Capitalism and the Witchhunt
Part One 1200-1450
The future is composed merely of images of the past.
Every country has this in common: some citizens are recognized as human, while others are not. The economy of the Roman Empire, for instance, was based on slavery. Citizens were protected by the law, while slaves were routinely punished. This practice lasted for centuries, until Rome crumbled, and a new economic system took its place known as serfdom. In Europe, between the 5th and 7th century, a new kind of peasant was born.
Like the land they were attached to, peasants all over Europe were owned by their masters. They had to work his lands, fight his wars, fix his house, maintain his roads. They could be sold to other masters, and needed the lord’s permission to get married.
But unlike slaves, the new peasant did not perform gang labour in the slave mines, or row in the slave ships, or spend their whole life in underground work prisons where they were kept permanently chained. The most extreme punishments used to keep slaves in line – the tortures, beatings and crucifixions – no longer happened every day.
In exchange for their work, the poor were given land they could pass down to their children. They could grow their own crops, so even if they confronted the lord, he couldn’t starve them into submission. They saw this land as their own, as part of their identity, like the house they lived in, or the clothes they made.
Along with their own land, the poor had access to a nature world “commons” – meadows, forests and lakes – that provided vital resources for the peasant economy. There was wood for buildings and fire, fish ponds, grazing grounds for animals. Because survival depended on cooperation, everyone shared what they had. The commons helped create community, a peasant class.
The Christian church began with a mostly female congregation, some were even allowed to preach, but power struggles in Rome ensured that the church began a war against women that went on century after century. Laws were written permitting every husband to beat his wife, and from the pulpit there were endless stories about women’s weakness and greed, that the best woman in the world was worth less than an average man. For women the church offered only sacrifice and submission, duty and obedience.
But for the new peasants, men and women’s work was considered equal, whether they were working in the fields of the lord, or at home. When a woman gave birth, other women came to help and offer support. Women raised their children together, they made clothes together, planted herb gardens. The conversations they had in these daily interactions were the foundation of a deep female solidarity that enabled women to stand up to men, even the feudal lords, and the church.
The medieval village was a theatre of daily warfare and class struggle. The poor held meetings and protests, even began court proceedings to limit the abuses of the lords. And sometimes there was no choice but to storm the castle.
One of the worst days in a serf’s life was getting called by the lord to do military service. How many died in foreign lands because of the fear and greed of the master?
Many deserted in this period, forcing the king to turn to the prisons, pardoning criminals and outlaws who were forced to serve in his army.
No matter how poor you were, you were haunted by taxes. If you were born, if you died, if you got married, there was tax to be paid. The so-called inheritance tax meant the lord could take whatever he wanted. You were fined for not baking bread in the ovens of the lord, but if you did, you were heavily taxed. Not only were new taxes coming all the time, the church also had its hand out, demanding ten percent of your income.
How could the poorest of the poor say no? How to resist, to heal the wounds and create an identity separate from the master? Some abandoned the lord, fleeing to towns and cities. Others regained their freedom through stealing and smuggling. While some created a politics of not working hard, a politics of long breaks and holidays.
The introduction of money changed what it meant to be poor. Every peasant had a small piece of land of their own, but now it had to be rented with money they didn’t have. Most fell into debt and lost their lands, becoming wandering farmers for hire. The introduction of money created a new class of landless peasants across Europe.
Women suffered under the new money economy. As soon as news got out that their husband had died, someone from the church or state would show up to take their home. Women were forced to leave with their children, and headed into towns and cities where women soon outnumbered the men. In the city women could live alone, or or with each other. They began by taking the lowest paid jobs, as maids, but soon took up traditionally male jobs like butchers and bakers. In the next century women would become schoolteachers, even doctors and surgeons. The city of Frankfurt offered public health care, and hired 16 female doctors as part of the new service.
