What is the deal with that book about the witch hunts, though? ¶ Hanna Hurr sits down with Silvia Federici, the mother of materialist feminism and author of Caliban and the Witch, to discuss the lessons we still have to learn from Wages for Housework and other organizing around reproductive labor.
Twelve years have passed since Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch was published, and even though feminism is experiencing a prime time renaissance, the distance between rosy endorsements of Hillary’s glass-ceiling breaking and the anti-capitalist, anti-imperial position Federici and others advanced decades ago feels galactic. I spent an evening with Federici to discuss the unrealized vision and legacy of the feminist movement of the 70s, and how her theories of reproductive labor remain relevant to this day.
Every morning, Silvia Federici wakes up to run in the park. Perhaps this explains why she, at the age of 74, is more up to speed than most in her generation. “I just read this article about someone who died while playing Pokemon Go,” she tells me as she welcomes me into her living room. “I hear it’s causing all sorts of problems.” This is the woman who inspired a generation of millennial feminists to think about how women have been treated by the economy since the Middle Ages. It’s not surprising that she’s still watching closely.
I don’t know how many copies Autonomedia has sold of Federici’s treasured book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, but I doubt that would give even a remote estimate of how many have read it. I’ve seen xeroxed copies stacked in infoshops, PDFs shared online, earmarked copies read out loud during road trips and passed among friends like a secret, sacred text. Many know it simply as ‘the book about the witch hunts,’ and this might make its lasting significance seem perplexing. But it’s not just about the witch hunts. Rather, it’s a historic overview of how capitalism emerged and spread.
Here is the short version: Federici agrees with Marx that the spread of capitalism could not have happened without hundreds of years of brutal violence and disciplining of rebellious bodies. However, she expands his argument and shows how we are witnessing an ongoing accumulation of labor-power and potential-labor-power, the process that was required to produce the submissive capitalist subject of today. She also argues that capitalism sustains itself and continues to grow though a permanent primitive accumulation (the process that, according to Marx, created the conditions for the development of the capitalist system). Primitive accumulation, involving the dispossession of millions of people from their means of subsistence, is not just something that happened once, a long time ago. It’s something that is still taking place today, constantly. She proposes that this also includes and is made possible through the production of difference – hierarchies built upon gender, “race,” and age, that separate, divide people, domesticating some and marginalizing others in order to produce a continuous supply of new workers, enclose more land, and create ever-evolving forms of exploitation.
“I think I was already a feminist at ten years old,” Silvia Federici tells me with a smirk, adding that, when she was a teenager, her family moved to a town with a communist administration and she grew up in a fairly “anticlerical” environment. There were other factors. Her father wasa philosophy teacher who also taught history, and would share with her stories about how the popes used to lead armies, how the spirit of religion lived more in the heresies than in the church, how people rebelled against the oppression by the church. It was from her father that she first learned about the history of the heretic movement, which she later wrote about in Caliban and the Witch. “He was the one who told me that the heretics were the real church.”
Like many others like her, Federici’s mother was a fulltime housewife. As a child, Silvia saysshe dreaded the traditional fate of women; she resisted doing housework and would struggle with her sister about who would clean up or do the dishes. “It was made clear to me from an early age that there was a difference between being a man and being a woman, and that as a girl I would not be allowed to do all kinds of things. I didn't want to be a housewife because I understood that this was a position with no social power. I spent years wanting to be a man and had no desire for femininity. The last thing I wanted was to be like my mother.” The irony doesn't escape her: the fear of succumbing to her mother’s lot, in a way, inspired her to become a radical feminist preoccupied with the political nature of housework.
At first I hesitate to ask Federici about her relationship to her mother because it seems so cliché, but throughout our conversation Federici speaks candidly and fondly about her mother. When I ask if her introduction to radical feminism furthered this gap between them, she gives me a firm no: “The opposite happened. Feminism introduced me to a whole new reflection on housework and power relations, what the devaluation of women’s work meant on an individual and collective level, and it made me rethink my relation to my mother. I felt very bad having been so unappreciative of her, so I started going home more and wanting to do the housework. This began a transformation in my relationship with my mother; it brought us closer together.”
Federici moved to the United States in 1967 to start a PhD program at the University of Buffalo, and it was only a matter of time before her paths started crossing with early second-wave feminist circles in New York.
As Jo Freeman explains, young women found each other at socialist, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist gatherings and actions throughout the 60s, and formed groups of their own when their sexist so-called peers refused to take them seriously. The first groups formed spontaneously in Chicago and Seattle in ‘67 and ‘68. Over the next couple of years, word spreads to people across the country, including Federici. “Feminism as a movement really takes off in the summer and fall of ’69, after the famous SDS conference in Chicago, which also birthed the Weathermen. A number of women left the conference and began to caucus on their own. I was in Italy at the time – I used to go back for my summer vacation – and when I returned in September, there was a women’s movement. That fall I heard the first feminist critiques and read the first feminist manifestos, and I didn’t need any convincing.”