From edition

Max Haiven: Caliban and the Witch

Sylvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 1994).

Review by Max Haiven, English and Cultural Studies, McMaster University

The North American left has been deploying the sign of the witch-hunt for generations to decry the mobilization of whole populations towards the frenzied pursuit of purportedly ubiquitous internal threats and secret fifth columns: from critiques of McCarthyism in the United States (notably, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible) to the contemporary outcry over the forms of collective punishment and racialized profiling. Currently, such maneuvers come from increasingly corporatized and carceral states under the banner of the War on Terror. The political salience of the which-hunt stems from its identification of a “state of exception” which witnesses the suspension of law and the wholesale disappearance of a “rational” public sphere into a fascistic passion-play of phobic denunciation, demonization, surveillance and internment. What is problematic is the way such a discourse reiterates the ostensibly inherent truth, justice and virtue of Western Liberal notions of “representative” democracy, the nation-state, a coherent public sphere predicated on rational judgment, and dispassionate law from which the reign of paranoid persecution is seen as a tragic deviation. It fails to note what the subalterned and colonized have known forever and even Western critics (presently, Giorgio Agamben) have begun to discern: the cosmic struggle between liberalism and authoritarianism (deployed by George Bush and other public intellectuals to translate both foreign and domestic policy decisions into the language of unquestionable duties) rests on a specious distinction.   Further, that the fundamental injustice of the state-of-exception and the exclusion of certain populations from “full citizenship” or “human rights” has always been the source and sustenance of modern sovereignty, no matter how seemingly benign.

How can the discourse of the witch-hunt, which seems to speak so powerfully to an age where the rhetoric of terror introduces the proliferation of suspicion, surveillance, and security throughout society, be moved beyond a fearful sympathy based on a rehearsed surprise over the capacity of sovereignties to break their own rules? How can it be made to speak towards a deeper solidarity which understands everyone’s fate as intractably bound up, one which makes urgent and possible new forms of common obligations and collective action which go well beyond Western liberal notions of a public responsibility reduced to passive civics and participation in a defanged civil society? At least part of this process would be to do justice to the singularity of the witch-hunts, spanning from the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, in which hundreds of thousands of people, mostly poor women, were slaughtered and communities torn apart, and link the forms of power, accumulation and sovereignty borne of and exercised through that era to their contemporary manifestations.

Sylvia Federici’s groundbreaking book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation does just this. It is emblematic of what critical scholarship ought to strive for, where pedagogical efficacy, clear and cogent argumentation, theoretical and historical rigour, and an uncompromising challenge to reigning structures of power complement one another. This compelling and comprehensive book will be of great interest not only to those concerned with the infancy of capitalism and the history of gender, but to anyone interested in themes of capitalist development up to the present, feminism and women’s struggle throughout history, the formation of class and social movements, violence against women, globalization, the history of the body, and early modern thought and literature. Further, this book ought to be taken as an essential critical counterpoint to Foucauldian notions of biopower and Marxian conceptions of “primitive accumulation” and the process of capital in general. It is also a momentous contribution to feminist history and a book which promises to encourage and supplement activism in its radical reconceptualization of politics, gender and history. While not all readers will find themselves in agreement with Federici’s theorization of the witch-hunt, all will find it provocative.

Leaving questions of historical veracity to the historians I will focus here on the political and theoretical implications of Federici’s text. Mainstream historians, however, ought to be warned that Federici’s method draws mainly on secondary sources and is largely genealogical, drawing out subdued histories and bringing them into play politically, rather than making any claims to comprehensively represent the period and events in question. Federici attributes her motivation to the need to link the contemporary expropriation of lands and destruction of women’s power through globalization and Structural Adjustment Policies to those enclosures at the birth of capitalism to contribute to the ongoing discussion of how to confront seemingly new or at least greatly intensified techniques of global capitalism.

To do so Federici joins a number of feminist and post-colonial theorists who extend Marx’s notion of primitive accumulation beyond the expropriation of peasant lands through policies of European enclosure and the enslavement of colonial populations in the fifteenth to seventeenth century. It was, as Federici argues in the first chapter of her book, a realignment of social power on a global level to confront a number of crises in the feudal order including a multitude of popular uprisings, rampant population decline, and high labour costs. Federici writes, “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 immense destruction of lives and the natural environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide” (21-22). The chapter traces both the rise of popular counter-feudal religious and secular struggles and the new forms of power that emerged to repress, diffuse, or subsume them. Federici details how women were disproportionately disenfranchised by these processes and the ways in which a concerted effort was made on the part of church and state (including the decriminalization of rape, the exclusion of women from key trades) to divide the emerging proletariat along gender lines in order to transform anger over the system into forms of misogyny that would set the stage for the witch-trials.

