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Caliban and the Witch

Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation
by Sylvia Federici, Autonomedia 2004

Sylvia Federici is an old friend, and a long-time member of the Midnight Notes collective on the East Coast. This book has been gestating for a long time, and it’s fantastic that it is finally out and available. It’s a brilliant book. While it is largely focused on the transition from feudalism to capitalism and the period from the mid-1500s to the mid-1600s in which the role of women was radically downgraded, the kicker comes at the end when she briefly outlines the re-emergence of witch persecution in Africa today, corresponding” just as it did then” with a sustained attempt to supplant traditional subsistence economies with primitive accumulation and the brutal effort to impose capitalist social relations on resistant (usually indigenous) cultures.

Curiously, I happen to live next to the Black Cat collective, which is a self-described witch coven. One of the residents is the well-known activist and feminist scholar Starhawk, who herself has written (in her 1982 book Dreaming the Dark) about some of the history covered by Federici. Like most of us who have not stopped to investigate the idea of witchcraft, I have tended to think of it as a slightly ridiculous, pre-modern superstition-based set of practices. Seen through several centuries of prohibition, repression, and deliberate and far-reaching propaganda, this is not surprising. I am somewhat chastened about the absurdity of my own simplistic ideas in the wake of Caliban and the Witch (not to mention that I have not and doubt if I will ever connect to contemporary witch practices, though I can see that there is an interesting political dimension to them).

To fully appreciate Federici’s serious investigation, we have to outline her historical project. Witchcraft and the repression of witches did not arise out of the blue, nor was it a phenomenon of the Middle Ages. In fact, by Federici’s analysis, it was the success of the peasant revolts of the late Middle Ages, and the steady erosion of feudal power, that set up an historically unique crossroads in the late 1400s. One branch led to the world we’re in, but another, long-forgotten road might have led to a communal, cooperative, egalitarian alternative. The barbaric slaughter that ended the peasant revolts in Europe put in motion the intolerant, incredibly violent and enslaving system of life from which modern capitalism emerged. Capitalism did not just “take off”, Federici argues, but had to enslave Africans and most importantly, had to get control of the ultimate commodity” human labor” and the women who were crucial to its reproduction. Thus the persecution of witches went hand in hand with the construction of a new world order in which women were downgraded, deskilled, and devalued. The persecution of witches doesn’t really begin until the mid-16th century and continues to extend its reach for almost 100 years, before being halted in the mid-1600s. Federici shows how ruling elites built on the earlier campaign against heresy to alter social relations in ways that were crucial to the expansion of the early capitalist mode of production.

And as Marx documented, the beginnings of capitalism depended on a process of primitive accumulation, a process we mostly think of in terms of dispossession, of the private seizure of common lands and resources (forests, lakes, rivers), and the social manufacture of a large population that had nothing to sell but itself (as labor-power for a wage). But Marx had a huge blind spot that Federici strives to reveal:

“Except for his remarks in the Communist Manifesto on the use of women within the bourgeois family” as producers of heirs guaranteeing the transmission of family property” Marx never acknowledged that procreation could become a terrain of exploitation and by the same token a terrain of resistance. He never imagined that women could refuse to reproduce, or that such a refusal could become part of class struggle.” (p. 91)

It is stunning (and then it’s not so surprising really) that the 19th century Marx would have been so oblivious to the transformation of social dynamics at the end of the Middle Ages, crucially the repression of women. The foremost analyst of capitalist dynamics with his penetrating look at wage-labor and alienation, commodification and fetishism, completely overlooked the most basic aspect of capitalist production, i.e. the production of human labor. Federici’s book is a rigorous corrective to this gap.

“The power-difference between women and men and the concealment of women’s unpaid-labor under the cover of natural inferiority, have enabled capitalism to immensely expand the “unpaid part of the working day,” and use the (male) wage to accumulate women’s labor; in many cases, they have also served to deflect class antagonism into an antagonism between men and women”¦ As we have seen, male workers have often been complicitous with this process”¦ but [men have] paid the price of self-alienation, and the “primitive disaccumulation” of their own individual and collective powers.” (p. 115)

The book takes a close look at the historical process of “otherizing.” She briefly recounts the Church’s persecution of heretics in the 15th century and earlier, and then shows how this type of campaign was redirected toward women through criminalizing contraceptives, infanticide, and enforcing pregnancy. The persecution of witches was the language of this effort. The practice of midwifery was attacked and replaced by male-run obstetrics, and eventually all female doctoring was outlawed and driven underground, whether midwifery, herbology, or any other knowledge system developed over millennia. It is not coincidental, according to Federici’s analysis, that this took place at a time when the primary concern of the ruling elite was securing adequate supplies of labor, at the dawn of capitalist development. The African slave trade has its origins in this same era, as does the Conquest and the wholesale slaughter of millions in the New World in pursuit of gold and other riches.

The final chapter shows how the language of witch persecution, of implacable struggles against diabolical “others,” was extended to the New World, and then with the stories of human sacrifice, sexual promiscuity, sodomy, etc., that came back to Europe, the logic was reinforced back in Europe, too. Ultimately, Caliban and the Witch is an important historical corrective. It shows that capitalism arose not as an organic process of improved systems and technological breakthroughs supplanting older, less efficient, superstitious primitive societies. Rather it arose through the violent imposition of divisions, showing that primitive accumulation, the beginning process of capitalism, required sustained barbarism and a hysterical and systematic century-long attack on women. And that process eventually went considerably beyond women:

“Thus, primitive accumulation has been above all an accumulation of differences, inequalities, hierarchies, divisions, which have alienated workers from each other and even from themselves.”

We must note also the return of the language of “evil” and the dependence on “other”izing (esp. Islam and its believers) easily seen among Bush and his legions of Christian fanatic followers. The so-called attempt to bring ‘democracy’ to the Middle East is obviously a lie. But interesting that the same language of diabolical possession that was crucial to the imposition of high levels of exploitation at the dawn of capitalism is now being directed at millions of workers that happen to be living on the largest supply of oil in the world. Here again we find the work of Federici and her comrades in Midnight Notes most helpful. Check out the 1992 book Midnight Oil for a longer look at oil politics and class struggle since the late 1960s.

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