The Devil And Commodity Fetishism In South America

The Devil And Commodity Fetishism In South AmericaThis essay discusses Michael Taussig’s ethnography of plantation and tin mine workers in South America in his book, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America. The work deals mainly with the structure of society and the problems existing among the Columbian plantation workers and the Peruvian and bolivian tin mine workers when a capitalist economy is introduced. Taussig’s perspective for interpretation of these societies is unashamedly Marxist. His aim is to interpret the effects of the disruption these societies experienced from what he calls, the capitalist exploitation of market based oppression, dating from the Spanish conquest to the present day. He tries to achieve this by analysing the subsequent changes in their folk beliefs. Comparing pre-conquest (use value market) beliefs, rites, magic, with those of the post-conquest (commodity driven market) periods of history.

Taussig emphasises that in order to see the situation these societies find themselves in clearly we must look at them through precapitalist eyes. Stressing the importance of a self effacing critique of the capitalist world view, (one that the western reader has probably reified) is critical to comprehending the task he has undertaken. His aim is to show that the “alienation” experienced by individuals in a society, developed hand in hand with the change from a use value, or reciprocal exchange based economy, to a market based, non-reciprocal one. One that does not emphasise human relationships, but is focused on commodities (things), and in so doing fetishizes the commodities. The analogy his argument hinges on is the fetishization of the devil in the previously mentioned social groupings. Whereas in precapitalist times the gods or spirits in their folk beliefs were not inherently or predominantly evil, now because of the influences brought to bear on them from a commodity based market, their beliefs have changed or at least include an inanimate man made devil that is predominantly malevolent. Before no such “devil” of this type existed for them. Taussig theorises the reason for this fetishised evil is caused by the alienation inherent with capitalist economies.

Simply put, market dominated societies are oppressive, anti-human relational, compared to market organized societies that operate on the principle of trust in human reciprocity. Or as Marx said, the difference is that in one society “man is seen as the aim of production”, in the other “production is seen as the aim of man”. And by fetishising the devil, Taussig believes these peasants are struggling against the forces of capatilism that are altering their societies. In wanting the reader to look through the precapitalism eyes of these people, Taussig is hoping to proselytize the reader to a socialist (Marxist) perspective. As this paper will elaborate on later, he contrasts the use value based, precapitalist economies’ structural harmony with the alienating effects of capitalist commodity driven economies and the struggle of the peasants not to reify the introduced capitalist system, to confront the reader with his own reified beliefs. Beliefs that fetishise money, giving it human qualities so that in our newspapers……. “we read of treasury bills “backing up”, of “runaway” and “galloping” inflation, of “climbing interest rates,”….of factories referred to as “plants,” of money “growing” in accordance with investment….”(p.30)

Because the author stresses the importance of stripping away capitalist prejudices, having a self-effacing and reflective approach to his work, this paper will also examine some of the possible prejudices of solely Marxist interpretations that Taussig may have injected in his work.

He critiques the functionalists, Durkheim and “neo-Durkheimians” as having a “naive objective idealism”(p.9) saying that the way they interpret symbols and collective representations of societies only serves to reify the structure of that society. Could it be that he is trying to downplay the significance the role religous aspects, that are ubiquitous in the societies the book covers, play in shaping the use value systems that are prevalent pre Spanish conquest in an attempt to reinforce his Marxist doctrine that man’s basic needs and the modes of production needed to supply them, form the fundamental base of societal structure, while failing to explore the significance the beliefs of the peasants play in shaping their reciprocal, use value economies? He goes on to quote Giambattista Vico in his rejection of positivism which influenced Durkheim. Vico said that because men invented society they can know it and that …”it’s principles are, therefore, to be found within the modification of our own human mind.”(p.103) Taussig states that the “positivist view” of science keeps us from understanding the exploitave nature of capitalism. Quoting Weber also as saying this “formal rationality” was conducive to the formation of capitalism.(103) In keeping with his Marxist line he doesn’t give any credence to Weber’s view that society is made up of individuals whose social action is based primarily on values. He maintains that a societies’ values are derived from their actions, specifically economic ones.

The author takes a swipe at the “spirit of capitalism”, saying that, not until the commodity economy is reified and “the soul itself becomes either a commodity or a deeply alienated spirit”, which makes way for the “new spirit, the spirit of capitalism.”(p.11) can a precapitalist society change from one in which man is the aim of production, to production being the aim of man. Implying that Weber’s view of man producing beyond his basic needs, foregoing leisure, comes from an alienated and deformed soul. The case he makes for the alienation of peasant workers in the market driven economy is poignant. One of the most dramatic examples is that of a cane field worker in Columbia who collapses, seemingly unnoticed, from illness at work and even his pleas for water go unheeded. He is ignored by the boss and his fellow workers, who are focused on achieving their quota of production for the day, and is left, ill, lying in the field over the weekend and subsequently he dies. The dead labourer was forced to work in the fields because the capitalist agribusiness had swallowed (as the peasants would come to fetishise, in their description of the cane) up their lands, or mode of production. This dehumanising alienation that blotted out the priority of human relationships led to the fetishising of the cane as a “green monster, the great cane, god of the landlords”(p.122), giving the cane an identity not attributed to “things” in their pre conquest animistic culture. Taussig’s aim is to show the analogous nature of this to devil fetishising because of commodity fetishism in a capitalist economy.

