The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America
Two beliefs among the black peasants and laborers of Puerto Tejada in Colombia form the starting point of Michael Taussig’s extremely original book: the devil contract and the baptized banknote.
The devil contract is said to be made by male laborers on the cane plantations in order to increase productivity and thus raise their wages. The money thus earned is barren. It cannot be used to buy or rent land, for that land will not produce. Possibly even the cane so cut will die and the land will not produce until exorcised, plowed over, and replanted. The money cannot even be invested to produce more money: that way lies ruin. It can only be spent immediately on luxury consumer goods or what passes for them in the Cauca valley: fine clothes, liquor, butter. Just possibly, if it is shared with the man’s friends they can use it as ordinary money, or so some people believe. The man who makes the devil contract will probably die prematurely and in pain, and while he lives the devil will control him.
The crux of the devil contract is that it occurs only among wage laborers. There is no equivalent whatever to it among even the poorest peasants, and indeed, since it could not be used to bring up children it is not made by a woman. Whether it really occurs is uncertain, but the author’s field work leads him to believe that it does, if only on rare occasions.
The baptized banknote (a peso bill) appears to have the opposite mechanism. It is concealed by the god-parent-to-be during the baptism of a child, and it is thus baptized instead of the child, which therefore remains unbaptized. Its soul has no chance to escape from limbo or purgatory. The baptized bill receives the child’s name and if it is put to work by spending, accompanied by a ritual refrain and its name, it will return to its owner with more money, at the expense of other parties to the transaction. The baptizing of bills is believed to occur more frequently.
Taussig’s book is concerned with the meaning of this and similar beliefs, notably the worship and propitiation of the devil by Bolivian tin miners who regard him as the owner of the metal and the force determining their own lives down in the mine. As the title The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America indicates, Taussig sees such beliefs as a parable of capitalism, or more exactly, of the difference between a peasant society based on use value and a capitalist economy based on exchange value. The new economy is seen by Taussig as profoundly unnatural. “There is a moral holocaust at work in the soul of a society undergoing the transition from a precapitalist to a capitalist order. And in this transition both the moral code and the way of seeing the world have to be recast.” The peculiarity of the situation of the peasants and laborers of southwestern Colombia is…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.