Caliban and the Witch
Women the Body and Primitive Accumulation
(Sylvia Federici, Autonomedia 2004)
Please note that a tidier and shorter version of this review is appearing in the journal Upping the Anti (#2) in December 2005.
(for information on Upping the Anti please visit the Autonomy and Solidarity website.)
If you are just joining us, you may prefer to start with the First Installment which you can view here.
“Capitalism was the response of the feudal lords, the patrician merchants, the bishops and popes, to a centuries-long social conflict that, in the end, shook their power […] Capitalism was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle – possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us the immense destruction of lives and the natural environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide.” 
The term “counter-revolution” should be explained, as it might be understood as a reactionary offensive to restore or maintain the status quo. In actual fact, most counter-revolutions do not do this, rather they re-organize society in a new and more brutal way; like Nazism or the Taliban, what we are really talking about is a revolution from the right.
These analogies are chosen with care, for Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries bears a striking similarity to fascist and fundamentalist societies in our own time. Repression and control were the watchwords of the day, in fact modern medicine, psychology, demographics and the social sciences all developed at this time in a grand effort to learn how to make people “fit” into the straitjacket of capitalist relations.
As in Hitler’s Germany and the Taliban’s Afghanistan, the metaphysical nature of the human being herself was re-conceptualized: it was at this time that intellectuals separated the body from the mind (or conscience, or soul), leaving it a fleshy machine to be governed by either the disciplined individual or the State. Feelings like lust, hunger, anger and fatigue were all blamed on this “mindless” body, now described as a rebellious subject that needed to be tamed. As it came to be more and more repressed, those outside the realm of formal production – children, women, colonial subjects and people living outside of capitalism – all came to be associated with an ever-more wild, earthy, sexual and “natural” carnality. Patriarchal capitalism’sfetishes for Black and female bodies are ascribed to this process: “For the definition of blackness and femaleness as marks of bestiality and irrationality conformed with the exclusion of women in Europe and women and men in the colonies from the social contract implicit in the wage, and the consequent naturalization of their exploitation.”
The idea of a “mind/body dichotomy” being part of capitalist relations had a certain currency in feminist and anarchist circles back in the 1980s, and Mies referred to it as a “colonizing division,” though without any of the explanatory rigor found here. Over the past twenty years it has never been completely abandoned, but has found itself increasingly left to the practitioners of post-modernist mumbo jumbo, relegated to the margins of most serious political analysis. In plain language and without recourse to spiritual or flakey concepts Federici convincingly explains how this self-alienation resulted from the brutality and violence of early capitalism.
At the same time as individuals were now supposed to be disciplined and deny themselves any “unproductive” pleasures, popular culture was also being attacked by the new capitalist intelligentsia. People had previously had a communal culture that was rich in games, folklore and ritual, and this now had to be suppressed or radically re-crafted: “taverns were closed, along with public baths. Nakedness was penalized, as were many other ‘unproductive’ forms of sexuality and sociality. It was forbidden to drink, swear, curse.” Magical beliefs and superstitions, which often encouraged the belief that one might “get something for nothing,” were also attacked: “How could the new entrepreneurs impose regular work patterns on a proletariat anchored in the belief that there are lucky and unlucky days, that is, days on which one can travel and others on which one should not move from home, days on which to marry and others on which every enterprise should be carefully avoided?”
This suppression of people’s bodies and culture was the more sophisticated side of capitalist “progress,” but Federici also describes the many ways in which people were forced off of their land, including the Enclosures,the fencing off of common land which peasants depended on for their survival. Yet even once they were landless, too many preferred to take their chances in the teeming counter-culture of vagabonds, beggars and rebels than work for a wage. This led to “the introduction of ‘bloody laws’ against vagabonds, intended to bind workers to the jobs imposed on them, as once the serfs had been bound to the land, and the multiplication of executions.”
You can view the first installment of this review here and you can read the third installment (which comes next) here.
13] Federici, pp. 21-22. [back to text]
14] Federici, p. 200. [back to text]
15] Mies, p. 210. [back to text]
16] I would qualify this by acknowledging that the concept has retained slightly more currency in the queer and feminist movements, and remains central to the anti-psych movement, though these movements are perhaps also less firmly entrenched in the left now than they were twenty years ago. [back to text]
17] Federici, pp. 136-137. [back to text]
18] Federici, p.142. [back to text]
19] Federici, p. 136. [back to text]
Categories: anti-psych, autonomous-marxism, body-politics, book-review, caliban-and-the-witch, capitalism, europe, fascism, history, sexuality