Sylvia Federici talk on ‘Caliban and the Witch’

This is an excellent talk to listen to in conjunction with the book. While Marx didn’t completely praise capitalism, there was indeed an element of the impossibility for the foundation for socialism to be built without the productive powers of capitalism. Federici turns this around by illuminating the experiences of women, outcasts, peasants, and their revolts against capitalism’s development to show that there were, in fact, alternative paths and that capitalism was not in any way a “progressive” force for the majority of people living in feudal times (and even in these times, owing to the fact that so-called primitive accumulation is not a thing of the past). Highly recommended.:

Intro to ‘Caliban and the Witch’

“This show presents an audiobook-ish experience, based on a talk by Silvia Federici about her book ‘Caliban and the Witch’. This book talks about how the development of capitalism is deeply entwined with processes of accumulation which needs to mold and domesticate the bodies of women in specific ways. The politics of reproduction at stake in this historical study is still very much at work today, and this book provides an invaluable background to developing struggles around reproduction and care today.

A must for anyone interested in the connections between capitalism, gender and colonialism.

We recorded this in May 2013 in Vienna at the launch of the german translation of this book, published by Mandelbaum Verlag.”

Notes on Federici’s C&W

In feudalism, peasants were in direct contact with the products of their labor. Or, everything that they produced was not yet monetized and therefore, everything they made for their own subsistence went directly to them to use for it what they will , and everything that the lord required from them went directly to the lord. Land was passed down through male lineage, yet women were still an important part of the family. They worked the land along with their brothers and fathers and the work was less clearly divided between male and female in comparison to today [all work contributed to the family’s subsistence-reproductive work and the production of goods]. The lord, more than men from the peasant women’s own class, was in complete control over women’s work and social relations.

Peasants resisted [through taking long breaks, foot dragging, etc..] aspects of feudalism-from mandatory military service, taxes, the retreat to non-cultivated lands as “communal property”, to the tithe and taking time and energy away from their own land to perform mandatory labor for the lord. Because serfs would “forget” their duties required by the lord and the lord would invent them as they went, the solution was to write it all down in a contract and labor services were recompensated in money. Peasants with small land holdings were unable to produce sufficient means of survival and had to borrow against future harvests and eventually lost their lands. Most women moved to the cities where they took male-dominated jobs, and lived alone or with other women or as heads of households. Women had more autonomy/ independence than before.

The heresy movement was a radical reinterpretation of scriptures and was a protest movement against the authoritarian church. It was a critique of hierarchical structures, clerical corruption, and economic exploitation. John Ball in the English peasant uprising of 1381: “we are made in the image of God, but we are treated like beasts. Nothing will go well in England as long as there are gentlemen and peasants.” Due to a labor shortage and severe demographic crises in the late 14th century, all forms of contraception were deemed “heresy” [including sodomy, abortion, etc] and were persecuted by the church.

The church tried to quell women’s sexual power over men by associating holiness with abstaining from women and sex, removing women from high church positions, making marriage a “sacrament” that no power on earth could dissolve, and shaming sexuality.

As for the heresy movement, women are present in its history as in no other aspect of medieval life. [As Gioacchino Volpe put it, in the Church women were nothing, but here they were considered equal; they had the same rights as men, and could enjoy a social life and mobility (wandering, preaching) that nowhere else was available to them in the Middle Ages]. Women’s control over reproduction wasn’t a huge issue until it began to threaten the economic and social stability as it did in the aftermath of the Black Death catastrophe. Heresy was incredibly popular and was a lower class phenomenon despite the fact that heretics underwent excommunication, crucifixion, torture, confiscation of property, death at the stake, etc..

Throughout the 14th century, peasants, wage earners, artisans, etc.. revolted and threatened the ideological, economic, and political power of the nobility, the clergy, and the bourgeoisie. “Urban wage-workers could not form any association and were even forbidden to meet In any place and for any reason; they could not carry arms or even the tools of their trade; and they could not strike on pain of death. In Florence, they had no civil rights; unlike the journeymen, they were not part of any craft or guild. and they were exposed to the cruelest abuses at the hands of the merchants who, in addition to controlling the town government, ran their private tribunal and, with impunity, spied on them, arrested them, tortured them, and hanged them at the least sign of trouble.” These workers were the most militant, and at Bruges even established the first “dictatorship of the proletariat” which was defeated after a huge battle wherein 26K lives were lost. “The events at Bruges and Ghent were not isolated cases. In Germany and Italy as well, the artisans and laborers rebelled at every possible occasion, forcing the local bourgeoisie to live in a constant state of fear.”

The Black Death reduced Europe’s population down by 30%-40%. It affected people from all classes, thus turning social hierarchies upside down. It also resulted in an uncaring attitude towards social discipline regarding sex and social regulations; most importantly, there was a consequent labor shortage. More land was available which lessened the power of the lords [often, the lord’s demands were completely ignored]. The lower class also had more leverage in threatening to leave their work sites if demands were not met-rent strikes flourished. Entire villages organized to stop paying fines, taxes, etc..In the late 14th century, entire regions were revolting and forming their own armies and assemblies. There were also incidents of destroying the lord’s castle and burning records of servitude. By the 15th century, the conflict between the classes lead to actual wars: “In all these cases, the rebels did not content themselves with demanding some
restrictions to feudal rule, nor did they only bargain for better living conditions. Their
aim was to put an end to the power of the lords. As the English peasantS declared during
the Peasant Rising of 1381, “the old law must be abolished.” Indeed, by the beginning
of the 15th century, in England at least, serfdom or villeinage had almost completely
disappeared, though the revolt had been politically and militarily defeated and its leaders
brutally executed.” The 15th century has been described as the “Golden Age of the Proletariat”. The scarcity of labor gave the lower classes the upper hand, employers competing for their services raised their morale and self-esteem and erased their degradation and subservience, they demanded high wages, refused to work after satisfying their needs[which wasn’t long because of the high wages],and hired themselves out for short tasks rather than prolonged periods of time, they also dressed in fine clothing which made them indistinguishable from the lords, and the earning differences between women and men were drastically reduced. ” What this meant for the European proletariat was not only the achievement of a standard of living that remained unparalleled until the 1 9th century, but the demise of serfdom. By ,he end of the 14th century land bondage had practically disappeared. Everywhere serfs were replaced by free farmers – copy holders … or lease holders – who would accept work only for a substantial reward.”