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Witchy Witchy Woman: Witch Hunts and Capitalism

I came across mention of Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch in Adam Kotsko’s The Prince of this World, and was taken with the notion that the character of the devil and the character of the witch can be understood through a genealogical method that shows how these characters were invoked, who was empowered by them, who invoked them and who was accused of these things. The question for Federici (as for Kotsko) is not was this person really a witch or a devil, but how did accusing someone of being a witch achieve certain ends in certain contexts?  Federici argues that the accusation of being a witch was used to strip women of power during the transition to capitalism from feudalism, a process which was necessary for the success of capitalism.

Against the view that the persecution of witches was the last gasp of the superstition that accompanied feudalism, Federici argues that the charge of witchcraft was used to limit women’s power and to control the reproduction of labor so necessary for the success of capitalism.  This persecution involved a steady indoctrination of the threat of witches and the characteristics of witches, a process which produced the notion of the strong independent woman as a supernatural threatening force antagonistic to the interests of even working class men.  Federici argues that the targets of witchcraft were not crimes but previously accepted practices and individuals that needed to be eliminated for capitalism to become possible and to thrive.  Evidence of this is that those who were accused were poor peasant women and those who accused them were wealthy members of the community, often their employers or their landlords.

Federici offers evidence that in the transition to capitalism, women lose economic, social and political power, rather than, as many people commonly suppose, that capitalism is a necessary stage toward the liberation for women. She argues that prior to the process of enclosure that privatized common lands women helped the family develop independence from the lord through their work on the common land.  The transition to capital takes the common land away and thus takes this power away.  Federici argues that enclosure made it more difficult for women to support themselves and to consider production in terms of use.  This process was resisted by women (Montpollier revolt in 1645, Cordoba in 1652) who needed then to be controlled and to have their power reduced for capitalism to become possible. 

A common assumption is that under serfdom, women are situated within a double patriarchy—the general patriarchy of the lord to whom all serfs were responsible–they would work the land and owe the lord a certain portion of the crop—and to their serf husbands.  But Federici argues that prior to capital, proletariat men and women pursue common interests—both the sustenance of life and their independence from other forces in sustaining themselves–in ways that recognize the capacity of women to contribute to those interests.  When in the transition to capital, payment to the lord shifts away from a percentage of the crop to money-rent, the shared concern of serf men and women to achieve their sustenance through work on their own land or in the contest to hold on to more of their crop from the lord becomes divided between those who had money and those who did not.  The money-rents make it difficult for the serfs to measure the degree of their exploitation since it is no longer a percentage of their crop.  The division among those who must pay between those who can and those who cannot becomes a division capitalism uses to turn men of the laboring class into owners and women of the laboring class into workers thereby keeping even laboring men on the side of capitalist patriarchy.  Not only does money transform income differences into class differences, it becomes a mechanism for legal control by which some can be determined to have money as a result of their labor and some can be barred from having money.  Federici argues that the new commons under capitalism becomes women’s bodies—women’s work in the home becomes the commons that enables men to labor and that populates the labor market.  Because women don’t earn a wage for this work, and money becomes the measure of power, even proletariat men are set against women.  The charge of witchcraft, Federici argues, is used by capitalists to make proletariat men feel threatened by instead of allied with previously powerful proletariat women.

Assumptions about man’s rightful role as ruler were written into the law under serfdom, but Federici rejects the position that women become empowered by becoming recognized as laborers under capital.  For one, women participated in 200 occupations between 1300 and 1500, including schoolteachers, doctors and surgeons. Capitalism does not enable women to work in ways they had not before.  Moreover, Federici argues that the role of women in resisting the “value of work” strategies of the newly emerging capitalists in the cities—where work becomes a moral imperative–in demanding higher wages, in insisting on hiring themselves out only for limited tasks and not for prolonged periods of time made women’s independence and resistance a particular threat to the emerging power of the capitalists, who serfs newly detached from the land saw as trying to implement a new feudalism in the city.  One strategy for weakening their power was decriminalizing the rape of lower class women.  The legalization of rape was another way of setting proletariat men against proletariat women and enforcing patriarchy as a means of protecting capitalism.

One of Federici’s goals is to challenge the notion of a slow, smooth inevitable transition from feudalism to capitalism.  Instead, Federici argues that the transition was both bloody and discontinuous.  It was not eagerly welcomed by the serfs it claimed to free from the land.  Federici argues that this transition required separating workers from their means of subsistence—whether of the commons or of their own land farmed on the land of the lord, but for which they could own the crop—in order to make them dependent on wages and the transformation of the body into a working-machine.  This second transition required construing women’s labor as reproductive labor and reproductive labor as in the service of the work-force.  This transition required weakening women’s influence on work beyond reproduction and process that occurred through the widespread suggestion that powerful and influential women were witches.  Federici argues that primitive accumulation was not simply an accumulation of capital and of exploitable workers, but also an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class—differences which Federici finds in accusations of witches both among the newly colonized and among proletariat women in ways that produce gender and racial difference in the service of capital.  As a result of this argument, Federici concludes that it is wrong to see capitalist accumulation as a source of liberation for the worker, but rather a source of deep divisions between workers which continue to divide the laboring class.

