“Marx remained wedded to a technologistic concept of revolution, where freedom comes through the machine”
Silvia Federici (1942-) is a feminist scholar, writer, teacher, and activist. She is a powerful critic of capitalism and the way in which it continues to enclose, or privatise, the commons to accumulate wealth in private hands.
According to her, colonial expropriation and the methodical subjugation of women, together with the appropriation of their labour, form part of this bigger picture.
She wrote in 2011: “The neo-liberal attempt to subordinate every form of life and knowledge to the logic of the market has heightened our awareness of the danger of living in a world in which we no longer have access to seas, trees, animals, and our fellow beings except through the cash-nexus”. (1)
She has also highlighted women’s role in resisting industrial capitalism and supporting the healthier alternative of subsistence farming.
In her book Caliban and the Witch, Federici rejects the conventional wisdom that a “transition to capitalism” occurred as some kind of natural social evolution.
Federici argues that capitalism was in fact the reaction of the ruling elite against their potential loss of control.
She writes: “Capitalism was the counter-revolution that destroyed the possibilities that had emerged from the anti-feudal struggle – possibilities which, if realized, might have spared us the immense destruction of lives and the natural environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide. This much must be stressed, for the belief that capitalism ‘evolved’ from feudalism and represents a higher form of social life has not yet been dispelled”. (2)
Federici describes the Middle Ages as a period of “relentless class struggle” in which “the medieval village was the theater of daily warfare” (3)
“Everywhere masses of people resisted the destruction of their former ways of existence, fighting against land privatization, the abolition of customary rights, the imposition of new taxes, wage-dependence, and the continuous presence of armies in their neighbourhoods, which was so hated that people rushed to close the gates of their towns to prevent soldiers from settling among them”. (4)
In order to impose capitalism on the unwilling people, the power elite used what Federici terms “social enclosure”. (5) She writes: “In pursuit of social discipline, an attack was launched against all forms of collective sociality and sexuality including sports, games, dances, ale-wakes, festivals, and other group-rituals that had been a source of bonding and solidarity among workers”. (6)
“Taverns were closed, along with public baths. Nakedness was penalized, as were many other ‘unproductive’ forms of sexuality and sociality. It was forbidden to drink, swear, curse”. (7)
The rich elite tried to create “a new type of individual” (8) – a servile, malleable and thus profitable type. To this end it set out to separate us from our bodies and from our very sense of who we are, says Federici.
“According to Max Weber, the reform of the body is at the core of the bourgeois ethic because capitalism makes acquisition ‘the ultimate purpose of life,’ instead of treating it as a means for the satisfaction of our needs; thus it requires that we forfeit all spontaneous enjoyment of life. Capitalism also attempts to overcome our ‘natural state,’ by breaking the barriers of nature and by lengthening the working day beyond the limits set by the sun, the seasonal cycles, and the body itself, as constituted in pre-industrial society”. (9)
The communal cohesion traditionally woven by, and among, women was specifically targeted by the ruling class in their efforts to disempower and enslave the common people, she explains.
This took the form of the notorious fearmongering over “witches”, resulting in the murder of untold numbers of innocent women: “The witch-hunt destroyed a whole world of female practices, collective relations and systems of knowledge that had been the foundation of women’s power in pre-capitalist Europe, and the condition for their resistance in the struggle against feudalism”. (10)
She adds: “The witch-hunt deepened the divisions between women and men, teaching men to fear the power of women, and destroyed a universe of pracices, beliefs, and social subjects whose existence was incompatible with the capitalist work discipline”. (11)
The witch hunts were thus part of the general philosophical war being waged by industrial capitalism. Writes Federici: “This is how we must read the attack against witchcraft and against that magical view of the world which, despite the efforts of the Church, had continued to prevail on a popular level through the Middle Ages. At the basis of magic was an animistic conception of nature that did not admit to any separation between matter and spirit, and thus imagined the cosmos as a living organism, populated by occult forces, where every element was in ‘sympathetic’ relation with the rest”. (12)
She also describes in Caliban and the Witch (2004) how in the first phase of capitalist development, women were at the forefront of the struggle against land enclosures both in England and in the “New World” and they were the staunchest defenders of the communal cultures that European colonisation tried to destroy.
