Learning from Witchy and Wayward Women

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Detail from Wangechi Mutu, Second Born, 2013, Zane Bennett Contemporary Art, Santa Fe

This October, Verso is hosting a roundtable on Silvia Federici’s incantatory and incendiary Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (2004), inviting reflections from activists, writers, and scholars to discuss the provocations of Federici’s arguments on capitalism and colonialism, bodies and reproduction, race and slavery—and the powerful figure of the witch.

I've taken to including Caliban and the Witch (CW) in my courses on Marxism because this witchy text never fails to cast a spell. As students follow the story of the witch-hunts in Europe, a book ostensibly about the distant past begins to transform itself before their eyes. The deeper into the story of the witch-hunts we go, the more rapidly prior understandings of global capitalism fall away. Previous accounts assume robustly feminist, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist form. And, when we finally close the book and set it down, unanticipated ideas about our collective ability to resist begin to miraculate.

CW begins by arguing that patriarchy, that reified form of masculine power that tends to be naturalized (as male) and treated as if it were trans-historical, is an historically specific form of domination brewed-up in the relatively recent past to make capitalism go. Women had to be corralled, their reproductive labor power contained within the domestic realm, and their communitarian inclinations and wayward sexuality put in check for capitalism to flourish. In place of Marx's gender-blind story of the enclosure of the commons, Federici pulls from sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe a gender-differentiated account of primitive accumulation, one that reads the witch-hunts and the battle over the reproductive body as central to the struggle to privatize and valorize natural resources. To express the audacious argument as plainly as possible: the witch-hunts, which resulted in the torture and murder of hundreds of thousands of women, enabled modern capitalism.

Witches—the women who resisted enclosure—were sought out and persecuted because of their acts of refusal––ranging from religious heresy to non-procreative sexuality to infanticide, which threatened to abort (sometimes literally) what Marx described as capitalism's "bloody birth." They were put to death because their witchy ways of being in the world were considered dangerously contagious, their project of subversion transferable to future generations of wayward women who might, in their turn, do as the witches had: Resist!

When we tell the story of the witches of Europe in the way that CW does, the story of reproductive enclosure assumes its rightful place, front and center. As we readjust our sights, shifting our target from production to reproduction, both the Eurocentrism and the progressive teleology of the traditional Marxist account of capitalism's genesis and evolution come to look distorted, even absurd. As scholars of indigeneity and historians of colonialism and Atlantic slavery make plain, Marx's story of so-called primitive accumulation is undercut by its Eurocentrism. As a view from the reservation, the slave plantation, the colony, and/or the post-colony readily reveals, accumulation through colonization and resource extraction in the modern world is clearly ongoing. What Federici's account of the witch-hunts adds to this important anti-racist critique is the realization that when viewed from the vantage point of reproduction it is impossible to regard the enclosure of the commons as either a geographically isolated (in Europe) or an exemplary case upon which to model our understanding. After all, witchy and wayward women exist everywhere around the globe and it is not reasonable to consign their myriad and persistent acts of refusal to the past. Women's struggle against reproductive enclosure have been ongoing. While women labeled as witches may not have haunted every village and forest in every land in every epoch, witchy and wayward women—those who possess the exclusive ability to reproduce the labor force and who house within their bodies the biological processes and raw materials that, today, increasingly fuel the global economy—certainly have and do.

If capitalism requires ongoing domination of the reproductive body, reproductive labor, and reproductive products it stands to reason that the means of reproductive enclosure requires continuous recalibration as the reproductive process itself is transformed by technology and the technological penetration of the body and bodily processes. In so far as CW charges us with a task, it is that of tracking evolving modes of reproductive enclosure across time and recognizing how mechanisms of enclosure vary from place to place. When we do, we discern the linkages between past and present reproductive formations (for instance those that involve persecution of midwives and their patients of yore, and those that today involve persecution of abortion providers and their patients). We recognize the historical antecedents (for instance slave breeding—on which, more shortly) for the contemporary treatment of reproductive body, its labor, and its human biological products. And, not least, we learn how we might yet power the struggle for substantive reproductive freedom with knowledge gleaned from all the witchy and wayward women who have refused and continue to refuse reproductive enclosure.

