David McNally, Monsters of the Market

Monsters of the Market was sort of a vanity purchase for me. Unlike greater minds such as China Miéville, I was a Marxist long before I was won over to consider scifi and fantasy genres as legitimate literary expression, much less to consider, as Miéville says, that “The fantastic might be a mode peculiarly suited to and resonant with the forms of modernity.” A couple of years ago, I probably would have rolled my eyes in Lukácsian fashion at the idea that the study of monsters and that of political economy might go hand in hand.

And yet, here I am. I didn’t really have a reason why I should read McNally’s book except as sort of a diversion that could combine more academic political interests and my increasingly unorthodox literary tastes. It did not disappoint in either pursuit, and my only wish having finished it was that it might have been longer than just three (admittedly, three exquisite) studies of monsters from a Marxist perspective.

Chapter 1 is entitled “Dissecting the Laboring Body,” and contains fascinating studies of the art of capitalism’s rise from Shakespeare, to Rembrandt, Dickens and finally and centrally Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It probably could be expanded into a book of its own, and we can only hope that someday it might be. Documenting the brutal course of capitalist “primitive accumulation,” McNally shows in each case how emerging capitalist rationality constructed the body of the proletarian as something to be taken apart, dissected and put to the use of profit. The proletariat is, in this way, the central “monster” of capitalist modernity.

For me, nothing more clearly showed this than McNally’s thorough reading of Rembrandt’s famous painting, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp. Side-stepping Rembrandt’s use of light and shadow (what I was taught about the painting in my high school art history class), McNally recalls for us that the “anatomy” of a corpse was a key bit of political theater by and for the emergent bourgeoisie in both the Netherlands and England. “Public anatomy was bound up with disciplinary practices designed to alleviate bourgeois anxieties through the ritual exercise of class-power over the proletarian body” (29). In 1632, Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, chief anatomist of Amsterdam’s physician’s guild as well as a key civil leader in the city, dissected the body of a young man named Aris Kindt, who had been executed for the theft of a coat, and Rembrandt’s painting was commissioned in honor of this great public and social event. As with any anatomy, this event was followed by a torchlit parade through Amsterdam by the bourgeois leaders party to the event, who in this way reinforced their power over the Dutch Republic.

In Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson,” Dr. Tulp becomes capital personified, directing the movements of the proletarian body.

McNally writes that Rembrandt’s painting has a number of unique features that are not found in contemporary anatomy portraits (yes, there was a market niche for anatomy portraits). Not only does the light fall across Tulp and his fellow doctors, highlighting their individuality and cleverness, but the shadow obscures the face of the condemned man, robbing him of his individuality as he lies in a diagonal position, showing him defenseless as in similar poses of the crucified Christ and martyred saints. Most importantly, Tulp has commenced the anatomy with the corpse’s left arm, which would not have been the first part to be dissected:

Tulp grasps a forceps with which he manipulates the flexorum digitorum muscles of Kindt’s left hand. Indeed, Tulp can be seen pulling on these muscles, causing the corpse’s fingers to curl in imitation of his own. We have here… a portrayal of the paradigmatic relationship of capital to labor. The superintending will employs a tool with which it directs the movements of the laboring body… the movement of the pauper-body is being directed by a will external to it, a will whose control over the tools of production is the key to its command over the bodies of the poor. (33-34)

Command, expressed in the form of dissection, of the proletarian body by capitalism is a dialectic whose beginning is expressed by Rembrandt and whose end is written by Mary Shelley. In late 18th-century Britain, McNally writes, where it was common to execute proletarian men and women for theft as well as other minor crimes against capitalist property, it was a final act of religious and metaphysical humiliation against the condemned that their bodies would be dissected and anatomized for the uses of bourgeois science. Therefore the family and neighbors of the condemned would wage pitched battles at the gallows to save the corpses from those who sought to obtain them to sell to the anatomist. Even if successful  however, it was common for “resurrectionists” or grave-robbers to disinter them for sale.

One such man is Shelley’s Dr. Victor Frankenstein. “I became acquainted with the science if anatomy,” he says, “and spent days and days in vaults and charnel houses.” Assembling his creature by bits and pieces of random proletarian bodies, the creature is first dissected (separated from the land and communities), then reassembled as a terrifying collective entity – the monstrous, anonymous proletarian mob – a process that mirrors the creation of the English proletariat in the process of primitive accumulation. (As a side note, I would say that I found that reading E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class alongside McNally extremely helpful).

Bela Lugosi’s creature did not speak, but only grunted.

McNally’s reading of Frankenstein is too incisive to be summarized in a short review like this one. I just would note the process of “doubling” which Shelley engages in – the process by which the creature mirrors his creator, his desires and actions come to voice his claim to humanity, including love and respect of his fellow humans, against Frankenstein’s horror at his “inhuman” creation. Key to this, of course, is that the creature is given a human voice – a feature which was removed in early film adaptations of the novel such as that of Bela Lugosi, and consequently from all the creature’s numerous descendants, the zombies which populate Western horror film. This removes the most troubling feature of the creature to bourgeois society, the voice which enables him to tell Dr. Frankenstein: “You are my creator, but I am your master.”

