In this famous work, Silvia Federici gives a radical feminist reading to the 16th- and 17th century witch-hunts in Europe, arguing that capitalism began with systemic violence against women and colonised people, and that in order for capitalism to keep functioning, it needs an infusion of expropriated capital – and that women’s unpaid labour, including reproductive work in the home, is a critical part of this expropriation.
This is a lightly edited excerpt from Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (2004, Autonomedia), republished with permission from the press.
My analysis departs from Karl Marx’s in two ways. Whereas Marx examines primitive accumulation from the viewpoint of the waged male proletariat and the development of commodity production, I examine it from the viewpoint of the changes it introduced in the social position of women and the production of labour power. Thus, my description of primitive accumulation includes a set of historical phenomena that are absent in Marx, and yet have been extremely important for capitalist accumulation.
They include (i) the development of a new sexual division of labour subjugating women’s labour and women’s reproductive function to the reproduction of the workforce; (ii) the construction of a new patriarchal order, based upon the exclusion of women from waged work and their subordination to men; and (iii) the mechanisation of the proletarian body and its transformation, in the case of women, into a machine for the production of new workers. Most important, I have placed at the centre of my analysis of primitive accumulation the witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries, arguing that the persecution of the witches, in Europe as in the New World, was as important as colonisation and the expropriation of the European peasantry from its land were for the development of capitalism.
My analysis also departs from Marx’s in its evaluation of the legacy and function of primitive accumulation. Though Marx was acutely aware of the murderous character of capitalist development – its history, he declared, “is written in the annals of humanity in characters of fire and blood” – there can be no doubt that he viewed it as a necessary step in the process of human liberation. He believed that it disposed of small-scale property, and that it increased (to a degree unmatched by any other economic system) the productive capacity of labour, thus creating the material conditions for the liberation of humanity from scarcity and necessity. He also assumed that the violence that had presided over the earliest phases of capitalist expansion would recede with the maturing of capitalist relations, when the exploitation and disciplining of labour would be accomplished mostly through the workings of economic laws. In this, he was deeply mistaken.
A return of the most violent aspects of primitive accumulation has accompanied every phase of capitalist globalisation, including the present one, demonstrating that the continuous expulsion of farmers from the land, war and plunder on a world scale, and the degradation of women are necessary conditions for the existence of capitalism in all times. I should add that Marx could never have presumed that capitalism paves the way for human liberation had he looked at its history from the viewpoint of women.
For this history shows that even when men achieved a certain degree of formal freedom, women were always treated as socially inferior beings and were exploited in ways similar to slavery “Women” then in the context of this volume, signifies not just a hidden history that needs to be made visible; but a particular form of exploitation and, therefore, a unique perspective from which to reconsider the history of capitalist relations.
The most important historical question addressed by the book is how to account for the execution of hundreds of thousands of “witches” at the beginning of the modern era, and how to explain why the rise of capitalism was coeval with a war against women. Feminist scholars have developed a framework that throws much light on this question. It is generally agreed that the witch-hunt aimed at destroying the control that women had exercised over their reproductive function and served to pave the way for the development of a more oppressive patriarchal regime. It is also argued that the witch hunt was rooted in the social transformations that accompanied the rise of capitalism.
But the specific historical circumstances under which the persecution of witches was unleashed, and the reasons why the rise of capitalism demanded a genocidal attack on women have not been investigated. This is the task I take on in Caliban and the Witch, as I begin to analyse the witch hunt in the context of the demographic and economic crisis of the 16th and 17th centuries, and the land and labour policies of the mercantilist era. My work here is only a sketch of the research that would be necessary to clarify the connections I have mentioned, and especially the relation between the witch hunt and the contemporary development of a new sexual division of labour, confining women to reproductive work.
It is sufficient, however, to demonstrate that the persecution of witches (like the slave trade and the enclosures) was a central aspect of the accumulation and formulation of the modern proletariat, in Europe as well as in the “New World”. There are other ways in which Caliban and the Witch speaks to “women’s history” and feminist theory. First, it confirms that “the transition to capitalism” is a test case for feminist theory, as the redefinition of productive and reproductive tasks and male-female relations that we find in this period, both realised with the maximum of violence and state intervention, leave no doubt concerning the constructed character of sexual roles in capitalist society.