Though CW is predominantly concerned with the European past, several passages indicate how readers might take up the task of tracking its argument elsewhere in time and place. One passage that especially interests me connects the condition of women in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to the condition of women enslaved on sugar, cotton, and tobacco plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean after the closure of the Atlantic slave trade in 1807, the year after which slave women were forced to breed more slaves as the enslaved womb became the sole source of new workers for sale in the interstate trade. In Federici's view, extended comparison between European women and slave women has "serious limits." And yet, my research on reproductive enclosure in late capitalism shows that these limits are only evident when one tracks backwards in time from slavery to the witch-hunts, rather than forward in time from slavery to contemporary biocapitalism.

As I elaborate in my recent book, The Afterlife of Reproductive Slavery, slave women's work as breeders in the nineteenth century ought to be recognized as directly connected to the work of contemporary surrogates, egg "donors," and (re)producers of embryonic stem cells. Indeed, enslaved women’s reproductive work ought to be recognized as the historical antecedent for the work of women around the globe whose bodies are mined each day so that reproductive labor and living biological products can be accumulated at an ever-increasing and ever more lucrative pace. Federici writes that "the condition of the enslaved woman... reveals the truth and the logic of capitalist accumulation." My research on slavery and on today's global reproductive formation affirms this entirely. In both the contexts of slave racial capitalism and contemporary biocapitalism, women's wombs are treated as living machines systemically compelled to function according to rhythms of commodity (re)production that are outside of women's control.

Today control is wrested from women not only through rape and the forced reproduction of human commodities (as during slavery), but also through the use of drugs that stimulate ovaries to hyper-ovulate for more robust harvest; through the use of laparoscopic technologies that enable the swift extraction of eggs for sale internationally; through practice of cryopreservation, embryo transfer, and in vitro fertilization, all techniques that allow fertilized eggs to be stabilized and transported across geographic and temporal distances so that they may be implanted in the waiting wombs of surrogate laborers; and through the dosage of potentially deadly pharmaceuticals that recalibrate women's endocrine systems so that those in the global South may successfully gestate embryos to which they are not genetically related and then deliver living products to eager consumers in the global North. As feminist historians of slavery have taught us slavery in the New World would have been impossible without slave breeding. As CW's story of reproductive accumulation allows us to comprehend, biocapitalist processes of reproductive accumulation fueling genome research, big pharma, and global fertility tourism are today possible because the enclosure of women's reproductive labor and products has been ongoing and has been continuously recalibrated.

Given its contemporary relevance, the story of the witch-hunts ought to be regarded as a gift to future generations. It is a gift because it affords insight into the insurgency of the witches—those women who for two long centuries persisted in resisting the violent birth of pangs of capitalism. And, it is a gift because in recalling their witchy resistance (as opposed to effectively erasing it, as the traditional Marxist analysis of primitive accumulation has done) the story of the witch-hunts attunes us to alternative relationships to our reproductive labor and bodies. Like witches, slave women persistently resisted reproductive enclosure. They refused sex with masters and fellow slaves, they aborted pregnancies, they ran away with their children and took themselves and the property they had reproduced out of circulation. And, in some cases, such as the famous one of Margaret Garner fictionalized by Toni Morrison in her novel Beloved, they practiced infanticide, electing actual death for their children over living death in slavery.

The histories of women's resistance––witches and slave women alike––begs the question: How might we imagine the refusal and insurgency of contemporary reproductive laborers? And how might placing the insurgency of gestational surrogates and egg "donors" alongside that of witches and slave women compel us to re-conceptualize contemporary struggles for reproductive freedom? When we consider the many resistance strategies employed by witches and slave women, it becomes clear that it is insufficient to construe the struggle for reproductive freedom as one achievable through the securing of the "right" to "privacy" (the faulty logic that undergirds as it ungirds Roe v. Wade). No. What the witchy and wayward women of the past teach us is that truly substantive struggles for reproductive freedom must challenge the saturation of our reproductive lives by capitalist rationality and refuse treatment of the reproductive body as a form of property, especially as a form of property in the self.

Alys Weinbaum is a professor of literature, culture, and theory at the University of Washington, and author of, most recently, the award-winning book, The Afterlife of Reproductive Slavery: Human Reproduction in Biocapitalism (Duke University Press, 2019).