Monsters of the Market

March 3, 2013

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

“The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as ‘a monstrous accumulation of commodities…'” Thus Marx states the theme of his magnum opus in the very first sentence: that capitalism is a real horror show.

Of course, the German word ungeheune is usually translated as “immense,” which, as David McNally points out, fails to capture the full import of Marx’s formulation.

Das Kapital as a gothic novel? In Chapter two of Monsters of the Market, titled “Marx’s Monsters: Vampire-Capital and the Nightmare-World of Late Capitalism,” McNally makes the case for Capital as a work of imaginative literature. He shows that an Indigenous writer of the Americas, Leslie Marmon Silko, author of Almanac of the Dead, reads Marx as a great storyteller.


Mary Godwin Shelley’s Frankenstein is a monster created by man, which turns to destroy man. It is a critique of science which arose with capitalism. William Blake, too, writes about grave robbers, those who provided bodies for surgeons to study. Many a horror movie plot is based on wanton killings of people to provide bodies for anatomy class. McNally stops just short of naming modern science itself as a monster, the Siamese twin of capitalism.

The use of horrifying words to describe capitalism’s devastation was widespread during the Great Depression, when “zombie banks,” for instance, was a popular term. The word “zombie” comes from Haiti, where zombies were the living dead working the sugar cane fields. What they knew they lacked, and wanted to get from the living, were brains. The Haitian Revolution challenged the entirely passive perception of the laborer, it became the mob intending to eat the rich.

Horror movies frequently show people losing their will, being turned into objects manipulated by others. It is an expression of a loss of subjectivity, not just a loss of control of your body or even mind.


McNally compares Marx to a modern Van Helsing, the mighty vampire slayer. Marx tracks the monsters of capitalism, for example factories, in which torture in real life surpasses Dante’s imagination of the inferno. He recites the crimes of capitalists and colonialists against children, against Indigenous people from all over the world. McNally quotes Silko noting that Marx was the only white man to call those of his own race “vampires.”

McNally recounts the story of Europeans in Africa, who could not understand why the Africans would not sell a statue significant to them. The Europeans called this a fetish. What they can’t understand, they call “primitive.” Marx shows that commodities are much more of a fetish, more profoundly rooted in human relations as they exist under capitalism masquerading as “natural,” “unchanging” and “objective.”

In Capital, Marx is inventing a new language to illustrate his conceptual scheme. It is a literary masterpiece, weaving in horrors to shake up the reader into rejecting what they grew up knowing as normal: the selling of your own ability to labor, your own life-producing substance, as an article of commerce.

—Lew Finzel

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