Readers: I’m sorry this is a bit later in the morning than I would have wished; I’m still struggling to get my Windows laptop to do what I want when I want it.
By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch (PDF) is a wonderful and beautifully written study of the witchhunts that occurred in Europe during the transition from the feudal to the capitalist order. Here’s a summary of the thesis of the work:
Federici considers the killing of witches as foundational of a capitalist system that domesticates women, imposing on them the reproduction of the workforce as forced labor without any remuneration. It is in the mode of development of this reproductive work that Federici locates a central terrain of struggle for the women’s movement. …
In Caliban and the Witch Federici asks fundamental questions about this emblematic figure of the female: why does capitalism, since its beginning, need to wage war against these women? Why is the witch-hunt one of the most brutal and least recorded massacres of history? What is supposed to be eliminated when these women are condemned to the stake? Why is it possible to draw a parallel between them and the black slaves of the plantations in America?
I’m not going to summarize or defend the thesis of the book myself, mostly because I don’t feel capable of it, or (yet) comfortable doing so. (I took the book to be a work of 70s feminism, but my bad: It was published in 2004, and Federici’s work is informed by her work in Nigeria on “the commons,” a concept not available to 70s feminists, sadly, because that meant there was no way to think about the enclosures, including access to herbal contraceptives in the commons. See NC on “common pool resources” here.)
So all I can do is ask you to read the book, or at least dip into it below, and to judge the thesis, and Federici’s scholarship, for yourself. And if words like “terrain of struggle,” or [gasp] “Marxist” [gasp] “feminist,” cause you discomfort, all I can do is tell you that bankers quote Lenin with aplomb. (Here is a review that puts Federici’s scholarship in context.) However, I find the story Federici tells compelling, and I feel that many of her ideas have great resonsance in the present day. So I’m going to quote great slabs from the work, first on primitive accumulation, second on the peasant revolts of the 14th century, and lastly on the witchhunts, all as a means of bringing the lens of history to bear on the present day.
I always like to think of “primitive accumulation” as an example of very dry humor; an armed gentleman appears in a Mad Max-like technical, primitively accumulates your harvest, and thirty years later you’re a peasant and they’re a Lord (see under “Ceremony, Aquatic, Farcical”). Too simple, I know, but primitive, very primitive. Then again, the process I just described is rather like law enforcement for profit in Ferguson, isn’t it? Which suggests that primitive accumulation hasn’t just occurred in the past, as part of some sort of “take off,” but continues to occur to this very day. From the Preface (pages 11-12):
“Primitive accumulation” is the term that Marx uses, in Capital Vol. 1, to characterize the historical process upon which the development of capitalist relations was premised. It is a useful term, for it provides a common denominator through which we can conceptualize the changes that the advent of capitalism produced in economic and social relations. But its importance lies, above all, in the fact that “primitive accumulation” is treated by Marx as a foundational process, revealing the structural conditions for the existence of capitalist society. This enables us to read the past as something which survives into the present …
However, my analysis departs from Marx’s in two ways. Whereas Marx examines primitive accumulation from the viewpoint of the waged male proletariat and the development of commodity production, I examine it from the viewpoint of the changes it introduced in the social position of women and the production of labor-power. …
(I omitted a lot of technical material here, not because I disagree with it, but for brevity; and I urge you to read the book.)
My analysis also departs from Marx’s in its evaluation of the legacy and function of primitive accumulation. Though Marx was acutely aware of the murderous character of capitalist development – its history, he declared, “is written in the annals of humanity in characters of fire and blood” – there can be no doubt that he viewed it as a necessary step in the process of human liberation. He believed that it disposed of small-scale property, and that it increased (to a degree unmatched by any other economic system) the productive capacity of labor, thus creating the material conditions for the liberation of humanity from scarcity and necessity. He also assumed that the violence that had presided over the earliest phases of capitalist expansion would recede with the maturing of capitalist relations, when the exploitation and disciplining of labor would be accomplished mostly through the workings of economic laws (Marx 1909 Vol. 1). In this, he was deeply mistaken. A return of the most violent aspects of primitive accumulation has accompanied every phase of capitalise globalization, including the present one.
I think Federici’s insight here is important: We — that is, I suppose, we readers — tend to assume that matters progress; teleology is deeply embedded in how we think of political economy. As Martin Luther King says: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Federici puts that assumption into play; the most primitive forms of primitive accumulation persist today, and might even be thought of as the “default setting,” a low energy state to which the system reverts when more sophisticated configurations fail.
