Review: “Mute Compulsion: A Marxist Theory of the Economic Power of Capital” by Søren Mau

A significant amount of communist theory written by academics has a tendency to be interpreted in one of two ways by non-academic readers. The first is “this is incomprehensible nonsense.” The second is “this is not remotely useful.” Sometimes a given text manages to trigger both responses, a veritable double whammy of eye rolling. Fortunately Mute Compulsion: A Marxist Theory of the Economic Power of Capital by Denmark-based philosopher Søren Mau manages to generally avoid these pitfalls and stand out as an accessible and useful synthesis of various threads in contemporary Marxist thought.

At the core of this book is the important notion that capitalism as a system has ways of dominating people that differ from interpersonal violence (or the threat thereof) and ideological control: an impersonal form of economic domination. While this concept very much dates back to Marx’s mature writings, as both Mau and the authors he excerpts go to great lengths to detail, it had not gained much traction among more serious Marxist thinkers until the latter decades of the 20th century. The reasons for this are explored in the book. The implication throughout the book is that this third form of domination, an economic “mute compulsion,” is a critical part of how capitalism maintains its power and is essential for anticapitalists to understand. To say I am sympathetic to this view is an understatement.

Mute Compulsion is structured into three parts. The first part, titled “Conditions,” serves as a map of a very wide and disparate conceptual terrain where Mau eventually locates a spot to plant his flag. Power, as conceptualized by a variety of heterogeneous thinkers, is examined and dissected in order to develop a useful framework within which to discuss the topic of economic power. Mau picks and chooses useful ideas from a huge range of thinkers to assemble a framework in which the concept of human metabolism plays a central role. The human metabolism involves processes outside of the strict confines of our bodies such as fire and tool usage, processes that by virtue of being physically separable from the human body create room for social mediation of such processes. This framework plays a central role in the synthesis Mau performs throughout the rest of Mute Compulsion.

Part two, “Relations,” is where Mau develops his analysis of class, the first of two main sources of the economic power of capital. He conceptualizes power as acting in two directions with respect to the relations of production: horizontally and vertically. The vertical element is, predictably, class domination of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie whereas the horizontal element is the way the market mediates relations between competitors at all levels of the class system. With precision, Mau demonstrates the way historically specific expressions of (vertical) class domination with precapitalist origins come to find themselves transformed and rendered capitalist in character via the mute compulsion of market mediated (horizontal) social forms.

Part three, “Dynamics,” is where Mau not only details the second main source of capital’s economic power, but also where a lot of the synthesis comes together. This section serves as a wide overview of a variety of emergent dynamics characteristic of capitalism that, in being carried out, create the conditions for not only their own continuity but also the continuity of the vertical and horizontal relations in part two. Mau’s meandering analysis in part three manages to succinctly but effectively explore subsumption, labor rationalization, technology, surplus population, and more.

No book is perfect of course. Some strange assertions are made about the uniqueness of human separability from important elements of our metabolism as if the same is not demonstrably true for a variety of non-human species.1 Further, Mau’s interpretation of all cited authors is, of course, interpretation. The range of authors cited is impressive; I do not have remotely the breadth or depth of reading Mau does. As such I was forced to take many of his critiques at face value due to unfamiliarity with the source material. I could easily see somebody disagreeing with him over critiques he makes of a favored theorist in ways that may discredit his larger arguments. I had minor quibbles about a particular critique of Postone he makes, for instance, although this did not detract from his larger arguments for me. Potential for disagreement over veracity of interpretation is obviously unavoidable and not a good reason to avoid this book though. I felt as if he generally gave all cited authors fair treatment.

My least favorite aspect of this book is the Marxological, however I do not necessarily wish Mau had written it any differently. Marxology, the detailed textual exegesis of writings from Marx and subsequent Marxists to figure out who exactly said exactly what exactly when, is very boring to me. I personally care far less about the origins of ideas and more so about their validity and applicability today. Mau does a better job than most at making the Marxology work in service of immanent analysis of ideas rather than performing it for its own sake though. The point of this book is synthesis, ultimately. To draw together so many disparate lines of thought from such a large group of theorists requires Marxological due diligence. Given the extremely heterogeneous character of all interpretations of Marx’s writing since his death, compounded of course by how long it took for many key texts to be translated, all normative claims about Marx or Marxism carry a Marxological implication under the surface. For the sake of clarity and, less importantly, not sullying the old man’s name, it is important to put these implications where they can be seen and understood. While I found it somewhat dull, the Marxological spelunking is never gratuitous in Mute Compulsion, and is undertaken to the level that it needs to be for a point to be made, and no further.

Overall this book is quite good. It manages to paint with a much wider brush than most without sacrificing much in the way of rigor. The real utility of this book is that it’s an excellent starting point for a variety of concepts developed in the Marxist renaissance of the last half century. An uninformed but curious reader could easily find the subsection for the topic they are interested in and read it as a standalone piece. The book is written in a very accessible fashion, especially considering its origin as an academic dissertation. While there is not much in the way of new developments, the tying together of many related threads is very commendable and intellectually useful. Every communist should have a copy of this book.


1 While I find this notion disagreeable, it is not central to Mau’s major points and can more or less be ignored.


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