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Rereading Classic Autonomist Feminism

I'm slowly struggling through my reading list. That is, I'm getting to all those books that I've had on the back-burner for over a year, that I keep accumulating, but that I can only slowly get to due to: a) all the other books that have accumulated first; b) the stuff I have to read because of my job. Summers are always easier, because that's usually a period when I'm on EI, and so it won't be too long before I can eliminate a large swathe of my reading list. Generally my readings follow a particular instrumental hierarchy: texts connected to my organizational life (whether they be essays, position papers, or books), texts connected to my job (whether they be course material or student papers – argh Hegel's Philosophy of Right again and hundreds of essays!), texts that are related to whatever paper or manuscript I'm working on, texts that follow the rule of my reading cue when this cue does not prioritize the previous categories.

In any case, when it comes to my base reading cue, I've finally reached two books that I'm reading sequentially and that I've been looking forward to reading for a while. (Yes, I prefer to read more than one book at the same time.  Get bored with one and there are others––jumping back and forth not only makes it easier to keep the texts fresh, but also provides interesting points of intersection… Although, depending on what you're reading at the same time these intersections might be strangelly interesting.) So right now I'm mainly rereading Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch while, less quickly, finally getting into MIM-Prison's Chican@ Power and the Struggle for Aztlan. Since I plan to devote a proper review to the latter text (since, unlike Federici's book, it hasn't been properly reviewed and, to be honest, I initially jumped the cue on this one and read close to a hundred pages months ago before putting it back in order), in this post I simply want to point out my impressions of the former. Suffice to say, the intersections have been more interesting and pertinent than usual.

I initially read Caliban and the Witch around a decade ago, back in the early days of being a PhD student.  I got it out of the library, a couple years after it was released, and devoured it rather quickly. Since it was a library book, however, I wasn't able to preserve my marginalia just as I didn't cement my memory by underlining (which has now become the rubric by which I best remember), and so I could not retain much beyond memory after the book was returned to the library. When I encountered a used copy of this book several months ago I decided, based on my memories of my initial reading, that it was worth purchasing and rereading, if only to cement my thoughts through the process of underlining and marginalia. Mainly I was thinking again of the transition question, and recalling that when I read Federici's book it was in a time right before I was concerned with this question, I thought it was useful to grab it and reconsider its arguments (only some of which I fully remembered) anew.

More importantly, though, my previous reading of Caliban and the Witch was overdetermined by my autonomism. To be honest, the main reason I read this book was because Federici was associated with the Italian operaismo; it was mainly a quick attempt to reinforce what I already believed, but was just reaching the point of disintegration due to my doctoral engagement with anti-colonial theory and struggle that forced me to think through the Chinese Revolution and the emergence of the Maoist turn in theory. Returning to Federici's book now, after a decade of work and transformation, is interesting: I almost wished I owned it previously, that I could chart my political growth in what was underlined and marginally noted.

Rereading Caliban and the Witch is quick and intellectually enjoyable. Even still, I'm surprised by what I've forgotten. Most of my memory focuses on the details of the witch hunts and reproductive labour, not on the context that surrounds and motivates this focus. For some reason I deleted––maybe because I wasn't really looking for anything specific in this text at the time I initially read it––the author's concern with connecting her story of transition and primitive accumulation with the modern colonial conquest. Other texts made this impression upon me, and informed my thesis, but not this one even though it so prevalent. Like, for example, look at this statement: "when we look at the beginning of capitalist development, we have the impression of being in an immense concentration camp." (64) Yes, indeed. I've been arguing for a while now that when it comes to literature the western genre, or any pre-western genre about "contact", must necessarily recognize itself as in fact the most disturbing iteration of the horror genre: the western and the colonial discovery story should not be divorced from horror since the valorized agents (i.e. the general settler population) were normalized serial killers.

On the other hand, however, I am less convinced by some of her blanket claims about Marx and Engels that when I was far less well-read I just accepted. While I would still agree (because it is hard not to) that Marx's analysis of primitive accumulation fails to account for the witch hunts and the sphere of reproduction, the genius of Federici's book, and have no problem arguing that the founders of historical materialism were wrong, if judged by their own method, on many things, I find it hard to agree with her pronouncement that Marx "assumed that the violence that had presided over the earliest phases of capitalist expansion would recede with the maturing of capitalist relations, when the exploitation and disciplining of labor would be accomplished mostly through the workings of economic laws." (12) Although one can find passages in Marx's work that would appear, if dislocated from the work as a whole, to make such claims it is rather difficult to make such a blanket claim. First of all, such an argument about the receding of direct political violence is more akin to an early recognition about the way in which ideology functions, the ways in which a capitalist mode of production––upon consolidating itself as a mode of production––will not always have to use coercive means to secure its reproduction: Gramsci and Althusser have discussed this in more detail, the ways in which a capitalist state must foster some level of consent to class rule if is not to over-extend itself, and thus lose its hegemony, by always rolling the tanks unto the street and beating labours into working in factories. To assume that Marx is thus asserting that a situation of pure economic exploitation will supplant direct class violence, however, is difficult to defend when we can find passages where he talks about the necessity of the violent enforcement of class rule, how the balancing of "equal" liberal rights is decided by force, and where he writes in the Manifesto that the ruling classes have united to violently suppress the threat of proletarian insurgence. Secondly, the beginnings of a Marxist theory of the state that can be culled from various passages in the Marx/Engels canon recognizes that the state is necessary for the maintenance of the capitalist mode of production (and not just the economic order) and that, as Engels points out in Anti-Duhring (which was edited by Marx) and in opposition to Hegel's Philosophy of Right that the state is a machine of class power with, to borrow from Althusser's language, its apparatuses of repression, i.e. the police and army.

