Caliban and the Witch
Women the Body and Primitive Accumulation
(Sylvia Federici, Autonomedia 2004)
Back in May, at the Montreal Anarchist Bookfair, i bought a copy of Silvia Federici's latest book, Caliban and he Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation. Suffice to say, i was very impressed. A couple of months later, re-reading it for the second or third time, i decided to start writing notes, both about what i agreed with and what i disagreed with. Back in August i sent out an email saying i was now stocking the book, and that i would be writing more about it on my website. Friends from Upping the Anti, a revolutionary journal of theory and action, asked if i could whip my thoughts into a proper review and that's what i did...
Women’s oppression is a subject at the center of our struggle forhuman liberation, but serious discussions as to why women suffer distinctforms of oppression, and why rape and other violence is so important in this,have generally been beyond the scope of most left analysis. What we get instead are platitudes about “culture,” “backwardness” and “personal attitudes,” occasionally slipping into plain old biological determinism in materialistdrag.
While there are no definitive answers yet, Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch is a welcome addition to a growing list of works thattake these questions seriously from an anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist perspective. In so doing, previously “invisible” forms of oppression and resistance are brought to light, and this “peripheral” question is shown to be central not only to capitalist history, but also to our unfinished quest to find a road out of it.
Karl Marx pointed out long ago that the transition from feudalism to capitalism required a special form of “accumulation” (or what some might call “wealth creation”) that differed from the “normal” exploitation of the wage worker. He referred to this as “primitive accumulation” (primitive as in “what came first”), noting that capital came to the world “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”
Marx was talking about the super-exploitation of indigenous people in the colonies and slaves in America, but “primitive accumulation” was supposed to stay “primitive,” i.e. it was meant to be specific to early capitalism, to the transition away from feudalism. It was fifty years later that one of his keenest students, Rosa Luxemburg, pointed out that “capitalism in
its full maturity also depends in all respects on non-capitalist strata and social organizations existing side by side with it.” It is continually forced to suck in these “non-capitalist social strata,” and in the process “whole peoples are destroyed and ancient cultures flattened.”
More recently, two different tendencies within the feminist movement have each developed ideas which, together, help throw added light on this ongoing process of accumulation. The first, centered around Selma James, Mariarosa Dalla Costa and the Wages for Housework Campaign, exposed the way in which women’s unpaid labour, especially housework, conforms to the Maxist definition of exploitation. Capitalism receives a real material benefit from this work, as it offloads the cost of maintaining and raising male wage workers on to the female proletariat.
The second tendency grew out of struggles in the Third World, where women first exposed the hidden relationship between capitalism, violence, and patriarchal oppression. These women pointed out that violence and sexism have always accompanied both the colonialism of the past and present-day neo-colonialism. It was German feminist Maria Mies’ book Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale (first published in English in 1986) that synthesized many of these ideas and first brought them to the attention of First World leftists.
Drawing on the experiences of the Indian feminist movement, Mies convincingly showed how accumulation continues to depend on the unwaged labour of women and the dispossession of peasants, especially (but not only) in the Third World. This process is often qualitatively different from how Marxists traditionally understand exploitation, as it is not surplus that is being extracted but the very necessities of life, so that capitalist violence often verges on genocide. Mies argued that this has always been a necessary (but hidden)part of capitalism, and that the first people to be victimized in this way were the women who were murdered in the Witch Hunt in 16th and 17th century Europe.
This body of knowledge forms the background to Caliban and the Witch, which is in many ways similar to Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale but focuses much more on Europe, while bringing the author’s own autonomous Marxist perspective to bear on the subject at hand. This book is very much a history of the making of the European working class, a re-telling of the birth of capitalism, with women at the center of the story. While there is some repetition from chapter to chapter (one suspects that some of them could stand on their own), the picture painted is moving and accessible, and Federici draws on an abundance of scholarly sources. Unfortunately, while the story tends to progress chronologically, there is a lot of going back and forth by hundreds of years at a time and jumping from one country to another, which sometimes makes it difficult to grasp in what actual order and fashion certain things occurred. However, this is a minor matter, and does not detract from the story as it is told.
Federici does not discuss distant human origins, antiquity, or indigenous civilizations before colonialism, but starts out in Europe’s “High” Middle Ages. The ruling class at that time consisted of the Church and the various warlords who formed a continental military caste known as the nobility. Most people were serfs: peasants who were not allowed to move from “their” plot of land, whose property and persons were not their own, who were forced to labour and submit to the authority of the lord, who was often boss, policeman, judge and executioner rolled into one.
