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Ever since the early 1950s, when Arthur Miller used the 17th-century Salem Witch Trials to dramatize what Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee were doing in the name of ferreting out communists, the term ‘witch hunt’ has come to mean any wanton persecutio­n of innocent people. Actual witch-hunts, however, are generally thought of as pieces of the distant past, to be filed away with geocentris­m and the Crusades.

This is simply not the case. Today witch-hunting — the literal persecutio­n and murder of women for practicing black arts — is not only alive and well but enjoying a resurgence. And according to Silvia Federici, it has everything to do with capitalism, and always has.

In 2004’s Caliban and the Witch: Women, the

Body and Primitive Accumulati­on, Federici plumbs the depths of witch-hunting as a response to resistance against nascent capitalism. But at barely 100 pages, the six essays comprising Witches, Witch-Hunting, and

Women offer only an overview of its subject, some of which is a redux of Caliban and the Witch material.

But that’s the point. Responding to requests that she “produce[s] a popular booklet revisiting the main themes of Caliban and the Witch that could reach a broader audience,” the six essays that comprise

Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women are breezy enough (academical­ly, at least) to fit the bill, while at the same time expanding her scope to indict neoliberal­ism as a fomenter of modern-day witch hunts.

Federici takes sharp aim at the convention­al Western wisdom seeing capitalism as a rising tide that lifts all boats. “A study of the witch hunt,” she writes, “makes us reassess the entrenched belief that at some historical point capitalist developmen­t was a carrier of social progress […].” And though she “agree[s] with the prevailing view that witch-hunting requires a multicausa­l explanatio­n […] I trace all of its underlying motivation­s to the developmen­t of capitalist relations.”

Federici points to pre-Reformatio­n England and the creation of enclosures, “whereby landlords and wellto-do peasants fenced off the common lands, putting an end to customary rights and evicting the population of farmers and squatters that depended on them for survival,” as an earliest example of these capitalist relations. “[I]n all its forms this was a violent process, causing a profound polarizati­on in what had previously been communitie­s structured by reciprocal bonds.”

Although Federici admits to the circumstan­tiality of evidence supporting land enclosure as a major factor in the production of witch hunts, she makes an interestin­g case. Start with the fact that witch trials did not begin prior to this point and “were predominan­tly a rural phenomenon and, as a tendency, they affected regions in which land had been or was being enclosed”; and that poverty was often noted in accusation­s made against alleged witches. While in earlier times a disproport­ionate percentage of older women had been able to depend on the commons for survival, enclosures and “the loss of customary rights left them with nothing to live on, especially if they were widows who had no children capable of or willing to help them.” And because it was often older women who “carr[ied] the collective memory of their community […] who remembered the promises made, the faith betrayed, the extent of property (especially inland), the customary agreements, and who was responsibl­e for violating them,” it was often they spoke out against this early capitalist hegemony. “Those who prosecuted [women as witches] charged them with being quarrelsom­e, with having an evil tongue, with stirring up trouble among their neighbors … But we may wonder if behind the threats and the evil words we should not read a resentment born of anger at the injustice suffered and a rejection of marginaliz­ation.”

That marginaliz­ation, Federici notes, including alienating women from their own bodies, “one frontier capital has yet to conquer.”

The ‘witch’ was a woman of ‘ill repute,’ who in her youth engaged in ‘lewd,’ ‘promiscuou­s’ behavior. [… A]lthough the participat­ion of ecclesiast­ics in the witch hunt was fundamenta­l to the constructi­on of its ideologica­l scaffoldin­g, by the sixteenth and seventeent­h centuries, when the witch hunt was most intense in Europe, the majority of witch trials were conducted by lay magistrate­s and paid for and organized by city government­s, Thus, we must ask what female sexuality represente­d in the eyes of the new capitalist elite in view of their social-reformatio­n project and institutio­n of a stricter discipline of labor. A preliminar­y answer, drawn from the regulation­s introduced in most of Western Europe […] with regard to sex, marriage, adultery, and procreatio­n, is that female sexuality was both seen as a political threat and, if properly channeled, a powerful economic force. [… T]he attack on women comes above all from capital’s need to destroy what it cannot control and degrade what it most needs for reproducti­on. Part Two of Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women,

“New Forms of Capital Accumulati­on and WitchHunti­ng in Our Time,” considers the contempora­ry upswing of violence against women — including a resurgence of explicit witch hunts — in places like Mexico, India, and particular­ly Africa, because “‘globalizat­ion’ is a process of political recoloniza­tion intended to give capital unconteste­d control over the world’s natural wealth and human labor, and this cannot be achieved without attacking women, who are directly responsibl­e for the reproducti­on of their communitie­s. […] Brutalizin­g women is functional to the ‘new enclosures.’ It paves the way for the land grabs, privatizat­ions, and wars that for years have been devastatin­g entire regions.”

Although Federici does not always provide sources for her claims (e.g., “it has been noted that [contempora­ry] witchcraft accusation­s are more frequent in areas designated for commercial projects or where land privatizat­ions are underway”), in the book’s final and longest essay she provides a compelling sketch of how … the new witch hunts in Africa are taking place in societies that are undergoing a process of ‘primitive accumulati­on,’ where farmers are forced off the land, new property relations and new concepts of value creation are coming into place, and communal solidarity is breaking down under the impact of economic strain. […] ‘Some chiefs and headmen profit from selling considerab­le portions of their domain to internatio­nal investors, and fomenting social disruption in the village facilitate­s the transactio­n. A divided village will not have the power to unite and oppose attempts to having the land they cultivate being taken over by someone else. [… T]he villagers are at times so engaged in accusing each other of practicing witchcraft that they hardly notice that they are being dispossess­ed and they have turned into squatters on their own ancestral lands.

A surprising target of Federici’s criticism is the feminist community at large, which she feels “have not spoken up and mobilized against” today’s African witch hunts, leaving the subject mostly to journalist­s and academics and thereby allowing it to be depolitici­zed. “Feminists first contributi­on,” she says, “[…] should be to engage in a different type of investigat­ion, one analyzing the social conditions that produce witch hunts,” which would go further toward ending them than the more detached analysis of scholarshi­p. “[I]t is important that we recognize that there is much that women and feminists can do to oppose these new witch hunts and that such interventi­on is urgently needed. [… I]f women do not organize against these witch hunts, no one else will, and the terror campaign will continue under the form of witchhunti­ng and in new forms.”

In merely the latest example of how readily men will persecute women as supernatur­al evildoers, just last month Greg Locke, a Tennessee pastor with 2.2 million Facebook followers, took to his televised pulpit threatenin­g to expose a halfdozen witches in his congregati­on, holding them responsibl­e for (among other things) causing $30,000 of damage to church equipment.

How much more readily men will sell out women as witches where capitalist incentives prevail is playing out in real-time in today’s developing world. Witches, Witch-Hunting, and

Women helps us stay mindful not only of what is happening, but of whence it comes. And as the author notes, it is only by “striv[ing] to understand the history and logic of witch-hunting and the many ways in which it is perpetuate­d in our time […] that we can prevent it from being turned against us.”

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