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calibanwitch250Who 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 (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).

WitchBurning1

The witch burning was the medieval version of "Shock and Awe"

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). Read the rest of this entry »

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bookchinThe Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy

by Murray Bookchin

1982 Cheshire Books

Murray Bookchin (R.I.P., 2006) was one of the most important American theorists of the 20th century. He is most known for pioneering and promoting social ecology, which holds that “the very notion of the domination of nature by man stems from the very real domination of human by human.” In other words, the only way to resolve the ecological crisis is to create a free and democratic society.

The Ecology of Freedom is one of Bookchin’s classic works, in which he not only outlines social ecology, but exposes hierarchy, “the cultural, traditional and psychological systems of obedience and command”, from its emergence in pre-‘civilized’ patriarchy all the way to capitalism today. The book explains that hierarchy is exclusively a human phenomena, one which has only existed for a relatively short period of time in humanity’s 2 million year history. For that reason, and also because he finds examples of people resisting and overturning hierarchies ever since their emergence, Bookchin believes we can create a world based on social equality, direct democracy and ecological sustainability.

It seems to me this fundamental hope in human possibility is the most essential contribution of this book. In discussing healthier forms of life than we currently inhabit, Bookchin makes a distinction between “organic societies”, which were pre-literate, hunter-gatherer human communities existing before hierarchy took over, and “ecological society”, which he hopes we will create to bring humanity back into balance with nature, but without losing the intellectual and artistic advances of “civilization” (his quote-marks).

Of ‘organic society’ he says “I use the term to denote a spontaneously formed, noncoercive, and egalitarian society – a ‘natural’ society in the very definite sense that it emerges from innate human needs for association, interdependence, and care.” This, he explains, is where we come from. Not a utopia free of problems, but a real society based on the principle of “unity of diversity,” meaning respect for each member of the community, regardless of sex, age, etc. – an arrangement that is free of domination. Read the rest of this entry »


shock“The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”

by Naomi Klein

2007 Metropolitan Books

I feel confident saying that The Shock Doctrine is one of the most important political non-fiction works of the last decade. This should be a high school textbook, or at least required reading in college. Naomi Klein applies her extensive vision and intellect to present us with a way of seeing our world that is extremely relevant and powerful: in the pursuit of enormous profits, those running the global economy intentionally exploit terrible catastrophes, or even create them, to take things for themselves that only shocked and traumatized populations would give up. This ambulance-chasing strategy of those in power is defined as the “shock doctrine,” and “disaster capitalism”, alternatively known as “neoliberalism” is the dominant social paradigm it has created.

Although there are flaws here, which I will mention, this book is both timely and well-written; Klein carries the reader through a story about grandiose topics like neoliberalism, torture, psychology, and international politics that is fundamentally readable.

The most important contribution made by this book in my view is the dismantling of the myth that capitalism’s global dominance is a function of democracy or destiny. This is the notion that with the defeat of the Soviet Union, all alternatives to “the free market” have naturally faded into history, presumably because capitalism is so irresistible. To the contrary, Naomi Klein provides numerous case studies to show us the exact opposite is true – the temporary triumph of global capitalism has been fertilized by the victims of natural disasters, terrorist attacks, wars, campaigns of torture, and economic calamity. In short, alternatives to capitalism have been shocked into submission wherever they’ve appeared.

This is no accident, it is part of a conscious crusade by market fundamentalists, those devoted to the pseudo-religious belief that “the market solves all.” Klein explains that the shock doctrine was developed (at least in part) by the patron saint of neoliberalism, free-market economist Milton Friedman. In his words, “only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around.” And he intended to provide those ideas. It was Friedman’s opus “Capitalism and Freedom” that proclaimed neoliberalism’s core edicts: deregulation, privatization and cutbacks to social services.