In Peru, when the Spanish conquistadores took control of their villages, women fled to the high mountains where they recreated forms of collective life that have survived to this day.
She notes in the essay ‘Feminism and the Politics of the Commons’: “Not surprisingly, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the most violent attack on women in the history of the world: the persecution of women as witches.
“Today, in the face of a new process of Primitive Accumulation, women are the main social force standing in the way of a complete commercialization of nature, supporting a noncapitalist use of land and a subsistence-oriented agriculture”. (13)
Federici adds that women are the subsistence farmers of the world. In Africa, they produce 80% of the food consumed, despite the attempts made by the World Bank and other agencies to convince them to divert their activities to cash-cropping, she says.
In the 1990s, in many African towns, in the face of rising food prices, they appropriated plots in public lands and planted corn and beans along roadsides, in parks and along rail-lines, changing the urban landscape of African cities and breaking down the separation between town and country in the process.
In India, the Philippines, and across Latin America, women replanted trees in degraded forests, joined hands to chase away loggers, made blockades against mining operations and the construction of dams, and led the revolt against the privatization of water.
Federici sees the roots of women’s position in contemporary society as a direct result of capitalism and its industrialisation of society.
In a 2014 interview she set out how capitalism constructed the figure of the housewife as part of its dehumanising productivism.
She said the process began in the 16th and 17th centuries with the bifurcation of work activities so that only some were recognized as work: “Only waged labor is valued, and waged reproductive activities begin to disappear. That’s the first fundamental, foundational step”. (14)
By the 17th century, women were being expelled in Europe from most of the occupations they had outside the home, she explained.
Soon they could only obtain forms of employment that were forms of housework, as nurses, wetnurses, maids, washerwomen, and so on. A new form of worker emerged who was increasingly invisibilised.
By the second half of the 19th century, we began to see a very determined construction of the full-time working class housewife.
That was demonstrated by a whole set of policies, the beginning of the ‘family wage’, the expulsion of women through different protection acts from the factories, the institution of the marriage act.
She added: “It’s a very long story, but it’s clear that housework is work that has been subsumed to the capitalist organization of work. In fact, it is part of the assembly line that produces the workforce”. (15)
This feminist critique has led Federici to criticise Karl Marx for accepting the capitalist criteria for what constitutes work and imagining that waged industrial work was the stage on which the battle for humanity’s emancipation would be played.
She writes that “Marx ignored women’s reproductive labor because he remained wedded to a technologistic concept of revolution, where freedom comes through the machine, where the increase in the productivity of labor is assumed to be the material foundation for communism, and where the capitalist organization of work is viewed as the highest model of historical rationality, held up for every other form of production, including the reproduction of the work-force”. (16)
Federici’s other books include Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons (2018) and Witches, Witch-Hunting, and Women (2018).
Video link: 8 Minutes with Silvia Federici
1. Silvia Federici, ‘Feminism And the Politics of the Commons’, https://libcom.org/library/feminism-politics-commons
2. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch (Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2004), pp. 21-22.
3. Federici, Caliban and the Witch, p. 26.
4. Federici, Caliban and the Witch, p. 82.
5. Federici, Caliban and the Witch, p. 84.
6. Federici, Caliban and the Witch, p. 83.
7. Federici, Caliban and the Witch, p. 137.
8. Federici, Caliban and the Witch, p. 135.
10. Federici, Caliban and the Witch, p. 103.
11. Federici, Caliban and the Witch, p. 165.
12. Federici, Caliban and the Witch, pp. 141-42.
13. Federici, ‘Feminism And the Politics of the Commons’.
14. ‘The Making of Capitalist Patriarchy’: Interview with Silvia Federici,
16. Silvia Federici, ‘The Reproduction of Labor Power in the Global Economy and the Unfinished Feminist Revolution’