“The mute compulsion of economic relations seals the domination of the capitalist over the worker. Extra-economic, immediate violence is still of course used, but only in exceptional cases. In the ordinary run of things, the worker can be left to the ‘natural laws of production’, i.e., it is possible to rely on his dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them… ”
-Karl Marx, Capital, [translation by Søren Mau]
“Capitalism: a society in which social reproduction is governed by the logic of capital to a significant degree.”
“Money thereby directly and simultaneously becomes the real community, since it is the general substance of survival for all, and at the same time the social product of all.”
Mute Compulsion is out today from Verso!
You should order a copy and read it, then come back here.
But if you aren’t convinced you need to read an entire book on the “A Marxist Theory of the Economic Power of Capital” keep reading…
Below I will dive into the book and expand on some of my interests: the “New Reading of Marx”, critiques of socialist humanism, social reproduction theory, and food.
I’ve been looking forward to this book for a while. This book seeks to articulate a new theory of domination under capitalism that can be used politically. Not simply the workers vs. the boss at work, and not simply state violence or capitalist ideology, but the round the clock impersonal domination of living in a racist, sexist etc. capitalist society. It would be cool to stop all that.
I appreciate that early in the introduction it is clear that Mau is not what I would call a Marxist, or someone who keeps the faith that Karl Marx presented a single system or has all the answers: “Although the emphasis on the importance of ‘the mute compulsion of economic relations’ for the reproduction of capitalism is found frequently throughout the chaotic collection of (mostly unfinished) writings which make up Marx’s critique of political economy, Marx never articulated a coherent, systematic analysis of this historically novel form of social domination.” Or later on “his enormous research project is also unfinished in the sense that it contains unresolved theoretical problems. Until the very end of his life, Marx’s thinking developed constantly, but this development was not always consistent.” And finally “This book is not a Marxological treatise; its ultimate aim is to understand capitalism, not Marx.” That’s why you should read the book even if you are not a fan of Marx.
What is mute compulsion? The term is found in the last part of Capital, titled “so-called primitive accumulation” or “original accumulation” which is a history of violence required for the origins of capitalism. It is also the only purely historical part of Capital. Harry Cleaver, an autonomist Marxist, recommends reading Capital with this part first to understand how “capital originally created the working class and imposed its system on it.” Hence, mute compulsion refers to a form of domination that is not simply state violence or bourgeois ideology, but the economic power of capital or ‘mute compulsion of economic relations’ that works alongside these more concrete forms of domination. Mute compulsion has been with us all since the origins of capitalism.
As Michael Heinrich writes in the forward:
“The idea behind it – that under certain circumstances it is not persons but economic conditions that exert compulsion on formally free workers… This ‘mute compulsion’ was of central importance in the contrast between personal relations of domination such as slavery or serfdom in pre-capitalist modes of production, and the impersonal domination of legally free wage labourers by which Marx characterises the capitalist mode of production. That alone should be reason enough to look at it in more detail. The only astonishing thing was that no one had done so before.”
Mau explains that economic power acts on the entire environment, not a single subject, and is rooted in the ability to reconfigure all the processes and activities needed in order to secure the continuous existence of social life (or social reproduction). Marx’s critique is based on a set of social relations that economics as a discipline fails to recognize power relationships in society: the market excludes the possibility of domination. An example of this is someone like Milton Friedman, who assumes exchange in the market only happens if it benefits both parties, but even Friedman admits “co-operation is thereby achieved without coercion.”
Of course, early on in Capital Marx defines this double freedom: ‘For the transformation of money into capital, therefore, the owner of money must find the free worker available on the commodity-market; and this worker must be free in the double sense that as a free individual he can dispose of his labour-power [ability to labour] as his own commodity, and that, on the other hand, he has no other commodity for sale, i.e. he is rid of them, he is free of all the objects needed for the realization of his labour-power’ (Capital, p. 272-3).
The flaws of the mainstream concepts of power are laid out in chapter 1: individualistic social ontology, takes a dyadic form (A has power over B, ignores this is situated in the context of other social relations), something that is exercised in discrete interactions between social agents, identities of the As and Bs involved in a power relationship are entirely unrelated, economy as a sphere of power is occluded (accepts the familiar division of society into the state, the economy, and the social).
Foucault's theory of power is discussed as it avoids the 5 problems of mainstream ideology, but it ignores class and property relations. Mau combines insights of Foucault and Marx later in chapter 6.
A brief outline is given of capital as a historically specific social relation, the valorisation of value, and can thus ‘only be grasped as a movement, and not as a static thing.’
Capitalism dominates (has power over) us because social reproduction of life is based on the logic of capital – commodity production to increase exchange-value.
