Caliban and the Witch

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* Book: The Caliban and the Witch. Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation. By Silvia Federici.



From the reading notes of Michel Bauwens, 2005:

This is "A history of the body in the transition to capitalism". It came strongly recommended as the 'third essential book' on the history of capitalism, together with Fernand Braudel and Karl Polany."

A key debate in the 70's feminist movement was: "is women's oppression a continuation of feudal domination, or, essential to capitalist development ? Does it have roots in culture or in the mode of production ?

Della Costa and James (?) had argued that unpaid household work was crucial for capitalist accumulation and reproduction of labor power. Thus patriarchy can be historicized as a function of class. With a first book in Italy in the 1984, the author started focusing on the transition to capitalism. An experience in Nigeria (84-86), convinced her of similar processes to 16-17th cy Europe, still going on. Central for capitalism is a destruction of Commons (communal lands) and family structures.

Clearly in her mind, capitalism is a regression for women. The preface concludes with a worry that historical consciousness of common struggles is being erased from the new generation. She wants to study the transition to capitalism using Feminist, Foucauldian and Marxist perspectives, i.e. from the point of view of

Primitive accumulation is the foundational process which structures the conditions for capitalism. Bot Marx paid little attention to the new subjugation of women that it entailed and thought that the original violence would be subsumed under economic laws, which this author denies. Furthermore, he ignored the witch hunts, which she considers as important as colonization and the expropriation of peasants. The witch-hunts, a genocidal attack on women, aimed at breaking their reproductive control. As Foucault and many feminists have shown, the female body has been a prime target of power techniques.

"The body has been for women in capitalist society what the factory has been for the male waged workers."

Body politics are therefore very important and she critiques Foucault for writing about it from the point of view of the universal, abstract, a-sexual subject (and she also seem to decry Negri in saying that sexism and racism are necessary to capitalism).

Social Movements and Political Crises in Medieval Europe

Capitalism is predicated on the destruction of the power of women. It was not an evolutionary development but a counter-revolution against the anti-feudal struggles. The myth that capitalism is a 'higher' form of social life must be dispelled. According to Federici, anti-feudal struggles produced a real alternative. To explain this, she turns to history. Serfdom was born in the 5th to 7th cy. AD, to replace both slavery (slaves got land to tie them to the land) and free peasants. Serfs, though subjected to the lord of the manor, were less victim of cruel punishments (replaced by customary law), and through their plot of land, they had access to their own reproduction.

This gave them negotiating power. In addition, the existence of a commons, fostered cooperation. Though the village was unequal, and women were second-class citizens, she was relatively independent of her husband. Married women co-owned the land and the power of a male serf was limited by that of his lord. The work was less differentiated than in capitalist times. Household work was seen as real work. Female work was also strongly communal in character, giving them a measure of collective power.

In the 14th cy., the struggle of the serfs became endemic, but even before life on the manor was full of strife, through litigation, but also armed conflict. Corvee and military service were strongly resisted, as were taxes, especially the arbitrary 'taillage" (levied at will). By the 13th cy. many villages had won charters (granting forms of autonomy) and the right to commute corvee in money. But while the latter favored the richer peasants, it pushed the poorer ones into debt and many started losing their land. It both proletarianized peasants as well as creating a class of capitalist tenants.

Thus it would be wrong to see it as univocal progress. The same system impoverished many women but those who fled the cities gained a measure of autonomy, entering many new professions. Federici distinguishes between millenarism and popular heresies. The former promising imminent total change, being spontaneous and unorganized, spurned by charismatic individuals or unusual events; prone to collapse. (mostly 13th cy.)

Heretic movements were more durable attempts at building a new society. They were durable, and the most important opposition movement in medieval society. The anti-natalist strands of the Cathars and others, must be seen in the context of the social conditions regarding sexuality (the 'no land, no marriage' rule, leading to late marriages), and the politicization of it by the Church, leading to warfare against heretics as ascetics or libertines. The Lateran Council of the 11th cy had greatly extended the attempts at control of sexuality, already evident through the use of the Penitentials, (confessional guides) which contained minute instructions. A crucial aspect was reproductive control through herbs. Among the heretics, unlike in the Church, women had important equal roles.

