I stumbled upon a grand story the other day, thanks largely to my girlfriend Shmerah, who is doing a masters in anthropology at the nearby University of the Witwatersrand. One afternoon some weeks ago, Shmerah informed me that she and her classmates were excited about the imminent arrival in Johannesburg of the Italian-American philosophy professor Silvia Federici, described as one of the planet’s foremost leftist theoreticians. We were in the car at the time, bickering about something or other. Knowing it would irritate me, Shmerah rummaged in her bag, produced one of Federici’s academic papers and proceeded to read it out loud.
‘Witch-hunting did not disappear from the repertoire of the bourgeoisie with the abolition of slavery,’ she intoned. ‘On the contrary, global expansion of capitalism through colonisation and Christianity ensured that this form of persecution [i.e. the witch-hunt] would become increasingly common in the early years of the 21st century…’.
Dumbfounded, I pulled over to the side of the road, snatched the document out of Shmerah’s hands and read it for myself. Titled ‘Witch-hunting, Globalisation and Feminist Solidarity in Africa Today’, it opened with a long recital of witchcraft atrocities, beginning with the early l990s burning of 300 alleged witches in Kenya and ending in 2005 in Ghana, where 1,000 suspected sorcerers had to take refuge in a heavily guarded police camp to avoid being burned at the stake.
Exact figures are hard to come by, but Federici believes witch-hunts claimed as many as 23,000 African lives in the decade ending in 2001, and that the pace of the killing has since accelerated. Now she wants to crucify those responsible — ‘African governments who do not intervene to prevent the killings’, she says, along with ‘the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and their international supporters, whose economic policies have destroyed local economies, fuelling a war of all against all.’ I think it’s safe to say that Professor Federici sees free markets and white males as the villains of this particular piece.
Federici is a tough old broad with close-cropped grey hair, born into a communist family in Italy in 1942 and now resident in the United States, where she made her bones as a radical feminist and co-founder of the ‘wages for housework’ campaign. Along the way, she developed an interest in European witch-burnings of the early modern period, say 1450 to 1750. As in contemporary Africa, victims of that epoch were mostly women, often aged and isolated. Contemporary observers saw their killing as a form of madness, the gullible goaded into irrational frenzy by charlatans and religious fanatics. Federici thought it was more like ‘a war against woman’, waged by a ruling class that tricked common people into attacking ‘witches’ who were actually just early social rebels.
This made her a natural ally of John and Jean Comaroff, another of Shmerah’s exciting discoveries in the parallel universe of 21st-century academe. South African by birth and academic Marxists by inclination, the Comaroffs are the king and queen of modern anthropology. These are powerful, glamorous people. They have the perfectly groomed look of American daytime soap stars. They spend their lives in business class, jetting between conferences and seminars. If you want to get a doctorate in their subject anywhere in the English-speaking world, odds are that you’ll have to toe the Comaroff line and kiss the Comaroff ring.
And read their books, of which there are many. Like Foucault, this Harvard-based husband-and-wife team have advanced to a level where they are no longer obliged to buttress every statement of fact with a ponderous footnote. Thus liberated, their prose is jazzy and effervescent, bristling with provocative ideas and dazzling one-liners. The Comaroffs ought to be more famous. They’re very clever and for those of us who are not Marxist, mad in a most entertaining way.
Shortly after Nelson Mandela came to power in 1994, the Comaroffs published a landmark paper seeking to pinpoint the cause of Africa’s resurgent witch-hunt fever. ‘Bewitched!’ was a radical break with left tradition, which had hitherto frowned on discussions of the African occult on the grounds that they made Africans look backward. The Comaroffs annihilated this taboo, but at the same time, established a new one: the rise in witchcraft should not be seen as a return to the primitive. Instead, it was linked by arcane paths to ‘the processes of globalisation and the forms of capitalism associated with it’.
