The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America
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The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America

Michael T. Taussig

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📖 eBook - ePub

The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America

Michael T. Taussig

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In this classic book, Michael Taussig explores the social significance of the devil in the folklore of contemporary plantation workers and miners in South America. Grounding his analysis in Marxist theory, Taussig finds that the fetishization of evil, in the image of the devil, mediates the conflict between precapitalist and capitalist modes of objectifying the human condition. He links traditional narratives of the devil-pact, in which the soul is bartered for illusory or transitory power, with the way in which production in capitalist economies causes workers to become alienated from the commodities they produce. A new chapter for this anniversary edition features a discussion of Walter Benjamin and Georges Bataille that extends Taussig's ideas about the devil-pact metaphor.

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Michael T. Taussig
The University of North Carolina Press
Chapel Hill


Preface to the Thirtieth Anniversary Edition

Thirty years after its first publication in 1980 seems like a good time to add a sort of afterword to this devil book so as to ponder the nature of anthropology as storytelling and bring you up to date with some changes in the situation described in the first half of the book.
But my first interest is with “voice” and the art of writing—that which is the very lifeblood of our work yet rarely gets mentioned. As I see it, our work in anthropology, as much as in philosophy, is a species of poetry, a matter of finding the words and rhythm of language that resonate with what we are writing about. To put it crudely: anthropology studies culture, but in the process “makes” culture as well. To be aware of this is to figure out ways of translating between the known and the unknown without taking away the strangeness of the unknown and, even more important, without blinding oneself and one's readers to the strangeness of the known, that which we take for granted about ourselves and our ingrained ways of life—such as the very idea of the market economy thrown into bold relief by the devil contract exemplified in this book.
Founded on this as its basic principle, however, the devil book now seems to me to have fallen short in its own mode of storytelling. Instead it is written in a clear, dry, analytic prose that distances itself from its subject matter with the omniscient voice of authority, one of the tricks one quickly learns to adopt in academic writing. Of course to deviate from this is to run the considerable risk of losing readers, for they too are habituated to this trick as the language of truth.
Nevertheless, having stumbled into the concept of commodity fetishism—which, if I am not mistaken, was then unknown in the English-speaking world or at least in its social sciences—it was helpful to spell out that concept in a step-by-step analytic manner. In those days I was probably too unsure of myself to do it any other way, especially given that I was dealing with such strange material (meaning the concept of commodity fetishism and the devil contract).
To bring the fetish into Marxism and into the economic history of what was then called “the Third World,” was at one stroke to challenge economic reductionism and to bring in culture and religion as forces in their own right. This was what revolution in the Third World meant to me, the idea of Che Guevara that the revolution could be made without waiting for the “objective conditions” to reach maturity. The subsequent mythology of Che was in itself evidence of the importance of myth and folktale, as was the crucially important film by the Brazilian director Glauber Rocha, Antonio das Mortes, made in 1969, the year I first arrived in Colombia.
Hence what seemed as important as or more important than the so-called “objective conditions” when I first went to Colombia was what Marxists called “consciousness,” which students of my generation saw not as a reflex of the economy but as a force for defining reality and the possibilities for changing it. We lived that experience in the 1960s, and in the 1970s that experience gave birth, through people such as Stuart Hall, to the idea of “cultural studies.” The concept of commodity fetishism helped me feel my way into “consciousness,” but what I didn't take was the next step, which was to ponder the forms and feel of “expression,” of how ideas work emotionally and paint a picture of the world on account of the way they are put into language. Today I would say that only literature, meaning fiction and forms of documentary overlapping with fiction—what I have elsewhere called “fictocriticism”—can do this.
