[OPE-L] Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation Silvia Federici

From: Rakesh Bhandari (bhandari@BERKELEY.EDU)
Date: Fri Apr 22 2005 - 22:36:11 EDT

It would be interesting to read this book in conjunction with Londa
Schiebinger's much heralded recent study Plants and  Empire: Colonial
Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World (Harvard  University Press, fall
2004)--Schiebinger  lays out  how knowledge of the exotic
abortifacients: used in the New world as a method of resistance by
slave women was suppressed in Europe by the mercantilists such as
Colbert who maintained that the key to wealth was the size of the
work force.  Hers is thus a study in the cultural production of
ignorance, as I learned in a recent talk by her.

"Witches of the 'First International'"
Steven Colatrella
Reviewing Caliban and the Witch:
Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation
Silvia Federici [Autonomedia, Brooklyn, 2004]

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!"

1.      "Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive
Accumulation" -
http://bookstore.autonomedia.org/index.cgi?cart_id=4253716.2852&pid=4072.      "Caliban and the Witch" -

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