The first essay in our book club on Silvia Federici's brilliant opus.
I don't have something very interesting to add, I found that chapter fascinating and your summary made the concept clearer to my mind.
But LOL did Focault really believe the body was constituted merely by words and thoughts and societal ideas?? I can't fathom how someone can think that. Like, the first time after conceiving that idea that he stumbled over some door step, or had a bout of diarrhea or something it should have become clear to him that physical existence is a reality. Now, I haven't read Focault but I translate the way you describe 'discourse' into 'words, thoughts and societal ideas' which makes that particular idea sound utterly and obviously dumb. Unironically was that what Focault meant? Because if, then damn, we're out of touch as humanity. Only a species of interdimansional beings floating in the information void should ever conceive their bodies as consisting of ideas.
It is pretty clear that capitalism doesn't lead to 'liberation' at all for most people; it needs to keep exploiting and most people (and the natural environment) end up exploited. It's always a case of 'jam tomorrow' but never 'jam today'. The 'jam tomorrow' is held out as a sort of lure which theoretically anyone can get to as long as they 'work hard enough', but which few people do get no matter how hard they work. The few people who do have the jam seem to have inherited it and not got it through 'working hard enough'. Seeing as this has been going on for so long with centuries of evidence I'm surprised that people still fall for the capitalist lure, just as I'm very surprised that people fall for the 'privatisation lure'; better services, more choice, lower prices; when time and time again they've ended up with the exact opposites of these.
'Globalisation', always hailed as so very great for everyone, has just been a project of finding more people to exploit and more natural resources to take and sell.
Yes, sadly very true.
Nothing particularly thoughtful to add, but I do so appreciate you taking the time to do this. Your analysis really helps me sort through and solidify what I have read and I do find you much more readable than Ms. Federici.
Not to down play the horror of the witch hunts, from what I have seen of the numbers estimated of deaths it was way less than 100,000’s. Also I was raised in the era of the 1950’s home, which actually extended up into the early 70’s and I didn’t see a low regard for the homemaking wife, but instead a lot of strong respected by their husbands women doing a different style of work than the husband, neighboring women, women friends of my parents, my aunts. This was in working class, rural parts of the Midwest. These women were the volunteer backbone of small town, farming society in so many ways. I did not experience an oppressed class.
Hey Rhyd, have you been following Mary Harrington's work of late? It would be great to hear the two of you in conversation regarding this topic.
This is awesome! Caliban and the Witch is such a dense book to unpack. One thought which I’ve had recently (due to the US government whining about deficits and Social Security again) is a consideration of the way in which culture has shifted away from viewing children as having a responsibility to their parents in old age. The new attitude is that parents should be supported by investments in their elder years. Failure to create adequate investments is coming to be seen as a failing, and as an unfair burden upon the younger generations. Which has a couple of interesting implications:
1) The reproductive labor of parents (primarily women) is performed solely as a hobby. There is no reciprocal obligation of mutual aid.
2) The labor of the old is worthless. If Grandma watches the kids, it’s a hobby, not economical vital labor.
3) We can/ should entrust our futures to capitalism rather than to our next of kin. The parents kick their kids out at 18 with a bootstrap lecture and their kids dump them in a nursing home at 80 and move on.
I don’t know, I’m short on time to really think hard enough about this. It just seems to me that there’s something precious being lost when people no longer plan to hand a business off to their kids, or when they are getting a reverse mortgage instead of their kids inheriting their home. Of course, these are privileged positions to be in, to have that kind of wealth to hand down. And then there is the reality that the elderly phase of life will look more and more different for rich vs poor. Poor Grandma will watch her grandkids so her kids can work and be shamed for being a burden while performing economically vital work (daycare is running $1000+/ month with a desperate shortage of providers in the US). Rich Grandma will die of loneliness in a five star nursing home staffed by immigrant women whose mothers are watching their kids at home and being shamed for not having independent retirements.
Thanks for this introduction to Silvia Federici's thinking: I'll order the book now! Published in 2004, so there's quite a long history of comment and critique: it's good therefore to have your explanation nearly twenty years on. Also, positioning the work in the context of bifurcation in anglophone leftism and feminism is very helpful to a new reader of SF. Her key concept of reproduction immediately made me think of Ivan Illich's Shadow Work. Isn't the same disembodying transition to capitalism being described there in the movement from subsistence to landless wage labour: gives a new meaning to everything solid is melting, or liquifying, perhaps? Rob Simpson.
