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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Marx and the devil

“He’d sell his soul for gold, and he’d be right, for he’d be exchanging dung for gold”
– Mirabeau on Tallyrand.

The great myth under which modernization understood itself in Germany was an old chapbook tale about an obscure professor selling his soul to the devil – an old story indeed. The professor, Faust, was taken up by Goethe and placed at the center of a poem which touched the thoughts of every German intellectual in the 19th century, including, certainly including, Karl Marx.

Meanwhile, as we pointed out in our last post on this topic, Michael Taussig found that the introduction of a fully monetized exchange value economy in the rural community in Colombia that he chose to study in the 1960s was interpreted by the myth of selling a soul to the devil. Why this convergence of sense-making narratives?

Taussig suggests that we can use Marx’s notion of commodity fetishism to explain how, spontaneously, a “primitive Marxism” springs up among the people. One wonders, however, if the direction of the interpretation can be reversed as well. Could we explain Marx from the direction of the people of the Cauca Valley? Could it be that Marx’s method reflects, unconsciously, the observation of the work of the diabolic in the capitalist system? Can we read backwards – the witch’s direction – here?

First, this is what Taussig writes:

“Rather than dismissing these responses as "traditional" or irrational, the approach adopted in this essay is that it would seem to be more true to the facts as well as more enlightening to consider these reactions as outcomes of a clash between a use value orientation and an exchange value orientation, thus viewing them as the beginning of a potential critique of capitalism. They provide us with insights into the irrational basis of our own economy and stereotype of homo oeconomicus, and can be usefully considered as illustrative of a form of "primitive Marxism."

Which raises the question: How is contracting with the devil derived from understanding a change in economic regimes from a “use value orientation”?

But to continue with Taussig:

This "primitive Marxism" was undoubtedly inherent in the outlook of the European proletariat in the early stages of the birth of the capitalist system, but has since been largely superseded by a new world view which regards the wage contract system, market pricing, and the institutionalization of profit and greed as natural and ethically com- mendable.1 In the light of this historical amnesia, which afflicts all social classes in a developed market economy, it is all the more important to dwell on the critique offered us by those neophytic proletarians in the Third World today, who are just entering the capitalist system with their goods and labor and who often appear to regard that system as anything but natural and good.2 In the Cauca Valley the sense given to the devil and his role in contracting wage labor is like the definition of the early Christian fathers as "he who resists the cosmic process," which in this context comes close to the idea of forcing things in the interest of private gain without regard to what are seen as their intrinsic principles (cf. Needham: 69-71).”

The “forcing” is an imposition from the outside. As I have previously remarked in my posts on the image of the limited good, Forster’s theory is incomplete, in as much as it neglects the attitudes of the powerful towards the peasant and vice versa. That attitude is, I claimed, mediated by the notion of sacred predation – the powerful have a divine sanction to take more than their share, but this sanction does not make them non-predatory. Rather, it institutionalizes their predatory status. The fall of this old ethos is recorded throughout the eighteenth century, masked to an extent in the rise of happiness as the social justification of the power structure. Taussig is talking about a culture moment that occurs, theoretically, as a result of the dissolution of sacred predation in the emergence of a new economic system, a new totality of social forces. But it doesn’t simply emerge – it is ‘felt’ as being imposed by something outside the social whole. Its exteriority joins it, archetypally, to images which exist (as portents?) in the old system. This is a thread expertly danced by Deleuze and Guattari in The Anti-Oedipus. We will dance it too.

But to return to Taussig, it is not the simple form of the contract with the devil that fascinates me as much as the “money as double” form – a story that hss striking resemblances with Marx’s treatment of money in the Grundrisse, and with Balzac’s story, the Peau de Chagrin.

According to the belief in el bautizo del billete (baptism of the bill), the Godparent-to-be conceals a peso note in his or her hand during the baptism of the child by the Catholic priest. The peso bill is thus believed to receive baptism instead of the child. When such a baptized bill enters into general monetary circulation it is believed that it will continually return to its owner with interest, enriching the owner and impoverishing the other parties to the deals transacted by the owner of the bill. The owner is now the Godparent of the peso bill. The child remains unbaptized, a cause of great concern since the child's soul is denied supernatural legitimacy and has no chance of escaping from Limbo or Purgatory, depending on when it dies. This practice is heavily penalized by the Church. The baptized bill receives the name-the "Christian name" as we say in English-that the baptismal ritual was meant to bestow on the child and is now referred to by that name. It is then set to work as follows. The Godparent pays the bill over as part of a routine monetary transaction, as when one pays for goods in a store. The Godparent mutters the following type of refrain:
Are you going or are you staying?
Are you going or are you staying?
Are you going or are you staying?”

,,, And here are Taussig’s stories, which have such a strong glamour that I, who have tried to understand the Satanic sublime as well as I can, fall before them and worship, first, their beauty. I am tempted to make some interlinear collage between this and Marx’s brilliant demonstration of the doubling to which social labor, embodied in the commodity that is raptured by money, which also embodies a social, exterior force, is subject. But let’s not muddy the track. Put your hands in the air like you just don’t care:

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. This transfer is accomplished invisibly. A black middle-class family owned a corner store in the village. Halfway through the morning, when the wife was alone, she went out the back and then quickly returned because she thought she heard a noise in the till. Opening it she found all the cash gone. She then remembered that one of the customers had behaved peculiarly earlier that morning, and realized that someone had passed her a baptized bill. As soon as her back was turned, this bill had made off with all the money in the cash register. In a busy supermarket in the large city nearby, a shop detective was startled to hear a woman standing near a cash register chanting under her breath: "Guillermo! iTe vas o te quedas? ,Te vas o te quedas? ,Te vas o te quedas?" He promptly concluded that she had passed a baptized bill and was waiting for it to return to her with the contents of the register, and he immediately arrested her. She was taken away and nobody knows what happened thereafter. 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. This strange coincidence allowed him to prevent the spiriting away of his cash.”

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