As the Comaroffs explain it, Africa’s teeming poor are forced to watch enormous riches flowing through their societies and into the hands of a lucky few, causing them to feel ‘the dawning sense of chill desperation attendant on being left out’. Because the workings of ‘late capitalism’ are incomprehensible, the poor assume the rich are using witchcraft to advance themselves, and so begin using the very same weapon to eradicate those above them in the food chain. The result, according to the Comaroffs, is a form of class warfare that claimed 676 lives in South Africa alone during the first six months of l996.
This paper opened the floodgates for studies of a similar kind, all documenting fascinating occult practices (ritual murder! real-life zombies!) while loudly denouncing foreign capitalists for causing them (often by forcing profligate African rulers to comply with IMF austerity measures). Sylvia Federici was a leading figure in the new movement, arguing that witch-related ugliness was unknown in Africa until white colonists showed up with their guns, money and alien concepts of land ownership, creating new forms of anxiety and economic inequality. ‘Prior to colonisation,’ she assures us, ‘“witches” were at times punished but rarely killed.’ It follows that modern witch-hunts ‘are not a legacy of the past, but a response to the social crisis [caused by] globalisation and neo-liberal restructuring’.
This is, of course, a variant of her theory regarding the capitalist causation of Europe’s early modern witch craze. But if that theory is correct, witch-hunts would surely have peaked during the Industrial Revolution. Instead, they petered out in the 17th century, driven to extinction by ridicule from the intelligentsia and tighter enforcement of various Witchcraft Acts, culminating in the model legislation of 1735. This law did not seek to suppress witchcraft per se. Instead, it sought to silence fools who thought witches were responsible for everyday calamities and demanded that the alleged culprits be murdered. We see similar credulity in those who attribute Africa’s present miseries to the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market. World Bank officials have yet to be burned at the stake, but that would be a logical outcome of regnant Marxist superstitions.
What then is the cause of Africa’s occult revival? Desperation, I would say, worsened by soaring population. As Aids hysteria recedes, demographers are rediscovering the devastating consequences of fertility rates that average 5.1 children per woman, causing Africa’s population to double every 28 years or so. This is an important theme in Paul Theroux’s dismaying new book of African travel, Last Train to Zona Verde. In his youth, the continent was pristine. Now it’s a nightmare of joblessness, overcrowding and violent struggles for water and land. ‘This is what the world will look like when it ends,’ writes Theroux, pondering the spread of ‘the awful, poisoned, populous Africa; the Africa of cheated, despised people; of seemingly unfixable blight’.
I see this Africa has just crushed the celebrity economist Jeffrey Sachs, author of The End of Poverty and a close friend of pop star Bono. Some years ago, Sachs announced that he was going to save Africa by flooding selected villages with unprecedented volumes of aid — free schools, clinics, clean water, fertiliser, food, roads and agricultural training. These blessings were supposed to kickstart sustainable development. Instead, they attracted armies of the curious idle, who put up shanties, hung around until the money ran out and then drifted away.
According to Nina Munk, author of a new book described as ‘a devastating take-down of Mr Sachs’s technocratic fantasies’, the true enemy turned out to be ‘culture’. Africans were simply not interested in the alien nostrums of their self-appointed saviour. I suspect they will approach Federici and the Comaroffs with an equal measure of indifference.
Shmerah has just read this and wishes to register her displeasure about the lack of respect shown to icons of anthropology. She has a point. I attended one of Professor Federici’s Johannesburg lectures, and she seemed very nice. Her argument in favour of wages for housewives is unassailable, and she’s right to describe Africa’s renewed witch-hunts as ‘another systematic war on women’, up there with Indian dowry killings and clitoridectomy on my list of nasty things that should be banned. But pointing fingers at ‘late capitalism’ gets us nowhere. We should rather call the scourge by its true name and urge every African state to adopt a witchcraft law based on the ancient British precedent — anyone who accuses his neighbour of buggering around with ‘cojuracons and witchecraftes enchauntements’ goes straight to jail.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 5 October 2013Tags: anthropology, Comaroffs, Marxists, Occult, professor, Sylvia Federici, witchcraft