The Ghost in the Machine

As capitalism spread in South America, local people made sense of their misery by telling stories of devils, demons, and hauntings.

Image of wax dolls being given to the devil, circa 1720. Wellcome Library

In 1970, the Australian anthropologist Michael Taussig settled in “a small and predominantly black town of about 11,000 people,” in the Cauca Valley of western Colombia, “a town without sewage or drinking water … pressed between two chains of the Andes.” His intention was to study the formal abolition of slavery, which had taken place more than a hundred years earlier. But what he discovered was a capitalist mode of agrarian production, alarmingly similar to the old slave relations, rapidly asserting itself over the region.

Three white families had recently assumed control over thousands of hectares, “consuming many of the plots of the surrounding peasant farmers, descendants of African slaves,” Taussig wrote at the time. “All this was new. Very new. The area was rapidly … becoming proletarianized.”

It was obvious to Taussig that workers on the periphery of global capitalism critiqued the system from within their own worldviews. As capitalism spread, dislocating people from their ancestral lands and annihilating traditional economic practices, new stories and rituals emerged to help people make sense of their alienation.

Taussig showed that the “devil stories” of Colombian plantation workers and Bolivian tin miners weren’t the remnants of a pre-rational past, as many anthropologists believed — instead, they developed in response to the massive social disruptions wrought by proletarianization and private capital accumulation.

For Halloween, we present selections from Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (1980), a classic of Marxist anthropology, excerpted and abridged by Jacobin.

The Devil in Proletarian Labor

Of all work in the region [the Cauca Valley], wage labor in the agribusinesses is held to be the most arduous and least desirable — even when the daily cash return is high. Above all, it is the humiliation, the humbling authoritarianism, which agitates the workers, while the large landowners and their foremen complain of the workers’ intransigence and fear their sporadic violence.

Lower-class people feel that work has somehow become opposed to life. “On the coast we have food but no money,” mourn the immigrant workers from the Pacific coast. “Here we have money but no food.” They fetishize the sugarcane, describing it as a plant that dries or eats one up.

According to a belief that is widespread among the peasants of this region, male plantation workers sometimes make secret contracts with the devil in order to increase productivity, and hence their wage. Furthermore, it is believed that the individual who makes the contract is likely to die prematurely and in great pain. While alive, he is but a puppet in the hands of the devil, and the money obtained from such a contract is barren. It cannot serve as productive capital but has to be spent immediately on what are considered to be luxury consumer items, such as fine clothes, liquor, butter, and so on.

To invest this money to produce more money — that is, to use it as capital — is to invite ruin. If one buys or rents some land, the land will not produce. If one buys a piglet to fatten for market, the animal will sicken and die. In addition, it is said that the sugarcane thus cut will not regrow. The root will die and the plantation land will not produce until exorcised, plowed over, and replanted.

The contract is supposed to be made in the deepest secrecy, individually, and with the aid of a sorcerer. A small anthropomorphic figurine, referred to as a muñeco (doll), is prepared, usually from flour, and spells are cast. The male worker then hides the figurine at a strategic point at his place of work. If he is a cane cutter, for example, he places it at the far end of the rows of cane that he has to cut and works his way toward it, often chanting as he cuts his swath. Sometimes, a special prayer is said just before beginning the work.

I know two folk healers rather well who will arrange such contracts, and one of my closest friends related the following account concerning his twenty-two-year-old cousin who recently made a devil pact. I have no doubts about the authenticity of this story.

This cousin was born on the Pacific coast and came to the plantation town of Puerto Tejada as a young boy. In his teens he worked intermittently on the plantations and also made a few visits to his father on the Pacific coast, where he acquired knowledge of magic. He became increasingly resentful of plantation work and decided to make a pact with the devil. To add to his already considerable magical lore he bought several books on magic from the plantation town marketplace and studied them. One day he went into a sugarcane field and eviscerated the palpitating heart of a black cat over which he cast his spell. No sooner had he done so than a tremendous wind came roaring through the sugarcane. Terrified, he ran away. “He did it in order to sell his soul to the devil, so that he could get money without working,” said my informant.

The sugar plantation agribusiness towns are notorious for the amount of sorcery said to exist in their midst. For this reason curers far and wide refer to these centers as “pig sties” — sorcery being commonly called porqueria, piggish filth. Sorcery (and its curing) cancels inequalities in this society of insecure wage earners in which competition pits individualism and communalism against one another.

Sorcery is evil, but it can be the lesser evil when it is directed against the greater evil of exploitation, failure to reciprocate, and the amassing of ill-gotten gains. Those who are better off constantly fear sorcery and take magical steps to prevent its penetration.

It is alleged that by means of the contract the worker in the capitalist mode of production, and only in this mode, becomes more productive — more productive of income and of barrenness. The magic in the devil contract is directed not at the plantation owners but at the sociohistorical system of which they are part.

