Saturday, December 10, 2005

Caliban and the Witch [Part Four of Four]

Caliban and the Witch
Women the Body and Primitive Accumulation
(Sylvia Federici, Autonomedia 2004)

reviewed by Karl Kersplebedeb

Here is the fourth and final part of my review of Sylvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch - the best book i read in 2006.
Please note that a tidier and shorter version of this review is appearing in the journal Upping the Anti (#2) in December 2005.
(for information on Upping the Anti please visit the
Autonomy and Solidarity website.)
If you are just joining us, you may prefer to start with the First Installment which you can view here.(The second and third parts can be viewed here.)

Please also note that the entire review is now up on the Kersplebedeb website in html and pdf format!

Other Lands

In the final chapter of Caliban and the Witch, Federici makes her most ambitious claim, that the Witch-Hunt was not just a European phenomenon, but also stretched across the Americas as conquistadors and pilgrims sought to break indigenous women’s power here. Relying on research by Irene Silverblatt and Luciano Parinetto[41], Federici argues that the colonization of the “New” World in many ways mirrored the proletarianization and housewifization that confronted men and women in Europe. Here too, women had the most to lose, often having enjoyed greater status and power here than their counterparts in Europe. Here too, the new colonial economy required a division be engineered between indigenous men and women. Finally, here too the hunting of witches served to “instill terror, destroy collective resistance, silence entire communities, and turn their members against each other.”[42] So by hunting witches the colonists “targeted both the practitioners of the old religion and the instigators of anti-colonial revolt, while attempting to redefine ‘the spheres of activity in which indigenous women could participate.’”[43]


It is here that Federici’s argument becomes less convincing. Silverblatt and Parinetto both seem to limit their studies to the colonization of modern-day Peru and Mexico by Spain – not a wide enough sample to draw any kind of solid conclusions about the experience of the victims of colonialism around the world. Research on colonialism in what is today Eastern Canada reveals that patriarchal divisions were indeed introduced into indigenous society by the fur trade and Christian missionaries, and that this did require the specific subjugation of indigenous women… but witch-hunting was not involved.[44]

One assumes that a worldwide survey would find many other places where witch hunting either played a different role, or else where it has been absent altogether from the colonial experience. This is especially important, for in an off-hand way Federici implies that witch-hunting in modern-day Africa and Brazil is essentially of a kind with the European Witch-Hunt, the result of neo-colonial exploitation – perhaps, but the point is in no way proven.

More problematic, Federici’s analysis of colonialism seems inconsistent and underdeveloped (the chapter is the shortest in the book, only 25 pages). One suspects that this may be related to her ambiguity regarding divisions within the working class. To give just one example of the poles between which she seems torn, at one point we are told that proletarian misery in Europe “only lessened to the degree that the super-exploitation of workers had been exported, through the institutionalization of slavery, at first, and later through the continuing expansion of colonial domination”[45] … and yet later on we are told that “like the Conquest, the slave trade was an epochal misfortune for European workers”[46] because it strengthened the hand of the bourgeoisie.

The end result is that even the most obvious specificities of colonialism (beyond super-exploitation) are glossed over, giving the impression that indigenous peoples are different from the European proletariat only insofar as they may be more or less successful in resisting capitalist rule. Genocide itself is subsumed into the relationship between capital and labour, as when the annihilation of indigenous nations – which is described as a Holocaust – is explained as “work, disease and disciplinary punishments”[47] killing two thirds of the indigenous population. It is a painful fit to try and stuff the extermination of entire peoples into that box.

Noting this, one wonders about the virtual absence of Jews and Moslems from Federici’s account. It has been established that relations between Christendom and these groups were also thoroughly gendered. Pogroms, the crusades, legal codes which proscribed the death penalty for any Christian woman found guilty of miscegenation, the oversexualized Christian stereotypes about Jews, the use of rape in warfare… all of this is mentioned only in passing, if at all. Agreeing with Federici’s observation that primitive accumulation necessitates the accumulation of hierarchies within the proletariat, one is left wondering how the imposition of hierarchies of “race” played out in the European subcontinent.

Taking It From Here

Caliban and the Witch is a fascinating book. With broad strokes, it sketches a picture of the anti-capitalist struggle in Europe which is both informative and inspiring.

A careful reading not only reveals much about “primitive accumulation,” but exposes a structural link to violence against women. It is a book that helps lay the foundation for a movement that will be at the same time anti-colonialist, anti-patriarchal and anti-capitalist. It also brings much needed clarity to the question of the “mind-body split,” a question which seems to have the potential to integrate the struggles of trans-people,[48] the otherly abled, the anti-psych movement and others within an anti-capitalist framework.

In other words, this book should be read and debated by all people who struggle for human liberation.

That said, on the question of colonialism and divisions between different sections of the working class, Federici is at times inconsistent. While it in no way diminishes what is good about Caliban and the Witch, this book should not stand alone. As I have already noted, the larger story told here is not new, and without providing an exhaustive list I would strongly suggest people also check out Maria Mies’ Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale, Butch Lee’s The Military Strategy of Women and Children, and the growing body of literature examining how capitalism either uses or introduces patriarchy to those societies it colonizes. J. Sakai’s Settlers: Mythology of the White Proletariat (which does not deal with gender), and Butch Lee and Red Rover’s Night-Vision: Illuminating War and Class on the Neo-Colonial Terrain (which does deal with gender) are also worth reading for the light they shine on the question of how classes are made and unmade, and the role of parasitism and opportunism (which capitalism tells us to call “ambition”) in this process.

Despite some weaknesses, Caliban and the Witch promises to become a classic, and this is a good thing. By showing how men’s struggles against women have been necessary for developing more advanced forms of exploitation, Federici provides us with the evidence necessary to draw our own conclusions about class and class collaboration. She also gives us a both terrifying and empowering vantage point from which to understand not only our history but also our future.

Throughout the world, countries devastated by neo-colonialism have experienced the growth of men’s movements that aim at rolling back the gains women made during the anti-colonial revolutions (that they are doing this while trumpeting the anti-colonial rhetoric of thirty years ago should not fool us). Like the Witch-Hunt, we are told that this is due to cultural backwardness and surviving feudal traditions, and yet upon looking closer here too we see that what is going on seems without precedent, cut from new cloth, modern and capitalistic. This is the most important place to apply what Federici teaches (if at times despite herself): that the rise of ambitious male classes depends on the intense patriarchal subjugation of “their” women.

It is only by remembering this, by facing the hard truths of our present and our past, that we can move beyond following in the footsteps of this men’s movement or that, and perhaps finally reconstitute a resistance movement that tolerates no hierarchy and accepts no exploitation, demanding at a minimum liberation for all.

41] Irene Silverblat’ Moon, Sun and Witches and Luciano Parinetto’s Streghe e Potere [back to text]

42] Federici p. 220 [back to text]

43] Federici p. 231. The quote is from Silverblatt, p. 174 [back to text]

44] See Devens, Carol Countering Colonization: Native American Women and Great Lakes Missions, 1630-1900 (University of California Press 1992). [back to text]

45] Federici, p. 83. [back to text]

46] Federici, p. 105. [back to text]

47] Federici, pp. 65-66. [back to text]

48] See for instance Pei-Mun Tsang, James and subRosa, Yes Species (SubRosa Books 2005) pp. 49-59. Available for download
on the internet at
[back to text]

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