Capitalism and Indigenous Cosmological Conflict in the Silver Mines of Potosí

By Ava Rawson

Capitalism as a cosmological system built on the commodification and conversion from subjective and experiential value to monetary value within social structures carries the potential for cosmopolitical conflict extremely well within resource extraction contexts. Metaphysical understandings relating to the inherent value attributed to mountains, forests, rivers and organic and non-organic life is deeply entrenched in the cosmological systems to which each individual belongs. Capitalist understandings of the value of these natural resources are oftentimes fundamentally opposed to Indigenous belief systems of understandings in relation to these same features. 

The extraction politics of South America provide a striking contrast regarding how histories of colonization and contemporary instances of capitalistic resource extraction projects highlight Indigenous and capitalist tensions regarding the commodification of sacred sites. In the silver mines of Potosí, this tension is evident not only in how capitalism has affected how Indigenous community members understand the spirit owners of the mountain (and thus the mine), but also how Christian worldviews influence these relationships as well. Potosí in particular as a case study for capitalistic cosmopolitical conflict is extremely interesting, as many scholars credit this mine as being single handedly responsible for changing the economic structure of the globe, as it literally produced the majority of money that fueled the inception of the global extractive economy through colonialism. 

In Potosí the spirit owner of the mine, Tio, serves as a mediator between the two systems of exchange, i.e. between pre-capitalist folk mysticism and that of commodity fetishism through colonialism and capitalism. This transformation shows how communities respond to the loss of control over their ancestral resources and means of autonomous production through traditional folk magic. The transformation of Tio is equivalent to the spirit’s demonification, as the interjection of capitalist systems coincides with the introduction of Christian missionary efforts in the region. Subversive belief systems generated in response to the repositioning of social structures once within a capitalist system can serve as the means to revolutionary senses of solidarity amongst individuals;

This tradition inside the mountain must be continued because there is no communication more intimate, more sincere, or more beautiful than the moment of the ch’alla, the moment when the workers chew coca together and offer it to the Tio. There they give voice to their social problems, they give voice to their work problems, they give voice to all the problems they have, and there is born a new generation so revolutionary that the workers begin thinking of making structural change. This is their university. [Nash, 1972:231-32] 

Traditional Indigenous rituals here serve as the precursor to what the author perceived to be imminent collective action against oppressive and extractive economic structures. A proclivity for revolutionary consciousness is associated with mining in this region. Secular interpretations of this fact emphasize and credit the region’s political history and dangerous working conditions that serve as the catalyst for anti-capitalist sentiment amongst workers. This ignores how indigenous cosmological systems mediate this reality with the one they hope to shape. When accidents do occur, they operate within the cosmological field to which the individuals belong, to indigenous communities; casualties as a result of administrative or infrastructural failure in the mine is due to the Tio’s ‘thirst for blood’ not ineffectual management. The solution then is to mediate their conditions through rites and offerings to the Tio. 

Popular assumptions regarding what contemporary anti-capitalist futures will look like often project a universalizing Western dominated status-quo and fail to acknowledge the diversity that is actually representative of localized responses to extractive structures and the potential for autonomous indigenous action in these spaces. The cultural responses to capitalist expansion in resource extraction projects thus have the potential for the defetishization of objects and resources after being commodified. By attributing non-monetary value and agency unto the inanimacy of objects within the commodity sphere, social responses to the cultural transformation intrigant to capitalist expansion shows that in this context, Indigenous and non-western belief systems more broadly have the potential to actively corrupt these extractive processes.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

Image Source: (n.d.). The Silver Mine at Potosí – A Collection in Context: The Hispanic Society of America. [online] Available at:

Text Sources:

Abercrombie, T.A. (2016). The Iterated Mountain: Things as Signs in Potosí. The Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, 21(1), pp.83–108.

Nash, J. (1993). We eat the mines and the mines eat us: dependency and exploitation in bolivian tin mines. New York: Columbia University Press.

Rojas, J. and Nash, J. (1992). I spent my life in the mines : the story of Juan Rojas, Bolivian tin miner. New York: Columbia University Press.
Taussig, M.T. (2010). The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America. Chapel Hill N.C.: University Of North Carolina Press.

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