A new kind of class war, with a new kind of boss, was waiting for men in the cities. They had left the land behind, now they were busy making clothes or working iron and precious metals, often for export. But the workday did not signal an end for the new boss, whose hope, just like capitalists today, was to follow their workers everywhere. The poor were spied upon, and meetings between workers declared illegal. If workers talked with the wrong person, or dropped the wrong remark, they were arrested and tortured, often hung. The new money economy of the cities was built on a horizon of violence, but even as their comrades were hung, the poor would not lower their heads and say yes.
The men who came to the cities were poor, landless, often hungry even if they worked all day, and still they resisted. Cities became the scene of an ongoing working class rebellion against the entire feudal system. The poor took on the church and the nobility, along with their own bosses. In the city of Ghent a worker’s democracy was established until armies massacred even the children. Outrage spread across the continent as peasants began to march to the new city in order to build a place where everyone would be equal. They were fighting for an end to masters and rulers, and for food and lands that would belong to everyone.
12th century – Present
As resistance spread across countries and cities, a new network was born, known as the heretics. The heretic movement was a conscious attempt to create a new society that challenged both church and state. It wanted to put an end to private property and the accumulation of wealth. It asked these basic questions: where do I feel safe? What is the nature of work? Why are men considered more important than women? Why do some children become rulers, while others become slaves?
Some refused ownership of anything at all, following the example of the apostles. In Bohemia, heretics gathered in a group historians have named the first communists, because they shared wealth and property equally.
from a miracle play: “Each man ought to have as much property as every other, and we have nothing we can call our own. The great lords have all the property and poor folks have nothing but suffering.” Good working men make wheaten bread but they will never chew it. All they get is the sifting from the corn, and from good wine they get nothing but the dregs and from good cloth nothing but the chaff. Everything that is tasty and good goes to the nobles and the clergy.”
One group left Prague to establish a new city. They began by building large boxes, treasure chests, and invited each citizen to put their possessions into them, so they could be shared equally.
The heretics rejected all forms of authority. They said no to the idea that some people were better or more important than others. They refused to believe that land should be owned by individuals, or that labour should be sold. In this new world, there would be no bosses, only workers.
The heretics had their own schools, safe houses, and networks that allowed people to lead their own lives. They welcomed refugees fleeing persecution. They became the first international worker’s movement.
In the society of heretics, women were equal. They could travel, they became doctors healing the sick and helping with births, they were leaders of a new kind of church, preaching a gospel of community and care. Women were not only refusing relationships based on money, but inventing new ways of living together. All-women collectives formed, even all women-societies, demonstrating that another world was possible, and putting the entire feudal system into crisis.
The heretics insisted that God no longer spoke through the priests because of their greed and corruption. By the 11th century, the Christian church had become a tyrant machine for making money, selling religious offices, making a market out of the sacraments, demanding wages from the poor.
The heretics fight against the church was not about religious beliefs, it was about politics. As Chomsky often points out, throughout history, the poor have been heavily taxed so that they can support the rich. Challenging the church meant confronting the biggest landowner in Europe.
The Catholic church felt it belonged in the bedrooms of every nation. In the 12th century new laws were passed forbidding sex during Easter and Christmas, on Sundays, on Saturdays before receiving communion, on wedding nights, during menstruation, pregnancy, lactation, and while doing penance. Breaking the law was punishable by death.
For the church poverty and politics went hand in hand. Until the 13th century the church said that being poor was a holy state. After all Jesus and his disciples were all poor. To the rich they said: give us a little bit of money so that we can help these poor holy people. This is how the Christian church became the richest multinational corporation in Europe. As soon as the poor began to rebel and demand rights, the church denounced them, now they deserved only torture and death.
In response to the heretics the Pope began an international campaign of torture he called the Inquisition. But the atmosphere of dread and suspicion, the thousands of broken bodies and stolen confessions were not enough. The church also worked together with governments to create the Crusades. All over Europe armies were raised to slaughter their own citizens as part of a holy war against the poor.
