WP 14: Spell

The Many Enchantments of Capital

Jillian Vasko

Capitalism has an ambivalent relationship to enchantment. Far from constituting an evacuation of enchantment from the world, as argued by thinkers from Max Weber to Silvia Federici, capitalism depends on enchantment. This does not however mean that enchantment might not also be a powerful means of resistance to capitalism. This essay traces what I take to be the ambivalent relationship of capital to enchantment. It pursues the manifold ways capitalist processes can be conceived of as forms of enchantment at the same time they might be said to “disenchant the world.”1 Following Karen Pinkus’ development of the term ambivalence in her book Alchemical Mercury: a Theory of Ambivalence, in this essay, ambivalence speaks to “not only a conscious sense of uncertainty, but also, more rigorously, the coexistence of two different and perhaps irreconcilable elements”. Like the pharmakon and like alchemy, enchantment under capitalism can be understood as “a (mercurial) substance that is simultaneously remedy and poison”. 2 To forward my claims, I will first briefly outline the contradictory meanings present in the word enchantment before moving on to a discussion of the way the notion of ‘re-enchantment’ has been taken up by Federici as the terrain of contemporary anticapitalist struggle in her 2019 book Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons. Subsequently, I will pursue the ambivalence of enchantment in relation to two key Marxist terms, mystification, and alienation, as they are described in classic Feminist texts by Marlene Dixon and Arlie Hochschild. I ultimately argue that if we are to understand “re-enchantment of the world” as the objective of anticapitalist struggle, then we must also attend to the crucial role of “disenchantment” in this fight.

Enchanting Objects

Capital is a product of workers. Marx reminds us that, “in themselves, money and commodities are no more capital than the means of production and subsistence are. They need to be transformed into capital.”3 Without workers, raw materials would not become commodities, use-values would not become exchange-values. Capitalism relies on transformation, change, to create capital. Workers are responsible for this transformation.

How should we understand this transformation? I suggest it can usefully be conceived of as magic. French anthropologist Marcel Mauss remarks in his General Theory of Magic that “magic is the art of changing.” Prior to this summative declaration, Mauss elaborates:

No matter how different the results of each rite, when they are working, they are thought to have common characteristics. In every case, in fact, we have either the imposing or suppressing of a characteristic or a circumstance: from being bewitched to being delivered, from possession to exorcization. In a simple word there has been a change of state. We are prepared to claim that all magical acts are represented as producing one of two effects: either the objects or beings involved are placed in a state so that certain movements, accidents or phenomena will inevitably occur, or they are brought out of a dangerous state. The actions vary according to the initial state of the individual, the circumstances determining the significance of the change, and the special ends assigned to them. Nevertheless, they share one feature in that their immediate and essential effect is to modify a given state.4

Magic is constituted by three things in Mauss’ theory: a magician, a magical representation, and a magical rite.5 Applying this tripartite structure, we can reasonably conceive of a worker under capitalism as a magician insofar as they change one type of material into another, by endowing it with that ephemeral quality of exchange-value. The magical representation in this schema is the price or exchange-value effected by the magical rite, i.e. the transformative labor of the worker/magician. Indeed, in Capital Volume 1, Marx writes of the “mystical,” “enigmatic,” “fantastic,” qualities that typify the commodity and how they are bestowed upon it by human labor. He writes (italics my own):

A commodity is therefore a mysterious thing, simply because in it the social character of men’s labour appears to them as an objective character stamped upon the product of that labour; because the relation of the producers to the sum total of their own labour is presented to them as a social relation, existing not between themselves, but between the products of their labour. This is the reason why the products of labour become commodities, social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses. In the same way the light from an object is perceived by us not as the subjective excitation of our optic nerve, but as the objective form of something outside the eye itself. But, in the act of seeing, there is at all events, an actual passage of light from one thing to another, from the external object to the eye. There is a physical relation between physical things. But it is different with commodities. There, the existence of the things qua commodities, and the value-relation between the products of labour which stamps them as commodities, have absolutely no connection with their physical properties and with the material relations arising therefrom. There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy, we must have recourse to the mist-enveloped regions of the religious world. In that world the productions of the human brain appear as independent beings endowed with life and entering into relation both with one another and the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. This I call the Fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour, so soon as they are produced as commodities, and which is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities.6

