“Capital is dead labor, which, vampire-like, lives on by sucking living labor and lives the more, the more labor it sucks” – Karl Marx, Capital
The vampire has long been a potent metaphor for cultural anxieties of many kinds. HBO’s True Blood is a fun, sex-filled take on the urban fantasy genre, combining vampires, werewolves, fairies, witches and various other supernatural . True Blood’s vampires have been read, with various plausibility, as metaphors for gay rights, the civil rights movement, and even veganism. But though there is a persistent classed element to vampirism in the series, this has remained largely critically invisible.
The basic conceit of the series is that True Blood, a synthetic product, has made it possible for vampires to live without the need to feed on humans (this is where the vegan metaphor comes in). Yet no vampire consistently stays away from exploitation and violence–instead, the question is how long they can get away with feeding on humans, how well they can hide the bodies. Even with consensual feeding relationships with humans, sooner or later, the urge for something fresh. True Blood is nothing but the fallacy of self-regulation – there is no real possibility of vampires without violence, of “mainstreaming” being anything but a patently ideological ploy designed to facilitate acceptance and further exploitation. Exploitation is inherent to the vampire/human relationship. Hunter, prey. Capital, proletariat.
Vampires are the ruling class, the owners of capital – so much so that they have taken on the stylings of the European aristocracy in the New World. Most are vastly wealthy, having accumulated immense wealth over the centuries. The old style aristocrat Sophie-Anne, the dissolute Queen of Louisiana, is replaced by the new high-tech business-suited Bill as King. Russell Edgington combines the old with the new, using his own blood to control werewolves to do his bidding, while his husband Talbot cultivates a refined aesthetic approach to consuming. Nan Flanagan is shown primarily through the media on screens or in the rareified world of the global class, moving from place to place via plane and limousine. Even Erik, relatively low on the vampire pecking order, owns his own bar.
Like any ruling class, the vampires work to control via ideology as much as brute strength, via Flanagan at the American Vampire League. When Russell Edgington rips out a man’s spine on television and declares “this is the true face of vampires,” it’s hard to disagree. The difference between he and the other vampires is a matter of intensity and visibility, not of kind–much as the Ponzi scam of Bernie Madoff was simply a less sophisticated version of the normalised scam that is high finance. The crime among vampires worthy of death is being filmed feeding on a human, not doing it–bad PR is far worse than the action itself.
What is interesting in True Blood, particularly in its first season, is that it shows the struggle of people in rural Louisiana–making the class structure both literal and metaphorical. Most of our characters are working class, working either in a bar or as road crews. Indeed, Lafayette works two jobs (at Merlotte’s and on the road gang) to pay for his mother’s medical bills–something certainly not uncommon in Louisiana. We first see Tara working in a box store, reading a copy of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, Jesus at a nursing home. This is our revolutionary class, or it should be.
Sookie is the mediator between the ruling and working classes, the middle class. She works at Merlotte’s, but has inherited her house, claims human friends but primarily associates with vampires. Apparently best friends with Tara since childhood, she is basically the worst friend in the world, responds to Tara’s incredible losses with stunning apathy. Eggs is dead, but hey Bill’s missing too. Sure, Bill left Tara alone to be raped and imprisoned, but hey.. something. And sure, Erik tortured Lafayette and then coerced him into working for him but y’know… something.
Sookie’s is the callousness of the bourgeoise writ large–eroticising and sympathising with the glamourous ruling class exploitation of the working class she claims to be friends with. Where Tara, Lafayette and Jesus are engaged in a class struggle against the vampires who have oppressed and tortured them, Sookie demonstrates her solidarity with the extremely pale violent ruling class at every step of the way (race and class solidarity at once – no vampires of colour last on the show). Though she has no energy to save her best friend from violence, everything involving her vampire paramours is a crisis requiring immediate action.
We can see a real-life parallel in the way the 2008 stock market crash was considered a crisis that required billions and even trillions of dollars, but the crises produced by capitalism (poverty, the AIDS crisis, climate change, the slashing of public services, education health etc) do not provoke any kind of concerted, collective response.
In contrast to Sookie’s false consciousness, the serial killer Rene’s violence against vampire sympathisers can be seen as a form of horizontal oppression in response to an unfightable capitalist system. But a Maoist purge of counter-revolutionaries is not helpful, does not fight the true enemy.
Last night’s episode found Tara and the witch Antonia, both raped and tortured by vampires, bringing together a group of humans to attempt to pull all vampires into the sun. Bringing together disparate people, the more the merrier. Personally, I hope they succeed, taking all the vampires into the sun in one fell swoop. But this being episodic television, sadly it is a given that the ruling class will live to feed on humanity another day.
As much as Alan Ball and company have changed the Charlaine Harris penned Sookie Stackhouse mysteries, the basic system of eroticised exploitation remains the same. It’s telling that vampires are completely eroticised, but Lafayette and Jesus are not, and Tara rarely is. The question therefore is: why does True Blood stage this? It is very clearly not in the name of critique–no matter what they do, vampires remain generally sympathetic given the show’s Sookie-centred point of view.
This points to a broader, infrequently noted, problem with popular entertainment–the continual reinforcement of class structures, the way it encourages us towards towards aspirational identification with the rich, the powerful, the glamourous. We watch the rulers and not the ruled; True Blood is followed on HBO by Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm, two shows about the elite of Hollywood. In a world where the Tea Party protest for the rights of billionaires to receive tax breaks, it’s hard to underestimate the effect of capitalist ideology in convincing working people to identify with the powerful against their own interests. True Blood is just one tiny little data point in a broader pattern, but it’s a telling one.