Discover more from From The Forests of Arduinna
Caliban & The Witch: Chapter One ("All The World Needs a Jolt")
Capitalism as Counter-Revolution--The second essay in our book club on Silvia Federici's brilliant opus.
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Capitalism as “Counter-Revolution”
I imagine that, for most readers, we were all taught roughly the same narrative about European history. After Rome fell, Europe was plunged into centuries of ignorance, the “dark ages.” Then, slowly after Charlemagne, history returned to Europe, though still mired in darkness and religious superstition. A couple of crusades happened, and then a plague, and then, because of the Renaissance, cultural development finally started again. Feudalism “died,” the cities became important again, and after the Enlightenment we got cars and democracy.
The tale told about feudalism and how capitalism replaced it is a particularly entrenched story. Thanks especially to depictions in films, we imagine serfdom as full of misery, wretched poverty, and constant hunger. Thus, when the capitalists finally replaced feudalism, everyday life for the lower classes supposedly got immediately better, even if factories weren’t the nicest places in the world.
As I mentioned in the essay on Silvia Federici’s preface and introduction to Caliban & The Witch, this narrative is quite untrue: it’s a well-crafted cosmological myth crucial to the religion of capitalism. We have to believe that life before the capitalists changed everything was “nasty, brutish, and short,” and that for all its apparent downsides, life is better now for everyone than it ever could have been without capitalism.
In this first chapter of Caliban & The Witch, Silvia Federici tells us a different story, recounting the history of Europe not as a march of progress from darkness to capitalism, but rather a constant struggle between peasants and lords for control over economic, sexual, and cultural life. And, despite what we are often told, there were many times during this struggle that the peasants were winning.
In fact, quite tragically, the period at the beginning of the transition to capitalism was a time in Europe where lords, bishops, and kings looked to be losing completely. Peasants wielded significant and startling control over their own lives, a control which their erstwhile and would-be masters desperately sought to capture.
“… capitalism was not the product of an evolutionary development bringing forth economic forces that were maturing in the womb of the old order. 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, and truly gave "all the world a big jolt." 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. This much must be stressed, for the belief that capitalism "evolved" from feudalism and represents a higher form, of social life has not yet been dispelled.”
The Other History of Europe
“the attempts that the medieval proletariat made to "turn the world upside down" must be reckoned with; for despite their defeat, they put the feudal system into crisis and, in their time, they were "genuinely revolutionary," as they could not have succeeded without "a radical reshaping of the social order”
Much of Federici’s first chapter is devoted to laying out how feudalism arose and then later fell, and what the conditions of feudal life actually looked like for serfs. There’s quite a bit to surprise almost anyone in her account, as what she presents looks almost nothing like what we’ve been taught to believe.
First of all, Federici notes that serfdom arose in reaction to the conditions of the fall of Rome. Rome used slavery up to the very end, including after conversion to Christianity. However, before its fall, Rome had already been forced to make concessions to slaves in order to quell slave revolts.
“Serfdom developed in Europe, between the 5th and 7th centuries A.D., in response to the breakdown of the slave system on which the economy of imperial Rome had been built. … By the 4th century, in the Roman territories and the new Germanic states, the landlords had to grant the slaves the right to have a plot of land and a family of their own, in order to stem their revolts, and prevent their flight to the "bush" where maroon communities were forming at the margins of the empire. At the same time, the landlords began to subjugate the free peasants, who, ruined by the expansion of slave-labor and later the Germanic invasions, turned to the lords for protection, although at the cost of their independence. Thus, while slavery was never completely abolished, a new class relation developed that homogenized the conditions of former slaves and free agricultural workers , placing all the peasantry in a subordinate condition, so that for three centuries (from the 9th to the 11th), "peasant" (rusticus, villanus) would be synonymous with "serf" (servus).”