Another important myth that Federici sets out to bust is the Foucaultian position that reproduction and growth become state matters in the late 18th century.  Federici argues that it is the population crisis of the 16th and 17th century that made reproduction and population growth state matters.  She argues that a chief strategy employed by the state to take over reproduction and population growth from women was the intensification of the persecution of witches.  Federici argues that Foucault fails to acknowledge the ways that biopolitics is a matter of controlling women’s bodies and thus women’s power for the sake of reproduction and racialized and colonized bodies for the sake of labor.  The laws around this time that emphasize the importance of marriage and reproduction within marriage were motivated by anxiety about women’s power over reproduction, which came in the form of prosecution of witches.

One of the tenets of capitalist economics is that labor as a commodity market makes rational choices about producing more or less in order to maintain its value – when wages are high, more laborers are produced, when more laborers flood the market and wages fall, fewer laborers are produced.  This tenet assumes that the laborers—the workers of reproduction– control reproduction.  If this is the case, then women retain the power of their own reproduction.  In order then to make labor dependent on capitalist demands, women cannot be permitted to preserve this reproductive labor power.  Capitalism’s efforts to control reproduction thus point to capitalism’s anxiety about controlling the labor market.

The echoes of contemporary anxiety of women’s control over reproduction are found in the shifts in legal terms and in the charges that would make one guilty of being a witch in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Statutes limiting women’s responsibility in cases of infanticide were lifted.  Male doctors come to replace female midwives because the midwives’ power and allegiance to women were suspect – birth control was considered diabolical.  Women were charged with refusing to reproduce in a way that was considered a threat to the accumulation of labor.  The charge of the evil eye—that the beggar who was refused an alm, the occupant who cannot pay rent, the poor woman denied public assistance have cast a spell on those who have neglected them—was a classic example of the fear of the power of the poor.  Midwives could be considered witches if the birth rate was lower in their area with the supposition that they were spreading knowledge of contraceptives or engaging in abortifacient practices.   Stories told about witches turn the organizing power of the poor into an evil force.  The made-up story of the Witches Sabbat, the nocturnal reunion of witches, echo the secret meetings of peasants held at night on hills or in forests to plot revolts.  The Pact between witches and the devil was given the same name as the pacts between slaves and workers in resistance.  The term “selling your soul to devil” took the fast road to wealth as an unnatural road to riches that contradicted the ideology of the story that wealth could be achieved through working hard.  The myth of this upward mobility through work was the naturalized story of wealth accumulation that capitalism’s success and promulgation depended on.  Stories of cannibalism echoed this resistance to the social and natural order.   While under serfdom women’s bodies were less policed, capitalism policed their reproductive labor while producing the story that it was only natural that women were more subordinated to the forces of their bodies.  Folk traditions of medicine and the community around these practices were suspect because it was a way that women could be collectively empowered.  The term gossip which had previously meant friend comes to have negative connotations around this time as a way of casting aspersions on womanly conversation and womanly friendship.

The characteristics of the witch were the characteristics of a female personality that was independent, capable and resistant to the emerging order of power under capitalism.  Women could be accused of being witches for talking back to town or church officials, for swearing, even for being able to endure pain—a capacity which showed their power and put the lie to the notion that women were weak.  Women’s sexuality and the power of her sexuality also had to be curbed, and the accusation of witch was connected to the power women could have over men.  A witch was someone who could incite male desire and make men powerless—being in love was akin to being castrated on this view.  A woman could be a witch for inciting a man to sexual violence in a way that relieved him of responsibility and made her responsible for it.  Thus women had to be keepers of sexual purity not just for the sake of preserving a certain conception of the nuclear family but to protect themselves from the charge of being a witch.

Federici concludes by drawing connections between the strategies of the witch hunts to control proletariat women in Europe with the strategies of witch hunts colonists employ to attack indigenous peoples who refuse to work for the colonized with the charge of witch. Federici finds the charge of witch in colonizers description of Indios in South America, in the Andes, in Peru, among Taki Onqoy movement.  In each of these cases, the indigenous people who affirm the power of the indigenous gods are accused of witchcraft.

Caliban and the Witch illuminates the ways that the stereotypes of strong women continue to circulate and the ways that feminism and decolonial and anti-racist practices have common roots in ways that might enable solidarity between these projects.  Federici challenges the view that women have always historically been more subjected to their bodies than men have been.  She shows that this very notion that women are more subordinate to their bodies is produced by capital to manage labor.  This genealogical account invites us to think further about the similar aspersions that continue to be cast on women for taking up more space than they ought, for speaking too forcefully, too independently, for being too sexual and desirable, for falling short as reproductive bodies, as mothers, and as workers, and who are somehow supposed to be able to “have it all,” treat women as the common resource.  In this sense, these tropes don’t just control women, they control women for the sake of capitalism.







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