The world has been dreaming. It dreams about undead things. It dreams about money. Do you want to know about its dreams? Let me tell you. Listen.
It is dark. We have lost the path. We have tumbled into the night of the world. It is the night of a babel choir. There we meet the people, dolorous. There we meet the empousa. She greets us with spirits. She greets us with metals. She tempts us. She looks to be tempered. The empousa offers many gifts, takes many shapes. She lives underground. Some say it is where she hides. Do you want to know what the empousa looks like? Or how to know her shape, her design? Manifest, she is everything beautiful, the object of all desire. A latency, she is a monster, a thing lusting for blood, the empousa rises from her lair to stalk the villagers. She leaves her home so that she might feed upon the lives of men. She haunts the cities, an alluring image of all one might become, the fulfillment of all one could ever desire. Her metals, a mirror, she fashions all as beauty.
She solicits. She elicits. She invites the people into the mines where she lives; she claims them as her own. She stands on her single copper leg and stares, shining, polished metal, a mirror. Hers is the body of fashioned metal, of capital, endlessly plastic, condemned to a half-life of infinite transubstantiation; a body, caught in an ancient and obsolete religion, bending to meet the new salvation. Outside time, without age, she is a voracious child. Drawing upon her mother, drawing upon her father, aching for them both and for their flesh, she eats until both are feeble and wasted, skeletal forms, unloved bags of loose skin. The empousa is without sympathy. Neither living nor dead, she cares nothing for the lives of others. Until they reach the point of their expiration, their lives do not matter. When they die, she hunts for more. She knows there will always be more. The villagers cannot resist their quaint, fleshy pleasures, and their pleasures ensure—they do not suspect—that there will always be more. The seduction begins again, most often in the Fall, with the apples, and the leaves. The dream of beauty and love, companionship and care, of loving and being loved, in this season, is too enticing. The air is crisp. The empousa knows this. She knows that dreams are the key to possession. She has heard these dreams before: she has made a study of the wind. She is listening to your dreams right now. She says to herself, how might I make you mine, how might I take you right now, drawing you underground, into my mines. These mines where we find beauty before it is polished, before the surfaces are gleaming, while we await the horses, while we await the harness and the sledge. How do we live with the ugly before the beautiful, she asks.
You do not want to know her answer. This is what I say: She is the ugliness that feeds off the beautiful. Step away. These mines—all mines—are a crypt.
Much of this is speculative, and this is not inappropriate for a story about money and its history, about capital and its aesthetics, the world as its monument: ugly, spectacular, beautiful, mundane. What can we know about money except that its history is the history of ambivalence, as well as the story of the infinite varieties of its manifestation, the story of something that is everywhere and everything, so—in the end—the story of something that is not there? We can never really know money, any more than we can know the empousai. Shadowy figures drawn from some of the most ancient traditions of Greek mythology, the empousai are among our earliest images of what would become the vampire, the zombie, the ghoul. Sketches that form part of those places which insist upon not being known. Marx long ago warned us, in its insatiable lust for blood, capital is a vampire, but the empousa, like the vampire, also hides; they are all geniuses of disguise. The dead and their labor are kept underground, tucked away with their petrified desires.
This is not a story about the empousai, but it is a story about the things that haunt our dreams; the dead and the undead, about those who dwell in the mines, flesh but not flesh, bone and spirit, all the things that live and die underground. It is a story about what emerges from the mines: about metals, and about money, about the forms they take, how they are fashioned, about the fascination and the glamour. It is about what happens when that which has been buried crawls out of the dark, about the shapes they presume to take. It is about how they hide the blood when the undead reach the light. It is a story about money becoming capital begetting money that begins with mines and mining, the mine as a grave, and possession a movement unto death, a sacrifice unto that which is neither living nor dead.
