Quotes from Caliban and the Witch, by Silvia Federici.

I really recommend everyone get this book if you have any interest in medieval history, feminism, anarchism, or capitalism, just to name those. It’s really amazing how much of it relates to other issues, even modern issues, as I think these quotes demonstrate.


“[C]apitalism was not the product of an evolutionary development bringing forth economic forces that were maturing in the womb of the old order. Capitalism was the response of the feudal lords, the patrician merchants, the bishops and popes, to a centuries-long social conflict that, in the end, shook their power, and truly gave ‘all the world a big jolt.’ Capitalism was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle- possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us the immense destruction of lives and the natural environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide.”

“Although influenced by Eastern religions brought to Europe by merchants and crusaders, popular heresy was less a deviation from the orthodox doctrine than a protest movement, aspiring to a radical democratization of social life. Heresy was the equivalent of ‘liberation theology’ for the medieval proletariat. It gave a frame to peoples’ demands for spiritual renewal and social justice, challenging both the Church and secular authority by appeal to a higher truth. It denounced social hierarchies, private property and the accumulation of wealth, and it disseminated among the people a new, revolutionary conception of society that, for the first time in the Middle Ages, redefined every aspect of daily life (work, property, sexual reproduction, and the position of women), posing the question of emancipation in truly universal terms.

The heretic movement also provided an alternative community structure that had an international dimension, enabling the members of the sects to lead a more autonomous life, and to benefit from a wide support network made of contacts, schools, and safe-houses upon which they could rely for help and inspiration in times of need. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that the heretic movement was the first ‘proletarian international’…”

“The negative attitude towards natality has been attributed to the influence exerted on the Cathars by Eastern dualist sects like the Paulicians- a sect of iconoclasts who rejected procreation as the act by which the soul is entrapped in the material world- and, above all, the Bogomils, who proselytized in the 10th century among the peasantry of the Balkans. A popular movement ‘born amidst peasants whose physical misery made conscious of the wickedness of things’, the Bogomils preached that the visible world is the work of the devil (for in the world of God the good would be the first), and they refused to have children not to bring new slaves into this ‘land of tribulations,’ as life on Earth was called in one of their tracts.

The influence of the Bogomils on the Cathars is well-established, and it is likely that the Cathars’ avoidance of marriage and procreation stemmed from a similar refusal of a life ‘degraded to mere survival,’ rather than from a ‘death-wish’ or from contempt for life. This is suggested by the fact that the Cathars’ anti-natalism was not associated with a degraded conception of women and sexuality, as it is often the case with philosophies that despise life and the body.”

“Throughout the 14th century, particularly in the Flanders, cloth workers were engaged in constant rebellions against the bishop, the nobility, the merchants, and even the major crafts. At Bruges, when the main crafts gained power in 1348, wool workers continued to rebel against them. At Ghent, in 1335, a revolt by he local bourgeoisie was overtaken by a rebellion of weavers, who tried to establish a ‘workers’ democracy’ based on the suppression of all authorities, except those living by manual labor. Defeated by an impressive coalition of forces (including the prince, the nobility, the clergy, the bourgeoisie), the weavers tried again in 1378, when they succeeded in establishing what (with some exaggeration, perhaps) has been called the first ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ known in history. Their goal, according to Prosper Boisonnade, was ‘to raise journeymen against masters, wage earners against great entrepreneurs, peasants against lords and clergy. It was said that they had contemplated the extermination of the whole bourgeois class, with the exception of children of six and the same for the nobles.’ They were defeated only by a battle in the open field, at Roosebecque in 1382, where 26,000 of them lost their lives.

