While many of my reading recommendations have explored feminist themes, I think that this #spellbooksaturday is particularly “of the moment”: Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation by Silvia Federici explores the European witch hunts in relation to population control and capitalism.

Those familiar with the work of Karl Marx may find familiar concepts in this text, but Federici is clear about what sets her thesis apart: “…My analysis departs from Marx’s in… my description of primitive accumulation [which] includes a set of historical phenomena that are absent in Marx, and yet have been extremely important for capitalist accumulation. They include (i) the development of a new sexual division of labor subjugating women’s labor and women’s reproductive function to the work-force; (ii) the construction of a new patriarchal order, based upon exclusion of women from waged-work and their subordination to men; (iii) the mechanization of the proletarian body and its transformation, in the case of women, into a machine for the production of new workers.”

Here Federici directly links the 16th century economic crisis and labor shortage in Europe—a result the Black Death, a global pandemic that lead to the deaths of approximately 75 million people— with the rise of the state, the codification of laws meant to control reproduction and sexuality, and the violent punishment of those who did not comply (ie, the witch hunts). Indeed, “the rise of capitalism demanded a genocidal attack on women,” writes Federici, in one of many infinitely-quotable passages. 

However, while pithy and persuasive, this is a dense read— I often found myself pausing or re-reading passages, allowing the text some time to be fully absorbed. I never imagined I’d be so caught up in reading about medieval peasant uprisings or land ownership laws, but Federici’s thorough research lends strength to her arguments. Her analysis of the historic conditions which culminated in the witch hunts, and the legal degradation of women, inevitably leads the reader to make associations with the current socio-political landscape. Writes Federici,  “By denying women control over their bodies, the state deprived them of the most fundamental condition for physical and psychological integrity and degraded maternity to the status of forced labor, in addition to confining women to reproductive work in a way unknown in previous societies.” Further, “the promotion of population growth by the state can go hand in hand with a massive destruction of life; for in many circumstances— witness the history of the slave trade— one is a condition of the other. Indeed, in a system where life is subordinated to the production of profit, the accumulation of labor-power can only be achieved with the maximum of violence….”

This is a fabulous read, but I freely offer a disclaimer that it might be a little too heavy for some folks at the moment. Personally, I found the book to be galvanizing, and one that I’ll be thinking about for some time to come.



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