Sunday, October 20, 2013

Monsterology - The Endless Halloween

"Monsters of the Market," by David McNally, 2013

If you feel exhausted at the end of the work day, your eyes are tired and blurry, your back is sore, your hands hurt from carpel tunnel or repetitive motions; or perhaps too many cuts and bruises, knees aching from bending down, or coughing from what is in the work air.  And your mind plain doesn’t want to do anything but watch shitty TV and drink.  Then you are experiencing the ‘body’ impact of capitalism.  Not just from work, but from alienated work.  If you are in some countries, you hope to make it to ‘retirement’ – that pleasant land beyond forced labor - but will you?

This book sheds light on the body-part issues that underlie the  vampire/ zombie/ monster mania of present culture, highlighting it using materialist methods.  McNally wrote a chapter in the book “Catastrophism” (reviewed below) that explained the class nature of the zombie meme.  That eye-opening chapter is derived from this book.  After all, vampires didn’t come out of nowhere.  They are based on actual material life, not really on people who literally suck blood out of necks with fangs.  Count Dracula was a real person, Vlad the Impaler of Transylvania, who put enemies heads on spikes and 'drank their blood' to supposedly make himself stronger - not a fake movie character.  Could the vampire fear be based on the young Millenial generation’s trepidation towards life-long marriages or jobs, which can be arenas where someone figuratively 'sucks the blood out of you'?  Same with zombies – do young Millenial’s want to be zombie workers, covered in scars? Or are there some young people who want to be the upscale vampires of the '90210' class of Beverly Hills?  I.E., suck or be sucked?

THE GOTHIC MARX

As McNally points out, Part II of the first volume of ‘Capital’ by Karl Marx is filled with images of the brutal work endured by English workers in the 1800s.  Marx compares the capitalists to vampires and werewolves, who literally suck the life-blood out of the working class in the process of commodity production, turning many workers into zombies working endless hours at little pay.  Marx repeatedly likened the whole system to a ‘monstrous machine’ that preys on the bodies of the living.  Marx doesn’t limit his analysis to England or Europe, but refers to the ‘monstrous’ conditions in the colonies - “Africa … a preserve for the commercial hunting of black skins” and “the entombment of the indigenous peoples of the Americas.”  It is no accident that the key zombie story in American culture originated in Haiti out of the lives of enslaved sugar-cane workers.   

Now that the conditions of the 1800s in Europe and the U.S. have been exported to Nigeria and Bangladesh and China, nothing really has changed except the location of the blood-sucking and bone-breaking.  The majority of people there have also been forced off the land and into urban areas, into precarious and dangerous employment in the ‘planet of slums,’ as Mike Davis puts it. ("Planet of Slums", reviewed below.)  Where ‘the capitalized blood of children‘(Marx) in English factories and mines is now visited on Indian and Pakistani children.  As Marx put it, capital came into the world ‘dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt.’

McNally calls this flavor of analysis ‘Marxist Gothic’ and he insists this literary method was used by Marx for a reason.  In the second section of Capital, Faust’s descent into hell is consciously paralleled by Marx when he descends into a description of the lives of English workers.  After all, pure numbers and formulas like M=MP+LP=C=M’ do not do justice to what actually happens to many working people, soldiers and sailors when they work under the whip of capital. 

The book, “The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism,” (reviewed below) explores what I call ‘sado-capitalism’ in the legend of Procrustes – a Greek bandit who stretched short people or chopped off parts of the too-long legs of tall people – all to make them ‘fit’ his iron bed, i.e. into Margaret Thatcher’s ‘system.’  McNally analyzes various English literary works to reveal the conditions under which the English working classes were first cut off from the land, then forced into factory, mine or mill labor.  Through it all he focuses on the ‘body’ issue, as capital cannot survive without using the bodies of the living. 

CULTURE REVEALS

McNally looks at Rembrandt and Hogarth paintings of dissections, the Dickens book, ‘Barnaby Rudge’; the Shakespeare plays, ‘Coriolanus,’ and ‘King Henry the Sixth (2nd Part)’ and most importantly, Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein,’ to illustrate the themes of bodily destruction and plebian revolts in England, the birthplace of capitalism.     

The latter works were all reflections of powerful working-class rebellions in the 1600s and 1700s - Kett’s Rebellion; the Midland Revolt, the uprising of the Luddites, the Gordon riots.  Shakespeare, Dickens and even Shelley, the most radical, were sympathetic to the rebellions but never joined them, as they were liberals, not radicals. 

