Caliban & The Witch: Preface & Introduction
The first essay in our book club on Silvia Federici's brilliant opus.
This is the first 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’ve created a new section on From The Forests of Arduinna specifically for essays that are part of our book club readings. Also, please note: because the length of the essays I’m writing for this first book are quite long, I’ve divided them up and have slightly changed the publishing schedule.
This is the new schedule:
11 March: Preface and Introduction (one essay)
12 March: Chapter One (All The World Needs A Jolt)
18 March: Chapter Two (The Accumulation of Labor and the Degradation of Women
25 March: Chapter Three (The Great Caliban)
1 April: Chapter Four (The Great Witch-Hunt in Europe)
8 April: Chapter Five (Colonization and Christianity)
Also, please consider commenting after reading this essay and others in the series. Your questions, insights, and comments will help others reading this book as well, and they’ll help me, too.
Published in 2004, Federici’s book both draws from and also moves beyond the analyses of feminism, Marxist theory, and medieval history to understand two things: the situation of women within capitalism, and the transition from pre-capitalist to capitalist social relations. In particular, she looks at the social and political power of the witch hunts as a key part of the capitalist struggle to capture all of human life into its market logic.
One immediate difficulty any reader might have understanding her larger argument is this: Marx’s core analysis of capitalist social relations is often forgotten or sidelined in modern leftism, especially in Anglo-American leftism.1
What Marx noticed was that capital constantly disrupts social relations in order to create new markets and new forms of wealth-accumulation. In fact, this is what could be considered its real difference from other economic arrangements that had existed in the past. Capital constantly affects the way we think about ourselves and each other, what and who we think of as valuable or worthless, and even what we believe we need and do not need.
It has especially changed how we think of time, our bodies, and the land around us. This is Silvia Federici’s point in an essay she wrote much later, “In Praise of the Dancing Body”:
One of capitalism’s main social tasks from its beginning to the present has been the transformation of our energies and corporeal powers into labor-powers.
…Capitalism was born from the separation of people from the land and its first task was to make work independent of the seasons and to lengthen the workday beyond the limits of our endurance. Generally, we stress the economic aspect of this process, the economic dependence capitalism has created on monetary relations, and its role in the formation of a wage proletariat. What we have not always seen is what the separation from the land and nature has meant for our body, which has been pauperized and stripped of the powers that pre-capitalist populations attributed to it.
In order to convert humans into the proletariat — in other words, to create the labor force it needed to accumulate more wealth — capitalists needed us to think of ourselves in new and ahistorical ways. This is also how ideas such as race became a “real” thing for us, a new and deeply damaging way of thinking about ourselves and each other. But most relevant to Federici’s argument in Caliban & The Witch is that capitalism needed us to think about women and men — and the kind of work they do or are “supposed” to do — in new and more rigid ways.
Preface to Caliban & The Witch
In the preface to Caliban & The Witch, Silvia Federici situates her work in relation to other frameworks which she challenges, critiques, and also expands: Socialist (Marxist) Feminism and Radical Feminism. As she explains on the very first page:
“… neither provided a satisfactory explanation of the roots of the social and economic exploitation of women. I objected to the Radical Feminists because of their tendency to account for sexual discrimination and patriarchal rule on the basis of transhistorical cultural structures, presumably operating independently of relations of production and class. Socialist Feminists, by contrast, recognized that the history of women cannot be separated from the history of specific systems of exploitation and, in their analyses, gave priority to women as workers in capitalist society. But the limit of their position, in my understanding of it at the time, was that it failed to acknowledge the sphere of reproduction as a source of value-creation and exploitation, and thus traced the roots of the power differential between women and men to women's exclusion from capitalist development - a stand which again compelled us to rely on cultural schemes to account for the survival of sexism within the universe of capitalist relations.