Commodities must have a social use-value (a coat keeps you warm), but also an exchange-value (a coat is worth 20 yards of linen, or $50, or 2 labor tokens etc). Marx's simple general formula of capital 'is always M–C –M′; money, the independent form of exchange-value, is the starting-point, and the increase of exchange-value the independent purpose' (Economic Manuscript of 1864-65, p. 431). This is a wider logic, not just between a single worker and a capitalist. Money is the starting point that is used to produce commodities for exchange for more money.
Money has existed for thousands of years but "from the sixteenth century onwards a fundamental transformation took place: the logic of capital began to weave itself into the very fabric of social life, eventually reaching the point where people had become dependent upon it for their survival. Capital became ‘the all-dominating economic power’, or, put differently: society became capitalist."
It would have been helpful for Mau to expand on how money was mainly a form of debt prior to capitalism and how the role of money is different under capitalism. More on that later.
So what can Marx tell us about the logic of capitalism that mainstream conceptions of power miss? This is discussed in the next chapter, specifically the role of state violence and bourgeois ideology.
First, historical materialism, a determinist concept defining the economic mode of production as the base of society, with other areas as a superstructure (political institutions, laws, customs, culture, etc) on top of the base is discussed. This concept was mainly developed by Engels and Kautsky following Marx’s death. Mau writes this was “a determinist philosophy of history in which specific social formations were, in the last instance, reduced to a stage in the unfolding of a transhistorical technological rationality… The determinism of historical materialism was exacerbated by scientistic positivism. In the preface to A Contribution [to the Critique of Political Economy], Marx had claimed that economic analysis could be conducted with ‘the precision of natural science’. Mau concludes, “The productive force determinism of orthodox historical materialism precluded the development of an understanding of the economic power of capital for the simple reason that economic relations were seen as the result of a transhistorical technological drive rather than as struggles about power and domination.” Historical materialism in this sense should be discarded, and fuck Lenin’s embrace of Taylorism.
Following historical materialism, subsequent Marxists in the early 20th century believed capitalism was entering a new stage, “monopoly capitalism” where domination was viewed as the absence of competition and guaranteed by the ability of state violence and imperial expansion. This view was modified but continued in 1966 Paul A. Baran and Paul Sweezy published their book Monopoly Capital. Robert Brenner argues that their work was specific to the U.S. at that time before global competition intensified. This cannot explain mute compulsion of capital.
In 1924, Evgeny B. Pashukanis, a Soviet legal scholar that was later executed by the USSR, asked “why does the machinery of state coercion not come into being as the private machinery of the ruling class; why does it detach itself from the ruling class and take on the form of an impersonal apparatus of public power, separate from society?” Fifty years later, scholars such as Nicos Poulantzas, Ellen Meiksins Wood, the Conference on Socialist Economics, and the German state-derivation debate would seek to answer the question: “capitalist relations of production presuppose the existence of an institution not directly involved in the organisation of social reproduction... For example, it can be shown that the universalisation of the ‘cell form’ of capitalism – the commodity – presupposes an institution with the ability to guarantee property rights.” Basically state violence was, and continues to be necessary, but social production continued to be dominated by the mute compulsion of capital. Why do people freely vote against their own interests or continue to work for low wages etc?
The most common explanations are ideologies of power: “concepts, imageries, myths, and narratives through which we (consciously or unconsciously) represent, interpret, and understand social reality.” It is different from violence or coercion to a direct physical body. Pure ideology lacks attention to economic power, though they did clear new ground by rejecting historical materialism, instead emphasizing the relations of production. Karl Korsch is also mentioned as probably the sole western Marxist seriously engaged with Marx’s critique of political economy.
Theodore Adorno’s analysis of exchange value as a form of domination is essential. Adorno laid the foundation for his students Helmut Reichelt and Hans-Georg Backhaus that would become the “New Reading of Marx” leading away from the violence/ideology couplet and towards theories of economic power. This new reading of Marx’s theory of value, by Heinrich and Moishe Postone among others, focuses on the “transformation of capitalist social relations into real abstractions imposing themselves on social life through an impersonal form of power.” Though critique is made later on that Adorno focused too much on “the universal domination of mankind by exchange value” he neglected class relations.
Mau later writes in a footnote that “some value-form theorists tend to exaggerate the novelty of their reading of Marx, however. Backhaus and Reichelt, for example, essentially claim that no one had really understood Capital before they discovered the true essence of the theory of value in the 1960s, when they stumbled upon an old copy of the first edition of Capital. Although their reconstruction of Marx’s critique of political economy was undoubtedly highly original, some of their fundamental points had already been at least partly made by Marxists such as Lucio Colletti, Raya Dunayevskaya, Henryk Grossman, Karl Korsch, Evgeny B. Pashukanis, I. I. Rubin”. This is an eclectic group, though some of these theorists are discussed briefly in the text (like Colletti’s critique of orthodox Marxism), further discussion of what each of them brought would be helpful. Particularly Grossman, whose crisis theory does not seem to fit with the rest and is not mentioned again in the book.
