Cultural Fetishism

In the face of colonial suppression, the Anthropologist has a duty to record and, if necessary, preserve that cultural moment of a changing people. Franz Boas speaks of how we can learn of the vast capabilities of humans by studying their differences, that cultures must be studied in-and-of themselves and in a scientific, neutral way. This is a basic goal of Anthropology and ethnography, but also a basic problem of it. It is, of course, difficult for the ethnographer, who may hail from some part of western civilization, to exclude those western ideologies from his or her observation. In a true ethnographic study, the Anthropologist must be extremely careful to write in a way that gives voice to that culture which is being studied, and to exclude personal biases.

Michael Taussig supplies an exceptionally studious evaluation of native Bolivian tin miners in his 1980 book, “The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America.” The piece is a thick description of the changing political and economic existence of the Bolivian laborer in the face of capitalist colonization. In it, Taussig points to devil worship as a striking and revealing reaction to the encroaching nature of capitalism on a pre-capitalist society, alleging that the “devil symbolizes important features of political and economic history.” (Taussig 1980:xi) The general idea is that the native Bolivian tin miners, faced with the enormity of capitalist development, reacted by performing honorific rites to an evil deity. There seems to be an odd gap in this logic, based on typical Catholic understanding of the Devil, one that Taussig attempts to clarify. He refers to the miners’ exaltation of the Devil as a pseudoscience, quoting Bronislaw Malinowski as saying, “[it] was invoked to relieve anxiety and frustration when gaps in knowledge and limitations of reason overcame people in a prescientific culture.” (14) In this, he seems to question the natives’ understandings of this economic shift from peasantry to Capitalism, pointing that they attempt to overcome their lack of economic understanding with an adherence to supernatural authority. But if the miners were suspicious of their condition in this economic transformation, why worship an evil deity? To clarify this development, Taussig weaves a deep analysis of the proletarianization of the tin miners.

Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the world. Due to its high altitude and poor soil, which make agriculture very difficult, it has very few viable exports, tin being by far the most substantial*.  Since its inception in 1945, the miner’s union (nicknamed La Rosca or “The Screw”), has controlled the entire Bolivian labor movement, (14) pulling its workers from the surrounding peasantry. As peasants, the Bolivians had been typically self-sustaining, living off of that which they produced in a mutually sacrificial/beneficial relationship with their natural surroundings.

Latin American peasant communities typically exhibit the common tenet of the “limited good,” the idea that “the good things in life [are] finite and few; thus, if a person acquires more good things than is customary, that person is in effect taking them away from other people.” (15) This explains their traditional performance of honorific and sacrificial rites to natural deities: if these deities mediate the balance of give and take, not only in man’s relationship with nature but in his relationship with his neighbor as well, then it makes sense to offer a personal sacrifice in order to maintain that balance, in the hopes of becoming prosperous. In other words, one should not take more than he or she is capable of giving back (and one should first give, if they expect to receive). The capitalist system enacted as a result of the influence of tin mining is in stark contrast to this. Miners work for the sole purpose of wage, rather than personal sustenance, and their embodiment in the production of the ore is completely exorcized from the mined product itself. The miners themselves become reified into commodities – mere machines, with wage upkeep, whose anonymous labor serves the country’s need for an exchangeable product – while the product “assumes an autonomy,” (28) becoming a necessity whose availability governs the lives of men.

There arises an incredible importance placed on tin in Bolivia, the country’s major source of income, rather than on its people, who merely work in the mines. “Communality and mutuality give way to personal self-interest, and commodities, not persons, dominate social being.” (26) Taussig points out that, naturally, this newfound capitalistic incentive weighs heavily on the morality of the peasant-turned-proletariat laborers. As the changing economic system shifts, the importance placed on use-value is in turn shifted to exchange-value. The laborers, as cogs in a capitalist machine, are subsequently relegated to an economic system that offers them very little remuneration. Vast profits trickle up to solitary landowners while the laborers are stuck with the burden of essentially stealing (or mining) from nature more than they will ever be able to recompense.

