Public First Program


Shane Elson


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December 2006 # 1

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Back to Editorials 2006

The Devil and the Peso

On my recent visit to the Middle East I was struck once more by the clear delineation between the rich and poor. On the streets of Amman the wealthy drove their BMWs and Mercedes past the Iraqi widows who sold individual cigarettes to those who could not afford the buy a full packet. I will never forget the obviously Downs Syndrome man who sat begging while we passed by on a quest to find lunch. Some images burn themselves into your soul and make your realise just how lucky you are. 

At a recent meeting I was at two South American’s spoke of their desire to see new forms of government emerge. Both of them made reference to the need for people to have a voice and for the poor and marginalised to find proper representation in their parliaments and government institutions. Both these people held great optimism for what could be achieved. While both of them were fully aware of the current realities on the ground in their countries, neither of them was pessimistic about the future. Rather than envisioning “more of the same”, both shared the view that the human spirit and its creativity would prevail. 

My reflections on the comments of these two people, so different and distant from me, led me to think about the recent outcry at Hugo Chavez’ speech in the UN when he referred to “the Devil” being at the podium the previous day.  Since I first heard this it got me thinking. Why would he say such a thing? Surely not just for the inevitable media frenzy it would cause? There had to be something more to it. Why would this South American revolutionary raise the spectre of the devil when his life was already under threat from hard liners in Washington and within the Catholic Church? 

In order to understand Chavez’ comments it is important to look at the history of the Catholic church in South America and the way in which it is firmly entrenched in the politics and social orders that exist there today. For the indigenous South Americans the imposition of European religion was blended with imperialism, the destruction of their environment, the overthrow of existing social orders and death. The church and the emerging state apparatus became blended and with them came the notion of the devil. 

In the Catholic religion, as in many protestant religions, the devil is to be feared. He lurks in the darkness and quite corners of our souls waiting for the opportunity to lead us into sin and deprivation. To surrender to his often subtle calls, is to condemn ourselves to hell, a place that makes the Big Brother house look like a Sunday picnic. However, as is the case with many colonised peoples, many in the America’s did not accept this reading of the devil and indeed many of them either rejected the notion out of hand or appropriated the concept, reinterpreting it in ways never intended by the church. 

In his 1980 book, “The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America” Michael Taussing examines the way in which one notion of the devil was reinterpreted and appropriated by some South American peoples. 

In these belief structures the devil is ready to negotiate a price for just about anything. In one myth, man is able to bargain with the devil to increase his income and the productivity of his crops. This however comes at the price of an early death. The moral of the tale is that the man works hard to accumulate wealth but never gets to enjoy it, dying in the prime of his life. In another myth the god-parents of a child, when taking part in the baptism ceremony, hold a peso bill. In this myth the peso acquires the blessing rather than the child and it is the bill that returns the “blessings” to them while their god-child never gets to enter the “citizenry of God”. The problem for the holder of the peso is that while they become wealthy they die a death of spiritual barrenness. 

Taussing writes, “… the devil contract and the baptism of money … are … revealed to be beliefs that endorse systematically the logic of the contradiction between use-values and exchange-values. … the beliefs are precise formulations that entail a systematic critique of the encroachment of the capitalist mode of production.” That is, the capitalist sees no value behind the dollar (or peso) other than that which it obtains in the exchange process. In short, the production processes and the deprivations imposed by those production processes are removed from view and obscured by the systems of production and exchange-value itself. 

The speakers at the event I was at reflected the optimism Chavez spoke of at the UN. While the media focused on the “devil” comment they failed to comment on the rest of his speech in which he outlined the litany of contradictions our politicians fail to acknowledge. He spoke of the poor in US cities while their president speaks of the wealth of the nation. He spoke of the death of innocents in Lebanon while the president spoke of peace in the Middle East. He talked of the rising up of peoples across the globe to fight the oppression foisted on them by imperialist conquests and years of colonial rule while the president spoke of peaceful transitions to democracy – something Bolivia was being denied due to outside interference, mainly US sponsored internal disruption. 

What Hugo Chavez did was turn a mirror on the capitalist system, represented at the podium by the US president, and said that this system was the devil stealing away the lives of the innocents. The system of capitalism which the US and we in the west hold so dear, was nothing more than a pact with the devil. A pact that would steal away our ‘golden years’ and enslave the innocents to a lingering slow death without hope.

The devil was, deconstructing Chavez’ words, embodied by a man who was willing to make pacts while smiling all the time yet would be ready to unleash the hounds of hell should the deal be reneged on. It was not George W Bush who was the devil; it was the system he represented. It was the ways in which Bush used his position and that of the US, blindly and without reference to his so called faith, to make offers that could only lead to more suffering. The devil, to Chavez, stood at the UN podium and offered a one sided pact, delivered through the systems that the US and Bush represented.

But he did not end pessimistically. Again the media chose to ignore the optimism he brought to the UN that day. Chavez said, “There are alternative ways of thinking. There are young people who think differently. … Dawn is breaking out all over. You can see it in Africa and Europe and Latin America and Oceania. I want to emphasize that optimistic vision. We have to strengthen ourselves, our will to do battle, our awareness. We have to build a new and better world.” He went on to say, “So, my dear colleagues, Madam President, a new, strong movement has been born, a movement of the south. We are men and women of the south.”

The woman selling cigarettes and the disabled man begging in the streets of Amman are people of the south. Not only them. Those of us who can envision a new way of engaging with each other and the world, free of the shackles of capitalism are all people of the South. Chavez concluded by noting, “We want ideas to save our planet, to save the planet from the imperialist threat. And hopefully in this very century, in not too long a time, we will see this, we will see this new era, and for our children and our grandchildren a world of peace based on the fundamental principles of the United Nations, but a renewed United Nations.”

If peace and real security are our true motivation then we need to firstly abandon the myth of the devil, made real in capitalism, as friend and revision the world according to a will for basic rights and the promotion of real human dignity.

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