Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation

A&S News Wire
www.auto_sol.tao.ca
September, 2004

Reviewed by Steven Colatrella

During the 16th and 17th century, hundreds of thousands of women were burned as witches across Europe. This holocaust, unprecedented in the history of any society before or since, is at the center of this brilliant new book by Silvia Federici, an early opponent of the IMF’s role in Third World countries and veteran feminist theorist. This book is the most important new work on the origins of capitalism to appear in thirty years, since Immanual Wallerstein’s The Modern World System. For activists today, Caliban and the Witch is more relevant and useful to our anticapitalist struggles and movements. For the inspiration for the book came from the author’s years in Nigeria where she witnessed and participated in struggles against IMF and World Bank structural adjustment and privatization of land and resources. The book is part and parcel of the anticapitalist globalization movement (or global justice movement) and links the struggles at the dawn of the capitalist era with those in Chiapas, in Bolivia, in the oil fields of southern Nigeria, in the forests of Indonesia, against privatization of communally owned land and wealth.

What do the witch trials in Europe have to do with capitalism? It is the main task of this book to answer this question. In doing so, it ranges far and wide, reinterpreting the history of several centuries from the point of view of the class struggle and the struggles of women in often startling ways. In the process of answering it, Federici teaches readers about the staggering level of mass struggle by workers and peasants in the late Middle Ages, about the role of the philosophers Descartes and Hobbes in reshaping human nature to become more useful to capitalist exploitation, and about the vast struggles of women suppressed in the horrors of witch burning. Workers and peasants, often organized in widespread heretical networks such as the Cathars — networks Federici terms, “the real First International”, fought for freedom from Feudal obligations, against Church power and for the communal ownership of land and resources — seeking not only to abolish the old Feudal system, but to prevent the new capitalist one from coming into being. In doing so, workers, often led by women, gained control of several cities in the late 14th century, establishing the first workers’ democracies, centuries before the Paris Commune or the Russian Revolution. In the 16th century Germany and parts of what is today the Czech Republic saw gigantic uprisings of virtually the whole working populations. Most of these revolts were drowned in blood, while others were outmaneuvered by a new strategy of the ruling classes to prevent their own overthrow: capitalism.

The ruling elites of Europe, under siege, needed to accomplish several goals: to find a substitute workforce for the rebellious workers, urban and rural in Europe; to privatize land and expropriate from it the village populations who were the basis of the heretical and other revolts; and to alter the way humans thought about and used their bodies so as to enforce a new kind of regular work-discipline without which capitalism would be impossible. The first of these goals was accomplished through the conquest of the Americas and the enslavement of Africans and of indigenous peoples of the New World — the rise of a plantation economy and with it of a world market for capitalism’s commodities — silver, gold, sugar, tobacco, later cotton. The second was accomplished by what is known to history as the Enclosures movement: in medieval Europe, much land was owned communally and managed democratically by assemblies of peasants in the villages. The Enclosures, in England and Scotland, were legislative acts privatizing communal lands (the commons) to be the property of the local barons or lords. For Marx, the Enclosures constituted the basis of primitive accumulation of capital: the initial theft of property that produced a proletariat — a propertyless population available for work for others, and the initial wealth for capital investment. Marx acknowledged the importance as well of slavery and colonial conquest and genocide but it is African and African-American as well as Latin American authors who have stressed the importance of the role of these massive events. Federici ties each of these together seamlessly to retell the story of the origins of capitalism as a counter-revolutionary process, but she adds the other great event of these centuries, restoring the witch-trials to their rightful place alongside the slave trade, colonialism and enclosures.

For to abolish the commons, a protracted process that was not complete in Europe in the 20th century, it was necessary to divide the unity of men and women, villagers and urban artisans that had produced the crisis of the ruling classes in the first place. The Witch Trials, and the nightmarish burning of hundreds of thousands of women as witches in towns across Europe for two centuries accomplished this: first by breaking the power of women who were often leaders collectively and individually of the revolutions; second by forcing men to decide whether to risk their lives to save the women from the stake; third by enabling capitalism to impose on women reproductive work: that is to turn women’s bodies into a machines for producing laborers, and taking away their control over reproduction itself (many witches were midwives); finally, those most in need of the commons, and therefore most willing to fight to defend it, as a place to graze animals, grow herbs or garden, collect firewood, berries or other foods, or to build a house on, were likely to be elderly women or single mothers, those most vulnerable and in need of the social security system provided by the common lands. The origins of the stereotypes of witches stem from these struggles.

The suppression of women was the central part of a process of redefining the human body itself from a sacred repository for the soul, or an animal body capable of pleasure to a work-machine available for capitalism. In order to accomplish this, practical and theoretical changes were needed. The practical changes in the use of the human body were taught by torture and burning – as women, and many men, learned as heretics and then as witches what the price was of using one’s body for purposes other than to produce profits for bosses. The theoretical changes were accomplished by Descartes and Hobbes, who developed mechanical models of the body – animal and human – which saw it as merely a set of related mechanisms or automatic responses (Descartes went so far as to vivisect animals denying that they could feel pain — as they were merely nature’s windup toys).

This reinterpretation goes beyond the limitations of Foucault, who developed a history of the body that is gender-biased toward men, as he failed to address the changes occurring to women at the time: criminalization of birth control, prostitution, and midwifery, severe punishment for abortion which had previously been tolerated, tolerance for rape; the torture, mutilation and fiery death for women who were too free with their sexuality, who aborted pregnancies or who were now too old to reproduce more labor power from their wombs. Later, the same methodologies were used against women, who were able to maintain some of their social power over land and reproduction, in the colonial New World.

Each page of this book has insights, connections and new approaches to old debates, making it a monumental achievement of scholarship for the anticapitalist movement. An extremely readable work, free of academic jargon, but meticulously researched (reading the footnotes is like reading a second, equally rewarding book), this book, at about $16, should be on every antiglobalization activist and feminist bookshelf in years to come. Federici has provided us with an understanding of the rise of capitalism appropriate for and useful to our struggles today: to stop the privatization of everything, to defend abortion rights and stop the use of biotechnology to take human generation out of the hands of women and put it into the hands of capital, to defend nature itself and its animals and seeds from corporate control and from a capitalist paradigm that threatens the continuation of life itself. Enough to recall the great chant of Italian women at marches in the 1970s: “tremate, tremate, le streghe sono tornate”: “tremble, tremble, the witches have returned!”

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