The Devil in the Mines

In the shafts of the tin mines in the mountains around the city of Oruro, Bolivia, the miners have statues representing the spirit who owns the mines and tin. Known as the devil or as the uncle (Tio), these icons may be as small as a hand or as large as a full-sized human. They hold the power of life and death over the mines and over the miners, who conduct rites of sacrifice and gift exchange to the spirit represented by the icons — the contemporary manifestation of the precolonial power of the mountain.

His body is sculptured from mineral. The hands, face, and legs are made from clay. Often, bright pieces of metal or light bulbs from the miners’ helmets form his eyes. The teeth may be of glass or of crystal sharpened like nails, and the mouth gapes, awaiting offerings of coca and cigarettes. The hands stretch out for liquor.

The spirit can also appear as an apparition: a blond, bearded, red-faced gringo (foreigner) wearing a cowboy hat, resembling the technicians and administrators who control the tens of thousands of miners who excavate the tin that since the late nineteenth century has made Bolivia a satellite of the world commodity market. He can also take the form of a succubus offering riches in exchange for one’s soul or life.

In the peasant communities of the Andean plateau, where, individually and communally, the tillers of the soil exercise a measure of real control over the means of production, the spirit owners of nature differ from those in the mines, where the capitalist mode of production reigns. Only in the mines, honeycombed mountains of capitalist organization, does the spirit owner seem predominantly and actively evil. There, rites to the spirit owner are necessary and frequent; yet, try as they might, the miners are constantly on the verge of failure despite their ritual propitiation.

Prior to nationalization, wages were shared between the ten to fifteen members of a work gang who were tied to contracts based on the amount of metal excavated. Following nationalization the gangs were dismembered into two-person units and wages were fixed by the cubic meter dug out rather than by the amount of mineral extracted. To some degree the intense solidarity of the small work group was replaced by the national Bolivian workers’ union (the Central Obrero Boliviano). But after the military coup and takeover of the mines in 1964, the union lost much of its power. Now the workers have neither the strength of their old primary work groups nor that of the monolithic union.

In the autobiography of the miner Juan Rojas, it is strikingly clear that the miners are preoccupied with the life of the mine as a living entity, so to speak. They are forced by the management hierarchy to struggle with the rock face and to hate the work that destroys their lungs and shortens their lives. Yet, at the same time they care for the mine.

In accord with a vast series of meanings inscribed in mythology, magic, and the arousal of nature’s sleeping powers, mineral ores are often spoken of as alive, resplendent with movement, color, and sound. They may be said to be flowing like water, moving, asleep, pure, beautiful, growing like a potato, like raw sugar, sweet, screaming below the ground.

The mine is enchanted, but it is the antithesis of a Christian enchantment. It is opposed to the world of Christ; it is of the antichrist. At the entrance to the mine one may pray to God and make the sign of the cross. But inside one must never do this. One cannot even use the pick when working close to mineral because the pick has the form of the cross. Otherwise, one may lose the vein. God reigns on the surface, but the Tio is king in the mine. “We do not kneel before him as we would before a saint,” says one miner, “because that would be sacrilegious.”

A workmate of Rojas’s was badly hurt in 1966. Rojas himself felt that his luck was out. He was refused permission by the engineer to resign as head of the gang. When his mate returned to work, he suggested to Rojas that they perform a rite to the Tio. They bought the offerings of sugar, hard corn, sweet corn, beer, white wine, red wine, pisco, and a sheep. A visiting shaman was contracted. Instead of allowing the shaman to puncture the heart with wire, which would dirty and kill it, the miners insisted on slitting the animal’s throat and then sprinkling its blood over the rock face deep in the mine. Then they went to eat the sheep.

When they were finished, the bones were wrapped in red wool, and they made their way back to the mine. Ritual infusions were sprinkled at the mine’s entrance. The heart was placed in the center of the sugar sweets and flowers, and on top the bones were placed in the form of the complete skeleton, which was then covered with the hide. At the four corners they placed white wine, red wine, alcohol, beer, paw paw, and some little vases of clay. They drank a toast “to the memory of the sacrifice that we were making for the Tio.” Then they left rapidly without daring to look behind.

Try as they might, the miners are constantly on the verge of being destroyed. The Tio seems implacably bent on their demise. Yet, as the rites to him suggest and as the pageants make clear, he coexists with a symbolized history of conquest and mining, the evil of which is bountiful with the promise of reversal.

The miners deserted the ways of the peasant to enter the unnatural economy of wage work; now, they gut the mountain of its precious metals. The Tio stands as a custodian of the meaning of Indian submission and loss of control over the life they constantly call for. Yet, by the same curse the Spaniards and, hence, all non-Indians, are condemned to lose their power to exploit the Indians’ labor, and they will have to live from their own sweat and toil. The prevailing world is not accepted as good or natural.

A new element not found in peasant life has been added to the dross image of the Spaniard and the glitter of precious metals: proletarianization of Indians, associated with a strange fetishization of commodities.