Silvia Federici: The exploitation of women and the development of capitalism

Nov 10, 2020

Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch is a classic work of anti-capitalist feminism. The book examines capitalism’s investment in sexism and racism, showing how the consolidation of the capitalist system depended on the subjugation of women, the enslavement of black and indigenous people, and the exploitation of the colonies. Federici demonstrates that unpaid labor–especially that of women confined to the domestic sphere and of enslaved workers–is a necessary support for waged labor.

Although Federici draws from Marx–the primary contribution of her book is its rethinking of Marx’s account of primitive accumulation–she nonetheless rejects the Marxist-Leninist idea that capitalism has any progressive features. Federici insists that there has never been anything liberating about capitalism, not its expansions of industry and productivity, not its technology, and not its centralizing and organizing capacities. Looking at history from the perspective of women, she claims, tells us why. Rather than linked in any way to dynamics unleashed by capitalism, liberation comes out of struggle and resistance autonomous from those dynamics. This article interrogates these claims, questions the extent to which Federici departs from, critiques, or builds on Marxism, and considers the political implications that follow.

With or against Marx?

Federici presents her analysis as a critical departure from Marx, as a redressing of some of his most serious omissions. She charges Marx with ignoring the emergence of a patriarchal order that excluded women from waged work and subordinated them to men. She implies that Marxism failed to consider women’s role in the reproduction of labor power and neglected the transformation of the female body into “a machine for the production of new workers” [1]. And she argues that, had Marx taken the perspective of women, he would have never associated capitalism with a step toward liberation because he would have seen that women never achieved the advances in freedom that men did.

Federici’s analysis would have been stronger had she acknowledged that she was extending, not departing from, classic Marxist work on the “woman question.” Already in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels presents the determining factor in history as the “production and reproduction of immediate life” [2]. He begins his study by pointing out that historical materialism proceeds from the supposition that the production of means of existence and the production of human beings–the organization of work and the organization of the family–establish a society’s level of development. Paying close attention to the interconnections between reproduction and production, Engels associates the emergence of private property and exchange value with the “world historical defeat of the female sex” [3]. Men claim property in herds, weapons, and instruments of labor. They insist on paternal inheritance and authority, asserting control over the home. Women’s resulting subordination in the patriarchal and then the monogamous family, Engels explains, reduced them to servitude: the woman became the slave of the man’s “lust and a mere instrument for the production of children” [4]. Federici’s presentation of the female body as a machine for the production of new workers is thus an insight Engels had a century earlier.

Engels views the monogamous family as an economic unit, the site of the first division of labor, the first class opposition, and the first class oppression. Monogamy is anchored in private property, in a system where men can earn, own, and inherit and women cannot. The wife is a servant; her labor is confined to the private family. Engels emphasizes that “the modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife” [5]. But not all wives: proletarian women, in fact, have a degree of freedom that bourgeois women lack. Earning wages in factories, proletarian women may be their families’ primary breadwinners, thereby eliminating any material basis for male superiority and increasing proletarian women’s independence. Engels is not naïve here. He fully recognizes the conflict between work within the household and employment in waged labor; there is not time for a woman to do both. But rather than urging a private solution to the problem, one where individual couples redistribute their household labor, Engels socializes it: women’s liberation depends on their participation in public production and the abolition of the monogamous family. In contrast to Federici, then, Engels sees a liberating dimension to capitalist development, especially from the perspective of proletarian women. Opportunities to earn could also be opportunities to break away from the confines of family and community life. A decrease in the drudgery of household labor could increase possibilities of freedom.

Would Federici’s analysis have been different had she taken Engels into account? Maybe not. Her focus is on the European Middle Ages and the transition to capitalism because she finds much to admire in the way of life of oppressed yet relatively self-sufficient serfs. She ignores patriarchal relations within peasant households and the constraining expectations associated with close-knit agrarian communities. Engels himself has relatively little to say about the Middle Ages in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State; he considers the period primarily in terms of codes of chivalry and the ideal of romantic, sexual love. His concern is with the connections between the family and private property, not with the emergence of capitalism.

