Caliban and the Witch presents the main themes of a research project on women in the "transition" from feudalism to capitalism that I began in the mid-1970s, in collaboration with an Italian feminist, Leopoldina Fortunati. Its first results appeared in a book that we published in Italy in 1984: Il Grande Calibano. Storial del corpo social ribelle nella prima fase del capitale (Milano: Franco Angeli) [The Great Caliban. History of the Rebel Body in the First Phase of Capitalism].
My interest in this research was originally motivated by the debates that accompanied the development of the Feminist Movement in the United States concerning the roots of women's "oppression," and the political strategies which the movement should adopt in the struggle for women's liberation. At the time, the leading theoretical and political perspectives from which the reality of sexual discrimination was analyzed were those proposed by the two main branches of the women's movement: the Radical Feminists and the Socialist Feminists. In my view, however, neither provided a satisfactory explanation of the roots of the social and economic exploitation of women. I objected to the Radical Feminists because of their tendency to account for sexual discrimination and patriarchal rule on the basis of transhistorical cultural structures, presumably operating independently of relations of production and class. Socialist Feminists, by contrast, recognized that the history of women cannot be separated from the history of specific systems of exploitation and, in their analyses, gave priority to women as workers in capitalist society. But the limit of their position, in my understanding of it at the time, was that it failed to acknowledge the sphere of reproduction as a source of value-creation and exploitation, and thus traced the roots of the power differential between women and men to women's exclusion from capitalist development - a stand which again compelled us to rely on cultural schemes to account for the survival of sexism within the universe of capitalist relations.
It was in this context that the idea of tracing the history of women in the transition from feudalism to capitalism took forth. The thesis which inspired this research was first articulated by Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James, as well as other activists in the Wages For Housework Movement, in a set of documents that in the 1970s were very controversial. but eventually reshaped the discourse on women, reproduction, and capitalism. The most influential among them were Mariarosa Dalla Costa's Women and the Subversion of the Community (1971), and Selma James' Sex, Race and Class (1975).
Against the Marxist orthodoxy, which explained women's "oppression" and subordination to men as a residuum of feudal relations, Dalla Costa and James argued that the exploitation of women has played a central function in the process of capitalist accumulation, insofar as women have been the producers and reproducers of the most essential capitalist commodity: labor-power. As Dalla Costa put it, women's unpaid labor in the home has been the pillar upon which the exploitation of the waged workers, "wage slavery," has been built, and the secret of its productivity (1972:31). Thus, the power between women and men in capitalist society cannot be attributed to the irrelevance of housework for capitalist accumulation - an irrelevance belied by the strict rules that have governed women's lives - nor to the survival of timeless cultural schemes. Rather, it should be interpreted as the effect of a social system of production that does not recognize the production and reproduction of the worker as a social-economic activity, and a source of capital accumulation, but mystifies it instead as a natural resource or a personal service, while profiting from the wageless condition of the labor involved.
By rooting the exploitation of women in capitalist society in the sexual division of labor and women's unpaid work, Dalla Costa and James showed the possibility of transcending the dichotomy between patriarchy and class, and gave patriarchy a specific historical content. They also opened the way for a reinterpretation of the history of capitalism and class struggle from a feminist viewpoint.
It was in this spirit that Leopoldina Fortunati and I began to study what can only be euphemistically described as the "transition to capitalism," and began to search for a history that we had not been taught in school, but proved to be decisive for our education. This history not only offered a theoretical understanding of the genesis of housework in its main structural components: the separation of production from reproduction, the specifically capitalist use of the wage to command the labor of the unwaged, and the devaluation of women's social position with the advent of capitalism. It also provided a genealogy of the modern concepts of femininity and masculinity that challenged the postmodern assumption of an almost ontological predisposition in "Western Culture" to capture gender through binary oppositions. Sexual hierarchies, we found, are always at the service of a project of domination that can sustain itself only by dividing, on a continuously renewed basis, those it intends to rule.
The book that resulted from this research, Il Grande Calibano: storia del corpo sociale ribelle nella prima fase del capitale (1984), was an attempt to rethink Marx's analysis of primitive accumulation from a feminist viewpoint. But in this process, the received Marxian categories proved inadequate. Among the casualties was the Marxian identification of capitalism with the advent of wage labor and the "free" laborer, which contributes to hide and naturalize the sphere of reproduction. Il Grande Calibano was also critical of Michel Foucault's theory of the body; as we argued, Foucault's analysis of tile power techniques and disciplines to which the body has been subjected has ignored the process of reproduction, has collapsed female and male histories into an undifferentiated whole, and has been so disinterested in the "disciplining" of women that it never mentions one of the most monstrous attacks on the body perpetrated in the modern era: the witch-hunt.