For example, it really is possible to “buy a guy” even today, whether the slaving is done in Southeast Asia or in Florida, in these United States. Of course, that’s not to denigrate the work of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade, or, for that matter, the effects of our own Civil War in ending the slave power that sought to perpetuate itself through the Confederacy. It is to say that the arc of history does not “bend”; it is bent, contested, by us — and not always as a humane sensibility would wish. And we might also think of outright looting by elites — as in the massive accounting control frauds before the Crash of 2008 — as a form of primitive accumulation. “Behind every great fortune there is a crime,”as Balzac is said to have remarked. These crimes bend the arc of history too.
The Peasant Wars and Wages and Working Conditons in the 14th Century
From Chapter 2, “All the World Needs a Jolt,” and the section entitled “The Black Death and the Labor Crisis,” (page 45 et seq.):
“Now is the time” – the sentence that recurs in the letters of John Ball [the intellectual leader of the English peasant revolt of 1381] – well illustrates the spirit of the European proletariat at the close of the 14th century, a time when, in Florence, the wheel of fortune was beginning to appear on the walls of taverns and work-shops, to symbolize the inuninent change of lot.
In the course of this process, the political horizon and the organizational dimensions of the peasant and artisan struggle broadened. Entire regions revolted, forming assemblies and recruiting armies. At times, the peasants organized in bands, attacking the castles of the lords, and destroying the archives where the written marks of their servitude were kept. By the 15th century the confrontation between the peasants and the nobility turned into true wars, like that of the remensas in Spain, that lasted from 1462 to 1486. In Germany a cycle of “peasant wars” began in 1476 with the conspiracy led Hans the Piper. This escalated into four bloody rebellions led by Bundschuch (“Peasant Union”) between 1493 and 1517, and culminating in a full-fledged war that lasted from 1522 to 1525, spreading over four countries (Engels 1977; Blickle 1977).
In all these cases, the rebels did not content themselves with demanding some restrictions to feudal rule, nor did they only bargain for better living conditions. Their aim was to put an end to the power of the lords. As the English peasants declared during the Peasant Rising of 1381, “the old law must be abolished.” Indeed, by the beginning of the 15th century, in England at least, serfdom or villeinage had almost completely disappeared, though the revolt had been politicaUy and militarily defeated and its leaders brutaUy executed (Titow 1969: 58).
What followed has been described as the “golden age of the European proletariat” (Marx 1909, Vol.l; Braudel 1967: 128ff.), a far cry from the canonic representation of the 15th cencury, which has been iconographically immortalized as a world under the spell of the dance of death and mememto mori.
Thorold Rogers has painted a utopian image of this period in his famous study of wages and living conditions in medieval England. “At no time,” Rogers wrote, “were wages [in England] so high and food so cheap” (Rogers 1894: 32611). … As we shall see, there are reasons to be skeptica1 about the extent of this cornucopia. However, for a broad section of the western European peasantry, and for urban workers, the 15th century was a period of unprecedented power. … [T]he scandal of the high wages the workers demanded was only matched, in the eyes of the employers, by the new arrogance they displayed the eyes of the employers…. “Servants are now masters and masters are servants, complained John Gower in Mirour de lomme (1378).
What this meant for the European proletariat was not only the achievement of
a standard of living that remained unparalleled until the 19th century, but the demise of serfdom.
Now, my point here is not to look on the bright side of the Black Death (and since disease follows war, we might consider that the peasant wars and the plague potentiated each other). Rather, I want to point to the agency of the peasants and artisans, who clearly didn’t accept that “there is no alternative” to serfdom. Further, the peasants “won,” in the sense that in England, at least, “the old law was abolished,” and that therefore we, today, don’t have to take income distribution, or more generally, the nature and ownership of wealth, as a given. That is, the arc of history was bent. Finally, however, there are many generations of declining and impoverished conditions between the 15th century and the 19th; the arc of history was bent back. The next section, about the witchhunts, describes the beginning of that process.
The Witchhunt as a Tool of Social Control
It has been said that “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” But they don’t do everything differently; after all, foreign isn’t the same as alien. As you read what follows, I’m sure the parallels between the witchhunts and the “Global War on Terror” will leap to your eye, along with many other features and behaviors of our elites and the current political class.
