A World Turned Upside Down

An Interview with Silvia Federici

We are celebrating the publication of our twenty-fifth book, available now from our online shop. Our Spring 2024 issue is a hardback anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork from around the world, inspired by the struggle for land rights, and by the living land itself. Today we bring you an excerpt from Adam Weymouth's conversation with the writer, teacher and activist Silvia Federici, which explores the destruction of the commons, and the persecution of women as witches, that was spread across the world by extractive empire.
is a writer living on the south coast of England. His first book, Kings of the Yukon (Penguin) won the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year and the Prix Paul Emile-Victor. His new book, about the wolf's return to Europe, will be published in early 2025.

I first read about the concept of the commons in Garrett Hardin’s ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’ (1968). ‘Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all’, he argued, claiming tragedy was unavoidable without privatisation or autocratic rule. His viewpoint chimed so completely with the capitalist project, and became so widely accepted, that today the title sounds almost  tautological. It is one of the most cited scientific papers of all time. 

‘That bullshitter’, says Silvia Federici when I bring up Hardin’s name. Now in her eighties, she has spent her career arguing that the true tragedy is the commons’ destruction. A formidable academic and activist, her ground-breaking feminist work, from Wages Against Housework (1975) to Caliban and the Witch (2004) to Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons (2018), has made her a vital thinker and speaker for movements worldwide that are fighting at the intersections of feminism, environmentalism, land rights and anti-capitalism.

I interviewed her in the last days of 2023 from her apartment in New York. What follows is an edited version of our two hour conversation. I began by asking her about the historical importance of the commons, in particular in medieval England.

 

SF
When I wrote Caliban and the Witch, I was looking at the organisation of property relations and work, particularly agricultural work, in the Middle Ages. Despite the fact that the land was largely in the hands of the master class, it was often cultivated in common. The peasant population lived on the land of the lords, and in return for their labour they would receive land of their own to cultivate and to use for their reproduction. Often it was given to a village collectively. These commons shaped the culture of the medieval village.
AW
Presumably the lords were all too aware how vulnerable they were to the power that the peasantry had?
SF
Absolutely. The great solidarity that the villagers developed gave them the courage to challenge the feudal lords. Access to the common was never something completely granted. It took place under tremendous constraints, which the peasantry always tried to break down. This is the micro struggle, which over time developed into larger conflicts. In England in 1381, hundreds of peasants went up to London to speak to the King. In Spain and in Germany we had true peasant wars, when villages came together to  take on the feudal class as a whole. Often with disastrous consequences, unfortunately.
AW
In Alaska I became very familiar with how the Indigenous were forced off their land by the colonisers. But it was amazing to me, reading Caliban and the Witch, to learn that there was a very similar history here, several centuries before.
SF
The landlords began to drive off the people on their land by violent means. The lands were fenced off. The cottages were destroyed. At all levels there was the individualisation of life, the individualisation of relations. Marx wrote in Kapital that capitalism begins with the expulsion of the peasantry from the land, and also the destruction of the commons. They are  expropriated from direct access to any means of reproduction, which then makes them dependent on the pittance of the wage.
AW
This is what Marx refers to as primitive accumulation?
SF
Exactly. You have the accumulation of the asset on one side – that the land is liberated, so to speak – and you have a population which is accumulated, that is ready for exploitation, because it no longer has direct access to any means of its own reproduction.
AW
It seems brutal enough to think about it now, but at the time, psychologically, it must have felt a completely different paradigm.
SF
It’s a world upside down. It was a world turned upside down.
AW
Can you talk about the role that the witch hunts played in the enclosures, and the impact that they had on women in particular?
SF
Women are known to have often been at the forefront of tearing down the fences. There is a whole war that is waged on women, and the witch hunt is part of that. In England, many of the women accused as witches were older women, who depended, because of the enclosures, because of expropriation, on public charity or communal support. In a society that was instituting work as a religion and a duty, they were seen more and more as dangerous, as people to be eliminated.

 

Other groups were also charged. Women practising healing; forecasting the future; helping people to find stolen objects. All the activities that we now call magical, because they presume a particular relationship between human beings and nature. This is part of the destruction of our relationship with nature, that comes with the marketisation of land.

Women are known to have often been at the forefront of tearing down the fences

AW
Can we see the destruction of the commons as also being a destruction in the relationship between men and women? 
SF
The birth of capitalism is the institution of a wage relation. But many women were excluded from any form of employment. If they did work, they often didn’t directly receive the income. As inadequate and miserable as the wage is, the man would receive it in his own name. In the case of women, this was not true. Women are subordinate, or become dependent on men either through prostitution or marriage.

 

Marx points out that with industrialisation, the wage worker becomes an exploiter of his wife and children. So with capitalism, you have clearly a new division of labour. And I’m arguing that the witch hunt is really part of the whole devaluation of women. Capitalism needed to control their bodies, to control their procreation, control their sexuality. It is the discipline of women.

