Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation

Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (Brooklyn, NY: Autonomedia, 2004)

It is hard to overstate the brilliance of this remarkable book, which contests the traditional Marxist view of the “transition” from feudalism to mercantile capitalism as a bloody but progressive revolution. Instead, Silvia Federici sees the transition as an apocalyptic counterrevolution, with the crushing of female power at its very core. A longtime activist and Professor Emerita of International Studies and Political Philosophy at Hofstra University, Federici has rethought the history of the rise of capitalism as a world system, drawing on an impressive range of scholarship in English, French, Italian, Spanish and Latin. Her goal is to show that Marx’s account of primitive accumulation is flawed by his failure to see that, in addition to the expropriation of European workers from their means of subsistence, the enslavement of Africans, and the near-annihilation of Native Americans in the colonial quest for gold and silver,

t]his process required the transformation of the body into a work-machine, and the subjugation of women to the reproduction of the work-force. Most of all, it required the destruction of the power of women which, in Europe as in America, was achieved through the extermination of the “witches.” (63)

In her analysis, Caliban, Shakespeare’s monster from The Tempest (1612), who eloquently laments the stealing of his land by Europeans, refers to the Native Americans and Africans enslaved and subjugated by the colonizing powers of Europe. The witch refers to the great witch-hunts of the early modern period; and the body refers to the ideological transformation wrought by philosophers – chiefly Descartes and Hobbes – to render the human body available for waged work. Federici calls this complex and ambitious work a “sketch,” and freely acknowledges the hypothetical nature of the interpretation, pointing to the need for further research.1

This book distills her thinking over more than 25 years, from the Wages for Housework campaigns of the 1970s, through her several years of teaching in Nigeria in the 1980s during the onslaught of structural adjustment programs, to her current work as an active member of the anti-globalization movement. The book proceeds from the global justice perspective, which sees the present-day expansion of corporate interests as a new enclosure of the commons, eliminating communal land tenure in Africa as it was eliminated in England.

In chapter 1, Federici lays the groundwork for her analysis in a vivid rewriting of the history of medieval Europe, looking at peasant rebellions and heretical sects as contesting the feudal system virtually from its origins. She notes the important role of women in the millenarian and heretical sects of the 12th and 13th centuries, and calls the heretics (such as the Cathars) a social movement, creating “liberation theology for the medieval proletariat” (35). They assail the corruption of the Church and the impoverishment of the poorest peasants, as the revival of trade and the growth of the cities begins to chip away at the feudal order, and labor services are being commuted to rents and taxes.

She traces the struggles of peasants and artisans against bishops, nobility, merchants and the powerful craft masters throughout the 14th century. With the Black Death of 1347-1352 destroying more than a third of the entire population, peasants are able to obtain their own land. By the end of the 14th century the refusal of feudal rents and services is widespread. After a series of fierce peasant wars in Spain, Germany, France and Italy, the 15th century inaugurates a period of unprecedented peasant power: high wages, the disappearance of land bondage, and a drastic reduction in the wage differential by sex.

In response, the new ruling elites launch a counterrevolution. The feudal economy is no longer viable, and the new high-wage regime creates a crisis for landowners and merchants. With the attempt to restore serfdom a failure except in Eastern Europe, ruling elites begin to carry out the measures that will inaugurate the new mode of production: expropriation of the peasantry from their land, and the creation of a waged proletariat.

Chapter 2 traces this process of what Federici, with her refreshingly present-minded writing, calls land privatization –- through enclosures, evicting the tenants, rent increases, confiscation of Church land by Reformation princes, and a massive land-grab by gentry and yeoman freeholders. In England, the open-field system with its crucial availability of common land (the commons) is replaced by hedged-in fields where, in Thomas More’s famous words, sheep “eat up and swallow the very men themselves” (from Utopia, 1516; cit.122). The outcome is the transformation of the landless peasants into vagabonds who provoke the creation of poorhouses and extreme punishments for vagrancy. Federici contests the contemporary arguments of the “modernizers” of that time, that the enclosures boosted agricultural efficiency.

