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Witch-Hunts and the Birth of Capitalism: Reflections on Caliban and the Witch

by Andreas Bieler on March 7, 2019
Marxism Reading Group

In her powerful book Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici makes the important claim that the medieval witch-hunt across Europe constituted part of the processes of primitive accumulation, preparing the ground for the emergence of capitalism. While the enclosures put an end to people’s access to the commons, the witch-hunt resulted in the loss of women’s control over their bodies. In this blog post, I will reflect critically on Federici’s assessment of the role of the witch-hunt in the emergence of capitalism.

The Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century had decimated population levels across Europe. As a result of the subsequent shortages of people, peasants became empowered. ‘For a broad section of the western European peasantry, and for urban workers, the fifteenth-century was a period of unprecedented power’, writes Federici. ‘Not only did the scarcity of labour give them the upper hand, but the spectacle of employers competing for their services strengthened their sense of self-value, and erased centuries of degradation and subservience’.

Emboldened by their new-found strength, the common people started to challenge the nobility’s power. Heretic movements sprang up, indicating paths of development beyond feudalism. ‘Throughout Europe, vast communalistic social movements and rebellions against feudalism had offered the promise of a new egalitarian society built on social equality and cooperation’. The foundations of feudalist social relations of production were shaken to the core. ‘The heretics’ challenge was primarily a political one, since to challenge the Church was to confront at once the ideological pillar of feudal power, the biggest landowner in Europe, and one of the institutions most responsible for the daily exploitation of the peasantry’.

Capitalism is regarded by Federici as both ending the potential alternatives emanating from the heretical movements as well as putting a stop to the more independent life and opportunities of women, afforded to them in feudalism. ‘Capitalism was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle – possibilities which, if realised, might have spared us the immense destruction of lives and the natural environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide’.

The witch-hunt is for Federici a part of the process of primitive accumulation. While people were driven off the land and lost their access to the commons, men gained control over women and their bodies. ‘The witch-hunt deepened the divisions between women and men, teaching men to fear the power of women, and destroyed 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’. In other words, the witch-hunt was an essential aspect of the establishment of capitalist social relations of production. ‘There is no doubt that in the “transition from feudalism to capitalism” women suffered a unique process of social degradation that was fundamental to the accumulation of capital and has remained so ever since’. The control of women and their bodies became a direct part of capitalist accumulation. ‘The female body, the uterus, [was placed] at the service of population increase and the production and accumulation of labor-power’. 

The new patriarchal order emerging from the witch-hunt became tightly linked to the establishment of capitalism itself. This does not imply that women’s position in society had been one of equality in feudalism. Nevertheless, ‘in pre-capitalist Europe women’s subordination to men had been tempered by the fact that they had access to the commons and other communal assets, while in the new capitalist regime women themselves became the commons, as their work was defined as a natural resource, laying outside the sphere of market relations’.

This is a powerful interpretation of the role of the witch-hunt in medieval Europe. Federici’s analysis, however, does not take any notice of particular local or national specificities. Equally problematic, primitive accumulation in the form of the enclosures of the countryside and the commons is regarded as a uniform process throughout Europe. And yet, while scholars such as Robert Brenner assert the importance of the emergence of agricultural capitalism in Britain in the sixteenth-century as a result of the enclosures, he also illustrates how this was a rather specific development, very different from agricultural development in France or Eastern Europe.

There is no doubt that the witch-hunt had been devastating for women across Europe. Nonetheless, rather than being part of the emergence of capitalism and some kind of form of primitive accumulation, could we not argue that it was a response to the crisis of feudalism from within feudalism, similar perhaps to the emergence of the international system of absolutist states? As Benno Teschke and Hannes Lacher show, capitalism emerged into a pre-existing international system of absolutist states. Perhaps, equally, capitalism emerged into a pre-existing system of patriarchal relationships? Of course, the subordination of women is part of, and has been shaped by, capitalism. But it has not emerged in tandem with capitalism itself. 

This post first appeared on Trade Unions and Global Restructuring

Andreas Bieler
Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Nottingham and Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ).

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