Since the 1970s, these teachings have been vigorously applied across the globe by the “holy trinity” of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Read the rest of this entry »


american fascism“American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America”

Chris Hedges

2006 Free Press

Are right-wing Christians in America developing a potentially fascist movement that would discard democracy for the sake of security and conservative values? This is answered affirmatively by Chris Hedges, author of War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, in his newest book.

We all know the worst of the evangelical movement, which Hedges calls the “dominionists”: they’re militantly anti-abortion and promote abstinence-only education, they hate queer and trans people, they don’t believe in evolution or environmentalism, they’re racist against immigrants and support US warfare and imperialism, and they can be violent, potentially terroristic. This book explores all of these themes, but it also exposes the frightening strength these people have in our society.

For example, “There are at least 70 million evangelicals in the United States attending more than 240,000 evangelical churches… Polls indicate that about 40 percent of respondents believe the Bible is ‘to be taken literally, word for word.’ .. Almost a third of all respondents say they believe in the Rapture.” Clearly this movement has developed a mass base by hiding behind Christianity.

But are these folks organized? Hedges says yes, quite so. He points to their dominance over the Republican Party, as well as billions of dollars received in the form of “faith-based” grants. This governmental power is matched by media influence, as the Christian Right also owns several national television and radio networks, as well as many local media outlets. Further, right-wing organizations such as Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition are controlled by wealthy white male elites who claim to be “close to God” and are followed with feverish obedience by millions of supporters.

The best parts of the book are the interview sections which delve into the lives of the people drawn to, and spit out by, this movement. By humanizing the participants, we come to understand that their immersion into this Christian reality is often a flight from an overwhelming sense of meaninglessness and despair, genuine emotions which develop from real-world sufferings like unemployment and abuse.

However, much of the book does not live up to this potential and consists of Chris Hedges sending forth litanies of blanket indictments against the ideology of the Christian Right, and attaching a somewhat monolithic character to what in reality is probably a more scattered and heterogeneous right-wing Christian population. In other words, by attacking them as potentially all-powerful, do we not in fact imbue them with powers they do not actually possess?

Worse, although the author rightly argues we must not tolerate a movement which does not tolerate us, he leaves us with little useful ammunition for that struggle. Condemnations of fundamentalist thinking and similarities to Nazism will only get us so far, we need to locate the weak points in the armor of these Crusaders, and this book unfortunately serves little in developing such a strategy.

In a present and future marked by severe crises of an economic, ecological and social nature, the seductiveness of movements urging apocalyptic violence unfortunately may become quite great, and only an alternative movement that appeals to the best in humanity can prevent the emergence of a dictatorship of fear. That great Christian principle of love must be the guiding force as we address the mounting grievances of those left behind by this society and point towards a better future.


Harris“Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches: The Riddles of Culture”

by Marvin Harris

1974 Random House

Why do Jews and Muslims refuse to eat pork? Why were thousands of witches burned at the stake during late medieval Europe? These and other riddles are explored by famous anthropologist Marvin Harris, and his conclusions are simple: people act within social and ecological contexts that make their actions meaningful. Put another way: cultural ideas and practices that seem strange to us may actually be vital and necessary to the people of those cultures.

Harris is especially good at explaining how societies create elaborate rituals to avoid harming the natural ecosystems they depend on, which clarifies the Middle Eastern ban on pig products. It turns out the chubby animals compete with humans for the same foods. Raising them in large numbers would place great strain on a land made fragile by thousands of years of deforestation and desertification. Better to ban them entirely and not risk further ecological damage.

This logic is then extended to elucidate why the institution of warfare probably first arose as a way to limit population pressure on the environment. In Harris’ words, “In most primitive societies, warfare is an effective means of population control because intense, recurring intergroup combat places a premium upon rearing male rather than female infants.” Since the rate of population growth depends on the number of healthy women, privileging males by making their larger bodies necessary for combat is a way of reducing the need to “eat the forest.” Not that male supremacy and violence is the BEST way to curb population growth, but it’s one ritual that societies have adopted to meet that goal.

