Potosí and us

Now that global capitalism has crashed once again, it may help order the mind to look back on how it all began. This is one of the multiple agendas of the complex, exhausting, sometimes exhilarating exhibition at the Museo Reina Sofía, Principio Potosí / ¿Cómo podemos cantar el canto del Señor en tierra ajena?

It is the premise of this multimedia, multinational, multiartist, intensively interactive show—it comes with a roadmap inviting the conscientious viewer to cross and recross the big exhibition space many times, to pause before videos or graphics or installations, and even to climb platforms and ladders to view everything in proper sequence—that it was the silver of the Cerro Rico ("Rich Mountain") of Potosí in the Bolivian Andes that made it all possible. That's the mountain, disguised as the Virgin Mary, or rather fused with her (silver made sacred) in an anonymous 1720 painting reproduced in the show. This high Andean mountain with its seam of silver (now in Bolivia) was sacred to the community there, but to the Spanish conquerors all that was sacred was the wealth they could extract from it, and raping and ravaging the mountain was of no concern.

The Reina Sofía show traces how the rich silver lodes of Potosí financed the global spread of the then new "system in which goods and services, down to the most basic necessities of life, are produced for profitable exchange, where even human labor power is a commodity for sale in the market, and where, because all economic actors are dependent on the market, the requirements of competition and profit maximization are the fundamental rules of life"—as Marxist scholar Ellen Meiksins Wood defines capitalism in her indispensable little book, The Origin of Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999).

This was radical break from pre-capitalist market, trade or pillage economies, which were often brutal and violent but did not buy and sell human labor (there were lots of slaves, but not organized slave markets) nor regard profit as the highest goal. Those pre-capitalist exploiters were far more intent on glory and immortality (as a tour of the ruins of ancient Egypt recently reminded us).

For Wood, the shift began with the enclosures in England in the 15th century or earlier, and she doesn't mention Potosí. But what gave it a big boost, and expanded London's force as a market vortex, was the wealth sucked out of new colonies in América, especially Potosí.  As the curators of the Reina Sofía show (Alice Creisher, Max Jorge Hinderer, Andreas Siekmann) write in the exhibition guide, the king of Spain had so many debts that as soon as the treasure galleons reached the Port of Cádiz, bags of silver were transferred directly to the ships belonging to his creditors elsewhere in Europe—England chiefly.

But the museum show is not only about Bolivia and the careless, more or less accidental genocide in the Americas (the conquerors didn't set out deliberately to wipe out the native population, and sometimes even lamented the suffering they had caused, but they had to have that silver!). It also wants us to see the parallels to the grinding down of humans in other parts of the world to feed the insatiable monster of profit and luxury for the few. A group of Russian performing artists have contributed a powerful video of a theater piece, about the collusion of political bosses, the Orthodox church, the arts establishment, criminal gangs and a consortium from  the Arab emirates to build a huge Gazprom Tower in St. Petersburg (illustration), over the opposition of conservationists and others. The link takes you to the architects' page. But here you can see the theater piece itself without even traveling to Madrid; whatever the merits of the argument, we loved it as proof that there are still Marxists (and Brechtians) in Russia. Chto Delat: Songspiel (The Tower).

Another narrative strain is about the superexploitation of Chinese workers, and their communal resistance efforts, including songs and workshops with artifacts made by children. And there are videos of performance pieces by indigenous women in La Paz, subverting the whole colonial concept of Christian submission in a dance by a rebellious virgin and the stripping naked of the colonial rulers in familiar old portraits. And graphs and documents on workers in Dubai, along with a heavy critique of Seville's Dubai-financed art biennial.

And repeated denunciations of the Catholic Church's complicity in exploitation, not only in colonial America, but in the Spanish civil war and the Franco regime. And let's not forget The Karl Marx School of the English Language, another Chto Delat production from Russia, where you can hear Russians trying to enunciate in English Karl Marx's famous description of "the rosy dawn of capital"—the primitive accumulation from places like Potosí. It's a strange thing to hear in an art museum in Madrid, where you can't expect everyone to follow Russian-accented English, but in the complex context of the whole show, for those of us who can follow the text, it was a welcome reminder of a powerful and extremely relevant text.

Wood, Ellen Meiksins. The Origin of Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999.

For those who have the patience for this sort of thing, I include my notes on Wood's book, The Origin of Capitalism. You can easily find further discussion on the web, or better yet, get her book.
Elegant & persuasive critique of all theories (including Marxist) that assume that capitalism is the natural evolution of any market to which all societies tend once obstacles are removed, or that it emerges as a consequence of demographic and/or technological changes. Markets & trade are not proto-capitalist, operating not on maximizing profit, competition, and compulsion, but on older principle of buying cheap in one market (say, Samarkand) and carrying goods to sell dear in another (say, Constantinople). Capitalism—"a system in which goods and services, down to the most basic necessities of life, are produced for profitable exchange, where even human labor power is a commodity for sale in the market, and where, because all economic actors are dependent on the market, the requirements of competition and profit maximization are the fundamental rules of life"—first emerges in one place only, the English countryside, NOT all of Europe and not in the cities, because of peculiar conditions there: exceptionally wide land holdings by lords, municipalities & other corporate entities with autonomous powers, who could rely on their economic power (to demand rents) and forego use of military power to extract surplus. Reliance on rents that varied according to market conditions, including the productivity of the land, made these landholders interested above all in productivity, thus on organizational & technical improvements, inducing enclosures. The dispossessed ended up in the cities, especially London, which grew to become the first mass market for cheap consumer goods. English capitalism benefited enormously from its overseas empire, but it grew in the first instance in response to its domestic, mainly London, market, which became so powerful it obliged other countries to modify their economies to serve it (00/3/20).


Dirk van Nouhuys said...

That certainly sounds like a fascinating and instructive exhibition. I wish I could see it.
Wood has a more narrow definition of capitalism than I do. While I think her point about events the 15th century is important (and I recall that Marx somewhere writes about usury laws promulgated by Henry VIII) it seems to me only a step in a long process. My understating is that banking as we know it (in Western Europe - goodness knows what was going on in China and India) began in Florence with the Medicis. Loaning at interest was well known in Classical Rome, and there are what are in effect banking regulations in the code of Hammurabi, about 1700 BC. I’m sure the developments Wood describes were important and made things worse, but it seems to me that once we set our feet on the path of earning money with money we had set our feet on the path of commoditizing labor.

gef said...

Wood's definition is of course contested by other, especially conservative, historians. I appreciate her narrow specificity, her argument that "capitalism" as we know it is qualitatively different from more ancient, almost universal market exchanges & credit arrangements. The exaltation of profit above all other considerations and valuing human efforts mainly as commodities (the essence of her definition) are NOT universal practices, and can be and are regularly opposed. Thus Wood's argument points to where and how to struggle (without having to combat every market or credit system, even the benign ones).