The best of times

A Reading Note

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.

Related books

Caliban and the Witch

Silvia Federici

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.