Reclaiming the Body of the Witch in Gods & Radicals

A review of Beyond the Periphery of the Skin from Silvia Federici

By Rhyd Wildermuth
Gods & Radicals
June 2020

Wake to a digital alarm on a Wednesday morning after too little sleep. Roll over for a moment, look at your still-sleeping lover, then drag your aching, tired body out of bed. Stumble blurry-eyed to the bathroom, relieve yourself, wash your hands and try not to look too intently at the exhausted face staring back at you from the mirror.

Now to the kitchen where, with shaking hands, you make a cup of coffee, desperate for its gift of caffeine to give you the energy you need just to shower, get dressed, and make breakfast for yourself and maybe also your family. Scroll groggily through social media feeds, reading the news, your friend’s complaints about their own fatigue, perhaps a picture of a kitten or a riot.

Open the door of your home, walk to the car or the bus station; joining others just like you, clutching coffees, listening to music, staring dully into the distance for a few more moments of freedom before you arrive at work.

Sit for hours before a screen, or stand for hours at a counter, shuffling papers or files, chopping onions or pulling espresso, stocking shelves or answering calls. Ignore the low-grade pain in your lower back, the tension in your shoulders, the cramps in your legs, the tiredness of your feet. Distract yourself a little with other thoughts—something a friend said, something you’d rather be doing, a memory of great sex or a litany of worries to deal with later.

On break, chain smoke cigarettes, or down another coffee or an energy drink, try to stretch out your sore back and arms or scroll more through the Facebook or Twitter. Return to your position, your desk, your station, your mop bucket or counter. Do more, crave for lunch.

Eat what you were able to find: fast meals made by tired people paid even less than you, their bodies filled with adrenaline from the rush of lunch crowds. Or eat something you bought on the way, packaged sandwiches or salads with the imperceptible smell of plastic and factory still lingering on the food. Or eat what you brought from home, leftovers from the hurried meal you or your partner made. Then return, do it all again as the minutes drag like hours until you can finally be free for a little while.

Take the bus or a car back, stop for groceries or tonight’s dinner. Go to the gym to undo some of the pain in your body, or do yoga, or stretch, but more likely just return to a couch where you stare at more screens. Television, or video games, or more social media, then dinner, then more screens. Go finally to bed with the sense you’re exhausted but also haven’t finished. Think too much about the day, or the next day, or your bills, or more social media posts. Have sex with your lover if neither of you are too tired, or masturbate to images on a screen, or with a battery-powered device.

Then do it all again tomorrow.

For many, this is the basic experience of being a body in capitalism. Of course it varies: the darker the skin of that body, the more likely the work will be in a field, in a factory, in a kitchen, or in another person’s home, fatiguing muscles and pouring sweat for low wages. The lighter the skin of that body, the more likely that work will be in an office in front of a machine, using brain rather than bicep or hamstring for higher wages that buy you the domestic and health services (housekeeping, restaurant meals, therapy, gyms, massage, vacations) of others to get you through. For a woman body, the work is often doubled—children and a partner to care for in the mornings and evenings, a boss to obey and please during the day.

For certain bodies, however, the experience of capitalism is quite different. The bodies of the rich, the landlords, the owning-class are not so worn-down by the day, because other bodies—their employees, their renters—work for them, transferring the wealth created by all that fatigue and exhaustion into their bank accounts.

How it came to be this way seems too often a mystery. The media we feed our bodies does not give the answer, nor does the compulsory education the bodies called children endure shed any light on the question. It seems to us to have always been this way, to be a normal or naturalized thing that we should exhaust ourselves until the bodies we are become too old, too feeble, too tired, too broken to do more.

What has been needed for decades is a history of the body in capitalism, a focus not just on the exploitation of human labor and the inequalities and injustices suffered by some groups more than others, but rather how it came to be that humans-as-bodies accepted such arrangements, such suffering, and such alienation so much so that we barely notice it all.

Fortunately, there is Silvia Federici.

Beyond the Periphery of the Skin

In Caliban and The Witch, the autonomous Marxist feminist writer gave us a book which broke sharply with both traditional Marxist and white feminist theory to give us a history of the body’s oppression. For traditional Marxists, the body is merely the site and producer of labor, a subject divisible from the exploited worker. For the white feminist, the primary site of exploitation in capitalism was that of women-as-inferior-subjects, an inequality which, if finally righted, would solve the problems capitalism caused.