Marx long ago described capital as dead labor, a macabre illustration of something apparently dynamic and lively as a tremendous accumulation of expired, exploited things, of people, lands, plants, animals corrupted and destroyed so that all the many forms of the undead may carry on their half-life, entombed forever in an earthly limbo, scattering their metals across the face of the earth. These dead things would be left behind, underground, no solace to be found in the catacombs of the mines. Extirpation, enslavement, entombment: in this passage, Marx highlights a sequence that might be readily identified as the ineluctable linearity of imperialism and capital, each term in the sequence prefiguring and enfolding the next, life violently oriented toward the ostensibly idyllic expressions of capital, different moments of exploitation and expropriation leading unto exhaustion and death, to the tomb of the mine.
The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signaled the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.Karl Marx, , Chapter 31
A figuration of hell, the mine is the realization of the afterlife, of a ghostly living death of subterranean tortures, a punishment that reverses the order of death and life, a realm in which the sentence precedes the judgment. The visitation of the mine as tomb, in this sense, forces an encounter with that which capital must obviate: that its life is predicated upon an ending chain of violence that hide behind an actuarial calculus of life passing into death.
And, of course, as all witches know, we can never fully exorcise the dead. They are always with us. We can only hope to appease them.
In my dreams, I am overcome by undead things. I have been dreaming about money. Listen.
Last night I had a dream about money; about exchange and the inanity of exchange; a dream about the illegal exchange of scrip, a meaningless representation of another meaningless representation, a thing that connotes a relationship to something that truly bears value, a phony currency evoking the phoniness of all currencies. The stage for this exchange was unlikely. Some Tophet of an opium den, an otherwise effulgent figure of Victorian hedonism manifest as dark and ponderous, weighty with lice, sour breath, and dirt, the opium den in this scenario marked resistance to the brocaded, the upright and the respectable, and I was tossed among its mad denizens, lost to the brilliance of the sun, fighting to escape into the dark, a corner, a closet. Offered the pipe, I back away; asked to trade my notes, I am disoriented, horrified, undone by the strangely repetitive parlor game in which my fellow inmates seek the greatest return on the most perilous gamble, the most unmistakably proscribed instances of paper-based trades. I cannot see the consequences of these trades. I cannot see what they will mean for myself or for others. I solemnly refuse the drug and the exchange; or was the drug the exchange, the exchange a drug?
On waking, it occurred to me immediately how much this compression of images resembled the only barely legal exchanges by which many of us in Lebanon have survived this unending, interminably dilated financial crisis, those of us who are able translating our privileged access to so-called “fresh dollars” into Lebanese lira by way of trades with black market money changers at rates of exchange three and four times greater than those on offer from the wholly legal extortionists who control local banks.
That, in my dream, the image of money should be linked to opium, to delirium, is in no way surprising. Indeed, it is perhaps altogether too apt. Since the beginning of the financial crisis, an ongoing historical drama that coincides with the start of the Thawra in late October 2019, Lebanon has been thrust into a state of feverish, hallucinatory delirium. This was amplified by the mad joyousness of the Thawra, of the initial exhilaration of the Thawra, the mad insistence that a new Lebanon was about to be born, that the nation had turned against the robber barons of the old world and served notice: your time is done. Over the next months, as fall turned to winter, this sense of passionate intensity gave way to a growing lack of conviction, a necrotic sense of dread and betrayal as revolutionary exultation found itself confronted by the forces of an ever more emboldened, ever more desperate counter-revolution.
And then the pandemic. And then the explosion.
Beirut shattered by the detonation of a fraction of 2,750 metric tons of unstable, long-forgotten ammonium nitrate, the city now made an effervescence of broken glass, broken buildings and broken bodies that could not but recall histories of war and its afterlives, of a scorched landscape deliberately brought to ruin, to rubble; a landscape in which long years of conflict would be buried under piles of stone, rock, and ash. Sitting up, unable to sleep, writing through the night, I began to see ghosts.
We have all become mad.