In the second chapter Federici summarizes the central ideas of her book and is best quoted at length:

The expropriation of European workers from their means of subsistence, and the enslavement of Native Americans and Africans to the mines and plantations of the New World, were not the only means by which a world proletariat was formed and ‘accumulated.’ This process required the transformation of the body into a work-machine, and the subjugation of women to the reproduction of the work-force. Most of all, it required the destruction of the power of women which, in Europe as in America, was achieved through the extermination of witches. Primitive accumulation, then, was not simply the accumulation and concentration of exploitable workers and capital. It was also an accumulation of differences and divisions within he working class, whereby hierarchies built upon gender, as well as “race” and age became constitutive of class rule and the formation of the modern proletariat. (63-64)
In addition, Federici argues that “[t]he 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 open field to the home, from the community to the family, from the public space (the common, the church)
the private” (83). This necessita
ted a wholesale attack on popular cultural practices, the privatization of communal property and events, and the elimination of shared ways of life and the memory of struggle, requiring and exacerbating the undermining of women’s community-based practices and knowledges. This was the initiation of a process that would culminate in the witch-hunts, representing women’s “historic defeat” where womens power and autonomy was systematically undermined. These processes included stigmatization of women’s labour outside the home, the exclusion of women from the wage and legal self- representation (increasing their dependence on men and vulnerability to male violence and marginalization), the banishment of midwives and contraceptives, and the subjecting of women’s speech to public concern, scorn and satire. The fundamental goal was to displace those insurgent feminities forged in the struggle against feudalism through the establishment of a new model female subjectivity, culminating in the 19th century figure of the Victorian housewife, which annexed women’s control over reproduction to the networked power structures of patriarchal capital, state, community and family. The chapter concludes with a comparison of the interwoven techniques of labour-discipline, seizure of women’s reproductive power, land expropriation in the Americas and Europe, and an outline of women’s everyday and organized resistance to this process.

The third chapter features a history of the techniques and philosophies aimed at both transforming the body into a machine for the extraction of labour-power and devaluing the body as the site of disruptive passions and irrational excess. Mechanical philosophies predicated themselves on the study of anatomy and the “discovery” of the mysteries of the body, emblematized in the work of Descartes whose separation of mind-as-soul and body-as-machine, Federici claims, was essential to “democratization” of discipline throughout the social fabric and the formulation of a “bourgeois” subject assigned to the complimentary tasks of self-discipline on the one hand and the domination of the natural world (and those associated with it including women, children, non-Europeans) on the other. Further, such a philosophy made possible practices of labour-discipline and governmentality which sought to transform workers into machines of labour-power and women’s bodies into machines for its reproduction through techniques of anatomically informed controls on the body and demographically and statistically informed interventions into populations. This ideology, which was to bleed through the European social fabric over the next four centuries, stigmatized the body, assigning a more base nature to women and colonial inhabitants as the precarious border between human and animal, in need of constant surveillance and control. It necessitated the systematic elimination of “magic”, prophesy and fate from the world, a process which both cleared the epistemic landscape for positivist discourses and practices of social control, but also worked in tandem with other processes mentioned here to degrade and destroy non-capitalist world-views and social-relations, and undermine the power of women as healers, midwives and soothsayers, the very fulcrums of social life.

The fourth chapter turns to the central question of the book “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” (14). Once again, Federici’s lucid prose speaks for itself:

The Witch-Hunt was one of the most important events in the development of capitalist society and the formation of the modern proletariat. For the unleashing of a campaign of terror against women, unmatched by any other persecutions, weakened the resistance of the European peasantry to the assault launched against it by the gentry and the state, at a time when the peasant community was already disintegrating under the combined impact of land privatization, increased taxation, and the extension of state control over every aspect of social life. The witch-hunt deepened the divisions between women and men, teaching men to fear the power of women and destroyed a universe of practices, beliefs and social subjects whose existence was incompatible with capitalist work discipline, thus redefining the main elements of social reproduction” (165).