After his death one of the dead man’s coworkers left the fields to go back and work his mother’s plot of land, reasoning the lighter workload compensated for the reduced wages. He may have been acting with some degree of autonomy in so doing but it points to the illusion of “free labour” that Marx said must exist for capitalism to survive. Although the worker could choose between working his mother’s plot or selling his labour to the cane plantation, in reality, because the mode of production had been had been taken from him when the agribusiness took possession of the peasants’ lands, he no longer could use the commodities he produced for their use or reciprocal exchange value.(Marx,Durkheim,Weber, Morrison, Ken, Sage, London, 1995, p.97) He was not “free” but at the mercy of those who own the modes of production.

The author points out on page 28, when this type of commodity driven economy exists, where the worker has no “ownership” of the commodity but only owns his wage, inevitably…..

“The relations of product to producer and to the productive social milieu, as well as to nature, are forever sundered. The commodity assumes an autonomy apart from human social activities, and in transcending that activity the relations between commodities subjugate persons, who become dominated by a world of things–things that This points out the dilemma that precapitalist societies face when confronting the shift to a market driven economy. The social cohesion is being undermined by a system that puts the “bottom line”in front of human concerns. As Marx said production becomes the aim of man. The book states this is unnatural, alien to the economically constructed social realities of precapitalist society. Before conquest “things” like the cane were not fetishised as the embodiment of evil. The alienation caused by the owners of the plantations coercions to force workers into the fields and into a non use value system caused them to confront this introduced “evil” with a new form of fetishism. Taussig states that this is because of the contrast between the two. The capitalist system results in the “subordination of men to things they produce” so the new fetishisms in the peasant culture “can be interpreted as the indigenous reaction to the supplanting of traditional fetishism with the new.”(p.37)

Here he identifies and confronts the unnaturalness or deformity of the capitalist system. Taussig points out the analogy to the unnatural power attributed to evil or the devil in the religion brought by the Spanish. Whereas before the blacks in Columbia and the Indians in Peru and Bolivia did not have strictly malevolent gods or spirits in their dualistic folk beliefs, they were now introduced to a new concept of evil in the sphere of religous belief. And at the same time a new evil, that of alienation from the commodities they produced and the modes of production for them, courtesy of the Spanish. Before this the peasants had enjoyed a reciprocal exchange relationship with the “spirits”. The peasants gave gifts and honored the spirits in their rituals, and in exchange the spirits reciprocated by meeting the needs of the peasants. But now the new gods of the mine and plantation owners couldn’t return the commodities the peasants has been used to receiving, they “ate up” their lands and the peasants bodies wasted away in trying to adapt to this new economy. These gods ensnared them in their labour and destroyed the social cohesion of the groups.

The book points out that they considered themselves better off in their pre capitalist social structure. In which, for example, Indians living on different levels of the mountains in the Andes, and because of the different commodities produced at the seperate geographical locations, had economic interrelationships that would meet the needs of all, producing a social unity based on a use value exchange of commodities. The Mountain was conceived of as a body with all the parts needful and mindful of eachother.(p.144) The author insists that the seeds of proto-Marxism were already in place. These Indians were liberated in comparison to the situation they found themselves in post conquest. This is used to illustrate that Marxist socialism liberates man from the alienation of a commodity driven market system. One that is not socially organized.

The situations imposed on the peasants led them to pervert or fetishise some of their folk rituals, which had previously only been used for the “alleviation of misfortune and for protection”.(p.97) Small figurines called munecos, used by Columbian blacks previously only for the uses described above, were now employed to illicit productive gain. This gain had no use value in the traditional sense it was only used to ensure productivity of the plantation field workers, and the munecos took on the role of a devil or malevolent spirit. This also is a result of the alienation the blacks experienced. In the much same way the the tin miners fetishised their spirits of the mountains, who were in their minds the rightful owners of the minerals inside the mines. Before the exploitation of miners by the Spanish and then the state, the mountain spirits never had a human form. The new fetishised spirit or tio was a man made figurine, usually with a European appearance. He is a devil, evil by nature. As the true owner of the mine the tio had to be appeased. The tios are ugly with an enlarged penis. The miners perform sacrificial rites to the tios to ensure production in the mines.

