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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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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.


“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 »


I Want a Twenty-Four-Hour Truce During Which There Is No Rape

Speech by Andrea Dworkin.

This was a speech given at the Midwest Regional Conference of the National Organization for Changing Men in the fall of 1983 in St Paul, Minnesota. One of the organizers kindly sent me a tape and a transcript of my speech. The magazine of the men’s movement, M., published it. I was teaching in Minneapolis. This was before Catharine MacKinnon and I had proposed or developed the civil rights approach to pornography as a legislative strategy. Lots of people were in the audience who later became key players in the fight for the civil rights bill. I didn’t know them then. It was an audience of about 500 men, with scattered women. I spoke from notes and was actually on my way to Idaho–an eight-hour trip each way (because of bad air connections) to give a one-hour speech on Art–fly out Saturday, come back Sunday, can’t talk more than one hour or you’ll miss the only plane leaving that day, you have to run from the podium to the car for the two-hour drive to the plane. Why would a militant feminist under this kind of pressure stop off on her way to the airport to say hi to 500 men? In a sense, this was a feminist dream-come-true. What would you say to 500 men if you could? This is what I said, how I used my chance. The men reacted with considerable love and support and also with considerable anger. Both. I hurried out to get my plane, the first hurdle for getting to Idaho. Only one man in the 500 threatened me physically. He was stopped by a woman bodyguard (and friend) who had accompanied me.

I have thought a great deal about how a feminist, like myself, addresses an audience primarily of political men who say that they are antisexist. And I thought a lot about whether there should be a qualitative difference in the kind of speech I address to you. And then I found myself incapable of pretending that I really believe that that qualitative difference exists. I have watched the men’s movement for many years. I am close with some of the people who participate in it. I can’t come here as a friend even though I might very much want to. What I would like to do is to scream: and in that scream I would have the screams of the raped, and the sobs of the battered; and even worse, in the center of that scream I would have the deafening sound of women’s silence, that silence into which we are born because we are women and in which most of us die.

And if there would be a plea or a question or a human address in that scream, it would be this: why are you so slow? Why are you so slow to understand the simplest things; not the complicated ideological things. You understand those. The simple things. The cliches. Simply that women are human to precisely the degree and quality that you are.

And also: that we do not have time. We women. We don’t have forever. Some of us don’t have another week or another day to take time for you to discuss whatever it is that will enable you to go out into those streets and do something. We are very close to death. All women are. And we are very close to rape and we are very close to beating. And we are inside a system of humiliation from which there is no escape for us. We use statistics not to try to quantify the injuries, but to convince the world that those injuries even exist. Those statistics are not abstractions. It is easy to say, “Ah, the statistics, somebody writes them up one way and somebody writes them up another way.” That’s true. But I hear about the rapes one by one by one by one by one, which is also how they happen. Those statistics are not abstract to me. Every three minutes a woman is being raped. Every eighteen seconds a woman is being beaten. There is nothing abstract about it. It is happening right now as I am speaking.

And it is happening for a simple reason. There is nothing complex and difficult about the reason. Men are doing it, because of the kind of power that men have over women. That power is real, concrete, exercised from one body to another body, exercised by someone who feels he has a right to exercise it, exercised in public and exercised in private. It is the sum and substance of women’s oppression. Read the rest of this entry »


willtochange“The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love”

by bell hooks

2004 Washington Square Press

bell hooks defines this project as an attempt to love men enough to understand how patriarchy affects them, and understand how their pain can help them transform and challenge patriarchy. For me it was a profound experience reading this because it touched on so many aspects of my life as a male, from childhood, to school, to sex and relationships, to friendships, etc. It allowed me to see old memories in new ways, and understand that my feelings of pain, confusion and shame were a result of the violent circumstances that I was subjected to growing up in this culture.

In the past I had “understood” patriarchy as something that primarily only affected women, and saw my job mostly as limiting the damage done to the women in my life and organizing. bell hooks pushed me to look inside myself first and foremost and see how this system has terrorized me personally, and how challenging patriarchy is necessary for my own liberation, as well as the liberation of all men, and everybody.

What struck me most significantly was the idea that patriarchy is all the time enforced by violence, and that men are taught through violence to reject their emotions and become cold-blooded and distant, which allows them to commit violence on others.

“Violence is boyhood socialization. The way we ‘turn boys into men’ is through injury… We take them away from their feelings, from sensitivity to others. The very phrase ‘be a man’ means suck it up and keep going. Disconnection is not fallout from traditional masculinity. Disconnection is masculinity.”

I could think of hundreds or thousands of times that I’ve felt this threat of violence keeping me within the shallow emotionless world of patriarchal masculinity. Most often it looks like jokes, put-downs, humiliation, scorn, and exclusion, but violence is at the heart of the matter. In fact, middle school and high school in retrospect look like a 7 year-long gauntlet of violent social training.

Learning to express the pain I’ve felt without shame, and wield my anger not against myself (or others) but against patriarchal society, isn’t something that can change overnight. But bell hooks’ wisdom has opened up new possibilities for me and for all men, and it’s up to us to take the initiative, educate ourselves, get in touch with our own emotions, our own human-ness and connection to others in a non-dominating way, and work together in love and resistance. We don’t just owe it to women, trans and genderqueer folks, we owe it to ourselves.

“Communities of resistance should be places where people can return to themselves more easily, where the conditions are such that they can heal themselves and recover their wholeness.” – Thich Nhat Hanh, The Raft is Not the Shore


Check out this awesome essay by Paul Kivel – it really helped me understand my class background (as a member of the “buffer zone”) and how I can relate to others in an accountable way to achieve social change! – Alex

Social Service or Social Change?
Who Benefits from your Work
by Paul Kivel
copyright 2000

MY FIRST ANSWER TO THE QUESTION POSED IN THE TITLE is that we need both, of course. We need to provide services for those most in need, for those trying to survive, for those barely making it. We need to work for social change so that we create a society in which our institutions and organizations are equitable and just and all people are safe, adequately fed, adequately housed, well educated, able to work at safe, decent jobs, and able to participate in the decisions that affect their lives. Although the title of this article may be misleading in contrasting social service provision and social change work, the two do not necessarily go together easily and in many instances do not go together at all. There are some groups working for social change that are providing social service; there are many more groups providing social services that are not working for social change. In fact, many social service agencies may be intentionally or inadvertently working to maintain the status quo.

The Economic Pyramid
I want to begin by providing a context for this discussion: the present political/economic system here in the United States. Currently our economic structure looks like the pyramid in Figure One in which 1% of the population controls about 47% of the net financial wealthii of the country, and the next 19% of the population controls another 44%. That leaves 80% of the population struggling to gain a share of just 9% of the remaining financial wealth. That majority of 80% doesn’t divide very easily into 9% of resources, which means that many of us spend most of our time trying to get enough money to feed, house, clothe, and otherwise support ourselves and our families.

80% of the population controls 9% of the wealth!
Illustration by Alberto Ledesma Read the rest of this entry »

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