Caliban And The Witch is a history of the body in the transition to capitalism. Moving from the peasant revolts of the late Middle Ages to the witch-hunts and the rise of mechanical philosophy, Federici investigates the capitalist rationalization of social reproduction. She shows how the battle against the rebel body and mind are essential conditions for the development of labour power and self-ownership, two central principles of modern social organization (Autonomedia).
The historical understanding of the repression of witches in the 16-18th centuries has gone through several phases in the last century. Initially, feminist historians critiqued the received view that the repression was some kind of collective religious madness and rooted the debate in questions of the control of reproduction, medicine and the imposition of patriarchal power into the Middle Age village. The importance of this book is that it develops the study further recognising that there were more than just ‘patriarchal’ forces at bay. Federici explains how the repression was intimately linked to attempts to social engineer peasant population increases, to impose work discipline on the ‘rebel body’ and break up the village structures that might oppose enclosure in transition to early capitalist forms of production. This insight into the process in Europe, allows Federici to link the repression of witches to similar tactics used in the New World by the new colonial powers. This is a ground-breaking book and Federici has shown in other work the relevance of the repression of witches in this period of primitive accumulation to similar processes occurring in the globalising world of the late 20thC (BRHG).