The Great Plague
The worst pandemic in human history was called the Black Death. It roamed across Asia, Europe and northern Africa, killing one out of every three people. It began because of climate change, and was quickly spread by traders moving between cities already weakened by a 7-year famine.
Golden Age 1360-1450
A century before they would set sail and bring death to the rest of the world, half of Europe died in the black plague. What followed was the golden age of the poor. There were so few left, and so much land to work, the poor could leave their lords and masters for a better deal. Wages doubled and tripled as employers were forced to compete with one another. Workers began to organize their own lives, ignoring orders to repair the lord’s houses, clean their ditches or chase down escaped comrades.
One historian called the feudal village: “primitive communism.” Everyone showed up for group meetings to make decisions about when to plant and to share seeds, upcoming festivals and games were planned. For generations the poor had worked for their masters, now at last they were working for each other.
By the end of the 14th century, the refusal of rent and services had become widespread. Entire villages organized to stop paying fines and taxes, and no longer recognized court rulings or church requirements. The poor self-organized in bands, attacking the castles of the lords, destroying archives where the written records of their debts were kept. By the 15th century, confrontation between peasants and nobility turned into all-out wars. The rebels didn’t aim for restrictions on feudal rule or even better living conditions. Their hope was to put an end to the power of the lords. The cry heard across the continent: “Now is the time.”
Towns and cities were remade in the image of the poor. The most radical question of all: what could we be together? Poverty became a problem that had to be looked after, instead of a crime to be punished. Along with a communism of goods, new questions created the foundations of a new society. How can I help you? What do you need? What can I do for you?
There was also a new attitude towards work. While many heretics simply refused to work, relying on community support, others spoke about the importance, even the beauty of the work they did. A new pride took hold, as workers made food and clothes for each other, instead of the bosses.
The working classes enjoyed a standard of living they wouldn’t see again for 500 years.
For the ruling class, the high wages paid to their former land slaves was a scandal that had to be fought at all costs. One wrote, “Servants are now masters and masters are servants.”
The seven-day work week was over, and so was land bondage, being chained to the land, treated as someone else’s property. Serfs were replaced by free farmers who could travel from place to place, making decisions based on their own needs. For a hundred years, it wasn’t necessary to have money in order to be a person.
The golden age of the working class couldn’t last. By the end of the 15th century, Europe’s ruling class fought back with a sexual new deal.
War on Women 1350-1450
The state targeted young male workers, hoping to turn the hatred of the lords into a hatred of women. They began by making sex work legal. For a hundred years, brothels opened in every French town and every Italian village, paid for by taxes. Sex workers could now approach their clients anywhere, even in front of the church during mass. And the Catholic church, always quick to align itself with those in power, announced that sex work was a cure for the orgies of the heretics. For more than a century, sex work in Europe was recognized as a public service.
But that was not enough, one more law had to be struck down. The act of rape was made legal in Europe, and gang rape became common practice. Groups of men regularly broke into the homes of domestic servants. In many towns across Europe half the young men took part in these assaults.
In the days after these attacks, victims were blamed. Their reputations destroyed, they would have to leave town or turn to sex work. The legalization of rape created a climate of intense hatred against women, laying the ground for the witch hunts to come.
For a hundred years, workers were allowed to give their own children more attention than the children of the lords. They worked their own lands, and came together to form new communities. They took on the church and the kings and won, even if the cost was great. But there was a counter-revolution coming, the church was too powerful, the new merchants too ambitious, the old kings too angry. Soon they would come together to produce a new system of power, money and gender. They called it: capitalism.
Origins of Capitalism
For a hundred years, the poor across Europe had worked hard for better food and living conditions, building free societies based on cooperation and sharing. But the church, the lords and the new industrialists began a counter-revolution, a class war that would one day be called: capitalism.
