Image of homelessness from the now-defunct Italian blog Moving & Learning.
Big Pharma loves to invent new ‘diseases’ so that they can then invent dubious new drugs to ‘cure’ them, give them an official-sounding acronym (“ED” for hawking Viagra to men with low self-esteem), and then frighten you into hounding your doctor to ask if their new drug “is right for you”.
Ever since the term Information Sickness was coined, and ever since I started saying that in our modern overcrowded world we’re all suffering from a form of mental illness, I’ve been looking for a label to put on this ‘illness’. So I thought I’d invent a new disease. I’ve decided to call it Civilization Disease. I thought of calling it a ‘sickness’ but the term ‘disease’ is truly ancient, and before the invention of medicine meant literally ‘lack of room or opportunity’. Ancient peoples understood that crowding and confinement really are the causes of ‘dis-ease’.
So having named this new disease, it’s only appropriate that I provide an appropriate medical summary of it : Symptoms & Diagnosis, Causes, Treatment & Prognosis, and Prevention.
Symptoms & Diagnosis:
- Patient frequently appears anxious, distracted or depressed
- Patient seems to be ‘disconnected’ from and distrustful of his/her instincts, feelings, sensory surroundings, and the natural world, all-life-on-Earth, with a tendency to retreat inside his/her head
- Patient fears and hates nature and natural things, and sees nature as something that must be conquered, defeated, overcome
- Patient is constantly competing with and trying to outperform and diminish others
- Patient has delusions that the planet actually ‘belongs’ exclusively to his/her species
- Patient is addicted to consumption unrelated to actual needs or even wants; this addiction is aggravated by encouragement from the corporatist establishment to get hopelessly into debt to feed this insatiable craving for ‘more stuff’
- Patient may in particular be addicted to things made from or requiring oil, things containing artificial sugars, starches, alcohol and salt, and to desensitizing depictions of extreme violence and other activities that stimulate dopamine, adrenaline and testosterone release/reaction
Causes and Sources of Infection:
- Disease is a form of deep-seated and chronic psychosis brought on by sustained trauma, beginning with parental humiliation whenever the infant/child patient’s behaviour is non-conforming, continuing with psychological abuse and ritualized, relentless ‘normalizing’ propaganda from infected peers and adults in the competition-based education system, augmented by an imposed, unnatural hierarchy and scarcity in the ‘work world’ where approval is withheld, criticism and competition are constant, and the constant fear of never having enough, and by media which portray the patient as inadequate, a ‘loser’ and inevitably unhappy until/unless he/she acquires bigger, more and newer stuff
- This continues life-long as the symptoms are reinforced by peers, friends and colleagues suffering from the same disease until the patient begins to believe this behaviour and this situation are normal, the only way to live
- The disease is aggravated by chronic physical and mental malnutrition caused by:
- eating processed, chemical-laden foods lacking in nutritional variety or micro-nutrients,
- a disorienting separation from natural and peaceful places,
- prolonged times spent in cities and other horrifically overcrowded, stressful and unnatural places,
- exposure to unnatural toxins in the air and water, and
- exposure to propaganda agencies that oversimplify complex issues and starve the mind of intellectual stimulation, replacing it with artificial adrenaline and dopamine stimulation.
- The resultant stress responses disorient and confuse the patient until he/she chronically suffers from the symptoms above, and also acquires related physical and mental stress-provoked diseases, notably auto-immune diseases, asthma and allergies, cancers, attention-deficit diseases, and anxiety, depression and bipolar diseases
Treatment & Prognosis:
- Proper treatment is unavailable and unaffordable for the vast majority, who are fated to suffer with the disease from onset in young childhood until death from diseases with related causes
- Patients need to be removed, ideally at a young age, to a natural, healthy, sustainable environment, away from other sufferers, and for a protracted period; there, with therapy from others who have recovered and with practice, they can begin to reconnect with their instincts, senses, feelings and all-life-on-Earth, and come to understand how industrial civilization really works and why it must be dismantled to provide hope to other sufferers, and begin to discover a better way to live and make a living — the prognosis for such patients is good, though the threat of relapse if re-exposed to the above causes is constant
- Until the causes noted above are systemically reduced or eliminated, the prognosis is for the current global epidemic of Civilization Disease to infect every human on the planet, as there is no natural immunity for the disease
- For children not yet infected:
- move the child to a natural, peaceful place, away from the sources of infection above
- unschool the child, to enable him/her to learn naturally
- bring the child up collectively in natural community with others who are not infected
- There is no vaccine for this disease
“You may marvel at the skyscrapers and spacecraft society has built, yet that same social order fails to tell ordinary people what is good to eat, how to find mates, or how to have babies. The same state that [supposedly] sends rockets to the moon fails miserably in every realm of knowledge a primitive society takes for granted. Surely the basic things that concern everyone ought to be resolved long before anyone is worried about space.