The events at Bruges and Ghent were not isolated cases. In Germany and Italy as well, the artisans and laborers rebelled at every possible occasion, forcing the local bourgeoisie to live in a constant state of fear. In Florence, the workers seized power in 1379, led by the Ciompi, the day-laborers in the Florentine textile industry. They too established a workers’ government, but it lasted only a few months before being completely defeated by 1382. The workers at Liege, in the Low Countries, were more successful. In 1384, the nobility and the rich (‘the great,’ as they were called), incapable of continuing a resistance which had lasted for more than a century, capitulated. From then on, ‘the crafts completely dominated the town,’ becoming the arbiter of the municipal government.”

“I. The expropriation of European workers from their means of subsistence, and the enslavement of Native Americans and Africans to the mines and plantations of the ‘New World,’ were not the only means by which a world proletariat was formed and ‘accumulated.’

II. This process required the transformation of the body into a work-machine, and the subjugation of women to the reproduction of the work-force. Most of all, it required the destruction of the power of women which, in Europe as in America, was achieved through the extermination of the ‘witches.’

III. Primitive accumulation, then, was not simply an accumulation and concentration of exploitable workers and capital. It 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.

IV. We cannot, therefore, identify capitalist accumulation with the liberation of the worker, female or male, as many Marxists (among others) have done, or see the advent of capitalism as a moment of historical progress. On the contrary, capitalism has created more brutal and insidious forms of enslavement, as it has planted into the body of the proletariat deep divisions that have served to intensify and conceal exploitation. It is in great part because of these imposed divisions- especially those between women and men- that capitalist accumulation continues to devastate life in every corner of the planet.”

“Land privatization and the commercialization of agriculture did not increase the food supply available to the common people, though more food was made available for the market and for export. For workers they inaugurated two centuries of starvation, in the same way as today, even in the most fertile areas of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, malnutrition is rampant due to the destruction of communal land-tenure and the ‘export or perish’ policy imposed by the World Bank’s structural adjustments programs. Nor did the introduction of new agricultural techniques in England compensate for this loss. On the contrary, the development of agrarian capitalism ‘worked hand in glove’ with the impoverishment of the rural population. A testimony to the misery produced by land privatization is the fact that, barely a century after the emergence of agrarian capitalism, sixty European towns had instituted some form of social assistance or were moving in this direction, and vagabondage had become an international problem. Population growth may have been a contributing factor; but its importance has been overstated, and should be circumscribed in time. By the last part of the 16th century, almost everywhere in Europe, the population was stagnating or declining, but this time workers did not derive any benefits from this change.

There are also misconceptions about the effectiveness of the open-field system of agriculture… It protected the peasants from harvest failure, due to the variety of strips to which a family had access; it also allowed for a manageable work-schedule (since each strip required attention at a different time); and it encouraged a democratic way of life, built on self-government and self-reliance, since all decisions- where to plant or harvest, where to drain the fens, how many animals to allow on the commons- were taken by peasant assemblies.”

“[W]e cannot say… that the separation of the worker from the land and the advent of a money-economy realized the struggle which the medieval serfs had fought to free themselves from bondage. It was not the workers- male or female- who were liberated by land privatization. What was ‘liberated’ was capital, as the land was now ‘free’ to function as a means of accumulation and exploitation, rather than as a means of subsistence.”

“Pauperization, rebellion, and the escalation of ‘crime’ are structural elements of capitalist accumulation as capitalism must strip the work-force from its means of reproduction to impose its own rule.

That in the industrialized regions of Europe, by the 19th century, the most extreme forms of proletarian misery and rebellions had disappeared is not a proof against this claim. Proletarian misery and rebellions did not come to an end; they only lessened to the degree that the super-exploitation of workers had been exported, through the institutionalization of slavery, at first, and later through the continuing expansion of colonial domination.”

“With the marginalization of the midwife, the process began by which women lost the control they had exercised over procreation, and were reduced to a passive role in child delivery, while male doctors came to be seen as the true ‘givers of life’ (as in the alchemical dreams of the Renaissance magicians). With this shift, a new medical practice also prevailed, one that in the case of a medical emergency prioritized the life of the fetus over that of the mother.”

