Sunday, March 4, 2012

Monsters of the Market

David McNally, Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires, and Global Capitalism
Brill, Leiden and Boston, 2011

Reviewed by Mark Worrell
Marx and Philosophy
29 February 2012

The Guardian recently reported that “By 2007, the international financial system was trading derivatives valued at one quadrillion dollars per year. This is 10 times the total worth, adjusted for inflation, of all products made by the world's manufacturing industries over the last century.” David McNally’s new book Monsters of the Market will be of great interest to those struggling to make sense of an economic system that has assumed otherworldly proportions. Over the course of three long chapters McNally delivers a tour de force analysis of global capital from the upper registers of derivatives trading down to popular fables of African monsters. As he puts it, “Capitalist market-society overflows with monsters.

But no grotesque species so command the modern imagination as the vampire and the zombie. In fact, these two creatures need to be thought conjointly, as interconnected moments of the monstrous dialectic of modernity. Like Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, the vampire and the zombie are doubles, linked poles of the split society. If vampires are the dreaded beings who might possess us and turn us into their docile servants, zombies represent our haunted self-image, warning us that we might already be lifeless, disempowered agents of alien powers” (253). Capitalist culture, as such, is saturated with representations of monsters, dismemberment, blood-draining exploitation, and the reduction of human life to mere biology and drive. These images, transfigured distortions, almost ideal-types, reflect the workings of real social processes and speak to exploitation of human life as well as the longings of all who suffer under the yoke of capital accumulation.

Chapter one is a wide-ranging exploration of anatomy and human dissection as symbolic elite rituals designed to terrorized and discipline the newly forming rabble of modern Europe. McNally provides a good backdrop for these practices by mapping the enclosures of the commons and the destruction of alternatives to wage labor – expressed in the departure from medieval representations of monsters such that the creatures of modernity assume specifically human form and refract the nebulous and mystifying aspects of new social and economic relations. The Digger rebellion, the English Civil War, the Gordon Riots, and Luddism are examined through the lens of their literary reverberations (e.g., the relationship between Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and the Digger rebellion). Frankenstein is viewed as an interpersonal (micro) drama that plays on the fetishistic-binary tensions of capitalist society, the dilemmas posed by the contradictions of positive science, rampant egoism and so on.

Chapter two takes readers into the heart of Marx’s analysis of the capitalist mode of production, the bizarre nature of commodities, money and interest-bearing capital, instruments of fictional value, and, most importantly for me, the best short explanation of the 2008 Wall Street meltdown I’ve read. Anyone who wants a concise and clear presentation that gets to the heart of speculative trading, derivatives, hedges, and so on will be amply rewarded here. Especially helpful is McNally’s contextualization of new forms of speculation stirred on by the abandonment of the gold standard and deregulation (anomie in sociological terms) that transformed Wall Street into an excited frenzy of irrational trading on objects that increase at a seemingly geometric rate. The case of Enron is used to illustrate the transformation of a pipeline business into a speculative monstrosity gorging and ultimately self-destructing on derivatives, hedge markets, and price trading. McNally keeps this foreground of crazy speculation rooted in the global systemic backdrop where an oversupply of dollars pile up that cannot be converted into gold so they are loaned out to the developing world and as inflation takes off the resulting default-prone nations are subjected to restructuring and austerities that end up transferring more wealth to core nations. The key here is that “beneath the esoteric circuits of finance lie material practices of plunder of the world’s resources and its labourers” (171) and that tales of vampires and other terrors are a kind of “fantastic realism” (172) generated by the exploited who experience international commodity trade, labor, and speculation on an entirely different scale.

The third and last chapter is a thoroughgoing examination of African fables of zombies and vampires rooted in the daily anxieties and fear generated by the impersonal drive toward wealth accumulation where institutions like the family and kinship identities and traditional paternalism are dissolved in frenetic market energies. In short, what appear to the rational mind as a collection of crazy stories are popular modalities of mapping the enigma of capital accumulation and dispossession (200). And interesting juxtaposition between African monster legends is made by shifting to the ‘zombie’ rebellion known as Bebop jazz where re-harmonizations and changes based on altered and extended chords “express the rhythms of a world out of joint, a space of reification in which people are reduced to things – and in which they violently awaken from their frozen state” (262-3).

Monsters of the Market is one of the best books I’ve read in years and it will definitely stimulate thinking about the nature of globalization, the labor theory of value and the relationship between commodities and speculative objects, collective fantasy, and other nebulous problems confronting historical materialism in the future. I’m hard-pressed to find any faults with Monsters; perhaps the author might overestimate the de-fetishizing capacity of fables but, really, the main ‘sins’ one might expect to find, fetishizing capital (see Marx’s Capital, Vol. 3 and the “Results” appendix at the end of vol. 1) by splitting and mystifying it into two species and elevating the myth-plagued masses to the next identical subject-object of history are, thankfully, not to be found – indeed, McNally indicates that one barrier to overcoming voluntary servitude is that the working class is perhaps, still, not internally divided enough (266). Monsters of the Market has great implications for a tremendous range of problems in critical social theory. The price for the Brill hardcover will be prohibitively expensive for some but if I’m not mistaken Haymarket Press will publish an affordable paperback in the near future. Monsters of the Market is essential reading for anybody working in the field of critical social theory, critical sociology, political economy, etc., and suitable for a wide range of theory and culture courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels.

Mark Worrell is Associate Professor of social theory at SUNY Cortland. He is the author of Why Nations Go to War: A Sociology of Military Conflict (Routledge, 2011) and Dialectic of Solidarity: Labor, Antisemitism, and the Frankfurt School (Haymarket, 2009)

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