So, serfdom arose essentially as a system to manage and recapture the class relationship that had fallen apart when Rome fell. However, serfdom wasn’t slavery (which continued regardless in Europe, especially victimizing Slavic1 peoples). Instead, it involved a new kind of arrangement specifically related to land:
“The most important aspect of serfdom, from the viewpoint of the changes it introduced in the master-servant relation, is that it gave the serfs direct access to the means of their reproduction. In exchange for the work which they were bound to do on the lords' land (the demesne) the serf received a plot of land (mansus or hide) which they could use to support themselves, and pass down to their children "like a real inheritance, by simply paying a succession due"”
This arrangement meant several things in real terms. First of all, serfs could survive completely off of the land and their own labor. In turn, this led to the second thing: they felt as if the land belonged to them, rather than to the lords:
“ In time, the serf began to look at the land they occupied as their own, and to view as intolerable the restrictions that the aristocracy imposed on their freedom. "Land to the tillers," - the demand that has echoed through the 20th century, from the Mexican and Russian revolutions to the contemporary struggles against land privatization - is a battle cry which the medieval serfs would have certainly recognized as their own. But the strength of the "villeins" stemmed from the fact that access to land was a reality for them.
With the use of land also came the use of the "commons" - meadows, forests, lakes, wild pastures - that provided crucial resources for the peasant economy (wood for fuel, timber for building, fishponds, grazing grounds for animals) and fostered community cohesion and cooperation ”
So, in real terms, this meant that serfs experienced a kind of economic freedom which few experience today. Of course, that doesn’t mean they were “free” in our modern sense, because they were still under the thumb of rulers who were constantly trying to exert control over their lives.
To understand what their economic freedom really meant, consider what happens in a large scale labor strike in the modern capitalist world. Workers who refuse to go to their jobs do not get paid, meaning that they face the threat of starvation. Serfs, on the other hand, could still feed themselves even when they were in conflict with the lords. This meant they had more leverage against their rulers than workers do now in capitalism.
Importantly, the way women were treated was also different under serfdom, precisely because of their access to the “means of production” (the commons, etc). Federici notes the following:
“female serfs were less dependent on their male kin, less differentiated from them physically, socially, and psychologically, and were less subservient to men's needs than "free" women were to be later in capitalist society.”
“If we also take into account that in medieval society collective relations prevailed over familial ones, and most of the tasks that female serfs performed (washing, spinning, harvesting, and tending to animals on the commons) were done in cooperation with other women, we then realize that the sexual division of labor, far from being a source of isolation, was a source of power and protection for women. It was the basis for an intense female sociality and solidarity that enabled women to stand up to men, despite the fact that the Church preached women's submission to men, and Canonic Law sanctified the husband's right to beat his wife.”
Serfdom and Class Struggle
After describing the many distinctions of economic life in serfdom, Federici then traces the broad and diverse struggle between feudal lords (with their handmaidens, the Church) and the increasingly independent serfs:
“Contrary to the schoolbook portrait of feudal society as a static world, in which each estate accepted its designated place in the social order, the picture that emerges from a study of the feudal manor is rather that of relentless class struggle.
As the records of the English manorial courts indicate, the medieval village was the theater of daily warfare. At times, this reached moments of great tension, when the villagers killed the bailiff or attacked their lord's castle. Most frequently, however, it consisted of an endless litigation, by which the serfs tried to limit the abuses of the lords, fix their "burdens," and reduce the many tributes which they owed them in exchange for the use of the land.
The main objective of the serfs was to keep hold of their surplus-labor and products and broaden the sphere of their economic and juridical rights”
Up until the middle of the 1200’s, the power of the feudal lords had been on the wane. Serfs were often fighting the lords on every minor point, and increasingly not showing up to work on the lord’s manor according to their obligations. While there has been some talk now of a “great withdrawal” by some workers in the last few years, a much larger (and real) withdrawal occurred eight centuries ago:
“By the mid 13th century, the evidence speaks for a "massive withdrawal" of labor. The tenants would neither go nor send their children to work on the land of the lords when summoned at harvest time, or they would go to the fields too late, so that the crops would spoil, or they worked sloppily, taking long breaks and generally maintaining an insubordinate attitude.”