Some background on both of these tendencies, especially on Radical Feminism, would probably be very helpful. While many progressives or social justice identitarians tend to be very critical of Radical Feminism (usually only referencing it as part of the slur, TERF — Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminism), it has actually provided the primary framework through which most feminisms now see the world. When people talk of “smashing the (white cis-hetero) patriarchy,” or when they speak of men, maleness, or masculinity as a dominant or oppressive force, they are continuing the legacy of Radical Feminism.
The blindness of Radical Feminism, as Federici notes, is that it imagines sexism and the patriarchy as “transhistorical cultural structures, presumably operating independently of relations of production and class.” In this view, patriarchy and sexism affect “all woman,” regardless of their economic power and position within political power. Whether she’s a rich business owner, a powerful politician, or a homeless mother, a woman is considered under the thumb of the patriarchy.
Socialist Feminism, on the other hand, recognizes that rich and powerful women can exploit others just as thoroughly as their male counterparts can. Of course, one still needs to account for why there are more male capitalists than female capitalists, and also why women are paid so much less then men for similar work. For socialist feminists, the key to this was the failure of the working classes to acknowledge women’s often “invisible” labor and include women’s concerns in labor struggles.
Federici notes that this analysis is just as inadequate as Radical Feminism’s analysis, because it still required reliance “on cultural schemes to account for the survival of sexism within the universe of capitalist relations.” Here, it’s important to understand that the ultimate goal of socialist feminism is for women to be treated exactly the same as men are in regards to pay, access to wealth, and other societal goods. For such socialists, once the patriarchal inequality is dealt with, women and men can finally be treated identically in all things.
The problem, though, is that women and men aren’t physically identical, especially in matters of sexual and other reproduction.
Here we need a really important aside, because Federici cannot be understood accurately without understanding what she means by reproduction. Reproduction isn’t just the conception, gestation, birth, and nurturing of children, but also all the tasks we humans perform outside of production. Cooking a meal for yourself and your family is reproduction, as is cleaning up afterwards. So are all the other “domestic” tasks we perform which are often considered gendered or fall most often upon women (that is, mothers, daughters, housewives, etc) within capitalist societies.
Reproduction is much larger than just those domestic tasks. It’s all the work we do for ourselves and each other outside of capitalist production. In fact, the best way to see this is that production is the work we do for economic exchange, while reproduction is all the other work we do.
The problem, however, is that capitalism has disciplined us into thinking that production is the only “real” work we perform, and thus reproductive work appears invisible to us. Thus, a 1950’s husband coming home from his factory job would see his wife’s work in the house (cleaning, taking care of children, cooking, etc) as not real work. His wife, also, would come to see her work as less important as well, despite how exhausted she felt at the end of each day.
Federici underlines the importance of reproduction when she discusses how her previous work with the Italian feminist Leopoldina Fortunati led to a search within the history of the “transition to capitalism” for the key to understanding our current problem. This period first all of all helped explain:
… the genesis of housework in its main structural components: the separation of production from reproduction, the specifically capitalist use of the wage to command the labor of the unwaged, and the devaluation of women's social position with the advent of capitalism.
More radically and controversially, however, Federici notes that this period also helped provide an alternative framework to understanding sexual difference and gendered labor.
It also provided a genealogy of the modern concepts of femininity and masculinity that challenged the postmodern assumption of an almost ontological predisposition in "Western Culture" to capture gender through binary oppositions. Sexual hierarchies, we found, are always at the service of a project of domination that can sustain itself only by dividing, on a continuously renewed basis, those it intends to rule….
This final statement is much more of a war cry than it might seem on initial reading, as Federici is rejecting the core cosmological framework of Western feminism altogether. Rather than sexual inequality or the patriarchy existing as some kind of universal (“transhistorical”) force or cultural oppression that must either be “smashed” or educated out of people, Federici’s argument in Caliban & The Witch is that this arrangement exists in service to capitalism itself. In fact, as we’ll see throughout the book, capitalism could not have come about without first creating and then “naturalizing” this arrangement.
Introduction to Caliban & The Witch
Marx could never have presumed that capitalism paves the way to human liberation had he looked at its history from the viewpoint of women.