Federici, however, asked questions neither group dared asked. What was it particularly about the bodies called women that the capitalists needed to subjugate? And why did the torture, the oppression, the discipline, the medicalization, and the subjugation of the bodies called women during the witch hunts in Europe look a lot like the torture, the oppression, the discipline, the medicalization, and the subjugations of bodies called Black or indigenous during that same period.

Caliban and the Witch was her answer, a book which liberated both Marxists and feminists—as well as many, many others—to finally see the bodies that they are as the primary source of wealth for those who exploit us. By tracing and recounting the various wars against bodies called women during the period just before the birth of capitalism in Europe, Federici showed that it was those bodies themselves which stood in the way of industrialists and rulers who desired to reforge social relations so they could profit from labor. To create the proletariat, they first needed to create a new conception of the body, one where we are machines rather than organic life, where we are people with bodies rather than people who are bodies. And to do this, they needed first to undermine and destroy the power of the bodies that sustain, nourish, and especially give life to the bodies of others.

While Caliban and the Witch told us the story of how bodies were subjugated and how we became separated from our bodies, her latest book, Beyond the Periphery of the Skin—Rethinking, Remaking, and Reclaiming the Body in Contemporary Capitalism, addresses how our relations to the body play out now, especially in the digital age where the cyborg (half human, half machine) has replaced the earlier mechanistic model of the body-as-machine.

The book has already met controversy, a point I will address towards the end of this essay. However, for those who’ve previously read Caliban and the Witch and her other works, I’d like to say first that you’ll find in Beyond the Periphery of the Skin precisely the expansion of her work you wanted—and needed—to see.

Beyond the Periphery of the Skin is organized as a collection of essays around four themes. The first part of the book directly addresses several theoretical and practical problems in contemporary white feminism, particularly their over-reliance on constructivism (Butlerian “performance theory”) and an exclusive focus on the reproductive choice and wage-equality of middle class and affluent white women at the expense of addressing the actual material conditions of all women, especially Black and indigenous women. This part won’t sit well with white progressive feminists, those who saw in Elizabeth Warren, Hillary Clinton, or in the increase of women in CEO positions the ultimate path to women’s liberation.

The second part of the book is the strongest, the most powerful, and also the most controversial. Taking on the modernist fantasy endemic to both traditional Marxists and post-modern queer and transhumanist theorists that liberation can come about through a democratization of capitalist technology, the chapters in part two address the failures of the performance model of gender and post-modern feminist theory (especially those relying heavily on Foucault) to critique new wars on the body. From the commodification of surrogacy (a service largely purchased by affluent whites and provided by poor women of color) to the new imperatives to remake our body to conform to capitalist standards of beauty and worker efficiency, Federici criticizes the failures to address the new market imperatives being forced upon bodies.

The three essays in the third part directly continue the work Federici started in Caliban and the Witch, following the threads of the subjugation of bodies that began in the European witch hunts and the enslavement of African and indigenous bodies to its more recent continuations. The first chapter recounts the role psychology played in forming our modern conceptions of our selves and the body, disciplining us through the pathologization of fatigue, desire, fear, anxiety, depression, and sexuality (homosexuality was a disorder until 1987, for instance, while gender dysphoria was only de-listed as a mental disorder 3 years ago but remains a disorder in the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). The second chapter expands both on her work in Caliban and the Witch and in her manifesto “Wages Against Housework” to look at how sex work became folded into marriage as an obligation both to men and to the society (“marital duty”), and she critiques the role both Freud and the sexual liberation movement played in forcing women to be obliged not just to provide these services, but to force themselves to enjoy them. And the final chapter, written with George Caffentzis, playfully attacks the Left-futurist dreams of “Fully Automated Luxury Space Communism” by situating it back into its origins, the Capitalist and New Right fantasy of creating a perfect, ascetic, desire-less worker who can create profit for them even on other planets.

The fourth part, however, is my personal favorite, and not just because it is entirely comprised of an essay I had the honor to publish first. That essay, “In Praise of the Dancing Body,” had the same effect on me as Peter Grey’s essay, “Rewilding Witchcraft,” gifting me with the sense that a radical body politics could not only exist but also successfully combat our urban, modern alienation from bodies that are us and the bodies that are nature.