The entire section in which Federici discusses this struggle is particularly fascinating for those interested in modern labor struggles, because it gives us a sense that very little that happens now compares to these earlier moments. Also, it helps give a much larger picture of what Federici means by “capitalism as counter-revolution,” since the general trend was towards more power in the hands of the lower classes until the transition to capitalism began.
That’s when things start to get a bit tragic. She mentions first of all that a concession landlords made to the serfs which later only increased the lords’ power of the them: “commutation.”
Commutation is another important concept, because it represents the initial stage of commercialization of daily life and the beginning of waged labor. Commutation meant that, instead of fulfilling a contractual obligation to the lord, a serf could instead just make a payment. Such payments were previously not in coin, but rather in goods produced by the serf, until money took over as the dominant method of commutation.
What this did was add a level of abstraction to the labor serfs performed for themselves and what they performed for the lords. Before, labor was easier to measure in more concrete forms, as when a serf was required to help a lord bring in a harvest or to provide a certain number of eggs. When these things became measured in money, serfs couldn’t easily keep track of whether the lords were demanding more of them each year because the value of money is never stable.
Federici cites several social changes which came about through this shift to monetization of life:
“ Money and the market began to split the peasantry by transacting income differences into class differences, and by producing a mass of poor people who could survive only on the basis of periodic donations. To the growing influence of money we must attribute the systematic attack to which Jews were subjected, starting in the 12th century, and the steady deterioration of their legal and social status in the same period. There is, in fact, a revealing correlation between the placement of the Jews by Christian competitors, as moneylenders to Kings, popes and the higher clergy, and the new discriminatory rules (e.g., the wearing of distinctive clothing) that were adopted by the clergy against them, as well as their expulsion from England and France. Degraded by the Church, further separated by the Christian population, and forced to confine their moneylending (one of the few occupations available to them) to the village level, the Jews became an easy target for indebted peasants, who often vented on them their anger against the rich.
“Women, too, in all classes, were most negatively affected by the increasing commercialization of life, for their access to property and income further reduced by it. In the Italian commercial towns, women lost their right to inherit a third of their husbands' property (the tertia). In the rural areas, they were further excluded from land possession, especially when single or widowed. As a result, by the 13th century, they were leading the movement away from the country, being the most numerous among the rural immigrants to the towns, and by the 15th century, women formed a large percentage of the population of the cities. Here, most of them lived in poor conditions, holding low-paid jobs as maids, hucksters, retail traders (often fined for lack of a license), spinsters, members of the lower guilds, and prostitutes.”
This is a very crucial point, because this is a process we continue to see recur throughout capitalism. Antisemitic attacks in medieval Europe and other “identity-based” violence specifically arose out of historical and economic conditions over which neither the victims nor the perpetrators often had any direct control. Anti-immigrant violence in our times is similar: immigrants become targets of people not really better off than they are and become blamed for larger issues for which neither the immigrants nor the anti-immigrants have any real influence.
This mechanism becomes really important later in Caliban & the Witch when Federici examines the violence and subjugation of women during the transition of capitalism, so keep it in mind.
Heretics and the politics of sexuality
The remaining two-thirds of this first chapter continue the story of this transition through several important historical moments. First, Federici examines the birth and widespread influence of heretic and millenarian movements, such as the Cathars, the Bogomils, and the Waldenses. These movements often had at their core more egalitarian social and economic arrangements, tended to be communalist, and were often much more open to women as leaders and sometimes even lead by women:
“Although influenced by Eastern religions brought to Europe by merchants and crusaders, popular heresy has less a deviation from the orthodox doctrine than a protest movement, aspiring to a radical democratization of social life. Heresy was the equivalent of "liberation theology" for the medieval proletariat. It gave a frame to peoples' demands for spiritual renewal and social justice, challenging both the Church and secular authority by appeal to a higher truth. It denounced social hierarchies, private property and the accumulation of wealth, and it disseminated among the people a new, revolutionary conception of society that, for the first time in the Middle Ages, redefined every aspect of daily life (work, property, sexual reproduction, and the position of women), posing the question of emancipation in truly universal terms.”