The analysis I propose also allows us to transcend the dichotomy between “gender” and “class”. If it is true that in capitalist society sexual identity became the carrier of specific work-functions, then gender should not be considered a purely cultural reality, but should be treated as a specification of class relations. From this viewpoint, the debates that have taken place among postmodern feminists concerning the need to dispose of “women” as a category of analysis, and define feminism purely in oppositional terms, have been misguided. To rephrase the point I already made: if “femininity” has been constituted in capitalist society as a work-function masking the production of the workforce under the cover of a biological destiny, then “women’s history” is “class history”, and the question that has to be asked is whether the sexual division of labour that has produced that particular concept has been transcended.
If the answer is a negative one (as it must be when we consider the present organisation of reproductive labour), then “women” is a legitimate category of analysis, and the activities associated with “reproduction” remain a crucial ground of struggle for women, as they were for the feminist movement of the 1970s which, on this basis, connected itself with the history of witches.
A further question addressed by Caliban and the Witch is raised by the contrasting perspectives offered by the feminist and Foucauldian analyses of the body in their applications to an understanding of the history of capitalist development. From the beginning of the women’s movement, feminist activists and theorists have seen the concept of the “body” as key to an understanding of the roots of male dominance and the construction of female social identity. Across ideological differences, the feminists have realised that a hierarchical ranking of human faculties and the identification of women with a degraded conception of corporeal reality has been instrumental, historically, to the consolidation of patriarchal power and the male exploitation of female labour. Thus, analyses of sexuality, procreation and mothering have been at the centre of feminist theory and women’s history.
In particular, feminists have uncovered and denounced the strategies and the violence by means of which male-centred systems of exploitation have attempted to discipline and appropriate the female body, demonstrating that women’s bodies have been the main targets, the privileged sites, for the deployment of power techniques and power relations. Indeed, the many feminist studies which have been produced since the early 1970s on the policing of women’s reproductive function, the effects on women of rape, battering and the imposition upon them of beauty as a condition for social acceptability, are a monumental contribution to the discourse on the body in our times, falsifying the perception common among academics which attributes its discovery to Michel Foucault.
Starting from an analysis of “body-politics” feminists have not only revolutionised the contemporary philosophical and political discourse, but they have also begun to revalorise the body. This has been a necessary step both to counter the negativity attached to the identification of femininity with corporeality, and co-create a more holistic vision of what it means to be a human being. This valorisation has taken various forms, ranging from the quest for non-dualistic forms of knowledge, to the attempt with feminists who view sexual “difference” as a positive value to develop a new type of language and “rethink the corporeal roots of human intelligence.”
As Rosi Braidotti has pointed out, the body that is reclaimed is never to be understood as a biological given. Nevertheless, such slogans as “repossessing the body” or “speaking the body” have been criticised by poststructuralist Foucauldian theorists, who reject as illusory any call for instinctual liberation. In turn, feminists have accused Foucault’s discourse on sexuality of being oblivious of sexual differentiation, while at the same time appropriating many of the insights developed by the ferninist movement. This criticism is quite appropriate. Moreover, Foucault is so intrigued with the “productive” character of the power-techniques by which the body has been invested that his analysis practically rules out any critique of power-relations.
The nearly apologetic quality of Foucault’s theory of the body is accentuated by the fact that it views the body as constituted by purely discursive practices, and is more interested in describing how power is deployed than in identifying its source. Thus, the power by which the body is produced appears as a self-subsistent, metaphysical entity, ubiquitous, disconnected from social and economic relations, and as mysterious in its permutations as a godly Prime Mover.
Can an analysis of the transition to capitalism and primitive accumulation help us to go beyond these alternatives? I believe it can. With regard to the feminist approach, our first step should be to document the social and historic conditions under which the body has become a central element and the defining sphere of activity for the constitution of femininity. Along these lines, Caliban and the Witch shows that the body has been for women in capitalist society what the factory has been for male waged workers: the primary ground of their exploitation and resistance, as the female body has been appropriated by the state and men and forced to function as a means for the reproduction and accumulation of labour.
Thus, the importance which the body in all its aspects – maternity, childbirth, sexuality – has acquired in feminist theory and women’s history has not been misplaced. Caliban and the Witch also confirms the feminist insight which refuses to identify the body with the sphere of the private and, in this vein, speaks of “body politics”. Further, it explains how the body can be for women both a source of identity and at the same time a prison, and why it is so important for feminists and, at the same time, so problematic to valorise it.