For workers they inaugurated two centuries of starvation, in the same way as today, even in the most fertile areas of African, Asia, and Latin America, malnutrition is rampant due to the destruction of communal land-tenure and the “export or perish” policy imposed by the World Bank’s structural adjustment programs. (102).

The Price Revolution of 1501-1650 intensifies the suffering of the peasantry. A growing percentage of the population must buy their food, with the rise of a national and international market system importing and exporting agricultural products. Food costs increase eightfold, while wages increase threefold. In the 14th century women received half of a man’s pay; by the 16th century they receive one-third. If the peasant struggle of the 14th and 15th centuries was about liberty, says Federici, that of the 16th and 17th centuries is about hunger. Food riots -– often led by women –- are common.

As capitalist relations spread we see continuous popular rebellion. In response, the ruling elites launch an attack on all forms of collective solidarity. No more processions to bless the fields; no more dances around the Maypole. Especially under the Puritans following the English Civil War, a process of “social enclosure” takes place, with churches withdrawing the customary public space for harvest festivals, while supporting a new ideology exalting marriage and the private home. Meanwhile a system of public assistance is put into place, and the international debate over the “deserving” poor begins. Federici sees the rise of census-taking, charting births and deaths, and calculating the number of the poor, as a giant leap by state authorities into the management of social reproduction, and indeed as establishing the role of the state as the guarantor of class relations.

From the 1580s to the 1630s we see the onset of severe population decline. Markets shrink, trade stops: this is the first international economic crisis. The new leaders of mercantile capitalism agree that the number of citizens determine a nation’s wealth. A fanatical desire to replenish the population –- expressed by writers like Jean Bodin — is reflected in new policies. Infanticide becomes a capital offense. Pregnancies must be registered with the authorities. Marriage is encouraged, and illegitimacy is criminalized. More women are executed for infanticide in 16th- and 17th -century Europe than for any other crime except witchcraft. Midwives are enlisted as spies for the authorities, and doctors begin to replace them in the birthing room, as they are suspected of infanticide.

At the same time that women are being deprived of their traditional means of contraception and abortion – in short, their reproductive autonomy –- they are losing their role as workers. The assumption is gaining ground that women should not be working outside the home. Female work is being redefined as housekeeping. Craft workers begin to exclude women from the late 15th century, and those who fail to comply are labeled shrews, whores, and witches. A wave of misogyny focuses on the disobedient wife, and the ground is laid for what Federici terms “the patriarchy of the wage.”

Chapter 3 lays out the philosophical underpinnings of the attempt to transform the unruly peasantry into a disciplined, wage-earning workforce. Federici’s premise here is that in the early modern period, large numbers of people despised the wage and preferred to become vagabonds. This provokes a “regime of terror,” intensifying penalties for crimes against property, the so-called bloody laws, “intended to bind workers to the jobs imposed on them” (135). But this is accompanied by a “radical transformation of the person” (137). As part of this “vast process of social engineering” (137), we see the development of a new sense of the relationship between mind and body. Here Federici interprets Hobbes, Descartes, and the other developers of Mechanical Philosophy as the creators of a “new bourgeois spirit that calculates, classifies, makes distinctions, and degrades the body” (139) into an inert, mechanical entity that can be devoted to the work process. The medieval concept of the body as a “receptacle of magical powers” gives way to a view of the body as a machine.

It is in chapter 4, in her account of the witch-hunts, that Federici lays out the heart of her thesis. The persecution and terrorizing of poor women, and the consequent transformation of gender ideology, are a crucial element in the destruction of solidarity of the European peasantry. This is the most strikingly original part of her re-interpretation of primitive accumulation. Why did the persecution of witches arise, spread to all parts of Europe and the New World, and then gradually fade away? Why did the authorities encourage and organize the torture and burning of witches? Federici argues that contrary to the interpretation of most historians, the witch-hunts were not the last flare-up of medievalism in a modernizing Europe, but rather, an integral part of the rise of mercantile capitalism. Her interpretation here is comparable to recent work on the epoch of plantation slavery in the New World, showing this not as a throwback to feudalism, but as the first moment of disciplined commodity production for the world market.

