Inspiration for New Sensibility Inspired by Silvia Federici’s “Caliban and the Witch”

By James Anderson

Halloween conjures up all kinds of images, rituals and events.

Ghosts. Ghouls. Goblins. Vampires. Zombies. Dracula. Frankenstein. The Monster Mash. Costume parties. Trick-or-treating. Unofficial celebrations. The official Hangar 9 “Little Pizza Halloween Extravaganza” in Carbondale. And of course the debut of The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror XXV” episode.

The subject of witches also inevitably becomes a big part of the pop-culture lexicon around this time. But the history of witches, specifically the history of the witch-hunt, seldom receives attention or gets discussed.calibanwitch250

Silvia Federici’s “Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation” is one text to turn to for an understanding of the witch-hunt, its historical function and its effects.

So from whence does this notion of the witch emerge?

Central to Federici’s thesis is that capitalism was not the result of an evolutionary process toward greater productivity and prosperity. Rather, “the rise of capitalism was coeval with a war against women,” part of “a concerted attempt to degrade them, demonize them, and destroy their social power,” she wrote.

When “centuries-long social conflict,” combined with economic crisis, shook the power of merchants, feudal lords and the affluent and authoritarian sector of the clergy, Federici argues, this generated a class-conscious response.

The reaction of the ruling classes came in response to the “grassroots women’s movement” protesting established orthodoxy, “contributing to the construction of alternative models of communal life” and challenging “the dominant sexual norms,” in conjunction with attempts to create “more egalitarian relations” among the sexes.

Both revolt and ruling class reaction intensified when the feudal economy entered into serious crisis by the end of the Middle Ages, Federici suggests. Wages doubled, prices fell by 33 percent, rents declined “and a tendency appeared toward local self-sufficiency” between 1350 and 1500 in Europe. This prompted a “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 sources of wealth, expand its economic basis, and bring new workers under its command.”

The witch-hunt, an “unleashing of campaign of terror against women,” she wrote, weakened the peasantry already disadvantaged by land privatization, increased taxes, “and the extension of state control over every aspect of social life.” In destroying a whole slew of practices incompatible with capitalist discipline (e.g. communal relations, sexual activity not for reproduction of labor-power, traditional folk medicine antithetical to new doctrinaire rationality), and insofar as it cultivated a fear of the power of women that deepened gender divisions, “the witch-hunt was an essential aspect of primitive accumulation and the ‘transition’ to capitalism.”

Persecutions started in the 15th century. The witch-hunt accelerated toward the end of the 16th century and the first half of the 17th century, at the same time as revolts – both rural and urban and usually led by women – intensified against privatization, enclosures of land and rising bread prices.

Federici suggests fixation during witch trials on the “Sabbat,” the witches’ supposed gathering place, might illustrate the parallel between attacks on poor people’s organizing against subjugation.

“But there is no doubt that, through the judges’ obsession with these devilish gatherings, besides the echo of the persecution of the Jews, we hear the echo of the secret meetings the peasants held at night, on lonesome hills and in the forests, to plot their revolts,” Federici wrote about the witch trials.

She also draws a connection between accusations about alleged pacts with the Devil – selling one’s soul – with the way the working classes started challenging laws implemented to protect the emerging new order.

Considering the historical context and class and gender of the accused, “we must conclude that witch-hunting in Europe was an attack on women’s resistance to the spread of capitalist relations and the power that women had gained by virtue of their sexuality, their control over reproduction, and their ability to heal,” she added.

Caliban and Conquest: Attacks on Witches in the Americas met with Resistance

However, Federici qualified, “continuity exists “between the subjugation of the populations of the New World and that of people in Europe, women in particular, in the transition to capitalism.”

She contends the two-pronged campaign against witchcraft, magic and alleged devil worship in the “New World’ and back in Europe, helped form an “international division of labor,” dividing “the new global proletariat by means of different class relations and systems of discipline, marking the beginning of often conflicting histories within the working class.”

Characterizing aboriginal populations in the Americas “as cannibals, devil-worshippers, and sodomites supported the fiction that the Conquest was not an unabashed quest for gold and silver but was a converting mission,” and not, as Federici argues, “the paradigmatic form of repression, serving to justify enslavement and genocide.”

She noted attempts to isolate accused witches from the rest of the community worked in Europe, but not among the Andean people – who had no notion of the Devil until the Conquest – because witchcraft and resistance became inextricably linked in the consciousness of the colonized and accused.

In the title and throughout her book Federici refers to the figure of “Caliban,” featured in Shakespeare’s 1612 play, “The Tempest” as the rebellious son of a witch. With inspiration from the Shakespearean narrative “suggesting the possibility of a fatal alliance among the oppressed,” Caliban became a symbol of resistance throughout Latin America.

It’s ironic, Federici commented, that Caliban and not Sycorax, the mother-witch, came to represent rebellion. The latter “might have taught her son to appreciate local powers – the land, the waters, the trees, ‘nature’s treasuries’ – and those communal ties that, over centuries of suffering, have continued to nourish the liberation struggle to this day, and that already haunted, as a promise, Caliban’s imagination.”

Federician Critique of Certain Forms of Feminism  

Some feminists fail to grasp the relevance of Federici’s thesis for today.

Janet Hanson, a former Goldman Sachs executive and founder of a group aimed at putting more women in positions atop the corporate hierarchy, has said the women’s movement went astray when it “became bitter and cynical” and focused on “what we don’t have as opposed to what we should have in an equal society.”

Hanson has a point about shifting from cynicism to a new sensibility, but her vision remains heavily skewed by its adaptation to relations that do violence to both women and men.

