Perspective — December 27, 2012, 9:00 am

On Vampire Capitalism and the Fear of Inoculation

Why efforts to contain disease are often seen as conspiracies to sell vaccines

“Capital,” Marx wrote, “is dead labor, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labor, and lives the more, the more labor it sucks.” Vampires sucked the blood of the sleeping in Ancient Greece and spread plague in Medieval Europe, but after the industrial revolution, novels began to feature a new kind of monster, the well-dressed gentleman vampire who would become an enduring mascot for capitalism. During his 2012 presidential campaign, venture capitalist Mitt Romney, whose status as living or undead was the subject of some sporting debate, frequently found himself compared to a vampire. After transforming into a “vulture capitalist” in the primaries, he became a full-fledged vampire capitalist in Obama’s campaign ads. “It was like a vampire,” a steelworker said of the company Romney co-founded, Bain Capital, “it came in and sucked the life out of us.”

The thought of an ambitious vampire sucking the life out of honest workers was resonant in a country where the value had so recently been sucked out of nearly every home. We were reminded of the vampirism behind the housing crisis, which was set off by a rash of “predatory” loans to homeowners who lacked the ability to repay them. These loans, bundled and sold to investors, came to be known as “toxic assets” when they lost their value.

The understanding that capital can itself be toxic leads, almost inevitably, to a fear of capitalism polluting every endeavor. At the close of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, when it was clear that the flu had not caused the high mortality rates health officials had initially feared it would, the chair of the health committee for the Council of Europe accused the World Health Organization of colluding with pharmaceutical companies and creating a “false pandemic” to sell vaccines. The WHO met this accusation with equanimity, their spokeswoman saying, “Criticism is part of the outbreak cycle.” The organization then invited twenty-nine independent influenza experts from twenty-six countries to evaluate its actions during the pandemic.

Those experts would find no evidence that commercial interests had influenced the WHO or attempted to influence it, and no evidence that the WHO had wrongfully exaggerated the pandemic. Their report explained that one of the reasons certain precautions taken by the WHO could seem, in hindsight, out of proportion with the actual threat posed by the pandemic is that the organization had been preparing for a possible outbreak of avian influenza H5N1, a highly lethal strain, and initial reports of the fatality rate of novel H1N1 had suggested it might also be quite high. “Influenza viruses are notoriously unpredictable,” the chairman of the committee noted in his introduction to the report, adding that we were “lucky” this time. “In the Committee’s view,” the report concluded, “the inference by some critics that invisible commercial influences must account for WHO’s actions ignores the power of the core public-health ethos to prevent disease and save lives.”

Army making pneumonia vaccine, Washington, D.C., 1937. Photograph by Harris & Ewing, courtesy the Library of Congress. The original caption for the photograph reads: “The Army Medical Center is preparing a pneumonia vaccine for the first mass scale inoculation ever attempted in the battle against the disease. Volunteers from the [Civilian Conservation Corps] will be the human guinea pigs in the experiment. The vaccine, which is 10 times as costly as gold, is being made for distribution this fall to all CCC enrollees who desire inoculations, officers expect to have enough vaccine to safeguard 300,000 individuals.”

Observing that we have waged wars on poverty and drugs as well as cancer, Susan Sontag writes, “Abuse of the military metaphor may be inevitable in a capitalist society, a society that increasingly restricts the scope and credibility of appeals to ethical principle, in which it is thought foolish not to subject one’s actions to the calculus of self-interest and profitability.” In such a society, preventative measures to protect public health require elaborate justifications. War-making, Sontag suggests, is one of the few activities for which we are not expected to consider practicality and expense. Declaring a metaphorical war on a disease is how we justify the inevitable impracticalities of protecting the most vulnerable among us.

My son was a newborn infant during the H1N1 pandemic, and he would be three years old by the time the Centers for Disease Control released their estimate of how many people worldwide had died from H1N1 in 2009. The death toll calculated by the CDC, somewhere between 150,000 and 500,000, made the severity of H1N1 comparable to a typical outbreak of seasonal influenza. But this flu had killed young people disproportionately. The pattern of deaths, with 80 percent among people below the age of sixty-five, made it unusual. 9,707,000 years of potential human life, the CDC would note, had been lost in the pandemic.

“Follow the money,” I have heard any number of reasonable people say in defense of ideas about vaccination that, without the suggestion of a vampiristic force behind them, would seem to depend on the collusion of countless individuals in unethical action more grievous than predatory lending. That so many of us find it entirely plausible for a vast network of researchers and health officials and doctors worldwide to willfully harm children for money is evidence of what capitalism is really taking from us. Capitalism has already impoverished us culturally. And capitalism has already impoverished the working people who generate wealth for others. But when we begin to see the pressures of capitalism as innate laws of human motivation, when we begin to believe that everyone is owned, then we are truly impoverished.

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More from Eula Biss:

From the Magazine January 2, 2013, 10:05 am

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The Gatekeepers·

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Toward the end of the Obama presidency, the work of James Baldwin began to enjoy a renaissance that was both much overdue and comfortless. Baldwin stands as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, and any celebration of his work is more than welcome. But it was less a reveling than a panic. The eight years of the first black president were giving way to some of the most blatant and vitriolic displays of racism in decades, while the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others too numerous to list sparked a movement in defense of black lives. In Baldwin, people found a voice from the past so relevant that he seemed prophetic.