This discussion of patriarchy leads to an exploration of class. The emergence of “big men”, chiefs, and finally the State is explained as a cascading distortion of the original principles of reciprocity into the rule of redistribution. “Big men” work harder than anyone in their tribe to provide a large feast for their community – with the only goal being prestige. Chiefs similarly pursue prestige, and plan great feasts to show off their managerial skills, but they themselves harvest little food. Finally “we end up with state-level societies ruled over by hereditary kings who perform no basic industrial or agricultural labor and who keep the most and best of everything for themselves.” At the root of this construction of inequality is the impetus to make people work harder to create larger surpluses so that greater social rewards can be given out to show off the leader’s generosity. But only at the State or Imperial level is this hierarchy enforced not by prestige but by force of arms, to stop the poor and working classes from revolting and sharing the fruits of their labor.

The most provocative sections of the book deal with revolutionary movements that fought for this liberation, within the context of the religious wars of Biblical Judea and Late Medieval Europe.

First, Harris tackles the Messiah complex Read the rest of this entry »


579932“Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization”

Richard Manning

2004 North Point Press

Agriculture has domesticated humans. This is the argument at the center of Richard Manning’s stunning history of food. Written with journalistic flavor, Manning explores the ways that agriculture has diminished human life and threatens the planet itself.

The book begins by exploring the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, in many ways superior to our own even at the height of industrial capitalism. Hunter-gatherers, it turns out, ate a wider variety of tasty foods, worked far less, and lived much more sensually and connected than “civilized” humans. About 10,000 years ago, certain groups of humans traded all this in for security, namely the ability to stay in one spot and harvest grain to be stored for future food.

What this crop manipulation produced, however, was the first wealth inequality known to the species, as leaders left working the fields to their followers. In time, these stationary and hierarchical societies expanded and conquered/killed their hunter-gatherer neighbors. Soon enough crops like wheat, corn, and rice spread across the globe through violence and disease.

Manning focuses on these three crops because, as he explains, some 2/3 of all calories consumed today originate with them. In the US, corn is especially dominant, made into all kinds of commodities, for example corn syrup which can be found in just about everything we eat now. The dominance of these few grains is a consequence of capitalism, as they lend themselves easily to processing and storage – making them ideal commodities.

But an important plot twist in the story of grain’s dominance lies hidden in the open. Farm subsidies, especially in the US and Europe, distort the market to make these crops extremely cheap at the expense of all other nutrition. This has the added effect of enriching a few large agribusiness corporations (like Archer Daniels Midland) that grow or process them from enormous monocrop fields, although at the cost of ruining millions of small farmers all over the world. Our health, and the health of the planet are likewise jeopardized by the overabundance of these few crops produced with massive inputs of oil and chemicals.

Nevertheless, Richard Manning is able to summon the hope at the end of the book that our food system doesn’t have to be this way. Finding a distinction between agriculture and “simply growing food”, he argues that we can build an economy based on feeding people, and not just accumulating wealth. Organic agriculture, permaculture, intercropping, farmer’s markets and co-ops all point in this more just and sustainable direction, and awareness of the superiority of these more human methods has been growing at a phenomenal rate.

If we can nourish ourselves by reconnecting with the land and our sensual natures, perhaps we can also heal society and the planet. Against the Grain is a big step in educating us for that effort. Highly recommended.


“Yes Means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape”

Jaclyn Friedman & Jessica Valenti

2008 Seal Press

Easily the best book I’ve read this year, if not ever. Yes Means Yes! is an anthology of essays from women and trans folks (and a few men) of all backgrounds, white, black, Latina, Asian, poor, affluent, queer, hetero, sex workers, dominatrices, bloggers, organizers, educators, artists, and survivors, all answering the question, “How can we create a world without rape?”

This book more than any other opened my eyes to the central importance of female sexual power to movement for progressive social change. Through dissecting sexual assault and “rape culture” from ALL angles, the writers articulate that the objectification and control of female bodies is literally the cornerstone of patriarchal society.  Therefore efforts to reclaim female body sovereignty and sexual power are at the forefront of revolutionary change.

