The Reading Room

Down for the Count: Restoring Dracula’s Message about Liberty

Karl Marx famously observed, "Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks."  His comments have inspired critics such as Franco Moretti to interpret Bram Stoker's Dracula as an extended critique of "capitalism."  But is it really?  Or is that interpretation yet another horror story? 
Stoker's political leanings open a vein of other interpretations.  As a liberal, he liked William Gladstone, who as Prime Minister advocated individual liberty, free trade, peace, and lower taxes.  Stoker's personal interactions with Gladstone (a fan of his writing) only solidified that admiration.  And as a writer as well as theatre manager, Stoker also acted as a savvy businessman, eschewing literary agents in favor of settling his own literary business.  He exemplified Adam Smith's point that in some sense, every man is a merchant.
A merchant Dracula is not. Although willing to do business with lawyers to establish himself in England, he lacks what Adam Smith calls the human propensity to truck, barter, and exchange.  He does not speak to humans of their interests or desires.  Instead he simply takes what he wants: blood.     
When the vampire hunters track Dracula to his lair in London, he ridicules them as "sheep in a butcher's," adding, "Your girls that you all love are mine already; and through them you and others shall be mine—my creatures, to do my bidding and to be my jackals when I want to feed." This is not the language of "capitalism" or the free trade.  It is the language of tyranny. 
But what else can one expect from a figure who takes his name from a real despot later celebrated by communists? 
Marxist critics conveniently elide such facts along with the horror driving the plot. Consider Moretti's observation that Dracula prepares Harker's meals and cleans his rooms at the castle:  "The Count has read Adam Smith: he knows that servants are unproductive workers who diminish the income of the person who keeps them."  Such criticism could persuade only those already drained of common sense. Surely Dracula lacks a chef because he drinks blood and doesn't fancy getting staked by the help.  
In opposition to Dracula is the gang of vampire hunters striking in their diversity: the Dutch polymath Van Helsing, the British lawyer Jonathan Harker, the former teacher Mina Harker, the mental health asylum director John Seward, the British aristocrat Lord Godalming, and the wealth Texan adventurer Quincy Morris.  They reflect the liberal order "allowing every man to pursue his own interest in his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty, and justice."  (WN 4.9.  Yet together, their talents and assets advance the interests of all.  Van Helsing's expertise in medicine and vampire lore is essential to defeating Dracula, but so are Quincy's skill in plotting battles, and Mina's talent in assembling a narrative to illuminate Dracula's actions.
Many pieces of that narrative—telegrams sent by wire; journals kept in shorthand, produced on a typewriter, recorded on a phonograph—attest to the endless innovation brought by the free market.  While Dracula continues to pen letters to advance his conquest, the vampire hunters use the latest technologies to connect and aid each other.  
Popular critical interpretations of Dracula often exsanguinate the messages flowing through the novel.  Far from critiquing "capitalism," Stoker's most famous book celebrates the liberty and justice that can be gained by the cooperation of individuals with different backgrounds and talents.  Unfortunately, like Stoker's monster, Marx retains his popularity in endless adaptations.  If only we could slay the spectre of communism so definitely!