This passage from Marx’s Capital helps to elucidate the magical qualities of the commodity that lead to its fetishization. The commodity relation is magical insofar as it is a “fantastic form of relation between things”; one that is neither purely physical nor perceptible, but social, not arising from physical properties of the object itself, but from what we might see as the spiritual residue of the conditions of its production. Accordingly, the commodity is, in effect, an “enchanted” object insofar as the “fantastic” and “mysterious” quality of exchange-value must be impressed upon it through the transformative labor of the worker, it does not arise from it organically.

But what if capitalism could affect its transformations without workers? What would capitalism look like then? Fantasy? Sci-fi? Utopia? Dystopia? Marxist-feminist theory, from Federici’s Wages for Housework (1975) to Sophie Lewis’ Full Surrogacy Now (2019), reminds us that when asking this question, we are at the same time asking: what would capitalism look like without mothers?  These are questions that have been raised by the introduction of technologies of automation, Artificial Intelligence, and medical innovations that promise (or threaten) to liberate us from our humanly toil, whether this be factory or reproductive labour. However, Federici raises an adjacent, but different question, in her recent book Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons. Instead of wondering how to harness technology to escape work under capitalism, or fretting about what happens if technology replaces workers (and this means mothers too), this book asks, how do we re-enchant the world?  Federici implores:

Is the mechanization and even robotization of our daily life the best that thousands of years of human labor can produce? Can we imagine reconstructing our lives around a communing of our relations with others, including animals, waters, plants, and mountains—which the large-scale construction of robots will certainly destroy? This is the horizon that the discourse and the politics of the commons opens for us today, not the promise of an impossible return to the past but the possibility of recovering the power of collectively deciding our fate on this earth. This is what I call re-enchanting the world.7

While I certainly endorse the spirit of Federici’s question and the goals it underlines, I do wish to interrogate its specific phrasing. When Federici speaks of re-enchantment, what she largely seems to mean, as I will elaborate below, is an un-enclosing of land and an un-dividing of labor, and most fundamentally, a rejection of industrial technologies. She argues that her call for re-enchantment is not equivalent to a call for “an impossible return to the past.” Yet the temporality of her claim does suggest a return. For example, she describes “recovering” the power to decide our fate. So why re-enchantment, specifically, if this is not a call for a return? And how, if not as return, are we to understand what it means to recover? The language of re-enchantment implies there has been a disenchantment, that something that was once enchanted had been dis-enchanted and requires re-enchanting. In Federici’s timeline, the enchanted is the precapitalist world, which was disenchanted by capitalism and its rationalization and mechanization of the land and the body by means of industrial technology. The answer to this disenchantment, it then follows, is the refusal of industrial technology. This, Federici claims, will aid in our necessary quest to recover our lost “autonomous powers” and capacities of imagination—capacities of which these machines have supposedly deprived us.8 Accordingly, in her call for re-enchantment, Federici positions capitalism, robotization, mechanization, rationalization, technology and the like squarely against enchantment, which becomes their opposite in this rhetorical structure. In so doing, she partakes of a long tradition of scholarship, most notably in the field of anthropology, that has insisted that enchantment and magic more generally belong to the premodern world.9 We will explore the link between magic and enchantment more directly below.

Magic and its Meanings

So, what is magic? “Magic” is an umbrella term that covers enchantment. The Oxford English dictionary provides an array of meanings and their origins in their listing of the term, but the first two are the most important for our purposes. Here, magic is:

the use of ritual activities or observances which are intended to influence the course of events or to manipulate the natural world, usually involving the use of an occult or secret body of knowledge; sorcery, witchcraft. Also: this practice as a subject of study.