Civilization has always been unjust with little care for the needs of most people. Since the first cities, mass society has been a tool to serve the interests of a few who control the land and its resources. The people who showed up to work for shares of surplus grain became cogs in a machine that made someone else’s dreams come true. Not too much changes without there being something in it for those on top of the pyramid. It explains why modern societies can invent intercontinental missiles yet can’t figure out how to prevent fat from going straight to your ass.
The big problem that has always plagued rulers is there’s competitors out there armed with their own social machines. For thousands of years, they’ve been locked in a race, pressured to find a competitive edge. The same old pattern has continued to the present age; even the glorified space race between the US and the Soviets was just a pissing match between rival landlords.
Today, tall buildings stand as monuments of intimidation and legitimacy like the pyramids of old, each looking skyward in awe made to feel like a puny subject. We take these skyscrapers as proof of the natural superiority of the hive and subordinate ourselves to its narrative. In the name of skyscrapers we don’t own, modern medicine we can’t pay for, and spaceships we’ll never fly in, we willingly throw away our lives on the job and on the battlefield. We forget we’re descendants of the first people who traded away their own story to be an extra in a movie about someone else. Generation after generation has ground out with most everyone serving as lesser cells in a body with a mind of its own.
The truth that we’re born-and-bred slave dogs is an unpleasant one. Thankfully, we’re indoctrinated from birth to identify with a concept of civilization that supposedly brings us light and progress. We look up to and cheer for a nation, a culture, a civilization just as a hapless laborer with no struggle of his own finds solace in cheering for a sports team. We follow the news like the sports fan watches a game to gain a false sense of control over the world around us. We may keep score and develop an opinion about big events, but no one asked us what we thought—not the boss, not the woman, especially not the people who make real decisions. No one cares. The news is just a respectable tabloid. We delude ourselves that we’re participants in “something larger.” We’re not. We’re just being dragged along for the ride. Our knowledge or ignorance, consent or lack of consent makes no difference.
At the end of the day it doesn’t matter if some billionaires and government officials sent spaceships to Mars. At least not until you’re in a position where it makes sense to care. If like most people you’re struggling with having enough money to live and enough sex to be content, why do you care? Caring about spaceships and tall buildings is a surplus pursuit fit for the dukes and barons. It’s not for you.
It’s something to think about next time someone waxes sentimental about the “achievements of civilization”™
If you’re really honest with yourself, you’ll realize you’re just a subsistence level peasant. The buildings and technologies aren’t yours, nor do they belong to a gigantic abstract “we.” They’re just properties you’ll be working to rent out until you’re dead. In truth, you’re just a barbarian visitor to this place that other people already built. Your stake in this is imaginary, your sense of participation and self-importance delusional.
Would we be better off just plundering everything the rulers have built? Skyscrapers, moon landings, electricity, vaccines, and cars are impressive monuments that convince us to passively accept that civilization is beneficial, or at least more beneficial than any alternative. But are even hot showers worth a lifetime of humiliating labor? Does a microwave oven justify spending 40 years on a career that helped make someone else rich? Does it really even matter if we’re able to live a few decades longer? We currently spend the first 30 years of life trapped in school, getting more school and simply waiting for older people to die off. Isn’t it actually a better deal to be all worn out by age 50 after living for real from our early teens?
Since the beginning, the trinkets produced by civilization have confused our ability to distinguish between needs and conveniences. We’d never consider joining a society that offered us blu-ray movies but no bread, so why do we stay loyal like hand-licking dogs when we’re offered washing machines and computers but no sex—and with the added ball and chain of a job just to keep us off the streets and out of jail?
Facing reality is tough, but understanding the situation on the ground is the first step to cease being a pawn and look after your own interests, not those of some intangible state or civilization that isn’t even capable of caring you exist—but will gladly drain you dry if you let it. Ironically a detached attitude does more to “make the world a better place” than any amount of well-intentioned idealism. Whether through governments, rents, or wages, we always get offered the worst deal most people are willing to accept.
A populace that understands reality does a better job of looking out for itself to the betterment of everyone. We can be assets to each other rather than competitors. The conveniences of civilization can be worthwhile additions to life but food, shelter, sex, friends, family, leisure, autonomy come first. Whenever we find ourselves filling a black hole with modern distractions we need to make a list of our basic needs and see if they’re being met. Every day, we ought to look past distractions like politics and “entertainment” to ask ourselves: is it really a better deal than we’d get in a grass hut?”
