Peter responds to Brett:
Re: The Witchcraze

Although I agree with a number of the broader outlines of your theory, I think that we are coming from rather different philosophical starting points. You write:

[Brett]: But early modernity brings with it a host of innovations, among them the political individual and the national polity. Power is reorganized with these new entities at its poles, and power starts pushing beyond the walls of cities. Modern authority analyzes its domain, and applies itself to the particular at the highest possible level of detail.

This analysis seems to me to be idealist -- essentially you mention the increase in predominance of a number of innovations in the field of ideology. These, you seem to argue, form the basis of further action -- the emergence of the nation state is the impetus for organisation against the countryside.

Where, however, did these ideas -- the unitary nation, the political individual, arise?

I'd argue that these ideas arose as an ideology in response to developments in the material reality of life -- as the material possibility of changes in organisation of labour emerged, so the antagonism (or contradiction) between new (capitalist) organisation of labour and old (feudal) organisation of labour provided the momentum for the ideological developments you describe.

[Brett]: What does this mean in the witch trials? Well, the separation of civil and ecclesiastical power is still a ways off, and as newly-formed central authorities attempt to pervade their entire domains, one of the first things that has to go is non-orthodox Christianity. It should be no surprise, then, that folk religion was brutally suppressed. And since the bulk of its practitioners were women, the boom was lowered most heavily on them.

Hm. Again, *why* did this happen?

I'd like to note that the reformation started happening at around this time as well -- and this provides to me quite an interesting example - why did the reformation -- itself a non-orthodox form of Christianity -- gain in power, whilst folk religion was supressed? After all, reformations of Christianity were nothing new -- take for instance Jan Hus, who developed a large following in (as I recall) Bohemia in (as I recall) the 13th century -- but was ultimately defeated?

Seemingly at the same time, Europe was pulling in two directions -- on the one hand you have the "reformation" of Luther, Calvin, etc., and on the other hand you have mostly forgotten movements such as the Diggers, the Levellers, the Ranters, and the Quakers and Shakers.

Each of these movents had a _material_ base and a _material_ goal. Luther and co. could not have succeeded without powerful material, military and political backing.

And the philosophy of the Diggers -- who argued for the right for all to have the right to grow their own living -- had a clear meaning in a time when people were being chased off the land (for a good read on some of this, read Marx's Capital I, starting from ch. 26,, and draconian measures were being taken (including the death sentence) against the unemployed.

I would argue that the "folk religions" of Europe were basically normal responses to the concerns of the day -- concerns which have given rise to similar religious concepts in similar societies across the world.

Anyway, let's continue:

[Brett]: So far, it's just bad luck. But here's my thesis: the witch trials started as a mere *object* of power, but as they progressed, they became a *technique* of power...

Can you explain this distinction... Do you mean that at first the witch trials were the expression of pre-existing power, and then they became the means to uphold power?

At the start, a witch trial had as its goal the enforcement of uniform spirituality, and the erradication of the forces of Satan (I think it's safe to say that one of the prime movers of the craze was the projection of fantasies of diabolism onto folk religion by urban clerics)...

This is something I'd like to explore in a lot more detail. One interesting data point that I recall from my reading in this field is that the first witch trials started against men (this is for the first couple of decades of the witch craze) and then proceeded against women (and ended up killing far more women than men). Is this backed up by your reading? If so, why did this happen? Who were the men? Who were the women? Was there a "bridge" -- and if so, what was it?

Once a community had been thrown into panic, turned against itself, and deprived of local authority figures, its autonomy was permanently compromised. The witch trial transforms itself into an instrument for power to disrupt and penetrate levels of society previously beyond its scope. By the time the witch persecutions started to slack off in the mid-1600s, the royal state was absolute, and no person or practice was outside its domain.

Again we return to the theme of the subordination of previously basically independant country peasants to centralised authority. But, to a king? Remember, witch trials were big in the UK -- and the UK had just been going through (if my recollection is correct) the English Revolution -- a revolution which saw the first transformation from a feudal state to a (progressive more) capitalist state.

The central question for me is why, in real, day to day life terms, do the grubby peasants suddenly become (spiritually) important?

My response is that the limits of aristocracy -- which are the limits of the aristocrats stomach -- are replaced by the limits of capitalism. The result -- surplus is extracted not as a good (e.g. grain from the peasants), but as labour (the surplus value extracted from every labourer). The world suddenly starts looking a lot smaller, as former peasants in England can supply labour to create wealth which can be used to buy products from the other side of the planet (prior to this the limited nature of trade didn't make the other side of the planet very relevant to the English baron).

[Brett] If the trials are at one level a technique for the extension of the dominion of the state over the populace, they are at another level a technique for the extension of the dominion of men over women...

But perhaps more damaging is the disruption the trials caused between women. As Barstow points out again and again, external authority figures were able to stir up rural communities to the point where nearly everyone was willing to accuse everyone else of just about anything. Could a woman who had seen such a betrayal put much faith in other women again? The message at a public witch-execution was clear: this could be you, so keep your head down and your mouth shut. This de-socialization of women no doubt contributed greatly to the ease with which women were kept disenfranchised for most of modern history.