I am really looking forward to your analysis and the discussions that will follow from this analysis.
For myself it will be exciting to compare and contrast the Kingsnorth tendency towards what he has recently labeled as his reactionary radicalism with the arguments presented in the "No Left Turn," chapter of the recent Hine book "At Work in the Ruins," with your own endorsement of the idea that "by looking at what happened to women's bodies in the transition to capitalism we learn about what happened to all of us as bodies."
Just maybe portions of the recent political/religious ferment on the substack/rumble platforms will help to lead us out of or maybe into the wild!
Thanks for clarifying some of the academic jargon ("discursive" and "reproduction," particularly.
I get an “unsupported element” for the “pull quote” so I can’t read what is being commented on. Otherwise this is very interesting and I’d like to participate. I believe I’m a paying supporter so I’m wondering if it’s my little iPad. Can anybody help me? ￼
Thanks Rhyd. This is a good piece.
It had me wondering whether Caliban & The Witch drew upon or mentioned
The Great Transformation, by Karl Polanyi. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Transformation_(book)
Happily, the book is available for free online.:
I have yet to read the book, myself, but I plan to. I've read about it, and the concept of embeddedness, disembeddedness and re-embedding has me very curious to learn more. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Embeddedness
The pre-capitalist body was, indeed, a very different thing from the capitalist body, as was the relation of that body to the land -- which is really very much at the heart of the matter -- the relation of bodies to land ... and the obliteration of the commons / commoning, and thus of anything resembling functional human communities.
Thanks for the food for thought!
**** Edit ****
I downloaded the book in PDF and then looked in the bibliography, and there it was, as I had hoped!
Polanyi, Karl. (1944). The Great Transformation. New York: Rinehart &
I'm going to dig into Caliban & the Witch now.
Thank you so very, very much, Rhyd, for the introduction to Federici's work and your, as always, clear elucidations and the platform to discuss it all. And thank you, too, to my co-readers and commenters, so delighted to meet you here!
I have a lot of skin in this puzzle, as a 67 year old woman whose work has been primarily reproductive (forty consecutive years of full-time childrearing, ahem). As a 'mature' student in my early 40s, I studied the anthropological construction of gender, and as a lifelong herbalist, the historical treatment of women healers and the imposition of medical control over the body, and especially the reproductive body. I am well versed in WHAT has happened, but have racked my brains since the age of seventeen over what my years of embodied experience have still been unable to reconcile - WHY? Caliban and the Witch (so far, I am half way) is a revelation.
I'm late to posting! Lovely summary Rhyd. Just wanted to add my thoughts on discourse, as best I understand it. I think a better understanding of what Foucault was trying to make sense of helps explain why the witch hunts are such a glaring omission that Federici takes him to task for.
Foucault wanted to describe the conditions in which human beings shift from the subject to object of political, scientific, economic, legal, and social power. Discourse was the term he used to describe “practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak” … “The games of truth and error through which being is historically constituted as experience; that is, as something that can and must be thought. what are the games of truth by which man proposes to think his own nature.” (Foucault 1969, 1984).
Discourse is both a model and an instrument that is produced by knowledge and power. Though Foucault doesn’t see power as emanating from a particular source (e.g., the state as in Marxist theory) nor as a strictly a force of oppression, but rather a fluid thing which congeals at terminal points “Power is exercised through networks, and individuals do not simply circulate in those networks; they are in a position to both submit and exercise this power. They are never the inert or consenting targets of power; they are always it's relays. In other words, power passes through individuals it is not applied to them” (Decoteau 2017).
The power and knowledge which creates this discursive feedback loop with their subject/objects, also created institutions of government that historically have shifted man from being the subject to the object of knowledge.
