Thursday, December 08, 2005

Caliban and the Witch [Part Three of Four]

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

reviewed by Karl Kersplebedeb

Here is the third part of my four-part 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 fourth parts can be viewed here.)

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

Men Were the Key: A Tragedy in Three Acts

A careful reading of Caliban and the Witch allows us to see that the capitalist counter-revolution was built around male violence against women.

As noted above, class warfare repeatedly forced the Church and nobles to retreat, resorting to defensive maneuvers. It now must be added that all too often these maneuvers laid the basis for more advanced forms of exploitation and left the ruling class in a position to regain the upper hand. One way this happened was by manipulating differences within the working class, by intensifying the exploitation of some sections in order to reduce pressure on, or even buy off, other sections. This has been done time and time again within our own recent history, along the fault-lines of race, sex and nation. Federici describes this as being one part of primitive accumulation, which “was also an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class, whereby hierarchies built upon gender, as well as ‘race’ and age, become constitutive of class rule, and the formation of the modern proletariat.”[20]


The first example of this “accumulation of differences” that Federici gives is “commutation,” whereby serfdom was effectively ended in the 12th and 13th centuries, with rent and taxes replacing forced labour. This prefigured many contemporary reforms in that “like many workers’ ‘victories’ which only in part satisfy the original demands, commutation too co-opted the goals of the struggle, functioning as a means of social division and contributing to the disintegration of the feudal village.”[21]

Previously, land had been held by the serf family (not just the husband), and the terms of servitude had been hereditary; now the land was rented (generally just to the “free” man) and the relationship was regulated by money. A very small minority who were lucky enough to live on the best plots were able to pay and even hire other peasants to work for them, but the vast majority found it difficult to pay, sometimes falling into debt, sometimes even losing their land.

This new class division had gender, and women were now often barred from possessing or inheriting land in their own name. Little wonder that they formed a majority of those who migrated to the towns and cities, and that they would be so prominent within the heretical sects.


Two hundred years later, when as a consequence of widespread class revolt and the aftereffects of the plague the ruling class was again pushed to the brink, opportunism and division amongst the oppressed once more proved key. Federici explains how the rebelliousness of male workers was channeled into sexual violence, women’s bodies providing a pleasant diversion and safety valve to relieve social pressure. Drawing on the Jacques Rossiaud’s research about prostitution in 15th century France[22], she describes a literal rape movement, whereby sexual assaults on any poor woman were now tolerated by the authorities, essentially decriminalized. At the same time, state-run brothels were established where the masses of poor landless women could earn the money necessary for their survival. (This helps to explain the “ascetism” and rejection of sex by certain medieval heretical sects – as we know from our own era, when sex is being used as a weapon, celibacy can be a liberating choice.)

Rossiaud interprets the mass raping of women as a form of class protest; the rapists often believed that their victims – often maids, servants, or washerwomen – had sex with their masters. This is one of the most intriguing parts of Caliban, even though only a page or so was spent discussing it. Neither the internet nor most standard works on medieval women discuss this, so considering that Federici describes this as a decriminalization of rape, and as a ruling class strategy, more information about the previous legal situation and supporting evidence that this was a thought-out plan would have been welcome.

It would be important to examine this in greater depth as the scapegoating of women for the crimes of the ruling class is still with us: the class resentment that is subsumed in hostility to the “rich bitch,” the loose woman who betrays her class (or nation), the JAP, the “daddy’s little princess”... remember how Eldridge Cleaver bragged that rape was an insurrectionary act?[23] Consider the following passage by Maria Mies:

“This dimension of the relationship of men of colonized countries to men of colonizing countries, I would like to call the BIG MEN-little men syndrome. The ‘little men’ imitate the BIG MEN. Those who have enough money can buy all those things the BIG MEN have, including women. Those who do not have enough money still have the same dreams.”[24]

What Federici is describing in 15th century Europe seems to have been an early example of the “BIG MEN-little men syndrome,” which has since been exported to societies around the world. This was (is) not only class envy, but also a class conflict in gendered drag: male workers are offered free sex at the expense of women, for whom it spells a constant threat to any meaningful freedom at all.

This rape movement was a win-win situation for the authorities: both a carrot for the male workers and a stick for the female working class. And it was a sign of the times, for simultaneous to this rape movement a similar dynamic was playing out in regards to women’s labour. In this, too, craftsmen played a key role – campaigning to exclude women from their workshops, claiming that they were working for lower wages (lower than whom?[25]). So back in the 15th century, when people depended more and more on money to acquire the necessities of life, women’s ability to earn this money was curtailed to the benefit of men of their class.