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.
In these two preceding quotes from her introduction to Caliban & The Witch, Silvia Federici continues an assault on the dominant frameworks through which the left has come to view the world, women, and the influence of capitalism on humans in general.
These two dominant views can be seen particularly in the way the Anglo-American “left” views the history of capitalism and the route to liberation, especially through the tendency I’ll name as techno-utopian socialism. The cosmology which informs it is prevalent throughout the political platforms of the DSA in the US, and in the Left parts of Labour in the UK. It’s also quite primary to the political focus of journals such as The New Statesman and Jacobin, among many others.
Two writers are particularly representative of this tendency: Sophie Lewis and Aaron Bastani, both published by Verso. Sophie Lewis is the author of Abolish The Family (a recently-released book which I critically reviewed here) and Full Surrogacy Now. In both of her books, Lewis argues that the technological changes and social disruptions wrought by capitalism are ultimately good things which liberate us from “nature,” or from natural limitations on the human body. Thus, the goal of any leftist project of liberation is to embrace these changes, while creating alternative ways of arranging society so they benefit people more equally. This is also the general argument of Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism: capitalist innovation and disruptions are ultimately good for humanity, but what is needed is a communist politics that better harnesses these changes to make all of our lives easier.
Both of these writers suffer from the same blindness from which Marx suffered when he proposed that capitalist destruction of earlier social and economic relations was a necessary and inevitable step towards human liberation. This is the “progress” model of history, one which posits that each new societal change leads us ever closer to an inevitable utopian future (or what Walter Benjamin — himself Jewish — derided as “the messianic promise.”)
To get a better sense of the influence of this model on the way we see ourselves now, consider the title of an interview published in Jacobin in 2020: “Capitalism Made Gay Identity Possible. Now We Must Destroy Capitalism.” In this view, gay liberation was only able to happen because capitalism destroyed older “traditional” social relations. Gays like myself, therefore, should be first grateful to the capitalists, but then seek to overthrow them.
This same view exists especially within much of modern feminism. Here, the history is told that the capitalists made it possible for women to work in factories and offices. Because of this shift, women could then pursue their own goals independent of men. Women, like gays, should therefore be grateful to the capitalists for their freedom, and then revolt against them.
The core problem with this view is that it relies on a completely false historical understanding of what life was like for women and for people in general before the birth of capitalism.
In fact, this understanding isn’t just incorrect, but is 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.
That’s why, in her preface and introduction both, Silvia Federici especially foregrounds the “transition to capitalism” as the primary grounds of her argument. 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.
If we believe that capitalists “liberated” peasants from farming by turning them into factory workers, and if we think that life before these massive disruptions was primitive, ignorant, backwards, and oppressive, then we’ll merely seek to emulate the capitalists except in more democratic ways.
This leads to a way of thinking in the Anglo-American left which theorists, activists, and indigenous leaders in the Global South have particularly fought against. See, if capitalist disruption is a necessary step to the liberation of humans, then it must occur everywhere for the entire world to be liberated. Thus, African, South American, and Asian peoples must undergo the same violent “transition to capitalism” which occured first in Europe. Peasants must leave (be forced off) their land, farming and other kinds of work must be industrialized, traditional ways of seeing the world must be destroyed, and Enlightenment ideas must transform their societies first before they can finally then have a chance to reach the utopian, messianic promise of equality.
Whether or not one believes such disruptions are for the eventual benefit of those people, it’s undeniable that they occur nevertheless. Federici’s experience working with women in Nigeria, for example, showed her that the same process which occurred to women in England and then Europe was occurring there, as well.
But what she also noticed was that ideas which we might otherwise have assumed were limited to Europe were recurring there, as well. Also, though, these same processes supposedly completed in Europe and North America hadn’t actually ended in those places, either. That leads her to what she names as the primary questions her book addresses:
Why, after 500 years of capital's rule, at the beginning of the third millennium, are workers on a mass scale still defined as paupers, witches, and outlaws? How are land expropriation and mass pauperization related to the continuing attack on women? And what do we learn about capitalist development, past and present, once we examine it through the vantage-point of a feminist perspective?
