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.
Witches are troublemakers.
Specifically, witches cause trouble for capitalism. When Silvia Federici wrote Caliban and the Witch, it wasn’t because witches were having a “moment” but to bring us a history braided into social movements around the world. Witches, she wrote, were “the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the obeah woman who poisoned the master’s food and inspired the slaves to revolt.” And the witch-hunts of a world coming under the domination of capitalism were part of the process of dispossession and accumulation, a process that Federici noted “was also an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class, whereby hierarchies built upon gender, as well as race and age, became constitutive of class rule and the formation of the modern proletariat.”
While the actual practice of witchcraft isn’t the focus of Federici’s book, it is these days the focus of an increasing number of books, Instagram accounts, magazine articles, profiles, and podcasts. More to the point, today’s left movements are home to many who are reclaiming witchcraft, magic, and indigenous spiritual practices that capitalist imperialism attempted to stamp out. The collective practices of a new generation of young people—mainly women, queer-identifying people, and people of color—may or may not have much in common with the practices of people tortured and killed for witchcraft. That’s because, as Federici noted, the witch-hunts “destroyed a universe of practices, beliefs, and social subjects whose existence was incompatible with the capitalist work discipline, thus redefining the main elements of social reproduction.”
Malaya Davis is one of those people. We met when she was organizing with the Ohio Students Association after John Crawford III had been killed in an Ohio Walmart by the local police. I didn’t know at the time that she had just gotten her first tarot deck; she told me, “It was all around the same time that I was exploring my personal spiritual power, and exploring my personal political power.” Her spiritual practice was very personal at the time, she said, while her political work was incredibly public. The realization that the two were intimately connected came later: “I realized ‘we can't actually get the freedom that we want if we aren't free within ourselves.’ That looks like a lot of intentional decolonization, including our spiritual practices, including our practice to heal the trauma that's a result of the systems that we’re actively dismantling.”
Davis practices Ifa, a faith with West African roots, one that felt familiar to her as she began to learn about it. She had been raised Christian, and for a while she had been a “follow the rules kind of girl.” But as she moved out into the world, beginning her organizing work, she decided to follow her own spirit, to do more research and find people who could teach her. “Following the rules was not getting me to a lot of places that I was told I would get,” she said. What she was learning was a way to find her own power—much as she was finding her political power with OSA. As she told me, “It’s not like, you do these things then by the grace of God something will happen, it’s like by the grace of God and your own personal power, things will happen.”
It was that kind of belief that the witch-hunts aimed to crush, because it encouraged rebellion against the emerging capitalist labor process. Belief in magic had to be eradicated, Federici wrote, because magic was a way to get something you wanted without working for it, “a refusal of work in action.” A belief in magic was a belief in an “anarchic, molecular conception of the diffusion of power in the world,” a conception fundamentally at odds with the centralized hierarchical power structure of the boss. Forcing people to submit to wage labor and the discipline of the time-clock first required the discipline of the stake. Though Davis noted that the women punished as witches did work, “It wasn’t work that benefits capitalism. It was work that benefited the community,” she said. “How do we extract the labor from witchcraft? How do we exploit the labor? We can’t, so therefore it’s demonic.”
The emerging proletariat had to be trained to defer gratification; to stifle desire; to value accumulation over expenditure. A belief in magic, instead, centered desires—and their fulfillment—communal and personal, for care and sustenance and protection. It is no surprise, then, that magic is in vogue again just as the old bargains around work are breaking down. For young college graduates like Davis, taught to follow the rules, the promise of a good job has disappeared into the reality of mountains of debt. Work is no longer working. The scrim of freedom and choice dropped over capitalism’s coercion is falling away, and people are reaching for new—and old—ways to make things happen.
To be a witch, Davis says, is to be a wise woman, a wise person. The reason why witches were and are considered wise is because they knew the unseen; because they consulted with the spiritual in order to “co-create their physical world.” Or as Jaliessa Sipress at The Hoodwitch wrote after Trump’s election, “Witches stay ready. A predominant part of witchcraft is completely based within ‘the unknown.’ We communicate with things we cannot see or are told have no vocabulary. We know how to improvise, to work with flowers and weeds and how to heal ourselves and oftentimes others.”
The witch, too, has a different relationship with the world, a relationship that is being explored and reclaimed by today’s climate activists. As Federici writes, the witch had a conception of nature that does not adhere to the mind/body matter/spirit separation but “imagined the cosmos as a living organism, populated by occult forces, where every element was in ‘sympathetic’ relation with the rest.” The witch-hunt, then, helped solidify a false distinction between man and nature, as “The world had to be ‘disenchanted’ in order to be dominated.” It is not surprising then to see new ritual, magical practices appearing in movements aiming to fight climate change—movements that are aiming to, to think alongside Federici, “re-enchant” our idea of the world. As Niki Seth-Smith wrote recently, movements like Extinction Rebellion have created new ritual practices to help people face “the existential challenges of climate collapse.”
“It’s not a coincidental thing that people are all of a sudden coming back to these indigenous practices to sustain ourselves,” Davis told me. “I really do think it’s the universal energies that are influencing us globally, and I also believe that a lot of the folks that joined movement work right around the time that I did—2009—in this generation ... seeking answers on how to make this world a better place, how to be free, how to truly liberate ourselves.... I think it opened up a lot of doors for us and has opened our minds to what else is possible.” Particularly in the organizing circles Davis has moved in, where death and trauma are a daily reality for young black people, a spiritual component can help people, she said, “both on their individual health and as they work to heal the collective.”
The greatest fear of the witch-hunter was the fear of collectivity. The fever-dream projection of the witch-hunters, luridly described in witch-hunting manual after witch-hunting manual, was the Sabbat: a massive nocturnal gathering of witches to practice their craft, cavort, and have wild sex for the pure pleasure of it. The hunters’ fears of covens of witches flying to the nighttime rites was the fear of a mobile, organized working class refusing to submit to the dictates of space and time that capitalist work discipline required. The Sabbat was anti-work (its name is, indeed, from the recognized Christian day of rest), but it was also a harbinger of class revolt.
Magic, Federici wrote, was “an instrument of grassroots resistance to power.” The ultimate way of getting what you want without work—or at least, without wage labor—is rebellion. It is not surprising that any time the working class calls for taking back wealth from the rich, or re-collectivizing things that used to be held in common, the first finger-wagging response is that we want to get something we haven’t worked for.
Today’s witches also understand the power of the collective to make the world anew. All organizing is science fiction, wrote adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha in the introduction to Octavia’s Brood. All organizing is a plan for a future that doesn’t yet exist, a way to envision things you’ve never seen and to bring them to life. It is also true in this way that all organizing is magic.
The witch-hunts ended, not because we entered a more enlightened age, Federici argued, but because the world of the witches was ground under the heel of capitalist work discipline. But as that work discipline breaks down, it is the witches that can show us a way to a world that values our healing, our wisdom, our desires, and our play—a world re-enchanted on our terms.
Sarah Jaffe is a Type Media Center reporting fellow and the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt (2016).