A few days ago, the New York Times reported on a series of mass fainting episodes in Cambodian factories.
Workers—oftentimes women, sometimes hundreds at a time—pass out while others, possessed by local spirits called neak ta, accost local bosses and managers (and representatives of the government-backed unions) for not showing enough "respect" to the land those spirit inhabit:
Early last year, I met a 31-year-old woman called Sreyneang, a worker at Canadia Industrial Park, west of Phnom Penh. She had recently caused dozens of her co-workers to collapse after speaking in the voice of a neak ta. While entranced, she had also assaulted the president of the factory’s government-aligned union, pounding him with her fists and pelting him with insults...
A few months after that event, something similar happened at a sporting-goods factory near the capital that was said to have been haunted ever since it opened in August 2012. Female workers asked their supervisor, a man named Ah Kung, if they could hold a ceremony and offer a chicken to a neak ta angered at being displaced from the site. He refused. Two days later, the spirit entered the body of a young female worker, Sreymom, and claiming, in her voice, to have been “looked down upon,” began shouting in a mixture of Khmer and short, quick syllables her colleagues took to be Chinese. Several dozen other workers lost consciousness and had to be treated at a local clinic.
“When she was possessed, she just pointed around everywhere,” one eyewitness explained afterward. “She said, ‘I want to meet Ah Kung.’ She said, ‘I want to meet him because I lived here a very long time and he never respected me and this is my land.”’ When Ah Kung arrived, the bystander said, “He came out and knelt down in front of her and offered whatever the neak ta asked.”
What did the neak ta want? Respect, an altar, quarterly offerings, and an annual party for the workers where the supervisor would roast a pig for the workers. The owner agreed.
These episodes, of course, look like a culturally specific form of collective bargaining—but something else might be going on as well. There's a long tradition of ghosts, monsters, and imps showing up all over the world at key moments of economic disruption and crises, usually around the time industrial capitalism shows up and starts ripping people's worlds apart.
The NYT writer (Julia Wallace, also the executive editor of the Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh) hits the collective-bargaining argument:
These days, when neak ta appear on the factory floor — inducing mass faintings among workers and shouting commands at managers — they are helping the cause of Cambodia’s largely young, female and rural factory workforce by registering a kind of bodily objection to the harsh daily regimen of industrial capitalism: few days off; a hard bed in a wooden barracks; meager meals of rice and a mystery curry, hastily scarfed down between shifts. These voices from beyond are speaking up for collective bargaining in the here and now, expressing grievances much like the workers’ own: a feeling that they are being exploited by forces beyond their control, that the terms of factory labor somehow violate an older, fairer moral economy.
Wallace also mentions Rumpelstiltskin, the short, diabolical German creature who "helped a young woman spin grotesque amounts of thread, but only in exchange for her firstborn."
This story also recalls Robert Dartnon's classic "The Great Cat Massacre," about printing apprentices who tried and executed their bosses' cats for crimes (including witchcraft), and anthropologist Michael Taussig's work on how magic and demonology are connected to the movement of labor and commodities in Colombia.
I remember meeting an anthropology graduate student at the University of Chicago who was studying how sightings of the chupacabra (the blood-sucking monster that appears at night and decimates farmers' livestock) spiked in places where globalization was destabilizing local economies. The first widely reported chupacabra sightings popped up in Puerto Rico and Mexico shortly after both were signed into the NAFTA zone.
The NYT article reports the neak ta faintings took off In 2011, just a few months after a strike by hundreds of thousands of garments workers—most of them young women—was shut down by police violence and threats to union leaders.
And the neak ta are not confining themselves to factory workers:
Last year, in a slum in Phnom Penh, a demonstration by residents who were being evicted by a wealthy landlord was interrupted when a neak ta possessed an indigent woman who lived under a staircase with her mentally ill husband, both suffering from H.I.V. The woman assaulted a local official who was trying to shut down the protest, forcing him to stand down. Previously, the landlord had cut down an old banyan tree believed to be the neak ta’s home.
“I have been protecting this area for a long time,” the woman shouted, “and I am very angry because the company demolished my house. I am very, very angry.”
It gives a whole new shade of meaning to the phrase "spiritual insurrection."