Witches, Witch-hunting, and Women in Race & Class Journal

Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women

By Sophia Siddiqui
Race & Class Journal
April 2nd, 2020

Feminism for the 99%: a manifesto By CINZIA ARRUZZA, TITHI BHATTACHARYA and NANCY FRASER (London and New York: Verso, 2019), 85 pp., £7.99.

Witches, Witch-hunting and Women
By Silvia Federici (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2018), 97 pp., £12.99.

I understand my mother’s reluctance to identify with the term feminism. I can

imagine my grandmother’s disdain for the word, despite being a relentless advocate for women’s education in Pakistan all her life. Feminism’s historical entanglement with racism is part of its DNA. Whether it’s the racism of women within the pro-choice movement who pursued eugenicist aims; the justification of anti-Muslim racism in Europe in the name of women’s rights; the framing of post-9/11 wars in the Middle East as missions to liberate Muslim women from Muslim men,1 or the CEO women hailed as champions for ‘breaking the glass ceiling while leaving the vast majority to clean up the shards’ – feminism today, viewed from one direction, is a feminism for the 1 per cent.

Feminism for the 99%, an 85-page manifesto, has no interest in breaking glass ceilings: ‘far from celebrating women CEOs who occupy corner offices, we want to get rid of CEOs and corner offices’. In a searing anti-capitalist manifesto written by three scholar-activists based in the US, Feminism for the 99% stands for all who are exploited, dominated and oppressed. It rejects liberal feminism, which ‘supplies the perfect alibi for neoliberalism, cloaking regressive policies in an aura of emancipation’ and posits capitalism as the source of the current crisis we face. In its attempts to ‘reorientate feminist struggles in a time of political confusion’ (p. 63), the manifesto acts as an important anchor. Combining theory, rhetoric and principle, it reads as a call to arms.

The manifesto is born out of the reanimation of the feminist strike movement, which Arruzza, Bhattacharya and Fraser, as organisers of the International Women’s Strike in the US, have been part of. The opening chapter documents how feminism is being reimagined by a new surge of militant feminist activism– beginning in Poland in 2016, when more than 100,000 women staged demonstrations to oppose the country’s ban on abortion, and spreading to Argentina, Italy, Spain, Brazil, Turkey, Peru, the US, Mexico and several more countries. ‘For the last two years, its slogans have resonated powerfully across the globe:

These movements are more than just a hashtag. The authors argue that a new feminist global movement is emerging, reviving the historical roots of socialist feminism, with the capacity to disrupt patriarchy and capitalism at the source. The strikes have broadened what constitutes a feminist issue, with links being made between gendered violence, immigration, the policing of racialised communities and austerity, leading to the possibility of ‘a new, unprecedented phase of class struggle’ (p. 9). What follows from the opening chapter is a series of eleven theses that articulate the principles of what an anti-capitalist feminism looks like and how it can unite with other movements to provide emancipation for all.

Building on socialist feminism of the 1960s–1970s, Feminism for the 99% articulates how gender oppression and sexism are hardwired into the structures of capitalism. Whether it is interpersonal violence within the confines of the nuclear family, gendered violence as an instrument of warfare or sexual harassment in the workplace, ‘what enables this violence is a system of hierarchical power that fuses gender, race, and class’ (p. 28). Interpersonal violence and state violence intersect and reinforce each other. The violence of the market, through unemployment, austerity and cuts to refuges and health care, ultimately exacerbates domestic violence and makes it harder for women to leave the home and seek support.

But then, as Italian Marxist feminist Silvia Federici writes, ‘capitalist development began with a war on women’ (p. 47). In her seminal 2004 text Caliban and the Witch, Federici wrote on how at the advent of capitalism, a ‘regime of terror’ was inflicted on women – hundreds of thousands of women were burned, hanged and tortured during witch-hunts in the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries. In a new ninety-seven-page booklet, Federici revisits this theme, making it accessible to a wider audience. Split into two, the first part, ‘Revisiting capital accumulation and the European witch hunts’ explores the relationship between witch-hunting and the contemporary processes of land enclosure and privatisation, as well as the enclosure of the female body through the state’s control over women’s reproductive capacity. The second looks at connections between the surge of violence against women in the present day and new forms of capitalist accumulation. In a far-reaching chapter on ‘Globalisation, capital accumulation and violence against women’, Federici succinctly charts the interplay between the patriarchal family, the state and capitalism: ‘individual micropolitics mimic and merge with institutional macropolitics’ which all create a ‘culture of impunity that contributes to normalizing the public violence inflicted on women’ (p. 53).

