Silvia Federici On Witch Hunts, Body Politics & Rituals of Resistance

Witchcraft has become a buzzword of late. In fashion, movies, TV, and on social media, women have begun to reexamine its meanings, and how it can be adopted as an archetype against patriarchy. But long before #witchesofinstagram was a hashtag, feminist and leftist writer Silvia Federici examined the hardly superficial ties between the witch trials, patriarchy, and the creation of capitalism.

Her landmark book on the subject, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, is twenty years old this year. The book is an investigation into the roots of capitalism, and its genesis through the great witch trials of Europe alongside European colonization of the New World. The work remains a scathing indictment of the patriarchal violence inherent to capitalism and places the figure of the witch at the center of the fight against capital.

Federici argues that the great witch trials of Europe were borne out of the process of accumulation by which capitalism came to be formed. While coming from the Marxist tradition, she breaks here with Marx, arguing that the violence of the witch trials is an integral part of capitalism, one that is inflicted upon Indigenous populations, the poor, women, and anyone outside centers of power within the capitalist system every time the economy expands. She argues—again, counter to Marx—that capitalism has never been a “progressive system” and definitely was not a necessary historical condition for the development of a non-exploitative society.

The witch trials were a time of massive change in Europe and the Americas, but Federici claims above all they helped usher in capitalism in three major ways: through the taming of the rebel body and Indigenous peoples (the “Caliban” of the book), the mechanization of the world, and the devaluing of female labor with the advent of waged work. Overarching to all of this is the struggle over the female body as the primary site of production of the workforce. Federici is unshaking in her claim that the struggle over the female body, and the struggle for bodily autonomy in general, must be an animating force of anti-capitalist work. As she told us when we met, “the struggle for the body of women [is] the last frontier of capitalism.”

I sat down with Silvia Federici in her Brooklyn apartment, on Earth Day, appropriately enough, to discuss Caliban twenty years later, Indigenous resistance, and the ongoing struggle against patriarchal capitalism.

It’s been twenty years since Caliban and the Witch came out. Obviously the political landscape has evolved quite a bit, but other things seem to have remained the same, like the question of women’s bodily autonomy. I want to ask you first, where do you think abortion stands in modern Left discourse, and do you think it’s being centered enough?

I hesitate to speak of ‘the Left’ as I am no longer sure of what is meant by this term. With respect to the 1970s, we have new social movements—the ecological movement, the feminist and queer movements e.g.—that are not reducible to what used to be the old, orthodox Left, and even the New Left. In today’s women’s movements, abortion is a central issue. What is still missing, however, at least in many white feminists groups, is the recognition that control over our bodies calls for a broader struggle, to determine the conditions under which we give birth, under which we raise children, to obtain the resources enabling us to become mothers without sacrificing our lives. This is why Black women, like Loretta Ross, have criticized the concept of ‘reproductive choice’ and called, instead, for a movement for ‘reproductive justice.’

As important as the struggle for abortion has been, we cannot forget that thousands of Black, Latina, proletarian women in the US have been sterilized and prevented from having the children they wanted. Today as well, when Black, immigrant, low-income women decide to have children, they are subjected to many abusive practices by the state, the police, the medical profession. In name of defending the rights of the fetus, women have been arrested when they were in car accidents, when they miscarried, when they were submitted to blood tests and the results were not clear and then they were accused of having used drugs to jeopardize the safety of the fetus.

The justification for these abuses is the defense of life, but they are forms of racism and classism. The trend is for fetuses to have more rights than women, unless they have the resources allowing them not to depend on public institutions. This means that we need to re-conceptualize the struggle for control over our bodies so that it has a much broader horizon.

You talk a lot about this in Caliban and The Witch, about how this all stems from the mechanization of the body with the advent of capitalism.

As I have written (not alone in this), capital and the state have turned women’s bodies into means for the production of laborers and soldiers. This is why they have been so insistent on regulating our sexuality and reproductive capacity, and so punitive of any transgression of the rules. We hear about “test tube babies,” but babies are not born in test tubes, they are born from the bodies of women, and this is a power the state is determined, today as well, to control in every possible way. They want to decide who has the right to reproduce and who does not. Women’s bodies are the last frontier capitalism has to conquer, because capitalism sees human labor as the main instrument of wealth accumulation, and therefore must control its source. How many children we produce determines the size of the workforce. Also how we raise our children makes a difference in how they see the world, how they struggle, what they struggle for. This is why we have ‘population control’ policies, carried out through forced sterilizations. This is why the state wants to assert its right to decide who is going to be born and who is not.

