Sucking You Dry- Notes on Vampire Capitalism

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“Capitalist market-society overflows with monsters. But no grotesque species so command the modern imagination as the vampire and the zombie. In fact, these two creatures need to be thought conjointly, as interconnected moments of the monstrous dialectic of modernity. Like Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, the vampire and the zombie are doubles, linked poles of the split society. If vampires are the dreaded beings who might possess us and turn us into their docile servants, zombies represent our haunted self-image, warning us that we might already be lifeless, disempowered agents of alien powers”. - David McNally, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires, and Global Capitalism


From Karl Marx To Matt Taibbi on Vampire Capitalism

There have been many interesting threads that have opened up during my research for Undead Week(s), but one rhizome shoot that I thought was worthy of an extended ride was the repeated description over the years of capitalism as a vampire.

For instance, it was a metaphor that Karl Marx used many times throughout his work. One of the most famous instances is this passage from Capital: vampire-fed-dees

Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.

Marx was actually quite a wonderful writer, and his works are surprisingly full of literary riches, including references to vampires, werewolves and even necromancers. This is how Robert Paul Wolff describes Capital in his book Moneybags Must Be So Lucky: On the Literary Structure of ‘Capital’:

To read the opening chapters of Capital is to be plunged into an extraordinary literary world, quite unlike anything in the previous, or indeed subsequent, history of political economy. The text is rich in literary and historical allusions to the entire corpus of Western culture.

Both Marx and his partner Friedrich Engels employed the metaphor of the vampire to describe what they saw as the capitalist classes’ fundamentally antagonistic and exploitative relationship to labor. starvevampiresquidIn Marx’s time there was a dogged fight between capital and labor over the length of the working day. Marx writes, “The prolongation of the working day beyond the limits of the natural day, into the night, only acts as a palliative. It only slightly quenches [capital’s] vampire thirst for the living blood of labor”  (1).

This metaphor of capital as vampire is still alive and well in our day. Matt Taibbi gave our Occupy era one of its most famous and memorable lines when he wrote, “The first thing you need to know about Goldman Sachs is that it's everywhere. The world's most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”. dbpix-vampire-squid-tmagArticle
But it’s not only external critics of the financial elite that are using the vampire metaphor these days. A hedge fund manager caused quite a stir recently when he called his own industry bloodsuckers. Jeremy Grantham wrote:

Finance was 3% of GDP in 1965; now it is 7.5%. This is an extra 4.5% load that the real economy carries. The financial system is overfeeding on and slowing down the real economy. It is like running with a large, heavy, and growing bloodsucker on your back. It slows you down. Beware the financial-industrial complex. They are eating your lunch. (And to be honest, I've eaten more than my fair share. It was a good lunch.)

A Brief History of Human Bloodletting

“There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism”. – Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History (1939)

I think this metaphor of capitalism as vampire has a lot of merit. But I want to pause for a moment and take a brief historical look at this human impulse to suck the life-blood of its fellows for one’s own gain, as it certainly predates the capitalist era. bloodlettingAccording to historians, the gross exploitation of humans by other humans began in the Neolithic era with the rise of agricultural civilizations. Previous to this we spent our pre-history in hunter-gatherer bands that were egalitarian and democratic in nature (2). 

But this all changed when the shift to agriculture and animal domestication began to produce a surplus of food, which enabled the creation of independent classes- warrior, political, priestly- that didn’t have to be involved in food production. These classes would come to dominate society.

In this move we eventually went from ‘Egalitarianism to Kleptocracry’, to quote one of the chapter titles from Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel. Some sort of ferocious genie had come out of the bottle. The sociologist Michael Mann writes, “Civilization was an abnormal phenomenon because it involved the state and social stratification, both of which human beings have spent most of their existence avoiding…[The move to] irrigation agriculture increased social restraint. The population was caged into particular authority relations” (3). Robert Wright adds, “All civilizations became hierarchical; the upward concentration of wealth ensures that there will never be enough to go around” (4).

destruction of tower of BabelLately I’ve been listening to Dan Carlin’s multiple part Death Throes of the Roman Republic, and in the Roman Empire this human bloodletting was on full and open display. Whether it was the sacking and destroying of whole peoples, demanding exorbitant tribute from client states, or brutally crushing popular revolt, the forces of elite rule and dominance were powerful and vicious.

All this begs the question as to what had been unleashed in this period of human history, why had we become this way? Alas, that’s an important exploration that’ll have to wait for its own post. In the meantime, I took a pass through this problem in Part 3 of my essay What is Modernity? if the reader is interested. I also think Charles Eisenstein’s notion of human “ascent and separation” has a lot to add to the conversation, and I think Ken Wilber’s two books Up From Eden and The Atman Project are still useful texts for exploring this topic.

But for now we must turn our attention to the current situation, as we still live in the most bloodthirsty of times.

Global Vampirism, Runaway Bloodlust

“The representation of capital or the capitalist as vampire was common to both Marx and to popular fiction in the nineteenth century. It would not be an exaggeration to say that this representation mobilised vampire fiction at this time, to produce a striking figure defined by excess and unrestrained appetite”.  - Ken Gelder, Reading the Vampire

That short foray into history was just a quick way of showing that this human on human vampirism is not special to capitalism and the modern period. It is, however, alive and well in the capitalist system too, and is often subtler and harder to detect. In his book Christ & Empire, the political theologian Joerg Rieger writes:

One of the most distinctive problems of the postcolonial situation is that official colonialism and its more direct forms of domination and control over other people have been replaced by less visible forms of power. In the current situation, invisible forms of power have created a paradoxical colonialismsituation: while relations of direct control have been reduced, relations that seem on the surface to be more egalitarian and equal nonetheless perpetuate the powers of empire…

Postcolonial models of globalization seem to have taken to heart an insight by Adam Smith that colonialism was too cumbersome, that is heavy-handed superstructure was too expensive, and that it was therefore not very profitable for the colonizers. (5)

These ‘invisible’ relations of unequal power can take the form of uneven trade relations, cutthroat loans and debt, gaining access to local resources, imposing ‘structural adjustment’ programs on poor nations, and so on. Some theorists of international relations have developed something called dependency theory, arguing “that resources flow from a "periphery" of poor and underdeveloped states to a "core" of wealthy states, enriching the latter at the expense of the former…Poor states are impoverished and rich ones enriched by the way poor states are integrated into the world-system."

