Capitalism and coercive control
Capitalism and coercive control

The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported that the topics of coercion and consent will be taught as part of the Australian high school curriculum. This is a positive development. The more awareness there is of the dynamics that fuel abusive behaviour, as opposed to the silence, ignorance and denial of such abuse that has been so common in the past, the better.

Currently, Tasmania is the only state or territory in Australia to legislate against coercive and controlling behaviours, but it is being considered for inclusion in other states’ domestic violence laws. According to the New South Wales Domestic Violence Death Review Team, 99 percent of the intimate partner murders they looked at were preceded by coercive and controlling behaviours on the part of the perpetrator. So any measure that helps increase awareness about the potentially serious threat posed by this type of behaviour is to be welcomed.

Relationships Australia describes coercive control as “a pattern of behaviours used by an abuser to control their partner and create an uneven power dynamic. [It] generally involves manipulation and intimidation to make a victim scared, isolated, and dependent on the abuser”. This pattern of behaviour can be subtle and difficult to identify, especially for those subject to it. Examples include monitoring movements, restricting independence and controlling access to money. This can be an exaggerated version of behaviour that is common in “normal” relationships, and as such is often minimised or its victims dismissed as “hysterical” or “oversensitive”. And because issues that affect women are so often downplayed—in relation to health, for example—it’s not hard to see why many women might tend to rationalise such behaviour.

Since the #MeToo movement exploded in 2017 and laid bare the depths of sexual assault and harassment women are subject to, people have been talking more and more about the need for better education around consent and the myriad ways in which men—especially powerful men—abuse and manipulate women. It is important that people learn from an early age that consent can be coerced not just through physical violence or the threat of it, but also through manipulation, such as requests to demonstrate their love for their partner, by quashing their self-esteem or by telling them that no-one else will ever want them. A person cannot freely give their consent when they are afraid to say no.

But coercive control is not restricted to the “personal” sphere in capitalist society. It is a dynamic that underpins many relationships and interactions, and in most cases is not seen as a problem. Capitalism simply couldn’t function without the idea that some people should be able to exercise total control over other people on pain of financial or social consequences. Indeed, the defining features of coercive control—controlling movement, excessive surveillance, fear and financial dependency—encapsulate many modern workplaces: just think of any Amazon distribution centre. A society that normalises such dynamics in most aspects of life is ill-equipped to eradicate them from our personal lives.

Work, where we spend a significant proportion of our lives, is one example. Workers are forced to sell their labour in order to survive. If they are able get a job, they are at the mercy of a boss, who has the “right” to control workers’ labour. Workers who don’t respect this authority face the threat of the sack and financial hardship. If workers dare to step out of line, demanding better pay or conditions, the boss has ample means to punish them and enforce submission. Even in workplaces that purport to give a damn about their employees’ wellbeing, it is usually cynical and superficial, designed to better bind workers to the company rather than give them any real control. The reality is that the vast majority of workers have very little control over most aspects of their jobs—they don’t get to decide what gets produced, who runs the place or how the job should be done. As in abusive relationships, fear frequently forces them to accept this—fear of being targeted by management or sacked.

Arbitrary borders between countries are likewise enforced through intimidation. The inhuman border regimes, which characterise almost every wealthy country in the world, exist not only to punish those who cross borders without the “correct papers”, but also to deter others from exercising their right, enshrined in international law, to cross borders to seek refuge. And double standards abound: capital and the wealthy can move freely around the world, yet workers and the poor are subject to brutal controls and punishment for doing the same.

The control a tiny minority exercises over property, land and resources, which is the vital premise of capitalism, requires that others be prevented from gaining such control. This frequently means outright violence is deployed to keep people in their place, but it also works by making people feel their legitimate desires and needs are transgressions that will attract harsh punishment. 

The 1984-85 miners’ strike in Britain was an example of both. At the time, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said that she “would never negotiate with people who use coercion and violence to achieve their objective”. But it was her police that attacked and injured hundreds of picketers at the infamous Battle of Orgreave—a mass protest that ended with the police rioting and attacking anyone that moved. But as well as this open violence, Thatcher also relied on a version of coercive control, changing the law around welfare provision so that striking miners could no longer claim benefits. The intention was to coerce them back to work through the threat of starvation.

Because the modern workplace is entirely premised on the idea of coercive control, it is frequently the case that the only place that workers feel like they have any semblance of control is in their relationships. Relationships and personal life are meant to be completely cordoned off from the often brutal realities of work, migration and law enforcement that dominate “public” life. This situation inevitably leads to unhealthy interpersonal relationships, from the low-key strains and pressures of “normal” relationships to the outright abusive ones.

Work for so many of us is dehumanising. So it should not come as a great surprise that if the method of capitalism is to dominate partly through coercion and partly through consent, that this has a knock-on effect in the relationships between ordinary people, especially when those relationships are so shaped by the oppressive gender and sexual relations in capitalism. We see around us people being forced—either directly or indirectly—into doing things they don’t really want to do, so why would people think there is anything wrong with behaving the same way in their own relationships?

As a therapist, when I talk about coercive control with my clients, I often talk about gaslighting too. Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory and sanity. Capitalism is the biggest gaslighter of them all—most people recognise that the system is unfair and brutal, but authority figures of various sorts keep telling us how great it is, how lucky we are to have a job and how free we are. The ruling class has been so good at using the techniques of gaslighting and coercive control, it is ironic at one level that they are now finally being forced to recognise it as damaging and dangerous. But using a combination of outright control and coerced consent is the only way they can maximise profits and beat down the resistance of the oppressed and exploited. This means they want awareness campaigns to go only so far.

So, yes, it’s good that society is recognising the dangers of coercive and controlling behaviours. But the prevalence of this in relationships won’t stop while it is so rampant in the rest of society. Until the coercive control that capitalism is founded on is eliminated and replaced with a society free of oppression and exploitation in which every person is treated with the respect they deserve, coercive control in relationships will persist, with all the terrible consequences it has for people’s lives.

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