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Caliban & The Witch: Chapter Two ("The Accumulation of Labor and the Degradation of Women")
The War on the Commons, the War on Women--The third essay in our book club on Silvia Federici's brilliant opus.
This is the third of a series of essays written for an open book club on Silvia Federici’s profound book, Caliban & The Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation.
I’m making this first book club series free for everyone. If you would like to support my work and get essays that I make available for paid-subscribers only, consider becoming a monthly or yearly supporter:
Chapter Two: The Accumulation of Labor and the Degradation of Women
“According to this new social-sexual contract, proletarian women became for male workers the substitute for the land lost to the enclosures, their most basic means of reproduction, and a communal good anyone could appropriate and use at will.”
In the pre-Christian indigenous beliefs of Europe, a certain relationship between king and land recurred across multiple people groups.
It’s an idea foregrounded by the poet Robert Graves in his book, The White Goddess. While wrongly read by neopagans as an attempt at history, and dismissed by critics upon that same false basis, The White Goddess is most accurately seen as an attempt to show the persistence of pre-Christian ideas about sovereignty goddesses in the poetry and literary forms of medieval Europe.
The core of the idea was this: a king, in order to be a good ruler, needed first to secure the blessing of the land. In fact, kingship — and authority itself — was seen as a temporary contractual agreement between a leader and the powers of the land upon which his people lived. Without this contract and without the land’s blessing, the people would suffer, starve from famines, and eventually die.
Importantly, the powers of the land in each of these pre-Christian cosmologies was associated with or embodied within a female figure. Sometimes this was a goddess, other times a priestess figure, and we even find in many places a female animal (a horse, but also cows and sometimes deer) embodying the will of the land.
Kings were seen to “marry” the land in some way, usually through some test of wisdom, strength, and integrity which proved him worthy to be the partner of the land. Such marriages, however, were never seen as a permanent and binding agreement. The land could divorce the king at any time, especially when the king proved himself later neglectful of his obligation and role as steward to the land. At such points, the king was deposed, sometimes through sacrifice, so that the land could then choose a more faithful lover.
The ancient belief that women are connected to the powers of the land is hardly compatible with modern social theories, especially as societies struggle through the contentious meanings of sex and gender within capitalist and Christian-informed frameworks. Pre-figuring these struggles were the strongly diverging feminist frameworks which arose in the 1970’s and 1980’s, a divergence hinging upon what precisely was the nature of women’s oppression. Were women oppressed because men are inherently oppressive? Or were women oppressed because they possessed something that larger systems of power desired to exploit?
Despite their apparent differences, Radical Feminism and the later movement of Intersectional Feminism have much more in common then it seems. While Radical Feminism began with the premise that women’s difference from men was the site of their subjugation, and Intersectional Feminism seeks to minimize or deny any such underlying differences, both rely upon the idea that men have always been (and are therefore inherently) patriarchal and dominating. In other words, they “naturalise” oppressive male behavior and therefore do not feel any need to ask how this came about (because it was always so).
The profound analysis of Silvia Federici is a direct challenge to both these tendencies. Noting that the transition to capitalism occurred alongside prolonged and forceful efforts to change the societal and economic roles of women, and then tracing these changes across multiple societies and stages of that transition, she offers a completely different framework that the dominant feminist frameworks cannot.
For Federici, the subjugation of women within this transition and in capitalism itself is not just some manifestation of naturalized or transhistorical patriarchy, but was rather the founding terror upon which capitalism itself was built. In other words, capitalism required the subjugation of women, and the oppressed status women find themselves in now is the historical legacy of capitalism’s birth.
In this chapter, “The Accumulation of Labor and the Degradation of Women,” Federici describes how this subjugation took place through the divorce of humans from land, the creation of new categories of human labor and identity, and the specific push to exclude women from capitalist economic exchange. While reading it, keep in mind the earlier legacy of animist beliefs regarding the connection of women and land. This will yield a deeply powerful insight into the deeper cosmological shift which capitalism required and now maintains.
“The feudal economy could not reproduce itself, nor could a capitalist society have "evolved" from it, for self-sufficiency and the new high-wage regime allowed for the "wealth of the people," but "excluded the possibility of capitalistic wealth").
It was in response to this crisis that the European ruling class launched the global offensive that in the course of at least three centuries was to change the history of the planet, laying the foundations of a capitalist world-system, in the relentless attempt to appropriate new sources of wealth, expand its economic basis, and bring new workers under its command.”