The difference in their approaches hinges not on the consideration of women but on the assessment of feudalism. In other words, it’s a question of timing: at what historical point and through which historical processes are women subjugated? Engels see the pre-bourgeois, pre-capitalist family as an economic and hierarchical arrangement of production and reproduction dependent on private property. The defeat of women happens in pre-history; relations between production and reproduction are dialectically inter-related such that changes over time can have both liberating and oppressive dimensions. Concentrating on the feudal peasantry, Federici presents arrangements that are cooperative and self-sufficient. The sexual division of labor is a source of strength: peasant women often carried out their work of spinning and harvesting together. They experienced community and solidarity, not deprivation and isolation. Federici thus presents capitalism as a reactionary social development that undermines the position of women.

Capitalism’s violent rise

Caliban and the Witch analyses the end of feudalism and rise of capitalism in Europe. The book includes a discussion of new understandings of the will, Reason, and the body that appear in 17th century philosophy; numerous reflections on the continuities of capitalist violence across the centuries; and a unique focus on witch burning as an instrument of terror designed to divide and subjugate communities. This history of some of the most extreme political violence against women—especially older women, outsider women, peasant women, and women with unique knowledge–has added to Caliban and the Witch’s appeal to feminist readers longing for more attention to women’s place in the history of capitalism. Although the account of witches and witch-burning is central to its appeal, the theoretical core of Federici’s argument is its account of capitalism’s violent rise.

Painting with a broad brush that blurs together various times and places, Federici presents capitalism as the effect of a counter-revolution responding to centuries of anti-feudal struggle. Peasants opposed conscription into military service, increases in demands on their labor, arbitrary taxation, and encroachments on the commons on which they relied for food and fuel. In the cities day laborers and artisans rebelled against the nobility and the merchant bourgeoisie. Movements of heretics not only stood up against Church authority but offered alternative approaches to sexuality and reproduction. Because of women’s leadership in heretic communities, Federici finds evidence in these struggles of a grassroots women’s movement aimed toward abolishing hierarchies and establishing egalitarian social relations. The Black Death’s decimation of the population increased the power of workers and peasants; employers had to compete for their labor. Entire villages withheld rent and services. One of the ways that the ruling class reacted to this eruption of power from below was by undermining class solidarity through vicious sexual warfare. The rape of proletarian women was de-criminalized. Prostitution was institutionalized in state-managed brothels.

Federici emphasizes that the rise of capitalism was also a response to a crisis in accumulation. In part because of the people’s incessant rebellion and refusal to work, the feudal economy became unable to reproduce itself. In search of new sources of wealth, the European ruling class turned to “conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in brief, force” [6]. Marx describes this turn to force in his powerful critique of bourgeois political economy’s conception of primitive accumulation in part eight of Capital. The wealth of the early capitalists was not a result of hard work, frugality, and intelligence, but of state sanctions and extra-legal violence that separated workers from their land, deprived them of the means of subsistence, and forced them to sell their labor power in order to survive.

This European dimension of primitive accumulation was accompanied by and dependent on the extraction of gold and silver from colonized lands, colonialism, genocide, and the trade in African slaves. Even as this very point comes from Capital, Federici argues that Marx’s analysis takes the perspective of the “waged industrial proletariat” and the formation of the “’free’ independent worker” [7]. She charges him with neglecting the impacts of primitive accumulation on the social position of women and reproduction of labor power. Had Marx attended to these impacts, he would have recognized how primitive accumulation was “also an accumulation of differences and divisions within the working class” [8]. Such a recognition would have prevented Marx from associating capitalism with anything like progress. He would have understood that capitalism has only ever imposed division and ever more brutal forms of enslavement.