There were two primary targets: women and the commons. The commons is what we all own together, like a forest or the air we breathe. The genius of capitalism is recognizing every commons as a frontier, a place that can be inhabited and turned into a market. Today the water we own, our physical location, our online profiles, our health care and education systems are places where the benefits that everyone enjoy can be turned into opportunities for the few.
In the 15th century, the commons that kick started capitalism was the land. The little plots of land hopscotched across Europe that the peasants worked, and the land without real owners, the forests and rivers and lakes that stretched between properties. If you had land, you had wealth. How to take hold of all that land?
It would have to be stolen of course, there would be no capitalism without theft. Theft and war. Before the 16th century, wars in Europe were small and occasional, fought by handfuls of peasants, who took time off between harvests. Now countries across Europe tried to solve their economic problems by stealing land from other countries. Wars became part of the ordinary business of state, professional soldiers were paid to destroy foreign populations and the soldiers who defended them. It would not be long before these soldiers were turned against their own people.
If the poor were outraged about the way the Catholic Church had become a multinational business venture, the capitalist class saw new opportunities. A new kind of Christianity, calling itself Protestant, would break from Rome, return to scripture, and most importantly, steal the lands of the old church. While the poor had been promised a share, they were betrayed at the last moment. When they demanded their rights, they were slaughtered.
All over Europe forests and fields were being fenced off while the lawers worked over time to make theft legal again. The biggest transfer of land in English history came to be known as a Great Plunder, the great theft. Capitalists grew hedges to create new wealth while the poor who didn’t believe in private property were thrown out of their homes and lands they had worked on all their lifes.
The poor lost their land, their homes and their community. Unable to support themselves, they wandered across Europe, driven by hunger. With so many landless peasants needing work, the cost of labour crashed.
The technology of the wage. One of the most ingenious inventions of capitalism was the technology of the wage
Instead of the land they lived on during feudal times, workers were offered a wage, which was widely seen as a new kind of slavery. Hatred for the wage was so intense that Winstanley, the leader of the Diggers, declared that it didn’t make any difference whether you lived under the enemy or under your own brother, if you were forced to work for a wage.
The poor raised armies and took back cities and villages, anti-enclosure protests turned into mass uprisings. There were all-women protests across England, as women wielded pitchforks and took down fences. It was women who suffered most from the loss of land. Childcare and pregnancies made them less mobile, and most jobs were off limits for them.
Capitalism had two founding principles. The first was permanent war. The second was the battle against women.
The technology of the wage changed what it meant to be a man or a woman. In order for capitalism to take root and flourish, the old definitions of what male and female were, had to change.
In a subsistence economy, where people are looking after their own basic needs for food and shelter, all jobs are equally important. But the new technology of the wage meant that the work men did was recognized and rewarded, while the work that women did was invisible. In the language of the market, men’s work created value, while women’s work did not. The technology of the wage redefined women’s position in society. The new sexual division of labour increased women’s dependence on men. And it meant that employers were no longer responsible for their workers, for their food and housing, the way that the old lords were. Instead, women were made to do that work, without pay, withour notice. In other words, employers used the wages they paid to men as a way to steal women’s labour. Capitalism depended on the unpaid and unrecognized labour of women. Women’s work was the foundation of the whole system, and it was invisible.
In order to create this secret new underclass, a gender revolution produced new roles for men and women. Top and bottom, worker and boss.
From the pulpits of the church, from courts that refused to recognize women as citizens who could speak for themselves, in plays and poems, women were described as empty-headed nymphomaniacs, overwhelmed by emotions, unable to control themselves. The number one female villain was the disobedient wife. A new spectacle of silence paraded in city streets – husbands took their wives out for a walk wearing gags and muzzles, like the animals they had become.
Sex work was one of the few ways women could make money, often there was no other choice. Sex workers often acted like wives for male workers, cooking and washing for them, as well as serving them sexually.