“It was from this alliance between the crafts and the urban authorities, along with the continuing privatization of land, that a new sexual division of labor […] was forged, defining women in terms – mothers, wives, daughters, widows – that hid their status as workers, while giving men free access to women’s bodies, their labor, and the bodies and labor of their children.”[26]

One is reminded of Mies’ observation that “The process of proletarianization of the men was, therefore, accompanied by a process of housewifization of women.”[27]


It is here that a second question arises, one that lay hidden behind the question of violence against women: the nature of classes, and of class alliances. This is a question that Mies has tackled head on, but when Federici broaches it, her argument seems inconsistent. This does not detract from the wealth of information and insights that she does share with us, but it does leave room for misleading conclusions, so it is worth discussing.

These were cross-class alliances, whereby men separated themselves from working class women in order to ape the privileges and power of their “betters,” and yet Federici insists that male workers did not really benefit from their new position, that the “state-backed raping of poor women undermined the class solidarity that had been achieved in the anti-feudal struggle.”[28] Furthermore, “the devaluation and feminization of reproductive labor was a disaster also for male workers, for the devaluation of reproductive labor inevitably devalued its product: labor-power.”[29]

This is confusing, as it seems clear that some working class men most definitely did exploit women for their own gain. They enjoyed a formal economic gain in the form of higher wages. They benefited sexually by having increased access to women’s bodies. As women were warped through the process of housewifization, men eventually enjoyed a hidden economic bonus in that so much work that previously had to be paid for or done by the male worker himself was now done by the female houseworker. One is also reminded of what Mies wrote:

“Proletarian men do have an interest in the domestication of their female class companions. The material interest consists, on the one hand, in the man’s claim to monopolize available wage-work, on the other, in the claim to have control over all money income in the family.”[30]

Because there is no explicit discussion of the nature of class – beyond her promising observation that gender can be a specification of class relations – it is difficult to know Federici’s rationale for claiming that these opportunistic acts were against men’s interests. Perhaps she feels that as men’s alienation and exploitation can only be solved by revolution, any behaviour that works against this goal is not in their interest; in this sense it might be said that although this opportunism was in their personal interests it remained against their class interests, but this formulation becomes unwieldy when we insist on seeing gender as a “specification of class,”[31] and unconvincing when we are given no evidence of male resistance to women’s subjugation. Men seem to have “voted with their feet,” perhaps resisting some aspects of class rule but often collaborating in new mechanisms of exploitation and oppression, so that like “whiteness” today, “maleness” in these instances seems to be the most important specification of class.

Whether or not the mass of men (or white people) are acting “in their class interests” really becomes a matter of what one wants to believe about the working class. From a certain philosophical perspective even the ruling class has an “interest” in abolishing class rule: it is obvious that once one has accepted the desirability of a classless non-hierarchical society, that goal seems far more alluring than waking up in this cesspool but finding out that you’ve won the lotto. But this is not usually how “class interest” is understood…

Perhaps one way to untie this knot is to acknowledge that men also must also have been warped by this process – becoming more sexist, less respectful of the women in their community, more prone to dismiss, to degrade, to beat and to rape. We are not told of any significant resistance to this transformation by the men concerned. So while the abstract genderless worker may have suffered as a result of these attacks on women, the new male worker was served by the increasing subordination of women – which in no way lessens the fact that this was a historic human tragedy.

ACT THREE: Still Higher Levels of Violence

We cannot know what would have happened had the balance of forces remained at this level, for events conspired to once again push the ruling class to the brink. Just a few hundred years after the plague, the labour shortage that continued into the 16th century due to the widespread hostility to capitalist work was exacerbated by a new decrease in the population (probably due to the increase in poverty as the gains of the 14th and 15th centuries were undone).

This was the era of the capitalist counter-revolution, and yet the new capitalist class could not create the labour they needed like they could make cloth or steel. Both Mies and Federici agree on this point that two of the greatest crimes of that age were committed to find a way around this crisis: mandatory procreation for European women and the mass kidnapping and enslavement of Africans. In Mies’ words: “The counterpart of the slave raids in Africa was the witch hunt in Europe. The two seem to be connected through the same dilemma with which the capitalist version of man-the-hunter is faced: however much he may try to reduce women to a mere condition of production, to nature to be appropriated and exploited, he cannot produce living human labour power without women.”[32]

While Federici does not deal with the effects of the slave trade on gender relations within Africa, and only touches upon the way in which ideas of male and female power developed amongst African slaves in the “New World,” she does note that “capitalism may not even have taken off without Europe’s ‘annexation of America,’ and the ‘blood and sweat’ that for two centuries flowed to Europe from the plantation.”[33]

What Federici does concentrate on is the war against women in Europe, the hammer of housewifization which “degraded maternity to the status of forced labor.”[34]