McNally’s handling of “Frankenstein,” given its place in American film history, is the most interesting.  The Monster was not a mute in the book, as Karloff insisted on playing him in the film.  Instead a good part of the book is a paen to rebellion spoken by the monster against ‘society.’  The body parts he was made of were stolen from executions, mortuaries and graves by Dr. Frankenstein.  This practice disgusted British workers, as proletarian bodies, even after death, were still claimed as ‘things’ and commodities by the capitalists. (Bloomberg.com even had a story on October 17, 2013 about the selling of hair, blood, human eggs and kidneys by desperate American workers.)  The ‘wretched’ Monster’s speech is about revenge against Dr. Frankenstein and his family members.  The ending of the book is a rebellion of proletarian sailors against a captain who is sending their ship into the cold of the arctic with little chance of return. All this is butchered in the American version of the film.

McNally locates Shelley’s politics alongside her husband, Percy Shelley, and her father, the proto-socialist & Jacobin writer William Godwin. 

Of note, the severe ‘vagrancy’ laws that were instituted against Irish and English workers by the English ruling class in the 1600s and 1700s made a return to the U.S. mainland in the vagrancy laws aimed against black workers in the post-Civil War south.  (See review of “Slavery by Another Name,” reviewed below.)  It seems that much of the brutality of American life we owe to our rich English ancestors, especially in the south.  Even the term ‘cracker’ was an insult used by propertied English referring to the slightly ridiculous comedic skills of those dispossessed rural English proletarians. (i.e. to ‘crack’ jokes)  Later this term was combined by black people in the south with those who ‘cracked whips’ under slavery to describe a strata of poor white workers who lorded it over blacks as their pitiful form of class arrogance. 

FANTASTIC REALISM

McNally ends his book with a section on recent vampire and zombie news and literary stories, films and songs from Africa, a region that is at the bottom of the capitalist world system.  Africa, however, is not the only place these stories are found – others can be located in the mountain uplands of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, where armed gringo’s are rumored to extract the fat out of children to grease the machines of ‘El Norteno.’

Southern Africa is where rapacious capitalism has generated wars over cell phone minerals, terminally polluted areas around oil fields, indebted it to World Bank SAPs, begun to buy up massive tracts of land and introduce the money/debt economy.  Africa reflects this recent investment by capital in witchy stories of cash and body parts, which McNally points out, is not a reflection of some racist idea of ‘primitive’ culture but a reflection of the ‘now.’

The word, ‘nzambi’ is a Yoruba word describing a dead man who can return to visit his family, to do good or evil.  Stories of humans who spew money like ATMs; of children stolen and disappeared; of people eaten by diamonds; of pythons in prostitutes’ vaginas that collect her vomited bank notes; of a man who gains wealth by killing his wife and drinking her blood; of the murderous harvesting of body parts for money, or selling the skins of children; of vampire pits beneath work sites; of people captured and turned into zombies; of witches who accumulate huge amounts of money like magic, or dead witches that invite the living to marry them to become rich.  These are all reflections of various forms of money magic in a society whose tribal or family unity is breaking down to be replaced, not by capitalist industry per se, but by a rentier economy, a financialized world of manic selling and bloody violence over extractive commodities.  One commentator called it ‘cannibal capitalism.’  Africa is now a victim of recolonisation and wars, not over ethnicity, but over economic issues. 

McNally highlights recent news reports out of a small village in Nigeria, Owerri, in which a young boy disappeared, only to have his head found, along with 20 others, in the house of a local rich hotel owner.  Riots ensued, and the stores, hotels, Pentecostal churches and businesses of the rich were all burnt down.  One rumor even insisted 200 penises were kept in a goat’s belly in a freezer in the same house.  The disappearance of children, either by being sent off to work in other cities, and never to return, or by being killed in road accidents, or actually kidnapped and killed or abused, is part of the living nightmare of parents in present-day Nigeria.

McNally also looks into the Nigerian author Ben Okri and his cycle of novels, “Famished Road,” which depict what is happening to Nigeria under this cannibal capitalism.  Okri urbanizes the forest-bound colonial-period writing and images of Amos Tutuola, updating it into the sprawling mega-ghettoes of Lagos.  McNally again combines political economy and literary analysis to expose the dark reality of African capitalism – a reality that Marx would be no stranger to. 

Recently I just passed through the Zombie Pub Crawl - a street festival of zombiefication - on the West Bank in Minneapolis near our Mayday Bookstore, attended by thousands of young people dressed as zombies.  However, the ostensible point of the event - consuming beer - would be different if the 'zombies' turned over a police car or marched on City Hall or the Federal Building.  But they don't.  And that is the tale of our mostly passive cultural environment today.  Yet there is still something of a cultural criticism in this event nonetheless, which cannot be hidden.  It was started by anarcho-punks, not bar owners.  After all, do you want to be a zombie for your life? 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
October 20, 2013

No comments: