Silvia Federici is a feminist activist and scholar with vast interdisciplinary reach. Along with her work and advocacy in wages for housework campaigns, she is best known for her book Caliban and the Witch, which advances a daring reinterpretation of the phenomenon of witch-hunting in early modern Europe and the colonial world. Where interpreters have traditionally viewed the wave of witch-hunting as one last outburst of medieval superstition in a world that had not yet become fully modern, Federici argues that we need to see the witch-hunts as integral to what is euphemistically called “the transition to capitalism.”
Far from an anachronistic holdover, in Federici’s account the witch-hunts were the most extreme and vicious outgrowth of a broader campaign to discipline female bodies, and particularly their reproductive power, in ways that would support the demands of capitalist accumulation. Once restored to their central role, Federici contends, the witch-hunts can help to illuminate the role of gender and racial hierarchies, as well as the division of labor between colony and metropole, in the production and reproduction of the global capitalist order.
It should already be clear from this description of her research project that Federici’s concerns overlap heavily with those of contemporary political theology—both in the looser sense of politically-engaged theology and the narrower sense of the genealogical investigation of homologies between the political and theological realms. For the purposes of this essay, I will be focusing on the latter sense of political theology. This genealogical research project into the Christian roots of modern secular institutions has in recent years dramatically expanded its scope, breaking from the conventional Schmittian concerns with the dynamics of sovereignty and secularization to make way for an engagement with an ever-increasing range of social and political phenomena. Particularly important has been the growing interest in economic phenomena (a focus seemingly ruled out in advance by the Schmittian model) and in racialization (a problematic topic for Schmitt to say the least), though there have been attempted “political theologies” of essentially every axis of oppression.
This more capacious approach to political theology has incalculably enriched the field, but it also raises methodological questions that are especially important in the case of an emergent discipline that, even in its more conventional versions, has suffered from a lack of clarity about its meaning, methodology, and goals. I propose that Federici is a figure who can help contemporary political theology gain methodological clarity, not in spite of, but because of its relatively newfound diversity.
Focusing primarily on Caliban and the Witch, I will isolate three key ways that Federici takes up and develops key political theological concerns: her rejection of conventional binaries, which echoes and radicalizes political theology’s approach; her historical method, which brings together the synchronic and diachronic elements of genealogical investigation in an exemplary way; and her strategic presentism, which mines the past for lost histories and alternative models to respond to contemporary problems. Having established what Federici has to offer to contemporary political theology, I will then consider, more briefly, ways that a common critique of her project can be productively recontextualized if her work is taken as part of the field of political theology.
Questioning conventional binaries has always been the stock-in-trade of political theology. The very name of the field reflects Carl Schmitt’s forceful rejection of the secular-religious binary that has been so foundational for modernity. More recent studies have pushed beyond that to reject other, equally foundational binaries: political-economic, class-identity, public-private, metropole-colony, etc. What makes Federici’s approach so productive is that she challenges all these binaries at the same time by showing how they were all constructed together, as part of a cohesive strategy of power.
So, for instance, Federici can claim that, in the effort to discipline the working class and prevent collective working class power from emerging, “Even the individual’s relation with God was privatized” (84)—putting the conventional secular-religious (and public-private) binaries in a broader context. Similarly, throughout Caliban and the Witch, she presupposes that economic and political power cannot ultimately be distinguished. More than that, she argues that the conventional division of labor between market and state represented by the latter’s welfare role emerged out of the recognition of “the unsustainability of a capitalist system ruling exclusively by means of hunger and terror,” which creates the need for some kind of supplemental support for the working class (84).
More central to Federici’s concerns are gender, racial, and colonial hierarchies, which she persistently characterizes as strategies to divide and conquer the working class—providing short-term privileges to one group (men, white people, residents of the metropole) over against another (women, Black people, colonized subjects) in ways that wound up reinforcing the power of the capitalist class in the long term. Her message here is particularly relevant when “populism” is identified with misogyny, racism, and nationalism. As she shows, these prejudices did not emerge spontaneously but “had to be legislated and enforced,” which “prove[s] that a segregated, racist society was instituted from above” (108). Once again, the binaries that appear so natural to most modern subjects are shown to be part of a complex, mutually reinforcing strategy of power.
This observation brings us to the topic of genealogy because the example of the witch-hunt shows that the strategies that enforced the “transition to capitalism” did not emerge in a vacuum. Federici acknowledges that the theological doctrines and folk beliefs that came together in the phenomenon of witch-hunting were already present in medieval culture. Yet she emphasizes throughout that the demands of the emergent capitalist order determined which preexisting beliefs were highlighted and how they were articulated together.
Particularly intriguing are Federici’s suggestions that witch-hunting ideology was decisively shaped by the conquest of the Americas, because “the charge of devil-worshipping played a key function also in the colonization of the American aboriginal population” (220). Once again, though, the historical root of a political strategy is less important than its ongoing relevance in modernity; Federici demonstrates a “growing exchange, in the course of the 17th century, between the ideology of witchcraft and the racist ideology that developed on the soil of the Conquest and the slave trade. The Devil was portrayed as a black man and black people were increasingly treated like devils” (198).
This demonization, Federici repeatedly emphasizes, was not a “leftover” element of medieval superstition but integral to the modern strategy of power. And the reason that the emerging capitalist class drew upon religious ideology to strengthen their claims was not simply because they wanted to borrow its authority for their own purposes. More than that, they were responding to the fact that religion—in the form of millenarian and heretical movements—had been a powerful site of resistance and alternative community building throughout the medieval period.
In other words, Federici goes beyond conventional political theology, and even many contemporary versions, in her awareness of the dynamism and conflict within the medieval period itself, which effectively decenters the medieval-modern dyad by inscribing both within a broader lineage of struggle and reaction.
As Federici makes clear in both her preface and the book’s final lines, the struggle she outlines in Caliban and the Witch is still ongoing. She relates her experience as a visiting professor in Nigeria in 1984-1986, when the country was undergoing “structural adjustment” at the behest of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. What she witnessed seemed to recapitulate her research on the origins of capitalism, as state authorities waged a “War Against Indiscipline” that included misogynistic attempts to discipline women and control their reproductive power (9). For Federici, though, the very fact that such a vicious campaign was necessary was a source of unexpected hope, “as it proved that, worldwide, formidable forces still contrast the imposition of a way of life conceived only in capitalist terms” (9).
Hence, at the same time that she bookends her work with references to the brutal imposition of neoliberalism, Federici also, more importantly, bookends it with accounts of resistance movements—in many cases led by women—that reject capitalist hegemony. Where one might be tempted to indulge in fatalism in light of the reiteration of similar dynamics in the birth of capitalism and in its contemporary rearticulation in neoliberalism, Federici aims to help us see that there were and are real alternatives.
In this respect, Federici might be seen as clearly in line with political theology, which—even in its more strictly diagnostic mode, which is primarily what I have in mind here—has always marshalled its genealogical narratives and conceptual homologies in response to contemporary problems. Yet it has often done so in a way that could be characterized as passive-aggressive. This tendency is clearly present in Schmitt’s foundational text itself, which invents the discipline of political theology as part of an indirect argument for the necessity of dictatorship. Subsequent practitioners have often had subterranean agendas of their own—for instance, purging illegitimate religious accretions from secular politics.
Viewing Federici’s approach as a form of political theology not only provides a model for clarifying the relevance and stakes of any particular work of political theology, but also points to the deeper methodological difference between political theology and more conventional history. Political theology does not aim simply to relate what happened in the past, but to transform our vision of the past to make it useable for the transformation of the present.
The Witch-Hunt as Paradigm
So far I have tried to show that Federici helps to amplify and clarify the new, more diverse version of political theology, which aims to deploy the genealogical and binary-defying legacy of conventional political theology to make transformative interventions in the contemporary world. Before I conclude, though, I would like to consider whether Federici herself would benefit from being “recruited” as a political theologian. I suggest that she would, because such a contextualization would blunt the force of one of the most common critiques of her work.
I am referring to the claim that Federici vastly overstates the death-toll and thus the importance of the witch-hunts. As far as I have been able to determine, Federici was in fact drawing on the most reputable scholarship at the time she was writing. Yet later scholars have sometimes proposed much lower casualty rates, and in recent books like Beyond the Periphery of the Skin she does not seem to have nuanced her claims. Does this vitiate her project?
Here the distinction between political theology and conventional history may be helpful in insulating Federici from a simplistic empirical “disproof.” What is important about the witch-hunt is not whether they were “factually” as important as Federici claims, but whether the focus on the witch-hunt is conceptually productive.
Drawing on Foucault and Agamben’s approach to genealogical inquiry, I would propose that Federici is in effect advancing the witch-hunt as a conceptual paradigm, whose primary goal is to make visible connections that would otherwise go unnoticed. Even if the witch-hunt was empirically much less important than Federici claims (however we propose to measure empirical importance), it can still function as a paradigmatic window into the strategies behind the “transition to capitalism.”
This benefit of placing her work in the context of political theology is of course much less substantial than what Federici has to offer to the field: a more radical questioning of binaries, articulated in a more robust genealogical method, with clearer stakes for the contemporary world. Hence, I propose that whether or not Federici would identify as a political theologian, political theologians should identify as Federicians.
Selected Works of Silvia Federici
Federici, Silvia. Beyond the Periphery of the Skin: Rethinking, Remaking, and Reclaiming the Body in Contemporary Capitalism. New York: Autonomedia, 2020.
Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation. 2nd ed. New York: Autonomedia, 2014.
Federici, Silvia. Re-enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons. New York: Autonomedia, 2018.
Federici, Silvia. Revolution at Point Zero: Housework, Reproduction, and Feminist Struggle. New York: Autonomedia, 2012.
Federici, Silvia. “Wages Against Housework.” In Malos, ed. The Politics of Housework. New York: New Clarion Press, 1980.