Beyond the Periphery of the Skin then ends with a beautiful afterword called “On Joyful Militancy,” a call to re-situate our resistance back in the pleasures, the joys, and the desires of the body. Friendships, dinners, celebrations, dances, and all the human body rituals that form the core of community and resistance in indigenous communities have fallen away in many Western leftist movements, replaced instead with the austere and dry politics of self-sacrifice for a “greater good” we will be too bitter to experience if it ever comes. She does not mean we should be happy, but rather joyful:

I prefer to speak of joy rather than happiness. I prefer joy because it is an active passion. It is not a stagnant state of being. It is not satisfaction with things as they are. It is feeling our powers, seeing our capacities growing in ourselves and in the people around us. This is a feeling that comes from a process of transformation. It means, using Spinoza’s language, that we understand the situation we are in and are moving along in accordance to what is required of us in that moment. So we feel that we have the power to change and that we are changing, together with other people. It’s not acquiescence to what exists. (127)

Together, the work in Beyond The Periphery of the Skin provides the history and the politics of humans-as-bodies deeply absent from other forms of leftist discourse. But it is not a coddling book: people certain they have a full understanding of the capitalist project to exploit us will find themselves constantly shocked at how much deeper the tyranny really goes. Not despite, but rather because of this, Silvia Federici’s latest work is desperately needed and transformative.

PART TWO: The Cyborg and the Witch

As I have mentioned, the reception of Beyond the Periphery of the Skin has not been altogether positive. Scanning social media distractedly, I came across several people sharing a review of the book by Cory Austin Knudson and declaring in comments that Silvia Federici has now “outed herself” as a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF).

I had other things to do this week, including finishing the final chapters of a novel manuscript and completing final edits of the fifth issue of the Gods&Radicals journal, A Beautiful Resistance. Beyond the Periphery of the Skin was on my reading list, and I had intended to request a review copy from PM Press next week, but seeing these accusations (from people who hadn’t read the book and were only responding to the review), I immediately purchased a digital copy and began reading.

The review they read isn’t very good as far as reviews go, but is excellent as far as outrage propaganda is concerned. While the reviewer never once states that Silvia Federici is a TERF (the twitter outrage machine was happy to supply this term instead), the review contains some rather peculiar assertions that betray the likelihood the reviewer read the book only as deeply as graduate students read their assigned texts—scanning for choice quotes to defend a pre-determined analysis. Worse, there are some parts of the review which betray more than lazy reading but direct bad faith.

Knudson’s review addresses only the second part ( only 26 pages of the text), where Federici critiques the failures of Butlerian performance theory to address the material conditions of bodies in capitalism, as well as post-modern feminism’s uncritical acceptance both of body-modification as a required path to liberation and the commodification of the practice of surrogacy to produce children for affluent whites in the West.

All three chapters present vital and rarely-spoken critiques of the Left’s embrace of capitalism’s further control over our bodies, though Federici is hardly the first to criticize these. For instance, trans activists in Europe have fought fiercely to end the legal restrictions in many countries that make surgical procedures a legal requirement for identification as a different gender, the body-positivity movement has fought for decades to push back against the capitalist imperative to “better” the body through gastric bypasses, diets, supplements, and cosmetic surgeries, and Black women writers (including Angela Davis) have written against the continuation of mothers being mere producers of children-as-property as occurred through slavery.

But while Federici’s arguments are not unique, they come at a time when new calls to embrace the gifts capitalism has offered us have risen up among certain white urban leftists. This is not a new tension, however; it is rift as old as Leftism itself. On one side there have been the Utopian Socialists, the Leninists, the Bookchinites and the techno-futurists who gaze upon the changes to human society that capitalists have wrought with envy and lust.

Lenin did not seek an end to industrialization or the commodification of bodies as workers, but rather sought to harness those productive forces into a utopian worker-state. Bookchin’s environmentalism never called for a critique of technological subjugation of the earth and the bodies which comprise it, but rather a more democratic control over that subjugation through municipal communes. In our current time, leftist writers such as Leigh Phillips call for an increase in nuclear technology to provide air conditioning for everyone to help deal with global warming and a socialist adoption of the Walmart and Amazon corporate models to bring equality to the world.

That is one Leftism, but there has always been another, one more organic and therefore more suspicious of the grand projects of both the capitalists and the “scientific socialists” who hope to emulate them. Early resistance to capitalism in Europe manifested not as calls to make the factories more equitable and enclosed land more equally distributed, but rather the abolition of the factories and the re-instatement of the Commons. Resistance to slavery in Africa and the Americas was not aimed at securing the right for everyone to own their own slave, but rather for the end of slavery altogether. Indigenous resistance to colonization did not take the form of tribal leaders making their own smallpox blankets or stealing settler children out of homes to be re-educated in missionary schools, but rather the expulsion of the settlers from the land.