Federici begins this chapter with a discussion of the Marxist concept of primitive accumulation. This concept is probably one of the most crucial to understanding how capitalism came about, but it’s also often misunderstood, especially since the word “primitive” now holds connotations of “backwardness.”
Primitive Accumulation refers to all the means of accumulating wealth in direct, non-capitalist forms. Slavery is a form of primitive accumulation, as is looting, pillaging, land seizure, direct taxation, and as well as anything that requires the use of force or violence. It’s the answer to the question: “how did the capitalists get the wealth that became their capital?”
“Marx introduced the concept of "primitive accumulation" at the end of Capital Volume I to describe the social and economic restructuring that the European ruling class initiated in response to its accumulation crisis, and to establish (in polemics with Adam Smith) that: (i) capitalism could not have developed without a prior concentration of capital and labor; and that (ii) the divorcing of the workers from the means of production, not abstinence of the rich, is the source of capitalist wealth. Primitive accumulation, then, is a useful concept, for it connects the "feudal reaction" with the development of a capitalist economy and it identifies the historical and logical conditions for the development of the capitalist system, "primitive" ("originary") indicating a precondition for the existence of capitalist relations as much as a specific event in time.”
However, Federici notes that the way this concept has been understood has been inadequate, because neither Marx not subsequent theorists using his work gave any attention to how this accumulation required the subjugation of women. Here, she is also still directing her argument against any who still believe capitalism arose as a “natural” response to feudalism. Again, the false belief here is that capitalism is somehow a more liberating system than the previous ones, that is somehow abolished slavery and other forms of direct exploitation.
The core of her argument throughout the next parts of the book can be summarized by the following two sentences, which are useful to recall if you get a bit sidetracked in subsequent pages:
“On the contrary, capitalism has created more brutal and insidious forms of enslavement, as it has planted into the body of the proletariat deep divisions that have served to intensify and conceal exploitation. It is in great part because of these imposed divisions — especially those between women and men — that capitalist accumulation continues to devastate life in every corner of the planet.”
What Silvia Federici is really doing in this chapter is rehabilitating Marx by retelling the story of the transition to capitalism with the parts Marx didn’t see. Remember what I’d mentioned in my essay on the preface and introduction for this book:
What we believe happened during that time — and especially how we believe it was that capitalism came about — determines where we look for answers to inequality, exploitation, and oppression and what we think is otherwise possible.
“Capitalist Accumulation and the Accumulation of Labor in Europe” & “Land Privatisation in Europe, the Production of Scarcity, and the Separation of Production from Reproduction”
These two subheadings have quite a lot of technical terms that might feel confusing for those unfamiliar with Marxist theory. Instead of trying to parse these out, I suggest focusing instead on the following concepts:
Reproductive versus “Productive” work
Slavery in early capitalist transition
Federici notes that the primary tactic capitalists tended to employ when they wanted to accumulate wealth was enslavement. Whenever possible, they would attempt to force people to work for them without compensation, because this was the most cost-effective means in the short term. However, because of the centuries of peasant struggle against feudal lords which had preceded the capitalists, it was really difficult to force European peasants into slavery:
“Significantly, the tendency of the capitalist class, during the first three centuries of its existence, was to impose slavery and other forms of coerced labor as the dominant work relation, a tendency limited only by the workers' resistance and the danger of the exhaustion of the work-force.”
Because of resistance to this enslavement, and also because slavery requires a constant supply of slaves, the capitalists needed to find some other way to accumulate wealth and labor in Europe. That leads us to the enclosures
Enclosure of land, enclosure of social reality
Enclosure is the act of “closing off” land or other things previously thought of as common and turning them into private property. In England, this took the form of literal enclosures, the planting of hedges and the erection of walls around common land. Something similar happened in Spain just before this, where peasants were forced off of land so rich landowners could produce more profitable products (especially Merino wool).
This whole process can also be called “privatization,” a term we hear quite often in modern politics. Public programs, land, and resources are increasingly victim to privatization, where individuals and corporations suddenly get to own things that were previously thought of as un-ownable.