(because I’ve been thinking a lot about all this “witch” shit today and a topic I have yet to ventilate about, lemme continue on by quoting some of Lucy Pearce’s book ‘Burning Woman’ cuz it is potent) — from Chapter 2: A History of Burning Women — for my sisters.
her fire burns hot.
flames lick through me.
but, there’s no stake holding me here.
no, here she burns for me,
the goddess of fire,
to remind me that
deep in my belly a fire should be raging,
the women of my line,
did they fear this fire?
was fire too close to the history of this line of women immemorial?
I see them, their faces dark,
no firelight in their souls,
no burning in their core,
no fuel to fire longing and desire, to give volume to voice.
this fear of fire,
how deep does it run?
I see them,
a line bleeding back into the dark bowels of centuries past where
no flame burns.
dark faces, tightly drawn skin reminding me of my own jawbone.
how powerful was this message?
put out your light, woman.
by fearing our own fire,
we douse our own flame.
we cannot live what we are here to do without fire.
In order to fully understand our own limitations, hesitations, blocks and anxieties, we have to delve into our his-story. Both the official his-story that we have learned, as well as her-story that has been suppressed. We need to become conscious of the culture that we have numbed to in order to survive. We have to bring into conscious awareness that which goes sensed but unspoken: the threat of being a woman who lives to her own tune in this world.
‘W’ IS FOR WITCH
Whenever I hear a guy say, “She’s too wild, too much, too hard to figure out, too complicated, too intense, too hard to handle, too emotional, too opinionated, or crazy.” I hear, “I’d have burned her ass at the stake back in Salem. She’s too connected … I won’t be able to tame her.” ~ Jenny G. Perry
We are the granddaughters of the witches they were never able to burn. If history teaches us that a “witch” is nothing more than a woman who doesn’t know her place, then damn straight, I consider myself a witch. ~ Ruby Hamad
When I learned my alphabet, W was for witch. The archetypal Burned Woman, there in front of my pre-school eyes. R wasn’t for rapist or P for pedophile or psychopath. But there it was: W for witch.
We are taught about the dark feminine early, we imbibe the warning of the witch with our nursery stories. Beware the solitary woman who lives in the forest, casts spells ad will eat human children for breakfast. And as a perceived pretender to patriarchal power, of course she was depicted in a silly black hat with a phallic broomstick poking out from between her legs.
Want to discredit a woman in the real world? All you need is one word.
Still. In the 21st century. Just this week an Australian Federal Minister called a respected political journalist who wrote about a sexism scandal that a senior colleague had just resigned over, “a mad fucking witch”.
The W word has been a one-word death sentence to women for centuries. The fire starter. It has been used to condemn women who inhabit the outlying edges of our patriarchal culture and flatly refuse to have their lives decided for them. It has been used to shame and silence those who speak up. As well as those who chose not to marry or have children, who healed using unknown means, who cursed the wielders of power for their inhumanity, who attended deaths and births, or have followed their own spiritual and sexual impulses.
The witch represents the patriarchal fear of women’s power, embodied in an individual. She who must be destroyed so that society can prosper. But look a little closer and her spells, her abilities to do the supernatural, to enchant, to shapeshift are, I would argue, paranoid reversals of the Bible. Her powers are spookily analogous to those assigned to the great heroes of the Bible. But if patriarchs’ were done through men, via the power of the male God, then hers, done not in the name of God, must be done in the name of his shadowy counterpart — the Devil.
The witch (AKA a powerful woman) has been pitched as a direct threat to the carefully constructed male dominated system of “divine right”. And so the System has done everything within its power to erase, discredit and disconnect women who exhibit any form of power, and label them witches. With society’s blessing. Because, throughout history, where women have never been considered as human as men, witches were not human at all. They do not deserve our pity or defense, we are told, we are well rid of them. They would destroy everything we hold dear. And so we must destroy them first.
We have been told enough fairy stories in our girlhood to know to beware of the witch. We have read enough his-story to know that as women we don’t want to be mistaken for her. The desire to live, to be accepted and to belong, keeps most of us in our places. And so we spend out lives running from the darkness, trying out hardest to be good and work hard and keep others happy.
To me, a witch is a woman that is capable of letting her intuition take hold of her actions, that communes with her environment, that isn’t afraid of facing challenges. ~ Paulo Coelho
So when we feel the fire rising in our bellies, we also smell smoke in our nostrils. We feel passion and sense danger. And so we step back, pipe down, play it safe. For fear of what if. Because his-story has taught us clearly: “bad” girls are branded as witches. “Bad” girls get burned.
When we feel the upwelling of power within us, our bodies respond with deep fear. Far deeper than just a worry about losing face or looking silly. But rather the threat of losing our lives or those we love. The fear is real. Our bodies know it.
Whether you believe in past lives, in the collective unconscious, the recent scientific discoveries of the cellular transmission of trauma down the generations, or simply in historical awareness, we remember the Burning Times. We remember the high price that was paid for living according to your own inner voice, following your heart, questioning societal norms and being different to your tribe. ….
Times are changing.
And yet still we are haunted by the Burning Times of old. They are still alive in us. We must dig deeper.
The Burning Times
There shall not be found among you any one that makes his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that uses divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. ~ The Bible, Deuteronomy 18:10
For centuries around the world, the ultimate punishment for women was public death by fire. Perhaps the most well-known Burned Woman was Joan of Arc who was burned at the stake for her actions and beliefs.
She was not alone. In Europe between 1470-1750 figures ranging from a conservative 35,000 to a truly terrifying (though discredited by mainstream his-storians) 9 million women were burned as witches. But as Brian A. Pavlac, PhD, Professor of History at Kings College, London, who specializes in the history of the witch hunts reflects, “even the lower figure of under 50,000 dead would have meant over a hundred thousand put on trial. Then, considering all the personnel involved in the justice system as court officials and witnesses, friends and family members, and those who even felt the ‘fear’ caused by the hunts, millions of people’s lives changed, usually for the worse, because of the witch hunts.”
Whilst the Catholic church started the craze, with the publication of The Hammer of the Witches, from 1542 and 1735 a series of Witchcraft Acts were enshrined into law by parliaments around Europe. The punishments — imprisonment, torture and death — were focused on individuals who were deemed to practice witchcraft and magic. Common accusations of witchcraft included: raising storms, giving the evil eye, killing people or livestock or causing bad luck.
To justify the killings, both Christianity and secular institutions created ever broader definitions of witchcraft including being “associated with wild Satanic ritual parties in which there were much naked dancing.” Ah, yes, naked dancing. Dangerous stuff that!
And whilst the victims of witch burnings included men and children, Brian A. Pavlac notes that “some witch hunts did almost exclusively target women, in percentages as high as 95% of the victims.” Whilst Anne Barstow, author of Witchcraze reminds us that the members of the legal system, its “judges, ministers, priests, constables, jailers, doctors, prickers, torturers, jurors, executioners” were nearly 100% male.
Radical feminist, Marxists scholar, Silvia Federici, points out in her acclaimed book, Caliban and the Witch, that the witch burnings were systematic, happening at the same time as bloody land grabs in Europe and the New World, concurrent with massive increases in the Catholic church and nation states’ power and wealth. This domination and brutalization of nature, native peoples and women was one and the same. It has been argued that witches were burned to coerce women into accepting “a new patriarchal order where women’s bodies, their labor, their sexual and reproductive powers were placed under the control of the state and transformed into economic resources.”
Notes Alex Knight in his essay, “Who Were the Witches? — Patriarchal Terror and the Creation of Capitalism”: “The witches were those women who in one way or another resisted the establishment of an unjust social order — the mechanical exploitation of capitalism. The witches represented a whole world that Europe’s new masters were anxious to destroy: a world with strong female leadership, a world rooted in local communities and knowledge, a world alive with magical possibilities, a world in revolt.”
But it wasn’t just witches who were burned. In England burning was the most common punishment for women for many other crimes against the patriarchy: plotting to kill the king or any other superior (i.e. male) including her husband. Or for coining (counterfeiting money) which, when you are kept out of the economic system by dint of your gender, would be a reasonably common way to try to gain currency for yourself.
It matters. It does. Because those flames the burned our foremothers in their hundreds of thousands, burn us still today, albeit metaphorically, for exactly the same reason.
They were burned simply for speaking their own truth. Otherwise known as heresy, “any provocative belief or theory that is strongly at variance with established beliefs or customs.” To be heretical was to be dead.
Look again at the word: Heresy… Her say…
A woman lived under threat of being burned alive for living, speaking or acting in any way which contradicted or questioned the cultural norms which surrounded her: medical, spiritual or hierarchial. She was burned for earning a living on her own terms. The very systems which told her at every turn that she was a sinner, was less than a man, limited her power, authority, sexuality and economic survival.
Men were burned at the stake it’s true, but with far less frequency. The official reason given for the dominance of burning women is that they did not want to expose a woman’s body — heaven forbid, we must ensure her modesty even in death — as happened when a person was hung, drawn and quartered. But even the (male) commentators of the time, could see the contradictions: “There is something so inhuman in burning a woman, for what only subjects a man to hanging” (The Times, 1788).
The woman on fire was not a private act. She was burned in public, as a warning to all women: disobey and this will be you.
Women have not been burned at the stake in England since 1790 and the last trial for witchcraft in the US was as recent as 1833. But sadly, it is not ancient history.
Witch hunts still occur today in societies where belief in magic is prevalent, including sub-Saharan Africa, rural north India and Papua New Guinea. According to the World Health Organization, around 500 women a year are killed as witches in Tanzania, and between 2010 and 2012 over 2,100 reported (in 2012) on six witch camps where women who have been accused of witchcraft can flee to safety. And in Saudi Arabia (a country with a 57% male population) witchcraft is still legally punished by death. In 2015, ISIS was reported as having burned two women as witches, and their husbands too, on accusations of “sorcery” and using “magic for medicine”.
In India the practice of “widow burning” or sutee was officially outlawed in 1829, but continued well into the twentieth century. Women who had been widowed would “voluntarily” be burned alive beside their husbands. Though many were bound and forced in order to “show their devotion”. This is even more hideous when it is understood that young girls would be married off to much older men. So a girl may be widowed at eleven, having been married for two years, and would then either face a life of shunning and starvation as a “widow” whose sins — in this life, or karma from a previous incarnation — were believed to have brought about the death of her husband. A man’s death was always considered the “fault” of his wife.
I want to stop. I want to stop these words and stories, but still they keep tumbling out. I want that writing it will stop this happening. I want to never read or write another list of facts like that again.
But we must learn to see and feel. To feel it fully in our bodies allows us access to the Feminine. We cannot flinch from this reality, from the fear and control and domination of the Feminine by the masculine as it is played out by fathers and husbands and priests and judges in village squares and kitchens and mosques and churches and courts of law around the world.
We must learn to dig down for the very real roots of our fears as they are played out in the world.
We are not crazy.
We are not paranoid.
We are not imagining things.
This is what we fear when we feel our power rising.
This is what we know.
This is real.
[I was gonna stop here… but you know what? Lemme keep going…hope ya don’t mind, Lucy]
The purpose of honor killings is to maintain men’s power by denying women basic rights to make autonomous decisions about marriage, divorce and sexuality. ~ Madre
The right to life for women is conditional on their obeying social norms and traditions. ~ Hina Jilani
Hear me when I say, this is not just dry history. It is still happening. Women around the world are being burned, simply because they are women.
Who Were the Witches? – Patriarchal Terror and the Creation of Capitalism
November 5, 2009
This Halloween season, there is no book I could recommend more highly than Silvia Federici’s brilliant Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation(Autonomedia 2004), which tells the dark saga of the Witch Hunt that consumed Europe for more than 200 years. In uncovering this forgotten history, Federici exposes the origins of capitalism in the heightened oppression of workers (represented by Shakespeare’s character Caliban), and most strikingly, in the brutal subjugation of women. She also brings to light the enormous and colorful European peasant movements that fought against the injustices of their time, connecting their defeat to the imposition of a new patriarchal order that divided male from female workers. Today, as more and more people question the usefulness of a capitalist system that has thrown the world into crisis, Caliban and the Witch stands out as essential reading for unmasking the shocking violence and inequality that capitalism has relied upon from its very creation.
Who Were the Witches?
Parents putting a pointed hat on their young son or daughter before Trick-or-Treating might never pause to wonder this question, seeing witches as just another cartoonish Halloween icon like Frankenstein’s monster or Dracula. But deep within our ritual lies a hidden history that can tell us important truths about our world, as the legacy of past events continues to affect us 500 years later. In this book, Silvia Federici takes us back in time to show how the mysterious figure of the witch is key to understanding the creation of capitalism, the profit-motivated economic system that now reigns over the entire planet.
During the 15th – 17th centuries the fear of witches was ever-present in Europe and Colonial America, so much so that if a woman was accused of witchcraft she could face the cruellest of torture until confession was given, or even be executed based on suspicion alone. There was often no evidence whatsoever. The author recounts, “for more than two centuries, in several European countries, hundreds of thousands of women were tried, tortured, burned alive or hanged, accused of having sold body and soul to the devil and, by magical means, murdered scores of children, sucked their blood, made potions with their flesh, caused the death of their neighbors, destroyed cattle and crops, raised storms, and performed many other abominations” (169).
In other words, just about anything bad that might or might not have happened was blamed on witches during that time. So where did this tidal wave of hysteria come from that took the lives so many poor women, most of whom had almost certainly never flown on broomsticks or stirred eye-of-newt into large black cauldrons?
Caliban underscores that the persecution of witches was not just some error of ignorant peasants, but in fact the deliberate policy of Church and State, the very ruling class of society. To put this in perspective, today witchcraft would be a far-fetched cause for alarm, but the fear of hidden terrorists who could strike at any moment because they “hate our freedom” is widespread. Not surprising, since politicians and the media have been drilling this frightening message into people’s heads for years, even though terrorism is a much less likely cause of death than, say, lack of health care.1 And just as the panic over terrorism has enabled today’s powers-that-be to attempt to remake the Middle East, this book makes the case that the powers-that-were of Medieval Europe exploited or invented the fear of witches to remake European society towards a social paradigm that met their interests.