As the years rolled by and the situation got increasingly grim in Colombia—to which I returned every year—the ideas of Nietzsche and then Georges Bataille claimed my attention because they seemed so relevant to the violence and extremity that characterized life for poor rural people. In my shamanism book (Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing) published seven years after the devil book, I struggled to better understand the violence of the atrocities of the rubber boom in the Putumayo region of the Upper Amazon around 1900, and that understanding made me focus increasingly on the talking and writing of terror, coupled with mounting sensitivity as to how most writing on violence makes it worse.
My theory then—as now—was that stories of terror and extremity have a great power to shape reality (in good part through uncertainty), passing along a chain of storytellers. Thus the task of the storyteller who wishes to break the chain, as I saw it, was to step up to the plate and come up with a new story, knowing full well that the chain can never be stopped and that sooner or later another story will displace yours. Such is the world of violence and memory, bound necessarily to fiction. Recognition of this state of affairs, however, leads not only to a sobering pessimism, but to the sliver of a possibility that maybe, just maybe, the tension of this interval between your displacing story and the next story that will displace it can create a force field in which the violence can be transmuted into healing. This I call “penultimaticity,” writing as the one permanently before the end.
Later it dawned on me that the devil contract stories I had heard in the sugarcane fields were, similarly, stories of extremity, full of fear and desire that Bataille had theorized as “wasting,” heedless spending, or, in the French language, dĂ©pense, master of which was our old friend the devil.
Today, as far as I can tell, the devil has disappeared or gone underground in the cane fields owned by a handful of white families—mostly living abroad in places such as Panama or Miami—who now control the destiny of the Cauca Valley because sugar has found a new and growing market as a biofuel to ensure yet more automobiles. The plantations have inundated the valley in a chemical fog, sucked the water out of the rivers, and displaced people through the use of machinery as well as chemicals. What was a beautiful valley with an enormous diversity of plant and animal life, is now a boring, barren, rationalized, lifeless place growing sugar for cars.
The plantation towns have become pressure cookers of alienated youth in violent gangs killing each other as well as other townspeople and police. In turn, paramilitaries and assassins are paid by local businessmen—with support of the townspeople—to kill the gang members.
Peasant resistance has been largely crushed, as have the trade unions. Yet, if anything, the appeal grows stronger every day for the traditional peasant farm based on a magnificent tree agriculture that goes back to the days of slavery or just after emancipation in 1851. This is an agriculture of interplanted plantains, cacao, coffee, fruit trees, huge shade trees, medicinal plants, and some corn, requiring no fertilizer or herbicides.
Thus the moral economy built into the stories of the devil contract back in the 1970s has born fruit and been validated by a now flourishing if inchoate Green movement. The memory of the values embedded in previous ways of working the land, embedded in the devil contract, have, if anything, grown in vigor and imagination.
For those of us in North America and Europe, having lived the past three decades under the impact of the so-called free market unleashed by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, referred to as “neo-liberalism,” and now having witnessed the apocalyptic impact of economic deregulation under George W. Bush, the devil contract is more relevant than ever. This same free market orientation has, of course, been fortified over the past two decades in Colombia, where the short-term work contract has become de rigueur, spelling out in gruesome detail all that was mythologized in the stories about the devil contract in the cane fields back in 1970. What was once stories is now real.
Anthropology of the strange and exotic can teach us as much about ourselves and our own economic system as it does about the exotic. In trying to explain the strange and the unknown, we must never lose sight of how truly strange is our own reality. If commodity fetishism can be glossed as that which makes people into things and things into people, then—to the extent we see ourselves as strange—it might be possible to de-alienate ourselves and others in a new world in which the fantasy powers of fetishism become liberating and even the devil has to mend his ways.
Michael Taussig
High Falls
New York State
July 2009