Yet contrary to popular belief, this was a world in revolt, where the poor were winning and the ruling class was on the defensive. Serfdom would eventually be abolished, not as a result of aristocratic benevolence, but in reaction to struggles by the serfs themselves. Not only the covert “weapons of the weak” (such as sabotage, foot-dragging, theft, etc.), but also in organized armed religious-political movements that swept across the continent. These “heretical sects” attracted hundreds of thousands of people, and openly called for a classless society, often specifically rejecting gender hierarchies as well as hierarchies of wealth. Not surprisingly, there were a disproportionately large number of women among those who banded together and took up arms against the powers that be, in what Federici describes as the first proletarian international.
These women were not acting as sidekicks or girlfriends or wives, but in their own right, and for their own reasons. These are women, we are told, who “were less dependent on their male kin, less differentiated from them physically, socially, and psychologically, and were less subservient to men’s needs than ‘free’ women were to be later in capitalist society.”
Women, however, were not in the same boat as men, and this division persists throughout our story, repeatedly determining the very course of European history. The fact is that with each offensive on the part of the ruling class, each advance in exploitation, women were particularly hard hit. If, as Walter Rodney wrote, “the increase in productive capacity was accompanied by increasing inequality at all stages,” then Federici shows that this also implies inequality between men and women. So medieval “women’s struggles” were not separate from “class struggles” (any more than they are today), rather they were class struggles in their own right. Gender, we are told, “should be treated as a specification of class relations.”
Other Marxists (and anarchists) have written about the heresies, and over the past fifty years many women have shown that these revolts “had gender.” Several authors have also uncovered the fact that there was a definite queer element to many of the sects concerned. Almost one thousand years ago, these people were expressing a unity of struggle which survives in broken form even today, no matter how much assimilated queers, career women and left-wing defenders of heterosexuality may insist otherwise. So while this is not groundbreaking stuff, it all bears repeating.
These sects were the chief political alternative to feudal oppression, and the seriousness of their challenge kept on intensifying, until it took the form of actual warfare in the early 15th century. At the same time there was an acute labour shortage, an aftereffect of the plague that had killed off a third of the population one hundred years earlier. This fact in particular gave workers and peasants the upper hand in determining their labour’s worth, and so wages skyrocketed, doubling and even tripling, while prices, rents and the length of the work day all dropped. As the feudal economy failed, self-sufficient communities began to form.
“‘Now is the time’ – the sentence that recurs in the letters of [peasant rebel] John Ball – well illustrates the spirit of the European proletariat at the close of the 14th century, a time when, in Florence, the wheel of fortune was beginning to appear on the walls of taverns and work-shops, to symbolize the imminent change of lot.” 
One gets the impression that class rule might have been overthrown, that a radically different world was within reach. If the ruling class had only stuck to its old ways...
You can view the Second Installment of this review here and the Third Installment here and the Fourth Installment here - or you can view the whole thing on the Kersplebedeb site in html or pdf format.
1] A problematic term, which begs the questions “invisible to whom?” [back to text]
2] Marx, Karl. Capital, Vol. I.. Library of Economics and Liberty.
[back to text]
3] Luxemburg, Rosa The Accumulation of Capital; Edited by Dr. W. Stark, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd; 1951. (Originally written and published in 1913.) [back to text]
4] Luxemburg, Rosa The Junius Pamphlet. Written while the author was in prison in 1915, it was published in 1916 in Zurich and distributed illegally in Germany. [back to text]
5] Historians consider the Middle Ages to be that period between 500 and 1500 AD. The High Middle Ages are normally dated between 1000 and 1300 AD. [back to text]
6] I borrow this term from he book of the same name by James Scott, Weapons of the Weak : Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (Yale University 1985). [back to text]
7] Federici, p. 25. [back to text]
10] While not a scholarly work, Arthur Evans’ Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture: A Radical View of Western Civilization and Some of the People It Has Tried to Destroy (Fag Rag Books, 1978) is the earliest sympathetic formulation of this argument that I know of; more
recent and more scholarly works include John Boswell’s Christianity, social tolerance, and homosexuality : gay people in Western Europe from the beginning of the Christian era to the fourteenth century (University of Chicago Press, c1980) and Jeffrey Richards’ Sex, dissidence, and damnation : minority groups in the Middle Ages (Routledge 1991). [back to text]
11] Federici, p. 47. [back to text]
12] Federici, p. 45 [back to text]
Categories: autonomous-marxism, book-review, caliban-and-the-witch, capitalism, europe, feminism, heresies, history, middle-ages, revolution, women