The author interprets the devil fetishism of the figurines from two perspectives, one, because of the alienation of the workers caused by the changes inherent in the switch from a use value economy to an exchange or commodity driven economy, the relationship with the spirits and the spirits themselves have become less ambivalent and are now more or less adversorial. But also the peasants use of the devil fetishism with the figurines is symbolic of their struggle not to reify the capitalist system. They do not adhere to the notion that the bosses or the state are the rightful owners of the mines or fields. Taussig claims that this is a way of resisting acceptance of the capitalist system as normal, and a device for clinging to their pre capitalist beliefs that the use value economy is superior for human fulfillment. In noting that while the miners state that the reason for the oversized penis of the tio is so that the they can petition him for virility to cure impotence which can be a side effect of mining conditions.(p.148) Taussig sees the possible interpretation for the phallic exaggeration as the tio is “engorged with the miner’s blood” and that of animals sacrificed, and is symbolic of male dominance among the new post capitalism gods, analogous to female alienation in the new system.(p.211) Without this sentiment being expressed by the miners themselves, this could be a biased interpretation of the anthropoligist’s work that Taussig is using.

An interesting Marxist interpretation of the author’s, in his words, god myth created by man, are the parallels he draws to the reification of this “myth” and the reification of the capitalist system. ….”critique of the market and commodities parallels an earlier critique of God. Man creates God in a self-alienating act the consequence of which is such that God is seen as having created man. The product of man’s creative imagination enthralls the creator. Man becomes the passive offspring of a power that he himself creates, a power that is anthropomorphized and animated to the degree that man denies authorship of his own creation. As with God, so for the market and commodities–social entities created by men, yet working in the collective imagination as animated beings endowed with the life that men deny themselves. Man’s collectively created products enshroud his life with phantom objectivity.”(p.120)

Taussig states that the peasants of the valley of Caucau in Columbia can see through this distortion and when they make gods out of the cane the peasants are denouncing capatilism. They see their new fetishes as a byproduct of a system void of “the ideals of a use-value economy in which man is the aim of production.”(p.121) It is also interesting to contrast Taussig’s observations with that of Weber’s theory about the relationship between “the economic and religous spheres” specifically what he called the gain spirit. Weber notes how the conditions prevelant in western societies were conducive to overcoming two things in the way of pursuit of gain for gain’s sake, these are, primitive traditionalism and “the elimination of the fear of trade which has it’s roots in the idea that any radical change in the ‘conduct of life’ is inherently evil and therefore unacceptable”(op.cit. Morrison, p.231) and also to limit ‘unrestricted spirit of gain’, which tends to put individuals in competition with eachother and nullify religous ethics that regulate the system. Weber would have labelled the capatilism active in South America a ‘Pariah Capatilism’ that is restrictive and monopolises, but a rational capitalistic system based on personal ethical responsibility could overcome the obstacles in societies with a primitive traditionalismand fear of change.(op.cit. Morrison, pp.231-32) In his conclusion Taussig restates that the peasants of South America whose worlds were and are being influenced by the capitalist market economy are reticent to buy into it, or as Marx would say, to reify the system. Not because they are unscientific, lack knowledge or are fearful of change but because they seem to have an innate sense and have experienced that the commidity driven market economy is alienating. It will not contribute to their ‘happiness’ and their projection of evil on the fetishised ‘devil objects’ and ‘things’ such as the cane is symbolic of the evil they percieve in the ‘unnatural’ economy foisted upon them. He quotes on page 232 that when the workers ‘commune’ together to practice sacrificial rites to the fetishised tio that……There they give voice to all the problems they have, and there is born a new generation so revolutionary that the workers begin thinking of making a structural change. this is their It is intriguing that while Taussig desires an abolition of all fetishism, pre commodity and commidity, and he dialectically tries to demystify the beliefs of the South American peasants, at the same time he uses their religion to enshrine a Marxist materialistic view of society. He sees the need to read their history as a “sacred text”(123) giving a mystical, metaphysical aura to the use value system of the South Americans, and in the same breath attributing these qualities to Marx’ socialism. When Taussig uses this line of reasoning it is hard to be convinced to join the ‘revolution’ for change in society along the strictly economic based theory of Marx. It’s emphasis on economics’ dominance in shaping society seems to lend itself to bias interpretations of what are the dominant forces shaping society, compared to Weber’s view that synthesises the religous, economic, political, and legal aspects of society which seems to me, no pun intended, more rational. The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America contains compelling insights into the reasons for fetishising commodities. To this reader it drove home the point that the social sciences really are a marketplace of ideas, and that to understand the workings of human society one must try to escape inherited prejudices to come to an understanding of how and why a social system functions. Ideally persons need to be educated, trained and ethically responsible to make any social system fulfilling for the persons living in it.


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