Book Notes: Silvia Federici’s Caliban and the Witch
I knew this one was going to be bad but I had no idea the extent of sloppiness, idiocy and ridiculousness I was going to discover.
The premise of Federici’s Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation is that during the European Middle Ages women – especially the peasant and proletarian ones – were hugely empowered, sexually liberated, financially independent, and professionally successful. They worked as doctors, artisans, barbers and even priests in alternative religious arrangements. Women were also free to dedicate themselves to the most fulfilling and truly female pursuits of infanticide and prostitution, and nobody judged them for that because everybody accepted that women are a mystery. Medieval women could spend tons of time with each other and avoid the company of men as much as possible.
But this idyll ended once capitalism came. Oh, that evil capitalism! Without it, a woman- say, Silvia Federici – could be happily prostituting and infanticiding all day long. Instead, she gets to write books and give lectures. Oppression! Horror!
In support of her argument that capitalism brought enslavement of formerly free and joyously infanticiding women, Federici discusses witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries. She tries to inflate their importance by claiming that “hundreds of thousands of women” or as many as 600,000 women were killed in an act of genocide during the witch trials. What’s especially cute is that in her own endnotes she recognizes that this number has nothing to do with reality. (It’s well-known that the true number is about 40,000 although Federici respectfully quotes some freak who claims that as many witches were killed as Jews during the Holocaust). Few readers are anal enough to go digging through endnotes, which is what Federici counts on for her argument to work.
The bloopers I’ve been quoting today and yesterday all come from her book. She is not very well-read, and there’s about a blooper a page. Whenever she says things like, “Nobody ever wrote about X”, for instance, I can immediately think of half a dozen people who did.
Federici’s idealization of the pre-industrial world and of all civilizations that are not European is boring and reductive. The belief in the prelapsarian world of purity is not new but it’s dangerous in a study of history.