Since it was published I have taught Kathi Weeks' book The Problem with Work in my Politics and Philosophy of work class. When I introduce the book, stressing that it is written by a political theorist and not, as in the case of many of our readings, by a philosopher, sociologist or historian, I ask the two questions that Weeks asks: namely, why should a political theory consider work? why does work seem to be outside of politics? What I am trying to provoke with these questions is a particular aporia in which work is for many people the central experience of power, authority, control and subjection, but because it is seen as private and natural it is seen as outside of politics, as apolitical. I remember very well a student responding to the second part of the question by saying that work was not political because "no one made you do it." At first I found this formulation strange given all of the ramifications and consequences of not working from homelessness to starvation, but the more I thought about his response the more it made its own particular sense. The compulsion to work, to sell one's labor power, was in some sense mute, unspoken, there was no particular agency or institution in society demanding it, and there was no particular institution or agency in society enforcing it--in part because it is diffuse spread throughout society.
Since that day I have tried to think together two intersecting ideas. First, Marx's particular contribution to political thought is to think a new kind of compulsion, one that exceeds force or consent and ultimately the political institutions of society all together. The compulsions that define capitalism, not just in demanding that people go to work, to sell labor power, but the compulsions that dictate the rate and intensity of how that labor power will be put to work, are the structural conditions of capitalist accumulation. These compulsions go on behind the producers backs as Marx put it, are not decided on by anyone in particular. Moreover, while the state, law, and police are necessary conditions of capitalist accumulation, making possible the status of labor power as a commodity, these conditions exceed the state to be disseminated throughout political life. Which brings up the second point, this particular kind of compulsion is, for the most part, not experienced as compulsion but often as freedom, and to the extent that it appears as constraint, as necessity, it does so as a necessity that is not historical or instituted, but a fact of existence. Work, private property, competition, the market, etc. appear to not be institutions but, as Marx puts it, self-evident natural laws. Lastly, or to add a third idea, it is against this background of mute compulsion that the more overt compulsions or constraints of politics stand out.
To give a contemporary example, one that I have been thinking about a lot, the short lived and inadequate measure of pandemic lockdown in the US, the few weeks of shutdowns, the few months of mask mandates, the sporadic vaccine requirements, etc., appear to be so intolerable because they were dictated and decided by specific people, but the far more pressing, and often deadly demand, to return to work, to discard unpopular mandates, and to go back to normal is all the more tolerable because it appears to come from no one and to be everywhere. Going back to work, going to stores to buy the things we need and want, is not a dictate or demand, but simply the way that things are.
It is for this reason that I was very excited to read Søren Mau's Mute Compulsion: A Marxist Theory of the Economic Power of Capital. Mau takes up a position that is against the tendency in much of twentieth century Marxism which sought the basis for the reproduction of the relations of production in ideology or the state. As Mau says with respect to Althusser, there is a tendency to look for relations of power outside of economic relations, in the school or other various state apparatus. (I should say parenthetically that I am not convinced of this criticism of Althusser. It might describe his most famous essay, but Althusser also examined the way in which ideology was immanent to the relations of production, as for example in the wage relation and the labor contract). In place of this search for the reproduction of the relations of production in some external aspect, in the ideological state apparatuses, capitalist hegemony, or the culture industry, Mau examines the extent to which the capitalist social relations constitute their own conditions of reproduction. This reproduction stems in part from the unity in separation, to use Endnotes term, or as Mau puts it "In this mode of production, proletarians are temporarily connected to the conditions of their life through the very same social relations that ensure their permanent separation from them." Mau insists that he is not dispensing with ideology altogether. As he writes, "Since my aim is to say something about the economic power of capital, I will largely ignore the role played by ideology as well as violence in the reproduction of the capitalist relations of production. I prevent any misunderstanding here, I want to emphasize that this does not mean that I consider these forms of power to be secondary or unimportant."
Reading Mau's examination of this mute compulsion made me think of not only the central problem of Marx and capital that I outline above, but how long I had been trying to think about this problem. When one thinks about such a problem long enough one hopefully makes some progress, but that may or may not take place. What does happen, however, is that the world of thinking around you changes, the problems shift as does the world of references and texts. One of the thing that occurred to me is how, twenty years ago, I would have rejected the very turn to think the reproduction of capital from the relations of capital, with no reference to ideology as being "economism." The idea that reproduction of the relations of production necessarily passes through something like the supestructure, through ideology, and the state. To cite a long passage from The Micro-Politics of Capital: