Blog post

A Gathering Against History

In this contribution to Verso's Caliban and the Witch Roundtable, Ariella Aïsha Azoulay argues that the persecution of unruly, 'unproductive' women in Europe during the transition to capitalism paralleled the subjection of 'indigenous' populations under colonial rule

Ariela Aïsha Azoulay30 October 2019

Errata, Untaken photographs of rape (Germany, April-May 1945).

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.

Silvia Federici’s text is a lesson in unlearning the common European history narrative of a transition from feudalism to capitalism. For the triumph of such a smooth historical progression, Federici argues, unruly women had to be persecuted. There were many unruly women, and so their persecution amounted to genocide. For not having its place in common world histories, this genocide, had to be followed by a “memorycide” or “political-imaginationcide.”

Federici’s text reconstructs the genocide, and re-imagines what it aimed to destroy—the victims’ modes of gathering and transmitting knowledge and know-how. Women’s knowledge was a barrier to the primitive accumulation of capital and the reduction of different types of labor and relations to one mediated by it, and hence an obstacle to the emergence of capitalism. Federici doesn’t let the outrageous appellation “witch-hunt” camouflage the genocide. She argues that this was the “first unifying terrain in the politics of the new European nation-states,” an enterprise that enabled rival powers such as the Catholic and Protestant nations at war, to join arms and share “arguments to persecute witches.”

The effect of this double massacre was to minimize the legacy of non- and pre-imperial political, cultural, and economic formations that compete with racial capitalism and imperialism and to foreclose from our imagination the possibility of rebellion and a different political-economic-intellectual formation drawn from women’s knowledge and practices. As Federici notes, “any potentially transgressive meeting”—of peasants, witches, or rebel camps that “was described by the authorities as a virtual Sabbat” was met with violence. The Witches’ Sabbat, though, is not a cessation from work but rather a refusal to engage in work, for the targeted women were “an unwilling workforce” that the state had failed to control. “In response to this crisis” symbolized by the fear of the Witches’ Sabbat, Federici argues that “the European ruling class launched a global offensive, laying the foundations of a capitalist world-system in the relentless attempt to appropriate new sources of wealth, expand its economic basis and bring new workers under its command.”

In retrospect, I can see how influential this book was on my ability to connect different cases of mass rape (in the US, post-WWII Germany, and Palestine) and to argue that rape was the unifying element of these modern democracies and constitutive of their establishment. When I first read Caliban and the Witch, I was exploring an extension of my notion of potential history—the ongoing practice of refusing colonial dispossession— from mid-twentieth century Palestine to a half millennia of European imperialism. Challenging the discursive and institutional structures that originated in 1492 alongside Silvia Federici, Hannah Arendt, Sylvia Wynter, and others was like going to Sabbat, participating in a gathering against history.

The genocide of women and destruction of their particular modalities of production and knowledge transmission, as outlined by Federici, provides an emblematic case of potential history, since those who are targeted are part of the perpetrators’ own culture. The constitutive denial of imperial actors of the meaning of their crimes, that enables them to move on as if they alone can determine what is a crime and who is impacted by it—their targeted victims and not them—collapses here, as the victims of this genocide and their perpetrators are members of the same community, and the culture impaired is common, in common. This understanding was crucial in undermining imperialist timelines, an idea of history as an account sealed in the past. These women, like other women in other places, had to be purged together with their cultural and political practices deemed obsolete and a barrier to capital, in order to make room for new practices and new cultures. In this case we can also see how the category of the “new” operates as a device of imperial destruction. Those who stand in the way of the expansion of capital are made indigenous, and their modes of life were made old, comparing to those brought by the capital, tagged “new,” where the future is.

European colonialism made invaded communities indigenous. “Indigeneity” was used to express a variety of sentiments and power relations, including contempt, admiration, rule, oppression, and exploitation. It could not tolerate the indigeneity of similar communities in Europe who refused to be “Europeans” or refused to embrace the “new.” These communities were native to the lands of which they took care, and had different types of attachment to the land-earth-cosmos premised on non-capitalist modes of relation and knowledge. Paradoxically, the differential inclusion of the non-European indigenous within the imperial enterprise is also what enabled the survivance (survival and resistance) of their modes of being in the world and their non-instrumentalized knowledge of cosmological and natural systems, while the similar knowledge formation of indigenous women in Europe almost vanished.

Understanding the “witch-hunt” as the genocide of indigenous women and culture in the places that become “Europe” is key in a potential history of indigeneity. This genocide and the concomitant disruption in transmitting indigenous-witches’ knowledge purged Europe of the heretical and “sabbatical” gatherings, and conditioned the grounds on which women were allowed to take part in the European project: as imperialists only.

Federici’s Caliban and the Witch is necessary to the much-needed work of undoing the celebratory progressive narratives of white feminism, organized as it is in consecutive historical waves of heroic struggle. The theories of the first, second, third, and now fourth waves of white feminism is an imperial conception, one that denies a constitutive complicity with the imperial enterprise and obscures the resistance of non-white women. It is also a conception which betrays Euro-American women’s own white, indigenous female ancestors who were protectors of a different world in which white and black mattered less than right and wrong. Bringing to a close white feminism’s inherited complicity in the imperial project of racialization and oppression of others, and its celebratory narratives is necessary for the recovery of the common ground that stood as barrier to the emergence of capitalism.

When destruction is understood as an imperial principle, and a racial imperial order enlists us all as victim or perpetrator (as Arendt argued in her Origins of Totalitarianism), undoing it cannot be conceived only as “siding with” those who were targeted by white grandeur. Undoing also requires the claiming and reclaiming of pre-imperial, non-racialized and nondestructive modes of Sabbat and unruly gathering, making possible what Bonnie Honig calls Sabbatarian modes of sharing of the world.1 It was this unruly and potential gathering that the genocide of Indigenous women in Europe allowed, and it is their potential history that Federici tells. Indigenous’ relationship and attachment to the earth—not just the land—and their accumulated knowledge about this relationship, is a distinct and unique, if not the only sustainable mode, of reversing the arrow of “progress” and moving its point away from the end of the world and toward its repair.

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay is Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Comparative Literature at Brown University. Her works include Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism, Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography, the film Un-Documented and the exhibition Errata, currently at The Fundació Antoni Tàpies, Barcelona.


1. Honig ties together the three biblical Sabbath in order to foreground the egalitarian claim enfolded in them: “the Sabbath for all people and animals of creation, the land sabbatical for the land, the poor and the indebted, and jubilee for the neglected, exploited and enslaved.” Honig describes the Sabbath’s major function to “alleviate the miseries of inequality, not just by charity but by reminding us of equality and even re-approaching its institution” (Honig, “Is Man a ‘Sabbatical Animal’? Agamben, Rosenzweig, Heschel, Arendt,” Political Theology, 7).