Notes on Caliban and the Witch

Sylvia Federici
Hofstra University, New York, U.S.
Sunday, October 1, 2017

Caliban and the Witch is a history of the development of capitalism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries analyzed from the viewpoint of its impact on women and the reproduction of the work force which in capitalist society becomes “women’s labor.”  It shows that war and enslavement were fundamental conditions of capitalist development  (as they continue to be) and, most important, that capitalist development required and began with a war against women. This war was conducted primarily through the witch-hunts that took place in Europe and America, especially in Peru, leading to the torture and execution of hundreds of thousands of women and to the definition of women as inferior beings: savage, cannibalistic and demonic. In the book I argue that this war against women was rooted in two aspects of capitalism that have remained a structural feature of the capitalist system to our day.

First, capitalism began with a historically unprecedented drive to accumulate labor power and, throughout every phase of its development, it has continued to expand the exploitable work force. Thus it has constantly attempted to control women’s bodies, women’s sexuality and women’s reproductive function. By accusing women of killing children and making men impotent, and by condemning contraception as a demonic activity, the witch-hunt broke women’s control over reproduction and turned the female body into an instrument for the reproduction of the workforce.

Second, the advent of capitalism separated production for the market from the reproduction of human beings, and defined market production as the only activity having an economic value. In other words, capitalism has devalued reproductive labor, at the same time as it made women the main subject of this work. This means that with the advent of capitalism a new sexual division of labor came into existence that deepened the differences between women and men, male and female labor, devalued women’s work, subordinated women to men, and condemned women to unpaid labor. It is significant, in this context, that, by the sixteenth century, in some European towns, women were practically forbidden to work for a wage and in the ideology of the witch-hunt a connection was made between women seeking money and making a pact with the devil: it was the devil that gave witches money in times of need. Also prostitutes were seen as witches, as they sold their services for money.On women’s unpaid labor a new patriarchal domination was built which I refer to as the “patriarchy of the wage.” Also a new capitalist use of the wage began, as a means to command the work of the unwaged. This new capitalist patriarchy created hierarchies and divisions within the working class, beginning with gender hierarchies, and naturalized and concealed the exploitation of women’s work.

The developments I have outlined are structural characteristics of capitalism. Every time subsistence economies are destroyed and societies are monetarized, women loose power, as they find it more difficult than men to support themselves and their reproductive work is devalued economically and culturally. Not surprisingly, the development of capitalism has always been accompanied by a massive expansion of prostitution and by the intensification of violence against women.

I draw five political conclusions from the history I have analyzed.

1. The devaluation of women’s labor in capitalism is inseparably connected with the devaluation of reproductive labor, which is instrumental to the devaluation of labor power.

2. There is no separation between women and class, since on a mass level, in capitalist society, women are exploited as unpaid reproductive workers, as well as waged workers.

3. Unfree labor is a structural condition of capitalist development, far more essential to capitalist accumulation than left economists have recognized. Although capitalism present itself as a system built upon contractual relations, slavery and various forms of coerced labor have always been a central aspect of capitalist exploitation.

4. Sexism, like racism, is also a structural requirement of capitalism, as capitalism must smuggle the super exploitation of women as a consequence of their “natural inferiority.”

5. The struggle for women’s liberation must be an anti-capitalist struggle, because capitalism has only produced misery for the majority of the world population and because no woman or man can be liberated as long as the reproduction of life is subordinated to the production of commodities and the accumulation of wealth.