If Marx actually did believe that capitalism would reach a point where exploitation would mainly be accomplished through its economic order, then it was heavily qualified. And if we agree with the kind of political economy that, through the openings produced by Samir Amin, claim that we must understand global capitalism as comprised of capitalist modes of production (the imperialist centres) and capitalist formations that are a jumble of comprador capitalism and pre-capitalist disarticulated modes of production (the exploited peripheries), then Marx's claim still makes sense.  In the centres there is a tendency to enforce consent to ruling class ideology––and workers in both the spheres of reproduction and production are not literally forced into collaboration with capitalism every moment of the day by armed escort––though this would not rule out direct coercion, in its private and public forms, always functioning under the surface. [As an aside, Amin has also claimed that in Capital Marx was looking at the capitalist mode of production in the most abstract manner, in order to uncover its general laws, but that it would be strange to think that what is being put forward as a scientific model is identical to any concrete instantiation… Much like the double helix, as a model, bears no literal resemblance to what you see under a microscope. This understanding of Capital would definitely place it beyond the bounds of Federici's critique regarding violence and exploitation, but would still implicate its inability to examine the historical data of the witch trials.]

Now what is interesting about Federici's claim regarding Marx's supposed assumption about the receding of violence is that the movement's first generation of revisionists, Bernstein and company, focused on the same dislocated practices to make this precise argument. Bernstein famously argued, by finding a few quotes from Marx and Engels that supported his position, that militarism was a pre-capitalist phenomenon and that, since it would "disappear" the more capitalism matured, it made complete sense to think of a communist movement as simply an electoral and reformist project. There would be no need, according to this assumption, to organize an armed revolution if and when capitalism dispensed of its military and, according to its supposed logic, focused on purely economic repression. The early anti-revisionists, most pertinently Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, responded to Bernstein in the way that the first generation of anti-revisionists tended to reply: by quoting other passages of Marx and Engels that said opposite things. Most notably we get Luxemburg's Social Reform or Revolution and Liebknecht's Militarism that mobilize references to Marx and Engels in response to revisionism. We would also eventually get one of the most creative pieces of early anti-revisionist political economy that goes beyond the polemic of militant fidelity to Marxist doctrine: Luxemburg's Accumulation of Capital, that truly does try to examine some of the empty points of Marx and suggest, according to the logic of historical materialism, revolutionary additions and developments… Here is another text, that also takes another look at primitive accumulation, that I feel I'm going to have to reread because I feel that it might intersect in multiple interesting ways with Federici.

But let's return from this digression because it was, despite a few paragraphs, something of a transgression. Federici's strange misconception of Marxism aside––a misconception that flies in the face of the first period of anti-revisionist communism that resulted in the dialectic of Luxemburg and Lenin––this is in fact a minor detail to her project. If we centre Caliban and the Witch within the transition debate, and forget about these side points about what Marx may or may not have believed, we are forced to engage with two important facts: i) a heterodox conception of the commons and its enclosure; ii) the broadening of the sphere of primitive accumulation to include, through the witch hunts and other institutions, the zone of reproductive labour;

My first point reminded me why I still respect the autonomist tradition, particularly in its emphasis of the immanence of class struggle. When I first read this book I wasn't immersed in the transition debate so I didn't grasp how significant Federici's contribution was in this area; by the time I approached this debate, a couple years after reading Caliban and the Witch, I was thinking about things differently and was dealing, unfortunately, with other texts. My point here is that my problem with the Brennerites (including the late Ellen Wood) was not simply their refusal to take colonialism seriously but the way they which they treated feudalism in a utopian manner with their assumption that the commons was intrinsic to feudalism and that, because of this, the capitalist enclosure of these commons was some sort of violation of feudal freedom. What Federici points out, however, is that the commons was not intrinsic to the feudal order but was, in fact, the result of class struggle against serfdom. She goes further to assert, and I believe rightly so, that the capitalist enclosure was only possible because of a class alliance between the feudal ruling classes who hated the existence of the commons and the emergent bourgeoisie. Thus the enclosure was not some destruction of the European feudal order but was a destruction of possibilities that were intrinsically imposed to this order and, in this destruction, resulted in the ascendancy of the bourgeois class. Hence, Federici opposes the flattening of the Western European tributary mode of production that defines the Political Marxist approach while, simultaneously, connecting this process to the very thing Political Marxists refuse to recognize: global colonialism.

