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Life Arts    H4'ed 11/6/09

Who Were the Witches? - Patriarchal Terror and the Creation of Capitalism

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Soon, simple meetings of peasant women were stigmatized as possible "Sabbats," where women were supposedly seduced by the devil to become witches, but as Federici clarifies, it was the rebellious politics and non-conforming gender relations of such gatherings which were demonized (177). Strong, defiant women were murdered by the tens of thousands, and along with them the Witch Hunt also destroyed "a whole world of female practices, collective relations, and systems of knowledge that had been the foundation of women's power in pre-capitalist Europe, and the condition for their resistance in the struggle against feudalism" (103).

For elite European nobles and clergy, the Witch Hunt succeeded in stifling a working class revolution that had increasingly threatened their rule. Even more, Silvia Federici puts forward that the Witch Hunt facilitated the rise of a new, capitalist social paradigm — based on large-scale economic production for profit and the displacement of peasants from their lands into the burgeoning urban workforce. In time, this capitalist system would dominate all of Europe and be dispersed through conquistadors' "guns, germs and steel" to every corner of the globe, destroying countless ancient civilizations and cultures in the process.6 Federici's analysis is that, "Capitalism was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle — possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us the immense destruction of lives and the environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide" (22). How might things be different if the forgotten revolution had won?

Conclusion - Rediscovering the Magic of Truth-Telling


"Day by day, it's worse for my people, especially for the women. And that's why, because of all of these main reasons, we say this is the mockery of democracy and mockery of War on Terror." — Malalai Joya, Afghan democracy activist, 2009

Caliban and the Witch is a book that challenges many important myths about the world we live in. First and foremost among these is the widely-held belief that capitalism, though perhaps flawed in its current form, started out as a "progressive" development that liberated workers and improved the conditions of women, people of color and other oppressed groups. Silvia Federici has done impressive work to take us back to the very foundations of the capitalist system in late-medieval Europe to uncover a secret history of land dispossession and impoverishment, gender and sexual terror, and brutal colonization of non-Europeans. This terrible legacy leads her to the profound conclusion that the system is "necessarily committed to racism and sexism" (17).

Most strongly, she writes, "It is impossible to associate capitalism with any form of liberation or attribute the longevity of the system to its capacity to satisfy human needs. If capitalism has been able to reproduce itself it is only because of the web of inequalities that it has built into the body of the world proletariat, and because of its capacity to globalize exploitation. This process is still unfolding under our eyes, as it has for the last 500 years" (17).

It's been said that we can measure a society by how it treats its women. This book provides compelling documentation to suggest that capitalism is and has always been a male dominated system, which reduces opportunities and security for women as well as marginalizing those who don't fit within narrow gender boundaries. In particular, Silvia Federici uses the story of the Witch Hunt to illuminate the inner workings of capitalism to show the restraining, silencing, and demonizing of female sexual power built into it.7 Responding to our question that started this essay, she writes, "The witch was not only the midwife, the woman who avoided maternity, or the beggar who eked out a living by stealing some wood or butter from her neighbors. She was also the loose, promiscuous woman — the prostitute or adulteress, and generally, the woman who exercised her sexuality outside the bonds of marriage and procreation" The witch was also the rebel woman who talked back, argued, swore, and did not cry under torture" (184).

In other words, the witches were those women who in one way or another resisted the establishment of an unjust social order — the mechanical exploitation of capitalism. The witches represented a whole world that Europe's new masters were anxious to destroy: a world with strong female leadership, a world rooted in local communities and knowledge, a world alive with magical possibilities, a world in revolt.

We need not despair for the world that has been lost. Indeed, it is still with us today in the struggles of people everywhere organizing for justice. Today from Afghanistan we can hear the clarion voice of Malalai Joya, a courageous woman who was expelled from the Afghan parliament in 2007 for speaking out against the U.S.-installed warlords who now rule her country. She appeared recently on Democracy Now! saying, "Now my people are sandwiched between two powerful enemies: from the sky, occupation forces bombing and killing innocent civilians" [and] on the ground, Taliban and these warlords together continue to deliver fascism against our people."8

Joya risks her life to make these comments, but her words carry the sparkling truth that is so necessary to end the insanity of war and occupation in the Middle East. Those who are summoned to action by her call do so in the immortal spirit of the "heretics" and "witches" who resisted capitalism and feudalism before it, carrying forward a movement that is wide as the Earth and old as time.

Notes

1 — Harvard University researchers released a study on Sept. 17, 2009 showing that approximately 45,000 Americans die unnecessarily from lack of medical coverage every year, unfortunately many times more than the number killed in the September 11 terrorist attacks. See this article for more on the Harvard study: http://www.reuters.com/article/healthNews/idUSTRE58G6W520090917

2 — "Shock and Awe", Wikipedia. Online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shock_and_awe. Accessed Nov. 2, 2009.

3 — This "shock therapy" strategy is examined with detailed case studies by Naomi Klein in the excellent The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Metropolitan Books 2007. For example she offers that the US-led devastation of Iraq's social infrastructure, including destruction of hospitals, schools, and food and water systems traumatized the Iraqi people such that they could not mobilize to prevent the highly unpopular privatization of the country's oil wealth.

4 — for more on the Witch Hunt's effect on the male domination of reproduction and medicine, see Barbara Ehrenreich's Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers, The Feminist Press at CUNY 1972, pamphlet.

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Alex Knight is a proponent of the End of Capitalism Theory, which states that the global capitalist system is breaking down due to ecological and social limits to growth and that a paradigm shift toward a non-capitalist future is underway. He is (more...)
 
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