Other thinkers are briefly mentioned as a foundation for the economic power of capital but none provide a comprehensive account: David Harvey’s work on the spatiality of capitalist power, William Clare Roberts’s interpretation of the first volume of Capital as a political theory, Jasper Bernes’s writings on agriculture and logistics (both these topics are returned to later in chapters 11 and 12), and Aaron Benanav’s work on the global surplus population (covered in chapter 13 along with crisis).
Another reason to read the book is we don’t yet have an English translation of Heinrich’s The Science of Value. Though Mau cites this work over 30 times and relies on other works that may not be available in English. This book is a great resource for people getting into the "New Reading of Marx". This article, cited in the book, is worth reading for more background, which argues that “‘Marxism’ is Engels’ work and for that reason actually an Engelsism.” This is why I loathe the subtitle of this book, “A Marxist Theory of the Economic Power of Capital.” One Marx quote that is missing from this book: All I know is that I am not a Marxist. There are real limits to Marxism that I will mention later.
The theoretical status of the concept of the human being in Marx’s writings is a central issue. Here I will detour from the book slightly to expand on Marxist humanism.
Years ago I turned to Marx to explain the domination we face under capitalism, but was put off by the orthodox theory of historical materialism and the Eurocentric focus. I wondered what lessons could be taken from Marx from a less orthodox, U.S. context. This led me to C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya, also known as the dissident “Johnson-Forest Tendency” (JFT) of the 1940s that would completely break with Trotskyism in the U.S. in 1950. Grace Lee Boggs was a central member and she was the first to translate The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 into English in 1947 (not in 1956 as Mau claims).
As Peter Linebaugh notes, the background to this important translation was war. “The humanism that emerged from these newly available Marx texts was the key to a trenchant postwar critique of the racism-capitalism nexus. At the heart of this humanism were Marx’s notions of labor and alienation, conceived as punishment and as suffering. ‘Production does not produce man only as a commodity, the human commodity, man in the form of a commodity,’ Marx wrote. ‘It also produces him as a mentally and physically dehumanized being.’ The crux was alienation: alienation from self, alienation from production, alienation from product, alienation from others. For Marx the opposite to this is ‘species-being,’ fully emancipated humanity.”
Let’s go back to Mau to break this down. There is discussion of Louis Althusser’s conception of Marx’s “epistemological break” in 1845, which largely divides the young Marx’s philosophical writings prior to the break, and the economic writings of the late Marx after the break. In these earlier writings, Marx relies on a hypothetical human essence and is romantic in a sense that we need to return to some hypothetical original unity.
Althursser is correct in that Marx discards these Feuerbachian humanist and romantic notions after reading Max Stirner’s The Unique and its Property, and no longer refers to ‘species-being’. And although alienation occasionally pops up in Marx’s later writings, it is often used to describe social relations, not referring to ‘human nature’ or the four aspects of alienation mentioned above in Marx’s early writings.
As Mau later writes: “Romantic essentialism amounts to a depoliticisation of critique, as it construes anti-capitalist politics as the restoration of a natural order… Human nature explains why it is possible for human beings to organise their social reproduction in so many different ways, but it can never serve as the normative basis for the rejection of a specific form of society.”
The break is clear in The German Ideology as Mau writes, “Marx and Engels repeatedly distance themselves from the concepts of alienation and ‘the essence of man’, making fun of the ‘speculative-idealistic’ conception of revolution as ‘self- generation of the species’ – which was precisely how Marx understood revolution in the 1844 Manuscripts.”
Basically, I think the members of the JFT had many useful insights that still stand, but relied too heavily on the 1844 manuscripts. Although it is important to note that Dunayevskaya always believed that Capital was Marx’s most important work. I agree with Mau here that the “the 1844 Manuscripts seemed to offer a convenient Marxist escape route from orthodox Marxism.”
Mau also offers another important footnote: “Raya Dunayevskaya also made important headway with her interpretation of Capital as ‘a critique of the very foundations of political economy’. More than two decades before Diane Elson, she suggested that we should speak of the ‘value theory of labour’ rather than the ‘labour theory of value’. Raya Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom: From 1776 until Today."
Note: I transcribed and updated Dunayevska’s chapters on the Capital referred here (“value theory of labor” can be found in The Logic and Scope of Capital, Volumes II and III) and also her outline of Capital volume 1 from the early 1940s, which was cited as inspiration for a new, forthcoming English translation of Capital. These are foundational texts for non-orthodox Marxian activists in the U.S. that believed in the self-activity of the proletariat and should be engaged with more directly despite the whacky trajectories of some of the current thinkers of this tradition.
