Zombies, vampires and the economyBy Isaac S. Villegas
Our culture is fixated on vampires and zombies, the undead, creatures that live as parasites. In June there was widespread fear that we were on the verge of being taken over by zombies — the zombie apocalypse. After news about several cases of cannibalism turned into a panic about zombies infiltrating our cities, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, issued a statement to calm the growing alarm: “The CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms.)”
I wonder if this fear of zombies is related to our growing realization that we are under the control of foreign powers, that our working lives are under the dominion of financial markets, that we have become zombie-like creatures, in a state of living death, never quite able to escape the slavery of our debts, the debts that allow the wealthy to live like vampires.
We live in a world where the rich and powerful enjoy the pleasures of life, even as they life off of systems that feed on the lives of others, the lives of people who live from paycheck to paycheck, trying to pay the bills and buy groceries and keep the creditors happy and pay the rent. Our economics have created a system that enslaves people through debt: We work so much because we owe so much, and our debts keep on growing because interest rates compound exponentially.
We shouldn’t forget that the economics of this country was fueled by slave labor, and there is something of that old way of treating people that has stuck around in the DNA of our economy. For example, last month Wells Fargo got into trouble when it was discovered that they have been signing up black and brown people for loans at higher interest rates, even though they qualified for lower ones. In other words, without supervision, the mortgage system thought that there was nothing wrong with enslaving the working lives of racial minorities with more debt than white people, debt which funds the off-shore accounts of the wealthy.
Since 2008 — the beginning of our current recession — millionaires have increased their net worth. They have made money off of the financial devastation of others; they make money off of people who are enslaved by debt. We’ve created institutions that sustain themselves by sucking the life out of others. In the 18th century, as he watched the powerful take over economic systems, Voltaire talked about the people in control of the financial institutions as vampires. In his entry on vampires in The Philosophical Dictionary, Voltaire retold stories of corpses “who went out of their graves at night to suck the blood of the living.” These vampires “grew fat, got rosy, and enjoyed an excellent appetite.” While walking in the financial capitals of Europe, Voltaire used the image of the vampire to describe the corruption of the bankers and the emerging finance industry:
“We have never heard a word of vampires in London, or even at Paris. I confess that in both these cities there were sock-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.”
We live in this parasitic system, where the wealth of the many is redistributed to the minority of powerful elite, economic vampires who dwell in modern palaces by sucking money from the working lives of others. In his recent book, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires, and Global Capitalism, David McNally investigates the fixation of our modern imagination on vampires and zombies. The two come together, he writes, as “linked poles of the split society.” At one pole, we have vampires, “dreaded beings who might possess us and turn us into their docile servants.” At the other pole, are people who fear becoming zombies, “lifeless, disempowered agents of alien powers.”
We fear the vampires, those who suck the life out of us, who possess and live though us, rendering us servants to their systems. And, as McNally notes, we fear that we are becoming zombies, going to our jobs as if we were the living dead: subject to alien economic powers, forces beyond our control, the flows of finance that insinuate their way into our work, the economic institutions that enslave us through the work of our hands, as we deposit paychecks, use our credit cards and repay our growing debts.
This is the kind of world the prophet Amos condemns. “They sell the righteous for silver,” Amos prophecies, “and the needy for a pair of sandals — they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth” (Amos 2:6-7). “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan … who oppress the poor, who crush the needy” (4:1). You “abhor the one who speaks the truth … you trample the poor and take from them levies of grain … [Therefore,] you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine” (5:10-11).
Amos offers a harsh word from God to a people who maintain a society where the rich get richer and the poor are crushed at the bottom, crushed with inhumane labor and crushed under the weight of poverty.
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