Capitalism as Counter-Revolution--The second essay in our book club on Silvia Federici's brilliant opus.
Just realized something: the transition to a money economy must have penalized women heavily. In studies of horticultural societies, estimates of women’s contributions to daily caloric requirements run around 60%. Meaning that women provide the majority of the food in pre-industrial societies. So a society in which rent payments or trade is done in kind favors women’s labor, since women produce more and are generally in charge of producing tradeable, tangible goods like butter or finished cloth. (Compared to male labor such as plowing or building repair, which resulted in less discrete objects of value. It’s easier even in the modern day to talk someone into paying double for better butter when the extra cost is a few bucks than it is to talk someone into paying double to replace their roof for $10k more.) Under almost all wage labor systems, women’s wages are lower than men’s. So it likely that women went from having higher compensation in terms of the value they could produce to less compensation in the form of wages.
This has an interesting corollary in the modern day. In the US, cottage food industries are heavily regulated in the name of food safety. It is technically illegal (although mostly the law is ignored) to sell eggs without a license in my state. Compare this to how Heifer International prioritizes chickens for women in some parts of Africa because male relatives interfering with a woman’s egg money is culturally taboo and unmanly. I see (from a small farmer’s perspective) a huge hole in feminist analysis of America pre-1950. America changed from a nation where small farms were common and where farm wives had the opportunity to make their own money and to be a major part of the family’s economic viability to a nation where women were expected to spend their husbands’ paychecks and written out of the culture as producers of anything of economic value. The desire of women to enter the wages workforce after 1950 I think in many ways parallels the invention of the waged workforce among European peasants. Wages seem like liberation but must be earned by alienating the self from the body and using the body as a tool for someone else. Where the production of foodstuffs or clothing for home use or barter involves participating in keeping oneself (and the pride which comes from that) or from doing basic self-maintenance activities on a slightly larger scale in order to have goods to trade/ establish prestige. Home production also generally allows for the supervision of children at the same time, and even makes an asset of older children. A feminist recently remarked to me that women began to retain custody of children in the event of divorce right about the time that society shifted away from child labor and children began to be seen as a liability rather than an asset. Obviously that’s a gross oversimplification but still a way of thinking about the historical position of women and children in a way that tickles my brain.
Even when I was at school and being taught about how great the Feudal System was I did have my doubts. It was all supposed to have been so good for everyone but all one tended to see of it were the 'motte and bailey' castles and lots of poorer people working on the land. That might not have been so bad in some ways if they hadn't been working on someone else's land and for someone else, who was probably keeping an eye on them from the nearest motte and bailey castle rather like a prototype Panopticon.
Reading this chapter I was amazed at the long struggles and resistance of the European peasants and it seems to make capitalism's 'triumph' even more tragic. I'm always amazed by the Church's accumulation of wealth considering the founder of their religion preached the exact opposite. Did they just not read those bits?
A few years ago I was wondering just why the Church got so het up about homosexuality. If it's between consenting adults, it's not hurting anyone. Then I realised that, of course, no children are produced, and more men pairing up with men means less children produced; less recruits to the religion, and less workers for the capitalists. This makes it clear why childless women are frowned upon. How interesting that 'proletariat' was a group mostly valued for producing children! That's pretty blatant; more workers for the capitalist, rather like more 'cannon-fodder' in warfare. Perhaps they'd call it 'co-lateral damage' nowadays in an attempt to make it a bit less obvious.
How interesting that the word 'slave' comes from 'Slav' as they were the most often enslaved at one period! The history and continuing story of slavery is much more complex than the way it is spoken about today but it seems impossible to explore that nowadays.
In many ways, the peasants/serfs with land were in a much better position than many people today. They could independently support themselves whereas many of us nowadays can't; we don't even have a garden but are stacked up on top of each other many feet from the ground. People sometimes say to try growing things oneself but there's a big limit on how much can be grown on three small easterly-facing window ledges, especially when your landlord doesn't like you having window boxes! It does feel like a very precarious position that most of us have ended up in, especially in towns and cities.
