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Last updated: 05 March 2020. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Hammer House of Horror

Monsters of the Market, David McNally’s Deutscher Prize winning book, is reviewed by Bruce Wallace

This year’s winner of the Issac Deutscher award is David McNally for his book Monsters of the Market: Zombies Vampires and Global Capitalism. The award is for the book ‘which exemplifies the best and most innovative new writing in or about the Marxist tradition’. 

There have been some excellent winners in the past,  G. de Ste Croix’s The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World in 1982 and Francis Wheen’s tidy wee biography of Karl Marx in 1999. There have also been some real howlers. So how does Monsters fare?

McNally tells us he seeks ‘to track the several genres of monster stories to tell us about key symbolic registers in which the experience of capitalist commodification is felt, experienced and resisted’.

In three sprawling chapters McNally addresses:

Dissecting the Labouring Body: Frankenstein, Political Anatomy and the Rise of Capitalism;

Marx’s Monsters : Vampire-Capital and the Nightmare-World of Late Capitalism; and

African Vampires in the Age of Globalisation.

This genre approach entails a rereading of Marx’s Capital seen here mainly as a ‘mystery-narrative that seeks out the hidden spaces in which bodies are injured and maimed by capital.’

In alliance with the ‘fantastic’ it equips ‘critical theory’ with ‘dialectical optics’ allowing for ‘the reading of capitalist occult practices in the same way psychoanalysis interprets dreams’. ‘Decoding subversive knowledge’ promises  ‘radical insights and transformative energies’ whereby ‘shock effects illuminate the ‘monstrous dislocations at the heart of commodified existence’.

Health warning!  ‘Critical theory’ is the product of the notorious ‘Frankfurt School’ which donned the mantle of ‘Western’ or ‘Humanistic Marxism’ on fleeing the Nazis in the 1930’s. Adherents included Max Horkheimer, Theodore Adorno and Herbert Marcuse et al.

Monsters  is littered with references from this pessimistic, disillusioned and demoralised current of radical middle class thought.

Bitterly hostile to the ideas of genuine Marxism they infested western universities in the 1960’s and 1970’s banefully influencing the student movement. Writing off the working class they argued no real objective economic basis existed for socialism and that struggle for social change lay on the cultural or psychological level.

The literature of this school excelled in its scatter-brained, whacko, impenetrable gibberish. McNally draws on these ‘traditions’.

We begin with gore. Specifically the gallows and the surgeon’s dissection table in 17th century Europe and 18th century England. I’m disappointed because there really isn’t that much gore but there is another bugbear.

He argues that anatomy and dissection were means of oppression and a ‘symbolic register’ of ruling class power over the dispossessed. This expressed, in symbolic form, the rise of early capitalist social relations where the very bodies of the working class were turned into commodities. Maybe, but he makes the classic slip of using interpretation of historical and cultural examples to support his argument.

This is the key fault of his, very 1970’s, Freudian dream interpretation shock effects ‘method’. 

For example he ‘analyses’ a superb 1632 painting by Rembrandt of the public dissection of Mr Kindt, a thief, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicholaes Tulp and writes:

‘Tulp grasps a tool (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, I want to suggest, a portrayal of the paradigmatic relationship between capital and wage-labour.’

You have got to be kidding me?! In the painting the skinless fingers, with the exception of a lifeless pinky, are just about as straight as a die! A viewer could just as easily suggest that Dr Tulp is demonstrating how the tendons of the arm work the digits.

So McNally, I want to suggest, is havering a load of hokum. Speculative interpretations like this, with wildly exaggerated claims that turn out to be very silly indeed, always raise an eyebrow amongst serious historians. I even found myself giggling at some of McNally’s absurd attempts to demonstrate his allegedly profound insights.

For instance in examining a 1751 woodcut of the dissection of a murderer, The Reward for Cruelty by the English artist Hogarth, there is a cauldron in which skulls and bones are being boiled clean. McNally claims:

‘Here is our clearest indication that a ritual of social magic is being enacted, a reminder that public anatomy is intended not only to punish and terrorise, but also to exorcise ruling-class anxieties ’

Here is the clearest indication of a professor of political ‘science’ with rather lurid deductive powers and too much time on his hands.

On Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein he says ‘the reader is given enormous interpretative range’ allowing for ‘multiple analytical frames-feminist, psychoanalytical, post-colonial, Marxist.’ In other words Frankenstein can mean literally anything to anybody. This must be the case for Capital?

Moving onto Marx we are told that in Capital ‘Gothic imagery, overtly dramatic construction. rather than stylistic ornamentations, these features are, I insist, essential aspects of Marx’s text, integral means for the expression of his core theoretical arguments.’

Marx did indeed use his formidable knowledge of literature to get his message across. He alludes to mythology and the supernatural supra-sensible. This includes vampires, werewolves and spectres by way of analogy in order to express the essence of capitalism as a monstrous parasitic social relation and not as a natural form of social production.

Yet this aspect of Marx has been written about for decades, including in a 1977 winner of the same prize, Marx and World Literature by S.S. Pawker. So McNally’s pretentions to originality are a bit self-indulgent.

Having reread Capital in preparation for ‘Monsters’, surely McNally grasps the ‘core theoretical arguments’ right? There is nothing ‘original’ he says in observing that Marx saw in commodities a contradictory unity of use- value and exchange-value.

Wrong!  As Marx pointed out commodities have use-value and VALUE. Exchange-value only manifests itself in relation to the process of exchange when one commodity is compared to another, it never has this form when ‘looked at in isolation’ (Marx Capital Vol I p177).

Blundering over the concept of ‘intrinsic value’ perhaps indicates a re-rereading of the whole of Capital, as a scientific work, is necessary instead of scouring the text of volume one in search of Nosferatu? If McNally fails to properly understand value how on earth are his musings on the fetishism of commodities and abstract labour to be taken seriously?

Fetishism and social vampirism are basic indispensable concepts for understanding Capital. McNally stretches these concepts a very very long way to engage in vacuous polemics against dead postmodernists. On the other hand he claims his ‘critical theory of value’, whatever that is, is capable of illuminating the ‘hidden recesses of capitalist social life.’

Modern capitalism is portrayed as vampire capital sucking the very life out of zombie labour and financialisation is equated with alchemy. Occasionally the author shape-shifts into a very ordinary writer on finance capital then morphs back into an explorer of ‘occult practices’. This includes a case study on the collapse of Enron that happened eleven years ago, all mildly interesting but very dated.

In Sub-Saharan Africa shock effects reach their apogee. After giving a good account of how imperialism is looting the continent he focuses on (you guessed it) witchcraft, voodoo and more zombies all spiced up with a dash of finance capital and cannibalism. It’s as if the organised African working class were a ghost. Strange, as McNally’s critical theory is supposed to be able to see the unseen? Can it be possible that he is a zombie?

As for resisting this capitalist regime of monstrosity one would expect a concluding clarion call for a mass zombie uprising? Not at all, and ‘moments of resistance’ take such forms as feminist poets being inspired on reading Capital or the protest zombie jazz of Thelonious Monk, excruciatingly analysed in relation to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit  The words ‘socialism’, ‘revolution’ and ‘strike’ don’t even appear in the index. Workers are all zombies anyway, even if organised in zombie unions.

Until the working class wake up and cease to be zombies argues McNally ‘monstrous utopia lives on in stories, dreams, music, art and moments of resistance that prefigure the grotesque movements through which the collective labourer throws off its zombified state in favour of something new, frightening and beautiful.’

For pessimistic neo-‘Marxist’ Freudian critical scribblers like McNally the socialist revolution is a ‘grotesque movement’ which is ‘frightening’. Lots of comfortable professional academics get the willies when class conscious workers decide to rise up out of the shadows against capitalism.

Luv a duck! This is an absolute howler. If you are thinking about reading this horror story don’t forget to order a set of dialectical optics but be afraid, yes very afraid, of the price!

David McNally  Monsters of the Market: Zombies Vampires and Global Capitalism Haymarket Books


Bruce Wallace is Tayside activist and lifelong member of the CWI (Committee for a Worker's International)    

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