Blood-sucking vampires are, of course, ubiquitous in contemporary film—from Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre to Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (the most recent in a long line that stretches back through Christopher Lee’s various portrayals of the Transylvanian vampire to the 1909 silent film Vampire of the Coast).
Vampires are also, as it turns out, familiar as a critical trope within economics.
Terrell Carver (in Postmodern Marx) notes that Marx used the vampire motif three times in Capital—in the chapter on the working day:
“Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.”
“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.”
“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’.”
As Carver explains, “Marx did not accept a commonplace distinction between literal and figurative language, and he did not attempt to avoid the latter in what is taken to be his most scientific work.” Why?
Marx’s critique takes political economy as a textual surface, and by means of a thorough, and thoroughly linguistic analysis he refigures, in a parodic text, a supposedly familiar and uncontentious world as strange (requiring explanation) and problematic (requiring political action).
A more recent example is Matt Taibbi’s reference to Goldman Sachs as “A great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”
And now we have Pope Francis calling the people who take advantage of the poor “true bloodsuckers” who “live by spilling the blood of the people who they make slaves of labour.”*
When riches are created by exploiting the people, by those rich people who exploit [others], they take advantage of the work of the people, and those poor people become slaves. We think of the here and now, the same thing happens all over the world. “I want to work.” “Good, they’ll make you a contract, from September to June.” Without a pension, without health care… Then they suspend it, and in July and August they have to eat air. And in September, they laugh at you about it. Those who do that are true bloodsuckers, and they live by spilling the blood of the people who they make slaves of labour.
Vampires are central, then, to the ruthless criticism of mainstream economics, a critique that makes the supposedly common-sense world in which we live—the world of capitalist commodities and wage-slavery—both strange and ripe for fundamental change.
*The pope’s reference is to the reading for 19 May 2016, from James 5:
Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries.
Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten,
your gold and silver have corroded,
and that corrosion will be a testimony against you;
it will devour your flesh like a fire.
You have stored up treasure for the last days.
Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers
who harvested your fields are crying aloud;
and the cries of the harvesters
have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure;
you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.
You have condemned;
you have murdered the righteous one;
he offers you no resistance.