Running a google search for the two words ‘Halloween’ and ‘capitalism’ returns well over six million results. Especially in the United States where the commercialization of Halloween has reached its apotheosis, the conservative right love to trot out a tired clichéd argument about how this time of year is a great way of teaching your kids about the accumulation of commodities (candy bars and the surplus value of labour being apparently equivalent). However, all of this is nonsense and it is not because we should not be politicizing a fun holiday. Rather the capitalist ideology around Halloween has to resisted precisely because Halloween is already political, and its politics are of the left.
In the tradition of socialist writing, gothic and horrific metaphors abound. Marx famously writes that capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks. The manifesto of the Communist movement written by Marx and Engels talks of a spectre or ghost that haunts the politics of capitalist modernity – the spectre of communism. (Incidentally, an early translation used a far more horrific metaphor, speaking of a hobgoblin that was prowling around Europe). It would be easy to dismiss these as nothing more than rhetorical flourishes, but the language of monstrosity and the spooky is central to a Marxist understanding of capitalism. We live in a system, which seeks to obfuscate and hide its cruelty and the language of horror is how we expose it. As Marx himself put it, capitalism “comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt,” a monstrous system than cannibalises the time, the freedom and the bodies of working people. When we are reduced away to just our ability to work, then what we sell to our employer is not just our time and our effort but is our blood, sweat and viscera. Marx himself studied closely the horror inflicted on the human body and in the age of the gig economy, where Amazon workers collapse from heart attacks, and phone factories in the global south are surrounded by netting to stop people jumping to their deaths this language is still both powerful and relevant.
Furthermore, the language of monstrosity should always be something to which left politics is attuned. Fear is socially produced, so the question of who are we told to fear is one bound up in political power systems. Capitalism is not only monstrous but also skilled at creating monsters. For a long time the monster was the communist, the trade union radical, or the anarchist who were relentlessly slandered and excluded – cast out, to be the Other which capitalism would seek to destroy. With the systemic destruction of trade unionism through the 20th and 21st centuries, new monsters have also emerged. One only need look at Fidel Castro who became a superhuman bogeyman of the American right to see this in action. In contemporary society the monster is the immigrant, the refugee, the outsider – and this rhetoric of monstering is designing to negate the potential for class solidarity. After all, the creature that the capitalist class has always feared has been the powerful stitched together monstrous figure of the working classes, that like Frankenstein’s creature can stand before the powers of the world and tell them that they should fear its power.
This is why Halloween is a holiday of the left. We know that horror exists in the world, even as capitalist ideologues seek to tell us we have never been freer, more prosperous, more fortunate to be good workers and consumers in the vast accumulation of commodities that is chocking the life out of the planet. We know that the monster is both social created and politically mediated. In addition, Halloween suspends the normal rules of capitalism – the dead (the most unproductive members of society) walk the earth, and excluded monsters are shown to have right alongside us all along. The history of Halloween is heavily contested of course, but among other things, it has historically represented a breathing space in social life – a space in which play, carnivalesque chaos and freedom from the drudgery of work can operate. What do the children need to do to get their candy? Spend hours reducing themselves to the status of labouring objects, or, simply go to their community, to their neighbours and ask them to share what they have with them? Trick or treating is then a kind of magic – a transaction that does not depend upon the logic of the commodity and money but on the more ephemeral values of theatricality, community and generous giving. Sylvia Frederici talks about the ways in which magic (particularly witchcraft) was systematically driven out of Europe during the violent struggles to establish capitalist production. Such a thing had to be done as why would people need to work for what they wanted if they could use the powers of the local wise woman and the bounty of nature to achieve their ends? So, Halloween is a small reminder of the ways in which society can function outside of the logic and alienation of the capitalist political economy, replacing it with an occult economy that suspends the rules of capitalist accumulation.
Of course, the holiday, especially in the USA has become increasingly appropriated by capitalism – but no matter how much you might be encouraged to spend upon candy bars, decorations and cheap costumes, it cannot quite eradicate the radical elements of Halloween. The horrors of capitalism are all around us and so the Halloween holiday is a chance for all to encounter the truths of capitalism. The final lines of Carl Sandberg’s ‘Theme in Yellow’ could serve as a summary of the radical potential of Halloween:
On the last of October
When dusk is fallen
Children join hands
And circle round me
Singing ghost songs
And love to the harvest moon;
I am a jack-o’-lantern
With terrible teeth
And the children know
I am fooling.
Encountering the spooky, the spectral and the monstrous we enter a space outside of the day to day, of the normative – a space outside of the ceaseless logic terror of capitalism itself. As Sandberg writes, Halloween is a time of fooling (not, as China Mieville makes clear, a joke) a time where truth gets revealed by sources other than the powerful and so it will always be, despite the best efforts of candy crazed capitalist, a time for comradeship, generosity and inclusion for all. Happy Halloween comrades.