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Who Were the Witches? – Patriarchal Terror and the Creation of Capitalism
November 5, 2009
This Halloween season, there is no book I could recommend more highly than Silvia Federici’s brilliant Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (Autonomedia 2004), which tells the dark saga of the Witch Hunt that consumed Europe for more than 200 years. In uncovering this forgotten history, Federici exposes the origins of capitalism in the heightened oppression of workers (represented by Shakespeare’s character Caliban), and most strikingly, in the brutal subjugation of women. She also brings to light the enormous and colorful European peasant movements that fought against the injustices of their time, connecting their defeat to the imposition of a new patriarchal order that divided male from female workers. Today, as more and more people question the usefulness of a capitalist system that has thrown the world into crisis, Caliban and the Witch stands out as essential reading for unmasking the shocking violence and inequality that capitalism has relied upon from its very creation.
Who Were the Witches?
Parents putting a pointed hat on their young son or daughter before Trick-or-Treating might never pause to wonder this question, seeing witches as just another cartoonish Halloween icon like Frankenstein’s monster or Dracula. But deep within our ritual lies a hidden history that can tell us important truths about our world, as the legacy of past events continues to affect us 500 years later. In this book, Silvia Federici takes us back in time to show how the mysterious figure of the witch is key to understanding the creation of capitalism, the profit-motivated economic system that now reigns over the entire planet.
During the 15th – 17th centuries the fear of witches was ever-present in Europe and Colonial America, so much so that if a woman was accused of witchcraft she could face the cruellest of torture until confession was given, or even be executed based on suspicion alone. There was often no evidence whatsoever. The author recounts, “for more than two centuries, in several European countries, hundreds of thousands of women were tried, tortured, burned alive or hanged, accused of having sold body and soul to the devil and, by magical means, murdered scores of children, sucked their blood, made potions with their flesh, caused the death of their neighbors, destroyed cattle and crops, raised storms, and performed many other abominations” (169).
In other words, just about anything bad that might or might not have happened was blamed on witches during that time. So where did this tidal wave of hysteria come from that took the lives so many poor women, most of whom had almost certainly never flown on broomsticks or stirred eye-of-newt into large black cauldrons?
Caliban underscores that the persecution of witches was not just some error of ignorant peasants, but in fact the deliberate policy of Church and State, the very ruling class of society. To put this in perspective, today witchcraft would be a far-fetched cause for alarm, but the fear of hidden terrorists who could strike at any moment because they “hate our freedom” is widespread. Not surprising, since politicians and the media have been drilling this frightening message into people’s heads for years, even though terrorism is a much less likely cause of death than, say, lack of health care.1 And just as the panic over terrorism has enabled today’s powers-that-be to attempt to remake the Middle East, this book makes the case that the powers-that-were of Medieval Europe exploited or invented the fear of witches to remake European society towards a social paradigm that met their interests.
Interestingly, a major component of both of these crusades was the use of so-called “shock and awe” tactics to astound the population with “spectacular displays of force,” which helped to soften up resistance to drastic or unpopular reforms.2 In the case of the Witch Hunt, shock therapy was applied through the witch burnings – spectacles of such stupefying violence that they paralyzed whole villages and regions into accepting fundamental restructuring of medieval society.3 Federici describes a typical witch burning as, “an important public event, which all the members of the community had to attend, including the children of the witches, especially their daughters who, in some cases, would be whipped in front of the stake on which they could see their mother burning alive” (186).
The book argues that these gruesome executions not only punished “witches” but graphically demonstrated the repercussions for any kind of disobedience to the clergy or nobility. In particular, the witch burnings were meant to terrify women into accepting “a new patriarchal order where women’s bodies, their labor, their sexual and reproductive powers were placed under the control of the state and transformed into economic resources” (170).
Federici puts forward that up until the 16th century, though living in a sexist society, European women retained significant economic independence from men that they typically do not under capitalism, where gender roles are more distinguished. “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… [this] 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.”
The Witch Hunt initiated a period where women were forced to become what she calls “servants of the male work force” (115) – excluded from receiving a wage, they were confined to the unpaid labor of raising children, caring for the elderly and sick, nurturing their husbands or partners, and maintaining the home. In Federici’s words, this was the “housewifization of women,” the reduction to a second-class status where women became totally dependent on the income of men (27).
The author goes on to show how female sexuality, which was seen as a source of women’s potential power over men, became an object of suspicion and came under sharp attack by the authorities. This assault manifested in new laws that took away women’s control over the reproductive process, such as the banning of birth control measures, the replacement of midwives with male doctors, and the outlawing of abortion and infanticide.4 Federici calls it an attempt to turn the female body into “a machine for the reproduction of labor,” such that women’s only purpose in life was supposedly to produce children (144).
But we also learn that this was just one component of a broader move by Church and State to ban all forms of sexuality that were considered “non-productive.” For example, “homosexuality, sex between young and old, sex between people of different classes, anal coitus, coitus from behind, nudity, and dances. Also proscribed was the public, collective sexuality that had prevailed in the Middle Ages, as in the Spring festivals of pagan origins that, in the 16th-century, were still celebrated all over Europe” (194). To this end, the Witch Hunt targeted not only female sexuality but homosexuality and gender non-conformity as well, helping to craft the patriarchal sexual boundaries that define our society to this day.
Capitalism – Born in Flames
What separates Caliban from other works exploring the “witch” phenomenon is that this book puts the persecution of witches into the context of the development of capitalism. For Silvia Federici, it’s no accident that “the witch-hunt occurred simultaneously with the colonization and extermination of the populations of the New World, the English enclosures, [or] the beginning of the slave trade” (164). She instructs that all of these seemingly unrelated tragedies were initiated by the same European ruling elite at the very moment that capitalism was in formation, the late 15th through 17th centuries. Contrary to “laissez-faire” orthodoxy which holds that capitalism functions best without state intervention, Federici posits that it was precisely the state violence of these campaigns that laid the foundation for capitalist economics.