Undoing Patriarchy— Witches, Witch-hunting, and Women in The Progressive Populist

Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women

By Seth Sandronsky
The Progressive Populist
November 2018

Patriarchy is male supremacy over women. The Me Too movement fighting sexual assault and harassment is a modern battle against this centuries-long phenomenon. In Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women (PM Press 2018), Silvia Federici connects patriarchy to the rise of a cash society, or capitalism, in western Europe between the 15th and 18th centuries, a process proceeding in the so-called developing world of the Global South now.

Why speak of witch-hunts in 2018? Federici’s themes are straightforward in her two-part book of essays. One theme is the process of peasant removal, or enclosing of the common lands in Europe, that disrupts the social status of men and women. What Europeans did to Africans and indigenous Americans in the so-called “new world” undergirded that old country pattern of conquest and theft that created poverty, immiserating women. Then the patriarchal state criminalized them. It was and is a one-two punch.

Federici continues. In Africa and India now, for instance, such land dispossession is underway to benefit transnational corporations. Communal property relations end violently. With-hunts and homicides are symptoms of this dislocation. Whether it is by the bullet or fire, dehumanizing women as witches is a violent process. Federici shows how the language, replete with the patriarchal-structures of male-centered religious demonology, facilitates the maiming and murdering of independent females.

Federici unpacks male demonizing of women as witches those who resist the rise of a money economy whereby people’s labor becomes a commodity to buy and sell in the marketplace, to produce commodities with prices. These communal societies were and are women-centered in part because they are the gender nurturing and reproducing the future generation.

Theme two is the increasing power of males over the bodies of women. This relationship encompasses women’s sexuality and birth capacity. The witch-hunts, seen in legal codes of European nations 500 years ago, targeted in part women who struggled to maintain ties to food, land and work that capitalist social relations broke. Historian Peter Linebaugh has written extensively on that period in Europe that Federici cites.

She also sheds useful light on women’s status in the face of a rising tide of capitalist social relations in the book’s seventh and longest essay, tying processes in some African nations under World Bank structural adjustment policies that upend communalism. That violent change produces alienated and frightened males. They are ripe for scapegoating women who labor to maintain their former social status, e.g., folk healers and midwives. Observantly, Federici compares their discrediting as witches to the red-baiting of the Cold War era in which communists were the alleged enemies of the common good for whom no punishment was too severe.

Federici connects past witch-hunting to feminicide. A case in point is the unsolved murders of northern Mexican girls and women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, across the river from El Paso, Texas, over the past 26 years. She contextualizes this homicidal trend to whites lynching blacks in front of approving Caucasian crowds stateside. In this case, the more public and brutal the killings, the more such male violence against so-called witches “is taking forms once seen only in times of war,” she writes in a penultimate essay examining global and historical views of women and capitalist globalization. The killings of women called witches in Africa and India, and female resistance to that mayhem, take up the last part of the book.

The final essay clarifies the whys and wherefores of economic globalization and male attacks on women. They pay for trying to hold on to old ways of living and working as capitalist institutions like the World Bank (behind the scenes to local people) push policies of land robbery. Think the mining of coltan (vital to digital devices) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the mass murders of its women. Especially in harm’s way, in Africa now and Europe of the past, are older women past child-bearing age. They are keepers of folk wisdom, for example, demonized as witches with no right to live under the rules of an economy based on people creating profits for capital.

Undoing patriarchy is a gargantuan process. Honesty about gender relations in the context of global capitalism is key, Federici argues, to creating the new world of equity and sustainability between and among people of all genders. Her new book is a necessary resource for that social change.

Back to Silvia Federici’s Author Page