This other sort of Leftism, which pre-exists what we know as Leftism, follows more closely to Audre Lorde’s formulation that the master tools cannot dismantle the master’s house. Rather than attempting to re-tool an oppressive civilizational order’s forms and technologies to make them more equitable, it rejects the premises upon which that order was founded altogether. It has taken hundreds of years for capitalism to separate us from the bodies that we are, to alienate us from the land around us, from each other, and our own capacities: this other Leftism not only refuses to accept this state of affairs, but also rejects the idea that the body and nature are things we must or ever should want to be liberated from.

Silvia Federici is this second sort of leftist, and thus it is not surprising that those more envious of the capitalists ability to remake the world, to alter and destroy our social relations, and to “better” human (and non-human) bodies would take offense at the power and influence of her writing. One such person, Sophie Lewis, who has bemoaned Silvia Federici’s influence on social media as well as on a recent podcast with Conner Habib, shows up in a peculiar way in Cory Austin Knudson’s bad faith review of Beyond The Periphery of the Skin. Knudson exhorts readers of his review to read Lewis instead, particularly her techno-futurist call for the abolition of family relations to be replaced by forced-communal parenting (Lenin would certainly be pleased), Full Surrogacy Now!

Lewis certainly has reason to be inimical to Federici, as do her faithful acolytes such as Knudson. Her mentor was Donna Haraway, the author of The Cyborg Manifesto which agues that woman should abandon nature-based conceptions of themselves and each other and rather embrace the figure of the Cyborg, part-human, part-machine. While written years before smartphones, Haraway’s vision has certainly come to pass, with people of all genders now so totally reliant on the machines which regulate our lives that we barely remember we are also bodies that need sleep, food, physical affection, and most of all moments when we are not constantly working.

Against the figure of the Cyborg, Federici proposes the Witch. Rather than a body constantly modified and disciplined by machines and machine-logic, it is still possible to be a body in conversation with nature, with the stars, the land around us, the bodies of ancestors and ocean, and most of all the bodies that we are. The model of the Cyborg, which is the dream of the techno-futurist and also the post-modern, is a self ultimately separated from the limits of being also a body. Extended life, genetic therapy, chemical enhancements, and other capitalist dreams to increase the efficiency of labor become for them the terrain of human liberation from labor, escape into the virtual, the cybernetic, the hyper-real to avoid the crisis of climate change and the death that comes for every one.

It’s hardly surprising that an acolyte of Lewis, then, resorted to bad faith in his review of Federici’s work. While at no point in his review does he label her anti-trans or a TERF, he accuses her of having wanted to attack trans people but being prevented from writing her intended words by an editor. While in some techno-futurist fantasy novel a reviewer might have such powers of clairvoyance, no such ability actually exists; this is a mere smear.

Worse in his review are the quotes he threads together to build a narrative that Federici secretly hates trans people, while ignoring the many times in the book that Federici affirms the struggle and victories of trans people, including encouraging trans and intersex activists to avoid the mistake white feminists made when they abandoned Black and indigenous women in favor of affluent white women:

Thus, the struggle to destabilize our assigned identities cannot be separated from the struggle to change the social/ historical conditions of our lives and above all undermine social hierarchies and inequalities. I hope the trans and inter- sex movements learn from the lessons and the mistakes of the past—to grasp that we cannot fight for self-determination without changing how we work, how the wealth that we produce is used, and what access we have to it. These objectives cannot be achieved only by changing our names or bodily appearance. They require that we unite with other people to reclaim our collective power, to decide how we want to live, what kind of health and education we need to have, what kind of society we want to create. (31)

There are many other places in the book where Silvia Federici reiterates her commitment and support of trans struggle (curiously, none of these made it into Knudson’s review). Especially of interest is her call in one of the very same chapters that Knudson attacks for a populist, community control of medical knowledge rather than leaving it in the hands of state-sanctioned doctors:

We must, then, avoid making the medical profession the godlike creators of our bodies and instead direct our activism to devising ways in which we can exercise some control over our encounters with it. There are many examples of this. In the middle of the nineteenth century a Popular Health Movement developed in the US that encouraged people to develop their own medical knowledge, as it looked at official medicine with suspicion as an elite, undemocratic operation. (59)

As many of my trans friends happen to be working on just that, using herbs, traditional medicine, and alternative therapies to help not just themselves and other trans people but to become healers to their communities outside the medical establishment, I suspect they’ll see in Federici’s words affirmation of their personal work and a powerful framework to expand such communities of healers. They are literally embodying the figure of the witch that capitalism has tried so hard to destroy.

