AWOL meeting Report: Witch persecution, capitalism and colonialism

Posted on 8 March 2011 by

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Our regular educational last night was on Sylvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch (a good summary can be found here). The points of discussion included how little of the the context of the witch hunts we covered in school history lessons, the phenomena being ascribed to “peasant superstition” rather than the political conveniences that Federici reveals.  We were also struck by the parallels that can be drawn between the use of propaganda on “witches” and “terrorists” to justify the restriction of civil liberties.

The session began with this introduction to the themes and context of the book:

Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch is essential reading for anybody with an interest in women’s history.  It not only brings to light the importance of women’s involvement in the heretical and resistance movements of Europe throughout history, but puts forward a new analysis on some of the most significant changes in the role of women.  In the context of Europe’s transition from a feudal to a capitalist economy, Federici investigates the beginnings of institutionalised prostitution, the creation of women’s role in the nuclear family and the repression of women’s traditional roles as healers and midwives, showing how Capitalism intersected with Patriarchy, and then both intersected with Colonialism, to create new modes of accumulation combining oppressions of class, race and gender.

This analysis grew in large part out of Italian feminism of the 1970s.  Groups like Lotta Feminista and Rivolta Feminile were heavily involved in the Marxist and Anarchist actions of the ‘Hot Autumn’ strikes and occupations in 1969.  These feminist groups were making new connections between class and gender analyses, most notably that the work done in the home – cleaning, cooking, childrearing, caring for the sick and elderly – constituted labour, as important to the functioning of a capitalist economy as any industry.

This became the basis of the Wages for Housework movement, which pointed out the unpaid labour of women that was invisible in the Marxist economic analysis, yet essential to it.  There could be no industrial labour force to exploit without a domestic labour force to feed, refresh and reproduce it.  This analysis is outlined in Selma James’ introduction to the 1972 pamphlet The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community:

The ability to labor resides only in a human being, whose life is consumed in the process of producing. First it must be nine months in the womb, must be fed, clothed and trained; then when it works its bed must be made, its floor is swept, its lunchbox prepared, it’s sexuality not gratified but quietened, its dinner ready when it gets home, even if this is eight in the morning from the night shift. This is how labor power is produced and reproduced when it is daily consumed in the factory or the office. To describe its basic production and reproduction is to describe women’s work.[0]

This realisation brought with it an awareness of the interacting systems present in women’s oppression, and with it an approach that combined struggles against work in the home and the factory.  Looking back on the movement, Mariarosa Dalla Costa writes:

We said that external labour neither eliminated nor substantially modified domestic labour, it rather added a second master to the first represented by the very work of the husband. Therefore, emancipation through external work was never our objective. Nor was it equality with men. To whom should we have been equal, when we were burdened by a labour that man would not do? Moreover, at a time when the discourse on refusal of work was so strong, why should we try and fight for something men were attempting to refute?[1]

This analysis took the women’s movement forward.  Instead of merely demanding equality with men in the labour market, or equal power within marriage, the very notions of work, marriage and the family were rejected as part of the same system of oppression.

The Wages for Housework movement started up unauthorised and self-managed women’s health centres, providing counselling, abortion and contraception[2], published the ‘Le Operaie Della Casa’ (The House Workers) and organised marches for abortion rights and justice for rape survivors, in which women took to the streets in their thousands.  An awareness of Federici’s themes can be seen in this account of the first Reclaim the Night march, in Rome 1976:

Many of the 10,000 women dressed as witches and carried broomsticks. Jettisoning their usual chants like “Divorce Now,” their slogans reflected a new mood of anger and determination: “No longer mothers, no longer daughters, we’re going to destroy families.”[3]

This is the background of theory and practice that Caliban and the Witch emerged from – a feminism that was joining up and analysing systems of oppression, and looking not just to reform these systems but overthrow them. From this, it makes sense that Federici relates the beginnings of ruling class appropriation of land and capital to the beginnings of patriarchal appropriation of women’s bodies and sexuality, and how these combine in the appropriation of both land and people in the process of Europe’s colonisation of the New World.

Just as the common land of the peasant farmers had to be enclosed and expropriated by the gentry to create a waged labour force for capital, the means of re-production was expropriated by the patriarchal state in the form of harsh laws, with harsher penalties, governing women’s sexuality and the process of childbearing.  The most devastating of these was the criminalisation and persecution of practitioners of traditional women’s medicine, who provided contraception, abortion and midwifery – the means by which women could control their own reproduction. These women became the primary targets of the witch hunts.

The comparison that runs throughout Caliban and the Witch is that of expropriation – of land and resources (the means of production) to create waged labour, of women’s bodies (the means of reproduction) to create unwaged labour, and of land and the bodies of colonised peoples (means of both production and reproduction) to create slave labour.  Federici also draws connections between the processes of demonization necessary to these expropriations, which created support for the witch-hunts, inquisitions and invasions needed to expand capitalism.  She investigates the similarities between the propaganda that worked against the vagabond, the heretic, the witch and the savage, rebels against the institutions of waged labour, church, marriage and colonial power, respectively.

Through this, Federici is able to analyse the history of the exploited – of workers, women, people of colour and especially those in any and all of those categories who have resisted their oppression – as not merely a general background to the events that shaped the world and its economic systems, but as a direct influence on, necessity for and consequence of capitalism.  Perhaps most importantly, she debunks the Marxist analysis that capitalism is an incremental improvement and necessary step in the path between feudalism and Communism (or whatever other name we want to give to our imagined post-capitalist utopia).  Far from giving the serf greater freedom with the right (though not the means) to own private property, Capitalism has removed the use of common land and the community cohesion that supported the peasant revolts and revolutions of the last millennium, split us into alienated family units, crammed us into seemingly inescapable social roles by gender, race, age and ability and left us demoralised and divided.  Only by recognising the connections between our oppressions, and the commonality of their sources, can we begin to join up our struggles and direct them effectively.  The insight Federici gives on the history of accumulation (capitalist, patriarchal and colonial) provides insight into a future in which we can reclaim control of land and body, production and re-production, as part of the same struggle.


[0] Dalla Costa, Mariarosa and Selma James (1972), The Power of Women and the Subversion of the Community [PDF], Zinelibrary.info [accessed 07-03-2011]
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