of capitalist societies but only as a political problem of a divided working class.

Marx, in Capital, argued that the reproduction of a vilified racial other is not simply an issue of a divided international proletariat, though that is a critical function. The transmutation of vilification into a specific kind of valorization of value based on the exploitation of labor performed by people defined as racial others results in an even larger quantity of extorted wage value from workers of color.

A recent study of the U.S. economy, to take a classic example, showed that Black workers (alone of the many categories of racialized workers) lost $1.7 trillion in wages between 2000 and 2020. White workers, or any workers defined by their apparent biological affinity with the civitas (as males or whites), do not receive this extorted sum as a bonus. Instead, this sum functions as accumulated capital, which is derived from intensified exploitation that delays accumulation breakdown.

Thus, the political problem of disunity is intimately bound up with the economic problem of the reproduction of a racialized valorization of value based on racist labor exploitation. It points to a specific problem outside of Mau’s range of thought: Political and economic struggles of workers as such are critical both within and beyond capitalism.

ren Mau
Mute Compulsion: A Marxist Theory of the Economic Power of Capital
New York: Verso, 2023
352 pp.
paperback ISBN: 9781839763465
Ebook ISBN: 9781839763502

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Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).