Much of Federici’s redescription of primitive accumulation deepens and extends Marx’s account. She draws out the specific impacts of land privatization and “enclosures” on rural life. Deprived of the commons that gave them access to wood for fuel, to berries and herbs, as well as to small game and grazing land, peasants’ diets declined significantly. Starvation increased. Loss of the commons had social effects as well; social space was eliminated and family and community ties unraveled. This loss was particularly hard on women who were less able to take to the roads in search of work (because of the ways this exposed them to violence and because of their caregiving responsibilities) and whose lack of access to means of subsistence made them dependent on others for survival. Devalued as unproductive, domestic labor in the home was rendered as women’s natural duty. Women were also excluded from non-domestic shop and craft work. Such exclusion and confinement was codified in law as women became barred from entering contracts, earning wages, or owning property on their own. In short, the more production was oriented to the market, the more it became separated from reproductive labor.

Federici locates women’s “historic defeat” in this new sexual division of labor [9]. She argues that proletarian women in particular became a new commons, the substitute for the land that had been expropriated and enclosed. Women’s work was like a “natural resource,” freely available and requiring neither consent nor compensation. She associates this transformation of women into a commons with the “patriarchy of the wage.” The specific dependence of proletarian women on their husbands arose not simply from their exclusion from waged work but from the fact that even when they were included in waged work their husbands were entitled to their wages.

Federici does not present this point as an explicit expansion of Marx. Yet Marx makes a related observation in his discussion of machinery in Capital. Noting how the addition of machinery makes the capitalist hungry for the cheaper labor of women and children, Marx writes, “Previously the worker sold his own labor-power, which he disposed of as a free-agent, formally speaking. Now he sells wife and child. He has become a slave-dealer” [10]. The absence of a woman’s right to her own wage explains why the proletarian husband “sells” his wife and child. He takes the wage that she earns. So while Marx did not analyze the position of women as analogous to a commons (although he did critique bourgeois marriage as a system of wives in common and he did assert that “the bourgeois sees in his wife a mere instrument of production”), he did not ignore the brutal, degrading, and immiserating effects of capitalism on women [11].

Moreover, Marx’s discussion of the production of a relative surplus-population of workers and the various segments of the industrial reserve army in Capital, as well as his writing on the “Irish question,” documents the ways in which capital–as it produces the social collective laborer–works at the same time to create new and intensify existing divisions within the proletariat. Marx’s point in Capital was to show how even those who are unemployed or without work–including the “dangerous classes” that don’t enter into the workforce–are still members of the working class. Rather than privileging the “waged industrial proletariat” as the exclusive result of and revolutionary force for defeating capitalism, Marx insisted that, when we look at capital as a totality, “the working-class, even when not directly engaged in the labour-process, is just as much an appendage of capital as the ordinary instruments of labor” [12]. As such, this expansive class of workers and the oppressed constitutes the immense counter-power with the interest in and capacity to abolish capitalist exploitation.

In his discussion of primitive accumulation and the enclosure movement, Marx addresses the role of state power in expropriating peasants of their land. Federici also looks at the role of the state, highlighting two ways that it was involved in women’s defeat. The state’s preoccupation with population growth led it to attempt to seize control over reproduction and force women to procreate. Severe penalties were instituted against contraception, abortion, and infanticide. Midwifery was brought under the supervision of male doctors. The state also instituted forms of public assistance where food would be distributed to poor people incarcerated in work-houses. Federici argues that this assistance marks “the first recognition of the unsustainability of a capitalist system ruling exclusively by means of hunger and terror” [13]. As it provided minimal aid to people impoverished by capitalism, the state functioned to guarantee class relations, ensuring capitalists of a reserve army of workers. The state thus took responsibility for the reproduction of capitalism as a system.

State terror against women was aided by the amplification of misogyny. Cultural representations of women became increasingly negative. Women were demonized as witches, accused of various crimes and vices, and generally positioned as inferior and in need of domination.

