By Alva Gotby
March 23rd, 2020
For those who are interested in the link between capitalism and gender, it is hard to miss Silvia Federici’s contribution. For decades, she has been a leading figure in feminist activism and theory—as a founding member of the Wages for Housework campaign, as an organiser for academic freedom and as one of the most important Marxist feminist theorists of social reproduction. Reproductive labour, the work people do to maintain the life and well-being of themselves and others, is the central topic of her writings. Her two new books form a continuation of the concerns that have animated her trajectory as an activist and scholar. Despite the fact that her best-known work, Caliban and the Witch (Federici, 2004 ), is a longer historical book, Federici is fundamentally an essayist. Her shorter writings have always been informed by specific political conjunctures and struggles, and have intervened in many central debates in Marxist and socialist feminism. Over the past few years, she has begun the work of collecting these essays in books, from Revolution at Point Zero (Federici, 2012) to Wages for Housework: The New York Committee 1972–1977 (Federici and Austin, 2017). Her new books are collections of essays on two topics that have been central to her over the past decades, namely the witch-hunts and the commons.
In Witches, Witch-hunting and Women, Federici returns to the themes of Caliban and the Witch, in particular the relation between the transition to capitalism and the increase in misogynist violence and the demonisation of women. So-called primitive accumulation, Federici asserts, did not only entail the general dispossession of the peasantry but also had to destroy relations of solidarity and power within the emergent proletariat. This involved an accumulation of differences within this class, including the deepening divisions between men and women. The transition to a capitalist society, moreover, involved a separation of the spheres of production and reproduction, and the attendant devaluation of reproductive work. In this process, women’s knowledge and power came to be regarded as suspect, to the point where they were seen as so monstrous that they had to be tortured and killed in order to support the emerging social order.
On these points, Witches, Witch-hunting and Women functions more as an accessible introduction to the themes already covered in Caliban and the Witch than an addition of new scholarship. However, the book also collects Federici’s writings on the contemporary re-emergence of witch-hunts and, more broadly, what she reads as a global increase in violence towards women. Rather than constructing this as dehistoricised sadism on the part of men, Federici explores these developments through the lens of a neo-liberal project of dispossession, where capital’s advances operate in conjunction with the strengthening of male power and violence. As women have been responsible for the collective reproduction of communities, capital instrumentalises gendered power in order to break those communities and pave the way for individualised modes of reproduction. In this way, Federici ties together violence against women with ongoing primitive accumulation, and shows how these logics operate on the global scale of today’s capitalist accumulation.
Writing across two historical eras, those of capitalist transition in Europe in the early modern period and the contemporary moment of neo-liberal restructuring of the global economy, Federici broaches questions of memory and continuity. She wishes to honour the memory of the witches, the persecuted women of the transition to capitalism, and recover their history as a source of feminist power and knowledge. In arguing that this wave of misogynist violence was an attempt to break women’s solidarity and strength, she opens up the possibility of reclaiming such solidarity for a feminist movement today. Tying together seemingly disparate historical moments of the witch-hunts, colonisation and contemporary forms of accumulation by dispossession, she stresses the necessity of a global feminist movement aiming to undo not only domestic and sexual violence against women but also the economic and structural forms of violence from which women often suffer disproportionally.
This theme re-emerges in Re-enchanting the World, Federici’s contribution to contemporary discussions around the notion of the commons. Commons are a form of self-governance, resources held by a community, managed by the people who use them. This framework has held a considerable attraction for a generation of anti-capitalist theorists and activists wishing to move away from visions of socialism that are oriented towards winning state power. Federici stresses that the commons are not only a set of resources but more importantly a set of social relations. The central claim in Federici’s argument is that capitalism relies on enclosures, that is, privatising resources and using violence to destroy the communities that had previously used them. We can thus see a link between her interest in commons and her interest in witches—the commons are a political project to reclaim what was lost in the violent forms of dispossession, including witch-hunts, that are central to capitalist control and accumulation. Federici repeatedly emphasises that the enclosures meant not only the loss of land rights but also pre-capitalist forms of sociality and knowledge that need to be recovered.
Here, Federici uses a Marxist method but is a harsh critic of much of Marx’s argument. In particular, she argues against his idea that capitalism is a necessary stage to reach communism and that capitalism thus is a carrier of social progress. She is especially critical of Marxist theories that rely on technological development. Such positions, Federici suggests, are based on the devaluation of the types of work, most notably care work, that are more difficult to mechanise. Instead, Federici wants to use the concept of the commons to defend remainders of pre-capitalist forms of ownership and sociality, and use these as an inspiration for how to create a post-capitalist society.
This theoretical argument shifts the geographical focus of anti-capitalist politics, from the core capitalist countries to struggles over capitalist expansion in the Global South. Federici is particularly interested in women’s organising around collectively held land in Africa and Latin America, as well as Indigenous struggles in the United States. While the global scope of Federici’s argument is impressive and productive, the risk with this argument is twofold. Firstly, it sometimes seems to essentialise the connection between women and reproduction, as if women have a natural connection to the land and its resources. Secondly, Federici’s essays in Re-enchanting the World are mostly focused on struggles over commonly held land, thus often neglecting the fact that commons are built not only on material resources but also on relations of labour and forms of sociality.
This is surprising, given how much of Federici’s work has been dedicated to highlighting and criticising precisely the labour of reproducing people. That emphasis is still there to some extent, but Federici does not elaborate on how access to land can lead to new and more just forms of reproductive labour. Instead, she sometimes assumes a relation between the common and the community, as if a fair distribution of reproductive labour would be an automatic result of access to reproductive resources. Rather than developing new visions of what the post-capitalist, post-family commons of care could be, Federici spends most of the book defending a return to subsistence farming, captured in the recurring image of cattle grazing on a university campus.
These books raise questions of what it would mean to reclaim a radical, pre-capitalist history without romanticising it. In my view, such history is important in denaturalising capitalism and its attendant relations of gender and family. However, a non-romanticised vision of the past must emphasise the struggle and conflict in these histories, rather than assuming that pre-capitalist communities lived in harmony. Despite good intentions, in these works Federici sometimes falls short of this. Community is often opposed to capitalism, so that a pre-capitalist form of community is presented as the common good that needs to be protected against the logic of capital. This is tied to a problematic that runs through Federici’s work, namely the question of whether reproductive labour should be refused or valorised. In Re-enchanting the World and Witches, Witch-hunting and Women, Federici is on the side of valorisation. This sometimes leaves her without the tools for criticising the gendered division of labour that exists within both the capitalist family and the pre-capitalist community, begging the question of how we get to the post-capitalist commons without bringing this dynamic with us.
At its best, Federici’s work is impressive in its scope and its ability to tie together disparate political phenomena. Particularly in recent years, her focus has been not only feminist and anti-capitalist but also decolonial, adopting a truly global method for understanding gender relations, environmental disasters and capitalist accumulation. Her work deftly links the violences of the witch-hunts, enslavement, colonialism and contemporary forms of war and ecological destruction. These books will therefore be of interest to people involved in a variety of radical movements, as they illustrate how our struggles are interlinked. For a detailed account of the witch-hunts or a stringent critique of the exploitation of reproductive labour, however, readers would do well to revisit Federici’s earlier work.
Silvia Federici is a feminist writer, teacher, and militant. In 1972 she was cofounder of the International Feminist Collective that launched the Wages for Housework campaign. Her previous books include Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation and Revolution at Point Zero. She is a professor emerita at Hofstra University, where she taught in the social sciences. She worked as a teacher in Nigeria for many years and was also the cofounder of the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa.