Witches, Witch Hunting and Women by Silvia Federici – Book Review

Date Posted: Friday 25th June 2021

Publisher: PM Press (2018) 

Review by Jessica Robinson

“The witch was the communist and terrorist of her time, which required a ‘civilizing’ drive to produce the new ‘subjectivity’ and sexual division of labour on which the capitalist work discipline would rely.” – Federici, p. 33

Silvia Federici has, for decades, been a leading figure in feminist activism and theory—as a founding member of the Wages for Housework campaign, and her work grappling with Marxist feminist theorists of social reproduction is seminal. Witches, Witch-hunting and Women represents both a return and, an introduction, to the themes of Caliban and the Witch, one of her more prominent works, in particular the relation between the transition to capitalism and the increase in misogynist violence and the demonisation of women.

This return is poised at a juncture where the world is witnessing a new surge of interpersonal and institutional violence against women, including new witch hunts. This surge of violence has occurred alongside an expansion of capitalist social relation. In this work, Federici examines the root causes of these developments and outlines the consequences for the women affected and their communities. She argues, that this new war on women, which in many ways mirror witch hunts in 16th- and 17th-century Europe and the “New World,” is itself a structural element of the new forms of capitalist accumulation.

Her foundational argument, particularly in the latter half of the collection is that like at the dawn of capitalism, the factors behind today’s violence against women are processes of enclosure, land dispossession, and the remoulding of women’s reproductive subjectivity.

Returning to the first half of the collection, Federici asserts that so-called primitive accumulation, did not only entail the general dispossession of the peasantry but also had to destroy relations of solidarity and power within the emergent proletariat. This involved an accumulation of differences within this class, including the deepening divisions between men and women. This transition, at its core involved a separation of the spheres of production and reproduction, and the attendant devaluation of reproductive work. Thereby solidifying the status of women’s knowledge and power as suspect, or monstrous and worthy of destruction. However, to talk merely of what was done to women is to miss Federici’s deeper point about women’s legitimate rage and its repugnance and rejection through violence. Federici situates the history of witch-hunting firmly in the social and particularly economic conditions of the time, and critiques accounts that simply accept the historical statement of women’s ‘crimes’ instead reading these activities as forms of resistance to their economic and social marginalisation. Doing so robs these women of their agency within our mythologisation of history.

On these points, Witches, Witch-hunting and Women functions more as an accessible introduction to the themes already covered in Caliban and the Witch than an addition of new scholarship.

However, the latter half serves as a repository for Federici’s more recent writings on the contemporary re-emergence of witch-hunts and, what she reads as a global increase in violence towards women. This scholarly project seeks to explore these developments, not as a dehistoricised sadism on the part of men, but through the lens of a neo-liberal project of dispossession. Federici ties together violence against women with ongoing primitive accumulation, and shows how these logics operate on the global scale of today’s capitalist and neoliberal accumulation.

Writing across two historical eras, Federici broaches questions of memory and continuity. Tying together seemingly disparate historical moments of the witch-hunts, colonisation and contemporary forms of accumulation by dispossession, she stresses the necessity of a global feminist movement aiming to undo not only domestic and sexual violence against women but also the economic and structural forms of violence from which women often suffer disproportionally.

The central claim in Federici’s argument is that capitalism relies on the act of enclosure. That is, privatising resources and using violence to destroy the communities that had previously used them. In recognising and naming this, Federici wants to use the concept of the commons to defend remainders of pre-capitalist forms of ownership and sociality and use these as an inspiration for how to create a post-capitalist society. This theoretical argument shifts the geographical focus of anti-capitalist politics, from the core capitalist countries to struggles over capitalist expansion in the Global South.

While the global scope of Federici’s argument is impressive and productive, the risk with this argument is twofold. Firstly, it sometimes seems to essentialise the connection between women and reproduction, as if women have a natural connection to the land and its resources. Secondly, there is a risk in talking about ‘African culture’ as a monolith whereby the piece fails to recognise the vastly disparate experiences on the continent more than double the size of Europe. However, it is critical to note here that while Federici slips into this approach in elements of her writing, she remains scathingly critical of some anthropological approaches to the subject of witch-hunting, whereby scholars confine their analysis to an ‘African world view’, and hardly ever adopt the mode of advocacy or protest. These methodological concerns emphasise that the study of witches, witch-hunting, and women is not curiosity for curiosity’s sake for Federici; it is resisting through rewriting.

These essays raise questions of what it would mean to reclaim a radical, pre-capitalist history without romanticising it. However, a non-romanticised vision of the past must emphasise the struggle and conflict in these histories, rather than assuming that pre-capitalist communities lived in harmony. Despite good intentions, Federici sometimes falls short of this. Community is often opposed to capitalism, so that a pre-capitalist form of community is presented as the common good that needs to be protected against the logic of capital. This is tied to the question of whether reproductive labour should be refused or valorised. In Witches, Witch-hunting and Women, Federici is on the side of valorisation. This sometimes leaves her without the tools for criticising the gendered division of labour that exists within both the capitalist family and the pre-capitalist community, begging the question of how we get to the post-capitalist commons without bringing this dynamic with us.

However, with that criticism in mind it is important to recognise the scale of the project Federici’s work which is impressive in its ability to tie together disparate political phenomena. Her work deftly links the violence of the witch-hunts, enslavement, colonialism and contemporary forms of war and ecological destruction.

Federici’s attempt to draw together the work of feminists and activist from different parts of the world and place them in historical context is brave, thought-provoking and timely. Federici’s writing is lucid and her fury palpable. The book is not only academic scholarship but also a form of protest against the deliberate ignorance and trivialisation of violence against women in the name of witch-hunting. As well as an investigation into the causes of this new violence, the book is also a feminist call to arms. Ultimately, Federici’s work provides new ways of understanding the methods in which women are resisting victimization and offers a powerful reminder that reconstructing the memory of the past is crucial for the struggles of the present.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Women’s Budget Group.