This definition is like Mauss’ in that it speaks primarily to change-producing activity. But it also comes with a telling caveat that speaks to the tension in Federici’s opposition between the pre-capitalist and post-capitalist world as it relates to rationalization:

The relationships between magic, religion, and science are central to the history of the term in English. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, magic, and esp. conjuration, are regarded as falling outside the province of religion proper. However, those areas of magic which stemmed from the Hermetic and Neoplatonic traditions were widely regarded in the medieval and early modern periods as legitimate and necessary fields of enquiry, as was much of the field of ‘natural magic.’ Subsequently, with the spread of rationalistic and scientific explanations of the natural world in the West, the status of magic has declined.10

As outlined here, the definitions of and boundaries between magic, religion, technology, and science are hardly settled, and share a long, complex history. Magic, as this definition insinuates, has not always been seen as radically distinct from “science.” As we shall see below, the “decline” of magic “in favor of rationalistic and scientific explanations of the rational world,” might more accurately reflect a shift in vocabulary or perspective surrounding the means of production of knowledge than a decline in magic. Has magic truly declined, has it been replaced, or might we just call it by another name? We will return to this question in what follows.

The second definition of the word “magic” is described by the same entry in the Oxford English Dictionary as “figurative,” and reads, “an inexplicable and remarkable influence producing surprising results; an enchanting or mystical quality; glamour, appeal. Also: exceptional skill or talent, inspired accomplishment […].” This definition speaks to the perception of the change that magic occasions. If magic, as Mauss says, is the art of change, this definition describes the qualities of that change.  It would be impossible and needlessly exhaustive to list every meaning and usage of the term magic, but I pull out these two to demonstrate the longstanding and ongoing connection between magic as literal and figurative enchantment, and its resonance with definitions of science, which I will discuss further below. Karen Pinkus’ book Alchemical Mercury: A Theory of Ambivalence usefully reflects on the difficulty of unraveling the history of alchemy from that of chemistry:

Either alchemy is premodern chemistry; or it is a spiritual, ritualistic discourse or set of theories; or it is a practice that may or may not have succeeded in the remote past; it is a form of medico- pharmacological manipulation of elements; or it is some combination of the above. The problem of how to distinguish alchemy from (a prehistory of) chemistry is intimately bound up with the teleological view of the history of science as a progressive accretion of knowledge.11

This is not just a problem for alchemy. Federici might be said to take a teleological view of enchantment in her insistence on its evacuation from the capitalist world. Instead of remaining attuned to the ways enchantment developed and was developed alongside capitalism, she suggests it has been lost altogether. I suggest that rather than a synchronic notion of enchantment, what is needed is something more diachronic. Beyond these dictionary definitions, recent works in the humanities such as the collection of essays Magical Capitalism, define “magic” as follows:

The word “magic” refers to a broad range of beliefs that include animism, charm(s), divination, enchantment, fantasy, fetish, glamour, illusion, miracles, the occult, shamanism, sorcery, spells, the supernatural, superstition, trickery, and witchcraft. In this respect, it is “society casting spells on itself” (Taussig 1980: 136). It is also a simple superlative (Davies 2012: 1) and is one of the oldest subjects of discussion and theorizing in anthropology.12

This collection of essays traces the “magical turn” in modernity and decisively rejects the notion of the disenchanted modern world. As Arjun Appadurai effectively summarizes in his foreword to the volume, the essays collectively argue that:

Modernity and magic are co-present, and co-dependent, in both the Latourian sense that modernity is still haunted by phantoms of other ways of thinking and in the sense that modernity is filled with mysteries, interruptions, gaps, and aporias that open the space of enchantment.13

