Witchtales: An Interview with Silvia Federici

Agostino Veneziano, The Witches’ Rout, c. 1520.
Agostino Veneziano, The Witches’ Rout, c. 1520.

This inter­view was first pub­lished in Lobo Suelto! on April 10, 2015.


In her book Cal­iban and the Witch: Women, The Body and Prim­i­tive Accu­mu­la­tion (Autono­me­dia, 2004), the Ital­ian fem­i­nist Sil­via Fed­erici con­sid­ers the killing of witches as foun­da­tional of a cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem that domes­ti­cates women, impos­ing on them the repro­duc­tion of the work­force as forced labor with­out any remu­ner­a­tion. It is in the mode of devel­op­ment of this repro­duc­tive work that Fed­erici locates a cen­tral ter­rain of strug­gle for the women’s move­ment.

This is not a fairy­tale, nor is it sim­ply about witches. Witches expand into other female and closely related char­ac­ters: the heretic, the healer, the mid­wife, the dis­obe­di­ent wife, the woman who dares to live alone, the obeah woman (a prac­ti­tioner of secret magic) who poi­soned the food of the mas­ter and inspired slaves to rebel. Cap­i­tal­ism, from its ori­gins, per­sists and com­bats these women with fury and ter­ror.

In Cal­iban and the Witch Fed­erici asks fun­da­men­tal ques­tions about this emblem­atic fig­ure of the female: why does cap­i­tal­ism, since its begin­ning, need to wage war against these women? Why is the witch-hunt one of the most bru­tal and least recorded mas­sacres of his­tory? What is sup­posed to be elim­i­nated when these women are con­demned to the stake? Why is it pos­si­ble to draw a par­al­lel between them and the black slaves of the plan­ta­tions in Amer­ica?

Sil­via Fed­erici was born in Italy, but she has lived in the United States since the ‘60s. It was in the US that her fem­i­nist mil­i­tancy and col­lab­o­ra­tion with the black move­ment devel­oped. She was a founder of the Inter­na­tional Net­work for Wages for House­work. Dur­ing the ‘80s she lived and taught in Nige­ria, where she also worked with women’s orga­ni­za­tions and against the pol­i­tics of struc­tural adjust­ment that were then being tested through­out Africa.

Her book takes its title from two Shake­spearean char­ac­ters: Cal­iban is the anti­colo­nial rebel, the slave worker who fights back; and the Witch, kept in the back­ground by Eng­lish writer, now cap­tures the scene: her anni­hi­la­tion rep­re­sents the begin­ning of the domes­ti­ca­tion of women, the theft of knowl­edge that gave auton­omy to giv­ing birth, the con­ver­sion of mater­nity into forced labor, the deval­u­a­tion of repro­duc­tive work as non-work, and the wide­spread growth of pros­ti­tu­tion in the face of the dis­pos­ses­sion of com­mu­ni­tar­ian lands. Together, the names Cal­iban and the Witch syn­the­size the racist and sex­ist dimen­sion of dis­ci­pline that cap­i­tal seeks to impose on bod­ies, but also the ple­beian and dis­obe­di­ent fig­ures from which they resist it.

On the occa­sion of her launch at the upcom­ing Buenos Aires Book Fair, we present a con­ver­sa­tion with this enthu­si­as­tic and lucid fighter, who traces an arrow between the his­tory of witches and the dis­cus­sion of female domes­tic labor. For Fed­erici, “the activ­i­ties asso­ci­ated with ‘repro­duc­tion’ con­tinue to be a ter­rain of fun­da­men­tal strug­gle for women, as they were for the fem­i­nist move­ment of the ‘70s, and a link to the his­tory of witches.”

From Italy to the United States

Her apart­ment in Brook­lyn is set up to write, work and research. Hun­dreds of papers and files are spread about, but the order is metic­u­lous. Fam­ily pho­tos and polit­i­cal posters alter­nate on the walls, dec­o­rated col­or­fully and with mem­o­ries. Her kitchen, per­haps the only space with­out papers, is bright and beck­ons to a lunch of pasta recently made by her spouse, the philoso­pher George Caf­fentzis. The inter­view switches back and forth between Ital­ian and Eng­lish, the two lan­guages in which her biog­ra­phy moves.

Verónica Gago: How did your fem­i­nist mil­i­tancy begin in the United States?

Sil­via Fed­erici: I arrived in the United States in 1967. I became involved in the stu­dent move­ment, with the anti-war move­ment. I also began my par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Move­ment for Wages for House­work and my full-time polit­i­cal work as a fem­i­nist. In 1972 we founded the Inter­na­tional Fem­i­nist Col­lec­tive, which brought the Cam­paign for Wages for House­work into the inter­na­tional sphere. The roots of my fem­i­nism lie pri­mar­ily in my expe­ri­ence as a woman grow­ing up in a repres­sive soci­ety, as Italy was in the ‘50s: anti-com­mu­nist, patri­ar­chal, Catholic, and weighed down by war. The Sec­ond World War was impor­tant for the devel­op­ment of fem­i­nism in Italy because it marked a moment of rup­ture of the rela­tion of women to the State and the fam­ily, because it made women under­stand that they needed to make them­selves inde­pen­dent, that they could not put their sur­vival in the hands of men and the patri­ar­chal fam­ily, and that they didn’t have to pro­duce more chil­dren for a State that later sent them to slaugh­ter.

What are the the­o­ret­i­cal roots?

The­o­ret­i­cally, my fem­i­nism has been an amal­gam of themes com­ing as much from the move­ment of work­ers’ auton­omy in Italy and the move­ments of the unem­ployed, as from the anti­colo­nial move­ment and the civil rights move­ments and the Black Power move­ment in the United States. In the ‘70s I was also influ­enced by the National Wel­fare Rights Move­ment, which was a move­ment of women, mostly black, who fought to obtain state sub­si­dies for their chil­dren. For us this was a fem­i­nist move­ment because these women wanted to show that domes­tic work and tak­ing care of chil­dren is social labor from which all employ­ers ben­e­fit, and also that the State had oblig­a­tions in social repro­duc­tion. Our pri­mary aim was to show that domes­tic work is not a per­sonal ser­vice but real work, because it is the work that sus­tains all other forms of work, inso­far as it is the work that pro­duces the work­force. We orga­nized con­fer­ences, events, demon­stra­tions, always with the idea of mak­ing domes­tic labor be seen in a broad sense: in its impli­ca­tion with sex­u­al­ity, in rela­tion to chil­dren, and always high­light­ing the under­ly­ing fac­tors and the need to change the con­cept of repro­duc­tion and to place this ques­tion at the cen­ter of polit­i­cal work.

For the wage and against the wage

What about the con­flict between fight­ing for the wage and fight­ing against the wage? 

In our view, when women fight for the wage for domes­tic work, they are also fight­ing against this work, as domes­tic work can con­tinue as such so long as and when it is not paid. It is like slav­ery. The demand for a domes­tic wage denat­u­ral­ized female slav­ery. Thus, the wage is not the ulti­mate goal, but an instru­ment, a strat­egy, to achieve a change in the power rela­tions between women and cap­i­tal. The aim of our strug­gle was to con­vert exploita­tive slave labor that was nat­u­ral­ized because of its unpaid char­ac­ter into socially rec­og­nized work; it was to sub­vert a sex­ual divi­sion of labor based on the power of the mas­cu­line wage to com­mand the repro­duc­tive labor of women, which in Cal­iban and the Witch I call “the patri­archy of the wage.” At the same time, we pro­posed to move beyond all of the blame gen­er­ated by the fact that it was always con­sid­ered as a female oblig­a­tion, as a female voca­tion.

So there is a refusal and at the same time a reassess­ment of domes­tic work?

The refusal is not to repro­duc­tion as such, but yes, it is a refusal of the con­di­tion in which every­one, men and women, are required to live social repro­duc­tion, to the extent that it is repro­duc­tion for the labor mar­ket and not for our­selves. One theme that was cen­tral for us was the dou­ble char­ac­ter of the labor of repro­duc­tion, that it repro­duces life, the pos­si­bil­ity to live, the per­son, and, at the same time, it repro­duces the labor force: this is the rea­son why it is so con­trolled. In our view, we were deal­ing with a very par­tic­u­lar labor, and there­fore the key ques­tion with respect to repro­duc­ing a per­son is: for what or in what func­tion should it be val­orized? Is it to be val­orized for the per­son him/herself or for the mar­ket? It is nec­es­sary to under­stand that the women’s strug­gle for domes­tic work is a cen­tral ant­i­cap­i­tal­ist strug­gle. It truly goes to the root of social repro­duc­tion, it sub­verts the slav­ery in which cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions are based and it sub­verts the power rela­tions they cre­ate in the body of the pro­le­tariat.

How does posit­ing the cen­tral­ity of domes­tic labor change the analy­sis of cap­i­tal­ism?

To rec­og­nize that the labor force is not a nat­u­ral thing, but that it must pro­duce itself, means to rec­og­nize that all life becomes a pro­duc­tive force and that all fam­ily and sex­ual rela­tions become rela­tions of pro­duc­tion. This is to say that cap­i­tal­ism devel­ops not only inside the fac­tory, but rather in soci­ety, and that soci­ety becomes a fac­tory of cap­i­tal­ist rela­tions, as a fun­da­men­tal ter­rain of cap­i­tal­ist accu­mu­la­tion. For this rea­son the dis­course of domes­tic labor, of gen­der dif­fer­ence, of rela­tions between men and women, of the con­struc­tion of the female model, is fun­da­men­tal. Today, for exam­ple, look­ing at glob­al­iza­tion from the per­spec­tive of repro­duc­tive labor allows us to under­stand why, for the first time, women are the ones dri­ving the migra­tory process. It allows us to under­stand that glob­al­iza­tion and the lib­er­al­iza­tion of the world econ­omy have destroyed the sys­tems of repro­duc­tion of coun­tries in the whole world, and why today it is the women who leave their com­mu­ni­ties, their places, to find means of repro­duc­tion, and to improve their con­di­tions of life.

Experience in the Third World

How did your life in Nige­ria in the ‘80s influ­ence your con­cerns?

Liv­ing in Nige­ria was very impor­tant because there I made con­tact with the African real­ity, with the so-called “under­de­vel­oped” world. It was a major edu­ca­tional process. I was there right in a period (1984-1986) of intense social debate, includ­ing in the uni­ver­si­ties, about whether to indebt with the IMF or not, after the start of the great debt cri­sis and the end of the period of devel­op­ment cre­ated by the petro­leum boom. We saw the start of lib­er­al­iza­tion and the first con­se­quences of this pro­gram for soci­ety and also for schools: the immense changes in pub­lic spend­ing, the cut of sub­si­dies for health and edu­ca­tion, the begin­ning of a series of stu­dent strug­gles against the IMF and its pro­gram of struc­tural adjust­ment. It was clear that this was not only about a con­flict pro­voked by poverty, but that it was also a protest against a pro­gram of polit­i­cal re-col­o­niza­tion. We saw clearly how a new inter­na­tional divi­sion of labor was being cre­ated that included a cap­i­tal­ist re-col­o­niza­tion of these coun­tries.

There is a theme of com­mon goods and, in par­tic­u­lar, of the land that also then emerged…

Yes. The other impor­tant thing that I learned in Nige­ria was about the land issue. A large part of the pop­u­la­tion lived from the land under a regime of com­mu­nal own­er­ship. For women in par­tic­u­lar, access to land meant the pos­si­bil­ity of grow­ing their means of sub­sis­tence, the pos­si­bil­ity of repro­duc­ing them­selves and their fam­i­lies with­out depend­ing on the mar­ket. This is some­thing that became an impor­tant part of my under­stand­ing of the world. My stay in Nige­ria also increased my under­stand­ing of the issue of energy, of petro­leum, and of the war that was tak­ing place across the world dri­ven by petrol com­pa­nies. What took place in Nige­ria in the ‘80s is what hap­pened in Europe a decade later: first an impov­er­ish­ment of the pub­lic uni­ver­sity in order to later trans­form it in a cor­po­rate man­ner, which is why the knowl­edge it pro­duces is ori­ented solely to the mar­ket and every­thing out­side of this trend is depre­ci­ated.

What are com­mon goods? Where does the dis­course about com­mon goods come from?

In the dis­course of the move­ments of the ‘60s and ‘70s the con­cept “com­mon” did not exist. Many things were fought for, but not for the com­mon as we under­stand it now. The notion is a result of the pri­va­ti­za­tions, of the attempt to appro­pri­ate and mar­ke­tize the entire body, knowl­edge, land, air and water. The result has been not only a reac­tion, but a truly new polit­i­cal con­scious­ness tied to the idea of our com­mon life, and it pro­voked reflec­tion about the com­mu­ni­tar­ian dimen­sion of our lives. There­fore, there is a very strong rela­tion or cor­re­spon­dence between expro­pri­a­tion, pro­duc­tion of the com­mon, and the impor­tance of the com­mon as a con­cept of life, of social rela­tions.

What is the influ­ence of fem­i­nist the­o­riza­tions with respect to the ques­tion of the com­mon?

