Read

Search form

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.

Add new comment

Sign Up

Article Tabs

Brexit, E.U. Referendum, UKIP, British austerity policies

Scotland was told in 2014 that a vote for British unity was the only way to stay in the E.U. Now, the opposite is true, and along with Northern Ireland's growing call for independence, the fragmentation of the U.K. appears to have begun.

Dozens of members of the Traditionalist Worker Party gathered with the Golden State Skinheads for a rally at the state capitol and were met by about 400 counter-protesters.

The new investment policy forces the city’s pension fund, worth $850 million, to divest from shares of European oil giants.

gun violence, gun lobby, mass killings, National Rifle Association

Powerful almost by default, and handled with a clear mission at hand and an eye for empathy, "91%" is a call to activist arms.

Oaxaca teacher strikes, Educational Reform, National Coordinator of Education Workers, National Union of Education Workers, Enrique Peña Nieto, student deaths, student disappearances, Nochixtlán blockade, Nochixtlán violence, Popular Assembly of the Peopl

Teachers in southern Mexico are back on the barricades, and once again the state has responded with brute force.

Hawaii GMOs, anti-GMO movement, genetically engineered crops, Syngenta, Monsanto, Earthjustice

Most people know Hawaii for its beautiful beaches, world-class surfing and delicious Kona coffee, but the islands are also ground zero for GE crops – and last week various counties were in court to defend themselves against them.

Posted 6 days 11 hours ago
Abby Martin, Monsanto, World Health Organization, carcinogens

Few corporations in the world are as loathed – and as sinister – as Monsanto, but the threat posed to people and planet could be reaching new heights.

Posted 4 days 11 hours ago
Brexit, Jo Cox, E.U. referendum, Britain Stronger in Europe, Electoral Reform Society, Left Leave, rightwing movements, U.K. xenophobia

Many are calling the U.K.’s European Union referendum vote on Thursday, the most important vote in every British person’s lifetime.

Posted 5 days 9 hours ago
Jo Cox, white supremacy, racism, anti-immigrant, Brexit, Tommy Mair, political killings, E.U. referendum

The murder of Jo Cox has shocked British society, sparking renewed discussions about how to deal with racism, hatred, xenophobia and white supremacy just days before the Brexit vote.

Posted 6 days 11 hours ago
gun violence, gun lobby, mass killings, National Rifle Association

Powerful almost by default, and handled with a clear mission at hand and an eye for empathy, "91%" is a call to activist arms.

Posted 3 days 11 hours ago
Oaxaca teacher strikes, Educational Reform, National Coordinator of Education Workers, National Union of Education Workers, Enrique Peña Nieto, student deaths, student disappearances, Nochixtlán blockade, Nochixtlán violence, Popular Assembly of the Peopl

Teachers in southern Mexico are back on the barricades, and once again the state has responded with brute force.

Hawaii GMOs, anti-GMO movement, genetically engineered crops, Syngenta, Monsanto, Earthjustice

Most people know Hawaii for its beautiful beaches, world-class surfing and delicious Kona coffee, but the islands are also ground zero for GE crops – and last week various counties were in court to defend themselves against them.

tax avoidance, corporate tax evasion, corporate taxes, job creation

While candidates bicker and Congress stagnates and the rest of us dwell on the latest shooting tragedy, the super-rich enjoy the absence of attention paid to one of our nation’s most destructive issues: tax avoidance.

Jo Cox, white supremacy, racism, anti-immigrant, Brexit, Tommy Mair, political killings, E.U. referendum

The murder of Jo Cox has shocked British society, sparking renewed discussions about how to deal with racism, hatred, xenophobia and white supremacy just days before the Brexit vote.

Bernie Sanders, political revolution, National Nurses Union, racial inequality, economic inequality, Hillary Clinton, Democratic Party, Democratic Socialists of America, Kshama Sawant, Socialist Alternative, People and Planet First Budget

Last weekend's People's Summit concentrated on domestic policy and economic inequality, featuring spirited debates, discussions and workshops that tried to chart the path ahead for America's new left.