Following Bruno Latour and Peter Pels, the authors of this volume argue that modernity and magic or enchantment “have always belonged together, and … what passes for the modern has never existed free from the shadow of the magical,” suggesting that , “magic never exists outside of modernity.”14 By this they mean, it seems to me, that magic did not appear as a discrete field or phenomenon until modernity decided it was its opposite. As indicated in the dictionary definition above, prior to the modern period, magic, science, and religion were ambivalently related, not necessarily as opposites. Apropos of these insights, the authors assert “capitalism and its support mechanisms are not often as rational as they make themselves out to be”—a claim to which I would add that they are not as rational as we make them out to be.15 Importantly, this collection demonstrates how technology is often cast in magical terms and revered by people as though it were sacred and infallible. They note Walter Benjamin’s famous argument about the disenchantment of the work of art due to its newfound mechanical reproducibility in his timeless essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1969). But importantly, they suggest Benjamin was also cognizant of the ambivalent relationship produced by technology which disenchanted the art object’s aura at the same time these same technological advances enchanted spectators with their seemingly supernatural capacity to reproduce.16 Following anthropologist Alfred Gell, the authors argue that enchantment is a technology and vice versa. They write,

the technology of enchantment, [Gell] says, is probably the most sophisticated psychological weapon we use to exert control over the thoughts and actions of other human beings because it ‘exploits innate or derived psychological biases to enchant the other person and cause him/her to perceive social reality in a way favourable to the social interests of the enchanter’ (Gell 1988: 7).17

Establishing that psychological tactics such as enchantment can be considered forms of technology, Gell further argues that technology also enchants and has the power to cast a spell over us. It is on these grounds that he disputes the basis for an opposition between the technical and the magical. Gell of course is far from the first to draw a connection between science and magic, as detailed by the brief historical lineage of their entwinement provided by the Oxford English Dictionary above. In a more popular sphere, science fiction author and futurist Arthur C. Clarke is famous for stating in his “three laws” on the nature of science that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”18 Gell would certainly agree.

To illustrate technology’s capacity to enchant, the authors of Magical Capitalism provide a case study. Herein are several somewhat amusingly described instances in which a car’s GPS system presented wildly inaccurate and outlandish instructions to its drivers, such as to proceed directly into a body of water, that were followed with such absolute faith, one might think they had been hypnotized. In such scenarios, the authors argue “the drivers were enchanted by their GPS to perceive reality the way in which their GPS wanted them to perceive it.”19 Now these authors apply a sense of will and intention that may be a bit anthropomorphic for my understanding of GPS technologies, but the point remains that the sway of technological authority contributed to an altered perception or relation to perception in these drivers, such that they prioritized the instructions provided by the GPS technology over their own sensuous experience and prior knowledge of the world. This can easily be read as enchantment.

Following this example, and thinking back to Federici’s call, we might ask: is a (re)enchanted world truly the opposite of the capitalist world? Is magic technology’s antithesis, or as Arthur C. Clarke suggests, a form of it? Can one or the other be blamed for human and ecological exploitation? Can either deliver us from labor? And what use is there in drawing these boundaries or disputing them?

This essay aims to address these questions to interrogate Federici’s call for re-enchantment as the means and ends of anticapitalist resistance through an analysis of capitalist forms of enchantment. I argue that the capitalist processes of mystification and alienation should be understood as forms of enchantment. Through a reading of several foundational works of Feminist anti-capitalist thought, I aim therefore to complicate Federici’s call for “re-enchanting the world.” I advance this argument because I believe ignoring the role of enchantment in capitalism might cost us some powerful tools of resistance to it, if we continue to conceive of capitalist development as a straightforward disenchantment of the world, as Federici does. Instead, I advocate for acknowledging capital’s ambivalent relationship to and structural reliance upon forms of enchantment. Capitalism both incorporates enchantment at the same time it delimits it. Capitalism certainly is a thief of pleasure and awe if this is how we understand disenchantment. It punishes our bodies and destroys our environment. At the same time, the history of capitalist development relies on processes which can be understood as enchantment. Mystification works to block us from alternative possibilities and lifeways. Alienation works upon our bodies and minds to break down our capacities for resistance to exploitation and our perceptions of our condition. Enchantment and disenchantment are equally crucial to the functioning of capital’s ecosystem.

