Monsters Are Real

Zombie businessman. Hollywood, 2011.

Are you prepared for a zombie apocalypse? It seems like everyone has something to say on the topic. From box office hits like 28 Days Later to video games and zombie walks, over the last decade the meme has displayed an especially widespread appeal. How do we explain it? Is it just a silly trend, or is it a sign of something more complex?

If you ask David McNally, author of Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism, prepare yourself for a detailed history of the oppressed – one that drifts through the centuries and across continents to explore the wreckage sites in which people have run up against the dislocating imperatives of capital. The book’s scope is immense.

The unifying theme is that discourses of monstrosity in the early modern and modern world – stories of zombies, vampires, witches, etc – can offer a unique way of uncovering “the obscure transactions between human bodies and capital,” on which capitalism rests. In his chapter ‘African Vampires in the Age of Globalisation’ McNally writes:

It is a token of just how reified everyday-life has become in the West that most of us no longer find global capitalist processes bizarre and perplexing. So natural have commodified market-relations become for us, so normalised the esoteric transactions of capital, that we rarely find anything unsettling about it all. As a result, our mode of perception dulls, our critical energies atrophy. Unable to see the tracks of the invisible, we deny existence to whatever eludes our optical gaze…

McNally’s book focuses primarily on monster narratives that emerge from people for whom capitalist relations have not yet been normalized, or for whom ‘normalization’ has somehow been violently foreclosed. Such stories can offer jolting insights into everyday material horrors otherwise hidden by the abstractions of market economics.

Invoking Theodor Adorno’s entry in Minima Moralia that “in psychoanalysis only the exaggerations are true,” David McNally writes that “[i]n seizing upon fabulous images of occult capitalism, critical theory ought to read them the way psychoanalysis interprets dreams – as a necessarily coded form of subversive knowledge whose decoding promises radical insights and transformative energies.” According to McNally,

…straightforward narrative strategies regularly fail to register the reality of the unseen forces of capital; they assume that what is invisible is necessarily ‘not there’. But this is to miss the essential: the hidden circuits of capital through which human capacities become things, while things assume human powers; in which markets ‘rise’ and ‘fall’, and in so doing dictate who shall prosper and who starve; in which human organs are offered up to the gods of the market in exchange for food or fuel. 

The occult magic investigated in detail in Monsters of the Market is that by which capitalism transforms living beings into commodities and abstractions into things with physical behavior. In some ways, its three key chapters read like a constellation of in-depth social histories of specific class struggles.

For example in the book’s first essay, David McNally presents a brilliant reading of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, tracing its context back to the English enclosure acts in which common land was privatized, village economies destroyed and the dispossessed forced to concentrate in cities where they might be able to sell their labor. The newly-urbanized poor, literally struggling to survive, were corporeally disciplined through wage labor, capital punishment and posthumous public anatomy spectacles. The integrity of the human body itself, living and dead, became a site of political contestation. And it was out of this context that Shelley’s Frankenstein emerged. This theme of the dissection of the laboring body is further explored at length with looks at pictures by Rembrandt, Hogarth, and readings of Shakespeare among many others.

Brisbane Zombie Walk. Australia, 2012.

Monsters’ second essay offers a fresh reading of Marx’s critique of capital through the optic of monstrous and magical tropes. Marx “sought a new language, literary as well as theoretical, a radical poetics through which to read capitalism,” writes McNally. A lovely example of this – one that dovetails with the third essay’s focus on African experiences with global capital – is Marx’s original notion of commodity fetishism. Citing work by Peter Stallybrass, McNally shows how Marx subverts the colonial idea of the fetish, turning it against its creators.

Enlightenment colonial merchants were unable to reconcile encounters with non-Europeans for whom some objects were not for sale at any price. These merchants had a deep belief that all things were commensurable through market exchange value. So, “…in insisting that certain goods not be commodified,…Africans were exposing as fictive all claims for the universality and naturalness of the European market-economy.” Europeans invented the fetish “to mask the absence of market-values among Africans.” Idol-worship was something that people of the Judeo-Christian Bible could understand, and judge. Marx, however, ironically reverses the charge, characterizing the Enlightened Europeans as idolators – fetishists in their barbarous devotion to material commodities and the thoroughly immaterial value they represent.

The West’s enduring fascination with zombies has a great deal to do with its culture industry – especially movies. But most contemporary Western productions, McNally argues, are “pale substitutes, faint and distorted after-images of the monsters we deny.” They may on occasion have a satirical anti-consumerist message, but what they crucially lack for David McNally is an anti-capitalist message. Indeed, McNally traces the zombie to West Africa by way of 18th century Haiti where slaves transformed a pre-capitalist religious idea (of the dead arising to help or harm the living) into the idea that coerced mindless labor is a kind of living death. For the author, this is the symbol par excellence of alienated labor under capitalism.

This idea of the zombie laborer crossed over from Haiti to the United States in the 1930s (following US military occupation in defense of corporate interests) keeping some of its subversive, potentially de-fetishizing charge through the Great Depression in books such as The Magic Island and movies such as I Walked with a Zombie and White Zombie. (These works are not unproblematic for McNally, but are interesting for their reproduction of the zombie laborer.)

In the late 1960s, however, something interesting happened. With George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead Hollywood revived the zombie – but as a consumer instead of a laborer! By and large this re-imagined, flesh-eating zombie is what we see in the West’s culture industry today. In stark contrast to this recuperated, neo-liberal Hollywood zombie, there are, as I learned reading Monsters, many stories emerging from Sub-Saharan African experience today of witchcraft, zombies and vampires. Using anthropological sources, news stories and Nigerian video sources from “Nollywood”, McNally insists “on reading African witchcraft-tales as markers of and challenges to capitalist modernity.”

For McNally, then, a zombie apocalypse could be an emancipatory moment of collective awakening. A moment of re-embodiment. A Benjaminian improvement “in the struggle against Fascism.” Is anyone ready for that?


Photographs courtesy of Michael R. Perry and Sheba_Also. Published under a Creative Commons license.



  1. Excellent. It’s useful to see this discussion and it dovetails well with the growing number of films that visualise the violence of the economic system. I will say, though, that as much as Romero’s films lend themselves to a purely ‘consumer’ model of zombie, he did make these in Pittsburgh right at the time of all the plant and factory closings: a very felt economic apolcalypse that left labourers without anything. This isn’t to glamourise the labour-zombie connection, but to complicate the idea of the shift, this is all tied to visualising economic systems and impact on humanity…

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