Feminist Theory Week 2: Sylvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch

This is the second installment of me blogging my way through the course texts for my spring 2018 seminar in feminist theory. Today we read selections of Federici’s Caliban and the Witch.


This is a classic text in feminist theory. It argues two main things:


As Europe transitioned from common ownership to private ownership and enclosed both the European commons and colonial terra nullius (null land, land that’s not owned by an individual as their private property), women became, for men, what the commons had previously been for everyone. “For in pre-capitalist Europe women’s subordination to men had been tempered by the fact that they had access to the commons and other conununal assets, while in the new capitalist regime women themselves became the commons, as their work was defined as a natural resource, laying outside the sphere of market relations” (97;emphasis added). European women, their labor and their bodies, were things that anyone could access without asking women’s consent: “a communal good anyone could appropriate and use at will” (97). If private property is that which cannot be intruded upon without consent, then commons don’t require consent or permission for intruding upon them. (It’s obvious how this idea that men are entitled to women’s labor and bodies without needing to ask women for their consent persists in contemporary Western culture.) As Federici explains, “every woman (other than those privatized by bourgeois men) became a communal good, for once women’s activities were defined as non-work, women’s labor began to appear as a natural resource, available to al, no less than the air we breathe or the water we drink” (97).

So not every woman is a commons. Those married to bourgeois men were their private property. Here we see a hint of how marriage is a private property relation. Unlike enslaved women, who were fully owned by white masters, white wives had to initially consent to become property–that’s what a marriage contract is (“Do you promise to honor and obey….?”) If proletarian European women were a commons, this means that their gender status is slightly different than enslaved women, who were private property; so the racialized gender distinction is a distinction between two types of property relation: commons and private property. Both the commons and private property can be intruded upon without consent: the former by anyone, the latter by its owner.

A few questions:

  1. How does Federici’s analysis of gender and race as different kinds of property relations work intersectionally? In other words, what about black women? Or, perhaps, was it the case that black women’s status as private property cancelled out their use as a commons, so they weren’t gendered ‘feminine’ in the normal/hegemonic way?
  2. The idea that sex is biology and gender is social role is common in women’s studies. But Federici argues that gender isn’t a social role related to body type, but a property relation defined by gender status. If we buy her argument here, does this mean that the appeal to bodies was just an attempt to naturalize (i.e., make seem natural) what’s actually a totally artificial property relation that ultimately has little to do with so-called sex organs?



Late 20th and early 21st century neoliberalism–especially the kinds of reform the World Bank and IMF impose on so-called “third world” nations (but which were pioneered in NYC in the 1970s)–are reproducing that exact same process of enclosure in new contexts. For example, Federici claims that the practices of enclosure–and all the forms of white supremacist patriarchal domination and violence that went with them–are “comparable to that which has occurred in our time throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, in the countries “structurally adjusted” by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund” (76). These ‘economic’ reforms are also reforms in gender and racial relations, both locally and globally. We are seeing “a new round of primitive accumulation” that takes the form of “regulat[ing[ procreation rates, and, in this case, reduce the size of a population that was deemed too demanding and indisciplined from the viewpoint of its prospected insertion in the global economy” (Preface). Many of the texts we read in this class will address some aspect of this claim, especially the Murphy.

Some questions:

  1. If neoliberalism is in fact enacting a parallel process of enclosure, how are the gendered logics Federici identifies in early modern Europe translated to contemporary Western culture? For example, was GamerGate and its anti-SJW campaign a kind of contemporary witch hunt? How are women dispossessed of their productive and reproductive labor?

Additional points for consideration:

  1. Federici points out that Enlightenment “men of Science” who were otherwise absolutely skeptical of mystical stuff like sorcery consistently wrote in favor of killing witches (168). So this means that cultural objections to witchcraft weren’t scientific or religious, but “political” (168). How might this fact help us think about more contemporary uses of “science” to advocate for misogynist practices, such as the infamous Anti-Diversity Manifesto written by a Google employee? What’s the political project behind these contemporary phenomena? How is it related to the political project behind witchcraft, especially given Federici’s parallel btw neoliberalism & the original period of enclosure & primitive accumulation?
  2. Federici argues that part of capitalism involves “the transformation of female sexuality into work” (192). What does this mean? How is it manifest in 21st century life?
  3. Federici discusses the historical intertwining of witch hunts performed to newly/becoming white women in Europe and witch hunts and devil worshiping charges performed on non-whites in colonies (198). This suggests that intersectionality is actually a historical phenomenon: patriarchy and white supremacy were built together, in mutually influencing ways. If we take intersectionality as a way to describe the architecture of both the concepts of race and gender and the material/intellectual histories of white supremacist patriarchy, how does this impact how we use intersectionality as a concept, rubric, or analytic to talk about contemporary stuff? Is this understanding I’m proposing via Federici similar to or different from what you take to be the dominant uses of the term today in both academic and non-academic spaces?
  4. Federici writes that “in the history of capitalism,”going back” was a means of stepping forward, from the viewpoint of establishing the conditions for capital accumulation” (203). Is the public re-emergence of Nazis an instance of such “going back”? How might white supremacist fascists be part of a new type of primitive accumulation/enclosure? What’s getting taken from the public? By whom?