On the Dialectics of Vampirism, Capital, and Time

Richard Godfrey
Richard Godfrey

The vampire is at once an ancient figure and our perfect contemporary. A literary critic could demonstrate this by pointing out that the narrative structure of Bram Stoker’s (1897/1998) ‘Dracula’ plays out in an eternal present, in which everything takes place in the here, and now.

As Moretti (1983: 187) notes, in Stoker’s novel “narrative time is always the present, and the narrative order — always paratactic — never establishes causal connections”.

In the same way, the contemporary economy is represented without a past or a future, perfectly timeless. Economic discourse has no interest in history, which is presumably a thing of the past and sees the future as simply a multiplication of the present (see also Jones and Bohm, 2003).

As such, vampires and time seem perfect starting points for thinking critically about the contemporary economy.

An equally good point of departure would be the often-cited analogy that Marx draws between vampires and capital.

In articulating a set of arguments about the relationships between vampirism, capital, and time, we will attempt to reclaim the value of the way that Marx draws on this cultural reference and to underscore its continued usefulness as a way of critically inspecting the vicissitudes of capitalist accumulation.

For one, when Marx writes that capital is “vampire-like”, we will argue that this is not a cheap literary embellishment. We will take it seriously as a clue to understanding the economic arguments that are outlined in his work. We will try to treat the motif of the vampire as a clue for critical analysis by going beyond the obvious reading of an analogy between capital and vampires which simply casts the capitalist as vampire.

Let us consider some of the appearances of vampires in Marx’s work. Most famously, perhaps, in Capital, he writes: “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks” (Marx 1867/1976: 342).

The first thing to note is that this analogy is not simply an arbitrary comment. It is not the first time that Marx evokes blood in order to point to the deleterious effects of capitalist accumulation and expansion.

Later in Capital, repositioning the history of primitive accumulation against the idyllic vision of economists, he writes: “Capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt” (ibid.: 926). Or, describing the “liberation” of the feudal peasants from their previous means of production: “These newly freed men became sellers of themselves only after they had been robbed of all their own means of production, and of all the guarantees of existence afforded by the old feudal arrangements. And this history, the history of their expropriation, is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire” (ibid.: 875).

Many non-academic writers also feel that the expression of punk and goth artists is linked to the depressed economic and social conditions faced by the lower classes.

The specific reference not just to blood, but also to vampires, is hardly surprising. Marx had stored it up carefully, noted and practised it, and references to the vampiric nature of capital span 30 years of Marx’s writings.

In the Eighteenth Brumaire: “The bourgeois order… has become a vampire that sucks out its blood and brains and throws them into the alchemist cauldron of capital.” (Marx, 1852/1973: 242)

In the Grundrisse: “Capital posits the permanence of value (to a certain degree) by incarnating itself in fleeting commodities and taking on their form, but at the same time changing them just as constantly; it alternates between its eternal form in money and its passing form in commodities; permanence is posited as the only thing it can be, a passing passage — process — life. But capital obtains this ability only by sucking in living labour as its soul, vampire-like.” (Marx, 1857–1858/1973: 646)

Inaugural Address to the First International: “Through their most notorious organs of science, such as Dr. Ure, Professor Senior, and other sages of that stamp, the middle class had predicted, and their heart’s content proved, that any legal restriction of the hours of labour must sound the death knell of British industry, which, vampire-like, could but live by sucking blood, and children’s blood, too.” (Marx, 1864/2000: 579)

It is important to recognise that in these texts the vampire plays a number of different roles.

To begin with, there is the obvious place that it plays filling out the catalogue of evil, standing alongside the ghosts, spectres, monsters and other creatures that, as it is ritual to note today, populate Marx’s work (see Derrida, 1994).

In this respect, the metaphor has an obvious appeal, indicating the devilish nature of the capitalist and the scheming and self-interested nature of capital. As such, it plays on the classic tropes of gothic literature (see Parker, 2003).

In vampire literature and films, the classic representation of the vampire is one of a menacing and mysterious figure that represents the grotesque and dangerous.

The obvious analogy between vampires and capital thus reflects this “ideological” aspect of the metaphor, playing on the classic figures of good and evil, in which the capitalist is represented as a dastardly plotter.

But the figure of the vampire also has a “scientific” function, that is to say, it figures importantly to clarify Marx’s economics. While this function is perhaps less obvious, the metaphor seems well fit as a description of capital when we consider, for example, the premise that is accepted by all economists, Marxist or not, that capital can only live by perpetually increasing in size.

This basic dynamic of expansion, along with the insufficiency of capital to valorise itself without labour, offers a further parallel with vampirism. This is what is described in Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ as “the curse of immortality”, that is, the way that like capital, vampires: “…cannot die, but must go on age after age adding new victims and multiplying the evils of the world; for all that die from the preying of the Un-Dead become themselves Un-Dead, and prey on their kind. And so the circle goes on ever widening, like as the ripples from a stone thrown in the water.” (Stoker, 1897/1998: 214)

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