I have a friend who went down to do relief work in the US Virgin Islands after they were hit by Hurricane Maria. One of the things she brought down was birth control, because that wasn’t being distributed. What do you think about how our political culture puts reproductive health, reproductive justice, into a category separate not just from healthcare, but from all other discussions of oppression?

When the state provides ‘birth control’ it is in ways that women generally cannot control. They provide injections of Depo Provera or IUDs and other forms of birth control that are planted into women’s bodies and women cannot take them out except by going to a doctor. There is, however, a split today in the ruling class with regard to birth control in the so-called “Third World,” which is the former colonial world, never truly decolonized. The liberal wing of the state promotes birth control because they want to exploit women’s work, for instance in maquilas, special economic zones, where they lay you off if you get pregnant. There is also a fear of the kind of explosion that took place with the anti-colonial struggle. By promoting contraception there is a hope of ‘sterilizing the struggle,’ but again the contraception generally promoted is one women cannot control. On the other hand, the Right wing is more confident that they can control any rebellion with the power of arms, and they also welcome the development of a global baby market, through adoption and surrogacy. So reproduction today, as in the past, continues to be a ground of oppression, of discrimination and violence – for instance, the violence of giving birth to children you will have to give away, as during slavery, and now through adoption because of economic necessity.

There’s that reactionary anxiety about how if marginalized people have kids they’re going to go on welfare, and “we are going to have to give them healthcare.”

Yes, that’s a misguided, unfounded, racist argument. It presumes that “these people” will have to be impoverished, that they will not have the means to support their children. But instead of struggling so that everybody has the resources necessary to have a family, they demand more repression. They forget that programs like Aid For Dependent Children, that have been practically dismantled, were originally introduced to give widows the possibility of raising their children without being forced to rush to take a job when the husband died, and that it has been working-class women, most white, who have benefitted from them.

It’s also the state enforcing a certain type of treatment of women—criminalizing reproductive autonomy—and then taking no responsibility for women or their children after childbirth.

That’s right. The state cares for the fetus, but the moment the fetus is born and becomes a child they don’t care for it any longer. They are not concerned with the well-being of the new generation, but with disciplining women. After they are born, as far as the state is concerned, children can die. Actually, in the case of Black children, little is done to ensure that they have a safe birth. We have now reports of Black women, of all classes, having a much higher rate of infant mortality than white women, because of the stress they suffer from living in a racist society, and because of the actual lack of care they receive when they go to a hospital. This shows the hypocrisy and double talk of the “life protectors” of the “Right to Life” movement.

Usually, when people criticize that movement, they criticize the religious fundamentalist aspects of it, but very few people criticize the state or capitalism, at least in the popular discourse about reproductive justice.

One problem we face is the widespread tendency to look at the immediate causes and not at the structural trends. The religious fundamentalists, and the right in general, represent the interests of the state and capital. As I mentioned earlier, today the ruling class is more divided than in the past on the question of birth control, and of course abortion. But let’s not forget the struggle that had to be made to obtain abortion in the US in the ’70s. Until recently, the capitalist class was unified in its determination to forbid women from deciding about their reproduction. Democrats or Republican, their position was not very different from that of the Pope and the Right to Lifers. Both parties agreed on permitting or promoting the sterilizations of Black women and, in some periods, for instance during the Depression, white, unemployed, proletarian women as well when they saw them as ‘promiscuous’.

You talk again in the book about how what we would call now superstition, popular folk magic, animism, was something that needed to be eradicated for the development of capitalism to happen. Right now we are living in the era of a new occult revival. Witchcraft is becoming much more popular—I practice witchcraft. It’s certainly on-trend now, but it seems like it’s at risk of being absorbed into capitalism.

What many call “witchcraft” today is not what the inquisitors and magistrates, who sent thousands of women to death, had in mind. To them witchcraft meant a diabolic pact between human beings and the devil to carry out evil deeds. In reality, what they persecuted under the name of ‘Witchcraft’, was a different relationship between human beings and between human beings and nature, including the animal world. Many women, for instance, were accused of being witches because they cured people and animal with herbs, as well as incantations, or kept certain animals, participated in events—dances, collective festivals—that were considered dangerous, promiscuous, diabolical. Through the witch-hunts capitalism promoted a different conception of nature, more mechanical, more ‘scientific’ – a conception in which ‘nature’, was also described as controllable. The revitalization of magical conceptions of nature today is important if it gives us a better understanding of the beauty, power, and creativity of the natural world. It is dangerous if it promotes the idea that magic is about finding ways to manipulate relations, as it risks reinforcing the traditional, murderous, constructed view of witchcraft and witches.