But no sooner had prostitution become the main way to make a living, government attitudes changed. It had once been named a civic duty, now it was a cue for punishment. New inventions like the ducking stool appeared, where victims were tied up, forced into a cage and then waterboarded over and over. Sex workers were branded on the forehead, had their noses cut off, were thrown out of their homes, buried alive.
The price of food in Europe had held steady for two centuries, but now food was part of a global market driven by bigger farms and rich landowners. As soon as land became private, food prices rose, while wages fell.
As bosses stockpiled food waiting for a better price, thousands starved to death.
Meat, along with nearly every fruit and vegetable, disappeared from the diet, and then salt, olive oil. For 200 years workers ate bread, which was their single biggest expense.
“You cannot walk down a street or stop in a square” – one Venetian man wrote in the 16th century – “without multitudes surrounding you to beg for charity; you see hunger written on their faces, their eyes like gemless rings, the wretchedness of their bodies with skin shaped only by bones.”
Because they couldn’t bear to watch their children starving to death, it was often women who led the food revolts. In town after town, women attacked bakeries and started riots in the grain markets.
So many people died of hunger that for the first time, the state offered the poor assistance, handing out loaves of bread. This was the beginning of biopower, where state policy turned towards the bodies of its citizens.
Capitalism did not begin with the steam engine or the clock. The first machine developed by capital was the human body. This new machine was created with a cut between mind and body. The mind was everything, while the body was only meat that carried around our perfect brains. The brain would rule over the body, like the state ruled over its citizens.
Biopower organized the body. Changes included: the use of cutlery, the development of shame around being naked, the beginning of ‘manners’ that laid down standards for how to laugh, walk and sneeze, how to behave with guests, how to sing, joke, and play. The body became an object that had to be constantly watched, as if it were an enemy.
The development of self-discipline or self-government was necessary for capitalism. Power would no longer flow only from a central source, like the throne, but from the subjects themselves, as each person became a mini-state.
It was an ingenious way to exercise control. Instead of bowing to the king, now everyone would become a ruler over themselves, and of course, over each other. Prisoners would guard the jail. The mind would impose order on the body.
From the desks of the new government bureaucrats arose a new picture of what it meant to be human: the poor had become workers and breeders, a raw material that had to be managed like coal or timber. The government was hungry for data so they could deepen control. The first census took place, births, deaths and marriages were recorded. Eventually statistics would perform on the social body what anatomy does to the individual body, dissecting populations and studying their movements.
With so many needing work and hunger creating desperation, working hours were extended, every day was a working day, from early in the morning to night. Most families lived in huts with other families and their animals. Every member of the family worked.
A lot of the work women did was not for their own children, but for the families of their employers, for the rich. A third of the female population worked as maids, though wages were sent directly to their husbands, and without money of their own, it was impossible to have a life of their own.
In the new capitalist family, the husband ruled like the king, he supervised and made rules for the lower classes – his wife and children. The family became a micro-state or micro-church, with man as king and wife and children as subjects.
Families were a key part of the new deal between workers and employers. A new sexual division of labour, a new sexual contract was made, defining women as mothers, daughters or widows, and gave men free access to women’s bodies and labour.
In this new social-sexual contract, male workers were given women as a substitute for the lands they used to live on. Women’s bodies were the new commons that anyone could take and use at will. Once women’s activities were defined as non-work, women’s labour appeared as a natural resource, available to every man, like the air we breathe or the water we drink.
How does the work you do create community? What is important to you, and how could you turn that into a gift for someone else? How can we look after each other? These were the questions that had created the new societies that capitalism was designed to erase.
When they were thrown out of their homes, the starving poor began an endless rebellion. There were peasant wars against land privatization where hundreds of men, women and children, armed with pitchforks and shovels, destroyed fences. Women often led the charge. Across Europe, women worked to protect their children from starvation, leading revolts large and small.
How would the ruling class deal with the endless revolts of the starving? And how would they build the new bodies necessary for capitalism? The answer was a war on women that lasted 200 years. It was called the witch hunt.