As for Federici's broadening of the sphere of primitive accumulation, I am being struck more in this reread by institutions other than the witch hunts since I remembered, and quite vividly, her analysis of the witch hunts prior to the reread. Particularly, I had no memory of her treatment of prostitution and am actually quite surprised at how relevant and necessary this analysis is now, right at the moment where a very particular analysis of prostitution is causing some strange neo-liberal distortions in left discourse. In the face of claims that the institution of prostitution is liberating, that it is some sort of identity equivalent to queer and trans identity, Federici points out how modern prostitution was valorized by the church and state as part of a larger institutionalization of rape designed to marginalize women from class struggle. The state of affairs, according to Federici, established modern prostitution as a key aspect of reproductive labour in the context of normalized rape.

The examination of the witch hunts is, of course, the aspect of this book that has been deemed the most important. Mainly because, before Federici, they were not examined according to primitive accumulation and the reproductive sphere––that is they were not examined in a materialist sense, and so many strange occult narratives thrived in this area that remained unexplored. I'm looking forward to reminding myself of Federici's arguments in this area, in the face of all those weird Wiccan claims that likes to believe the victims of the witch hunts were literally, in agreement with the late medieval and early capitalist apparatchiks, witches.

All in all, the reread of this text is going quickly (mainly because it's a reread and I haven't killed all of my brain cells yet) and, in the process, I'm picking up on things I didn't notice, due to my interests at the time, in the first read. I'm looking forward to encountering more passages that I've forgotten, just as I'm looking forward to engaging with the collection of Federici essays, Revolution at Point Zero, that I picked up around the same time as Caliban and the Witch.


  1. It is interesting, isn't it, how often anti-Marxist criticisms of Marx are often based on distortions of Marx and people criticizing marx on inaccurate grounds would often actually find themselves in agreement with Marx on whatever the specific issue is (ie, Federici mistakes Marx for Bernstein on this question of the role of violence in "well-developed" capitalism).

    Not that fidelity to specifically Marx is the most important thing in the world but it really is painful sometimes how much "criticism of marx" is really criticism of Bernstein, Lassalle, etc.

    1. Well to be fair to Federici, my point was that this was a reading you could get out of Marx (as Bernstein did) if you just looked at those parts of Marx that confirmed that hypothesis. Also, Federici isn't an anti-Marxist but a very particular type of Marxist: in other areas she is in complete agreement with Marx and she even relies on his conception of primitive accumulation but with some tinkering. But as for other anti-Marxist criticisms that are based on distortions, yeah you're right.

    2. Well, that's the whole problem: Bernstein considered Marx rather selectively and partially and did not consider his work overall. That Federici embarked on what was partially a detailed critique of Marx but did not realize she was actually criticizing a distortion of Marx strikes me as kind of questionable.

      That many autonomists/anarchists etc I've shared the book with have been generally re-entrenched in their refusal to read marx after reading Federici also leads me to get cranky about this misreading, regardless of her intentions. So I've seen it have an anti-Marxist effect, although I agree that she is not anti-Marxist.

      Overall I love Federici's work and Caliban and the Witch in particular though and my quibbles with her reading of Marx are not perhaps the most important. It's actually next on my list to re-read, myself!

    3. Yeah, true. While I think Federici (and others) are right to point out areas that Marx was unable to grasp, it is rather annoying when they point out other areas that Marx did grasp. Because while I don't give a shit if Marxism was correct all the time (only people who are under the impression that Marxism is correct if only Marx and Engels could foresee everything think this, which is not historical materialist in any way), I definitely do think that we should at least be clear about what he actually said, and where he was correct, rather than just finding lacunae everywhere… even if it is for Marxist reasons.

      Autonomists are definitely guilty for doing a lot of this poor reading, though to be fair they've also done some cool things here and there. Still, I agree, these problems tend to make me a little grumpy.

  2. Post your reading list (or at least the 10 next things you will read)!

    1. The damn thing changes all the time. Right now, though, I can tell you what books I'm reading at the same time, rotating when convenient:
      1) Caliban and the Witch [as noted, and since it's a reread it's pretty quick]
      2) Chican@ Power and the Struggle for Aztlan [as noted]
      3) Boredom and Art by Julian Jason Haladyn
      4) An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
      5) Principles of Non-Philosophy by Francois Laruelle [started while doing that Non-Marxism one, mainly to make sure I understood some things correctly since he had changed his philosophy a bit since Philosophy and Non-Philosophy, figure I should at least complete what is considered his most important work before wiping my hands of him]
      6) The Winged Histories by Sophia Samatar (fiction)
      7) Ibrahim Kaypakkaya's Selected Works [as you know]

      So not ten, but that's seven at the same time, lol.

    2. Wow. I definitely can't read that many things at the same time. I find that I can read 2-3 different things at the same time, but more than that and I start forgetting the flow of the argument.

    3. I've always been like this, just like I always am writing multiple things at once. With reading I find it often leads to interesting intersections, connections I wouldn't otherwise make. Plus it enables me to just move to something else if I find the reading is dragging with one thing. Of course, I'll put the other things aside if and when I'm focused solely on one book and near the end. Different strokes for different folks!


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