Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch

In high school, like many young women, my friends and I developed a fascination with witches. Years before we knew what feminism was, a sense of foreboding had developed among us, about our place in the world and our power relative to adults and to our male peers.  As ambitious teen girls wary of how we were perceived in the adult world, we sought solace in the idea that we could harness a secret and subversive power to change things. After school we concocted potions, conducted rituals and created secret languages. For a time we believed in magic.

Unknown to us, in her ground-breaking book, Caliban and The Witch, Silvia Federici argues that the witch hunts of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries served to create and enforce a newly established role in society for women, who were consigned to unpaid reproductive labour to satisfy the needs of an ascendant capitalist order. Published in 2004 and based on a research project started in the 1970s with Italian feminist Leopoldina Fortunati, Federici draws upon an eclectic mix of historical sources, re-reading the transition to capitalism from a Marxist-feminist viewpoint.

Federici presents a close reading of the European witch-hunts, in order to re-appraise the function and nature of primitive accumulation in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Her most important contribution in this regard is to reveal the mechanisms by which production was separated from reproduction, and how the resulting sexual division of labour had to be created and enforced through extreme violence. This account of primitive accumulation challenges Marx and other subsequent interpretations of the transition to capitalism as a progressive and necessary shift in social relations. Federici foregrounds the experience of women (painted as witches) and colonised people (the metaphorical Caliban, from Shakespheare’s Tempest) to show that this was in no way a progressive moment in changing social relations and that at every stage of capitalist expansion, new rounds of primitive accumulation involving violence and expropriation of land can be observed.

One of the most devastating parts about reading Caliban and the Witch is the recognition of everything that women lost in terms of social power in the transition to capitalism. Witches embodied everything “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” (p. 11). Federici documents the changes in women’s social status, how they were encouraged not to walk alone on the streets or sit outside their homes, how ale-brewing (traditionally women’s work) came to be seen as men’s work, how the word gossip shifted its meaning from ‘friend’ to acquire a negative connotation (also see Hanna Black who has written more about the etymology of the word gossip in this context here). This all formed a part of the “intense process of social degradation” women were forced to undergo, in order to be remade in the image of capital (p. 100). 

One revelation of this book is that in numerous ways, women refused to take their place in the emerging capitalist reordering of society, just as they refused the reconstitution of the body as a machine. Women tore down hedges and fences and reclaimed the commons, they engaged in non-reproductive sex and led peasant revolts. They met at night on hilltops, around bonfires, stole food and clothing, and they gossiped. Federici argues that the witch hunts, rather than representing the last dying breaths of feudal order and the attendant superstitions of feudal societies, were a tool to discipline and shape the emerging working class and […]