The main thesis in Il Grande Calibano was that in order to understand the history of women in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, we must analyze the changes that capitalism has introduced in the process of social reproduction and, especially, the reproduction of labor-power. Thus, the book examined the reorganization of housework, family life, child-raising, sexuality, male-female relations, and the relation between production and reproduction in 16th and 17th-century Europe. This analysis is reproduced in Caliban and the Witch; however, the scope of the present volume differs from that of Il Grande Calibano, as it responds to a different social context and to our growing knowledge of women's history.
Shortly after the publication of Il Grande Caliballo, I left the United States and took a teaching position in Nigeria, where I remained for nearly three years. Before leaving, I had buried my papers in a cellar, not expecting that I should need them for some time. But the circumstances of my stay in Nigeria did not allow me to forget this work. The years between 1984 and 1986 were a turning point for Nigeria, as for most African countries. These were the years when, in response to the debt crisis, the Nigerian government engaged in negotiation with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, which eventually resulted in the adoption of a Structural Adjustment Program, the World Bank's universal recipe for economic recovery across the planet.
The declared purpose of the program was to make Nigeria competitive on the international market. But it was soon apparent that this involved a new round of primitive accumulation, and a rationalization of social reproduction aimed at destroying the last vestiges of communal property and community relations, and thereby impose more intense forms of labor exploitation. Thus, I saw unfolding under my eyes processes very similar to those that I had studied in preparation for Il Grande Caliballo. Among them were the attack on communal lands, and a decisive intervention by the State (instigated by World Bank) in the reproduction of the work-force: to regulate procreation rates, and, in this case, reduce the size of a population that was deemed too demanding and indisciplined from the viewpoint of its prospected insertion in the global economy. Along with these policies, aptly named the "War Against Indiscipline," I also witnessed the fueling of a misogynous campaign denouncing women's vanity and excessive demands, and the development of a heated debate similar, in many respects, to the 17th century querelles des femmes, touching on every aspect of the reproduction of labor-power: the family (Polygamous vs. monogamous, nuclear vs. extended), child-raising, women's work, male and female identity and relations.
In this context, my work on the transition took on a new meaning. In Nigeria I realized that the struggle against structural adjustment is part of a long struggle against land privatization and the "enclosure" not only of communal lands but also of social relations that stretches back to the origin of capitalism in 16th-century Europe and America. I also realized how limited is the victory that the capitalist work-discipline has won on this planet, and how many people still see their lives in ways radically antagonistic to the requirements of capitalist production. For the developers, the multinational agencies and foreign investors, this was and remains the problem with places like Nigeria. But for me it was a source of great strength, as it proved that, worldwide, formidable forces still contrast the imposition of a way of life conceived only in capitalist terms. The strength I gained was also due to my encounter with Women in Nigeria (WIN), the country's first feminist organization, which enabled me to better understand the struggles that Nigerian Women have been making to defend their resources and to refuse the new model of patriarchy imposed on them, now promoted by the World Bank.
By the end of 1986, the debt crisis reached the academic institutions and, no longer able to support myself, I left Nigeria, in body if not in spirit. But the thought of the attacks launched on the Nigerian people never left me. Thus, the desire to restudy "the transition to capitalism" has been with me since my return. I had read the Nigerian events through the prism of 16th-century Europe. In the United States, it was the Nigerian proletariat that brought me back to the struggles over the commons and the capitalist disciplining of women, in and out of Europe. Upon my return, I also began to teach in an interdisciplinary program for undergraduates where I confronted a different type of "enclosure": the enclosure of knowledge, that is, the increasing loss, among the new generations, of the historical sense of our common past. This is why in Caliban and the Witch I reconstruct the anti-feudal struggles of the Middle Ages and the struggles by which the European proletariat resisted the advent of capitalism. My goal in doing so is not only to make available to non-specialists the evidence on which my analysis relies, but to revive among younger generations the memory of a long history of resistance that today is in danger of being erased. Saving this historical memory is crucial if we are to find an alternative to capitalism. For this possibility will depend on our capacity to hear the voices of those who have walked similar paths.