Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Women’s Oppression as a Tool for Accumulation

Sona Mitra


A book review of 'Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation' by Silvia Federici, Phoneme, New Delhi, 2013, pp. 285, Rs. 350.00

It is indeed ironical that I was reading to review this absolutely brilliant book by Sylvia Federici around Halloween, which narrates the dark saga of Witch Hunts in Europe during the 15th-17th Century. In fact Witch-Hunts had consumed Europe for more than 200 years, a practice that coincided with the rise of capitalism in Europe. In this extremely thought-provoking book, Federici explores the origins of capitalism rooted in the severity of oppression of workers and within that, in the brutal subjugation of women.

The book is an excellent documentation of the history of the European peasant movements that fought against the oppression of their time. In a way, the book attempts to recount the story of the making of the European working class from a Feminist-Marxist perspective. The author has tried to connect the defeat of these movements to the imposition of a new patriarchal order that divided the male and the female, especially the working class, a division that has been entrenched into the structure of capitalism so deep, that it continues to be the basis of discrimination faced by women in general, and women workers in particular, within the labour market across the global spectrum.


In Caliban, Federici’s major submission has been that Witch Hunts in Europe since the medieval period formed a core component of the primitive accumulation by alienating the woman from her body (reproductive rights).  By the Marxian definition, in the transition to capitalism, ‘primitive accumulation’ is described as the process of accumulation in which the producer is separated from the means of production. In this case, Federici identifies the woman as the producer and her body as the means of production for social reproduction and that the violence against women during the period was in fact the social reorganisation and disciplining of women’s reproductive labor. Federici’s submission here is an addition to what Marx had theorized in the context of the peasants’ productive labor. In short, the author brings in a feminist strand within a Marxist understanding of the development of capitalism in Europe. In this context the book has argued that while this process of primitive accumulation created the great division of labour between the masses of working class or the proletariats and the ruling class or capitalists, it also created the historical sexual division of labour wherein control over women’s reproductive labor by the new ruling classes was a precondition for the production of surplus value in the development of capitalist relations of production.


The book derives its background from mainly two different strands of thought within the feminist movement. The first derives mainly from the ideas centered on Selma James, Mariarosa Dalla Costa and the Wages for Housework Campaign (1972), which exposed the way in which women’s unpaid labour, especially housework, conforms to the Marxist definition of exploitation. It further argues that a large part of the market production within capitalism receives a real material benefit from women’s care work as it offloads the cost of social reproduction of wage-workers on to the female proletariat.


The second idea centres on the struggles of women in the Global South, where women’s movements first exposed the hidden relationship between capitalism, violence, and patriarchal oppression and derives greatly from the ideas expressed in Mies’ Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale. The arguments reflected that violence and sexism have always accompanied both the colonialism of the past and present-day neo-colonialist tendencies of the markets. Mies’ arguments synthesized these aspects based on the experiences of the Indian feminist movement and convincingly showed how accumulation continues to depend on the unwaged labour of women as well as the dispossession of peasants specifically in the countries with a colonial past. Mies argues,“Proletarian men do have an interest in the domestication of their female class companions. The material interest consists, on the one hand, in the man’s claim to monopolize available wage-work, on the other, in the claim to have control over all money income in the family”. (Maria Mies, 1998. Accumulation and Patriarchy on a World Scale, Palgrave Macmilan, p.109) 

Federici draws up on this and brings in the Enclosures[1] and a consequent forcible removal of people from their lands and the associated violence and oppression with women at the center of all these emerging processes and evolving social relations. While the author has a very strong Marxist perspective on the process of surplus extraction in the transition evidently exposing the role of the State as facilitator, she also adds to this the role of the Church as institutionalizing force behind such reorganization of social relations based on gender and class.


However the confusing part on class and gender alliances remains in the book. While in certain places Federici makes it clear that working class men undoubtedly exploited the working class women for their own economic and sexual benefits and thus creating a barrier for class solidarity, there exist no explicit discussion on the nature of class. Federici stops at the argument that ‘gender’ can be a specification of class relations.  While there is a lot of interesting and exciting material and information within the book across historical periods and continents, there is also a lot of going back and forth across centuries at a time and jumping from Witch Hunts of Europe to slave trades of Africa and then stretching it all the way to colonization of Americas. This makes the book somewhat difficult to grasp in certain places but could be treated as a minor matter. The book also provides an insight into the myriad occupations that women were engaged during the 15th-17th century Europe, throwing light on the much lesser segregated nature of women’s work and the deepening of occupational segregation of women’s work as part of the process of accumulation and reorganization of social relations of production. The author argues that the processes became successful due to the use of unprecedented physicality involved in women’s oppression.


The strength of the book lies in the arguments made towards increased violence against women and their repression by the re-organised patriarchal order of the ruling classes, terming it as ‘war on women’, as an intrinsic character of the emerging capitalist order. This is especially important in the context of the modern day world order where Witch-Hunts in various forms still continue to coexist with the forms of primitive accumulation. The incidence of economic exploitation works simultaneously with the physical oppression of women. The examples of the fatwas issued against women by the Taliban in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, the constant attack on the fundamental rights of women in the Middle East and Central Asia, the emergence of Khap Panchayats in India, incidence of increased sex-crimes against women in African and South Asian countries and the continued repression of women’s reproductive rights in the civilized Western World as well as the rest of the World with a simultaneous economic exploitation of women workers, especially those of the South, by the Multinational Corporations, in terms of wage and non-wage discrimination against women in the labour markets , are reflections of such tendencies in the modern world. The argument of the author that such physical subjugation of women cannot only be due to the cultural backwardness and surviving feudal traditions of individual societies, but very much a part of the process of the ongoing primitive accumulation required for the formation of the neo-liberal capitalistic order. This is the most important place to apply Federici’s arguments for the present day world order that depends on a large part upon the intense patriarchal subjugation of women.  


By suggesting that the male domination/oppression against women have been necessary for developing more advanced forms of exploitation, Federici paves the way for deepening our understanding on gender, class and the possible collaborations as well as provides a window of opportunity to get a radical exposure to the history of capitalism as well as an attempt to comprehend the future. In this sense, despite certain weaknesses, Caliban and the Witch can be treated as a wonderful classic.



Sona Mitra is Research Coordinator at CBGA, New Delhi

The review was also published in The Book Review in 2014.






[1]In economic history, Enclosures are defined as the process which ends traditional rights on commons and restrict the use of the land to the owner. Under enclosure, land is fenced (enclosed) and deeded to specific owner/s. The process of enclosure began to be a widespread feature of the English agricultural landscape during the 16th century. Historical evidence suggests that the process of enclosure was often accompanied by force and resistance in order to appropriate public land for private benefit of the rich landlords, the process being facilitated by the State, thus creating a landless working class.


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