Following along with great interest and really getting a lot from your analysis and all the commenters. I’ve been delayed in getting restarted in reading the book because I’m still in the middle of Julia Skinners Our Fermented Lives which serendipitously seems appropriate since she talks much about ferments from these times and also about women’s role in fermenting. Reading your essay makes me more excited to delve back into the book. I find this all very relevant as here in the Philippines we have an enormous amount of landless farmers. I have “farmer” friends (who own land through inheritance but never touch the soil except for instagram selfies) complain that they can’t find good workers and I silently wonder if they would work for minimum wage in the tropical sun all day with no contract or health insurance or social security. Many rural families here used to have small food forests where they could gather a lot of their calories but I imagine this is quickly disappearing as progress eats up all the land to “develop” land into cookie cutter housing that mostly sits empty. And now the country imports most of its food from overseas....
Thank you so much for hosting this open bookclub Rhyd. Everyone should read this book. I am only up to chapter two and already it has dramatically altered my view of the history of feudalism, the 'dark' ages, capitalism and feminism. As a recovering 'leftist' (I don't know where I belong on the political spectrum now. There seems to be few places available for retrospective, nature based, collectivist and localised politics), and someone who's identity has always been based on a non-conformist ideology, I was completely unaware how thoroughly I had absorbed the propaganda and distorted 'history' of the period of transition to capitalism. Thank you for bringing this to all of us.
I found the beginning of the book very informative on the social relations that obtained during the feudal period. I'm especially intrigued by the access to the commons which people had, using the wild areas to supplement their horticultural efforts, and how that gave women more independence than capitalism was to offer.
Clearly there was still a vital connection to the land, both through their direct farming and their view of the wild land providing for them in harder times.
Interested to see where the book goes. My knowledge of feminist theory is mostly about 'the male gaze' etc, gleaned from typing-up my wife's art theory essays for her while in college, so I'm enjoying learning about a different perspective, particularly one that doesn't disregard the reality of the body.
Have been a bit intimidated to jump into this conversation about Silvia Federici’s “Caliban and the Witch, as I am no political scientist. Her book really impacted me intellectually and especially emotionally as I have long been dealing with feelings of inherited body shame, the need to remain small and voiceless, etc. I was also quite rattled to read about the history of such horrific abuse of heretics and witches, although I had a vague inkling of its origins.
Also what Federici wrote about “the schoolbook portrayal of feudal society as a static world” is found everywhere in the course I teach on Arthurian Romance. Authors like Geoffrey of Monmouth, Wace, Robert de Boron, and Chretien de Troyes, for example, were only writing for and about the nobility and to show them in a positive light. Perhaps one exception can be found in the 3rd Branch of “The Mabinogi,” where the dethroned protagonist Manawydan son of Llyr becomes a land worker and performs sympathetic magic on a neolithic mound as a farmer might. These examples are quite rare….
Thank you too for your mention of the root meaning of “proletariat.” I had never thought of it that way. Also the light touch of your ending was appreciated after such a somber look at medieval life: “So popular was homosexuality in Florence that prostitutes used to wear males clothes to attract customers.” 😊
Thank you so much for putting this together. I have to say learning about the legalization of rape is terrifying and sobering
I’m having trouble keeping up so far but wow, having your essays beside the chapters is really helpful.
I still have a lot of reading and re-reading to do but I’ve noticed something interesting to me in regards to the state response to the plague in the book compared to the state response to Covid in the past three years
One of the protests in the plague was the serfs realizing their power and withholding their “rent cheques” so to speak. It’s interesting that the modern state dealt with that so handily where I’m from: this was made legal for a temporary period, maybe a year or so? I forget the full length.
At the time I couldn’t believe how forward thinking this seemed from especially our political leaders who are so dull minded generally. But now I see it for what it (probably) is: a way to defuse a form of protest by essentially pricing it into capitalism as a sort of “sale”/“have now pay later” on rent.
Similarly, think of all the “proles” in nursing, grocery stores, trades, etc who for a time were absolutely propagandized by “we’re all in this together” meanwhile the reality was “you’re all stuck in this together” while everyone else (myself includes) were given promises of curb side pickup, delivery without contact with the deliverer, tradespeople masked and gloved if they had to enter your property and well, everyone has seen the nurses dressed head to toe in plastic.
If this thing had been nearly as deadly as the plague, maybe we would have seen the first real, mortal, wounding of this total system. On the other hand, capitalism appears to have risen to the task in the past to put all us serfs/proles in line. I guess we will see what happens when the next pandemic hits