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Witchcraft is revolutionary

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The murder of Sally Bassett is indicative of historical “crimes” against women that continue today, albeit in more nuanced form

Bermuda has a long history with witchcraft — indeed, from our alias as the “Isle of Devils”, to the prominence of the witch Sycorax, mother of Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, based on the wreck of the Sea Venture in 1609. Similarly, we were not exempt from the witch-hunts of the 17th century: over a span of 44 years, more than 21 individuals were accused of witchcraft, and at least five were executed on what was then Gallows Island, which we know today as Ordinance Island in St George’s. Other executions of suspected witches are recorded as occurring at Gibbet’s Island in Flatts, and even the murder of Sally Bassett may be considered, in part, a witch trial.

The witch-hunts should be properly seen as part of a campaign of terror by the ruling classes of the time, as part of a reaction to the communalist movement that threatened feudal and early capitalist power. Communalism — an early form of socialism — resisted the emergence of capitalism and offered a powerful alternative social and economic vision for the time. It can be reflected in the peasant wars of Germany, the fights against enclosures and the radical rank and file of the English Civil War, given voice to in the Putney Debates, of which emerged the radical Levellers, the Diggers and, ultimately, the Chartists, themselves giving rise to the labour movement of today.

Silvia Federici, in her magisterial work Caliban and the Witch, expertly traces the witch-hunts as part of the ruling-class reaction against communalism. Part a campaign of terror to suppress popular resistance, part spectacle in the sense of “bread and circuses”, there is also a bloody red line from this terror through to the conquest of the Americas and subsequent slavery and the emergence of the KKK and lynching, right up to McCarthyism and Cointelpro.

Often the women who were subjected to sadistic (and often sexual) torture and execution were key community leaders, central to the popular resistance, or key folk healers, especially when it came to contraception and birth control in general — a threat to the ruling classes’ demand for fresh labour for the mills. Indeed, in the aftermath of the plagues and the peasant massacres, labour was a commodity in short supply, and a key motive for the ruling classes was a steady supply of fresh labour. With the enclosures of the commons, we also see the state enclosing on women’s reproductive freedom, reducing them to uteruses, mere factories for the production of new workers for the sake of capitalist production. To quote Federici, witches were: “… the heretic, the healer, the disobedient wife, the woman who dared to live alone, the obeah woman who poisoned the master’s food and inspired the slaves to revolt”.

Crushing the independence of women was key to the emergence of capitalism; the witch-hunts were a key vehicle in this, along with the manufacture of “femininity” in terms of formal patriarchy, enforced by the state. With women reduced to subhuman status, they also provided cheap labour for the industrial revolution — most of the early factories were generally staffed by women and children, as the law considered them less than human and could thus pay lower wages. Women were even cheaper than horses, and, for a time, were used as literal beasts of burden, pulling boats along canals.

While the situation is slightly different today, women are still exploited by capitalism, especially through the unwaged work euphemistically still referred to by some as “women’s work” — women still today do the bulk of domestic labour, a key factor in the social reproduction of the workforce. Not to mention the commodification of women in terms of “sex sells” and the creation of a whole market of profit creation through fashion and capitalist standards of beauty, or the emotional labour that women are expected to provide, all of which disguised as a false attribute of their sex. Federici again provides useful insight here: “We are housemaids, prostitutes, nurses, shrinks; this is the essence of the ‘heroic’ spouse who is celebrated on ‘Mother’s Day’.” And part of Prospero’s spell is to convince women that this is natural.

The witch-hunts were a key part of capitalism’s birth, key to the casting of Prospero’s spell to divide and conquer; to ensure gifts of free labour that, to this day, helps to maintain capitalism; and key to the spell of blinding the exploited from an alternative of a better world, free of Prospero’s rule. This dark sorcery of Prospero has been incredibly successful.

However, there is magic in the everyday sites of resistance that can be fought still. There is magic in organising and activism. There are still witches in terms of resistance to capitalist exploitation and its various tools of oppression, be it sexism, racism or more. Witchcraft was seen by the ruling classes before as a threat to their rule. And for good reason. Witchcraft — in the sense of resistance, of activism, of an alternative social and economic model that places primacy on whole individuals and ecological harmony — was, and remains, revolutionary.

Jonathan Starling is a socialist writer with an MSc in Ecological Economics from the University of Edinburgh and an MSc in Urban and Regional Planning from Heriot-Watt University

Jonathan Starling is a socialist writer with an MSc in Ecological Economics from the University of Edinburgh and an MSc in Urban and Regional Planning from Heriot-Watt University

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Published March 09, 2023 at 7:59 am (Updated March 08, 2023 at 3:38 pm)

Witchcraft is revolutionary

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