Federici demonstrates how the state has always relied on the construction of enemy figures: ‘the witch was the communist and terrorist of her times, which required a “civilising” drive to produce the new “subjectivity” and sexual division of labor on which the capitalist work discipline would rely’ (p. 33). This is particularly interesting in today’s context, when increasingly it is racialised masculinities that are demonised and criminalised – whether it is the threat of ‘menacing migrant masculinities’ in a European context or the ‘Asian grooming gang’ narrative in the UK. However, whilst the regime of terror against witches aimed to domesticate women and enshrine their subordination within the patriarchal nuclear family, the demonisation of masculine minorities today provides a scapegoat for capital’s engendering of violence, displacing the contradictions of global capitalism, which has violence against women at its core, onto a surplus population that is blamed for its failures – ironically in the name of protecting women.

But whilst violence against women continues to escalate in every region in the world, the prevalent ‘market-based solutions’ often proffered by ‘progressive neoliberals in skirts’ can uphold the very systems that exacerbate, and even profit off, violence. Often rooted in carceral ‘solutions’ such as criminalisation and increased policing, prosecution and imprisonment, Feminism for the 99% argues that the mainstream response to gendered violence ultimately targets poor and working-class men of colour the hardest, leaving women to pick up the pieces at home. Yet Federici points to transformative responses to violence that are emerg-
ing, such as the opening of shelters controlled by the women who use them, the organisation of community self-defence classes, and marches led by women in India against rape and dowry murders, which are ‘increasingly shunning dead-end solutions’ which, she says, ‘only serves to give more power to the very authorities that are directly or indirectly responsible for the problem’ (p. 57).

Arruzza, Bhattacharya and Fraser admit that their manifesto ‘does not pre-
scribe the precise contours of an alternative, as the latter must emerge in the course of the struggle to create it’ (p. 80). Instead, they provide an analytical, critical lens through which to understand the contradictions of global capitalism – the root cause, the authors argue, of the current moment of crisis. The eighth thesis depicts how racism, capitalism and imperialism intertwine resulting in the dispossession of racialised people, and thesis nine shows how this is connected to the current ecological crisis. This analysis helps make sense of events that appear so senseless. For example, in October 2019, thirty-nine people, mainly from Nghệ.

An and Hà Tĩnh in Vietnam, were found dead in the back of a lorry in Essex, UK. The deaths of these thirty-nine people who died in a desperate attempt to reach the UK are not simply a tragedy, but, as activist Kay Stephens writes, ‘a direct result of global structures of capitalism and imperialism that marginalise, if not violently exclude, working-class undocumented migrants and people of colour’.2

Federici, too, places globalisation, ‘a process of political recolonization intended to give capital uncontested control over the world’s natural wealth and human labour’, at the centre of her analysis of new forms of enclosures, including ‘extractavism’ in regions rich in natural resources, where communal land is expropriated and mined for commercial profit, thereby displacing indigenous communities.

As revealed throughout both books, micropolitics merge with macropolitics– gendered violence is more intense in regions abundant in natural resources that are marked up for corporate ventures; ‘brutalising women is functional to the “new enclosures”’ (p. 50).

At a time when the crisis of politics feels so acute, with fascism hammering on our doors and an unbridled capitalism reigning free across the world, these two short publications provide clear, urgent analyses that chart new paths for feminism today. As Sister Nice, a 27-year-old fast-food worker and feminist activist in the Philippines insists, ‘you can’t dismantle capitalism without dismantling patriarchy . . . we have a lot of work to do’.3


1 See Angela Davis, ‘Racism, birth control and reproductive rights’, in Women, Race and Class (New York: Vintage, 1981); Sara R. Farris, In the Name of Women’s Rights: the rise of femonational-
ism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).

2 Kay Stephens, ‘The Essex 39: the root causes’, Race & Class 61, no. 3 (2020). See also Jun Pang, ‘Don’t call the Essex 39 a tragedy’, New Internationalist, 25 October 2019, features/2019/10/25/dont-call-essex-39-tragedy.

3 Quoted in Annelise Orleck, ‘We are all fast-food workers now’: the global uprising against poverty wages (Boston, MA: Beacon Press books, 2018), p. 48.

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