Interestingly, a major component of both of these crusades was the use of so-called “shock and awe” tactics to astound the population with “spectacular displays of force,” which helped to soften up resistance to drastic or unpopular reforms.2 In the case of the Witch Hunt, shock therapy was applied through the witch burnings – spectacles of such stupefying violence that they paralyzed whole villages and regions into accepting fundamental restructuring of medieval society.3 Federici describes a typical witch burning as, “an important public event, which all the members of the community had to attend, including the children of the witches, especially their daughters who, in some cases, would be whipped in front of the stake on which they could see their mother burning alive” (186).
The book argues that these gruesome executions not only punished “witches” but graphically demonstrated the repercussions for any kind of disobedience to the clergy or nobility. In particular, the witch burnings were meant to terrify women into accepting “a new patriarchal order where women’s bodies, their labor, their sexual and reproductive powers were placed under the control of the state and transformed into economic resources” (170).
Federici puts forward that up until the 16th century, though living in a sexist society, European women retained significant economic independence from men that they typically do not under capitalism, where gender roles are more distinguished. “If we also take into account that in medieval society collective relations prevailed over familial ones, and most of the tasks that female serfs performed (washing, spinning, harvesting, and tending to animals on the commons) were done in cooperation with other women, we then realize… [this] was a source of power and protection for women. It was the basis for an intense female sociality and solidarity that enabled women to stand up to men.”
The Witch Hunt initiated a period where women were forced to become what she calls “servants of the male work force” (115) – excluded from receiving a wage, they were confined to the unpaid labor of raising children, caring for the elderly and sick, nurturing their husbands or partners, and maintaining the home. In Federici’s words, this was the “housewifization of women,” the reduction to a second-class status where women became totally dependent on the income of men (27).
The author goes on to show how female sexuality, which was seen as a source of women’s potential power over men, became an object of suspicion and came under sharp attack by the authorities. This assault manifested in new laws that took away women’s control over the reproductive process, such as the banning of birth control measures, the replacement of midwives with male doctors, and the outlawing of abortion and infanticide.4 Federici calls it an attempt to turn the female body into “a machine for the reproduction of labor,” such that women’s only purpose in life was supposedly to produce children (144).
But we also learn that this was just one component of a broader move by Church and State to ban all forms of sexuality that were considered “non-productive.” For example, “homosexuality, sex between young and old, sex between people of different classes, anal coitus, coitus from behind, nudity, and dances. Also proscribed was the public, collective sexuality that had prevailed in the Middle Ages, as in the Spring festivals of pagan origins that, in the 16th-century, were still celebrated all over Europe” (194). To this end, the Witch Hunt targeted not only female sexuality but homosexuality and gender non-conformity as well, helping to craft the patriarchal sexual boundaries that define our society to this day.
Capitalism – Born in Flames
What separates Caliban from other works exploring the “witch” phenomenon is that this book puts the persecution of witches into the context of the development of capitalism. For Silvia Federici, it’s no accident that “the witch-hunt occurred simultaneously with the colonization and extermination of the populations of the New World, the English enclosures, [or] the beginning of the slave trade” (164). She instructs that all of these seemingly unrelated tragedies were initiated by the same European ruling elite at the very moment that capitalism was in formation, the late 15th through 17th centuries. Contrary to “laissez-faire” orthodoxy which holds that capitalism functions best without state intervention, Federici posits that it was precisely the state violence of these campaigns that laid the foundation for capitalist economics.
Thankfully for the reader, who may not be very familiar with the history of this era, Federici outlines these events in clear and accessible language. She focuses on the Land Enclosures in particular because their significance has been largely lost in time.
Many of us will not remember that during Europe’s Middle Ages, before the Enclosures, even the lowliest of serfs had their own plot of land with which they could use for just about any purpose. Federici adds, “With the use of land also came the use of the ‘commons’ – meadows, forests, lakes, wild pastures – that provided crucial resources for the peasant economy (wood for fuel, timber for building, fishponds, grazing grounds for animals) and fostered community cohesion and cooperation” (24). This access to land acted as a buffer, providing security for peasants who otherwise were mostly subject to the whim of their “Lord.” Not only could they grow their own food, or hunt in the relatively plentiful forests which were still standing in that era, but connection to the commons also gave peasants territory with which to organize resistance movements and alternative economies outside the control of their masters.
