This week has been rich in thought-provoking news and articles that provide excellent excuses to discuss cultural dynamics in connection to economic exchange. The New York Times brings us news from Cambodia. Precisely, about mass faintings among garments workers. Oppressive labor regime? Appalling factory conditions? Yes, this story is pretty much about too much work, too little pay and the struggle to change this. Except that there is more to the fainting: these episodes were all
associated with accounts of possession by local guardian spirits, known as neak ta.
Cambodian workers complain about working conditions and the challenges to set independent unions. But in this case, spirits incorporated in factory workers were shouting and threatening managers, demanding respect. They were expressing a
kind of bodily objection to the harsh daily regimen of industrial capitalism
These spirits are widely considered the true owners of the land where the factories stand and respected. Consequently, when they presented a set of ritual offerings as demands, which included food and a party for workers, owners complied. And production was only resumed after these spirits were pleased. In a context in which labor action is faced with significant violence, these spiritual possessions and the faintings raised considerable concern for the health and general working conditions for these women.
This post resumes an important contention of the previous one: what has been increasingly named “moral economies” (including in Green’s article discussed in the previous post), a set of ingrained social practices, relations and codes of interpretation of action, is sufficiently flexible to allow for socioeconomic change, including the introduction (or the amelioration) of capitalist social relations of production.
Now we see that the entanglements are a tad more complex, for capitalism, as well, understood as a particular set of social relations of production and exchange developed over the course of the last five hundred years or so, starting in Europe, displays an enormous capacity to operate under different interpretations of actions and these “moral economies”. Not just the set of institutions and forms of coordination of economic actors differ, as the Varieties of Capitalism (Hall and Soskice) literature suggests; these relations are prone to mobilize pre-existing social relations and be given local accents. Production, exchange and consumption of the sort that has been called “capitalist” are given a plethora of local meanings, according to local cultural schemes which – and this returns to the last post – are flexible to allow for new elements to be incorporated and interpreted. In Green’s article, as discussed in the last post, these meanings and relations support change. It needs not to be the case, though, just as it needs not to be the opposite, i.e. to hinder change. What this fact unequivocally shows is that to understand the enormous success of the expansion of production, exchange and consumption practices associated with capitalism, or criticize it, one must recognize its flexibility to develop with/among different relations and cosmologies, which bestow local meanings upon economic action.
There are certainly several cosmological features developed by the Atlantic form of capitalism in the past five centuries. Philosophy and economics, with multiple behavioral assumptions which are daily mobilized to make sense, regulate, promote and predict action are two of the main sources of such cosmologies. Examples? Sahlins discusses how utilitarianism is a powerful cosmology to explicate and guide action. We could add the idea, disputed by the left and by the right, that there is only one set of values that will make the entire humanity happy. And that big data will save us from all problems. In the Northern shores of the Atlantic, capitalism seems to develop together with a particular sentimental pessimism, which projects on all populations of the world a sense of destruction and despair based on the convoluted experience of development in Europe, where sheep took the land of men (or eat them, as Thomas More put it). This cosmological trait is particularly important to explain our views on pain and desire in the West, or how sweets and consumption make for the epicurean escapades from an otherwise bitter, laborious and productive life. This general attitude is also of particular importance to the critical theories and the abundant debates about the need to free humans from their shackles, some of which are introduced by these social relations of production.
There is no functionalist claim here (by the way, a very strong element of this cosmology): I’m not contending that these codes of interpretation of action developed at the service of capitalism. They developed as humans attempted to make sense of the world, a world that was quickly being built by these practices, relations and objects they were trying to understand. The fact is that the most rationalized economic practices are surrounded by magical and spiritual powers.
But capitalism equally activates other cosmologies in attempts to make sense of and act upon new phenomena. This is a phenomenon that occupied Michael Taussig for a long time. The Colombian peasants he studied had a very particular understanding of what the European critical thinking interpreted as alienation of labor, and treated the products of labor in specific ways according to this understanding. To sell labor, peasants were making a diabolical pact. In the case of Cambodia, appalling working conditions and repression caused the rage of local guardian spirits. In the process, it raised awareness and concern about working conditions of a huge group of women, the first to leave their households and rice fields in rural Cambodia to face wage labor.