Book Notes: Caliban and the Witch

Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici
Read Sep 14, 2020 - Oct 19, 2020

In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici describes the way in which the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Western Europe (the period roughly between the 15th and 17th centuries) brough an intensification of the subjugation of women, as well as the invention of racist ideas that justified violent colonization and enslavement. The anti-woman narrative culminated in the torture and killing of thousands of women accused of being witches – as many as 100,000 women in Western Europe, according to scholars cited by Federici. These changes were part of a “process of proletarianization”: the construction of a working class, docilely laboring under capitalism. The book centers on the changes that happened in Western Europe, and touches only briefly on colonialism and slavery.

One of the many connections Federici makes is the relationship between the demonizing of assemblies of women, and the need of the ruling classes to curtail association within the emerging proletariat; this was reminiscent of some of the points that Ehrenreich makes in Dancing in the Streets. Another interesting connection is how the brutal subjugation of women was, in part, a consolation prize to keep men more content (read: less likely to rebel); men lost the enclosed commons just as women did, but at least they got free(r) access to women’s labor and bodies.

A central point that Federici emphasises is that these weren’t spontaneous cultural phenomena arising from “superstition” or ignorance. Rather, she shows that this intensification of difference between genders and ethnicites was part of a deliberate strategy to justify expropriation of resources in service of the accummulation required by the new economic order. These resources include not only the land, but also the bodies of women and black and brown colonized peoples, and even their cultures, which empowered them and therefore made them harder to discipline in service to capital.

This was an excellent read about the history of Western Europe during that time, and provides and interesting insight into the perverse ideologies under which we still live today. The idea that these differences arose as part of deliberate propaganda campaigns gives me hope: racism and sexism (and capitalism!) are not immutable “natural” phenomena, they are human inventions that we can dismantle. And we shall.

Book highlights

Primitive accumulation […] was also an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class, whereby hierarchies built upon gender, as well as “race” and age, became constitutive of class rule and the formation of the modern proletariat.

Beside encouraging collective decision-making and work cooperation, the commons were the material fondation upon which peasant solidarity and sociality could thrive. All the festivals, games, and gatherings of the peasant community were held on the commons. The social function of the commons was especially important for women, who,having less title to land and less social power, were more dependent on them for their subsistence, autonmoy, and sociality.

As soon as they lost access to land, all workers were plunged into a dependence unknown in medieval times, as their landless condition gave employers the power to cut their pay and lengthen the working-day. In Protestant areas this happened under the guise of religious reform, which doubled the work-year by eliminating the saints’ days.

[…] the physical enclosure operated by land privatization and the hedging of the commons was amplified by a process of social enclosure, the reproduction of workers shifting from the openfield to the home, from the community to the family, from the public space (the common, the church) to the private.

but it was with the introduction of public assistance that the state began to claim “ownership” of the work-force, and a capitalist “division of labor” was instituted within the ruling class, enabling employers to relinquish any responsibility for the reproduction of workers, in the certainty that the state would intervene.

It is my contention that it was the population crisis of the 16th and 17th centuries, not the end of famine in Europe in the 18th (as Foucault has argued) that turned reproduction and population growth into state matters, as well as primary objects of intellectual discourse. I further argue that the intensification of the persecution of “witches,” and the new disciplinary methods that the state adopted in this period to regulate procreation and break women’s control over reproduciton, are also to be traced to this crisis.

[…] by denying women control over their bodies, the state deprived them of the most fundamental condition for physical and psychological integrity and degraded maternity to the status of forced labor, in addition to confining women to reproductive work in a way unknown in previous societies.

But in the new organization of work every woman (other than those privatized by burgeois men) became a communal good, for once women’s activities were defined as non-work, women’s labor began to appear as a natural resource, available to all, no less than the air we breathe or the water we drink.

This policy, making it impossible for women to have money of their own, created the material conditions for their subjection to men and the appropriation of their labor by male workers. It is in this sense that I speak of the patriarchy of the wage.