The privatization of land (enclosure) specifically took away the ability of peasants to feed themselves. While the story the capitalists tell is that this led to more food abundance, Federici notes this is partially a lie. Sure, there was more food being produced, but it was in the hands of fewer people and much of it was no longer accessible for common people. In fact, it led to increased starvation:
“Land privatization and the commercialization of agriculture did not increase the food supply available to the common people, though more food was made available for the market and for export. For workers they inaugurated two centuries of starvation, in the same way as today, even in the most fertile areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, malnutrition is rampant due to the destruction of communal land-tenure and the "export or perish" policy imposed by the World Bank's structural adjustment programs. Nor did the introduction of new agricultural techniques in England compensate for this loss. On the contrary, the development of agrarian capitalism "worked hand in glove" with the impoverishment of the rural population. A testimony to the misery produced by land privatization is the fact that, barely a century after the emergence of agrarian capitalism, sixty European towns had instituted some form of social assistance or were moving in this direction, and vagabondage had become an international problem (ibid.: 87). Population growth may have been a contributing factor; but its importance has been overstated, and should be circumscribed in time. By the last part of the 16th century, almost everywhere in Europe, the population was stagnating or declining, but this time workers did not derive any benefit from the change.”
The privatization of land had other effects. First of all, it literally closed off public meeting space, making it more difficult for older forms of social relations to persist, especially for women:
“All the festivals, games, and gatherings of the peasant community were held on the commons. The social function of the commons was especially important for women, who, having less tide to land and less social power, were more dependent on them for their subsistence, autonomy, and sociality.”
Enclosure also decreased the independence people had from the rich, leading them now to need their employers, as well as charity and public welfare programs:
“As soon as they lost access to land, all workers were plunged into a dependence unknown in medieval times, as their landless condition gave employers the power to cut their pay and lengthen the working-day. In Protestant areas this happened under the guise of religious reform, which doubled the work-year by eliminating the saints' days.”
And most of all, the enclosures hit women the hardest. It took away their independence and their meeting places just like it did for men, but men at least had survival options that women didn’t have:
“… women were those who suffered most when the land was lost and the village community fell apart. Part of the reason is that it was far more difficult for them to become vagabonds or migrant workers, for a nomadic life exposed them to male violence, especially at a time when misogyny was escalating. Women were also less mobile on account of pregnancies and the caring of children, a fact overlooked by scholars who consider the flight from servitude (through migration and other forms of nomadism) the paradigmatic forms of struggle. Nor could women become soldiers for pay, though some joined armies as cooks, washers, prostitutes, and wives; but by the 17th century this option too vanished, as armies were further regimented and the crowds of women that used to follow them were expelled from the battlefields.”
“Most importantly, the separation of production from reproduction created a class of proletarian women who were as dispossessed as men but, unlike their male relatives, in a society that was becoming increasingly monetarized, had almost no access to wages, thus being forced into a condition of chronic poverty, economic dependence, and invisibility as workers.”
The Role of the New Nation State
After discussing how land privatization and increased exports led to high prices on food within Europe, Federici then makes an argument which might seem shocking or at least uncomfortable to American progressives or to Social Democrats/Democratic Socialists. Such people tend to see social programs for the poor as an unqualified good, while Federici argues they were part of a much larger program of increasing dependency of the poor upon the rich and increased state power over workers.
It’s something that is much easier to see if you’ve ever worked with homeless or drug-addicted people, as I did for 6 years. In Seattle, social programs were very abundant and quite generous for homeless people, but the one thing that was never on offer was an end to the capitalist price escalation of homes and property. In other words, social programs exist to manage the problem, not solve it.
The rise in charity and early welfare programs during the transition to capitalism functioned the same way. Enclosures were churning out thousands upon thousands — and eventually millions — of people who couldn’t provide for themselves any more. Rather than stop the enclosures, though, the state offered ways to keep those people alive while also making them more dependent upon the state itself. This allowed the process to continue while staving off a revolutionary crisis that would have stopped capitalism.
The similarities between modern social programs and the situation during the transition to capitalism are even more obvious when we look at Federici’s description of the mass crisis of homelessness then:
“In the Middle Ages, migration, vagabondage, and the rise of "crimes against property" were part of the resistance to impoverishment and dispossession; these phenomena now took on massive proportions. Everywhere — if we give credit to the complaints of the contemporary authorities — vagabonds were swarming, changing cities, crossing borders, sleeping in the haystacks or crowding at the gates of towns — a vast humanity involved in a diaspora of its own, that for decades escaped the authorities' control.”
This looks a lot like what Seattle was starting to look like before I left in 2016. It’s gotten much worse there, as well as in every other American city. Europe, also: a brief walk through Paris requires carefully avoiding sleeping homeless people on the sidewalks. In order words, it’s a process that hasn’t stopped, but rather reproduces itself over and over again. Federici noted that globalization had caused an increase of this process, a new war on what was left of the commons:
“But the essential similarity between these phenomena and the social consequences of the new phase of globalization that we are witnessing tells us otherwise. Pauperization, rebellion, and the escalation of "crime"are structural elements of capitalist accumulation as capitalism must strip the work-force from its means of reproduction to impose its own rule.”
