Rewriting of History - Caliban and the Witch by Silvia Federici

Thanks to Doll Yoko for making us aware of Caliban and the Witch - Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation by Silvia Federici. In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici looks at the transition from feudalism to capitalism from the point of view of 'women, the body and primitive accumulation'. Her key thesis is that the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th century were instrumental to establishing a new capitalist order through 'the development of a 'new sexual division of labour subjugating women's labour and women's reproductive function to the reproduction of the workforce.' Yet by telling the story also from Caliban's point of view, symbol of the 'trans-Atlantic' proleterian, Federici achieves what she claims: to transcend the dichotomy between "gender" and "class". This book is also a brilliant description of the process of primitive accumulation, in particular the enclosures of the common land starting at the end of the middle age and the various forms of resistance to that by renegade women and the 'motley crowd' of the working classes.

In Caliban and the witchCitekey 559 not found Federici looks at the 'development of capitalism from a feminist viewpoint while at the same time avoiding the limits of a "women's history" separated from that of the male part of the working class'. (Introduction, p 11) This is reflected in the title "Caliban and the Witch" inspired by the Shakespeare play The Tempest. In Federici's interpretation Caliban is not only the symbol of anti-colonial resistance, but also for the world proletariat and, "more specifically, for the proletarian body as a terrain and instrument of resistance to the logic of capitalism."

Federici puts Sycorax, the mother of Caliban and a powerful 'witch', center stage of the narration. Federici's main thesis is that the witch hunts of the 16th and 17th century were not just some strange and tragic quirk of history during the transition from feudalism to capitalism, but central to the formation of the new capitalist order. The power of women had to be broken in order for capitalism to succeed. Sycorax, the witch, is the "embodiment of a world of female subjects that capitalism had to destroy: the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the obeha woman who poisoned the master's food and inspired the slaves to revolt."

Federici rethinks the process of primitive accumulation, which is so central to Marx, as it is 'treated by Marx as a foundational process, revealing the structural conditions for the existence of capitalist society.' (p 12) She states that where she differs from Marx is that while he considers it more or less exclusively from the viewpoint of male waged proletariat, Federici examines it 'from the viewpoint of the changes it introduced in the social position of women and the production of labor power.' (p. 12) In her account she highlights 'the development of a 'new sexual division of labour subjugating women's labour and women's reproductive function to the reproduction of the workforce,' [...] 'the construction of a new patriarchal order based upon the exclusion of women from waged work and their subordination to men' [...] and 'the transformation of the female body into a machine for the production of new workers.'

Federici places the witchhunts of the 16th and 17th century at the center of her analysis of 'primitive accumulation' claiming that 'the persecution of the witches in Europe as in the New World, was as important as colonization and the expropriation of the European peasantry from its land were for the development of capitalism.' ( all quotes p. 12) Federici argues that 'primitive accumulation did not just happen in the past but was an ongoing process with new enclosures of common world on a massive scale and even the reappearance of witch hunts, which was part of the motivation for her to write this book.

Federici connects with traditions of feminist scholars who established a convincing framework regarding an explanation of the witch hunt according to which it served to 'destroy the control that women had exercised over their reproductive function and paved the way for the development of a more reppressive patriarchal regime' (p 14). Federici posits that her work goes beyond this general point -- which has been widely acknowledged -- and investigates the 'specific historical circumstances under which the persecution of the witches was unleashed and the reasons why the rise of capitalism demanded a genocidal attack on women.' (p. 14) Federici claims that her analysis allows to transcend the dichotomoy between 'gender' and 'class'; she argues that gender is not merely a cultural construct, as postmodernists have claimed, since (paraphrasing now) 'in capitalist society "femininity" has been constituted as a work-function, masking the production of the work force under the cover of a biologic destiny. If this is true then "women's" history is "class history" and 'therefore "women" is a legitimate category of analysis and the activities associated with "reproduction" remain a crucial battle ground for women now as they were in the 1970ies.' (page 14) Federici's introduction ends with a convincing critique of Focault's concept of 'bio-power' and the analysis he puts forward in his History of Sexuality (Focault 1978) as "gender-blind" (pages 15 - 16).

Heavy Theory Artillery

So far this is all quite convincing although Federici sounds sometimes a bit heavy handed on the theoretic side. When 'the logic of capitalism' in its foundational phase demanded an attack on women on a genocidal scale, which may be true, then still it is necessary to ask who is behind this, who is the historical actor? Are there identifiable people, groups, a class who perpetrated those crimes for specific interests or is there no specific historic actor as such, is it rather just the 'logic of capitalism' which is at work here? This is an important question on the metalevel of any historic explanation. Who are the players here, concrete identifiable people or historic 'forces', 'logics', 'mechanisms', 'demons'??? I am asking a bit heretically here, does the hunt for an explanation of the witch hunt produce another 'demon' in the shape of the logic of capitalism? Or 'primitive accumulation'? I think Federici is well aware of this problem of agency in historic explanation and at crucial moments in her book she admits that her evidence is sometimes 'circumstantial'. She also writes in the Introduction that more research is necessary to clarify the connections that she is making.

But luckily Federici's book is not just a theory book but primarily a history book and as such it is full of well researched facts which can be disputed or disproved or found true, but the main thing, the research is there, on the shelf, to be examined, savoured or, yes, read in one go, as in my case. There are so many interesting points of departure in this book for further research, I can hardly name them all. First of all, besides the main witch hunt thesis, the book contains a wealth of facts about the enclosures of the commons during the phase of primitive accumulation, as a necessary step to what follows.