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.
The Body and the Witch
Marx’s incorrect belief early in his writings (he changed his mind later in life) that capitalist transition was a necessary step to human liberation is not the only false framework against which Federici argues. In the second quote I cited at the beginning, she criticizes Foucault and his idea of the body as a “discursive” product.
Foucault’s ideas require some background as well, since they also are foundational to the techno-utopian socialism strangling the Anglo-American left now. They also figure heavily in the framework of social justice identity politics (often called “woke ideology”) which focuses not on economic exploitation but rather social inequality.
Elsewhere in the introduction, Federici makes a very subtle reference to this framework as it manifests in “postmodern” feminism (Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, intersectional feminism, etc.). These feminisms have generally abandoned — and even openly denounced — attempts to link capitalist exploitation of women to the bodies or sexual difference of women. Butler’s assertion that gender and sexual differences are merely “performative,” meaning that they exist only because we act them out, is one such result of this rejection of the body. Haraway’s “Cyborg” idea, one she herself has mostly moved away from while aggressive acolytes such as Sophie Lewis cling to it more tightly, is another form of this.
“Discursive” is an important term to understand here. It literally refers to speech (discourse), but in philosophical terms denotes an aspect of something that is produced by or situated in the way we talk about it. For example, there is a deep difference between our discursive understanding of New York City or Paris and the actual existence of those cities.
More important, however, is that “discursive” is often used to denote something that primarily exists only because of the way we talk about them. Butler’s idea of “performativity,” for example, is based upon the idea that gender and sexual difference are only discursive things. In other words, there is no “real” difference underneath, only the reality constructed through our ways of thinking and speaking about those differences.
Federici explains that the problem with Foucault’s view is that he “views the body as constituted by purely discursive practices,” meaning that he doesn’t treat the body as a really-existing thing. This is similar to the problem she sees with postmodern feminists, who argue against even seeing women as a really-existing thing beyond the way we speak of them, because these are merely “constructed” categories.
Federici doesn’t deny that cultural construction is involved in the way we see sexual difference, however. Instead, she insists that these constructions point to something crucial underneath those differences which capitalism needed to re-inforce, control, and exploit.
… 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.
… if "femininity" has been constituted in capitalist society as a work-function masking the production of the work-force 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 labor 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 organization of reproductive labor), 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.”
In other words, only through a framework which looks at the really-existing bodies of women (rather than just the social or cultural constructions of what woman-ness means) can feminism understand how capitalism subjugates women. But this focus on women in Caliban & The Witch shows us something much larger about capitalism itself, how it functions, how it turns us all into its subjects, and especially how it reproduces itself into all our relations.
In other words, by looking at what happened to women’s bodies in the transition to capitalism, we learn what happened to all of us as bodies.
This brings us to the final point of her argument within the introduction. What occurred to women and what occurred to men was different, but it was part of the very same process. Capitalism required both transformations in order to create a subjugated populace. Humans were disciplined out of being peasants and into becoming proletariat, the “working class” to which most of us belong.
Men and women both were victims of this process, but what happened to women was particularly cruel. But while for men in most places the transformation appears complete, the resistance that women waged against this process continues because it is situated in their bodies themselves:
… 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 labor.
… At the core of capitalism there is not only the symbiotic relation between waged-contractual labor and enslavement but, together with it, the dialectics of accumulation and destruction of labor-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 globalize exploitation. This process is still unfolding under our eyes, as it has for the last 500 years.
All these themes are picked up again throughout Caliban & The Witch, so it’s important to keep them in mind as you read the rest of her work.
The next essay, on Chapter One (“All the World Needs a Jolt”), will be published on 12 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!
In fact, especially for the more utopian socialist strands of leftism or progressivism, the “fully automated luxury communism” sort, this analysis is either dismissed or considered completely wrong.