The Enclosures were a process by which this land was taken away – closed off by the State and typically handed over to entrepreneurs to pursue a profit in sheep or cow herding, or large-scale agriculture. Instead of being used for subsistence as it had been, the land’s bounty was sold away to fledgling national and international markets. A new class of profit-motivated landowners emerged, known as “gentry,” but the underside of this development was the trauma experienced by the evicted peasants. In the author’s words, “As soon as they lost access to land, all workers were plunged into a dependence unknown in medieval times, as their landless condition gave employers the power to cut their pay and lengthen the working-day” (72).
For Federici, then, the chief creation of the Enclosures was a property-less, landless working class, a “proletariat” who were left with little option but to work for a wage in order to survive; wage labor being one of the defining features of capitalism.
Cut off from their traditional soil, many communities scattered across the countryside to find new homesteads. But the State countered with the so-called “Bloody Laws”, which made it legal to capture wandering “vagabonds” and force them to work for a wage, or put them to death. Federici reveals the result: “What followed was the absolute impoverishment of the European working class… Evidence is the change that occurred in the workers’ diets. Meat disappeared from their tables, except for a few scraps of lard, and so did beer and wine, salt and olive oil” (77). Although European workers typically labored for longer hours under their new capitalist employers, living standards were reduced sharply throughout the 16th century, and it wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that earnings returned to the level they had been before the Enclosures.5
According to Federici, the witch hunts played a key role in facilitating this process of impoverishment by driving a sexist wedge into the working class that “undermined class solidarity,” making it more difficult for communities to resist displacement from their land (48). While women were faced with the threat of horrific torture and death if they did not conform to new submissive gender roles, men were in effect bribed with the promise of obedient wives and new access to women’s bodies. The author cites that “Another aspect of the divisive sexual politics to diffuse workers’ protest was the institutionalization of prostitution, implemented through the opening of municipal brothels soon proliferating throughout Europe” (49). And in addition to prostitution, a legalization of sexual violence provided further sanction for the exploitation of women’s bodies. She explains, “In France, the municipal authorities practically decriminalized rape, provided the victims were women of the lower class” (47). This initiated what Federici calls a “virtual rape movement,” making it unsafe for women to even leave their homes.
The witch trials were the final assault, which all but obliterated the integrity of peasant communities by fostering mutual suspicion and fear. Amidst deteriorating conditions, neighbors were encouraged to turn against one another, so that any insult or annoyance became grounds for an accusation of witchcraft. As the terror spread, a new era was forged in the flames of the witch burnings. Surveying the damage, Silvia Federici concludes that “the persecution of the witches, in Europe as in the New World, was as important as colonization and the expropriation of the European peasantry from its land were for the development of capitalism” (12).
A Forgotten Revolution
Federici maintains that it didn’t have to turn out this way. “Capitalism was not the only possible response to the crisis of feudal power. Throughout Europe, vast communalistic social movements and rebellions against feudalism had offered the promise of a new egalitarian society built on social equality and cooperation” (61).
Caliban‘s most inspiring chapters make visible an enormous continent-wide series of poor people’s movements that nearly toppled Church and State at the end of the Middle Ages. These peasant movements of the 13th – 16th centuries were often labelled “heretical” for challenging the religious power of the Vatican, but as the book details they aimed for a much broader transformation of feudal society. The so-called “heretics” often “denounced social hierarchies, private property and the accumulation of wealth, and disseminated among the people a new, revolutionary conception of society that, for the first time in the Middle Ages, redefined every aspect of daily life (work, property, sexual reproduction, and the position of women), posing the question of emancipation in truly universal terms” (33).
Silvia Federici shows us how the heretical movements took many forms, from the vegetarian and anti-war Cathars of southern France to the communistic and anti-nobility Taborites of Bohemia, but were united in the call for the elimination of social inequality. Many put forth the argument that it was anti-Christian for the clergy and nobility to live in opulence while so many suffered from lack of adequate food, housing or medical attention.
Another common thread weaving the European peasant movements together was the leadership of women. Federici describes that, “[Heretical women] had the same rights as men, and could enjoy a social life and mobility that nowhere else was available to them in the Middle Ages… Not surprisingly, women are present in the history of heresy as in no other aspect of medieval life.” (38). Some heretical sects, like the Cathars, discouraged marriage and emphasized birth control – advocating a sexual liberation which directly challenged the Church’s moral authority.
The gender politics of peasant movements proved to be a strength, and they attracted a wide following that undercut the power of a feudal system which was already in crisis. Federici explains how the movements became increasingly revolutionary as they grew in size. “In the course of this process, the political horizon and the organizational dimensions of the peasant and artisan struggle broadened. Entire regions revolted, forming assemblies and recruiting armies. At times, the peasants organized in bands, attacking the castles of the lords, and destroying the archives where the written marks of their servitude were kept” (45).