Like sexism, racism had to be legislated. Among the most revealing prohibitions we must again count that marriage and sexual relations between blacks and whites were forbidden […] these laws prove that a segregated, racist society was instituted from above, and that intimate relations between “blacks” and “whites” must have been very common, indeed, if life-enslavement was deemed necessary to terminate them.

According to Max Weber, the reform of the body is at the core of the bourgeois ethic because capitalism makes acquisition “the ultimate purpose of life,” instead of treating it as a means for the satisfaction of our needs; thus, it requires that we forfeit all spontaneous enjoyment of life.

In this, Hobbes and Descartes were representatives of their time. The care they display in exploring the details of corporeal and psychological reality reappears in the Puritan analysis of inclinations and individual talents, which was the beginning of a bourgeois psychology, explicitly studying, in this case, all human faculties from the viewpoint of their potential for work and contribution to discipline.

Thus, it is no exaggeration to claim that the witch hunt was the first unifying terrain in the politics of the new European nation-states, the first example, after schism brought about by the Reformation, of a European unification. For, crossing all boundaries, the witch-hunt spread from France and Italy to Germany, Switzerland, England, Scotland, and Sweden.

If we consider the historical context in which the witch-hunt occurred, the gender and class of the accused, and the effects of the persecution, then we must conclude that witch-hunting in Europe was an attack on women’s resistance to the spread of capitalist relations and the power that women had gained by virtue of their sexuality, their control over reproduction, and their ability to heal. Witch hunting was also instrumental to the construction of a new patriarchal order where women’s bodies, their labor, their sexual and reproductive powers were placed under the control of the state and transformed into economic resources.

Just as the Enclosures expropriated the peasantry from the communal land, so the witch-hunt expropriated women from their bodies, which were thus “liberated” from any impediment preventing them to function as machines for the production of labor. For the threat of the stake erected more formidable barriers around women’s bodies than were ever erected by the fencing off of the commons.

Thus, the role that the witch-hunt has played in the devleopment of the bourgeois world, and specifically in the development of the capitalist discipline of sexuality, has been erased from our memory. Yet, we can trace back to this process some of the main taboos of our time. This is the case with homosexuality, which in several parts of Europe was still fully accepted during the Renaissance, but was weeded out in the course of the witch-hunt.

The witch-hunt came to an end, by the late 17th century, because the ruling class by this time enjoyed a growing sense of security concerning its power, not because a more enlightened view of the world had emerged.

The most significant shift, perhaps, is that in an early phase of the persecution (during the 15th-century trials) witchcraft was seen predominantly as a collective crime, relying on mass gatherings and organization, while by the 17th century it was seen as a crime of an individual nature, an evil career in which isolated witches specialied – this being a sign of the breakdown of communal bonds brought about by the increasing privatization of land tenure and the expansion of commercial relations in this period.

[…] also in the New World witch-hunting was a deliberate strategy used by the authorities to instill terror, destroy collective resistance, silence entire communities, and turn their members against each other. It was also a strategy of enclosure which, depending on the context, could be enclosure of land, bodies or social relations.

Imposing one’s power over other people is not possible without denigrating them to the point where the possibility of identification is precluded.

Pre-conquest American women had their organizations, their socially recognized spheres of activity and, while not equal to men, they were considered complementary to them in their contribution to the family and society. […] within the colonial economy, women were reduced to the condition of servants working as maids (for the encomenderos, the priests, the corregidores) or as weavers in the obrajes.

Another source of degradation for women was the new Spanish legislation which declared polygamy illegal, so that, overnight, men had to either separate from their wives or reclassify them as maids, while the children issued from these unions were labeled according to five different types of illegitimacy.

As a consequence of the life-and-death competition for vanishing resources, scores of women – generally old and poor – have been hunted down in the 1990s in Northern Transvaal, where seventy were burned just in the first four months of 1994. Witch-hunts have also been reported in Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon, in the 1980s and 1990s, concomitant with the imposition by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank of the policy of structural adjustment which has led to a new round of enclosures, and caused and unprecedented impoverishment among the population.

Tags: books, feminism

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