Money, of course, is a species of madness, madness as a species of faith in that which cannot be seen, only momentarily apprehensible through its totems, its icons. There is a reason the synoptic gospels are not particularly ambivalent about money, or that Washington Irving would, two thousand years later, begin to refer to the newly minted American currency as “the Almighty Dollar.” Graven images, under the conditions of the Decalogue, whether denarius or dollar, both were offenses before God, more so by their power to render society, to remake society in their image. Marx famously referred to religion as the opium of the masses. This is widely accepted as a critique of religion and its social and personal debilitations; but Marx knew all too well that money had replaced God, that the dream of the Kingdom of Heaven had been corrupted through the traffic of the dollar and the lordship of the pound. A perverse expression of the social bond, money offers a wildly impoverished means of describing our relations to one another, our obligations, our need for one another, for love and desire and the possibility of intimacy. The exchange of money may salute the necessity of the social bond, but it is also one of the most powerful means of its exploitation, a way of making the poverty of another into a source of wealth, of forcing some into penury and debt, others into states of orgiastic abundance. Money is a species of madness, madness as a species of language, but a language wholly lacking in poetry or humor or music. It is a language that speaks largely because it enjoys the sounding of its own voice. It is the language of a repression, of resistance to the need for one another in ways that cannot be so neatly bound up in a ledger.
In the story of the Red Death, in the histories condensed within its pages, within the process by which it was conceived and written, hide presentiments of the social death of Lebanon, of the perpetually unfolding social death that is the history of modern Lebanon, including the mescaline-drenched phantasmagoria that displays only the horror of its unending present. There is, of course, the image of the felonious upper class, locked up inside its palaces, believing in their inviolability, their high walls protection against the heinously unforgivable, irreversible brutality of mass death. Read as allegory of disease and global pandemic, of the 1830 as a critical moment in the history of the world market, of the world remade in the image of the market, bound together by hideous infrastructure of trade, structures for the circulation of goods and labor, for colonial extraction and metropolitan accumulation, the story of the Red Death provides also a mirror onto Lebanon as entrant to the world market and the “eternal laws of Nature” as proclaimed by capital.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the basic structure of the Lebanese economy was well in place; and like most colonially circumscribed commercial monocultures, that economy, and the social arrangements it sustained, were—are—exceedingly fragile. Staking their integration within the circuitry of the global capitalist economy upon non-consumable or non-nourishing agricultural commodities, while rendering the country dependent upon agricultural imports as a source of food and remittances as a source of supplementary income, some within the nation purchased wealth and power at the expense of the great majority, now reliant upon monies from relations abroad, the conditional beneficence of local barons or that of the colonial powers, seeking always after their own interests. When the war broke out and the Ottoman navies blockaded the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, both sources of imported sustenance were choked in the cold waters of the forbidden, forbidding sea. The export of silk to the west was just as assuredly stifled, as were any revenues it might have accrued; while the commercial prospects of the traditional, easterly markets of Damascus and Istanbul were circumscribed by the fiscal imperatives of a failing empire embroiled in a losing war. Unable to plant, unable to sell, unable to buy, unable to eat, people begun to die at an extravagant rate: up to 500 a day in certain instances. By the end of 1917, Pitts calculates, more than 150,000 were dead; more than 1 in 3 Lebanese had died—of hunger, disease, or as a consequence of corvee labor—by the end of the war. With the casual acidity of the well-disciplined historian, Pitts notes that the death toll might not have been quite so punishing if the United States had not entered the war as a partner of the Allied nations in 1917, thus ensuring the conflict—and the blockade—would continue for another year, until the armistice of 11 November 1918.
Famine was just one of the factors contributing to the death toll in Mount Lebanon. Outbreaks of malaria and typhus further weakened and decimated the population. Brought on by the deteriorating sanitary conditions occasioned by the war and exacerbated by the desperate search for some form of nourishment given wartime food shortages, a population of already enervated peasants were hardly able to ward off what might have been otherwise non-fatal infections. Weakened by hunger, desperate for any form of sustenance, the women left behind by those men who had emigrated could be found “clawing over garbage piles,” searching for something to eat, exposing themselves to the insects—lice, mosquitoes, and flies—that carried strains of typhus and malaria, while unleashing swarms of flies that the lice clung to, thus rendering them uncommonly mobileEdward Nickoley Diary, 1917, Edward Nickoley Collection, AUB Archives. Then there were the bodies. According to some accounts, in some districts, corpses littered the streets, providing gruesome hosts for those insects, and presenting new vectors of infection among those who might have hoped to remove the remains of neighbors or loved ones, to provide them the dignity of some kind of burial, or—at the very least—to spare them the indignity of having their decomposition appear as a public spectacle.
