Book Review: Can’t see the wood for the trees? by William Bowles

18 March 2005

A Review of Caliban and the Witch – Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation by Silvia Federici


The subject of this book goes to the very heart of what it is to be a man or a woman in our world and as someone who feels very much to contain equal portions of both, it means delving into those areas of one’s ‘self’ that are the most vulnerable, what we choose to call our identities and attempting to reassess how we came to be what we are.

Within the pages of this book lie the reasons that explain why men and women now inhabit different worlds, for the reasons are not biologically determined but most definitely ideological in origin but because their roots are buried in the hidden history of the rise of capitalism some five hundred years ago, the reality of today appears as something natural.

Piercing the veil of something so deeply rooted in Western culture as to obliterate any other interpretation of the causes of events is no mean feat, made all the more difficult because of the power that men have over virtually every aspect of inquiry; history, science, economics, psychology, sexuality, medicine and of course, politics.

For without questioning/understanding what it is to be a man or a woman in a world shaped by capital for the past 500 or so years, it is impossible to comprehend just how devastating the triumph of capital was for humanity but especially for women and for people of colour and of course, ultimately, for men also. For Federici demonstrates that the rise of (wage) slavery upon which capitalism depended, needed first to destroy the world of women and in very specific ways.

It might have been more apt to call my review ‘can’t see the petticoats for the pants?’, so pervasive is the illusion we have of the now separate worlds of men and women and the unrecognised reality of the centrality of women to our lives.

That our knowledge and understanding of history is shaped by men is somewhat of a truism but just how deep and thorough-going it is, is amply demonstrated in the pages of this book. But in order to understand how we have come to the current situation it is necessary to shed several hundred years of conditioning, for it took something like two hundred years to destroy a relationship built perhaps over thousands of years. First between people and the land and second between the ‘self’ and the body.

In pre-capitalist Europe women were not only primary contributors to economic life and for which their contribution was recognised in many areas as equal to that of men, but their knowledge, especially in the areas of health was crucial to the well-being of communities. Moreover, women had complete control over their reproductive lives (something that the rise of capitalism was to eradicate and in fact starting in the 16th century, both the use of contraception and the practice of abortion were punishable by death, along with some 300 other ‘offences’).

And in an age where the dominant ideology would have us believe that it’s all down to our ‘genes’, the history of the separation between men and women begs to be investigated. And as Federici points out, it’s an area that Marx and most Marxists have until fairly recently, neglected.

Whereas Marx examines primitive accumulation from the viewpoint of the waged male proletariat and the development of commodity production, I examine it from the viewpoint of the changes it introduced in the social position of women and the production of labour power. (p.12)*

And I think in the context of the imperium‘s current onslaught on the planet and its mostly poor inhabitants it is entirely relevant to the present:

He [Marx] assumed that the violence that had presided over the earliest phases of capitalist expansion would recede with the maturing of capitalist relations …. In this, he was deeply mistaken. A return of the most violent aspects of primitive accumulation has accompanied every phase of capitalist globalisation, including the present one … war and plunder on a world scale, and the degradation of women are necessary conditions for the existence of capitalism at all times. (pps. 12-13)

Federici adds:

Marx could never have presumed that capitalism paves the way for human liberation had he looked at its history from the viewpoint of women. (p. 13)

First off, don’t be put off by the title, you know what academics are like, this is a highly readable and thought-provoking book that has had me pondering a lifetime of preconceptions ever since I started reading it. So much so that I’ve had to let it soak into my consciousness before attempting to put my thoughts before you.

There are three strands to Federici’s book. The first concerns the roles of men and women in the pre-capitalist world, or more precisely in the period between the end of feudalism and the triumph of capitalism; the second is the fundamental role the disempowering of women was to the rise of capitalism (hence the title) and the third is implicit insofar as it took two centuries to render asunder the relationship between men and women and replace it with what we have now (’women’s lib’ notwithstanding).

Central to Federici’s thesis is the notion that initially, without the unpaid labour– of both reproduction and the production of women– capitalism would have been incapable of developing. In order to accomplish this it was necessary not only to destroy pre-capitalist relations but to obliterate all traces of it, right down to our collective memories. This could only be done by the complete rewriting of gender definitions.

How the history of women intersects with that of capitalist development cannot be grasped, however, if we concern ourselves only with the classic terrain of class struggle – labor services, wage rates, rents and tithes – and ignore the new visions of social life and the transformations of gender relations which these conflicts produced. These were not negligible. It is in the course of the anti-feudal struggle that we find the first evidence in European history of a grassroots women’s movement opposed to the established order and contributing to the construction of alternative models of communal life. (p. 22)

Most importantly, Federici goes on:

Combined with the refusal of bonded labor and commercial relations, these conscious forms of social transgression constructed a powerful alternative not only to feudalism but to the capitalist order by which feudalism was replaced, demonstrating that another world was possible, and urging us to question why it was not realized.

It has to be remembered (or should it be re-remembered?) that even under feudalism most social and indeed economic relations were held in common between the sexes, hence the notion of the ‘commons’, of shared labour. This is more than theoretical in the age of ‘globalisation’ as those areas of the world where the commons still hold sway, the so-called developing world, are the last refuges of the world that have not yet been commodified.