On the topic of establishing a more intimate relationship with nature in spite of capitalism’s omnipresence, what do you make of Indigenous struggles across the world, like Standing Rock, for example?

They are extremely important, some of the most important struggles today in the world. The existence of Indigenous communities and struggles is a power for all movements, beginning with the women’s movement. Indigenous communities show that there are other ways of organizing society. Their views of what the land represents, of how crucial the relation to the land is to one’s autonomy, one’s capacity for self-government, one’s culture and spirituality, is an inspiration to all. Now women are taking the lead in Indigenous communities as well, challenging many forms of patriarchalism that still persist within them. At Standing Rock, it was the women who organized the reproduction of the encampment. They also created the wording and imaging of the struggle, describing themselves as ‘water protectors.’

Sometimes I find when I talk to other leftists about Indigenous resistance, they don’t know how to wrap their heads around the spiritual dimension to Indigenous resistance, and especially Indigenous female resistance.

Unfortunately, in the Marxist tradition there has been the assumption that social transformation is only possible if a high level of industrialization has taken place, or is taking place. But Indigenous communities are saying ‘No.’ Many refuse this logic and see capitalist development as nothing but expropriation and violence. In the Marxist tradition, instead, there is a conviction that capitalist development is a prerequisite condition for the formation of a communist society. Presumably, by expanding the productivity of labor, capitalism creates the material foundations for communism. Indigenous people have a very different view of it, because for centuries they have paid the highest price for this development. True, some have been making deals with the companies, but most have an anti-capitalist stance. The women in particular stand at the forefront of the struggle; they know that when the water is poisoned by oil drilling or by a gold mine people have to leave. It’s the end of everything, the culture, the language, the life of the community. That’s a very different perspective from the traditional Marxist viewpoint. Today, as we observe the catastrophes created by climate change and the contamination of everything we eat and drink and breath, more and more people are looking at Indigenous people for inspiration. We can also see that the productive powers of labor have been expanded to a maximum and yet, we are not any closer to ‘revolution’ than we were in Marx’s time.

Would you agree with eco-feminists who argue that we treat the earth like a woman’s body? Or that we treat women’s bodies like the earth?

In Latin America, women say: “My body is my first territory; so we have to defend our bodies if we want to defend our lands, our territories.” Eco-feminists are not saying that women are nature, but that there is a relationship between the way capitalism has exploited the body of women, and the way it has exploited the natural world, the lands, the waters. Like the exploitation of the land, the exploitation of women is a classic example of how capitalism has built its power robbing human beings and the natural world without any reservation and without giving anything back.

An important contemporary witch, Peter Grey, says that historically it can be hard to define what witchcraft is, but he writes if you look back in history “you will find the witch at the end of a pointed finger.” There are obviously parallels between the way accusations of witchcraft are deployed and the ways in which labels like “criminal,” “illegal immigrant,” and “terrorist” are used today.

Yes, the charge of witchcraft has been used to criminalize many forms of behavior and entire populations which the system wanted to destroy. “Witchcraft” has been defined in such a way that all kinds of practices can fall under this label. Witchcraft trials have also introduced new judicial procedures that condemn the accused even before they are tried. In addition, during the witch-hunts, witchcraft was described as a uniquely perverse crime giving the magistrates the right to torture the accused, keep them in isolation. Anonymous accusations were allowed; those accused of being witches did not have the right to know who had denounced them, what charges were moved against them. Today’s ‘war on drugs’ and ‘war on terror’ has employed similar procedures.

You talk about this form of Primitive accumulation is something we keep doing over and over.

Yes. The corporate world accumulates massive profits by expropriating people from their means of reproduction and then by criminalizing those who migrate to exploit them as cheap labor. It is really a perverse system. First the US and Europe, with the help of financial organizations like the IMF and World Bank, pauperize millions of people, then they jail them when they try to migrate to the very places where what once were their resources are being accumulated.

I want to end this on a somewhat positive note. There’s so much going wrong in the world, what keeps you fighting?

My optimism comes from the fact that the surge of institutional violence today is a response to the worldwide growth of movements which know that capitalism is a cruel, destructive, unsustainable system. The new upsurge of violence against women (for instance) is due to the fact that in so many places women are leading the struggles. We have seen it not only in Latin America, but in the US as well, at Standing Rock. Women are the ones who are fighting against fracking, to obtain better services in their communities, to keep alive their cultures and their children. So, we must see the other side of the repression. The wars, the tortures, the jails, the many forms of impoverishment that we see today across the world are a response to the fact that millions of people demand another society. But their struggles will grow no matter how much violence is unleashed against them.