Posts Tagged ‘vampires’

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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.

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Capitalism is a giant machine for pumping out the surplus from workers—just like feudalism, slavery, and other class-based economies before it.

That’s from one perspective. But the capitalist machine isn’t just about the “vampire thirst for the living blood of labor.” It also involves various mechanisms for capturing that surplus—in the form of dividends, CEO salaries, interest payments, and so on.

Another, increasingly important such mechanism is hedge funds. And boy are they capturing a lot of the surplus these days!

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The hedge-fund industry continues to balloon in size (after a dip during the financial crash in 2008, and even though 2015 was by all accounts a rocky year), with something like $3 billion dollars in assets under management.

And, as the New York Times reports, the pay of the industry’s leaders has soared.

JPMorgan Chase paid its chief executive, Jamie Dimon, $27 million in 2015. In another Wall Street universe, the hedge fund manager Kenneth C. Griffin made $1.7 billion over the same year.

Even as regulators push to rein in compensation at Wall Street banks, top hedge fund managers earn more than 50 times what the top executives at banks are paid.

The 25 best-paid hedge fund managers took home a collective $12.94 billion in income last year

Yes, billions, with a “b.”

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That’s the list of the top 10 (courtesy of Institutional Investor’s Alpha magazine)—from Griffin (at $1.7 billion) to Joseph Edelman (at $300 million) in 2015.

Not only are Griffin and company capturing a large share of the surplus (even when some of their funds actually lost money for investors last year, just by virtue of their sheer size).* They’re spending it—on everything from art and luxury housing to funding politicians and political campaigns.**

So, with the rise to prominence of hedge funds and other financial instruments, it’s time to revise our definition: capitalism is a giant, vampire-like machine for pumping out, capturing, and spending the surplus from workers.

*Ray Dalio made $1.4 billion in 2015 through Bridgewater Associates, the world’s biggest hedge fund firm with $150 billion of assets under management. Dalio, who founded Bridgewater, is frequently quoted promoting a strategy he calls risk parity. Yet Bridgewater’s risk parity fund, called All Weather, lost investors 7 percent in 2015.

**Griffin was the biggest donor to the successful reelection campaign of Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago.

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In the United States, we’ve witnessed a return of the Roaring Twenties—for the past three and a half decades.

As Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman show, the share of wealth (defined as total assets, including real estate and funded pension wealth, net of all debts) held by the top 0.1 percent of families is now almost as high as it was in the late 1920s.

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The opposite side of the wealth coin has been an erosion of wealth, beginning in the mid-1980s, among the middle class and the poor. By 2012, the bottom 90 percent of Americans collectively owned only 23 percent of total U.S. wealth, about as much as they owned in 1940.

According to Saez and Zucman,

The growing indebtedness of most Americans is the main reason behind the erosion of the wealth share of the bottom 90% of families. Many middle-class families own homes and have pensions, but too many of these families also have much higher mortgages to repay and much higher consumer credit and student loans to service than before. . .For a time, rising indebtedness was compensated by the increase in the market value of the assets of middle-class families. The average wealth of bottom 90% of families jumped during the stock-market bubble of the late 1990s and the housing bubble of the early 2000s. But it then collapsed during and after the Great Recession of 2007–2009. . .

Since the housing and financial crises of the late 2000s there has been no recovery in the wealth of the middle class and the poor. The average wealth of the bottom 90% of families is equal to $80,000 in 2012 – the same level as in 1986. In contrast, the average wealth for the top 1% more than tripled between 1980 and 2012. In 2012, the wealth of the top 1% increased almost back to its peak level of 2007. The Great Recession looks only like a small bump along an upward trajectory.

How can we explain the growing disparity in American wealth? The answer is that the combination of higher income inequality alongside a growing disparity in the ability to save for most Americans is fuelling the explosion in wealth inequality. For the bottom 90% of families, real wage gains (after factoring in inflation) were very limited over the past three decades, but for their counterparts in the top 1% real wages grew fast. In addition, the saving rate of middle-class and lower-class families collapsed over the same period while it remained substantial at the top. Today, the top 1% families save about 35% of their income, while the bottom 90% families save about zero.

And looking forward?

If income inequality stays high and if the saving rate of the bottom 90% of families remains low then wealth disparity will keep increasing. Ten or 20 years from now, all the gains in wealth democratisation achieved during the New Deal and the post-war decades could be lost. While the rich would be extremely rich, ordinary families would own next to nothing, with debts almost as high as their assets.

To put it differently—and in honor of the season—what we can expect in the future is a tiny group of extremely wealthy vampires continuing to share in a larger and larger share of the blood of living labor, accumulating more and more wealth, while the vast majority wander the economic and social landscape like zombies, being paid the same amount for the work they do and owning next to nothing.

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‘Tis the season, and therefore our thoughts are haunted once again by zombies and vampires.

David Castillo and William Egginton see them as being metaphors for different forms or stages of capitalism:

If the modern vampire may have functioned as an apt metaphor for the predatory practices of capital in colonial and post-colonial societies, today’s zombie hordes may best express our anxieties about capitalism’s apparently inevitable byproducts: the legions of mindless, soulless consumers who sustain its endless production, and the masses of “human debris” who are left to survive the ravages of its poisoned waste.

But zombies and vampires haunt us in other ways as well.

Let’s start with blood-sucking vampires. Today, in the United States, as productivity increases but workers’ wages remain stagnant, we continue to be haunted by the image of capital sucking the blood of living labor. What are corporate profits and the incomes of the top 1 percent but the flows of that blood—out of the mass of people who work for a living and into the pockets of those who happen to have sharp teeth and an insatiable appetite for more?

As for zombies, John Powers sees their meaning as having changed in recent years:

Sometime in the years leading up to September 17, 2011, zombies had gone from being associated with a terror of mob rule to the promise of release from an inescapably all-encompassing system. To be clear: Zombies were not being equated with corporate capitalism – they had become the revolution itself. Zombies had become the alternative to the system with no alternative.

We should remember, in Max Brooks’s World War Z novel, when cities were made to be as efficient as possible in order to fight the zombies, the plumber held a higher status than the former CEOs; when the ultra-rich hid in their homes, which had been turned into fortified compounds, they were overwhelmed by others trying to get in, leading to mass slaughter.