Chapter 3 ends in agreement with Althuser that Marx broke with humanism, but disagrees with the periodization of Marx’s writings, believing that philosophical elements, such as a Feuerbachian inversions, remain throughout Marx’s work.
In the next chapter, there is a deeper dive into the material needs of humans, the importance of social relations with nature and other human beings is established though Mau is careful to argue against any original unity of humans and nature.
Following that, Mau discusses metabolic domination and value. “In a ridicule of economists in Capital, Marx writes that ‘so far no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value either in a pearl or a diamond’. What does he mean by that? That the value form is a ‘purely social’ property which has nothing to do with ‘natural qualities’ of a commodity, such as its chemical composition.”
Probably the most helpful definition of dialectics is given: “a process in which a concrete totality reveals itself to contain its own negation as one of its moments.” Hence, the relation between nature and the social dialectical: human material organization emerges out of nature and opens up new possibilities.
Realizing the importance of social relations, in the 1860s Marx regarded the development of productive forces as a result of social relations of production (the opposite of orthodox historical materialism). Though Marx was inconsistent and continued to hold on to some ideas of productive force determinism “after the publication of the French edition of the first volume of Capital (1872-75) – the last edition Marx prepared – productive force determinism disappears entirely from his writing.” Marx explicitly states later in 1877 that ‘so-called primitive accumulation’ in Capital, was no more than a ‘historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe.’ This addresses at least some concerns of Eurocentrism.
Part I ends with the possibility of economic power, Since humans have no set ways to meet needs for social reproduction, we are extremely susceptible to property relations. This allows the possibility of a new form of power, such as capital, to become the mediator between life and its conditions. Part II focuses on relations.
Essential to Marx’s critique is the historically unique split between abstract labor time-based and used for the production of commodities for value on the market (historically specific to capitalism) and concrete labor needed for social reproduction (transhistorical - has and always will exist). Think of cooking breakfast for a loved one at home (concrete labor) vs cooking the exact same breakfast for money at a restaurant for sale (abstract labor). Women have been forced to undertake much of the concrete labor outside of the workplace needed for social reproduction and ultimately the reproduction of capitalism. Yet Mau writes, “Marx’s failure to examine this kind of labour and its role in the capitalist economy is probably the most damaging blind spot in his critique of political economy.”
Heinrich, on the first page of his Introduction to Karl Marx’s Capital is more specific:
“Contemporary societies are traversed by a variety of relations of domination and oppression that are expressed in various forms. We find asymmetrical gender relations, racist discrimination, enormous differences of property ownership with corresponding differences in social influence, anti-Semitic stereotypes, and discrimination against certain types of sexual orientation. There has been much debate concerning the connection between these relations of domination, and particularly concerning the question as to whether one of them is more fundamental than the others. If relations of domination and exploitation rooted in the economy are placed in the foreground in the following account, then it is not because they are the only relevant relations of domination. However, one cannot simultaneously address all such relations of domination. Marx’s critique of political economy is primarily concerned with the economic structures of capitalist society, and for that reason they are placed at the center of the present work. But one should not succumb to the illusion that with an analysis of the fundamentals of the capitalist mode of production that everything decisive has already been said about capitalist societies.”
So basically Marx is abstracting from many things on a theoretical level throughout Capital to examine various aspects of capitalism at its ideal average. Does the capitalist mode of production need concrete labor outside of the point of production of surplus value? Yes. Does the capitalist mode of production necessarily require women to do the concrete labor that is needed for survival? No. Do actually existing capitalist societies exploit pre-existing domination and oppression for its benefit? Yes.
I think Marx could have expanded on abstract vs. concrete labor and brought in real world examples, as he did in ‘so-called primitive accumulation’, and Heinrich has informally mentioned that Marx could have expanded this footnote into an entire chapter, but he did not.
Mau briefly mentions domestic-labor debates of the 1970s and more recently, Social Reproduction Theory (SRT). Given that this is “probably Marx’s most damaging blind spot” I would have liked to see this history expanded. There is a good outline of the history and debates up to the present here. Instead, there is more focus on the “conceptual mess” of a debate that often cites Cinzia Arruzza, echoing what was said above “It is true that capitalist competition continually creates differences and inequalities, but these inequalities, from an abstract point of view, are not necessarily gender-related… However, this does not prove that capitalism would not necessarily produce, as a result of its concrete functioning, the constant reproduction of gender oppression, often under diverse forms.”
Many of the SRT thinkers do not deal with the role of the state at all. For example, the limitations of the ‘dual systems perspective’ is discussed with no mention of the state. I would have liked to see Kirsten Munro cited here, as Munro clearly states there is a fundamental need to change production processes, not merely redistributing the costs and benefits of that production. Munro has a clearer perspective on how households, capitalists firms, and the state are all connected in the reproduction of capitalist society. The role of the state is not just violence, as Mau will later mention the importance of patents and world trade treaties in agriculture. The concrete roles the state plays would seem to detract from an abstract and impersonal economic power that Mau is theorizing.
