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.