Her perspective reflects the institutions of which she advocates for and has been a key part.

Goldman Sachs, where Hanson was a vice president, has been described by former Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi, in germane fashion for Halloween, as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” It has also been accused of causing a global food crisis, in addition to financial crisis, ensuring inequality that plunged populations into starvation – not exactly conducive to the “equal society” we should aspire to, as Hanson has it.

In a similar vein, a Pew Research Center report released in August 2014 identified as problematic that only about five percent of women are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and that women occupy less than nine percent of all management positions.

The report ignores the issue to which critical feminists are adamantly opposed: the relations of domination reified in structures where bosses and executives exist and exert power over others.

In contrast, an October 2014 report published by the Restaurant Opportunities Center United focused on the fact women work “most of the financially precarious jobs” in today’s economy. Some 70 percent of restaurant servers and 60 percent of all tipped positions are performed by women, the report stated.

The federal minimum wage for tipped workers remains $2.13. This means women remain disproportionately disadvantaged from poverty level pay, or are more frequently forced to endure degrading treatment so as not to lose money from tips needed to compensate for their inadequate remuneration on the job.

In “Free Women of Spain: Anarchism and the Struggle for the Emancipation of Women,” Martha Ackelsberg clarified a distinction between the “classical liberal formulations” of feminism pervading US culture today, and the feminism of women involved in Mujeres Libres, an influential women’s organization during the short-lived anarcho-syndicalist revolution in Spain during the 1930s. The latter – like present-day Marxist and anarchist feminists – insisted on understanding freedom as “a social product,” and “attempted to develop strategies for empowerment (capacitación) that would enable previously subordinated men and women to realize their own capacities,” by considering how to collectively produce a kind of power-to  “without creating new relationships of ‘power over’ others.”

Ackelsberg favors the “insistence that hierarchy needs to be addressed and uprooted independent of economic relations” – a dubious proposal for today.

Domination, hierarchy and subordination could exist apart from constant capital accumulation, the driving force of our exploitative social reproduction. Yet Federici’s historical account of the witch-hunt, wherein women were terrorized to instill the discipline and control needed to “transition” to a system based on expropriation of the surplus value others produce, makes clear the foundations upon which capitalist society was formed. Federici demonstrated the tightly tethered relationship between sex-based hierarchies and economic reorganization for exploitation, which continues to inform oppressive relations in the present.

Making Sense of Struggle: Money, Markets and Magic at Work

Similarly, understanding how transformation of everything into a commodity to be bought and sold on the market affects social relations and militates against feminist objectives must be a primary task for feminism now.

In his essay comparing witchcraft with economics, David Hawkes stressed the extent to which commodities rule our world and underscored the parallels between wage labor and witchcraft. A capitalist economy “that represents material human activity in the form of exchange value,” and relies on money, “an externalized representation of abstract human labor power – that is to say, of human subjective activity, of human life,” involves the same sort of use of “performative” signs and “projection” that theories of witchcraft deploy, he argued.

Hawkes noted the increase in preoccupation with witches that has occurred when market economies and money are introduced to societies. He expounded on the social effects when wage labor, the condition of selling or alienating one’s labor, extends throughout society.

“The person remains a legally autonomous subject, but he gives up a portion of his life – that is, of his self – in exchange for a symbol of that portion,” Hawkes explained. “This symbol, which is money, then attains a subjective power, so that it determines the lives of the people whose activity it represents. A money economy is one in which people are ruled by fetishized representation of their own selves. Market economies are ruled by this ghostly, dead – but supernaturally active – power called money.”

Hawkes, however, did not discuss the extent to which certain classes in society wield social power over others, nor did he elaborate the importance of struggle against those power relations.

Women have historically been at the forefront of such struggle. It was women who pioneered the textile factory strikes in New England, and women who carried out “The Mother of All Strikes,” the first factory strike in the US, when workers rejected a 25 percent cut in pay, an extension of the working day and the sadistic management styles at Slater Mill in Rhode Island in 1824.

A network of feminist groups by the name of “WITCH,” influential in the early stages of the women’s liberation movement in the US, was born on Halloween in 1968, a year of revolution throughout the world-system, given the multiple uprisings that took place across the globe. Around that time, “the witch-hunt emerged from the underground to which it had been confined, thanks to the feminists’ identification with the witches, who were soon adopted as a symbol of female revolt,” as Federici observed in her book.

Amazing women like Marina Sitrin are presently participating in and writing about horizontally-arranged explicitly anti-capitalist organizing. Others like Victoria Law are critiquing pseudo-activism, like “carceral feminism,” which problematically seeks to address domestic violence through the use state violence – the very form of organized force Federici cites in her book as playing a pivotal role in the war against women-as-witches.

Women in the workplace and at university are often unfairly expected to be caregivers on top of other duties, as Natalie Nash pointed out. But promising efforts are afoot with an affective politics based in bonds of love and trust, and forged in opposition to the violence and impoverishment to which the system subjects so many.

Perhaps a new sensibility, grounded in the ghosts of the poor and feminine who practiced the magic of healing and caring before being systematically attacked during the advent of capitalism – coupled with the rebelliousness embodied by the women accused of witchcraft, as Federici described – could be a nice treat for us to resurrect this Halloween and thereafter.


James Anderson is a doctoral candidate and a member of the GAU Communications Committee.  He has served as steward for the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, and as co-chair for the Legislative and Political Action Committee. His interests include social movements, alternative media, critical theory, prefigurative politics, horizontalidad, political economy and praxis.


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