Review: Silvio Federici's Caliban and the Witch – Women, the body and ‘Primitive Accumulation’


This piece of work is undertaken from the viewpoint of the seemingly invisible struggles of women against authoritarian rule, the historical erasing of women as being part of the wider social struggles for liberation against oppression, and indeed, providing a different type of revolutionary struggle in their own right instead of examining the effects of social reproduction and labour of women.


Struggle against feudalism


Federici begins by discussing the revolutionary nature of the social struggles of the Middle Ages, which even in their defeat, paved a newer way for social liberation built upon egalitarian principles - the sharing of wealth, and refusal of hierarchies and authoritarian rule. This had put the feudal system ‘into crisis’ and could ‘not have succeeded without a radical reshaping of the social order’, and during this period of transition, the anti-feudal struggle, was, largely, a revolutionary struggle comprising of social mobility, contracts for paid work (the birth of capitalism), which Federici argues is the worst thing to have happened (Although many Marxists and others argue it was a necessary step in progress) as this move from working the land to contract work divided the peasant class into wealthier and poorer peasants who were then exploited further. The exploitation and subjugation of women to men within the newly defined capitalist class and the different degrees divided the working peasant social class further, into a gender based rights hierarchy.


Collective relations prevailed over familial relations prior to the move to Capitalism, so the sexual division of labour was dangerous to lords because it gave women power and protection from men. Women were increasingly seen as sinful beings; Many were critical of the churches teachings and after the crusades there was a massive increase in women ‘heretics’ preaching themselves, openly defying the church when it demanded payment for alms and baptisms. This was the beginning of a social revolution that needed to be quashed before it grew in power. Women who, faced with the removal of control of their bodily autonomy as people - workers, social labour reproducers, abortion providers (in feudal times abortive remedies taken by women were not seen as ‘bad’ by the church until later, as there was a degree of population control with remedies and infanticide which meant the church did not have to provide any sort of charitable assistance to those born of unwanted pregnancies) existed as much as possible outside the confines of the church.


Heresy and witch hunts  


The execution of hundreds of thousands of ‘witches’ via the witch hunts, was a movement which became the tool of the ruling classes and landowners to split up the resistance movement against the increasingly oppressive economic, moral and labour sanctions placed on people by the church against communitarian ways of life. Heresy, a sin punishable by heavy fines by the church, became increasingly defined as the worst thing a person could be accused of – and many of the anti-church and anti-authoritarian heretics were women, so the witch hunts began to eradicate these forms of social autonomy by burning, life imprisonment, casting out, and torture. Witch hunts were solely directed at breaking the power of women in groups as part of the wider revolutionary struggle, and are under represented in the enormity of the damage they did - not only to the working class as a whole, but in terms of the power relations between men and women themselves. The exploitation of this difference was used as a ‘bargaining chip’ with the brotherhood of working class men and a compromise to becoming more like their wealthier peasant social, political and economic superiors.


In its main content, this work is of fundamental importance to our understanding of how the witch hunts against women heretics were a key factor in contributing to the separation of labour and exploitation between the sexes, the sexual division of labour itself, subjugating women’s labour to that of reproduction of the workforce and the exclusion of women from waged work and their subsequent subordination to men. All of this contributed to the advent of capitalism based on the removal of power from women.


Lessons for today


Federici holds a lens up to the all but invisible structures that removed women’s labour, social reproduction and communitary powers, while taking us through the reasons why this was necessary for Capitalism to flourish, and brings us to the conclusion that resistance against established powers, whether hierarchical, patriarchal, societal/political is not new. It holds many lessons for today in outlining various types of resistance that can be employed against state and church oppression. She is critical of the lack of analysis of the inclusion in poststructural theorists of how gendered genocidal tactics are critical to understanding power relations, and is critical of Marxist theory in that there is no recognition for the different types of agency required by the different sexes to obtain certain freedoms from oppressors.


This accounts for how a historical look at major revolutionary events in terms of power relations from a feminist perspective, gives us a broader understanding of the challenging of the political status quo, of elites, the landowners and the Church’s increasingly hideous ‘moral’ codes to retain control over the poorer peasants who railed against the hypocrisy, poverty, and contractual ownership of labour, and the patriarchal nature of Capitalism itself, and reveals an extremely undermined, under discussed and underused historical account of how the exploitation of women as part of the revolutionary social class lead to their demotion in status as secondary to men, being more aggressively dealt with in terms of forcible widespread execution because of their sex via the witch hunts, and the ‘invention of tradition’ and proves for fascinating reading.


Words: Maria C


This article is from issue 10 of the Irish Anarchist Review