The Guardian • Issue #2017

Marx’s vampire capitalism and the present economic crisis

“Boston Direct Action Project” dressed as vampires impersonate public relations associates of the World Bank, Washington DC. Photo: Justin McIntosh – (CC BY 2.0)

Friedrich Engels in his The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) refers to “the vampire property-holding class.” Twenty years later, Karl Marx uses the vampire image three times in Capital Vol. 1 (1867): “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more it sucks.” He continues: “The bargain concluded, it is discovered that he was no ‘free agent,’ that the time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the time for which he is forced to sell it, that in fact the vampire will not lose its hold on him ‘so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.’ ” Marx’s third usage is: “The prolongation of the working-day beyond the limits of the natural day, into the night, only acts as a palliative. It quenches only in a slight degree the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour.”

Engels wrote of the vampire fifty years before, and Marx thirty years before Bram Stoker published his popular novel Dracula in 1897. Since then, vampires have become a familiar critical trope of capitalist economics, and there is a valid reason why. The vampire is the unholy living dead that, as Stoker tells us, can only be killed by exposure to sunlight (public scrutiny) or by a stake through the heart (attacking the heart of the capitalist system).

The vampire’s image cannot be seen in a mirror, as Jacques Derrida writes in Specters of Marx (1993):

“There is a mirror, and the commodity form is also this mirror, but since all of a sudden it no longer plays its role, since it does not reflect back the expected image, those who are looking for themselves can no longer find themselves in it. Men no longer recognise in it the social character of their own labour. It is as if they were becoming ghosts in their turn. The ‘proper’ feature of spectres, like vampires, is that they are deprived of a specular image, of the true, right specular image (but who is not so deprived?).”

Like the vampire which needs human blood for its survival, the capitalist needs human labour to produce profits for it to thrive. The image of the vampire is central to the ruthless criticism of capitalism, a critique that makes the world of capitalist commodities and wage-slavery understandable in its abject horror.

The image of capitalism = vampirism is commonly used by writers, politicians, economists, and in cinema. The writer Jack London described strike-breakers in US industrial disputes in the following imagery: “After God had finished the rattlesnake, the toad, and the vampire, he had some awful substance left with which he made a scab.” In the US tv show, The Simpsons, Charles Montgomery Burns, the owner of the nuclear power plant, is portrayed in one episode as Nosferatu, the German vampire, because of his ruthless treatment of his workers. Pope Francis called those people who take advantage of the poor as “true bloodsuckers,” who “live by spilling the blood of the people who they make slaves of labour.” The American journalist, Matt Taibbi, referred to Goldman Sachs, the US multinational investment bank, as: “A great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” In 2019 Senator Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) used the image to describe how, “The private equity firms are like vampires – bleeding the company dry and walking away enriched even as the company succumbs.”

Humanity is viciously exploited under capitalism. The vampire analogy that Marx employs aptly describes how the capitalist steals the worker’s blood, making capitalism vampiric at the core of its existence. Any person who puts the accumulation of capital before the welfare of workers is a vampire. Through the accumulation of capital, the life blood of profits, it acquires immortality at the expense of humanity, a currency which can only be devalued in an economy run by vampiric CEOs. Such an image is used in the US film, Blade (1998), in which the banker-vampires come out at night to run the world economy.

Marx saw workers’ labour as exploitation, for they are paid less than the value they produce with their labour. The profit from their labour goes not to the worker, but to the owner of the means of production, the factory or office. The capitalist receives more than they put into the business enterprise and are therefore paid, not for working, but for owning the business. Workers are paid only enough to keep them alive for the next day’s work, while all the profit flows to the owner.

Capital is the money whose only purpose is to expand itself through this process of profit-extraction from the worker. It drains wealth from those who sell their labour to survive, and then uses this profit to repeat this process endlessly. Capital = Labour and this is how all value is created, such that it becomes vampiric, through this very transformation and thereby grows by finding even more labour to devour and exploit, gorging and enriching itself, never needing to rest. Its existence relies on its extraction from the workers’ bodies, while providing nothing in return but an ever-increasing burden on the working class, always demanding more and more. The result is a series of economic booms and busts, in which profits are disgorged during the periodic stock market crashes and the imminent recessions that follow.

The economist John Quiggin in his Zombie Economics (2010), argues two years after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), that the neoliberal system relies on a series of assumptions, the most important being the Market Efficiency Model. The problem is that the strict adherence to the Market Efficiency Model of neoliberalism, that the private sector is more efficient than the public sector, has never had any proof that it actually works. “It is a model looking for a reason to exist.” Like a vampire it should be dead and buried, but continues to be raised from the dead by economists, business advocates and politicians.

Since the 1968 market crash, booms and busts have been quickening and becoming more aggressive. It climaxed in the 2008 GFC when trillions of dollars were wiped off the international stock markets. What began as a sub-prime real estate problem quickly spread throughout the banking system. As one economist calculated, if you imagine all profits of all US banks, since the end of the Civil War in 1865, that was how much was wiped off the US markets. From the US it quickly spread to Europe and then around the world. The wealth lost was replaced by government bailouts, such that the world economy had greatly recovered, until the present recession. Yet nothing has been learnt by economists or politicians.

The consequence of this failure to remain dead is apparent in our present economic climate, in which we are entering a period of stagflation, with high interest rates, high rent, fuel and food costs, but having limited economic growth. On 17th June 2022, the Financial Review had the headline, “Disastrous Week for ASX, Shares Plunge 6.7pc. Banks Fall”, announcing the coming collapse of the share market. Australian shares suffered their worst week since the pandemic-induced meltdown in 2020. The fear spread from Wall Street to the rest of the world. Fearing aggressive policy tightening being induced, such as interest rates increases, the US market implemented a global recession.

The World Bank reported that in 2021, 150 million extra people became extremely poor (living on less than US$1.90 per person per day) owing to the COVID-19 economy shutdowns. The decreased income, job losses and work stoppages during the pandemic severely damaged poor households worldwide. The World Bank’s Global Economic Prospects report raises the risk of stagflation compounded by the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Global growth is expected to fall from 5.7 per cent in 2021 to 4.1 per cent this year. “The war in Ukraine, lockdowns in China, supply-chain disruptions, and the risk of stagflation are hammering growth. For many countries, recession will be hard to avoid.”

Even under these conditions the wealth of the world is being concentrated in the hands of the “1%”, such that a new word was created to describe the very rich, “Centibillionaires.” They are worth more than US$100 billion each, dwarfing the wealth of the other “99%.” These are concentrated in the US, whose GDP is worth more than US$25.3 trillion, followed by China with US$19.9 trillion. Australia’s economy ranks a mere US$1.7 trillion, coming in behind Brazil with US$1.8 trillion. Of the world’s 100 largest corporations, the majority are in the USA. Australia has only one, BHP Pty Ltd.

According to Forbes World’s Billion List, billionaires have an accumulated wealth of US$12.7 trillion. The top one thousand are richer than they were a year ago, despite the present economic crash. The US has 735 billionaires whose personal wealth is worth a total of US$4.7 trillion. The richest US centibillionaires include: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and Larry Page. This is while the poorest of world’s population have been getting increasingly poorer.

Marx was correct in referring to the very rich as vampires, for the population remains dazed by their presence and hypnotic gaze, allowing even more of our life blood to be extracted without government or legal hindrance or intervention. Marx awaits to despatch the vampire, well aware of its true nature, ready with his stake to the heart of capitalism.

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