Correlative to the subjugation of women was the subjugation of the colonies. Colonial expansion, as Marx acknowledged, entailed both the traffic in African slaves and the conquest and genocide of indigenous people. Again cultural resources were mobilized to entrench division: “a segregated, racist society was instituted from above” [14]. Just as the state deprived women of rights of ownership and contract, so did new legislation deprive black and indigenous people of previously held rights, ultimately making slavery a heritable condition. The preoccupation with fertility and reproduction intensified, now concentrated on the forced breeding of an enslaved workforce. Importantly, Federici does not blame white European workers for the conditions encountered by colonized and enslaved workers. She correctly faults the ruling class, demonstrating how it continued to use the wage as an instrument for dividing and disciplining labor. Workers across the Atlantic were linked in a global assembly line. Raw materials like sugar, cotton, and tobacco tied plantation labor to factory labor, the unwaged to the waged. Common experiences of oppression linked servants, debtors, criminals, and slaves in communities of resistance which the ruling class attempted to break through the establishment of racial categories and racist ideology.

Federici pays particular attention to the creativity of enslaved Caribbean women. Artificially low rates of reproduction in the colonies suggest that these women refused to procreate, despite the efforts of the slave-masters to breed them. On some islands, enslaved women not only kept household gardens but produced crops sufficient enough to feed their households and take to market for exchange. They continued even as cultivating and selling were outlawed, deepening their connections with each other and to some white proletarian women. Federici admires the way enslaved Caribbean women developed “a politics of self-reliance, grounded in survival strategies and female networks” [15]. She suggests that they were, in a sense, free even before they were legally emancipated. As with her account of European serfs, Federici highlights the conditions of subsistence over the form of labor, that is, over whether labor is formally free.

The accumulation of differences

An array of criticisms can be leveled against Caliban and the Witch: Federici misrepresents Marx; the argument is insufficiently dialectical; the historical account is so broad and imprecise that it fails to depict the very real differences across Europe during the Middle Ages and, in fact, it fails even to specify the years and territories under consideration. These criticisms would not be unfair. But they would miss the significance of the book for anti-capitalist feminism. Federici models an analysis attentive to capitalism’s investment in the production and intensification of differences. She brings out how capitalism amplified differences between men in woman as a way of diminishing powerful women and breaking working class unity. She depicts the same process at work in colonialism as racism was enforced from the top so as to prohibit and even demonize contact between white people and black and indigenous people. Instead of anchoring herself in liberal intersectionality theory, Federici traces the struggles of the oppressed and excluded, the solidarities that capitalism always seeks to destroy.

Federici implies that Marx was inattentive to the misery capitalism brought and continues to bring to working people. Nothing could be further from the truth! He ceaselessly drew out the miseries and horrors of the capitalist system, depicting it as monstrous and vampiric, entailing “reckless terrorism.” But he recognized the tremendous capacity that accrues to workers when they combine their energies – both in production and in politics. It was the capitalist mode of production that created the conditions for this broad-based, even international, solidarity. Under capitalism, this productive capacity is oriented toward profit, the accumulation of capital in the hands of the capitalists, and divisions within the working class are intensified to serve these needs. Under socialism, workers’ creative and productive capacities will be oriented toward meeting the needs of the people and the planet so that all may flourish.

[1] Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Autonomedia 2004) 12.
[2] Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, trans. Tristram Hunt (Penguin Books, 2010) 35. Engels tells us that his book is reconstructed from Marx’s own notes
[3] Ibid., 87. Italics in original.
[4] Ibid., 87.
[5] Ibid., 105.
[6] Federici, Caliban and the Witch, 62. Quoting Marx, Capital, vol. 1.
[7] Ibid., 63.
[8] Ibid., 63.
[9] Ibid., 97.
[10] Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (Penguin Books, 1990) 519.
[11] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party
[12] Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 718.
[13] Federici, Caliban and the Witch, 84.
[14] Ibid., 108.
[15] Ibid., 113.