Since discourse is historically situated, Foucault selected three periods in history (the renaissance, the classical era and the modern era) and attempted to excavate and understand the rules and technologies of power of those times by using a technique of investigation called Archeology. Through Archeology, one uncovers the remnants of an organization of thought he referred to as Episteme – an unconscious scaffolding or network that is used to arrange thought. “The condition of these links resides henceforth outside representation, beyond its immediate visibility, in a sort of behind-the-scenes world even deeper and more dense than representation itself.” (Foucault 1964)
The episteme of the Renaissance era was one which united words and things in terms of resemblance or similarities. Resemblance is the lens through which nature of things is understood. For example, this sort of knowledge might dictate that an attractive person is good because they resemble beauty and a disfigured person is bad because their body is incomplete an ugly. Every aspect of live is a sign or symbol placed by God for man to find and interpret. “And representation … was posited as a form of repetition: the theater of life or the mirror of nature, that was the claim made by all language, its manner of declaring its existence and of formulating its right of speech.” (Foucault 1975)
Resemblance is the condition for knowledge and power in this era and the technology of power at this time is Sovereignty, the power of the crown. Foucault described the power of sovereignty as one that “makes die and lets live.” And the the text which defined the art of this means of governance was Machiavelli’s The Prince. For Machiavelli, the objective of the sovereign is to protect their position as sovereign. “The Prince and the judicial theory of sovereignty are constantly attempting to draw the line between the power of the Prince and any other form of power because its task is to explain and justify this essential discontinuity between them and the art of government is to establish a continuity.” (Foucault 1978). During this period in history, violence and sovereign law are the technologies by which a sovereign maintains power.
During the Classic era, resemblance is replaced by representation as the condition of knowledge. Things are no longer categorized by superstition and resemblances but rather by the use of reason to determine the nature of things. It is this shift that leads to the development of a science which takes into consideration the security and wellbeing of the group rather than just the territory of the sovereign. It’s here that a new form of power technology immerges which is Disciplinary power. This power is not interested in taking but in extracting or obtaining good behavior. It is a matter the economic relation between the cost of repression and the cost of delinquency The power of this era is given by the law. Law can be understood as a force of subtraction in that which removes options and puts restrictions on the body of its subjects.
The intention of these reforms wasn’t longer or harsher punishments but rather to discipline and repress more effectively. Disciplinary power was helped by instruments such as an organized police force, statistics, the coding of criminal behavior and a carceral system. This new science of statistics and standards brought the concept of a population into the discursive and illustrates the shift from subject of power to object of power. “The population now represents more the end of government than the power of the sovereign; the population is the subject of needs, of aspirations, but it is also the object in the hands of the government” (Foucault 1978).
Now the next episteme shift is from representation and reason and to the examination of the internal nature of things as the source of knowledge. The value of the qualities observed is determined by their common denominator. “All value is determined, not according to the instruments that permit its analysis, but according to the conditions of production that have brought it into being; and, even prior to that, the conditions in question are determined by the quantities of labor applied in producing them.” (Foucault 1978)
Conceiving of a society of humans as a population has given rise to more standards and norms by which individuals are measured. A population is what provides the power by which that society’s wealth is created. Thus, standardizing biological concerns like activity rates, diets, sickness, accidents, birth outcomes, etc... allows the population to be assessed, and for those who may fall below the standards encouraged (by varying means) to move towards the center of the curve. This modern conception of population has given rise to a modern governing technology Foucault identified as Biopower.
Described as “a power bent on generating forces, making them grow, and ordering them, rather than one dedicated to impeding them, making them submit, or destroying them.” Biopower is a set of mechanisms through which basic biological features of people become subject to political power. “And instead of affecting them as a multiplicity of organisms, of bodies capable of performances, and of required performances – as in discipline – one tries to affect, precisely, a population.” (Foucault 1978) It represents the technology of the epistemic shift into the Modern era.
Sorry that turned into a lot.
Thanks, I will look for it. I really identified with many of the stories in the anthology 'Leaning Into the Wind: Women Write from the Heart of the West' by Linda M. Hasselstrom.
I'm late because I've been traveling to different communes and just got back to the one I live with in the Ouachita Mts. on unceded Caddo lands. Okay, so I friggin' love this book and I convinced (with no effort) other communards to order a copy. Sitting after two hours setting up pea trellises at Little Flower Catholic Worker's garden it dawned on me that the rigid gender binary she identifies as the basis for the primitive accumulation of each fresh generation of laborers and their estrangement from their labor opens avenues for the reiteration of proletariat strategy. This is what I saw:
- The woman has in her hands the means of production to revive villages and neighborhoods materially and if not the means, she has been expected by the capitalists to know how to mend and sew and heal and reproduce with no material support and has simultaneous been delegated the power to resist these knowledge enclosures through initiating trade guilds, syndicates and unions to pass along the tribal skills she has gaurded through history;
- this shows for queer marxists an understanding of the androgyne as a role to bring unity together within households, trades, cultures, ecologies and parish communes, and hence the liberation of the queer is interdependent with union organizing and models of democracy in loosely federated communal alternatives and solidarity networks so when the end of history comes the earth and means of production are commons. And unity of trade will always call forth androgyny.
Thanks so much! Looking forward to reading chapter 1 and 2