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Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation Paperback – September 15, 2004
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The book assesses various aspects of this development, including witchcraft and the witch-hunts, the "Christianization" (or rather Catholization) of the North and South American native civilizations, the role of philosophical mechanism and the developers of the scientific method (Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Hobbes, etc.), and the early slave trade. In each case Federici masterfully shows how this development came to be, what role it played in the process of 'original accumulation', and why it was favored temporarily by the ruling class. She also gives very strong evidence that things like fear of witchcraft, patriarchy, racism etc., often seen as the inevitable and 'natural' results of ignorance and superstition in those societies, were in reality forced onto the common people as part of a top-down campaign to destroy the backbone of the feudal communities.
What is an additional interesting contribution of this book is Federici's evidence that there was not only widespread peasant resistance against the process of enclosure, capitalization and expropriation, but more particularly that women often played a very major role in these resistance movements, especially after the German Peasant War ended in a massacre. Many of the women who would later be burned and persecuted as witches were likely survivors of these resistance movements and therefore both had strong connections with local farming communities and resentment against authority, a dangerous combination for the ruling classes. To me it was also remarkable new information to learn about how common female wage-labor in the cities was in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, as well as the degree of acceptance of sexuality and magic. Of course we should not in any way try to paint too rosy a picture of the late feudal era, which everyone knows had enough terror and tyranny of its own, but Federici shows that even then there was a strong current of people resisting both (proto-)capitalism and its predecessor.
In her historical panorama, Federici adresses many other writers on women and the body and their subjugation, in particular the feminists, Marx, Foucault and such people as Le Roy Ladurie and Carlo Ginzburg. In my view Federici overstates her case against Marx a bit; she is correct that the role of the subjugation of women in particular was not much addressed by him, but it certainly was by Engels, and I also think that the insights she shows in this work would have been able to count on Marx' full assent. She also seems to miss the fact that "primitive accumulation" is a mistranslation of Marx' term, so that accusations of Marx missing the fact that such expropriatory violence takes place as part of capitalism even today miss the mark.
Stronger is her case against Foucault, where she can show that Foucault not only completely ignores the importance of the witch-hunts and the Plague as turning points for feudal and post-feudal society, but that he also locates his famous instrumentalist subjugation of the body far too late in history (Foucault places it at the late 18th century, Federici rather in the 16th). In any case the scope of her knowledge of writers on these subjects is great, and the way in which she gives a context to the ideas of Descartes and other mechanists on "L'Homme Machine" (the term is 18th C.) is striking.
Overall, this is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in history, original accumulation and women's studies.
This book should be read by all those who are interested in Witches + real history.