Again, keep in mind that the state’s role — beginning from the transition to capitalism and continuing up to this day — is to manage the working class on behalf of the capitalists, not to protect or liberate them. Much of this role involves social discipline, the creation of a public morality which best suits a compliant working class:
“In pursuit of social discipline, an attack was launched against all forms of collective sociality and sexuality including sports, games, dances, ale-wakes, festivals, and other group-rituals that had been a source of bonding and solidarity among workers.”
Everywhere, things humans do with each other became restricted, became seen as immoral, and were criminalized. The result of this was an enclosure not just of land, but also of our social realities themselves, and even our relationship to the sacred:
“… what was at stake was the desocialization or decollectivization of the reproduction of the work-force, as well as the attempt to impose a more productive use of leisure time. This process, in England, reached its climax with the coming to power of the Puritans in the aftermath of the Civil War (1642—49), when the fear of social indiscipline prompted the banning of all proletarian gatherings and merrymaking. But the "moral reformation" was equally intense in non-Protestant areas where, in the same period, religious processions were replacing the dancing and singing that had been held in and out of the churches. Even the individual's relation with God was privatized: in Protestant areas, with the institution of a direct relationship between the individual and the divinity; in the Catholic areas, with the introduction of individual confession. The church itself, as a community center, ceased to host any social activity other than those addressed to the cult. As a result, the physical enclosure operated by land privatization and the hedging of the commons was amplified by a process of social enclosure, the reproduction of workers shifting from the openfield to the home, from the community to the family, from the public space (the common, the church) to the private.”
The War On Women
The second half of this chapter focuses much more directly on the state management of the situation of women during these later stages of transition. Just as enclosure of land hit women much harder than it did men, enclosure of social reality was peculiarly destructive for women.
Keeping in mind what was discussed in the last chapter, concerns about reduced population drove some of this process. The poor were not having children, a logical decision for them in the face of their lack of access to food. This led to an increased attempt to enclose and criminalize women’s reproductive abilities:
“… in the charge that witches sacrificed children to the devil — a key theme in the "great witch-hunt" of the 16th and 17th centuries — we can read not only a preoccupation with population decline, but also the fear of the propertied classes with regard to their subordinates, particularly low-class women who, as servants, beggars or healers, had many opportunities to enter their employers' houses and cause them harm. It cannot be a pure coincidence, however, that at the very moment when population was declining, and an ideology was forming that stressed the centrality of labor in economic life, severe penalties were introduced in the legal codes of Europe to punish women guilty of reproductive crimes.”
“With the marginalization of the midwife, the process began by which women lost the control they had exercised over procreation, and were reduced to a passive role in child delivery, while male doctors came to be seen as the true "givers of life" (as in the alchemical dreams of the Renaissance magicians). With this shift, a new medical practice also prevailed, one that in the case of a medical emergency prioritized the life of the fetus over that of the mother. This was in contrast to the customary birthing process which women had controlled; and indeed, for it to happen, the community of women that had gathered around the bed of the future mother had to be first expelled from the delivery room, and midwives had to be placed under the surveillance of the doctor, or had to be recruited to police women.”
“While in the Middle Ages women had been able to use various forms of contraceptives, and had exercised an undisputed control over the birthing process, from now on their wombs became public territory, controlled by men and the state, and procreation was directly placed at the service of capitalist accumulation.”
Women and Work
The enclosure of social reality for women also involved a shift in the way women themselves were seen in society, especially in regards to the work they do. It was at this point that the sexual division of labor (or “gender roles”) became a social reality, and it was a product of the transition to capitalism, not some natural or “transhistorical” reality. Women were excluded from the new system of wage labor, while finding the work they performed suddenly classified as non-productive work.
“Soon all female work, if done in the home, was defined as "housekeeping," and even when done outside the home it was paid less than men's work, and never enough for women to be able to live by it. Marriage was now seen as a woman's true career, and women's inability to support themselves was taken so much for granted, that when a single woman tried to settle in a village, she was driven away even if she earned a wage.”
