On Vampires, Past and Present

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On Vampires, Past and Present

On Vampires, Past and Present
Fri, 6/1/2012 - by Frances Chiu

Photo: The Vampire by Edvard Munch, 1893–94.

With the recent screen adaptation of the late 1960s vampire soap "Dark Shadows," and the 115th anniversary of the publication of Dracula, it is particularly apropos to find this ad for Obama featuring a steelworker who compares Bain capital to a vampire that "sucked the life out of us."

The steelworker’s metaphor, of course, is hardly isolated: in recent years, Matt Taibbi and Mother Jones have also made casual, seemingly novel references to “vampire squid” and a “vampire economy.” But is this an entirely new conceptualization? Not really. If anything, it belongs to a long, powerful tradition of a populist discourse that continues to challenge the top-down absolutism variously practiced by feudal, capitalist and imperialist elites: a discourse that would simultaneously inspire writers of fiction, from Coleridge to Stoker.

Far from being relegated to the pages of fiction, the word vampire - or “vampyre” - was much more likely to appear in political discourse as 18th-century political wits routinely compared vampires to financiers and local bigwigs, not to mention heads of church and state. One of the earliest known instances of the word "vampyre" emerged in The Craftsman (1727-31), a journal critical of then Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. Vampires, according to the satirist, were hardly unique to Hungary, for "the Histories of all Countries, and especially our own, supply us with so many Instances of vampyres.”

“Sharpers, usurers, unjust stewards,” not to mention “charitable corporations” and “royal Treasurers” could all be classified as "vampyres" - with the prime minister assuming precedence as the "great Blood-sucker of State." As such, the solution for eradicating these "great overgrown Vampyres" and forcing them to "disgorge their ill gotten wealth" - namely, sizable tax revenues - would require a mere "Parliamentary emetick" rather than a stake through the heart.

This idea of a wealthy, powerful bloodsucker was not lost on Voltaire either as he drew a cheeky parallel between financiers and vampires in his definition of "vampyre":

"We never heard a word of vampires in London, nor even at Paris....in both these cities 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." (A Philosophical Dictionary, 1764)

Nonetheless, the true vampires were "the churchmen who eat at the expense of both the king and the people" in their lust for lucrative tithes. If vampire imagery subsided shortly thereafter, it would resurface with a vengeance in the aftermath of the French revolution when Marie Antoinette was caricatured as a vampire bat and kings and nobles derided as "bloodsuckers" by the likes of Joel Barlow and Thomas Spence: with the latter conjuring up visions of nobles drinking the blood of infants. Not coincidentally, Thomas Paine would also play up the idea of the living dead in Rights of Man (1791-2) when emphasizing the need for progress. After all, what could be more ridiculous than "the vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave” or conservatives "contending for the authority of the dead over the rights and freedom of the living"?

The vogue for vampires continued to flourish in an even greater variety of populist contexts. In an Ireland that had been united to England, Scotland, and Wales from 1801, nationalists such as Lady Morgan regarded British colonial government as a "species of political vampirism": there was little use of an “Union” when the British reaped most of the benefits. Moreover, as Roman Catholics comprised over 85% of the population but owned less than 40% of the land, landlords were castigated as "vampire plagues" and Protestant bishops as a class that "vampire-like, have drank in the blood of Ireland to satiety." The fact of high unemployment, evictions, and emigration during periods of famine reinforced the impression of Britain as an “alien” and “bloodsucking” entity.

Perhaps more famously, vampirism came to serve as a provocative metaphor for capitalism. While Friedrich Engels harked back to the 1790s, claiming that religion "serves only to make [the working classes] weak and resigned to their fate, obedient and faithful to the vampire property-holding class" (Condition of the Working Class in England, 1842), his friend and colleague Karl Marx likened capitalism to "dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks" (Capital, 1847); interestingly, he would also allude to Vlad the Impaler - the very prototype of Bram Stoker's vampire - when censuring those masters and overlords who required their laborers to work beyond their stipulated days. Marx especially deplored American lace-making factories that thrived on the "capitalized blood of children." It is worth noting that while defending the cause of the proletariat, Engels and Marx also supported the cause of Irish independence since they viewed capitalism and imperialism as twin evils.

Today, many of the issues raised by Voltaire, Marx, Stoker and others remain all too "un-dead": everything for the 1%, very little for the 99%. Perhaps this explains our 30-year infatuation from "I Was a Teenage Vampire to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Twilight"? Just as our "great overgrown vampyres" in government reluctantly regulate the "stock-jobbers, brokers, and men of business" on Wall Street, corporate CEOs suck "living labour" by shrinking employee wages, benefits, and pensions. Predatory lenders and local governments also continue to suck every penny from the poor via fees and fines. Not least, the "capitalized blood of children" still fuels the economy in distant parts of the world while presidential candidates closer to home decry child labor laws as "truly stupid."

So what can be done? We can begin by taking a few pages out of Dracula and other vampire fiction. Maybe garlic and crosses won't help, but we can fight the dark forces of neo-feudal robber baron politics and collective torpor with enlightenment. Even if we don't literally drive a stake through the heart of Wall Street, we can certainly do so with our weak financial and corporate legislation, whether by participating in Occupy Wall Street, demonstrating, writing to our representatives, blogging, or even commenting. Because at the end of the day, the famous words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt from his first inaugural speech of 1933 remain as applicable as ever: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Let’s do this before we are sucked dry.

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