From the chapter entitled “The Great Witchhunt in Europe” (164 et seq):
What has not been recognized is that 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 persecution, 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 witchbunt deepened the divisions between women and men, teaching men to fear the power women, and destroyed a universe of practices, beliefs, and social subjects whose existence was incompatible with the capitalist work discipline, thus redefining the main elements of social reproduction. In this sense, … the witch-hunt was an essential aspect of primitive accumulation and the “ttansition” to capitalism. …
[T]he witch-hunt was not the last spark of a dying feudal world. It is well established that the “superstitious” Middle Ages did not persecute any witches; the very concept of “witchcraft” did not take shape until the late Middle Ages, and never, in the “Dark Ages,” were there mass trials and executions. Despite the fact that magic permeated daily life and, since the late Roman Empire, it had been feared by the ruling class as a tool of insubordination among the slaves. …
The mechanisms of the persecution confirm that the witch-hunt was not a spontaneous process, “a movement from below to which the ruling and administrative classes were obliged to respond” (Larner 1983: 1). As Christina Lamer has shown in the case of Scotland, a witch-hunt required much official organization and administration. Before neighbor accused neighbor, or entire communities were seized by a “panic,” a steady indoctrination took place, with the authorities publicly expressing anxiety about the spreading of witches, and travelling from village to village in order to teach people how to recognize them, in some cases carrying with them lists with the names of suspected witches and threatening to punish those who hid them or came to their assistance (Larner 1983: 2).
The witch-hunt was also the first persecution in Europe that made use of multi-media propaganda to generate a mass psychosis among the population. Alerting the public to the dangers posed by the witches, through pamphlets publicizing the most famous trials and the details of their atrocious deeds, was one of the first tasks of the printing press (Mandrou 1968: 136). … In this “century of geniuses” — Bacon, Kepler, Galileo, Shakespeare, Pascal, Descartes — a century that saw the triumph of the Copernican Revolution, the birth of modern science, and the development of philosophical and scientific rationalism, witchcraft became one of the favorite subjects of debate for the European intellectual elites. Judges, lawyers, statesmen, philosophers, scientists, theologians all became preoccupied with the “problem,” wrote pamphlets and demonologies, agreed that this was the most nefarious crime, and called for its punishment.
There can be no doubt, then, that the witch-hunt was a major political initiative. … It is signicant that, in England, most of the witch tnals occurred in Essex, where in the 16th century the bulk of the land had been enclosed, while in those regions of the British Isles where land privatization had neither occurred nor was on the agenda have no record of witch-hunting. … That the spread of rural capitalism, with all its consequences (land expropriation, the deepening of social distances, the breakdown of collective relations) was a decisive fact in the background of the witch-hunt is also proven by the fact that the majority of those accused were poor peasant women – cortars, wage laborers – while those who accused them were wealthy and prestigious members of the community, often their employers or landlords, that is, individuals who were part of the local power structures and often had close ties with the central State. Only as the persecution progressed, and the fear of witches (as well as the fear of being accused of witchcraft, or of “subversive association”) was sowed among the population, did accusations also come from neighbors. ….
More important, in instigating the witch-hunt, was the need of the European elites to eradicate an entire mode of existence which, by the late Middle Age, was threatening their political and economic power. When this task was accomplished – when social discipline was restored and the ruling class saw its hegemony consolidated – witchhunts came to an end. The belief in witchcraft could even become an object of ridicule, decried as a superstition, and soon put out of memory.
I’m sure you could fill in the contemporary parallels quite well yourself; I don’t need to do that for you. Unfortunately, PDF searches in scanned documents being what they are, I cannot find the passage where Federici points out that there was no organized resistance by proletarian men to the witchhunts whatever, which really made my heart sink, and pierced my side, like a gaff.
Readers, I hope you find the material quoted useful; for myself, Federici throws off so many sparkling ideas and incidents that I find it almost impossible to cope! Certainly more interesting and useful than curves and letters sketched on a whiteboard. You will also have noticed that I didn’t generalize much about either capitalism (the [gasp] Marxist part) or patriarchy (the [gasp] feminist part). That’s because I am not entirely persuaded that Federici has synthesized the two (although I note her focus on the body — it was, after all, bodies that were burned, as well as bodies forced off the land into the mills — ties in rather neatly with, say, mass incarceration).
However, if one takes the view that “Now is the time” — however defined — in the present day, it also behooves one to do the math; it has always seemed to me that a bare majority, 50% plus one, as sought by the legacy parties, is insufficient to do much but perpetuate, among other things, the legacy parties. It also seems to me that sintering together demographics based on identity politics — Christian, Black, White, Hispanic, Young, Old, Male, Female, Rural, Urban — can only produce these bare majorities. It also seems to me that a focus on “economic class” can’t give an account of the sort of events that Federici describes here. Hence, to bend history’s arc, some sort of grand unified field theory that goes beyond 50%, to 80%, is needed (along with the proposed provision of concrete material benefits). Work like Federici’s is a step toward such a theory, and so I applaud it.