Knudson attempts to elicit great outrage with the following quote from Federici, where she touches on an internal division within trans politics:

Paradoxically, a testimony to the relevance of difference in our experience of our physical makeup comes from a large section of the trans movement that is strongly committed to a constructivist view of gender identities, as many undergo costly and dangerous surgeries and medical treatments in order to transition to a different gender. (50)

Besides being self-evident (if there were no such thing as women, then a person assigned male at birth would have nothing to transition to), Knudson is apparently either ignorant of or hostile to the fact that for some trans people, surgery and hormone therapy is not felt to be a requirement to identify as trans. Many trans people cannot afford or do not opt for surgical procedures, some even do not use or choose to stop taking hormones. Yet we should assert they have as much right to identify as trans as those who can afford such things. Also, as mentioned earlier, there is the legal struggle fought by trans and intersex activists in Europe where, in many countries, the only way to gain recognition as a gender other than what was assigned to you was to undergo surgery. That is, unlike the situation in the United States where access to treatment is not available to all trans people who desire it, the situation in many other countries has been a legal compulsion to submit to gender reassignment surgery if you desire legal recognition as a different gender.

Knudson saves his most vociferous attacks for Federici’s position on surrogacy, so much so that it begins to feel that he is attempting instead to defend Sophie Lewis’s failure to wrestle with the racist roots of commercial surrogacy. Quickly dismissing the quotes and references Federici proffers to explain how the commodification of child-bearing is rooted in the practice of slavery (the children of slave women were literally the property of their owners; mothers had no claim or power over their child’s well-being, just as in present-day commercial surrogacy) and the deep exploitation suffered by commercial surrogates now, he then just quotes Lewis’s own dismissal of these concerns to justify his own.

In her review of the white techno-futurist book Knudson repeatedly urges us to read instead, Full Surrogacy Now, Nivedita Majumdar provides a key not just to the problem with Lewis’s perspective but also that of the entire techno-futurist left:

It is commendable that Lewis strives to develop a perspective that respects the labor of surrogates. But the dogmatic hostility to the parent-child relation not only makes it hard for her to connect with the emotional violence suffered by surrogates, it also leads her to the quite astonishing conclusion that the road to liberation leads through a further commodification of social life. For Lewis, if patriarchy weaponizes women’s reproductive and caring work in the form of “feminine mystique,” then there is a need to demystify such labor by commercializing it. But this is very odd reasoning, especially for a progressive. Since when is the commodification of labor, or forms of social integration, the necessary precondition to humanizing it? For any Left project, this has to be anathema.

That is, contrary to the more organic and animist understanding of resistance and the body evinced by Silvia Federici’s autonomous Marxist feminism, the tendency of which Sophie Lewis and many others are a part argues that the answer to capitalist commodification of nature, of animals, of art, of thought, of labor, and especially of bodies is more commodification. For them, every part of us and the world of which we are part must be for sale before we can be fully free, and every new capitalist innovation must be expanded to all the world, even if some darker skinned bodies in the Global South object.

That is one model of liberation, but the more I encounter it the less it seems like liberation at all and just more exploitation. This is especially relevant in questions of climate justice, where white techno-futurist dreams of democratizing an American or British lifestyle to the rest of the world will mean death to more species, more displacements of indigenous peoples, and more catastrophic climate change.

On the other hand is the vision that Federici presents, the reclaimed body (and that includes nature, since, as Federici likes to remind her readers, even Marx noted that nature is also part of our body). That is, instead of the Cyborg there is the Witch, the body connected to the world around it, in constant exchange and interdependence, not fleeing from or shunning the material existence but rather embracing and even dancing in it.

Beyond The Periphery of the Skin can be ordered directly from PM Press.

Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd Wildermuth

Rhyd is a theorist, a druid, and an autonomous Marxist. He is the author ofAll That Is Sacred Is Profaned: A Pagan Guide to Marxism and Witches In A Crumbling Empire. He is also a co-founder of Gods & Radicals Press and its publishing director, and co-hosts the Empires Crumble podcast with Alley Valkyrie. He currently lives in Luxembourg.

Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons

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.

Back to Silvia Federici’s Author Page