Adam Smith was already worried by this inter-national vampirism in his own day, as he learned evolutionofimperialismabout the overt and vicious colonialism of his times. In The Wealth of Nations he wrote:

At the particular time when these discoveries [of other continents] were made, the superiority of force happened to be so great on the side of the Europeans, that they were enabled to commit with impunity every sort of injustice in those remote countries. Hereafter, perhaps, the natives of those countries may grow stronger, or those of Europe may grow weaker, and the inhabitants of all the different quarters of the world may arrive at that equality of courage and force which, by inspiring mutual fear, can alone overawe the injustice of independent nations into some sort of respect for one another. (6)

There has been a rise in our time of some formerly dependent nations, such as China and India, which is great, but there’s also been a land and resource grab in Africa as a new set of lustful vamps seek out the blood needed to keep their growth alive, and Africa has become the latest feeding ground. And under the economic policies of neoliberalism and ‘the Washington consensus’, the last thirty years has witnessed a colossal redistribution of wealth and resources to a small percentile of elites in a variety of countries (7). This epic plunder didn’t take a Pompey or a Caesar to obtain these days, but for those living under these subtler regimes of accumulation, it was(is) every bit as brutal. Movements that sought to resist this stifling oppression, like Liberation Theology in South America, were often ruthlessly crushed (8). Goldmansachvampire

And under these conditions, cultural images of monsters and vampires “reflect the workings of real social processes and speak to the exploitation of human life as well as the longings of all who suffer under the yoke of capital accumulation…Tales of vampires and other terrors are a kind of “fantastic realism” generated by the exploited who experience international commodity trade, labor, and speculation on an entirely different scale” (9).

We live in a time where vampire corporations and financial institutions are sapping resources, pushing austerity on populations, ballooning student debt, and forcing whole populations to support their V-habit by paying for crises that they themselves recklessly created. Even the financial crisis of 2008 hasn’t made them steal away into the shadows, quite the opposite, the feeding frenzy has only continued. In the US, for instance, “many powerful interests have jumped at the opportunity to use the crisis to eviscerate what’s left of the welfare state, roll back unionization to pre-New Deal levels, and keep cutting taxes on the wealthy. The litany of horror stories that now fills the media is ideal for their purposes” (10).

In his book Zombie Capitalism, Chris Harman refers to this as “the runaway world”. He writes: “The runaway world is, in fact, the economic system as Marx described it, the Frankenstein's monster that has escaped from human control; the vampire that saps the lifeblood of the living bodies it feeds off. Its self-expansion has indeed led it to encompass the whole globe, drawing all of humanity into its cycles of competing in order to accumulate and accumulating in order to compete”.

Well, I don't know about you, but it sounds to me like it just might be time for the true death.


“In both these cities [Paris and London] there were stock-jobbers, brokers, and men of business, who sucked the blood of the people in broad daylight; but they were not dead, though corrupted. These true suckers lived not in cemeteries, but in very agreeable palaces”.  – Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary


Neil Young- Vampire Blues



(1) Karl Marx. Capital, 367.

(2) “Bands lack many institutions that we take for granted in our own societies. They have no permanent single base of residence. The band’s land is used jointly by the whole group, instead of being patronized among subgroups or individuals. There is no regular economic specialization, except by age and sex: all able bodied individuals forage for food. There are no formal institutions, such as laws, police, treaties, to resolve conflicts within and between bands. Band organization is often described as “egalitarian”: there is no formalized social stratification into upper and lower classes, no formalized hereditary leadership, and nor formalized monopolies of information and decision making. However, the term “egalitarian” should not be taken to mean that all band members are equal in prestige and contribute equally to decisions. Rather, the term merely means that any band “leadership” is informal and acquired through qualities such as personality, strength, intelligence and fighting skills”. Jared Diamond. Guns, Germs and Steel. p.268-269.

Also: cf. Cynthia Stokes Brown. Big History- From the Big Bang to the Present. Ch. 3.

(3) Michael Mann. A History of Power from the Beginning to A.D. 1760. p. 124.

(4) Robert Wright. A Brief History of Progress. p. 108.

(5) Jeorg Rieger. Christ & Empire- From Paul to Postcolonial Times. p.275.

(6) Adam Smith. The Wealth of Nations. Vol. 2, p.141.

(7) cf. Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, and David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Also:

(8) “The core countries, by legislation and military conquest, siphon off the produce and natural resources of the outer ring countries to sustain their luxurious standard of living. Liberation theology teaches that poor people in third world countries can overcome their coerced dependency by gathering together in base communities, becoming literate and cognizant of their oppression and protesting their conditions to obtain political power. They also gather together to support and take care of one another”.

Also: “It was not complicated. The US military was training a brutal foreign army on US soil. An army that served a small Salvadoran elite who lived in splendor while the poor lived in squalor. An army that had butchered thousands of innocent people, including women and children, priests and nuns. An army that had raped and murdered two of his friends”.  James Hodge and Linda Cooper. Disturbing the Peace- The Story of Father Roy Bourgeois and the Movement to Close the School of Americas. p.2.



See also: Chris Hedges-

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