The Black Death (1347-52), which had followed a Great Famine and decimated one third of the population, shook feudalism to its foundation, as it led to a formidable labor crisis. Wages rose, and widespread peasant revolts demanded an end to servitude (in many places successful). The 15th cy was a golden age for laborers. By the end of the 14th cy land bondage had practically disappeared, replaced by free farmers. This living standard remained unparalleled until the 19th cy. But by the end of the 15th cy, a counter-revolution started to take shape, taking the form of a sexual politics. Around that period started a tolerated practice of group rapes against servant girls. It promoted misogyny and destroyed the lives of the women involved.

Around that period, municipalities started organizing prostitution, present in every city and town. The stare started to become the manager of class relations. It started to pass laws enforcing maximum wages, punishing vagrancy, etc. .. Nobility, bourgeoisie, and Church started to unite to defeat the proletarian menace. Federici rejects arguments that the peasant struggles had a 'too limited outlook' and that the bourgeoisie was a progressive force. It is the class alliance of the elite, which called for the creation of an absolute state.

The Accumulation of Labor and the Degradation of Women

Capitalism was not the only possible outcome of the anti-feudal struggles, but the peasant movements were crushingly defeated in Germany and Munster. Colonialism and the witch-hunts did the rest to end this revolutionary period. But feudal society could no longer reproduce itself and a crisis of accumulation occurred. The high-wage-low rent regime excluded capitalist accumulation. This is what launched the colonial enterprises, but the period 1450-1650 was no linear transition, but an extremely brutal process.

The concept of 'primitive accumulation', because it stresses the divorcing of the worker from the means of production, and not the thrift and abstinence of the bourgeoisie, is a good one for this process.

It consisted of:

   - extracting silver and gold in the Americas by enslaving the original population
   - the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies
   - African slavery
   - the expropriation of the land from the European peasantry

But Marx failed to focus on the changing status of women, and important related issues:

   - the transformation of the body into a working machine
   - the subjugation of women as reproducers of the workforce
   - the destruction of the political power of women through witch-hunts
   - serfdom was introduced in Eastern Europe though on a limited scale (1% of the population in Italy)

The differentiation of the workers on the basis of gender and race was essential to the new class rule. Two-thirds of the Native population of the America's died in just a few decades after the Conquest, setting the context for black slavery, with the Middle Passage reaching genocidal proportion.

Land Privatization and a Price Revolution started occurring at the end of the 15th cy. , but were by itself insufficient to create a self-sustaining process of proletarianization. A new type of war evolved aimed at conquering land and destroying the enemy. The Reformation annulled Church lands giving it to the upper class. In England, the Enclosures, started, originally meaning 'abolishing the open-field system'. Federici denies this was a productive advancement, saying the destruction of the commons resulted in a century of starvation.

The commons allowed many small farmers to survive, supported self-sufficiency and cooperation. For the women, with less access to the land, they were the center of social life. Federici documents the struggles against its disappearance and the role of women in it.

In production for use, work and reproductive labor have value, but in production for market, the latter loses any economic value and becomes invisible. From mow on, and culminating in the full-time housewife of the 19th cy, the male wage sufficed to accumulate unpaid labor.

Women suffered a unique process of social degradation. So, in the transition to capitalism, workers were freed from their means of subsistence, this is hardly a liberation. Rather, it was capital and the landlords who became free 'to dispose of their workers', as they wished. It was not a coincidence that, after two centuries of stagnation, food prices started to rise, leading to massive pauperisation. It led to a historical collapse of the wage levels. In a few decades, the average wage lost two-thirds of its purchasing power. Meat, plentiful in the late Middle Ages, practically disappeared from the worker's diets. Women had to turn massively to prostitution. It took four centuries for wages to reach the level it had lost (15h-19th cy).

- "The transition to capitalism inaugurated a long period of starvation for the workers of Europe." (p. 80)

Social struggles often took the form of food revolts: "The pre-capitalist world of the village, which Marx dismissed under the rubric of 'rural idiocy', could produce as high a level of struggle as any of the industrial proletariat has waged.


jonathan henderson:

"Silvia Federici offers insight into the transition to Capitalism in Medieval Europe and the ways that Patriarchy became cemented into the new economic system. She frames the transition to Capitalism as a counter-revolutionary shift instituted as a means of quelling the popular revolts that were building against feudalism. Federici argues that in order for capitalism to develop, women’s power had to be crushed, as unpaid reproductive labor was a necessary prerequisite for the development of a wage system. She discusses the ways that sexual violence, culminating in the Witch hunts, were conscious policy instituted as a means of forcing women into unpaid reproductive labor, and weeding out rebellious and unruly women who were not conforming to the new confines of life under Capitalism. She also describes the transition to capitalism in some detail, focusing particularly on the enclosure of the commons that took place during the early 16th century.