My aim in this book is to elicit the social significance of the devil in the folklore of contemporary plantation workers and miners in South America. The devil is a stunningly apt symbol of the alienation experienced by peasants as they enter the ranks of the proletariat, and it is largely in terms of that experience that I have cast my interpretation. The historical and ethnographic context lead me to ask: What is the relationship between the image of the devil and capitalist development? What contradictions in social experience does the fetish of the spirit of evil mediate? Is there a structure of connections between the redeeming power of the antichrist and the analytic power of Marxism?
To answer these questions I have tried to unearth the social history of the devil since the Spanish conquest in two areas of intensive capitalist development: the sugar plantations of western Colombia, and the Bolivian tin mines. One result of this inquiry (emerging more clearly in the mines but equally pertinent to the plantations) is that the devil symbolizes important features of political and economic history. It is virtually impossible to separate the social history of this symbol from the symbolic codification of the history which creates the symbol.
The devil was brought by European imperialism to the New World, where he blended with pagan deities and the metaphysical systems represented by those deities. Yet those systems were as unlike the European as were the indigenous socioeconomic systems. Under these circumstances, the image of the devil and the mythology of redemption came to mediate the dialectical tensions embodied in conquest and the history of imperialism.
In both the plantations and the mines, the role of the devil in the folklore and rituals associated with proletarian production is significantly different from that which exists in the adjoining peasant areas. In both regions, the proletariat has been drawn from the surrounding peasantry, whose experience of commoditization and whose interpretation of proletarianization is heavily influenced by its precapitalist views of the economy. Within the process of proletarianization, the devil emerges as a powerful and complex image, which mediates opposed ways of viewing the human significance of the economy.
There is a vast store of mythology in both Western and South American cultures concerning the man who sets himself apart from the community to sell his soul to the devil for wealth that is not only useless but the harbinger of despair, destruction, and death. What does this contract with the devil symbolize? The age old struggle of good and evil? The innocence of the poor and the evil of wealth? More than this, the fabled devil contract is an indictment of an economic system which forces men to barter their souls for the destructive powers of commodities. Of its plethora of interconnected and often contradictory meanings, the devil contract is outstanding in this regard: man's soul cannot be bought or sold, yet under certain historical conditions mankind is threatened by this mode of exchange as a way of making a livelihood. In recounting this fable of the devil, the righteous man confronts the struggle of good and evil in terms that symbolize some of the most acute contradictions of market economies. The individual is dislocated from the community. Wealth exists alongside crushing poverty. Economic laws triumph over ethical ones. Production, not man, is the aim of the economy, and commodities rule their creators.
The devil has long been banished from Western consciousness, yet the issues symbolized by a contract with him remain as poignant as ever—no matter how much they have been obscured by a new type of fetishism in which commodities are held to be their own source of value. It is against this obfuscation, the fetishism of commodities, that both this book and the devil beliefs are directed. The concept of commodity fetishism, as advanced by Karl Marx in Capital, is basic to my deconstruction of the spirit of evil in capitalist relations of production. The fetishization of evil, in the image of the devil, is an image which mediates the conflict between precapitalist and capitalist modes of objectifying the human condition.
Part I of this book concerns the social history of the African slaves and their descendants in the sugar plantations of western Colombia. Together with my compañera and coworker Anna Rubbo, I spent almost four years in and around that area. We worked mainly as anthropologists, and were involved in the militant peasant political organization that flourished there in the early 1970s. That experience and the ethnography compiled during that time form the basis for the first half of this book. Without Anna's assistance and the active collaboration of the peasants and day laborers involved in that struggle, this book would not have been written. Most of chapter 3 has appeared previously in Marxist Perspectives (Summer, 1979), and chapter 6 contains a great deal of an article I published in Comparative Studies in Society and History (A...

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Citation styles for The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South AmericaHow to cite The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America for your reference list or bibliography: select your referencing style from the list below and hit 'copy' to generate a citation. If your style isn't in the list, you can start a free trial to access over 20 additional styles from the Perlego eReader.
APA 6 Citation
Taussig, M. (2010). The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (2nd ed.). The University of North Carolina Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2010)
Chicago Citation
Taussig, Michael. (2010) 2010. The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America. 2nd ed. The University of North Carolina Press.
Harvard Citation
Taussig, M. (2010) The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America. 2nd edn. The University of North Carolina Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Taussig, Michael. The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America. 2nd ed. The University of North Carolina Press, 2010. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.