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.

Share
Single Page

More from Eula Biss:

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

The Class Politics of Vaccination

“Debates over vaccination, then as now, were often cast as debates over the integrity of science, though they could just as easily be understood as conversations about power.”

From the January 2013 issue

Sentimental Medicine

Why we still fear vaccines

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2019

Men at Work

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To Serve Is to Rule

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Bird Angle

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The K-12 Takeover

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The $68,000 Fish

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Men at Work·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“You’re being reborn,” the voice says. “Exiting the womb of your mother. Coming into the earth as a small baby. Everything is new.” It is a Saturday morning in mid-March, and right now I’m lying on a yoga mat in a lodge in Ohio, surrounded by fifty other men who’ve come to the Midwest for a weekend of manhood-confirming adventures. The voice in question belongs to Aaron Blaine, a facilitator for Evryman, the men’s group orchestrating this three-day retreat. All around me, men are shedding tears as Blaine leads us on a guided meditation, a kind of archetypal montage of Norman Rockwell boyhood. “You’re starting to figure things out,” he says, in somniferous baritone. “Snow, for the first time. Sunshine. Start to notice the smells, the tastes, the confusion. The fear. And you’re growing. You’re about ten years old. The world’s huge and scary.”

Even though it’s only the second day of the Evryman retreat, it’s worth noting that I’ve already been the subject of light fraternal teasing. Already I’ve been the recipient of countless unsought hugs. Already I have sat in Large Groups and Small Groups, and watched dozens of middle-aged men weep with shame and contrition. I’ve had a guy in the military tell me he wants to be “a rock for his family.” I’ve heard a guy from Ohio say that his beard “means something.” Twice I’ve hiked through the woods to “reconnect with Mother Nature,” and I have been addressed by numerous men as both “dude” and “brother.” I have performed yoga and yard drills and morning calisthenics. I’ve heard seven different men play acoustic guitar. I’ve heard a man describe his father by saying, “There wasn’t a lot of ball-tossing when I was growing up.” Three times I’ve been queried about how I’m “processing everything,” and at the urinal on Friday night, two men warned me about the upcoming “Anger Ceremony,” which is rumored to be the weekend’s “pièce de résistance.”

Article
To Serve Is to Rule·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The WASP story is personal for me. I arrived at Yale in 1971 from a thoroughly mediocre suburb in New Jersey, the second-generation hybrid of Irish and Italian stock riding the postwar boom. Those sockless people in Top-Siders, whose ancestors’ names and portraits adorned the walls, were entirely new to me. I made friends with some, but I was not free of a corrosive envy of their habitus of ease and entitlement.

I used to visit one of those friends in the Hamptons, in the 1970s, when the area was about wood-paneled Ford station wagons, not Lamborghinis. There was some money in the family, but not gobs, yet they lived two blocks from the beach—prime real estate. Now, down the road from what used to be their house is the residence of Ira Rennert. It’s one of the largest private homes in the United States. The union-busting, pension-fund-looting Rennert, whose wealth comes from, among other things, chemical companies that are some of the worst polluters in the country, made his first money in the 1980s as a cog in Michael Milken’s junk-bond machine. In 2015, a court ordered him to return $215 million he had appropriated from one of his companies to pay for the house. One-hundred-car garages and twenty-one (or maybe twenty-nine) bedrooms don’t come cheap.

Article
The Bird Angle·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I slept for a good seven hours on the overnight flight from Spain to Peru, and while I slept I dreamed that I was leading American visitors around a park in Berlin, looking for birds on a hazy, overcast day. There wasn’t much to see until we noticed a distant commotion in the sky. Large raptors were panicking, driven back and forth by something threatening them from above. The commotion moved closer. The clouds parted, an oval aperture backed with blue. In it two seraphim hovered motionless. “Those are angels,” I told the group.

They were between us and the sun, but an easy ­I.D. Size aside, no other European bird has two sets of wings. The upper wings cast their faces into shadow. Despite the glare I could make out their striking peaches-­and-­cream coloration. Ivory white predominates, hair a faint yellow, eyes blue, wings indescribably iridescent. Faces blank and expressionless, as with all birds.

Article
The K-12 Takeover·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Last May, the families of students at Cypress Academy, an independent charter school in New Orleans, received an email announcing that the school would close when classes ended the following week and that all its students would be transferred to another nearby charter for the upcoming year. Parents would have the option of entering their children in the city’s charter-enrollment lottery, but the lottery’s first round had already taken place, and the most desirable spots for the fall were filled.

Founded in 2015, a decade after New Orleans became the nation’s first city to begin replacing all its public schools with charters, Cypress was something of a rarity. Like about nine in ten of the city’s charter schools, it filled spaces by lottery rather than by selective admission. But while most of the nonselective schools in New Orleans had majority populations of low-income African-American students, Cypress mirrored the city’s demographics, drawing the children of professionals—African-American and white alike—as well as poorer students. Cypress reserved 20 percent of its seats for children with reading difficulties, and it offered a progressive education model, including “learning by doing,” rather than the strict conduct codes that dominated the city’s nonselective schools. In just three years, the school had outperformed many established charters—a particular feat given that one in four Cypress students had a disability, double the New Orleans average. Families flocked to Cypress, especially ones with children who had disabilities.

Article
Five Stories·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

how high? that high

He had his stick that was used mostly to point at your head if your head wasn’t held up proudly.

I still like that man—Holger! He had been an orphan!

He came up to me once because there was something about how I was moving my feet that wasn’t according to the regulations or his expectations.

The room was a short wide room with a short wide window with plenty of artificial light.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

The limited edition Nike Air Max 97s, white sneakers that have holy water from the Jordan River in their soles and have frankincense-scented insoles, sold out in minutes.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today