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Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation

4.53  ·  Rating details ·  4,145 ratings  ·  400 reviews
CALIBAN AND THE WITCH is a history of the body in the transition to capitalism. Moving from the peasant revolts of the late Middle Ages to the witch-hunts and the rise of mechanical philosophy, Federici investigates the capitalist rationalization of social reproduction. She shows how the battle against the rebel body and the conflict between body and mind are essential con ...more
Paperback, 285 pages
Published September 15th 2004 by Autonomedia
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Sep 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
It's pretty hard for me to give a book five stars and I'm tempted to give that to Caliban.

I recently read this with some of my friends in a reading group and not only really enjoyed it, but it made me rethink a number of concepts (primarily feminist ones) that I had earlier written off, as well as introduced me entirely new ones.

I had tried to read this five or six years ago but stopped since the language was too complicated for me. Reading it again now (with a few more years of academic-type re
Aug 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book is really something else – I can’t recommend it too highly. In Capital, Marx needs to explain how capitalism got started. So, he talks about what he calls the primitive accumulation of capital – this involves the early capitalists effectively stealing wealth from those around them so they have the initial capital they needed to begin the process of capitalist production and therefore further accumulation of wealth that surplus value brings into being. Marx does this to show there is no ...more
Gabriel Gaybraham
1) oops now all i want to talk about is the enclosures of the commons
2) funny how i really like marxist analysis now and again, mostly when applied to factors marxists (in my experience) seriously downplay. such as "slavery, without which capitalism would never have gotten off the ground, but like who cares right, blah blah wage labor blah"
3) it is so useful as history, as making the (western) world make sense. i want every leftist i know to read it for filling in the gaps in How Things Got To W
Apr 28, 2020 rated it really liked it
Super interesting book about the transition from feudalism to capitalism and how capitalism intersected with the witch hunts to oppress and demonize women. As I read more about capitalism, I find it such an injustice that I did not learn more about it in high school or even college (though I recognize my own upper middle-class background shielded me from having to learn about it from life experience directly.) Silvia Federici references Marx and Foucault while also filling in the gender-related ...more
Jan 20, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I'm kind of obsessed with this book.
Sara Salem
Apr 16, 2014 rated it it was amazing
I haven't read a book this fascinating for a while. Federici looks at the hundreds of thousands of women who were murdered in Europe in the 16th century after being accused of being witches and shows how this was because of the transition to capitalism and the need to destroy the solidarity between workers through demonizing women and turning men against them. She also clearly connects this to imperialism. I especially liked how she used both Foucault and Marx and yet makes important criticisms ...more
Jun 20, 2016 rated it did not like it
Look, I'm a communist and a feminist but I cannot in good conscience give this wildly... "imaginative" history more than one star. The history contained in this book from its inaccurate portrayals of Medieval views on contraception, to its spurious claims about the persecution of Midwives, to its belief that Ius Primae Noctis was actually a thing... this book is intellectually lazy poorly sourced garbage by someone whose grasp of history is tenuous at best. Also the claim that the Catholic Churc ...more
tom bomp
Fascinating and incredibly important book. Covers the history of the end of feudalism, the rise of capitalism, the rise of current patriarchal forms, colonialism, witch hunts and more. Makes it clear that capitalism was founded on the oppression of women and with massive resistance every step of the way. Shows the importance of reproductive control. Talks about the oppressive elements of philosophy from the time. Covers so much that it skips some historical detail but it doesn't matter. An essen ...more
Oct 24, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Oh my. This book.

I kept wanting to devour the whole thing, but I had to stop every few pages because it overwhelmed me so much. I haven't learned so much from one book in a very long time.