A pan-European “ideological bricolage that evolved under the pressure of the task it had to accomplish [with] elements of taken from the fantastic world of medieval Christianity, rationalistic arguments and modern bureaucracy court procedure” (203) combined in a process that was applauded by leading literary and philosophical thinkers of the day. They established a extensive and pervasive state of exception, the grotesque crucible of a counter-revolution in female subjectivity social agency predicated on the demonization of women’s sexuality, the danger of women’s bodies, the incoherence of women’s speech, the distrust of women’s knowledge and memory, and the devaluation of women’s labour both in public and private spheres. Federici contends that:

Just as the Enclosures expropriated the peasantry from communal land, so the witch-hunt expropriated women from their bodies, which were thus “liberated” form any impediment preventing them to function as machines for the production of labour. For the threat of the stake erected more formidable barriers around women’s bodies then were ever erected by the fencing off of the commons. (184)

The final chapter builds on links made earlier in the book for a more sustained account of the interrelations between the witch-hunts in Europe and in the Americas. Both saw the systematic expropriation of common lands, the demonization of women in the interests of destroying community solidarity and appropriating control over reproduction, and the cross-fertilization of techniques of control on both sides of the Atlantic. A shared iconography of cannibalism, icon worship, and sexual perversity furnished both the European witch-hunt and the American genocide with ample legitimation for the declaration of blanket states of exception. These processes were marked by the conflation of all resistance with witchcraft and the identification of entire populations with devil-worship and they invited the development of new forms of discipline and surveillance in order to meet the fabricated threat. Here Federici also elaborates on women’s everyday and collective forms of resistance to these processes in the new-world.

I have a few minor trepidations about this work. For one, Federici could have done more to elaborate the links between the historical processes she identifies and their contemporary echoes under late capitalist globalization, although perhaps this will be the subject of a future volume as there is surely ample material. Second, each chapter stands on its own as a cogent and persuasive argument which deftly weaves together a coherent picture of the power relations at play. But perhaps this comes at the expense of a linear historical narrative which may be confusing to those unfamiliar with the mainstream history of the period against which Federici argues. The multitude of period images that furnish the book are wonderful illuminations and counterpoints to the text, but are often cropped or removed from their context, inviting skepticism regarding the meaning attributed to them. And though she dedicates the final chapter and a good section of the second to colonialism, some critics may feel the links she draws between the American and European situations to be too hasty. For instance, some may be disturbed by Federici’s mobilization of seemingly uniform categories like “women” and “proletariat”. These critiques need to be addressed through a discussion of Federici’s theoretical approach.

Federici’s theoretical and political sympathies have much
in common with the autonomist Ma
rxist school linked to the Italian “extra-parliamentary left” of the 60s and 70s, recently made (in)famous in the English-speaking world by the work of Antonio Negri. At their base, these thinkers share an approach to capitalism as a primarily social rather than economic relation where capitalism is the process of a social order by which popular struggle is contained and the constitution of a class is the process by which popular struggles articulate themselves against power. This analysis was crucially expanded by writers like Selma James and Mariarosa Della Costa who developed a concept of women as class whose oppressions was not simply exclusion from the industrial workplace (i.e. socialist feminism) or the halls of power (i.e. liberal feminism), but derived from capitalism’s need to force female bodies into the work of reproducing the labour-force. Federici suggests that hers is an analysis that pays close attention to the singular and local techniques by which the body, specifically the female body, has been disciplined into certain subject positions throughout history, an analysis which does not sacrifice attention to the dominant structures of political-economy and state power to a “post-modern” fascination with the minutia of power relations.

This is only one moment of Federici’s sustained conversation with the ghost of Foucault. Importantly, Federici takes Foucault to task both for his inattention to women in his theorization of power, but specifically for his ignorance of the witch-trails of the sixteenth century a key formative moment of the techniques of biopower he identified as emerging in the eighteenth with the rise of the pastoral confessional in the first volume of The History of Sexuality. Federici convincingly traces the emergence of both a discourse of the mechanical body and the disciplinary techniques exercised to produce labour-power (what Foucault would call anatomo-politics) and the birth of state sciences of demography and statistics to manage the reproduction of populations (what Foucault called bio-politics) to the birth of capitalism, specifically the way the witch-hunts were the peak of a violent strategy to orient women’s bodies and subjectivities towards a state-sanctioned reproduction in the interests of producing labour-power for the emerging needs of Capital. Federici’s Marxist and feminist corrective to biopower stands along side the work of Paul Gilroy, Achille Mbembe, Giorgio Agamben and Maurizio Lazzarato as a key to politicizing the concept beyond the limited confines of Foucault’s elusive theorization. Too, Hardt and Negri’s notion of biopolitical introduction has much to learn from Federici’s intervention, namely, that Capital’s investment in creating a global “society of control” concerned with the localized creation of reproductive subjectivities is at least 500 years old, that it relies on terror and war as much as global networks, and that it is fundamentally predicated on the control of the female body and enclosure of biological reproduction. Similarly, it becomes increasingly difficult after reading Federici to imagine with Agamben that the camp rather than the witch-hunt is the quintessential moment of modern biopolitics and the state of exception.

This entry was posted in Miscellaneous and edition . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Pages

  • Categories

  • Issues