Caliban and the Witch

Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation

Silvia Federici, one of the creators of the wages for housework movement, digs in to the transition to capitalism and locates a critical and under-investigated element: the witch hunts. Federici argues that enclosing the commons was a violent ordeal which had among its necessary components the brutal subjugation of women. With capitalism came a novel division of labor, between waged work and the work of caretaking and reproduction, the latter of which were reformulated as the natural and unwaged duties of women. In essence, both the land and women’s bodies were enclosed, with the witch hunts a form of state-sanctioned terrorism designed to put women in their place. As we trundle into the hoped-for late days of capitalism, this is a deeply relevant look at its beginning and the continued assault on women—as well as anyone who dares not abide by its capricious and oppressive gender roles.

Reading notes

The best of times

In the early fourteenth century, notes Silvia Federici, protests and resistance to feudal rule were common across Europe, with participants in both the villages and the cities often working side-by-side. Then came the plague:

A turning point in the course of the medieval struggles was the Black Death, which killed, on an average, between 30% and 40% of the European population. Coming in the wake of the Great Famine of 1315–22, that weakened people’s resistance to disease, this unprecedented demographic collapse profoundly changed Europe’s social and political life, practically inaugurating a new era. Social hierarchies were turned upside down because of the levelling effects of the widespread morbidity. Familiarity with death also undermined social discipline. Confronted with the possibility of sudden death, people no longer cared to work or to abide by social and sexual regulations, but tried to have the best of times, feasting for as long as they could without thought of the future.

However, the most important consequence of the plague was the intensification of the labor crisis generated by the class conflict; for the decimation of the work-force made labor extremely scarce, critically increased its cost, and stiffened people’s determination to break the shackles of feudal rule.

Federici, Caliban and the Witch, page 44

That’s interesting, isn’t it? I won’t repeat all the rebuttals to the “great resignation” or “quiet quitting” movements, because I am tired and life is short. But an under appreciated element of the last few years is that quite a lot of people have seen, up close, how little their lives and well-being matter to their employers, and how ready we are as a society to expect ever higher levels of productivity—even in the wake of unprecedented grief. The layoffs, the strikes, the return-to-office plans, the renewed efforts to police women’s bodies—all are of a piece with capital’s response to a pandemic, whether that pandemic started centuries ago or this decade. Maybe history will repeat itself. But we have an advantage our predecessors did not: we have their history to learn from.