Following Maria Mies, Federici shows us that witch-burning, which she compares to the 21st-century “war on terrorism,” was a politically organized campaign, seeking to crush the spirit of peasant women. Women had been leaders of peasant rebellions; their collective knowledge as midwives and healers had been part of a cohesive peasant culture based in the world of the commons, and infused with a comfortable belief in magic as part of a traditional relationship to nature. Women impoverished by enclosures, who had lost their economic security with the end of the open field system, and who were forced into stealing and begging, were the targets of this campaign, as were the midwives and healers whose traditional roles included what we would now classify as obstetrics, general medicine, and psychotherapy.

By mobilizing misogyny (the hatred and contempt for women), the authorities of the day succeeded in pitting men against women. In this transformation, men were complicit: only one documented case has been found of men defending their wives against a witch round-up. As a result the concept of womanhood was turned upside down. The economically productive women of the late Middle Ages will now be subjected to the authority of husbands, and their economically productive role erased. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, with her open and bawdy sexuality, who boasted of burying five husbands and being ready to take a sixth in her old age, will be replaced by the chastened and submissive Kate in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew (1593), laying the groundwork for the Victorian ideal of the angel in the home.

The definition of women as demonic beings, and the atrocious and humiliating practices to which so many of them were subjected, left indelible marks in the collective female psyche and in women’s sense of possibilities. From every viewpoint -– socially, economically, culturally, politically -– the witch-hunt was a turning point in women’s lives; it was the equivalent of the historic defeat to which Engels alludes, in The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884), as the cause of the downfall of the matriarchal world. (102f)

Finally, in chapter 5, Federici draws the links between the events in Europe and those in the New World. This is the least developed of her chapters, exploring the demonization and torture of Native Americans, and the links of this process of cultural destruction to the ideology that tortured witches. She concludes by pointing to the parallels with contemporary globalization, noting that witch-hunts have reappeared in contemporary Africa and Latin America.

[i]f we apply to the present the lessons of the past, we realize that the reappearance of witch-hunting in so many parts of the world in the 80s and 90s is a clear sign of a process of “primitive accumulation,” which means that the privatization of land and other communal resources, mass impoverishment, plunder, and the sowing of divisions in once-cohesive communities are again on the world agenda. “If things continue this way” –- the elders in a Senegalese village commented to an American anthropologist, expressing their fears for the future – “our children will eat each other.” (239)

There are many points to argue with in this book. The thematic structure requires the reader to go back and forth through the centuries more than once. The interrelations of the events in the New World and the Old are only sketched in, although Federici convincingly cites recent research on how the treatment of the Native Americans and that of the European peasantry, particularly women, formed a kind of feedback loop, with characterizations of witchcraft accompanying the persecution of native women, and visual imagery of cannibalism from the New World being re-imported to Europe. The striking woodcut illustrations of the text bring her arguments to life.

More crucially, one might argue that the view presented of capitalism as a world-system is one-sided. As noted, Federici is rigorously opposed to Marx’s view that the arrival of capitalism was overall a progressive development, since it was based fundamentally on the devaluation and persecution of women, Africans, and Native Americans. She tends to idealize the solidarity of collective rural life, overlooking the impact of ancient superstition and prejudice. This perspective rules out any appreciation of the advances in economic productivity, science and technology that would lay the foundations, inter alia, for the renewed feminist movement of the 1970s.

None of this, however, diminishes the enormous significance of this work, which powerfully mobilizes the insights of feminist organizing and research to reveal the dangerous blindspots in patriarchal social theory. As Peter Linebaugh has written,

[t]he burning of the witches… was essential to capitalist work-discipline. This is what Marx called the alienation of the body, what Max Weber called the reform of the body, what Norman O. Brown called the repression of the body, and what Foucault calls the discipline of the body. Yet, these social theorists of deep modernization overlooked the witch hunt! (“Chapter 39, Order 39: Torture and Neo-Liberalism with Sycorax in Iraq,”

Caliban is a model of Marxist-feminist work, demonstrating the crucial relevance of gender and race issues to the class struggles of the past, present, and future. It should be required reading for Marxists of all persuasions.

Review by Hester Eisenstein
Sociology, Queens College and
The Graduate Center, CUNY


1. See H. Aage, “Popular Attitudes and Perestroika.” Soviet Studies 43, 1 (January 1991): 3-25.

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