In traditional Bolivian belief, the spirit owner of the mine is known as El Tío, Spanish for “the Uncle” (also referred to as Huari or Supay). El Tío is said to be the “true owner of the mines” and holds the power of life and death over the miners. (14, 143) “The securing of tin depends on doing homage to him.” (148) An idol of El Tío is situated at the entrance of each mineshaft to receive sacrificial offerings of alcohol, cigarettes, coca, llama blood and other ritual items from the miners in return for his goodwill and his guarantee of good health and good fortune in the mines. (148) In recent history, however, El Tío has been synonymous – in both identity and appearance – with Lucifer (the Devil), Catholicism’s fallen angel and the typical Western embodiment of evil. Statues of El Tío are depicted with horns, goatees, claws, and other physical attributes associated with Lucifer, a parallel that Taussig attributes to the history of Catholic missions to Bolivia. “The idea of a pervasive spirit of evil was an import of imperialism.”(177) According to Taussig, as the Bolivian tin miners associate this greedy form of capitalism as contrary to the traditional sense of “limited good” or natural balance and, hence, as evil – and as the union managers continually attempt to suppress native rituals and supplant them with the Catholic dogma of missionaries – a religious synthesis is made with the deities of Catholicism, bringing the miners to employ Satanic idolatry as a reaction to and representation of that encroaching capitalistic economic system which they hold to be so sinful. Though I believe that Taussig makes some valid points here, I believe his thesis to be somewhat misleading.

I tend to agree that the insatiable nature of capitalism comes into direct conflict with that traditional South American idea of “limited good” and that the miners’ ritual sacrifice to El Tío (or the Devil) is an attempt to balance, if even in their own consciences, their harmonious existence with nature. But with regards to Taussig’s theory that devil worship is a response to or representation of the evils of capitalism, even he seems to contradict himself. As Taussig states, “the Indians… still carry out many of their ancient rites with great force, surreptitiously or under the mask of Catholicism.” (159) I believe he serves to illustrate the superficiality of the substitution of El Tío with the merely similar Catholic deity of Lucifer. Being that the nature of the Bolivian tin miner’s “devil” worship is entirely different from the normal Catholic understanding of Satan and entirely similar to the traditional Bolivian worship of El Tío, I find it entirely more likely that, in the face of the managerial suppression of indigenous spiritual rites, the miners merely opted to alter the face and name of El Tío in order to avoid confrontation. The Bolivian El Tío is an ambivalent spirit owner of the mines, mediating the balance of give and take therein, (144) not a “gluttonous spirit of destruction and death” (14) as Taussig would suggest. I believe that this interpretation of the Bolivian miners’ devil, as equivalent to the typical Catholic Devil, is a western misinterpretation (as was likely the purpose of the miners’ modifications). I do not see the miners’ devil worship as a reaction to the perceived evils of capitalism. Instead, I think that their increasing worship of El Tío is a reaction to the unbalanced nature of capitalism; their worship of the Devil is merely superficial and meant to placate the oppressive missionaries and labor unions.

Assuming this as the case, it suffices to show the utter resilience of traditional, indigenous religion in the face of colonial suppression. The Bolivian tin miners, stripped of their religion and way of life by encroaching imperialism and capitalism, maintain their sense of responsibility in the natural balance of give and take between themselves and their surroundings. However, this is not the theme of Taussig’s study. Taussig’s misrepresentations continue as he compares this resilience to the Western world: “If these ‘self-evident laws of nature’ strike the neophyte proletarians… as unnatural and evil, then it is reasonable to ask why we regard our social form and economic process as natural.” (23) This sentiment, essentially, reveals Taussig’s motivation in writing this supposed ethnography: as an exhibit by which to compare the capitalistic economic systems of the western world to their dire effects on a pre-capitalist society. Rather than a giving a neutral, unbiased, scientific study of a specific culture, he uses the Bolivian tin miners’ “devil” worship to link these connotations of evil to capitalist ideology. This is a motivation that not only skews his analysis of the Bolivian tin miners but also, by writing with such a heavily western subtext, assumes and perpetuates the colonial mindset of power and responsibility over the colonized, perhaps continuing that history of depreciation and abuse so common to the Bolivian peasantry.

Though Michael Taussig does well to explain the Bolivian predicament from a western perspective, I find this perspective to be entirely unfair to the voice of the Bolivians themselves. Where ethnography is meant to give a voice to the subaltern, Taussig’s study merely makes an example out of him – an example by which to better study western culture and its economic systems through the guise of cultural relativism.


Works Cited

  • *Watkins, Thayer. “THE ECONOMIC HISTORY AND ECONOMY OF BOLIVIA.” San José State University.
  • Web. 02 May 2010. <http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/bolivia.htm>.