This book does not just offer women tips on how to avoid sexual assault (although it does encourage self-defense classes!), it courageously directs blame at the male-dominated society that puts women in dangerous situations on a daily basis.  Similarly, as should be obvious from the title, this work is not just about teaching men to respect “No”, but showing women (all people really) how to love their bodies and embrace their sexuality, in whatever way it manifests.  Enthusiastic consent, responding to “Yes!” and cautious “Maybes”, and taking things one step at a time without assumptions or feelings of entitlement to orgasm, while respecting the ability of a sexual partner to say “Stop.” at any moment, shows a way to the best and most liberatory sex imaginable.

But the book covers so much more than consent. This is a feminist handbook for the masses: well-written, varied, practical, theoretical, yet accessible.

It’s hard to pick a favorite essay, but the one that spoke to me the most was “Killing Misogyny: A Personal Story of Love, Violence, and Strategies for Survival” by Cristina Meztli Tzintún, a personal story about overcoming abusive and controlling male partners. Cristina relates how she got involved with a “radical, feminist” man of color and bonded through activism.  Before she knew it she was years into an abusive relationship that gave her STDs and an inability to leave him, despite his cheating on her with his students, half his age. The pattern mirrored her parents’ disastrous marriage, which made it even more depressing that she could not break free of the cycle of abuse.

While it’s easy to demonize her partner, Alan, a more honest reading will recognize some of his patterns in each of us who have been male-socialized. For example, entitlement to women’s bodies and lack of consideration for the emotional damage wrought by selfish actions are things I know I have to struggle against. Cristina’s bravery in leaving Alan and demanding accountability for his assaults should encourage all of us, that misogyny can in fact be beaten and that personal transformation is an incredibly political act.

I can’t recommend this collection highly enough. Everyone needs to read this book.


“The Mass Psychology of Fascism”

by Wilhelm Reich

1946 The Noonday Press

First written in Germany in 1932 as Hitler was coming to power, then revised in the US in 1944, this is a classic study of the characteristics of fascist movement. Reich, a former Marxist from the Frankfurt School, emphasizes that fascism is not unique to Germany or Japan or Italy, but is instead “the basic emotional attitude of the suppressed man of our authoritarian machine civilization and its mechanistic-mystical conception of life.”

In other words it’s not enough to blame Hitler or the Nazis or any political party for the rise of fascism, we have to understand why millions of people have been, and continue to be, drawn to Right-wing movement (its mass character is what distinguishes fascism from simple authoritarianism).  Finding its base in the Middle Classes, fascist movement feeds upon authoritarian patriarchal social structures, especially the father-dominated family, which prepares children to obey and even revere a harsh “leader.”

But what was most interesting to me about this book is the politics of sexuality.  Reich as a psychiatrist observed that the repression of sexuality, especially from a young age, prepares people for lifetimes of neurotic self-hatred as some of their most basic and healthy life functions become embedded with deep shame and guilt.  I would add, sexual assault and child abuse add much fuel to this fire.  Reich stresses that children, adolescents and women are perpetually denied control over their sexual desires and bodies, which is what gives the patriarchal father so much power in the family, and therefore the sexual repression of masses of people becomes the seeds that grow fascist political movements.

I will write more on this train of thought in my review of Yes Means Yes!, and it’s also something I’ve been sparked to consider after watching the film The Handmaid’s Tale, about a dark future where pollution has made most women sterile, and a Christian fascist movement seizes control of society to make the remaining fertile women into the sex slaves of powerful male leaders.  It’s surprisingly realistic in some scary ways, because it builds from the sad truth that the patriarchal Christian Right is a real force in society and continues to attack the rights of women to control their own bodies and sexuality.  This tendency must be overcome, by women and trans folks taking back their body sovereignty and proclaiming their sexuality as no one’s but their own.


Part 1 of The Handmaid’s Tale. Read the rest of this entry »

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