42 pages 1 hour read

Silvia Federici

Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2004

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Silvia Federici’s 2004 monograph, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, is a synthesis of the history of Europe’s transition to capitalism from a global and applied perspective. The author, a philosopher, places the origins of modern patriarchy within this transition using Marxist-feminist theory as her primary mode of analysis.

This study guide uses the edition of the text published in 2014 by Autonomedia.

Content Warning: This book contains references to violence, especially sexual violence.


Federici opens with feudalism’s disintegration at the end of the medieval period. It is out of feudalism that capitalism developed, according to Marxist theory. However, extant research largely ignores women’s and witch-hunting’s place in this shift. Federici fills this gap by placing at the center of her analysis the emergent concept of the body machine and reproductive work’s devaluation. Both are linked to misogynistic ideas about rebellious women who subverted these new, early modern norms.

Resistance to capitalist and colonialist exploitation and oppression is a consistent theme throughout the work. This resistance took the form of peasant revolts against elite efforts to rein in the peasantry’s demands for better living and working conditions during the late Middle Ages and early modern periods in Europe. Likewise, peasants, particularly women, struggled against land expropriation like the English enclosures that not only physically removed working people from land that was a source of sustenance but destroyed social bonds that promoted proletarian solidarity. These social bonds were especially significant for women who served their communities as healers and caregivers for they helped to preserve generational, traditional knowledge. Similarly, colonization and the forced removal of Indigenous peoples from traditional lands in the Americas harmed social cohesion and relied on attacking Indigenous idols and ritual practices. Indigenous women struggled to preserve their way of life in the face of European efforts to destroy them in the name of capitalism.

The purpose of these physical and social enclosures was to seize the means of production from working people and foment disunion among the proletariat, including gender division. Mechanical philosophy’s transformation of the body into a machine to be controlled and exploited was key to capitalism’s progression because elites could impose more rigid working conditions on the proletariat, who were deemed inferior, irrational, and susceptible to the body’s loathsome indulgences, like idleness and sexual promiscuity. Women’s bodies were considered especially guilty of the latter, and accusations of witchcraft from above served to foster this degradation of the female body. States cast women who struggled against the new order as witches who copulated with the devil, engaged in cannibalistic feasts, and caused harm to society. They were charged and executed to create a reign of fear across Europe. This terrorism imposed a new patriarchal order in which women’s reproductive work was exploited yet deemed valueless because it did not produce marketable goods in the serve of capitalism. Campaigns against witchcraft extended to Europe’s colonies, where colonizers’ expropriation of land generated resistance from Indigenous women, which in turn led to retaliatory witch hunts against those women, just as it had in Europe.

According to Federici, this primitive accumulation of resources has never concluded. The capitalist and imperialist West continues to engage in land expropriation. The West additionally advances witch-hunting as a tool of capitalist, patriarchal oppression elsewhere, for example in Kenya, Nigeria, and Cameroon, where Western efforts to restructure the economy in the 1980s and 1990s were reinforced via witch-hunting.

Federici’s work is thus not only a historical analysis of the transition to capitalism, but a cautionary tale and call to action for modern anti-capitalists and feminists. The process of primitive accumulation persists, increasing impoverishment and social turmoil.