Inicio > Economía marxista, Teoría crítica acumulada > «The political economy of the dead: Marx’s vampires»: Mark Neocleous

«The political economy of the dead: Marx’s vampires»: Mark Neocleous

Abstract: This article aims to show the importance of the vampire metaphor to Marx’s work. In so doing, it challenges previous attempts to explain Marx’s use of the metaphor with reference to literary style, nineteenth-century gothic or Enlightenment rationalism. Instead, the article accepts the widespread view linking the vampire to capital, but argues that Marx’s specific use of this link can be properly understood only in the context of his critique of political economy and, in particular, the political economy of the dead.

Towards the end of Volume 1 of Capital, Marx employs one of his usual dramatic and rhetorical devices: ‘If money comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,’ he says, then ‘capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt’.2 The comment is a reminder of the extent to which the theme of blood and horror runs through the pages of Capital. According to Stanley Hyman, there are in Capital two forms of horror. The first concerns the bloody legislation against vagabondage, describing the way that agricultural peoples were driven from their homes, turned into vagabonds and then ‘whipped, branded, tortured by laws grotesquely terrible, into the discipline necessary for the wage system’. The second concerns the horrors experienced by people in the colonies, ‘the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population . . . the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black skins’.3 But to these we might add a third form of horror: the constant sucking of the blood of the Western working class by the bourgeois class. This form is nothing less than the horror of a property-owning class that appears to be vampire-like in its desire and ability to suck the life out of the working class.

There has in recent years been a mass of literature on the spectre or ghostly in Marx’s work, heavily influenced by or written in response to Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx. What has not been discussed at any length in this context has been Marx’s use of the vampire metaphor.4 This is perhaps surprising, first, because of the obvious gothic connection between the ghost and the vampire — yet even the one sustained attempt to ‘theorize Gothic Marxism’ does not deal with the vampire5 — and, second, because the vampire metaphor plays a significant role in Marx’s work, a role perhaps even more significant than the ghostly or spectral. This article aims to show this significance, first by identifying the extent to which the vampire and associated metaphors run through Marx’s work, then by outlining some interpretations of Marx’s use of the metaphor, before pointing out their weaknesses. This will allow a move towards a fuller understanding of Marx’s vampire metaphor, by situating it in the very heart of Marx’s work: in his critique of political economy.

Marx’s Metaphor

Terrell Carver has suggested that Marx uses the vampire metaphor three times in Capital.6 Marx claims that ‘capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks’. He also comments that the prolongation of the working day into the night ‘only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour’; thus ‘the vampire will not let go “while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited” ’.7 But if one also explores the text for comments that appear to derive from the vampire motif but fail to mention the vampire explicitly, one finds a wealth of additional material. Capital ‘sucks up the worker’s value-creating power’ and is dripping with blood.8 Lacemaking institutions exploiting children are described as ‘blood-sucking’, while US capital is said to be financed by the ‘capitalized blood of children’.9 The appropriation of labour is described as the ‘life-blood of capitalism’, while the state is said to have here and there interposed itself ‘as a barrier to the transformation of children’s blood into capital’.10

If we take an even greater textual license with Capital, the motif appears even more apparent. In the chapter on the working day, Marx compares the historical development of the factory system with other historical forms of domination, such as Athenian aristocracy, the Norman barons, the American slave-owners and the feudal corvée. Regarding the latter, he notes that the legal mechanisms through which peasants performed forced labour on behalf of landowners could be stretched well beyond the stated number of days. The example he gives is of Wallachian peasants performing forced labour on behalf of the Wallachian boyars: ‘For Moldavia the regulations are even stricter. “The 12 corvée days of the Règlement organique,” cried a boyar, drunk with victory, “amount to 365 days in the year.” ’11 The source Marx cites for this quote is É. Regnault’s Histoire politique et sociale des principautés danubiennes (1855). The ‘Wallachian boyar’ in the text turns out to be none other than Vlad the Impaler: Vlad Dracula.

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