What started as a religious movement became increasingly revolutionary. For example, in the 1420s and 30s, the Taborites fought to liberate all of Bohemia, beating back several Crusades of 100,000+ men organized by the Vatican (54-55). The uprisings became contagious all across Europe, so much so that in the crucial period of 1350-1500, unprecedented concessions were made including the doubling of wages, reduction in prices and rents, and a shorter working day. In the words of Silvia Federici, “the feudal economy was doomed” (62).
The author documents that the initial reaction by elites was to institute the “Holy Inquisition,” a brutal campaign of state repression that included torturing and even burning heretics to death. But as time went on, ruling class strategy shifted from targeting heretics in general to specifically targeting female community leaders. The Inquisition morphed into the Witch Hunt.
Soon, simple meetings of peasant women were stigmatized as possible “Sabbats,” where women were supposedly seduced by the devil to become witches, but as Federici clarifies, it was the rebellious politics and non-conforming gender relations of such gatherings which were demonized (177). Strong, defiant women were murdered by the tens of thousands, and along with them the Witch Hunt also 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” (103).
For elite European nobles and clergy, the Witch Hunt succeeded in stifling a working class revolution that had increasingly threatened their rule. Even more, Silvia Federici puts forward that the Witch Hunt facilitated the rise of a new, capitalist social paradigm – based on large-scale economic production for profit and the displacement of peasants from their lands into the burgeoning urban workforce. In time, this capitalist system would dominate all of Europe and be dispersed through conquistadors’ “guns, germs and steel” to every corner of the globe, destroying countless ancient civilizations and cultures in the process.6Federici’s analysis is that, “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 environment that has marked the advance of capitalist relations worldwide” (22). How might things be different if the forgotten revolution had won?
Conclusion – Rediscovering the Magic of Truth-Telling
“Day by day, it’s worse for my people, especially for the women. And that’s why, because of all of these main reasons, we say this is the mockery of democracy and mockery of War on Terror.” – Malalai Joya, Afghan democracy activist, 2009
Caliban and the Witch is a book that challenges many important myths about the world we live in. First and foremost among these is the widely-held belief that capitalism, though perhaps flawed in its current form, started out as a “progressive” development that liberated workers and improved the conditions of women, people of color and other oppressed groups. Silvia Federici has done impressive work to take us back to the very foundations of the capitalist system in late-medieval Europe to uncover a secret history of land dispossession and impoverishment, gender and sexual terror, and brutal colonization of non-Europeans. This terrible legacy leads her to the profound conclusion that the system is “necessarily committed to racism and sexism” (17).
Most strongly, she writes, “It is impossible to associate capitalism with any form of liberation or attribute the longevity of the system to its capacity to satisfy human needs. If capitalism has been able to reproduce itself it is only because of the web of inequalities that it has built into the body of the world proletariat, and because of its capacity to globalize exploitation. This process is still unfolding under our eyes, as it has for the last 500 years” (17).
It’s been said that we can measure a society by how it treats its women. This book provides compelling documentation to suggest that capitalism is and has always been a male dominated system, which reduces opportunities and security for women as well as marginalizing those who don’t fit within narrow gender boundaries. In particular, Silvia Federici uses the story of the Witch Hunt to illuminate the inner workings of capitalism to show the restraining, silencing, and demonizing of female sexual power built into it.7 Responding to our question that started this essay, she writes, “The witch was not only the midwife, the woman who avoided maternity, or the beggar who eked out a living by stealing some wood or butter from her neighbors. She was also the loose, promiscuous woman – the prostitute or adulteress, and generally, the woman who exercised her sexuality outside the bonds of marriage and procreation… The witch was also the rebel woman who talked back, argued, swore, and did not cry under torture” (184).
In other words, the witches were those women who in one way or another resisted the establishment of an unjust social order – the mechanical exploitation of capitalism. The witches represented a whole world that Europe’s new masters were anxious to destroy: a world with strong female leadership, a world rooted in local communities and knowledge, a world alive with magical possibilities, a world in revolt.
We need not despair for the world that has been lost. Indeed, it is still with us today in the struggles of people everywhere organizing for justice. Today from Afghanistan we can hear the clarion voice of Malalai Joya, a courageous woman who was expelled from the Afghan parliament in 2007 for speaking out against the U.S.-installed warlords who now rule her country. She appeared recently onDemocracy Now! saying, “Now my people are sandwiched between two powerful enemies: from the sky, occupation forces bombing and killing innocent civilians… [and] on the ground, Taliban and these warlords together continue to deliver fascism against our people.”8
Joya risks her life to make these comments, but her words carry the sparkling truth that is so necessary to end the insanity of war and occupation in the Middle East. Those who are summoned to action by her call do so in the immortal spirit of the “heretics” and “witches” who resisted capitalism and feudalism before it, carrying forward a movement that is wide as the Earth and old as time.