“According to [the] new social-sexual contract, proletarian women became for male workers the substitute for the land lost to the enclosures, their most basic means of reproduction, and a communal good anyone could appropriate and use at will. Echoes of this ‘primitive appropriation’ can be heard in the concept of the ‘common woman’ which in the 16th century qualified those who prostituted themselves. But in the new organization of work every woman (other than those privatized by bourgeois men) became a communal good, for once women’s activities were defined as non-work, women’s labor began to appear as a natural resource, available to all, no less than the air we breathe or the water we drink.”

“[T]he construction of a new patriarchal order, making of women the servants of the male work-force, was a major aspect of capitalist development.

On its basis a new sexual division of labor could be enforced that differentiated not only the tasks that women and men should perform, but their experiences, their lives, their relation to capital and to other sectors of the working class. Thus, no less than the international division of labor, the sexual division of labor was above all a power-relation, a division within the work-force, while being an immense boost to capital accumulation.”

“The incompatibility of magic with the capitalist work-discipline and the requirements of social control is one of the reasons why a campaign of terror was launched against it by the state- a terror applauded without reservation by many who are presently considered among the founders of scientific rationalism: Jean Bodin, Mersenne, the mechanical philosopher and member of the Royal Society Richard Boyle, and Newton’s teacher, Isaac Barrow. Even the materialist Hobbes, while keeping his distance, gave his approval. ‘As for witches,’ he wrote, ‘I think not that their witchcraft is any real power; but yet that they are justly punished, for the false belief they have that they can do such mischief, joined with their purpose to do it if they can.’ He added that if these superstitions were eliminated, ‘men would be much more fitted than they are for civil obedience.’ Hobbes was well advised. The stakes on which witches and other practitioners of magic died, and the chambers in which their tortures were executed, were a laboratory in which much social discipline was sedimented, and much knowledge about the body was gained. Here those irrationalities were eliminated that stood in the way of the transformation of the individual and social body into a set of predictable and controllable mechanisms. And it was here again that the scientific use of torture was born, for blood and torture were necessary to ‘breed an animal’ capable of regular, homogenous, and uniform behavior, indelibly marked with the memory of the new rules.”

“The contemporaneous critique of Hobbes’ atheism and materialism was clearly not motivated purely by religious concerns. His view of the individual as a machine moved only by its appetites and aversions was rejected not because it eliminated the concept of the human creature made in the image of God, but because it eliminated the possibility of a form of social control not depending wholly on the iron rule of the state.”

“What has not been recognized is that the witch-hunt was one of the most important events in the development of capitalist society and the formation of the modern proletariat. For the unleashing of a campaign of terror against women, unmatched by any other persecution, weakened the resistance of the European peasantry to the assault launched against it by the gentry and the state, at a time when the peasant community was already disintegrating under the combined impact of land privatization, increased taxation, and the extension of state control over every aspect of social life. The witch-hunt deepened the divisions between women and men, teaching men to fear the power of women, and 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.”

“It is significant that, in England, most of the witch trials occurred in Essex, where by the 16th century the bulk of the land had been enclosed, while in those regions of the British Isles where land privatization had neither occurred not was on the agenda we have no record of witch-hunting. The most outstanding examples in this context are Ireland and the Scottish Western Highlands, where no trace can be found of the persecution, likely because a collective land-tenure system and kinship ties still prevailed in both areas that precluded the communal divisions and the type of complicity with the state that made a witch-hunt possible.”

“Aiming at controlling nature, the capitalist organization of work must refuse the unpredictability implicit in the practice of magic, and the possibility of establishing a privileged relation with the natural elements, as well as the belief in the existence of powers available only to particular individuals, and thus not easily generalized and exploitable. Magic was also an obstacle to the rationalization of the work process, and a threat to the establishment of the principle of individual responsibility. Above all, magic seemed a form of refusal of work, of insubordination, and an instrument of grassroots resistance to power. The world has to be ‘disenchanted’ in order to be dominated.”