“Married or not, proletarian women needed to earn some money, which they did by holding multiple jobs. Housework, moreover, requires some reproductive capital: furniture, utensils, clothing, money for food. But waged workers lived poorly, "slaving away by day and night" (as an artisan from Nuremberg denounced in 1524), just to stave off hunger and feed their wives and children). Most barely had a roof over their heads, living in huts where other families and animals also resided, and where hygiene (poorly observed even among the better off) was totally lacking; their clothes were rags, their diet at best consisted of bread, cheese and some vegetables. Thus, we do not find in this period, among the working class, the classic figure of the full-time housewife. It was only in the 19th century — in response to the first intense cycle of struggle against industrial work — that the "modern family" centered on the frill-time housewife's unpaid reproductive labor was generalized in the working class, in England first and later in the United States.”
“Nevertheless - though the housework done by proletarian women was reduced to a minimum, and proletarian women had always to work for the market - within the working-class community of the transition period we already see the emergence of the sexual division of labor that was to become typical of the capitalist organization of work. At its center was an increasing differentiation between male and female labor, as the tasks performed by women and men became more diversified and, above all, became the carriers of different social relations.”“Meanwhile, new laws and new forms of torture were introduced to control women's behavior in and out of the home, confirming that the literary denigration of women expressed a precise political project aiming to strip them of any autonomy and social power. In the Europe of the Age of Reason, the women accused of being scolds were muzzled like dogs and paraded in the streets; prostitutes were whipped, or caged and subjected to fake drownings, while capital punishment was established for women convicted of adultery .”
Women and Colonialism
The final part of this chapter moves beyond the situation of women in Europe to the larger matter of colonization. Federici’s assertion here is that the process that occurred to women in Europe was essentially a model for the larger exploitation and subjugation of colonized peoples.
The key here is that capitalism requires internal division with the working class. It needs women and men to see themselves as divided against each other, just as it also needs white and black people to be divided. Because it requires these divisions, it creates, maintains, and reinforces them wherever it takes hold.
This framework is in stark contrast to the modern social justice identity politics framework, which imagines that white people and males are either inherently oppressive or were the initiators of these divisions. Often, the sense is given that all Europeans somehow “benefited” from slavery and colonialism, which Federici points out is an untenable position:
“In reality, like the Conquest, the slave trade was an epochal misfortune for European workers. As we have seen, slavery (like the witch-hunt) was a major ground of experimentation for methods of labor-control that were later imported into Europe. Slavery also affected the European workers' wages and legal status; for it cannot be a coincidence that only with the end of slavery did wages in Europe decisively increase and did European workers gain the right to organize.
It is also hard to imagine that workers in Europe profited from the Conquest of America, at least in its initial phase. Let us remember that it was the intensity of the anti-feudal struggle that instigated the lesser nobility and the merchants to seek colonial expansion, and that the conquistadors came from the ranks of the most-hated enemies of the European working class. It is also important to remember that the Conquest provided the European ruling class with the silver and gold used to pay the mercenary armies that defeated the urban and rural revolts; and that, in the same years when Arawaks, Aztecs, and Incas were being subjugated, workers in Europe were being driven from their homes branded like animals, and burnt as witches.”
At this point, we can start to see the true difference between Federici’s historical analysis and the social justice identitarian analysis. While Federici absolutely agrees that some did indeed benefit from these processes, her wider lens helps us see how racial and gender divisions were willfully produced by the capitalists.
“… Like sexism, racism had to be legislated and enforced. Among the most revealing prohibitions we must again count that marriage and sexual relations between blacks and whites were forbidden, white women who married black slaves were condemned, and the children resulting from such marriages were enslaved for life. Passed in Maryland and Virginia in the 1660s, these laws prove that a segregated, racist society was instituted from above, and that intimate relations between "blacks" and "whites" must have been very common, indeed, if life-enslavement was deemed necessary to terminate them.
As if following the script laid out by the witch-hunt, the new laws demonized the relation between white women and black men. When they were passed in the 1660s, the witch-hunt in Europe was coming to an end, but in America all the taboos surrounding the witch and the black devil were being revived, this time at the expense of black men.”
In other words, the same process that had occurred in Europe repeated itself in the colonies, creating more and more divisions to subjugate the poor.
However, there are bright notes despite all this darkness, especially in the references Federici cites regarding the relationships between women across racial divisions. Especially optimistic and tantalizing are the references to shared wisdom and magical practices between such women. African, indigenous, and European folk knowledge passed freely between subjugated women who recognized in each other a shared situation and a common reality.
The next essay, on Chapter Three (“The Great Caliban”), will be published on 26 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!