Here is a rough chart of Munro's Reproduction of Capitalist Society:
Moving on, the relation of race to capitalism is also analyzed in a similar way as gender. “Acknowledgement of the deep entanglement of racism and the valorisation of value does not oblige us to locate racism in the core structure of the capitalist mode of production. It is perfectly possible to hold that racism is a social phenomenon which does not originate in the capital form yet is conducive to and reproduced by the latter.”
So what are we left with? Capital reproduces antagonisms within the proletariat to a certain extent, but not to a degree when it interferes with accumulation. “The balancing act capital has to perform thus consists in nurturing antagonisms to such a degree that it prevents proletarians from forming a collective force yet does not create obstacles for the accumulation process.”
A couple quotes from Marx stick out to me: The racist attitudes towards the Irish among British workers were ‘the secret of maintenance of power by the capitalist class’ and ‘in the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin when in the black it is branded.’ (Capital, p. 414). Marx’s brief remarks on racism show he understood it as historically specific to capitalist societies – he did not theorize it at an abstract level of the capitalist mode of production.
For all humanism’s theoretical flaws discussed above, socialist humanism brought Marxist theory much closer to popular unrest and social movements than the rest of Marxist theory as Nate Holdren mentioned recently. That’s one reason why Marxist humanism initially appealed to me. It provides a theory of capitalism that can account for gender and race, where other abstract Marxist theories alone often can’t. The closest we can get here is gender oppression and racism continue to be a benefit for capital in the social reproduction of labor-power and generating surplus populations (addressed in the last chapter). Gender oppression and racism pre-date capitalist societies, so a single theory on capitalist mode of production in the abstract cannot explain everything.
Now we can move on to the “power of value” which takes place not only at work, but at all times. A distinction is used from Robert Brenner, dividing social relations of production into two sets: vertical relations between the immediate producers and the exploiters, and horizontal relations among producers themselves and exploiters themselves. The foundation of capitalism is discussed using Marx’s “so-called primitive accumulation” in addition to Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood’s commercialisation model of the historical origins of capitalism. The market is established. The proletariat is forced to use the market to meet social needs. Mau makes a distinction here of the proletariat vs. the working class “not everyone who depends on capital for their survival works (or has the ability to do so), I prefer to speak of ‘proletarians’ and ‘the proletariat’ rather than ‘workers’ and ‘the working class.. proletarians do not automatically become workers – they have to be made into workers… If we examine the relationship between the worker and the capitalist without asking why the worker is a worker in the first place, we lose sight of an important aspect of the power of capital.”
The radical separation between life and its conditions which allows capital to insert itself as the mediator between them is addressed throughout the book, including:
-Competitive pressures of the market (chapters eight and nine)
-Real subsumption of labor and nature (chapter ten and eleven)
-Threat of unemployment and crises (chapter thirteen)
Mau believes the British physician and economist Joseph Townsend may have been the inspiration for Marx’s passage on mute compulsion:
“Hunger will tame the fiercest animals, it will teach decency and civility, obedience and subjection, to the most perverse. In general it is only hunger which can spur and goad them [the poor] onto labour; yet our laws have said they shall never hunger. The laws, it must be confessed, have likewise said, they shall be compelled to work. But then legal constraint is attended with much trouble, violence and noise: whereas hunger is not only peaceable, silent, unremitting pressure, but, as the most natural motive to industry and labour, it calls forth the most powerful exertions; and, when satisfied by the free bounty of another, lays lasting and sure foundations for goodwill and gratitude”
The ‘silent, unremitting pressure’ is not an immediate relationship between two social agents and, following Foucault, power is "exercised only over free subjects." Hence, “The power of capital does not just prevent the worker from following their will (although it often does that); it also facilitates a certain way in which they can actually follow that will. Mute compulsion only works because the worker wants to live.”
Furthermore, it is not a personal relationship with a specific capitalist. If it wasn’t Elon Musk, it would just be another asshole as capitalism personified etc. Instead, Marx says in the Grundrisse, it is ‘Money thereby directly and simultaneously becomes the real community, since it is the general substance of survival for all, and at the same time the social product of all.’
Later, Foucault’s two types of power are discussed. Disciplinary power, involving the body directly; and biopolitics, a more recent concept of power focused on positive management, control, and regulation of the life of the population (think of birthrate, longevity, public health, migration, housing and mobility- often policies administered by the state). Though Foucault ignores the role of the state in maintaining property relations, Mau finds it helpful to connect Foucault and Marx: “Capitalism introduces a historically unique insecurity at the most fundamental level of social reproduction, and for this reason the state has to assume the task of administering the life of the population.” This is more inline with Munro discussed above but is it an impersonal economic power of capital or a more concrete vertical state relation? Oftentimes Marx is simplified to vertical relations, capital owns the means of production and the proletariat does not (but again this is enforced by the state)...