In the chapter entitled The Great Caliban The Struggle Against the Rebel Body, Federici shows that the very concept of ‘self’ was a product of capitalism, that in order for capital to triumph it was necessary for the state and the church to:

Transform the individual’s powers into labour power … [that] in the 16th century … we see emerging in every field – the stage, the pulpit, the political and philosophical imagination – a new concept of the person. (p. 133)

Thenceforth the body was viewed as a “battlefield” and that the:

…battle is fought on many fronts because Reason must be vigilant against the attacks of the carnal self, and prevent “the wisdom of the flesh” (in Luther’s words) from corrupting the powers of the mind. (p. 134)

That a new concept of the body as a machine was necessary but in order to do this it was first and foremost necessary to appropriate the powers of the reproduction of the species and make it subservient to the state’s need for the reproduction of labour power. But in order to do this it was necessary to transform our view of women, for in the world of women resided power, not only the obvious one of reproduction but of solidarity and knowledge. Hence it was necessary for capital to pit men against women. Thus, starting in the 16th century the state, the church and ascending mercantile class waged a war against women that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of women across Europe in the Witchhunts.

The emergence of [the] alter ego, and the determination of a historic conflict between mind and body, represent the birth of the individual in capitalist society. It would become a typical characteristic of the individual molded by the capitalist work-discipline to confront one’s body as an alien reality to be assessed, developed and kept at bay, in order to obtain from it the desired results. (p.152)

Federici tells us that in the ‘Iron Century’ (the 17th) alternatively called the ‘Age of Reason’ it was necessary to:

Deepen…the divisions between women and men, teaching men to fear the power of women, and destroy…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. (p. 165)

It came as somewhat of a revelation for me to discover in the pages of Caliban and the Witch that in that period between the end of feudalism and the ‘transition’ to capitalism, that there was an entire world up for grabs, that things could have turned out very differently for all of us, for both men and women. That in order to prepare us for capitalism it was necessary to destroy the world of women, for the world of women was the last obstacle that prevented the triumph of capital.

As the struggle against feudalism intensified, new social and economic spaces opened up that offered an alternative vision of the future. These visions had to be crushed, obliterated at all costs if capital was to triumph. Central to this process was the Witchhunt which also went hand-in-hand with:

the colonisation and extermination of the populations of the New World, the English enclosures [of land], the beginning of the slave trade, the enactment of “bloody laws” against vagabonds and beggars, and it climaxed in that interregnum between the end of feudalism and the capitalist “take off” when the peasantry in Europe reached the peak of its power but, in time, also consummated its historic defeat. So far, however, this aspect of primitive accumulation has truly remained a secret. (pps. 164-165)

That the witch hunts and the ‘war on terror’ have much in common should not come as a surprise. Federici points out:

Before neighbor accused neighbor, or entire communities were seized by a “panic,” a steady indoctrination took place, with the authorities publicly expressing anxiety about the spreading of witches… (p. 166)

Federici contends that the witch hunt was an weapon used almost exclusively against women and for good reason as:

we must conclude that witch-hunting in Europe was an attack on women’s resistance to the spread of capitalist relations and the power that women had gained by virtue of their sexuality, their control over reproduction, and their ability to heal.

Witch hunting was also instrumental to the construction of a new patriarchal order where womens bodies, their labor, their sexual powers were placed under the control of the state and transformed into economic resources. (p. 170)

The rest, as they say, is history, except that this is a history that has been expunged completely which is why this book is so important for us to understand what is happening right now, that it’s not a new phenomenon, it’s been going on for five centuries and that the barbarism of the 16th and 17th centuries is being replayed before our very eyes, cloaked in new terminology but for the same reasons and with the same objectives.

I urge you to read this book, for not only does it contribute to our understanding of the present ‘war on terror’, it also shatters the illusion that the worlds of men and women are biologically determined and not the result of a conscious ideological movement that set men against women. It will at the very least get you to reconsider many of the assumptions about the nature of Western ‘civilisation’, much of which rests on the philosophical ideas concerning ‘reason’, ‘enlightenment’ and the mechanistic world that was constructed during the same period as that of the witch hunts through the works of philosophers such as Hobbes and Descartes.

Life is but a motion of limbs…. For what is the heart, but a spring; and the nerves, but so many strings; and the joints but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body. (Hobbes, Leviathan, 1650)

A mechanistic myth that has remained essentially unchanged since then, albeit masked in new terminology (eg one gene for religion, one for homosexuality etc, etc). For not only does the struggle involve defeating the imperium over the control and ownership of the resources that by rights, we own in common, it also concerns the struggle over our own minds and bodies that goes to the very heart of who are as human beings.

Caliban and the Witch – Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation by Silvia Federici. Autonomedia, New York, 2004. Buy it from or or from Housmans Radical Books.

* For those readers not familiar with turgid Marxist terminology, primitive accumulation is nothing more than the wresting — normally by force, lots of force — of sufficient wealth that in turn can be transformed into capital that can then be used to employ labour to steal yet more wealth from our labours. For the most witty, wonderful and readable explanation of this process I wholeheartedly recommend the 19th century classic The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Trestle.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.


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