Gothic capitalism: Marx, monsters and Buffy

Posted by Lena Wånggren on June 01, 2013 in Guest Blog, Lena Wånggren, Uncategorized tagged with , , , ,

These days, I often feel as if we live in some kind of dystopian fantasy: the divide between poor and rich increases every day because of deliberate government policy, with half a million people in Britain today being forced to use food banks, and racists organising demonstrations in our streets while neoliberal politicians employ the same xenophobic discourse. The economic and social structures in which we live are frightening – indeed gothic. This blog post, the final of my three ones, will explore the economic system in which we live through the metaphor of the monster, examining such economic monsters both in Marx and in a more recent popular text: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003).

'Buffy the Anarcho-Syndicalist: Capitalism Bites'

As Franco Moretti claims, ‘monsters are metaphors’ (105); their bodies standing in for the fears of a certain time and place. Jessie Givner in fact argues that it is the monster’s ability to be seen as a metaphor that makes the creature particularly monstrous (274). Likewise, Judith Halberstam argues that excessive interpretability is the hallmark of monstrosity; monsters are ‘meaning machines’ that can represent gender, race, nationality, class, and sexuality in one body: ‘The monster functions as monster, when it is able to condense as many fear-producing traits as possible into one body’ (21-22). Its ability to be seen as a metaphor can be seen as a part of what makes it monstrous.

Capitalism, with its seemingly magical market movements, lends itself well to metaphorical description. Karl Marx famously describes the gothic character of capitalism, in various of his works, through monstrous metaphors: werewolves and other creatures abound. He specifically and repeatedly uses the metaphor of the vampire to describe the capitalist, and the functions of capitalism. There are also numerous other descriptions in his works with imagery deriving from the vampire metaphor, such as mentions of blood and blood-sucking (Neocleous 669). In the Grundrisse (1857) Marx explains: ‘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; alternates between its eternal form in money and its passing form in commodities; … But capital obtains this ability only by constantly sucking in living labour as its soul, vampire-like’ (646). As Halberstam notes, Marx here describes the economic system in which we live, capitalism, as gothic in itself; it is gothic ‘in its ability to transfer matter into commodity, commodity into value and value into capitalism’ (103).

As David McNally notes in Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism (2010), ‘the idea that something monstrous is at work in the operations of global capitalism is never far from the surface today’ (9), in politics, journalism and popular culture. One specific text making full use of the metaphoricity of the monster is the 1997-2003 tv series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. With its abundance of monsters – ranging from vampires, werevolves and various other kinds of demons, to human-made creatures – the series presents many opportunities for analysing the social and political significance of the monster, and for examining what McNally calls the ‘monstrous forms of every-day life in a capitalist world system’ (2).

The series’s creator Joss Whedon is outspoken about his political values – we saw them recently in his satirical zombie-themed anti-Romney (Zomney) video before the last US election. Romney, Whedon tells us, will bring the country quickly towards a zombie apocalypse: ‘Romney is ready to make the deep rollbacks in health care, education, social services, reproductive rights that will guarantee poverty, unemployment, overpopulation, disease, rioting: all crucial elements in creating a nightmare zombie wasteland. But it’s his commitment to ungoverned corporate privilege that will nosedive this economy into true insolvency and chaos, the kind of chaos you can’t buy back. Money is only so much paper to the undead.’ Whedon’s description of capitalism as a kind of zombie economics is not new; it is made explicit in John Quiggin’s recent Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk among Us (2010), in which he examines the persistence of market-based ideas among politicians and economists, despite the failure of market liberalism. Even after the financial crisis, the dead ideas behind market-based ideology still stalk the land, walking among us – and must, Quiggin argues, be killed off once and for all.

Coming back to Whedon, and Buffy, and the gothic capitalism described in the series. We find one of the most explicit thematisations of monstrous capitalism in Buffy in the first episode of the third season, entitled ‘Anne’. Having killed her vampire boyfriend Angel in the previous season, Buffy in this episode is hiding in an unknown city, posing as an anonymous ‘Anne’ and working in a dingy diner.

Already at the beginning of the episode we see the focus on the social faults in the current economic system, when Buffy on the way home from work walks past several destitute and homeless people in the streets, people with no social safety net, several of them begging, many of them telling Buffy: ‘I am noone’. Only one person in this city seems to care about these impoverished people: a director of a local centre, the ‘Family Home’, which welcomes everyone, offering food and support.

However, the director, calling himself Ken, is not the person he claims to be. When Buffy is contacted by an old acquaintance, Lily, whose boyfriend has gone missing, she discovers a whole machinery of exploitation beneath the city. Buffy finds the missing boyfriend among a group of people sleeping rough – but the boyfriend is dead, and seems to have aged about 60-70 years, ‘like something drained the life out of him’. Not drained by a vampire – that could not have accelerated the ageing process – but by something different.

As it turns out, the seemingly altruistic Ken is in fact a demon, not a benefactor. (So much for ‘caring capitalism’!) Buffy rips off his human mask, which reveals underneath it the face of a demon.

The local centre turns out to be an underground workplace, where people are being used as slave labour, forced to work in order to survive. Ken – now in his demon shape – tells Buffy: ‘Welcome to my world’. In this slavery den, the unwanted, the casualised, the precariat, exist. Here time moves more quickly, and everyone ages faster – which explains the death of Lily’s prematurely aged boyfriend.

In a passage from the chapter on the working day, Marx in Capital (vol.1) (1876) explains the vampiric nature of capitalism:

‘Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The time during which the worker works is the time during which the capitalist consumes the labour-power he has bought from him. If the worker consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist.’ (342)

Here, the capitalist demon sucks the life out of the workers, consuming their labour-power so as to make as much profit as possible. But still, this system ‘only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour’ (Capital 367). While the worker might think that they dispose of themselves freely, Marx writes, once they have sold their labour-power to the capitalist, ‘it was discovered that he was no “free agent”, that the period of time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the period of time for which he is forced to sell it, that in fact the vampire will not let go “while there remains a single muscle, sinew or drop of blood to be exploited”‘ (415-416). As Buffy understands: ‘You just work us ’til we’re too old and then spit us back out?’

The people taken here by the ‘caring capitalist’ demon Ken are chosen precisely because of their precarious situation; they have no one who cares about them in the other world, so will not be missed. In this gothic capitalist world, the workers have no identity – their sole purpose is to work. As one of the guards tells the labourers: ‘You work, and you live – that is all. You do not complain, or laugh, or do anything besides work. Whatever you thought, whatever you were, does not matter. You are no one now.’ The slave-labourers are forced to repeat this, in order to avoid getting beaten. This mantra, ‘I am noone’, is what we earlier heard the impoverished people say to Buffy when above ground – one of them, we find out, having been Lily’s boyfriend. The labourers are worthless commodities in this system.

Buffy of course does not respond well to the guard’s bullying: she strikes the guard, takes her group of fellow prisoners and prepares to flee their enslavement. Having sent off some of the workers to the surface, Buffy kills off guard after guard, while demon capitalist Ken watches his system of exploitation collapse: ‘Humans don’t fight back… Humans don’t fight back! That’s how this works!’ That might be true; as McNally states, perhaps the most monstrous aspect of gothic capitalism is the way in which this exploitative system becomes ‘normalised and naturalised via its colonisation of the essential fabric of every-day life’ (2). There is some beautifully over-the-top imagery here, as Buffy takes the weapons of the guards she defeats: from one of the first guards, she takes a hammer; from another one, she takes a sickle-like knife. With the traditional hammer and sickle – the classic symbols of communism, representing the unity between industrial and agricultural workers – she fights off the last demons of capitalism before bringing the freed workers to the surface of the city.

The anticapitalist imagery from the ‘Anne’ episode in Buffy the Vampire Slayer is taken a step further in the detourned comic Buffy the Anarcho-Syndicalist: Capitalism Bites. Featuring Buffy as anarcho-syndicalist hero, and her Watcher Giles as a hardened revolutionary, together with other comrades from outside of the usual Buffy characters, the story presents the slayer fighting the evil vampire capitalist CEO of Blood Red Enterprises.

Of course, since Buffy is an anticapitalist vampire slayer, she defeats the gothic capitalists in Sunnydale. But there are many more metaphorical and and some very real monsters out there. So join a trade union (Boris Karloff style! [1]), fight some neoliberal vampires, organise against zombie economics.

[1] Fun fact: Two of our best known Hollywood monsters – well, the actors who played them – were active members of trade unions: Boris Karloff was a founding member of the Screen Actors’ Guild, and Bela Lugosi’s activism in the Hungarian actors’ union was one of the reasons he had to flee the country.

References

‘Anne.’ Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Three. Writ. Joss Whedon. Dir. Joss Whedon. Mutant Enemy, 1998.

Buffy the Anarcho-Syndicalist: Capitalism Bites. Nihil Press, 2004.

Givner, Jessie. ‘The Revolutionary Turn: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’. Gothic Studies 2.3 (Dec 2000): 274-291.

Judith, Halberstam. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 1995.

Marx, Karl. Capital Volume I. 1867. Trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin, 1990.

—. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. 1857. Trans. Martin Nicolaus. London; Penguin, 1973/1993.

McNally, David. Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012.

Moretti, Franco. Signs Taken for Wonders: On the Sociology of Literary Forms. London: Verso, 1983/2005.

Neocleous, Mark. ‘The Political Economy of the Dead Marx’s Vampires.’ History of Political Thought 24.4 (Winter 2003): 668-684.

Quiggin, John. Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk among Us. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

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