Commodity fetishism implies that relationships are less about people, and more about things. In a world that is increasingly connected through products and devices, we are also met with disconnected social relationships and intensified global inequalities. Through this lens, this article delves into the subtle mechanics of power in the capitalist social system. The ways of life and work in the dangerous ‘man-eating’ mines of Bolivia have been a focus of analysis for many anthropologists interested in the relationship between people, things and power.
Anthropologists and the Study of Power and Capitalism
Anthropology professor, Ronald Niezen, saw ‘power’ as authority, control or domination achieved through influencing the decisions and behaviour of others. In anthropology, power is not just something that dominates and represses. It is also a force that generates governing ideas and social norms. Theorists of power often question: how do people on the margins of society lose their capacity to consent to control? In other words, how is it that those who hold political power are able to control the lives of others without question?
The anthropological study of power is interesting because it delves beneath surface-level definitions of power as brute force or visible destruction. It explores the hidden relations between people and the way they are governed, revealing a landscape of global inequality.
The socio-economic system of capitalism has been a popular plane on which to analyse how power works in our society. Prussian-German social philosopher, Karl Marx, believed that capitalism functions and endures by extracting ‘surplus value’ from labourers. This is where profit is increased by paying workers less than the value of what they produce. But how is it, theorists have asked, that this system stays in place?
What is Commodity Fetishism?
In anthropology, fetishism is the ancient belief that inanimate objects can be infused with divine powers of life and agency. Commodities (or goods and services) under capitalism, however, differ massively from their counterparts in pre-capitalist systems of livelihood. In capitalist societies, social relations are said to be defined not by people, but by things.
Marx uses this concept to critique the political economy with what he calls ‘commodity fetishism’. This is the view that relationships of production and exchange are not social relationships among people, but rather, are social relationships among material things (such as money).
Here’s an example: most people who go to Disneyland and buy a Walt Disney T-shirt or a hat see their purchase as nothing more than a memorable token or a new wardrobe addition. It would be less common for people to see the underlying social relations and Haitian Women’s labour that went into crafting the product. It is unlikely that Disneyland, colorfully promoted as ‘the happiest place on earth’, holds similar tones for the women working hundreds of hours overtime in crowded factory rooms.
Another, perhaps more relatable example, is the smartphone. The seamless rectangle of convenience is now an essential commodity in many of our lives. But how often have you heard someone talk about the iPhone’s worth beyond its physical capacities? The vast social networks of factory production that contribute to the iPhone’s birth in one country, through to its eventual death in landfills of toxic waste in other countries, is rarely spoken about. The condition of humanity is compressed into a tiny digital block. Ironically, nestled in our back pockets for most of the day, our intimate possession of the device simultaneously isolates us. We become separated from the chain of social relationships which brought the phone into being. Instead, we are attached to the physical product itself.
How Does This Help Us Understand Power and Global Inequality?
Anthropologists of power and inequality have argued that it is because of commodity fetishism that we do not recognise economic exploitation. We see value as something tied to the physical object, rather than the product of human labour and social relations.
By allowing us to distance ourselves from a world saturated by infinite commodities, these concepts encourage us to ask questions about the labour processes behind the products we consume. By analysing and breaking down systems of unequal power, we can become attuned to the degrading treatment of workers across the entire global system.
A global theory to understand a global problem? Not quite
It is important to note that Marx’s viewpoint on commodity fetishism is not an all-inclusive approach. Ironically, despite being a concept that aims to reveal inequality, it can still be criticized for excluding different perspectives relating to gender, racism and the colonial experience. As such, this perspective should not be taken as a universal explanation for global inequality. Although not discussed here, it is important for both anthropologists and the common reader to consider other ways of analysing power.
The Bolivian Tin Mines
Applying commodity fetishism in the Potosi Tin Mines in Bolivia is a clear example of one way that anthropologists have studied capitalism and power in a global landscape of inequality.
Bolivia is a South American country rich in minerals such as silver, copper, lithium and tin. In the early 20th century, Bolivia’s governments were controlled by the capitalist policies of the economic and social elite. Work opportunities for Bolivian civilians – who had limited access to education and political participation – were often limited to the dirty and dangerous conditions in the mines.
Children in the Mines
Bolivian children swarmed the workforce in the 1980s in response to the privatisation of countrywide industries which forced more than 100,000 adults out of work (see more here). Even though there is some policy that restricts children from working unless they are at least 14 years old, these regulations are often poorly enforced.
In Bolivia today, there an estimated 800,000 children engaging in full time child labour.
Conditions in the Mines
Globally, mining is considered one of the most dangerous occupations. However, in the Bolivian mines, the fatality rate is 90 per cent higher than that of mines in more industrialised countries.
Tiny, young bodies are buried 4000 metres into the dirt in exchange for the extraction of valuable minerals. Healthy children descend as humans with their life ahead of them. But in a dark process swathed with poor ventilation and severe temperatures, these same people ascend as blemished workers. They arise plagued by diseases such as silicosis and black lung disease. Their bodies now stripped of humanity and defined purely by their work output. It’s no wonder some of these mines have been called ‘the Man-Eating Mines of Potosi’.
Workers are stuffed into small spaces where they spend all day hammering deep holes into rocks with nothing more than a metal bar and a mallet. Once the hole is big enough, a stick of dynamite is implanted and the rock explodes. The workers then begin the arduous task of heaving debris out of the mine through a passage of tiny tunnels.
In these dire conditions, miners quite literally work themselves to death. Once the function of their bodies can no longer translate to a valuable profit, they perish.