“Just as the Enclosures expropriated the peasantry from the communal land, so the witch-hunt expropriated women from their bodies, which were thus ‘liberated’ from any impediment preventing them to function as machines for the production of labor. For the threat of the stake erected more formidable barriers around women’s bodies than were ever erected by the fencing off of the communes.”

“[A]t the ideological level, there is a close correspondence between the degraded image of women forged by the demonologists and the image of femininity constructed by the contemporary debates on the ‘nature of the sexes,’ which canonized a stereotypical woman, weak in body and mind and biologically prone to evil, that effectively served to justify male control over women and the new patriarchal order.”

“How preoccupied were the witch hunters with the affirmation of male supremacy can be seen from the fact that, even when in revolt against human and divine law, women had to be portrayed as subservient to a man, and the culmination of their rebellion- the famous pact with the devil- had to be represented as a perverted marriage contract. The marital analogy was carried so far that the witches would confess that they ‘did not dare to disobey the devil,’ or, more curiously, that they did not find any pleasure in their copulations with him- a contradiction with respect to the ideology of the witch-hunt which derived witchcraft from women’s insatiable lust.”

“That witches were accused simultaneously of rendering men impotent and arousing an excessive sexual passion in them is only apparently a contradiction. In the new patriarchal code that was developing in concomitance with the witch-hunt, physical impotence was the counterpart of moral impotence; it was the physical manifestation of the erosion of male authority over women, since ‘functionally’ there would be no difference between a man who was castrated and one who was helplessly in love. The demonologists looked with suspicion at both states, clearly convinced that it would be impossible to realize the type of family the contemporary bourgeois wisdom demanded- modeled on the state, with the husband as the king, and the wife subordinate to his will, selflessly devoted to the management of the household- if women with their glamour and love philters could exercise so much power as to make men the succubi of their desires.”

“[T]he role that the witch-hunt has played in the development of the bourgeois world, and specifically in the development of the capitalist discipline of sexuality, has been erased from our memory. Yet, we can trace back to this process some of the main taboos of our time. This is the case with homosexuality, which in several parts of Europe was still fully accepted during the Renaissance, but was weeded out in the course of the witch-hunt. So fierce was the persecution of homosexuals that its memory is still sedimented in our language. ‘Faggot’ reminds us that homosexuals were at times the kindling for the stakes upon which witches were burned, while the Italian finocchio (fennel) refers to the practice to scattering these aromatic vegetables on the stakes in order to mask the stench of burning flesh.”

“Witch-hunting also took hold in Africa, where it survives today as a key instrument of division in many countries especially those once implicated in the slave trade, like Nigeria and Southern Africa. Here, too, witch-hunting has accompanied the decline in the status of women brought about by the rise of capitalism and the intensifying struggle for resources which, in recent years, has been aggravated by the imposition of the neo-liberal agenda. As a consequence of the life-and-death competition for vanishing resources, scores of women- generally old and poor- have been hunted down in the 1990s in Northern Transvaal, where seventy were burned just in the first four months of 1994. Witch-hunts have also been reported in Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon, in the 1980s and 1990s, concomitant with the imposition by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank of the policy of structural adjustment which had led to a new round of enclosures, and caused an unprecedented impoverishment among the population.”

“[T]he political lesson that we can learn from Caliban and the Witch is that capitalism, as a socio-economic system, is necessarily committed to racism and sexism. For capitalist must justify and mystify the contradictions built into its social relations- the promise of freedom vs. the reality of widespread coercion, and the promise of prosperity vs. the reality of widespread penury- by denigrating the ‘nature’ of those it exploits: women, colonial subjects, the descendants of African slaves, the immigrants displaced by globalization.”

One thought on “Quotes from Caliban and the Witch, by Silvia Federici.

  1. […] mean we must agree with such a position. But I think it is undeniable that our societies are built upon the exploitation of women and children: most importantly, that women were exploited because of children. These two forms of oppression […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: