Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch
Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation. New York: Autonomedia, 2004.
Review by Hayyim Rothman
In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici tells the sweeping story of how the proletariat came to exist as an exploited and exploitable class. For Federici, the central figure in the transition from feudalism to capitalism is women’s bodies. Women, she argues, were subjugated in order to reproduce a workforce that could be treated like machines. A similar process occurred with divisions along racial lines, for Federici argues that “capitalism, as a social-economic system, is necessarily committed to racism and sexism.” (17) In other words, capitalism rose by dividing those at the bottom along lines of gender and race.
Federici begins with a discussion of medieval protests against feudalism and the rise of popular heresy. Both, Federici argues, divided society along class lines, because both were expressions of peasant and urban labor unrest at the social hierarchy, which was thrown into stark relief when the Black Death created a massive labor shortage. But the counter-revolution exploited divisions within workers by focusing antagonism on women rather than class. Rape was decriminalized and municipal brothels were opened, while the centralizing state exerted greater power over the bodies of women.
This was only the first step toward dividing workers against each other, Federici argues. The process continued with new hierarchies built upon gender, race, and age. Capitalism, then, “planted into the body of the proletariat deep divisions that have served to intensify and conceal exploitation.” (64)
Federici’s most in-depth examination of the nexus between women and the rise of capitalism comes in chapter four, which she devotes to the European witch hunts. For Federici, the witch-hunt was a central event in the development of a capitalist society. It also formed the modern proletariat. The hunt served as a campaign of terror that divided women and men, by constructing a new patriarchal order that placed women’s bodies, their labor, and their reproductive power under control of the state, effectively transforming them into economic resources. The witch hunts were not about punishing specific transgressions, Federici claims, but rather they created a mechanism to intimidate women and eliminate non-conformist female behavior.
Thus, the persecution of witches was a form of class warfare. Take, for example, the obsession among witch hunters that witches committed acts of infanticide or harmed fertility. During an era of population decline, witches were thus targeting the economic stability and wealth of the nation. Federici contends that the witch hunt served the needs of European elites by eliminating a perceived threat to their political and economic power.
On the whole, Caliban and the Witch is a fascinating and important book. It demonstrates historically the author’s contention about the link between the devaluation of women and the expropriation of labor. In this way, moral and physical violence against women is shown to constitute not a separate and distinct problem, but an organic part of the progress of capital. In doing so, Federici links the feminist struggle to the struggle against capital––an intersection that is in many respects controversial on the left. She does so, in essence, by demonstrating that primitive accumulation, the process inherent to the rise of capitalism, was carried out in a way that intimately involved the role of women in society. In other words, the expropriation of female power and the expropriation of the independent means of subsistence that enabled the peasant class to resist proletarianization went hand in hand.
Most strikingly, the author demonstrates this through an analysis of the witch trials, a reading which cuts deeply in several directions. On the one hand, Federici shows that far from being an expression of the last gasps of medieval superstition, the witch hunts were very much a modern event which served to pave the way for the rationalization of life that was then underway and on which capital depended. On the other hand, she uses this discussion to successfully attack the French historian and social theorist Michel Foucault, whose History of Sexuality opposed the so-called “repression” thesis which held that after the decline of the Renaissance until the 20th century, sexuality and sexual expression were silenced and that the flowering of discourse on this subject in the 20th century represents a form of liberation. Foucault argued that, on the contrary, this period was characterized too by a flowering of discourse; the modern era was not so much concerned with silencing sexuality as “making it speak” in new ways in the service of now ways of exercising and diffusing power relations. Federici points out that this thesis is plausible only to the extent that we ignore the witch trials; these persecutions were very much a matter of sexual, economic, and political repression.
There are some features of this book which ought to be further elaborated. Given that the force of Federici’s argument rests on the relation between the oppression of women and primitive accumulation, it would be interesting to hear Federici’s response to writers like Rosa Luxemburg, who argued––contra Marx––that primitive accumulation is not a historically isolable event, but the very foundation of all capitalist development. Federici addresses this to some degree in the final chapter, where she discusses the rise of witch-hunts in Africa and India and suggests that these signal a new cycle in the process of expropriation. However, she does not go nearly far enough in this direction.
It would also be interesting to consider the ramifications of Federici’s analysis for the United States. What, for example, can we make of the periodic satanism hysterias that still crop up from time to time here? What do we make of the manner in which magical practices constitute, among certain rural white populations (e.g. snake handling), an important element of religious experience? What about “speaking in tongues” and “faith healing?” What about “new age” and alternative medicines? Are all of these now benign sideshows in a world dominated by capitalist rationalization, or something else? From one perspective, they appear regressive and seem to stand in for real, concrete, resistance to the system. Yet, Federici seems to indicate that magical practices have historically constituted a meaningful site of resistance. Does this remain true today? If so, how?
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Hayyim Rothman has a PhD in Philosophy from Boston College and recently received a Fulbright postdoctoral research fellowship to work at Bar Ilan University in Israel.