 

Women were executed for adultery. Women were muzzled. They had a metal plate that entered the mouth with a spike in the middle of it, so if you tried to speak you would tear your tongue. And they were paraded around the village so the other women would be terrorised. That really gives the idea of the level of class war. And how the level of class war was animated by amazing misogyny. Women in the Middle Ages could go to court in their own name, but by the 18th century, they couldn’t do it. So the idea that capitalism brings a humanisation in the relationship between men and women is so far-fetched. In fact, there is a tremendous devaluation.

AW
You use this phrase ‘the enclosure of the body’.
SF
Absolutely. Body and land are so totally intertwined. To this day. You cannot have a healthy body without healthy land. The epidemics that we have are first of all a consequence of the fact that the land is sick. We have a poisoned land, poisoned waters, poisoned bodies. And that process begins with the rise of capitalism.
AW
That barbarity that you speak of, it also smacks of fear. The fear of the lords losing their power.
SF
You kick people out, they rebel. There are several uprisings: The Pilgrimage of Grace, in 1536. Kett’s Rebellion. A lot of people participate. They tear down the fences. But then there’s also this micro-war that is taking place. The beggar, the vagrant, the fear of the attack on the coach on the highway, all of that. There is a society that is always full of fear. And the fear results in executions. It results in spies filtering into the villages.
AW
It’s tempting to think of this as ancient history. But one of the points you make is that at the frontiers of capitalism, these same practices are going on today. Down to women still being accused of witchcraft.
SF
I just came back from Brazil. On 18th September, in Mato Grosso, Sebastiana Gauto was burnt alive, accused of being a witch. She was a spiritual leader of the Guaraní, and she was leading a struggle to save the land of the community from being taken over by this agribusiness for the cultivation of soya. They burned not only her and her partner, they burned the whole house. In the spot where she lived there is a pile of ashes.

 

This was organised by people in the community who have been indoctrinated by new Christian fundamentalist sects. They’ve been responsible both in Africa, and now increasingly Latin America, for the killing of local leaders. The land everywhere in Latin America and in Africa is under tremendous attack. Communal lands are being taken for petroleum drilling or for commercial crops. The people have been expropriated. All these refugee camps. I say Palestine is the world, because in Palestine you see in the most obvious way a kind of exterminism that is actually taking place in so many areas. So the struggle continues. It is not an accident that women are still being accused of being witches.

AW
I know that you’ve had personal experience of seeing the commons from your time in Nigeria.
SF
In Europe the idea of the commons is long gone. But in Nigeria many people still have communal lands, even when they have a wage job in the city. I was working in a university in Port Harcourt, and talking to my colleagues I realised that a number of them still had a very strong relationship with their village. Many of them were part of communal land projects in the villages. When you were born, you were born into land. Families handed down this communal land to the children. You can always go there and there’s always some food, there’s always a hut. There’s still a communal feeling. And then when you’re old, you’ll go back to the village, and there will be something there. You will not be left on the street.

 

My colleagues would say to me: ‘What do you mean, you don’t have any land? You depend only on your wages? Aren’t you afraid?’ And I would say, ‘No, we are expected to live with this kind of instability.’ It has been built into us that we have no guarantees. I was talking to a woman who was organising the homeless here in New York. She said that one third of the people living in a shelter for the homeless in New York are wage workers. They are people who have a job, but the job is so underpaid that they cannot pay the rent. There is this sense of the precarisation not only of work, but of life.

 

The destruction of the direct access to the land is what is driving the conflicts and the massacres in Africa today. You have a lot of people who are being expelled by agribusiness, petroleum, diamond digging, digging for all the minerals that are necessary for the digital economy. People in the Congo speak of blood computers. When people celebrate the phone as a way of gathering masses in the streets, they don’t understand that in order to have a phone, you have to expropriate.

 

Ogoni people rebelled against the oil companies and thousands were killed. Several hundred villages were destroyed. It was like the new enclosures. If you saw pictures of the Ogoni villages, you will see that people rebelled because the pipelines were crossing their streets. People would go out of their homes and a pipeline had been built through the village.

I say Palestine is the world, because in Palestine you see in the most obvious way a kind of exterminism that is actually taking place in so many areas

AW
The way you speak about the commons, it’s not only community, it’s your retirement plan, your unemployment benefit, your inheritance. To become completely dependent on capitalism and the state for all of this is the logical endpoint of everything that we’ve talked about.
SF
I was in several meetings with social movements when I was in Brazil. A lot of women working with organisations in the favelas. And the idea of territory and land was repeated over and over. Without that, there is no struggle. Without that we are slaves. You put your feet in a place that you control, in a place where you can feed from. This, today, is the struggle. And that’s where the commons is fundamental. This is why the ferocity of today’s  struggles is escalating. Uprooting people from their land is a very bloody process. People don’t leave. Palestine is there on a screen for everybody to see. But there are many Palestines going on across the world.

 

You can read the rest of this interview in Dark Mountain: Issue 25

 

Silvia Federici is an author, academic and feminist activist. She is professor emerita and teaching fellow at Hofstra University. In 1972, she co-founded the International Feminist Collective, and in 1990 co-founded the Committee for Academic Freedom in Africa. She has written numerous books, including Caliban and the Witch (2004).

 

Dark Mountain: Issue 25

Our Spring 2024 issue is an anthology of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, interviews and artwork inspired by the struggle for land rights, and by the living land itself.

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