The war against heretical movements was waged both by the Church and feudal lords. For the former, millenarianism threatened to undermine their authority in matters of faith and God, while for the latter, they represented a threat to the stability of the labor force. Despite co-ordinated efforts (including crusades), the ideas within these heretical movements could never be fully eradicated.
Federici gives particular attention to another threat the heretical movements contained. By becoming more tolerant of — and sometimes even centering — the sexuality of women, they eroded the authority both of Church and lord over the private lives of the serfs. Efforts at “sexual supervision” had started in the 12th century with two ecclesiastical councils, which gay readers might be surprised included the very first Catholic proclamation against homosexual relations:
“This sexual supervision escalated in the 12th century when the Lateran Councils of 1123 and 1139 launched a new crusade against the common practice of clerical marriage and concubinage, and declared marriage a sacrament whose vows no power on earth could dissolve. At this time, the limitations imposed by the Penitentials on the sexual act were also reiterated. Then, forty yeas later, with the III Lateran Council of 1179, the Church intensified its attack on "sodomy," targeting at once gay people and non-procreative sex, and for the first time it condemned homosexuality ("the incontinence which is against nature").”
Such efforts only increased the more independent serfs became, especially during the primacy of heretical movements. This is an important thing to understand, also, because our usual view is that sexual activities were always surveilled and moralized by Christian authorities — but this wasn’t the case. Sex and procreation took on new political dimensions the more that the powerful began to fear loss of control over the serfs.
Here, it might be helpful to mention the root meaning of the word “proletariat.” In Rome, the proletarius was a specific class of people seen as only valuable because they had children.
Now, why would that be seen as a valuable thing at all? It’s because Rome needed laborers, both slaves and free, in order to maintain its economic and military dominance. This low rung of society at least kept the population increasing, meaning that Rome could keep growing and rely on a steadily increasing labor pool.
This idea didn’t end with Rome. Making sure there are always more people to use later on has been part of the logic of every political order since (and, likely, before).
The Black Death and State-Sanctioned Rape
This all seems like a very strange thing until we look at what Federici discusses next: The Black Death. It’s worth quoting a long bit from this section:
“A turning point in the course of the medieval struggles was the Black Death, which killed, on an average, between 30% and 40% of the European population . Coming in the wake of the Great Famine of 1315-22, that weakened people's resistance to disease, this unprecedented demographic collapse profoundly changed Europe's social and political life, practically inaugurating a new era. Social hierarchies were turned upside down because of the levelling effects of the widespread morbidity. Familiarity with death also undermined social discipline. Confronted with the possibility of sudden death, people no longer cared to work or to abide by social and sexual regulations, but tried to have the best of times, feasting for as long as they could without thought of the future.
However, the most important consequence of the plague the intensification of the labor crisis generated by the class conflict; for the decimation of the work-force made labor extremely scarce, critically increased its cost, and stiffened people's determination to break the shackles of feudal rule.
As Christopher Dyer points out, the scarcity of labor which the epidemic caused shifted the power relation to the advantage of the lower classes. “When land had been scarce, the peasants could be controlled by the threat of expulsion. But after the population decimated and land became abundant, the threats of the lords ceased to have any serious effect, as the peasants could now freely move and find new land to cultivate. Thus, while the crops were rotting and livestock wandered in the fields, peasants and artisans suddenly became masters of the situation. A symptom of this development was the growth of rent strikes, bolstered by threats of a mass exodus to lands or to the city. As the manorial records laconically registered, the peasants "refused to pay" (negant solvere). They also declared that they "will not follow the customs any longer" (negant consuetudines), and ignored the orders of the lords to repair their houses, clean ditches, or chase escaped serfs.”
In other words, the Black Death suddenly made labor very, very scarce. A basic economic principle is that high demand for labor means higher wages, which is why modern capitalist nations try to keep unemployment as high as possible without triggering revolts. The more workers available, the more power the boss (or lord) has. The fewer available, the less power he has over them.
So, with so many dead serfs, the surviving serfs suddenly had a lot more power. This quickly became a problem both for the lords and for the Church. The Church, especially, intensified their religious proclamations about sexual activity, and it’s during this period we begin to see the first religious texts explicitly linking witches and malefica (evil magic) to traditional medicine used to prevent conceptions or to end pregnancies.