If I have one complaint about this masterly study, it is not McNally’s rather ponderous insistence on documenting every instance in which a bourgeois ideologue like Locke, Burke or Mill refers to the insurgent masses as a “monster.” It is rather his somewhat bizarre adherence in the course of the study to the revisionist account of capitalism’s origins by “political Marxists” such as Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood. Here is not, unfortunately for me, the place for a detailed refutation (readers would do well to take a look at the chapter on political Marxism in Neil Davidson’s wonderful book How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions?) In the course of his brilliant account of Rembrandt’s “Anatomy Lesson,” for example, he takes a pages-long detour to inform us that the post-Revolt Dutch Republic was “a commercially prosperous, urbanised bourgeois republic [but] it had not undergone a fully-fledged capitalist transition” (35). In the first place, this is embarrassingly wrong, and secondly, no sooner does McNally establish the non-capitalist nature of the Dutch economy than he informs us that “Nevertheless, during its golden age, the Dutch republic was the site of a flourishing bourgeois culture,” leaving us wondering why he bothered telling us the Netherlands were non-capitalist in the first place.

Dealing with Chapter 1’s brilliance, regardless, left me somewhat unprepared to fully digest Chapter 2, in which McNally attempts, quite successfully in my view, to reestablish the notion of the monstrous as central to Marx’s view of capitalism. This is not merely the monstrous effects capitalism has on the bodies and minds of the proletariat, making capital a “vampire,” or dead labor bent on sucking the lifeblood out of the living, which McNally suggests have Capital take on the forms of a Gothic novel. In a passage from Vol. 1 which McNally tells us is often ignored (I don’t remember it, in any case) Marx says:

The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless, the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing that transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will –

Or, in other words, once a table becomes a commodity, it transcends the sensuous, becoming not an ordinary wooden table but a repository of “grotesque ideas” – a sum of money exchangeable in the process of capital accumulation. More than anything else I have read, this gets across the idea of the alienation of the laborer from the product she creates.

Is worshipping something like this really any more ridiculous than the commonplace Western worship of money as value?

Such, in so many words, also leads us toward the concept of commodity fetishism, something which I have also learned a lot about from McNally. Tracing the history of the “fetish,” the African objects invested with spiritual powers which European colonialists used to charge them as being “uncivilized,” McNally shows us how Marx reverses the charge of fetishism against the very European ruling class that invented it.  Marx says that capitalists fall on their knees before objects, just as the Africans do that they enslave. But it goes deeper. In their worship of a commodity (for example, the Spanish conquistadors’ worship of gold), they worship not the object, but the hidden value that is its second and dialectically opposed nature. “However much capitalist fetishism bows down before things, its true god is entirely immaterial” (206). And really, which is more rational, asks Marx – to worship things we can see and touch, or some invisible, super-sensuous quality contained in them?

And so, somehow, I have skipped over most of the middle of the book to come to McNally’s final study, “African Vampires in the Age of Globalization.” Here, McNally takes us on a whirlwind tour of the new vampire stories of Subsaharan African nations from Nigeria to Togo, Cameroon and Malawi. These tales are more bizarre and frightening than anything dreamt up in Western cinema. A rider on a motorcycle-taxi puts a helmet on, which transforms him into a monstrous ATM, spitting out banknotes from his mouth. People fall asleep to be mystically transported to an occult economy of plantations run by witches, on which they are forced to slave until they wake up exhausted and still have to return to their worldly occupation. Government leaders are implicated in a vast conspiracy in which they steal the blood and organs of ordinary people, exchanging them for food aid. These tales do not only form the material for an array of folktales, native theater productions, the novels of Ben Okri (which McNally reads brilliantly) and the “Nollywood” horror film industry in Lagos, they often are the basis for real rebellions of the oppressed against governments and corporations who are metaphorically draining African people of their blood.

McNally’s strength is to bring to our attention the various ways in which these new vampire stories, rather than being remnants of pre-capitalist superstition or imported from Western cinema, form an incisive critique of the plundering of the African continent by international institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, in collaboration with post-colonial states, critiques which we are able to read correctly employing Walter Benjamin’s “dialectical optics.” Such is the modern zombie, which originated in Haiti and has found its home in Africa. Rather than the mindless, acquisitive consumer of Western horror movies, it is the body of the modern proletarian, enchanted with mental sleep and compelled to labor for the gain of people and things it does not understand.

Here, McNally is writing in the Marxist anthropological tradition of people such as Peter Worsley – who produced a brilliant materialist analysis of the “cargo cults” of the Pacific islands, The Trumpet Shall Sound, that I would highly encourage everyone to read. This tradition takes seriously the mystical and religious notions of the oppressed as the expressions of a concrete critique of their material conditions. It is my unhappy task, therefore, to anticipate a challenge from the postcolonial camp that I can just see academics salivating over, were they to read his book.

It might be put like this: that although McNally admirably is taking the traditions of non-Western people seriously, he ignores the fundamental differences between Subsaharan societies and those of the capitalist West – he assumes, in other words, that concepts like “capitalism,” “exploitation,” etc. are understood in the same ways by African peoples as they are in the West. Such, of course, is to assume a fundamental divide between Africa and the West that ignores the whole process of the creation of a world capitalist economy through colonialism. Seeing these African stories as something fundamentally incomprehensible to Western minds merely puts a plus sign where racists and imperialists put a minus sign. Moreover, it mirrors imperialist tropes in that the African peoples are not regarded as fully capable of understanding and criticizing the features of Western capitalist modernity.

The proletariat and the oppressed peoples of the world, writes McNally, are indeed “monstrous” – but it is a beautiful kind of monstrosity. “There is magic at work in liberation, then, that brings persons and things back to life and breaks the spell of zombieism.” “Rather than the detached ‘hands’ to which capital tries to reduce them, the world-proletariat needs to become a many-headed and many-handed monster, capable of of shaking the very planets and upending Jupiter’s throne… It is these magic hands that possess the power to slay the monsters of the market” (268-9).

David McNally, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012. $28


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One response to “David McNally, Monsters of the Market

  1. Pingback: A Novel of Primitive Accumulation in the Soviet Union | That Faint Light

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