This is part two of a series where I’ll highlight thing I’m learning that are particularly interesting. Part 1 here.

I was just blown away by Michael Taussig’s “The Genesis of Capitalism amongst a South American Peasantry: Devil’s Labor and the Baptism of Money.” Several reasons for that:

1. It contains perhaps the most engaging explanation of commodity fetishism I’ve read (not that I’ve read that many)

2. It’s got some really deep theoretical thinking, and really highlighted our weird western way of relating to money.

3. Fascinating stories.

So Taussig does anthropological fieldwork in this village, and he hears stories of how some peasants make a pact with the devil in order to be more productive. However, this sort of pact only happens as applied to the corporate fields they work on, not their own smallholdings. Further, any monetary gain they receive will be squandered — productive investments, such as buying a pig, will fail, all money is spent on clothes, booze, that kind of thing.

Further, he hears other stories about magical things surrounding the money economy. Some people, when they baptise their godchildren, hide a bill in their hand. Thus, the bill becomes baptised and the child is condemned. The money will then go on to multiply and bring further wealth to its owner:

The Bill, referred to by its name, is asked three times whether it is going to return to its godparent or not. If everything works as it should, then it will soon return to its Godparent, bringing a large amount of money with it

One of the few successful black store owners in the village was saved from a great loss only by a most unusual coincidence. Serving in his shop he was startled to hear a strange noise in his cash register. Peering in he saw two bills fighting with each other for possession of the contents, and he realized that two customers, each with their own baptized bills, must have just paid them over and were awaiting their return.

It’s a great story, and it’s tempting to see it as a bit fantastical. But, as Taussig points out, the anglophone world also sees money as a thing that is very much alive. References abound, of

… factories referred to as “plants,” of “money growing” … of how “your investment can go to work for you,” and so on… “there are dozens of ways to put your capital to work”

This, he explains, is a result of commodity fetishism, where “capital and workers’ products are spoken of in terms that are used for people and animate beings.”

Is that a problem? Yes.

Fetishism denotes the attribution of life, autonomy [etc] to otherwise inanimate objects and presupposes the draining of these qualities from the human actors who bestow the attribution… social relationships are dismembered and appear to dissolve into relationships between things … so that the sociology of exploitation masquerades as a natural relationship between systemic artifacts.

Then there’s a bit about exchange value vs. use value, then one about analogies in the culture– there’s a lot to it, so I won’t get into it too much, suffice it to say that in this village, Taussig argues, these “superstitions” are actually “beliefs which systematically endorse the logic of the contradiction between use values and exchange values. ”

He doesn’t really show any evidence – ethnographic or otherwise – that this is how people think about things, but it’s a fascinating read: for the theory, for the reflection on our relationship with money it engenders, all kinds of stuff.