As for Foucault’s theory, the history of primitive accumulation others many counterexamples to it, proving that it can be defended only at the price of outstanding historical omissions. The most obvious is the omission of the witch-hunt and the discourse of demonology in his analysis of the disciplining of the body. Undoubtedly, they would have inspired different conclusions had they been included. For both demonstrate the repressive character of the power that was unleashed against women, and the implausibility of the complicity and role-reversal that Foucault imagines to exist between victims and their persecutors in his description of the dynamic of micro-powers.
A study of the witch-hunt also challenges Foucault’s theory concerning the development of “bio-power”, stripping it of the mystery by which Foucault surrounds the emergence of this regime. Foucault registers the shift – presumably in 18th-century Europe – from a type of power built on the right to kill, to a different one exercised through the administration and promotion of life forces, such as population growth; but he offers no clues as to its motivations. Yet, if we place this shift in the context of the rise of capitalism the puzzle vanishes, for the promotion of life forces turns out to be nothing more than the result of a new concern with the accumulation and reproduction of labour power. We can also see that the promotion of population growth by the state can go hand in hand with a massive destruction of life; for in many historical circumstances – witness the history of the slave trade – one is a condition for the other. Indeed, in a system where life is subordinated to the production of profit, the accumulation of labour power can only be achieved with the maximum of violence so that, in Maria Mies’ words, violence itself becomes the most productive force.
In conclusion, what Foucault would have learned had he studied the witch-hunt, rather than focusing on the pastoral confession in his History of Sexuality (1978), is that such history cannot be written from the viewpoint of a universal, abstract, asexual subject. Further, he would have recognised that torture and death can be placed at the service of “life” or, better, at the service of the production of labour power, since the goal of capitalist society is to transform life into the capacity to work and “dead labour”. From this viewpoint, primitive accumulation has been a universal process in every phase of capitalist development. Not accidentally, its original historical exemplar has sedimented strategies that, in different ways, have been relaunched in the face of every major capitalist crisis, serving to cheapen the cost of labour and to hide the exploitation of women and colonial subjects.
This is what occurred in the 19th century, when the responses to the rise of socialism, the Paris Commune, and the accumulation crisis of 1873 were the “Scramble for Africa” and the simultaneous creation in Europe of the nuclear family, centred on the economic dependence of women to men – following the expulsion of women from the waged workplace. This is also what is happening today, as a new global expansion of the labour market is attempting to set back the clock with respect to the anti-colonial struggle, and the struggles of other rebel subjects – students, feminists, blue-collar workers – who, in the 1960s and 1970s undermined the sexual and international division of labour.
It is not surprising, then, if large-scale violence and enslavement have been on the agenda, as they were in the period of the “transition”, with the difference that today the conquistadors are the officers of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, who are still preaching the worth of a penny to the same populations which the dominant world powers have for centuries robbed and pauperised. Once again, much of the violence unleashed is directed against women, for in the age of the computer, the conquest of the female body is still a precondition for the accumulation of labour and wealth, as demonstrated by the institutional investment in the development of new reproductive technologies that, more than ever, reduce women to wombs.
Also the “feminisation of poverty” that has accompanied the spread of globalisation acquires a new significance when we recall that this was the first effect of the development of capitalism on the lives of women. Indeed, the political lesson that we can learn from Caliban and the Witch is that capitalism, as a social-economic system, is necessarily committed to racism and sexism. For capitalism must justify and mystify the contradictions built into its social relations – the promise of freedom versus the reality of widespread coercion, and the promise of prosperity versus the reality of widespread penury – by denigrating the “nature” of those it exploits: women, colonial subjects, the descendants of American slaves, the immigrants displaced by globalisation.
At the core of capitalism there is not only the symbiotic relation between waged contractual labour and enslavement but, together with it, the dialectics of accumulation and destruction of labour power, for which women have paid the highest cost, with their bodies, their work, their lives. It is impossible therefore to associate capitalism with any form of liberation or attribute the longevity of the system to its capacity to satisfy human needs. If capitalism has been able to reproduce itself it is only because of the web of inequalities that it has built into the body of the world proletariat and because of its capacity to globalise exploitation. This process is still unfolding under our eyes as it has for the last 500 years. The difference is that today the resistance to it has also achieved a global dimension.