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
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.





Mitra is Research Coordinator at CBGA, New Delhi



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.