More than any other writer, Baldwin has become the model for black public-intellectual work. The role of the public intellectual is to proffer new ideas, encourage deep thinking, challenge norms, and model forms of debate that enrich our discourse. For black intellectuals, that work has revolved around the persistence of white supremacy. Black abolitionists, ministers, and poets theorized freedom and exposed the hypocrisy of American democracy throughout the period of slavery. After emancipation, black colleges began training generations of scholars, writers, and artists who broadened black intellectual life. They helped build movements toward racial justice during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whether through pathbreaking journalism, research, or activism.

Bloom, acrylic, ink, wood, and fabric on canvas, by David Shrobe © The artist. Courtesy Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco
The Vanishing·

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On a Friday afternoon in the fall of 2017, a few months after the liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State, a group of neighbors gathered at Mar Mattai, a monastery founded in the fourth century. They unloaded baskets of food, and arranged themselves around a long table in a courtyard. A woman named Niser spread out a tablecloth and put down a plate of dolmas. “It’s a way of celebrating that we still exist,” she told me. More people were arriving—children, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and distant relations—members of one of the oldest Christian communities in the world who had not seen one another for three years.

Overlooking the village of Mergey from the old section of the Mar Mattai Monastery, Mount Maqlub, Iraq. All photographs from Iraq (October 2017) and Jerusalem (March 2018) by Nicole Tung (Detail)
Investigating Hate·

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Around three in the morning on a cold December Sunday, brothers José and Romel Sucuzhañay began to walk home from a bar in Bushwick, Brooklyn. It was a cloudy night, only a few degrees above freezing, and the houses and stores lining their route wore impassive, nighttime guises—shades drawn, metal grates locked down. Romel had only recently arrived from Ecuador. José, a thirty-­one-year-old father of two, ran a successful real estate agency in the neighborhood. The two had spent the evening eating and drinking at a quinceañera at St. Brigid Church, and afterward, they stopped at a local bar called Christopher’s Palace. They were feeling the alcohol as they headed back to José’s apartment. When they realized that José had left his coat behind in the bar, Romel took off his jacket and draped it around his younger brother’s shoulders. They continued to walk up Bushwick Avenue, swaying a bit, arms around each other for warmth and ballast.

As they approached the corner of Kossuth Place and Bushwick Avenue, a red SUV stopped at the traffic light. “Check out those faggots!” the driver yelled out the window. José may have said something in reply. Very rapidly, a man jumped out of the passenger side door and smashed José on the head with a bottle, dropping him to the ground. He then turned to attack Romel. As Romel fled from the man down Kossuth, the driver exited the car, grabbed an aluminum baseball bat out of the vehicle, and began to beat José until someone emerged from the back seat and called him off. The driver was walking away when he saw some movement from José, a twitch of his hand or his leg sliding across the pavement—trying to rise, perhaps—and he strode back, straddled him, and raised the bat high in the air. He brought it down on José’s head, again and again, as if he were chopping wood.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae (Detail)
Preservation Acts·

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After eighteen-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, Bergis Jules found himself worrying not only over the horrors of the present, but also over how little of the present was likely to be preserved for the future. The best reporting on the aftermath in Ferguson was being produced by activists on Twitter, a notoriously ephemeral medium. Jules, then an archivist at the University of California, Riverside, had the impulse to start saving tweets, but wasn’t sure how. “That whole weekend, watching things unfold, I thought, ‘This is a really amazing historical moment; we should think about capturing it,’ but I was just talking to myself,” he says. The following week, attending a Society of American Archivists conference in Washington, D.C., he voiced his fears en route to drinks at the hotel bar. He caught the ear of Ed Summers, a developer who just so happened to be the author of a Twitter archiving tool—and who promptly programmed it to va­cuum up #Ferguson tweets. Within two weeks, he had amassed more than 13 million.

Three weeks after the shooting, Summers blogged about the archive, which he and Jules were considering making public. Shortly thereafter, they received an inquiry from a data-mining company. When they pulled up the firm’s website, they read that its clients included the Department of Defense and, ominously, “the intelligence community.” What did the company want with the data? And what were the ethical implications of handing it over—perhaps indirectly to law enforcement—when the protesters’ tweets would otherwise evade collection? Using Twitter’s Application Programming Interface (API), the code that developers use to call up Twitter data, anyone can sift through tweets that were posted in the past week, but older posts disappear from the API’s search function, even if they still exist out on the web. The data-mining company was too late to nab a swath of the #Ferguson tweets. (Twitter has since unveiled a “premium” API that allows access to older data, for a substantial fee.) Newly mindful of the risks, Jules and Summers waited almost a year to publish their cache.

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Estimated number of times in the Fall of 1990 that George Bush told a joke about his dog asking for a wine list with her Alpo:


French researchers reported that 52 percent of young women exposed to Francis Cabrel’s ballad “Je l’aime à mourir” gave their phone numbers to an average-looking young man who hit on them, whereas only 28 percent of those exposed to Vincent Delerm’s “L’heure du thé” did so.

Migrant children were teargassed; carbon dioxide levels have reached three to five million year high; missionary killed by remote tribe

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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