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WITCHES, WITCH-HUNTING, AND WOMEN
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.”