The witch hunt was promoted by a political class obsessed with population decline, convinced that a large population was key to the wealth of the nation.
Hoping to end the rebellions of the poor, and to create the labour power they needed, women’s bodies had to be put under state control. Elaborate spy networks spread across Europe ensuring that pregnancies would not be terminated.
For the poor, childbirth had been an occasion for the gathering of women and midwives, whose herbs and healing remedies had accumulated for generations. But now midwives were asked to choose between spying on the women who needed them or being tortured, while male doctors took over childbirth, as part of the rise of so-called “professional medicine.”
In the Middle Ages women used different kinds of contraception, there were herbs to provoke abortions or create sterility. This knowledge, passed down by women for generations, was outlawed. When birth control finally reappeared, it was only available for men.
Any kind of sex that did not lead to childbirth was banned. And while homosexuality had been widely accepted across Europe, the term faggot reminds us that homosexuals were thrown onto the stakes where witches were burning.
Just as the enclosures removed peasants from their land, so the witch hunt removed women from their bodies. They became machines for the production of new workers. The witch hunt placed the uterus at the service of population increase and the accumulation of labour power.
We can only try to imagine how it would feel for a woman, knowing that any attempt at birth control could lead to torture, or what it was like watching neighbours, friends and relatives being burned at the stake.
The women accused of being witches were not only the street beggars and the elderly, or the women who were not mothers. The witch was the one who refused the old laws, the one who said no, daring to disagree. The female personality that had resisted feudal authority, the all-women villages, the women who led the assaults against the lord’s castles – these women had to be destroyed.
Hundreds of thousands of women were tried, tortured, burned alive or hanged, accused of having sold their bodies to the devil, murdering children and neighbours.
There is no way to let these women speak again, to hear their voices. The only words that survive were produced during torture, and most offer a terrifying monotony, as if everyone’s experience was the same.
Nearly all of the accused were poor, while their accusers were wealthy, often employers and landlords. The witch hunt was also a class war.
In England, witches were usually old women on public assistance, beggars on the street. Old women were most likely to resist the destruction of community relations caused by the spread of capitalism. They were the ones who embodied the community’s knowledge and memory. The witch hunt turned the image of the old woman upside down: traditionally considered wise, she became a symbol of sterility and hostility to life. What stands out in their confessions is their poverty. The devilish crimes they are accused of are about defaulting on the rent, or asking for public assistance.
The trials looked like machines creating the same product, all of the trials looked the same. For instance, there was an obsession with the way witches gathered at night. And it’s true, there were fires burning all night, though they didn’t belong to devils, but to the poor, who were busy plotting rebellion.
The witch hunt was the first campaign in Europe that made use of multi-media propaganda to generate fake news. One of the first tasks of the printing press was to produce pamphlets warning about the dangers posed by witches.
The stakes were witches died, and the rooms in which their assaults were performed by the state, were laboratories for the scientific use of torture. The irrational impulses that threatened a reliable machine body were replaced by fear and obedience.
The sexual cruelty of the tortures reveals a hatred of women that has few parallels in history. Women were shaved before long needles were driven into their bodies. They were raped, their limbs torn apart, their bones crushed. After weeks or months of torture their family was gathered in a public square, particularly the children, who watched while their mother was burned alive.
Women had led the resistance to the lords and the church, formed their own communities, stormed the castles. Was it any wonder the stunned ruling class described women as savage beings, incapable of self-control, stubborn and rebellious.
The heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the woman who poisoned the master’s food and inspired slaves to revolt. In order for capitalism to be born, women had to be turned into witches, and then destroyed.
Capitalism did not begin only once. Instead, it restarts over and over again. And whenever it does there are attacks against women. Facing these assaults is a rising tide of resistance – community organizations, marches. Under capitalism, the battle over women’s bodies will never end.
Based on Silvia Federici’s groundbreaking book Caliban and the Witch.