To for­mu­late the com­mon from a fem­i­nist point of view is cru­cial because cur­rently, women are the ones most invested in the defense of com­mon resources and the con­struc­tion of broader forms of social coop­er­a­tion. Around the world, women are the agri­cul­tural pro­duc­ers of sub­sis­tence, they are the ones who pay the great­est cost when land is pri­va­tized; in Africa, for exam­ple, 80 per­cent of sub­sis­tence agri­cul­ture is pro­duced by women, and, there­fore, the exis­tence of com­mu­nal own­er­ship of land and water is fun­da­men­tal for them. Finally, the fem­i­nist point of view is con­cerned with the orga­ni­za­tion of the com­mu­nity and the house­hold. Because some­thing that sur­prises me is that in all of the dis­cus­sions of the com­mon, there is talk is about land and the inter­net, but the home is not men­tioned! The fem­i­nist move­ment in which I started always spoke about sex­u­al­ity, chil­dren, and the home. And later, I was very inter­ested in the entire fem­i­nist, utopian social­ist and anar­chist tra­di­tion for how it approaches these top­ics. We need to cre­ate a dis­course about the home, ter­ri­tory, and the fam­ily, and to place it at the cen­ter of the pol­i­tics of the com­mon. Today we see the need for prac­tices that cre­ate new com­mu­ni­tar­ian mod­els.

What are you refer­ring to?

For exam­ple, in the United States, there are thou­sands of peo­ple who now live in the street, in a kind of camps, due to spread­ing poli­cies of forced evic­tions. At present, there are camps in Cal­i­for­nia due to the hous­ing cri­sis. It is a moment in which the struc­ture of the daily social rela­tion is undo­ing itself, and the pos­si­bil­ity exists for a new form of socia­bil­ity and coop­er­a­tion. I think in this sense what could be seen in the move­ment of evicted ten­ants in Argentina was fun­da­men­tal, as a moment in which many peo­ple needed to place their life in com­mon. This is pre­cisely the rein­ven­tion of com­mu­ni­tar­ian prac­tice.


How would you sum­ma­rize the objec­tive of the witch-hunt?

Witch-hunts were instru­men­tal to the con­struc­tion of a patri­ar­chal order in which the bod­ies of women, their work, and their sex­ual and repro­duc­tive pow­ers were placed under the con­trol of the State and trans­formed into eco­nomic resources. This is to say, the witch-hunters were less inter­ested in pun­ish­ing a cer­tain trans­gres­sion than they were in elim­i­nat­ing gen­er­al­ized forms of female behav­ior that they no longer tol­er­ated and that had to become seen as abom­inable in the eyes of the pop­u­la­tion.

This is why the accu­sa­tion could be extended to thou­sands of women…

The accu­sa­tion of witch­craft car­ried out a func­tion sim­i­lar to that of “trea­son” – which, sig­nif­i­cantly, was intro­duced in the Eng­lish legal code at around the same time – and the accu­sa­tion of “ter­ror­ism” in our age. The vague­ness of the accu­sa­tion – the fact that it was impos­si­ble to test it, while at the same time it evoked max­i­mum hor­ror – implied that it could be used to pun­ish any kind of protest, with the aim of gen­er­at­ing sus­pi­cion, includ­ing about the most ordi­nary aspects of daily life.

Can it be said that in their per­se­cu­tion a grand bat­tle was played out against the auton­omy of women?

In the same way that the enclo­sures expro­pri­ated com­mu­nal lands from the peas­antry, witch-hunts expro­pri­ated bod­ies from women, “free­ing” them of any obsta­cle that would hin­der their func­tion­ing as machi­nes to pro­duce the work­force. The threat of being burned at the stake erected for­mi­da­ble bar­ri­ers around the bod­ies of women, greater than those raised by the enclo­sure of com­mu­nal lands. In fact, we can imag­ine the effect that it had on women to see their neigh­bors, friends and rel­a­tives burn at the stake, and to real­ize that any attempt at con­tra­cep­tion would be per­ceived as the pro­duct of a demonic per­ver­sion.

– Trans­lated from the Span­ish by Kelly Mul­vaney

Authors of the article

is an Italian-American activist and the author of many works, including Caliban and the Witch and Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. She was co-founder of the International Feminist Collective, an organizer with the Wages for Housework Campaign, and was involved with the Midnight Notes Collective.

is part of Colectivo Situaciones, teaches in the School of Social Sciences at Buenos Aires University, and is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET). She is currently working on a project exploring popular economies in post-neoliberal contexts.