The Devil in the Mines (an anthropological view of Capitalism)
In Bolivia, descending into the underworld of the mines involves an important ritual. Before being completely enclosed by darkness, miners will stop to honour El Tio, the Devil of the mines. By giving offerings of alcohol and cigarettes to the concrete creature, workers hope to diminish their risk of injury and achieve luck in their dangerous endeavours. It is believed that El Tio will become unleash his rage on the labourers below if he is left neglected.
The Devil as a Symbol of Capitalism
Australian anthropologist, Michael Taussig, brings the Devil to life in his book The Devil in the Mines. Similar to Marx’s idea that capitalism both accumulates (money and products) and destroys (our social connection), the personified Devil is the backbone of both increasing production in the mines and destroying life. With an unwavering belief in El Tio’s protective powers, workers continue to risk their lives in order to earn money to sustain their livelihoods.
Marx’s theory of capitalism requires that individuals are rational and not senseless. A strong belief in the Devil produces a reality in the minds of workers that endorses a continual commitment to the hazardous work they engage in. In turn, this constructs the excessive mining work as a reasonable and necessary process. It increases profits, but simultaneously destroys human life.
The Language of the Devil
The Devil as a Metaphor for Capitalist Growth
One of Taussig’s interpretations of the Devil in the mines comes from an invalidation of those who earn more money or success than the rest of the social group. By promoting a commitment to the Devil, those who are feared to rise out of their terrible working conditions are unconsciously restrained. The Devil contract is said to be a metaphor for the reality of capitalist growth. The ‘evil spirit’ is perceived as holding power of life and death over people and resources, much in the same way that capitalism has been analysed (by some theorists) as a system of demonic control. The insatiable appetite of the human drive in a ‘things can always be better’ mentality is likened to an unsatisfied and greedy demonic spirit.
The Devil as a Way of Understanding Unforgiving Working Conditions
On the other hand, Taussig views the Bolivian civilians’ devil language as something that signifies discontent with their working life. There is the suggestion that the Bolivian people see capitalism as a malicious and destructive way of ordering economic life. Here, the invention of the Devil stands as a way to perceive and understand their working conditions. These conditions, as discussed earlier, can be likened to an underground ‘hell’.
The Devil as a Receiver and a Giver
The miners nurture a relationship with El Tio by offering goods in exchange for protection. This protection would allow them to extract more goods. Social relations, therefore, become enmeshed within the flow of commodities. With this, human labour is understood as having a natural and necessary presence in a society that estranges its members whilst embracing their products.
The Mines Are Alive
The mines, as a workplace, are also personified. The fiscal landscape is given life in June Nash’s anthropological study ‘We Eat the Mines and the Mines Eat Us: Dependency and Exploitation in Bolivian Tin Mines’. ‘Eating’ the mines could be interpreted as the physical act of breathing in dirt and dust. This eventually causes lung diseases for many workers, and in this way, the mines ‘eat’ them and take their lives
The Language of Capitalism Beyond Bolivia
Interestingly, it’s not just the Devil that has been used to describe economic life. Taussig asks us to look at the language we use to describe markets and commodities in our own societies. In a way that seems natural to us, we attribute agency and personhood to commodities and things. For example: ‘climbing interest rates’ and ‘runaway inflation’.
Commodity Fetishism Today
In a world where our identities have become intricately tied to commodities and things, some anthropologists would suggest that we are particularly susceptible to commodity fetishism.
Metaphorically speaking, if we were to peel back the layers of the commodity, we would see that a single item is actually made up of an elaborate web of hidden social relations. This includes countless hours of labour from various countries to source the ingredients for a particular physical part. But we no longer see this.
The sleek packaging of the iPhone doesn’t list every single place a piece was made, nor does it give any indication of the difficult work that many young labourers have engaged in to produce it. Contrastingly, iPhone packaging is simple and minimalistic, polished and classy. As a commodity, it lures consumers in with its surface-based qualities. With a seemingly magnetic pull, it draws us in closer. But at the same time, it assembles a barrier between surface-level and deeper human relations.
Anthropologists and Hidden Power
Anthropology, unlike other disciplines, focusses on the more hidden manifestations of power. In particular, the ability to control the decisions and behaviours of others. Power, in this sense, is not simply a visible display of brute force or a singular instance of authority. As many anthropological studies would reveal, power is about complex relationships and subtle strategies involving multiple social actors.
It’s important to note that the perspective of power and capitalism discussed here is just one of the many approaches to understanding social relations and inequality.
For example, many anthropological studies of inequality have gazed through the lens of French philosopher, Michel Foucault. This perspective sees ‘the eye of power’ as pervasive, discreetly woven into the structures of our society. Many case studies following a Foucauldian approach have focused on institutions (such as the school and the prison). These are miniature landscapes of power play where certain knowledge is constructed as the ‘truth’ or the norm. People are then obliviously coerced or controlled through this intellectual persuasion.
Similarly, For French Sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, power is understood as something inherent in language and every day practice. Cultural symbols are seen to contour and maintain hierarchies of power in a subtle form of dominance and exploitation.
In both these cases, power is, again, hidden. It is sewn into social relations to produce a false consciousness where desired actions and behaviours are seen as normal and necessary. Perhaps, this isn’t too different from the way power has been studied in the Bolivian mines.
Why is it important to study power?
Understanding power is crucial in facing and solving a multitude of global issues we face today.
It is important to pay attention to both the surface and the underworld. It is not enough to provide spaces for participation and agency (surface level), if the context absorbs and reshapes those voices to suit the landscape of power in which it sits (underworld).
New spaces created by globalisation has dissolved traditional boundaries (see Power in a Global Age by Ulrich Beck). In a complex bundle of social actors tangled around the nameless game for domination, power has taken on new and discrete forms. On the surface, global inequality is abundantly clear. However, more work is needed to delve into the underworld and unravel the relations that perpetuate these inequalities.