Parts of this were quite emotional for me. It's not often that non-fiction gets me choked up. Looking back at the history of peasant subjugation, land privatization, witch-hunting, and the creation of capitalism from a historical perpsective made our human errors seem so brazen and clear. I just can't believe
Who Were the Witches? – Patriarchal Terror and the Creation of Capitalism
Alex Knight
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, 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 Sh
Feb 02, 2014 rated it liked it
Interesting, but overall unconvincing in its central conceit. The portion of the book reviewing the history of capitalism and witch hunts was fascinating (pun unintended), but its link of the two was more correlation without showing the causation. In a number of places, the author makes claims that the reader is supposed to agree with at face value with only a limited amount of reasoning to back the claims up, probably with the assumption that the evil of capitalism in of itself is self-evident. ...more
Sep 26, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Federici is a feminist philosopher working within the Italian post-autonomist marxist tradition. In Caliban and the Witch she addresses primitive accumulation, or a marxist analysis of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Capitalism's beginnings, she argues, were not only about coercing bodies into becoming self-disciplining workers but also dividing the proletariat along identitarian lines in order to discipline and displace resistance to capitalism itself. So, women were constituted as ...more
Nadxieli Mannello
Feb 29, 2008 rated it it was ok
Some good ideas but ignores alternate readings and cherry-picks examples that fit her thesis, to the detriment of her overall project.
David Anderson
Apr 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
"Caliban and the Witch" is, without a doubt, the best work of socialist feminist analysis I've read to date. Reviewer Peter Linebaugh gave one the best synopses: "Federici shows that the birth of the proletariat required a war against women, inaugurating a new sexual pact and a new patriarchal era: the patriarchy of the wage. Firmly rooted in the history of the persecution of the witches and the disciplining of the body, her arguments explain why the subjugation of women was as crucial for the f ...more
Jonathan Hinckley
Jun 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This really is some of the best historiography I've read.
'Caliban and the Witch' places the institutionalised persecution of the 'Witch' as a key component of a broader process of primitive accumulation (colonisation of the Americas, destruction of enclosures and introduction of scientific rationalism), the expropriation of labour and capital which paved the way for International Capitalism. Central to the thesis is the criticism of Marx's historical materialism, which she challenges in that it
May 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing
First off, this book is incredible, and probably not only the most significant Marxist feminist work I've read in a while, but the most significant feminist work I've read in ages. As Marx noted, capital "comes into the world dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt." Silvia Federici's contribution is not only detailing how much blood the birth of capitalism involved, and the continued blood-letting (new rounds of primitive accumulation, as we're seeing in Africa, for inst ...more
Aug 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: sociology
This book made me so angry! You see, I've never felt a need to divie into feminism or women history at all. I'm a tomboy and never encountered injustice treatment because being a woman. But it is really easy to live in our own bubble and I'm trying to fix it.

At school they rarely teach WHY something happened. This book focuses mainly on that, looking at 15-17th centuries through raising capitalism. And it's terrifying brutal history of "primitive accumulation" where the goal is production. Now i
mis fit
Aug 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing
i took a reeeally long time with this book, and then just went back and re-read all of my highlights and notes. it's been a while since i've read something that i loved this much. this book is an excellent example of history attuned to power relations, which is so important, because this type of work is necessary to understand what's going on right now. and federici emphasizes this-- looking at historical processes of primitive accumulation help to shed light on the same (or similar) processes t ...more
Nov 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: recommended, gender
I can't believe it took me this long to read this. Everybody should. There is far too much here to even wrap my head around, much less write about. But suffice it to say that understanding how the white supremacist, capitalist, imperialist patriarchy began will help us to undo it.
Some decent ideas marred by consistent empirical and theoretical sloppiness.
Feb 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
We all pretty much collectively ignore the history of witch hunts, unless it's to other them and dismiss them as the practice of ignorant superstition, which we've now overcome thanks to modern medicine and a more materialist worldview that makes no room for witchcraft. If we're at all thoughtful we might acknowledge the obvious misogyny involved in the almost-exclusively female victims of these hunts, but it's generally treated as a "see how far we've come!" moment if anything. And yet, Federic ...more
Dec 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
I bumped this up from three to four stars on this read.

