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Pact with the Devil

The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America

by Michael T. Taussig
University of North Carolina Press, 264 pp., $19.50

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 that, unlike us, they have not yet been socialized into accepting the new bourgeois view of what is “natural”—the impersonal force of markets and money, which appear to take on a personality of their own (markets are “weak” or “active,” inflation “runs away”), backed in turn by the mechanical and atomistic view of reality which has, since Galileo and Newton, given “to capitalist apprehension the legitimizing and final smack of approval that only science can now endow.”

In this they are not alone. Not the least among Taussig’s merits is that he shows a proper respect for the intellectual achievements of nonacademics. He can see, on the one hand, that his practical theorists in the Cauca valley fit into an ancient current of thought, stretching from Aristotle (the originator of the distinction between use value and exchange value) through medieval philosophers and critics of early industrialism to Marx. At the very least they belong, as he recognizes, with Blake and Ruskin. Moreover, their achievement is far from negligible. They have reinvented Aristotle’s economics in their own manner and, as the book’s title indicates, they have produced a critical illustration of one of Marx’s most memorable phrases, the “fetishism of commodities,” i.e., the transformation of the products of human hands into apparently “independent figures, with a life of their own, and establishing relations with one another and with men.” Only, unlike some economists, in the Cauca they know what supernatural being activates the economy of buying and selling commodities, including labor. It is the devil.

On the other hand Taussig can see that their perspicacity derives not from pure intellect, but from a historic situation which permits them—like Aristotle or like Blake, Ruskin, and Marx who lived through the early triumphs of industrialism, to confront two simultaneously existing social realities: the peasant economy of use value and the capitalist economy based on exchange value. In such situations, as Marx observed, the social relations masquerading as relations between abstract entities are still clearly recognizable as such. Moreover, the world-vision of their precapitalist societies has not yet been destroyed by that most famous of devil-contracts which Taussig, surprisingly, only mentions once and in passing: the bargain of Dr. Faustus for power in this world through science and knowledge. Taussig clearly has little sympathy with the Faustian world left to us by Galileo. He rather shows a fundamental sympathy with the ancient view of the cosmos as a system of correspondences between humanity and nature and of reciprocities among humans, which continues to rule the minds of his informants. Probably he underestimates the strength of the first, scientific view and the weaknesses of the second, but for the purposes of his book this does not matter.

What matters is that he elegantly demonstrates the “moral economy” (to use E.P. Thompson’s phrase) which underlies the two apparently contrary rites. Money used in the exchange of use values is naturally barren and ought to stay so in Aristotelian terms. But when a man aspires to get more of it by high wages based on his own high productivity, it is unnatural, because it is “the most horrendous distortion of the principle of reciprocity” on which the precapitalist society is based. “The devil is an apt symbol of the pain and havoc that the plantations and mines are causing, but also because the victims of the expansion of the market economy view this economy in personal and not in commodity terms.” The devil “mediates the clash between these two very different systems of production and exchange.” Conversely money used to breed more money is unnatural, and its apparent “fertility” can only be achieved by the illicit rite of baptism—at the expense of the human being whose name and life it takes. Money can thus be transferred “to God’s domain and stamped with his life-giving properties” only by sacrilege. “Capital is thus explained in terms that reveal it to be unnatural and immoral.” The new world is explained as the meaning of the old is upheld.

The procedure has nothing to do with scientific explanation in our sense, or with utilitarian functionalism. It seeks to order the world for our understanding by means of imaginative constructions, and in doing so, as Taussig sees clearly, it has important affinities with the procedures of creative art. Fortunately for the reader, the author is not only a sophisticated practicing anthropologist—and incidentally a medical man—but also a person of wide and cosmopolitan literary culture. The epigraphs in his book come from the Bible and Vico as well as from Marx and Walter Benjamin. He can therefore not merely recognize but also clarify the relation between fantasy and social realism which determines his informants’ ideology and “perplexes literary critics and Marxists who cannot understand [their] coexistence” in the works of Miguel Asturias and Gabriel García Márquez. Like the constructs of popular culture, the power and illuminations of A Hundred Years of Solitude are “not testimony to the force of tradition or the glorious mythology and ritual of the unadulterated and pre-capitalist past” but a creative response, both intellectual and imaginative, to a deep-seated conflict between two kinds of society.

That this is an original, acute, and admirable book will be evident. Nevertheless, it can be criticized. Possibly Taussig’s sympathy with the old values leads him to idealize them excessively. A society based on reciprocity—which is indeed the guiding principle of most precapitalist societies—is not necessarily or even probably a society devoted to equality, as he comes close to suggesting at one point. Moreover, the two halves of the book do not entirely cohere. The parallelism between the Colombian and the Bolivian case, though instructive, is incomplete.

The “diabolical” model Taussig constructs for commodity fetishism in Colombia is both simpler and more elegant than the similar one he attempts to construct for Bolivia. Moreover, the Bolivian part of the book, unlike the Colombian part which rests on a firm foundation of firsthand fieldwork and historical research, is based on the literature about Andean societies in general, though it has the advantage of also relying on admirable researches (notably by June Nash) on the folklore of Bolivian tin miners.

Taussig’s discussion of Colombia, which incidentally constitutes an important contribution to the neglected field of Colombian history, fits the devil rites into an excellent and specific analysis of the transformation of former black slaves into independent and rebellious peasant farmers and then into items in the modern commercial agriculture of the region. The Bolivian discussion is more general and much less integrated into a specific historical analysis of the development of mining and its relation to the Indian agrarian communities. Moreover, the devil’s role in the Bolivian mines is clearly much more ambiguous, complex, and wide-ranging than on the Cauca plantations. This is hardly surprising, since the element of continuity with an unbroken, if conquered, curiously twisted and Christianized, Andean peasant society and world vision stretching back to the Inca and beyond is much more evident in Bolivia.

But these are relatively minor criticisms. Taussig has set out “to interpret the social experience reflected in folk magic as that experience changes with the group’s loss of control over its means of production.” He may not have succeeded equally well in the Bolivian mines as on the Colombian plantations, but he has succeeded. One looks forward with interest to the results of his current work on shamanistic practices in Colombia.

The interest of this exercise extends far beyond two backward corners of South America. How human beings make intellectual sense of the world in which they live, and which they no longer even partially control, is a question which concerns all of us. What they do with the “social constructions (and deceptions) of reality” is equally significant. For men strive not only to understand but to change the world. Ideally they all hope to do what June Nash’s Bolivian miner’s leader (quoted by Taussig) sees in the ritual of propitiating the devil as they go down to the mines, where Christ is powerless and anti-Christ reigns, so that one may not even use the pick (which has the shape of the cross) when close to mineral: “The tradition must be continued because there is no communication more intimate, more sincere, or more beautiful than the moment…when the workers chew coca together and offer it to the Tio (the devil). There they give voice to their social problems, 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 structural changes. This is their university.”

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