Instead, Mau turns to analyzing the horizontal relations mentioned earlier: how value is realized by direct producers (workers) through the market to meet their needs and competition between different capitalists (and workers for higher wages etc). These horizontal relations create forms of power which can’t be reduced to vertical class domination. Marx’s analysis of value is not intended to explain quantitative prices but the qualitative organization of social reproduction in capitalist society that underlies them.
Social reproduction in capitalism is defined by the value of private abstract labor (temporal/time-based units of labor) that produce commodities. Access to conditions of existence are mediated by a market system in which the circulation of commodities and money generate compulsory standards and demands that must be met in order to survive. This is a “quasi-autonomous system of real abstractions imposing themselves on everyone by means of an impersonal and abstract form of domination.” This is separate from domination in the workplace, which is discussed later in chapter 10.
This impersonal form of domination has been criticized by thinkers such as William Clare Roberts for being too vague about the source of domination. It’s important to keep in mind “the domination of value is a domination of people by people mediated by relationships between people and things.” This is the ‘alien power’ Marx often refers to and is different from his earlier conception of alienation discussed above. The essence of the human being has been replaced by social relations. The political horizon is no longer reappropriation and realization of an alienated essence but abolition of autonomised social relations.
“Value becomes the mechanism through which economic activity is organised because the units of production are separated from each other while still remaining dependent upon each other.”
As discussed briefly with Adorno above, many of the proponents that would go on to form the "New Reading of Marx" may overemphasize the value-form over class relations. M-C-M' or the capital relation is not merely simple commodity production; money for commodity for the same amount of money. The capital relation uses money to produce commodities to produce a larger amount of money (M' not simply M). This requires the existence of a commodity whose very consumption is a source of value: labor power that is available on the market. Surplus value, with the form of appearance as profit, requires the existence of the vertical class relations of proletariat and capital. Autonomous Marxists like Cleaver, hold that “the commodity-form is the basic form of the class relation.” The relations of value depend on vertical class relations, but also create impersonal domination through the value form. Marx writes ‘subjection of the worker to the product of labour, the [subjection of the] value-creating power to value, mediated (appears in) through the relation of compulsion and domination between the capitalist (the personification of capital) and the worker.' What is historically specific about capitalism is not the creation of one class to create surplus for a ruling class, but that both depend on exchange of abstract labor time to meet needs.
Domination of the market affects workers and capitalists in fundamentally different ways, mainly competition: "competition between capitalist companies as well as between proletarians who sell their labour power." Since Marx is abstracting and analyzing capital "at its ideal average" the actual movement of competition is out of the scope for Marx and appears inconsistently in his writings.
Extensive expansion globally as well as intensive expansion of capital into new areas of life are also part of competition. Competition ‘executes the inner laws of capital; makes them into compulsory laws towards the individual capital, but … does not invent them. It realizes them.’ Competition should thus be understood as one of the mechanisms of the economic power of capital. It is an abstract, universal, and impersonal form of domination to which everyone is subjected. It is a real abstraction.
Besides the sale of labor-power and competition already examined, production is another aspect of market domination. The authority of the capitalist within the workplace is merely the form of appearance of the impersonal power of capital, which allows Marx to move beyond moralist critiques of individual capitalists. Chapter 10 introduces the concept of real subsumption of the labor process by capital, followed by chapters on historical examples of subsumption in agriculture and logistics.
In real subsumption, new processes are implemented to meet the pressures of competition and/or prevent worker control (such as reducing monopolisable skills) that fundamentally change the labor process.
Andreas Malm provides an example of a process of real subsumption: Coal-fired steam-engine replaced water-powered mills not because it was cheaper or more productive, but because water technologies were incompatible with competitive relations among firms (overproduction, rural areas near water, irregularities of nature) and the antagonism between capitalists and workers (strikes and riots). Coal allowed for direct coercion of workers to be replaced with machinery and to move production to dense urban areas with more competition for wages. When workers started organizing strategically in coal mining and transportation, capital shifted to oil. Oil which is similar to an electricity network, where there is more than one possible path and the flow of energy can switch to avoid blockages or overcome breakdowns. Real subsumption shows we can’t just take capitalist labor processes and transfer them to a fully automated communism.
Real subsumption varies in different branches of production. Agriculture remained quite resistant until the 1940s, after which it accelerated rapidly. This began 60 years after Marx’s death. Despite this, “the agricultural chemist Justus von Liebig’s critique of the robbery of soil fertility in modern agriculture had a profound influence on Marx, and, as Kohei Saito’s recent study of Marx’s notebooks has documented, Marx continued to work on the ecological aspects of his critique of political economy in the period following the publication of the first volume of Capital in 1867.”