By the end of the 15th centrury, peasant uprising, often with women playing central roles, were becoming increasingly common, as people fought to undermine the power of the feudal Lords and build visions of society based on communal life. Federici write, “The social struggles of the Middle Ages must be remembered because they wrote a new chapter ino the histroy of liberation. At their best, they called for an egalitarian social order based upon the sharing of wealth and the refusal of hierarchies and authoritarian rule.” Many of these radical currents were being pushed along by various heretical sects, who’s challenge to the Christian ideology was echoed later as a justification for execution during the witch hunts.

One venue where revolutionary visions were manifested during this time were in the communally-held lands that were found all over feudal Europe. The Commons were used for subsistence by many peasant farmers and were a refuge for the landless. People built homes, grazed animals and grew food on these lands. Federici also talked about the ways that the commons served as a safety net for elderly folks and single women, allowing a degree of autonomy that was lost with the enclosure of the commons. “As soon as land was privatized and monetary relations began to dominate economic life, [women] found it more difficult then men to support themselves, being increasingly confined to reproductive labor at the very time when this works was being completely devalued.” Federici argues that this trend towards unpaid reproductive labor being defined as women’s work was a development of early Capitalism that has since become cemented into the Capitalist culture.

Federici also discussed the role of sexual violence as a tool of instituting Capitalism, essentially pointing towards the dawn of the Capitalist era as the birth of a rape culture. She writes about the policies of decriminalizing rape of poor women as a tool for “undermining the class solidarity that has been achieved in the anti-feudal struggle.” She also describes the ways that this cultural normalizing of violence against women laid the groundwork for the witch-hunt that began shortly thereafter. Federici also talks a great deal about the institutionalization of prostitution in this period as a means of diffusing workers’ protest. Brothels opened legally in every town, and prostitution became pretty much condoned by the church. In this passage, i think Federici overlooks the ways that prostitution could have been a powerful source of livelihood for many of the women engaging in the work, offering a certain level of self-reliance and autonomy that was become increasing difficult for women to attain in the early days of Capitalism.

It is in this context of unpaid reproductive labor being defined as women’s work, and the legitimatizing of a rape culture, that Federici describes women as the new commons. “Women became for male workers the substitute for the land lost to enclosures, their most basic means of reproduction, and a communal good anyone could appropriate and use at will.” The witch-hunts were a furthering of this movement towards a new Patriarchal order, one where “women’s bodies, their labor, their sexual and reproductive powers were placed under the control of the state and transformed into economic resources.” Federici argues that the witch hunts were not about punishing any specific transgression, but rather about eliminating any forms of female behavior that challenged the new social order of Capitalism.

This was an incredibly rich piece with way too much analysis for me to digest in one reading, or try to sum up here. I want to add a few notes of what it brought up for me. First of all the enclosures of the commons is a trend that still lives on clearly today — in the structural adjustment policies of the IMF and the World Bank, as well as in the push towards the privatization of water, seeds, genomes, culture, the internet — all kinds of modern commons being faced with imminent enclosure. And where ever the ruling classes seeks to steal communally held resources, there is resistance — we needn’t look far to find it. It’s also profound to recognize that Capitalism was not some kind of natural evolutionary step in human life as many would like to have us believe. Rather, it was a series of concrete policies instituted by the ruling class in a desperate attempt to cling to power. Sometimes it is hard for me to remember to look beyond this economic system that has become ubiquitous in its colonization of so many aspects of our lives. But this culture of domination, expropriation, consumption, and theft is not an ancient invention, but a relatively new one. This makes me feel reassured that we can work to get beyond it.

It’s also profound to connect to a history of white European radicalism that dates back five of six hundred years — to remember when I notice the magic of the world, or learn about plant medicine, or organize to create and ensure commonly held resources in my own community, I am connecting back to a revolutionary history that stretches back centuries and spans continents. I firmly believe that we will eventually uproot the seat of power that has for so long tried to strip us of our humanity through violence, divide us with racism, patriarchy and classism, and position itself as the only possible way of structuring the world. But the truth is that the logic of capitalism is a lie and if we can learn to draw lessons from the history of what’s come before, and to analyze clearly where we find ourselves today, we can all play powerful roles in reshaping the world into one where power rests in the hands of the many, not in the pockets of a few."