European men had been burning witches since the 15th century, but this had originally just been one part of the campaigns against the heretics. In the 16th century the persecution of witches went from the margins to being the center of this campaign, and the accusations changed from being primarily about religious beliefs to concentrating on sexual perversion,infanticide and reproduction. By the 17th century as many as 100,000 women were killed, and just as many more had their lives ruined by the accusation.[35]

Whereas Mies emphasized the economic role of the Witch-Hunt, the way in which the theft of women’s property was part of primitive accumulation, Federici convincingly casts doubt on this, pointing out that the overwhelming majority of victims had no property or wealth to speak of. Rather, this was a politically motivated war against women: what had to be destroyed was “the female personality that had developed, especially among the peasantry, in the course of the struggle against feudal power, when women had been in the forefront of the heretical movements, often organizing in female associations, posing a growing challenge to male authority and the Church.”[36]

Federici does us the service of contextualizing this mass murder within a growing hostility to women. At the same time as “witches” were being publicly tortured and killed, governments across Europe were passing laws against contraception, abortion, adultery, and especially infanticide – all of which were punishable by death. Other changes registered at this time are also worth mentioning: prostitution was now criminalized in such a way as to harshly punish the woman but hardly touch the male customer, the word “gossip” (which had meant “female friend” previously) now took on disparaging meaning, and – like women in Iraq today – new levels of male hostility forced women indoors, for to be seen walking the streets without a male escort was to risk insult or attack.[37]

If it is tempting to see the Witch-Hunt as just one detail in this rise in misogyny, especially since historians are now saying that the number of dead was so much smaller than previously thought, one should remember what these trials and executions were like. These were public events, which normally involved new and incredibly sadistic forms of sexual torture approaching vivisection.[38] The way in which the “guilty” were executed was also harrowing – drowning, burning, etc. – and the entire village (including the woman’ children) was often forced toattend. So the 100,000 witches who were burnt during the Great Hunt (if this number stands future scrutiny) would have had a very different psychological effect than 100,000 deaths on a battle field. The murder of each woman thus became powerful propaganda.

Nevertheless, all of these changes, and not just the Witch-Hunt, did come together as pieces of a larger puzzle; men with big ideas were making their dreams come true, finally summoning the necessary violence to snuff out centuries of rebellion and resistance to class rule. The draconian “pro-life” legislation; making money male by driving women out of the formal economy; the Witch-Hunt – all of this was supported by the leading intellectuals of the day. A modern process - “the secular courts conducted most of the trials, while in the areas where the Inquisition operated (Italy and Spain)the number of executions remained comparatively low”[39] – aimed at completely rooting out “a whole world of female practices, collective relations, and systems of knowledge that had been the foundation of women’s power in pre-capitalist Europe, and the condition for their resistance in the struggle against feudalism.”[40]

You can view the First Installment of this review here and the Second Installment here and the Fourth Installment here - or you can view the whole thing on the Kersplebedeb site in html or pdf format.


20] Federici, p. 63. [back to text]

21] Federici, p. 29. [back to text]

22] Rossiaud, Jacques Medieval Prostitution (Oxford:
Basil Blackwell 1988) [back to text]

23] Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice [back to text]
24] Mies, p. 167 [back to text]
25] This complaint – still heard in anti-immigrant campaigns today, as well as in the right-wing of the anti-globalization movement –should be understood as one set of ambitious workers trying to increase the price of their skills (i.e. wage) by limiting the labour supply by excluding(and, incidentally, impoverishing) another set of workers. [back to text]

26] Federici, p. 97. [back to text]

27] Mies, p. 69. [back to text]

28] Federici, p. 48. [back to text]

29] Federici, p. 75. [back to text]

30] Mies, p. 109 [back to text]

31] Federici, p. 14. [back to text]

32] Mies, p. 69. [back to text]

33] Federici, p. 103. [back to text]

34] Federici, p. 92. [back to text]

35] Federici, p. 208. Previous estimates of the numbers of witches killed had run into the millions – German feminist Ingrid Strobl put it at “between 9 and 30 million” (in “Fear of the Shivers of Freedom”) – but more recent research which seems to be accepted by feminists puts the figure much lower. See “Recent Developments in the Study of the Great European Witch-Hunt” by Jenny Gibbons at
[back to text]

36] Federici, p. 184. [back to text]

37] Federici, p. 99-100. [back to text]

38] According to Mies, “The torture chambers of the witch-hunters were the laboratories where the texture, the anatomy, the resistance of the human body – mainly the female body – was studied. One may say that modern medicine and the male hegemony over this vital field were established on the base of millions of crushed, maimed, torn, disfigured and finally burnt, female bodies.” (p. 83) [back to text]

39] Federici, p. 168. [back to text]

40] Federici, p.102. [back to text]

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