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.
Caliban and the Witch became a movement meme. It has bridged the divides between the generations. I think it was conceived in the early seventies: Attica (1971) —Wounded Knee (1973)—Roe V. Wade (1973)—Soweto (1976). It owes much to the feminist movement (the Italian divorce referendum of 1974) and the world-wide struggle for reproductive rights and freedom.
Coming from Italy, Silvia Federici was steeped in theoretical breaks from traditional Marxism. She was not in thrall to positivist interpretations of Marx nor to empiricist reductions of history. The debate of the mid-1970s concerned wagelessness— people outside the collective bargaining matrix who nevertheless contributed to surplus value, yet whose valorization was near nil. The wageless, she and others argued, were radical agents of world history. This was a definition of the revolutionary subject that was bound to piss off standard Marxism as well as orthodox labor history.
Caliban and the Witch was conceived as an active intervention in the major post-war scholarly debate in Marxism, “the transition debate” about the movement from feudalism to capitalism. Challenging conventional Marxism Federici argued that before there was the expropriation of the land there was the expropriation of the female body. Patriarchal control over the uterus was as important to the foundation of capitalism as the conversion of the earth to real estate. This was the other “secret of primitive accumulation.” If the transition to capitalism was written in letters of blood and fire, then the pen inscribing these letters was wielded by capitalist patriarchs upon the commons, whose community was created, nurtured, and maintained by women.
Federici’s generalizations ran counter to college history department orthodoxy as well as against Marxist interpretation. She treated the middle ages as having favorable aspects, namely among its active peasantry. This contrasted with the view that everything in feudalism was bad, backwards, or baleful, bourgeois historiography’s preferred reading of the period. Federici, like Thomas Müntzer who led the German Peasant’s Revolt of 1524, gave the whole world a jolt.
Capitalist accumulation, Federici shows, is accumulation of the proletariat. Since European population growth was always accompanied by massive deaths (war, starvation, and disease) the state intervened to organize reproduction: hence the African slave trade, hence the forced labor of the Native American, hence the criminalization of European commoners, and hence the burning of witches. The dehumanization and devaluation of women was accomplished by violent terror. This is the essence of Caliban and the Witch, its gravamen.
The primary accumulation of capital meant the accumulation of the proletariat and the accumulation of the proletariat required the accumulation of differences— “slaves,” “savages,” “sturdy rogues,” and “witches.” Slavish roles for women, subordinate meanings of domesticity or “housework,” and hierarchical gender roles were accompanied by mechanistic philosophy and “scientific revolution,” the cog and gear of capitalism’s triumph. Women were to produce proletarians as cannon fodder for the wars or to produce labor power for the farms, workshops, and workhouses. The demonization of women, the Atlantic slave trade, and the appearance in Europe of large-scale vagabondage were essential components to the early modern history of the proletariat. Yet none of them appeared in standard accounts of the working class, either by Marxists or by bourgeois historians.
Remember that when Malcolm X or Franz Fanon or Mario Tronti published in the mid-sixties they were not part of global academia. Nor were the campaigns of Wages-for-Housework. Mariarosa Dalla Costa’s The Power of Women and Subversion of the Community (1971), Selma James’s Sex, Race, and Class (1975), and Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English’s Witches, Midwives, and Nurses (1973) were not documents for academic tenure: they were contributions to liberation, women’s liberation. And, as Federici showed, the liberation of us all.
Federici helped create a global network outside academia, a fitting project as etymology of “academia” is from Greek words meaning “without the people.” Nevertheless, the book is a tremendous and popular work of scholarship. It has been translated into many languages. There are at least six hundred eighty-nine separate items in the bibliography. There are one hundred eighty-three footnotes over forty-nine pages, little essays in themselves. In addition, there are at least seventy-five separate illustrations over two hundred eighty-five pages, more than one every four pages. They provide the documentary and visual history of devaluation, demonization, and torture of women. Scarcely can you turn a page without reference to a French, an Italian, an English, a Spanish, an American social historian, sociologist, or anthropologist. They are cited gratefully for their research; they are cited rhetorically for argument; the citations altogether contribute to the movement’s scholarly commons. The authority of her authorship derives from them and from her experiences with other women in collective struggles in Italy, in Nigeria, in Mexico, in Brooklyn.
So much is summarized by the cover art. Years ago in passionate excitement Silvia Federici showed me the artwork by Giotto, an emblem of anger, which years later became the cover of Caliban and the Witch. Heaven-sent wrath suffuses the whole book. The original fresco is in Padova, the crucible of what would later be named autonomist Marxism, and not far from Porto Marghera with its huge structures in service to the capitalist petroleum project. The capitalist project itself had its beginnings in the city-states of the Italian Renaissance with banking, double-entry book-keeping, heroic humanism, realpolitik, and statecraft.
Art-wise the start of the Renaissance began with Giotto (1305), and among Giotto’s most celebrated frescoes are those in Padova’s Arena Chapel. On the bottom tier of the north wall of the chapel Giotto personifies seven vices including “wrath” but not “avarice.” The fresco shows a woman with her head flung back, her long hair falling halfway to the ground, rending apart her dress to expose her breast. The disrobing is a revelation of the body of humanity. The Renaissance theorist of art, Alberti, said, “First draw the figure nude; then show it dressed.” Here it is the other way around.
Roger Fry, the twentieth-century English art critic, referred to the “bestial madness” of the image, its “diabolical abstract of anger.”1 This could not be more directly contrary to Federici’s argument; rather, it was beasts and demons that provided the demonology for white supremacist capitalist imperialist patriarchy (per bell hooks), and its justifications for the witch burnings. So I asked another critic, Janie Paul, an artist and curator of the Michigan Prisoners Art Project, what was technically important about Giotto. She replied, “line and volume” or “substance.”
Like Giotto, the substance of Caliban and the Witch is delineated by clear lines; hers are drawn to connect reference points in feminism, Marxism, and Foucault. Sociological clarity and chronological lucidity provide the “line” while the passionate empirical findings provide the “substance.” The concrete practical background in the feminist struggle particularly the wages-for-housework campaigns enabled her to search and find the empirical weight which provides the book with its Giotto-like volume. It’s a hidden history that needs to be made visible to be given the weight that for centuries its invisibility concealed. The realm of reproduction itself was hidden in Marx and in conventional bourgeois history alike.
Giotto’s figure of wrath is also a powerful icon of truth. “To bear the breast” means “to come clean” or to confess repressed knowledge. “To get something off your chest” is to become vulnerable. Here at the birth of European modernity is the artist who cannot hide the anger accompanying the colossal crime of the coming age, the burning of the witches by the thousand, by the tens of thousands, by the hundreds of thousands. It is either that wrath or, on the back cover, another of the Giotto panels from Padova, the figure of despair, a woman hanged by the neck. Giotto and Federici are telling us that if we are unwilling to accept political responsibility for the anger that truth requires, what awaits us is death and despair. Which do we choose?
Peter Linebaugh is a historian and the author of Red Round Globe Hot Burning, among many others, and the co-author, with Marcus Rediker, of The Many-Headed Hydra. His articles have appeared in publications including New Left Review and Radical History Review.
1. Roger Fry, “Giotto II,” Monthly Review (March 1901), p. 116.