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Federici’s “Caliban and the Witch” and Capitalism Essay

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Updated: May 9th, 2021

Sylvia Federici explores the building blocks of capitalism in her renowned book Caliban and the Witch. The main thesis of the book is multilayered and addresses the development of capitalism and the role women, as well as violence, played in the process. Federici also questions Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation, or rather, reveals the points that remained untouched by the famous theorist. This paper includes a brief analysis of the major points of the book and the way they relate to Marx’s ideas concerning primitive accumulation.

The central idea of the book is concerned with violence that is regarded as the most potent instrument to deprive people of their resources. This idea is consistent with Marx’s perspective since the theorist believed that elites used power to bereave land and other resources of people. This was done to leave once free peasants without any means except for their labor or bodies as the production tools of this waged labor. Federici continuously stresses that the deprivation of the communal land was accompanied by peasants’ riots and rebels. These actions led to favorable outcomes in the 15th century since peasants received high wages and women had equal opportunities. However, the government and ruling elites used violence to take these resources away.

A new insight provided by Federici that widens the scope of Marx’s perspective is related to violence against women. Marx pays little attention to the matter. Federici makes it clear that violent acts against women were central to the development of capitalism because the feudal order was associated with strong matriarchal values. For instance, women were often leaders of peasants’ rebels, so the ruling groups made sure that females’ lives became confined to their households.

Federici shows that discriminatory regulations made women slaves in the world of men as the former received low wages (a third of male earnings), had to do low-paid jobs, and were unable to find employment. Marx’s idea of primitive accumulation can be applied to the enslavement of females because women’s resources were taken from them. The author also points at violence against African people (who were turned into slaves) and Native Americans (who were almost completely exterminated).

The enslavement of women had many layers since female bodies were made machines supporting the new economic order. Federici stresses that the acknowledgment of the importance of a big population of the country made ruling elites violate women’s rights to control their own bodies. Women’s reproduction activity was completely controlled by men. This goal was achieved through violence. The author emphasizes that although some think that the notorious Witch Hunt was one of the last manifestations of feudalism, it was one of the instruments of capitalism.

Elites pursued women who could hinder the spread of new values associated with the image of a woman who had the role of a perfect wife and mother. Midwives were subjected to elimination as a class since they were suspected of conducting abortions. Male doctors replaced midwives to ensure complete control over the female body as a machine of reproduction.

On balance, it is possible to note that the main point of the book is that the enslavement of women was one of the central instruments for the establishment of capitalism in Europe and later in the New World. Ruling elites took complete control over female bodies, turning them into machines of reproduction and cheap labor. Federici’s ideas add more facets to Marx’s concept of primitive accumulation since the author brings to the fore the role of women in this process.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Federici's "Caliban and the Witch" and Capitalism'. 9 May.

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