The real subsumption of agriculture includes: technologies, divisions of labor, and the global expansion of agriculture.
It is worth quoting Richard Lewontin and Jean-Pierre Berlan on how real subsumption rapid changes agriculture: “In 1910 farmers gathered their own seeds from last year’s crop, raised the mules and horses that provided traction power, fed them on hay and grains produced on the farm, and fertilized the fields with the manure they produced. In 1986 farmers purchase their seed from Pioneer Hybrid Seed Co., buy their ‘mules’ from the Ford Motor Company, the ‘oats’ for their ‘mules’ from Exon, their ‘manure’ from American Cyanamid, feed their hogs on concentrated grain from Central Soya, and sow their next corn crop with the help of a revolving loan from Continental Illinois Bank and Trust Co.’”
The development of synthetic fertilizers in the early 1900s and their rapid use after World War II overcame the barriers to restoring soil fertility in addition to other biotechnology (such as Genetic Use Restriction Technology seeds that do not reproduce). “Commercial biotechnology aims to inscribe the logic of valorisation into the genetic code of the seed, so that the plant cannot grow without the mediations of capital… As long as plants can reproduce, capital has to rely on patent rights, and thereby the coercive power of the state. The case of hybrid seeds, GMOs, and terminator technology demonstrates how the economic power of capital can replace the violence of the state by means of technology… the only thing that prevents a truly nightmarish rollout of terminator technology is resistance.”
Similar real subsumption happens in livestock: breeding, growth hormones, genetic engineering, and antibiotics have doubled meat consumption.
The division of labor has totally changed. Farmers are dominated by agrobusiness that provides their inputs and purchase their outputs. Agribusiness has been expanded worldwide integrating peasants in the global south to the world market. The violence of colonialism has been replaced with the economic power of World Trade Organization agreements, resulting in a growing surplus population. Again, real subsumption is not easily dissolved. This food system cannot be changed overnight or used for some kind of fully automated luxury communism either.
In addition to Mau’s concerns, the impacts of real subsumption of agriculture on human nutrition and health needs to be explored.
In grain production, roller milled flour has reduced turnover time in flour production but has decreased bran content, resulting in lower fiber content and B vitamin deficiencies requiring the creation of vitamin enriched white flour. In the 1960s, high-yielding wheat lowered production costs while also decreasing iron and zinc content by as much as 30%.
In animal production, pasture raised eggs, milk and beef are much higher in omega-3 fatty acids than factory farmed varieties. These omega-3 fats are essential to humans as they are not available in the active form in plant foods. Inadequate intake of omega-3 fats may lead to higher risk of heart disease and depression in adults, and they are needed for proper brain development for children. Increased intake of processed foods is increasing unhealthy omega-6 fats at an alarming rate, while omega-3 intake is decreasing due to factory farming. Western diets can have an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio as high as 30:1, while traditional Japanese diets may be closer to 4:1! This may contribute to inflammatory diseases including heart disease. Capitalism kills.
The separation of grain production from animal production requires the use of fertilizers mentioned in the book. What will be the impact of real subsumption of food production on long-term human health? The answer to these problems is agroecology: rotating plants and animals together etc, but that would require more labor and knowledge, and not expensive inputs/outputs of capitalist agriculture production.
Whereas real subsumption is a progressing linear tendency of capitalism, the end of the book looks at capital’s cycles of creating surplus populations crises of overproduction? Marx defines 3 types of surplus population that make up the industrial reserve army: floating – temporarily under or unemployed workers; latent – proletarians only drawn into wage labor when capital needs them; stagnant – lowest strata of proletarians with ‘extremely irregular employment’ that do not have access to means of subsistence outside of the wage relation. Marx believes that as productivity continues, there will be a growing surplus population, though it is not clear why employment from accumulation could not outweigh rises in productivity.
Aaron Benanav estimated the global surplus population in 2015 was around 1.3 billion people, or roughly 40 percent of the world’s workforce, mostly in the global south, though the number varies based on cycles. “In the United States, the surplus population is managed by policing and mass incarceration with vastly disproportionate impacts on black communities.” This also intensifies horizontal competition between workers for jobs and wages falling back on racism, nationalism etc. “The mute compulsion of accumulation is the ground upon which racist, nationalist, and religious ideology flourish… violent dispossession and the mechanisms by which accumulation secures the continuous existence of a surplus population should be regarded as two different ways of regulating the supply of labour power available to capital... economic power replaces direct coercion.”