This is getting a bit ahead of Federici’s work here (she covers this later), but consider at least for now how what I discussed about the proletariat and the effects of the Black Death influences these religious conceptions.
And then, we can move on to the final part of this chapter, which contains something else that will likely startle most readers. Town authorities legalized prostitution and decriminalized rape as a method of undermining rebellion and, most terrifying of all, rechanneling mass anger onto women:
“by the end of the 15th century, a counter-revolution was already under way at every level of social and political life. First, efforts were made by the political authorities to co-opt the youngest and most rebellious male workers, by means of a vicious sexual politics that gave them access to free sex, and turned class antagonism into an antagonism against proletarian women. As Jacques Rossiaud has shown in Medieval Prostitution (1988), in France the municipal authorities practically decriminalized rape, provided the victims were women of the lower class. In 14th-century Venice, the rape of an unmarried proletarian woman rarely called for more than a slap on the wrist, even in the frequent case in which it involved a group assault. The same was true in most French cities. Here, the gang-rape of proletarian women became a common practice which the perpetrators would carry out openly and loudly at night, in groups of two to fifteen, breaking into their victims' homes, or dragging their victims through the streets, without any attempt to hide or disguise themselves. Those who engaged in these "sports" were young journeymen or domestic servants, and the penniless sons of well-to-do families, while the women targeted were poor girls, working as maids or washerwomen of whom it was rumored that they were "kept" by their masters. On average, half of the town male youth, at some point, engaged in these assaults, which Rossiaud describes as a form of class protest, a means for proletarian men — who weer forced to postpone marriage for many years because of their economic conditions — to get back "their own," and take revenge against the rich.
Federici then cites more evidence of these happenings, especially the widespread sanctioning of brothels. At the same time that these helped defuse male anger, they were also supported by the Church:
“Thus, between 1350-1450, publicly managed, tax-financed brothels were opened in every town and village in Italy and France, in numbers far superior to those reached in the 19th century. Amiens alone had 53 brothels in 1453. In addition, all the restrictions and penalties against prostitution were eliminated. Prostitutes could now solicit their clients in every part of town, even in front of the church during Mass. They were no longer bound to any particular dress codes or the wearing of distinguishing marks, because prostitution was officially recognized as a public service (ibid.: 9-10).
Even the Church came to see prostitution as a legitimate activity. The state-managed brothel was believed to provide an antidote to the orgiastic sexual practices of the heretic sects, and to be a remedy for sodomy, as well as a means to protect family life.
The implications here are quite staggering, especially for our modern conversations about sex work, prostitution, and sexual assault. Feminist critiques rarely mention the state role in managing social relations through sex, something that one day hopefully will change.
And as a final note to this essay, if you’ve been reading Federici’s endnotes, you’ll have noticed a peculiar fact mentioned in passing in this section, one I find quite hilarious. It’s endnote 32:
“So popular was homosexuality in Florence that prostitutes used to wear male clothes to attract their customers.”
The next essay, on Chapter Two (“The Accumulation of Labor and the Degradation of Women”), will be published on 18 March.
Please feel free to comment on this essay, as these are written with an eye towards participation. Your questions, insights, and comments will help enrich the understanding of others reading the book, too!
Two brief asides to this matter. First of all, “servus” is still the word most Slavic and many Germanic (Austrian, southern Germany, parts of Switzerland) use as a greeting (the equivalent of “hello.”) It actually comes from a Latin phrase which developed during serfdom: servus humillimus, domine spectabilis, "[your] most humble servant, [my] noble lord.” The Italian greeting “ciao” is also derived from that same idea, except its root is s-ciàvo, a variant of Slav.
That brings us to the second aside, which is that “slave” comes from Slav. The Slavic peoples were the most common slave “stock” in Europe until the transatlantic slave trade began. This has very significant implications for how we understand the history of slavery now, which is often narrated as an institution of anti-blackness. It has a much longer history, though.