Behind this is the madness of money, the madness provoked by money, the mad pursuit of profit above all other considerations. Entwined with this madness is the madness of ambition and the pursuit for its own sake, the insane refusal to forego structures of power that authorize inherently exploitative forms of authority. When the feudal lords of Lebanon committed themselves to the worship of the commodity, they transformed themselves into a class, one whose unity of interests was disguised through the creative manipulation of their former serfs—now workers—through social jealousies and religious prejudices, molding the reasonably flexible forms of difference that shaped the old world into new configurations, now hardened into monuments to religion and religious identity. Something approaching a racial logic ensured that competition among the plebs would preserve the former lords in their newly minted status as capitalists, while the money those capitalists made from the new economy would allow them to maintain the specter of their lordship, of the benevolence of lordship bestowed upon the common people. By promoting the vanities of faith, the former serfs would not be able to recognize themselves as proletarians, but as people defined by and divided by sect, people who could not see themselves as sharing a common interest, but who were dependent, rather, upon the gentle ministrations of their feudal lords. And just as the common people could not recognize themselves as a class with a set of common interests, they could not recognize the old feudal lords as now constituting a class with their own set of closely guarded common interests.
And here we are. It is 2021 and the country is in ruins. The moment the people discovered the conjuring trick of the old lords, the moment the Thawra was born, the old lords immediately began their war upon the people, their counter-revolution. They would rather see the people starve and the country burn than give up their power, and so the money disappeared, and the economy imploded. Rather than give up their power, they committed the unpardonable sin: they gave up faith in the national debt. “The only part of the so-called national wealth that actually enters into the collective possessions of modern peoples is their national debt. Hence, as a necessary consequence, the modern doctrine that a nation becomes the richer the more deeply it is in debt. Public credit becomes the credo of capital. And with the rise of national debt-making, want of faith in the national debt takes the place of the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, which may not be forgiven.”Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 1, Chapter 31
More ghosts. Hungry ghosts. Angry ghosts.
Then the port exploded. Long dependent upon imports to be able to feed itself, between the impossible rates of import duties, and the two-thirds reduction in the capacity of the port to off-load product, the country buckles under a lack of food stuffs, of medicines, of consumer goods of all sorts that had become necessities of life. Petrol is running out and is no longer subsidized by government fiat. A country long entranced by the automobile and the motorcycle—a country whose social and economic life was built around the lorry and the scooter and the taxi—is finding itself paralyzed, barely able to move those everyday necessities that are available to consumers. A melancholy resignation to the slow erosion of the social fabric hides behind ever more dramatic portraits of a country about to explode, one more protest, one more blockaded road away from the exchange of gunfire.
The exquisite sadness of money emerges, a shadow that even the Mediterranean sun cannot burn away. We place our hope in the Red Death, that it might reach the palaces of our Prosperos, that it might interrupt their masquerade, the pantomime they play among themselves. Their pantomime is a story they tell themselves about their invulnerability; but it is also a story about the eternal dabke that describes the shape of the Lebanese political class. The dance never ends, and the dancers are always the same. Some are more adept than others. But, in general, the steps never change, and they do not need to face each other to perform the routine. They do not see that their dance is already a dance with death. Behind their money is the restless figure of Death. Having unleashed Death upon the earth to serve their malign purpose, their mad pursuit of profit, they do not see that Death has returned to claim them. It will have its due. Death issued a receipt, and the bill has come due.
Money is the latency of capital, of all that hides behind our dreams. It promises the satisfaction of desire, but in the end it is infinitely hungry. It can never be satisfied. It is the infinity of the dead that haunts us. In the new century we are all insane. The empousai knew this. The witches were waiting for this. We have sacrificed ourselves to the undead.
Adam Waterman is an indecent scholar. He lives in Beirut.