Mau discusses crises, with less concern for the cause and more the effects on the economic power of capital. The tendency of the rate of profit to fall is briefly discussed. I just read this part of volume 3 recently, it’s important to keep in mind that Marx wrote this in an unpublished manuscript 15 years before he passed and it was not a large part of his work while he was alive. Reading it myself I do not get the impression this was some final crisis of capitalism as some Marxists make it out to be. Michael Heinrich is cited in the book and worth reading. Regardless, Marx moves from a theory of a single definite crisis to cyclical crises of capitalism or “a conception of crisis as a crisis of the power of capital to an understanding of crisis as a part of the power of capital.” Crisis forces destruction of excess capital, means of production from bankrupt smaller capitals are purchased cheaply by bigger capitals which expands markets, surplus populations grow resulting in lower wages and making it riskier to resist real subsumption discussed above – the conditions for accumulation are restored.
“All capitalist states depend on accumulation of capital.” Crises put pressure on states to help capital in various ways that often strengthen capital: expansion of markets through imperialism or international agreements; cheap credit, crackdowns on protests, investment in infrastructure, lower corporate taxes, privatization etc.. “elections cannot be allowed to change economic policy”, as Germany's finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble says.. And yet “a crisis also has important effects on the relationship between capital and the state. This issue lies beyond the scope of this book.”
In the 1850s, Marx intended to write 6 books, including a book on the state. The book was never written. Again, it seems mute compulsion often leads back to the capitalist state, yet “crises are perhaps the best example of the impersonal character of economic power”. Sure, no one single handedly caused the crisis, but a deeper analysis of the connection between the state and mute compulsion is needed. As noted, the state polices the surplus population and the state steps in when a crisis occurs, the state guarantees patents, legal rights, fiat money etc.. not mute compulsion in the abstract. A “Marxist theory of the economic power of capital” seems to ultimately lead back to the capitalist state in many cases but does not offer much new insight on it.
Furthermore, Marx’s inspiration for mute compulsion was likely from Townsend’s description of hunger. Why are people hungry under capitalism? They have no money to purchase food on the market. Marx says money is the ‘general substance of survival for all.’ This led many early socialists before Marx to become purveyors of 'money nonsense' (MECW 44:57-58) like Robert Owen and Proudhon: "easy fiat money, free credit, labor exchanges, combinations, cooperative comminutes" as noted by William Clare Roberts (Marx's Inferno, p. 72). Mau fails to engage with this history. History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. The trillion-dollar coin is now being talked about as ways to escape mute compulsion.
In a crisis, the state not only helps capital directly, but often increases welfare like food stamp allowance to eliminate the mute compulsion of hunger (while also giving capitalists like Walmart a huge subsidy from increased purchases). Why do we need communism to end hunger if we can just give everyone Universal Basic Income?
The book leans heavily on a monetary theory of value, but needs a monetary theory of power. For a stronger theory of economic power, the mute compulsion of money should be addressed directly. Mute compulsion as a term came from the only purely historical part of Capital – money cannot be abstracted from here. Money is the independent form of exchange-value. Money is required to exchange commodities to make more money. This is the capital relation. Mute compulsion, or the historically specific impersonal domination of the capital relation – production for exchange instead of use (the horizonal relation Mau discusses) – can only cease when commodities are no longer produced for exchange. Anything less is just 'money nonsense.'
I am grateful to Mau for critical takes and clarification on orthodox Marxist concepts like Historical Materialism, crisis theory, alienation and contextualizing the “New Reading of Marx” for English readers like me outside of academia. This stuff is great. But too often the book reads like others such as Marx on the Margins and Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism that spend too much time justifying Marx instead of going beyond him. Mau admits Marx is inconsistent. We should read Capital and take what we can get from Marx, but be clear that it is past time to leave “Marxism” behind. Combining Marx and Foucault seems like a solid start. If this book is “not a Marxological treatise; its ultimate aim is to understand capitalism, not Marx” it provides a foundation but leaves more work to be done.
Note: "double quotes" are typically from the book or the person mentioned.
'single quotes' are Marx. Page numbers given for quotations not from Mute Compulsion.
Orbital & Sleaford Mods - Dirty Rat
On money non-sense and the creation of difference:
It's just a separation. A fake card in a fake bank machine. There's no consideration for my heart. And my heart will bleed.. Blaming everyone in the hospitals. Blaming everyone at the bottom of the English Channel. Blaming everyone who doesn't look like a fried animal...
Sleaford Mods - Second
On the universal domination of mankind by exchange value:
Why am I second to the boots I wear? Why am I second to my coat and hair? Why am I second to the car I got? My watch, and my jeans, and my Polo top?...
Why am I second to the holiday I book? The color of my skin when I get there drunk? Why am I second to the bread I buy? The coffee beans roasted at a heat I like?
Thank you to Counseling Communism and Edwad Academy for reading and discussing many of the texts mentioned. These groups are ongoing, reach out if you'd like to join.