Part of me still wonders what it is about this book that so many anarchists/feminists (anarcha-feminists?) adore. I don't really find much enjoyment in reading history, so the abundance of historical examples is almost overwhelming (read: boring) to me. The Marxian analysis is somewhat more interesting.

Federici seems to have a heavily implied (though unfortunately never explicitly acknowledged) perspective that we do not need to go through a
Feb 11, 2010 rated it really liked it
Part of my response paper:

I found this book fascinating, as until the last chapter it covered what was largely new ground to me. The resistance of the serfs to feudalism and early capitalism was inspiring and the thesis that the witch-hunt was a mechanism to regiment and subordinate women to the requirements of capitalism, in particular primitive accumulation, was compelling.

At the same time, something felt off to me about the book. Perhaps it was because this paradigm-shifting argument fit toge
Sep 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
You know the quote about fish not knowing that they live in water? I can’t remember how it goes; memory isn’t my strong point. Anyway, Caliban and the Witch was filled with moments of realization that we are indeed fish in water, except our water is capitalism, and as Margaret Thatcher famously said, “there is no alternative”.

Except there was, and at least one hundred thousand women were killed in the process of erasing it. Probably more—who knows? The lack of study on the subject says a lot ab
Feb 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Unbelievably good, fascinating. Provocative history / analysis of the role of the witch-hunts in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. This is just a wondrous piece of work. Federici keeps things just humming along and her prose is clear, tight, engaging.

Best of all, it's one of those books that clicks quite a few things into place. This world, this messed-up and troubling world, well it's still messed-up but you can see a bit more of the path that brought us to this place. And, surely, t
Peter (Pete) Mcloughlin
The witch craze of the 16th, 17th centuries wasn't merely a case of the madness of crowds but more than that a way to put women in the place to be exploited and also as a bulwark to the growing transatlantic slave trade. It was a way of disciplining the population during the early formation of capitalism. It usually turns out when hundreds of thousands of people are murdered or enslaved it is usually for someone's benefit, in this case, it was a way to strip women of any power they had and deval ...more
Brandy Cross
Jan 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
The pure volume of research that went into the formation and writing this book is phenomenal. It's rare to see a work that is so meticulously written, researched, annotated, and otherwise beautifully presented with the intent of helping the reader to understand, without ever talking down to that reader or assuming their abilities. Overall, this book is a wonderful example of research and academic text that I feel you would have difficulty rivaling in terms of research, author's knowledge of the ...more
Mar 28, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Probably one of the best books I read this year
Rory Mullan
Jul 17, 2020 rated it it was amazing
lol probably one of the best books ever written. thoughtful corrections to both foucault and marx
Kinsey Favre
An excellent in-depth look at how the transition to capitalism necessarily involved the degradation of the status of women and the stamping out of collective and cooperative ways of life, with particular focus on the practice of witch-hunting, as well as the symbiotic relationship between European witch-hunts and the repressive tactics used against the Native Americans by the colonizers.

My one complaint that's stuck with me is that in the beginning of the book Federici's autonomist politics show
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Silvia Federici (born 1942, Parma, Italy) is a scholar, teacher, and activist from the radical autonomist feminist Marxist tradition. She is a professor emerita and Teaching Fellow at Hofstra University, where she was a social science professor. She worked as a teacher in Nigeria for many years, is also the co-founder of the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa, and is a member of the Midnight

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“The revival of magical beliefs is possible today because it no longer represents a social threat. The mechanization of the body is so constitutive of the individual that, at least in industrialized countries, giving space to the belief in occult forces does not jeopardize the regularity of social behavior. Astrology too can be allowed to return, with the certainty that even the most devoted consumer of astral charts will automatically consult the watch before going to work.” 13 likes
“The history of Europe before the Conquest is sufficient proof that the Europeans did not have to cross the oceans to find the will to exterminate those standing in their way.” 2 likes
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