The first chapter, "All the World Needs a Jolt" talks about Social Movements and Political Crisis in medieval Europe. I was aware of quite a bit of the heresy and more official religious madness going on at that time but not what extent that had had and particularly how this could be re-examined from a viewpoint of class struggle, resistance, uprisals and revolts which runs totally 'contrary to the schoolbook portrait of feudal society as a static world, in which each estate accepted its designated place in the social order.' (page 26) I had also not been aware that women in many areas were more 'liberated' in the middle age, in particular through access to land which allowed them a level of self-subsitency. This connects to more well known things such as that there were types of traditional knowledge about herbs and their properties which were passed on along the female line. I was particularly unaware of the fact that ion the late middle ages as women migrated to the cities they gained access to many jobs that were later considered 'male' such as 'smiths, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, hat-makers, ale-brewers, wool-carders and retailers,' (p 31), that female employment during that era between the 13 hundreds and 15 hundreds was was on a very high level and that in some places, such as for instance Frankfurt women participated in app. 200 occupations and were also members of most of the guilds (paraphrased from page 31).

However, when Federici states that during the era of the witch hunts women generally suffered a worsening of their social positions, she does not imply that during the middle ages it was all a merry may pole dance. The christian church had a long history of trying to control sexual behaviour and reducing the seductive sexual power that women have over men (paraphrased, page 37). Women played in important role in the heretic movements, some of which celebrated "free love" which could at once have been 'a male ploy designed to gain easy access to women's sexual favors' or a result of the demonisation of sexuality by the church so that women joined heretic movements because they would enjoy a better status and more freedom among them (p. 39).

Voices of anti-colonial resistance

It is a particular strength of Federici's analysis that despite the feminist viewpoint she does not separate 'women' issues from 'class' issues and narrates the stories of various forms of resistance and class struggle from a viewpoint that joins those issues together so that it becomes clear that male and femal 'underclasses' were often united in those struggles. In this regard, I am reading Caliban and the Witch together with The Many Headed Hydra: sailors, slaves, commoners, and the hidden history of the revolutionary AtlanticCitekey 576 not found. The two books are referencing each other, so one can assume the authors have been aware of each others work for a bit. In sum, those books impress because of the never ending spirit of resistence that combines classes, genders and ethnicities in the 'anti-globalisation' struggles of a past which continues till today.1

In this regard, I am interested in digging deeper to find more specific voices. The play The Tempest is one good starting point in this regard, while Ben Jonson seems to be the more interesting dramatician, and the ruthlessness of Francis Bacon is another important thread. Federici does also treat the subject matter of the 'onset' (in my interpretation) of the scientific mindset through Descartes and the formation of the scientific spirit amidst the most deadly century, from about 1580 to 1680, when wars, disease the loss of common land and colonialisation pressure led to the witch hunts. The interest in anatomic theatres and dissections of the body are further ingredients to be considered when reflecting the formation of the new 'modern' subjectivities. This relationship between science, white magic and the burning of witches ... What I have read so far only confirms that those alternative histories are not yet fully told. The colonial mindset permeating even the structuring of the sciences themselves long made impossible such a consideration of an account of globalisation from below. This is an area which I will do more follow-up work on, to develop the 'voices' thread of my PhD research. I will investigate anti-colonial struggle in music, from Mento to Choro and Samba, and other 'proto' forms of modern styles such as Ska, Reggae, Funk, etc.

  • 1. This leads Federici to a particular damning criticism of the bourgeoisie. 'While we are often told that the rise of democracy is due to a heroic struggle of the middle class against feudal aristocracy', Federici shows that 'already in the middle ages the bourgeoisie sacrificed their cherished political autonomy' and collaborated with the aristocracy to hold down the restive proletariat.' (page 50)


I've also just finished this

I've also just finished this book and have found it really useful. I don't have the book to hand so these comments are based on what is fresh in my mind, but...

I particularly appreciated the way she outlines the comparative agency, participation and general empowerment experienced by women prior to the process of primitive accumulation, without conjuring as you say a 'merry maypole dance' or any misplaced feminist nostalgia for the feudal era. I find this important, as while she ultimately has a convincing argument tying together the rise of capitalism with female subjugation, she's not attempting to subsume patriarchy as just another sub-categorical facet of the advance of capitalism (which in discursive terms all too easily allows feminist concerns to remain the little 'gender question' amongst the male-centric morass); instead recognising it as a pre-existing condition that, she seems to argue, was widened in scope and instrumentalised.

I found the section on colonial issues less convincing, and not as broadly discussed- one large part of her argument she made clear was still highly provisional and needed further study. Her argument mainly seemed to be 'and then they used the same ideological apparatuses over there'. It might just be my eurocentric perspective that saw this section drawn a little less clearly.

I mainly liked the way she challenged and turned over a number of 'progress'-minded assumptions about the periods involved in the transition. The usual narrative of a benevolent Enlightenment rationalism ushering in the end of witch craft, herbal lore, female midwifery and other non-classically-Rational practices via its philo-sophy; or the claim that the prosperity produced by Enclosure was universal and trickled down to all levels of society. It was good to see these tackled and challenged as needed.

I recently republished a section on the Enclosures from Caliban and the Witch over at Pipeline , alongside one such classical narrative, just to note the contrast.