In my comments on your article, I've spoken up to now of the historic struggle for the organisation of production (and the distribution of the surplus produced) throughout history. In this struggle, throughout history people stand towards one another in positions determined by their relation to production -- the peasant produces, the lord grabs the surplus. The worker produces, but the product goes to the boss, etc. Ideologies, structures which tunnel the direction of thought, are manufactured according to the demands of the day -- the lord may listen to many people, but will prefer the bard who sings praises.

At the same time as this struggle -- the struggle of how we get the food we will eat, the clothes we wear, etc. -- proceeds throughout history, another struggle is also underway -- the struggle centred around reproduction. The unequal division of the physical labour of reproduction (women give birth, men don't) is the basis of this struggle. Reproduction is, of course, vital to the survival of humanity -- just like production is. It also, importantly, forms the basis of future production.

So, two questions arise:

1) Who controls the value which arises from reproduction? Value arises from reproduction in a number of ways -- one of which is the labour available from children, another is the value of children as items of exchange (bride prices and so forth). Who controls this?

This is quite a complex question -- on the one level, in many societies one sees obvious patriarchal control of this value. For example, consider many peasant societies, where children contribute to the maintainance of their parents and/or clan group, where women are sold for a bride price (effectively a price for their future reproductive and productive labour).

In our current society, the question is not so clear cut, as children don't always directly contribute to the maintainance of their parents. Children in our society produce value chiefly for their employers, not their parents.

2) What is the effect of the effort women expend on the labour of reproduction on their position with regards to the labour of production? Historically, up to and including our current society, it can be said, I think, that women have suffered due to this labour. Female sexuality has been stigmatised, women's rights have been denied, etc. -- clearly women have been forced to carry the burden of reproduction, and that labour has been counted as nothing (as opposed to the labour of production, which is generally rewarded through a wage, etc).

In some cases reproductive labour has been controlled and expropriated by husbands/male relatives. This has happened in those societies where surplus is extracted from production, rather than from labour -- so women's labour first belongs to men, then the labour of both (in the case of the exploited classes) belongs to the exploiting classes.

In our current society, reproductive labour is largely exploited directly by the ruling class. Although men benefit from women's work -- fixing the clothes, cleaning the house, raising the children -- in the sense that the need to labour is removed from them -- the labour potential -- in the form of children -- created by women through giving birth and raising children is expropriated generally not by their husbands but by some other (normally male) boss.

So, basically, women's labour power devoted to reproduction has been expropriated -- leaving women in a situation where their position is always going to be weaker than men's. (Since only productive labour is compensated, women have to work harder than men to be compensated the same).

Apart from the expropriation of reproductive labour, women are also disadvantaged because they are paid less for their productive labour -- an incentive for them to engage in reproductive labour which they are told is "spiritually" rewarding if not materially so.

(In all of the above, value is considered according to the labour theory of value -- value arises when someone does something which must be done, i.e. is socially necessary -- and this takes time and effort to do.)

How does this relate to the witch trials?

I'd argue that at the time of the Europe of the witch trials, the sexual division of labour was being changed -- before the trials, the reproductive labour of women resulted in value accruing (in the sense of future labourers) to the household unit, and as such there was some compensation for that labour, in the form of the some recognition of keeping women alive to continue this labour.

With the development of capitalism, the reproductive labour of women started being expropriated not by the household, but by the capitalist (in the sense that children's labour was used in capitalist production.)

A struggle thus arose around the redistribution of value -- women were forced to perform reproductive labour for ever less rewards. To enforce this, it was necessary to destroy women's systems of organisation.

(I think that in peasant society, women would probably to some extent organise together to ensure the protection of their rights -- this seems to have happened in other peasant societies we have more info about).

Also, Rebecca has pointed out that single women were often targetted -- this makes sense when one considers these women to be "reproductively unemployed" -- after the enclosures and other anti-peasant measures, unemployment effectively became a crime (which could be punished with the death sentence - see Capital ch. 28.)

So, what you see is a process whose goal is to move from a situation where women were to some extent compensated and valued (and where the community of women forms an important part of the community) to one where they are totally uncompensated for their labour of reproduction.

As part of this process, the modern nuclear family was developed -- a system embodying a classic "male deal," where the ruling class allows the working class to exploit women in exchange for the fact that working class men protect the institution which provides the ruling class with their future labourers.

One last point, though -- the move from peasent homestead to nuclear family was not quite so smooth.

Since the labour of reproduction does not provide the for the productive needs of the one doing it, reproductive labour is labour above and beyond productive labour.

The result of early capitalist organisation was that so much productive labour (in terms of long working hours) was demanded for so little compensation (in terms of food, lodging, etc) that the working class literally started to die off. This, of course, would eventually have been disastrous -- which is why in the mid-19th century the family was "recreated" -- with various elements including the ruling class starting to talk about a "family wage" -- i.e. compensation paid to man to control his family and direct its labour towards a "socially appropriate" goal.

So, maybe we can understand the witch trials as arising not from the battle of ideas, but from the concerns of material circumstance.

This distinction is important to me because it relates to the question of how we organise against women's oppression today.



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