Enchantment and its Discontents

Enchantment is an ambivalent term in its definition and usage. In his foreword to Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons, Peter Linebaugh briefly outlines its transmutations. Writing that the term originates from the French “chanter,” which means to sing, enchantment and its sisters “magic” and “spell,” all share a common past and future: the evacuation of spirit and the subsumption to the discourses of capitalism. He writes:

What is enchantment? It is to fall under a rapturous spell of magic influences. By 1917 however, the meanings of the term had changed, losing its connections to the sublime or the sacred, and, like similar changes to the meanings of spell, magic, and glamour, its meaning found a limited discursive home in high fashion, the decorative arts, and Hollywood. No longer expressing powers of the cosmos and the body, these terms became limited to superficialities and superfluities.20

In this somewhat dismissive etymological lineage, Linebaugh neglects a structural ambivalence that has always sat at the heart of definitions of enchantment. The usage of enchantment in which it means to “delight,” that Linebaugh dates to the post-1917 world, is in fact a figurative use of the term from the 1670s. Because the word means both to sing and to spell, it can mean either to lure, or to literally bewitch.

Enchantment (n.)

1.The action or process of enchanting, or of employing magic or sorcery.

2. figurative. Alluring or overpowering charm; enraptured condition; (delusive) appearance of beauty.21

In our current era it’s not quite accurate to claim the word’s meaning has decisively changed to favor apparently superficial aesthetic pursuits. A contemporary edition of the New American Oxford dictionary defines enchantment as follows:

 fill (someone) with great delight; charm: Isabel was enchanted with the ideathe scenery began to enchant her.

put (someone or something) under a spell; bewitch: Marcia had enchanted the rope so that it simply regenerated when any length was cut off | you have been enchanted by some spirits.

ORIGIN late Middle English (in the senses ‘put under a spell’ and ‘delude’; formerly also as inchant): from French enchanter, from Latin incantare, from in- ‘in’ + cantare ‘sing’.22

The magical qualities of the term persist in modern usage, alongside, but not replaced by, the a-spiritual idiom that Linebaugh inaccurately suggests was established in the 20th century. This polyphony matters, for it reveals that enchantment can in fact, mean two ostensibly antithetical things. To be figuratively enchanted means to be in touch with, delighted by, the sensuous qualities of one’s environment, as in the first example that describes Isabel being enchanted by the majestic scenery surrounding her. Yet in example two, we see how to be literally enchanted means something altogether different. It is to be bemused, cut off, alienated from the sensuous qualities of the world before you, from your ability to accurately perceive, unobstructed, as in the example that describes of being overtaken by spirits. To be enchanted, to be put under a spell, can be a delight, or it can be the same thing as being fooled.

Enchantment’s duality should be considered when we think about the way it has been mobilized by Federici in her 2019 book Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons. Here, Federici positions re-enchantment as an anticapitalist project that seeks to unblock populations from their passive exploitation and catalyze active resistance to capitalist misery. To Federici, re-enchantment entails the revalorization of reproductive labor, the end of reliance on industrial technology and our liberation from the myth that it will unshackle us from our toil or even improve the conditions of our labor. This includes moves towards re-ruralization and re-peasantization. Most importantly to Federici’s projecting, re-enchanting the world entails the ability to imagine and operate by logics beyond those of capitalist development. In her own words, “it is to the discovery of reasons and logics other than those of capitalist development that I refer when I speak of ‘re-enchanting the world’.”23

It is hard to think about the enmeshment of magic and capitalism without recourse to the work of Federici. Her 2004 book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation, develops a revisionist history of the early modern period (roughly 1200-1600). Herein she argues that the transition from feudalism to capitalism relied on processes of primitive accumulation such as the expropriation of common lands and goods by way of the great enclosures, the Atlantic slave trade, and especially the practice of witch-hunting in the late Middle Ages. In the course of narrating this history, Federici demonstrates that as slave-traders and colonizers raped, pillaged, and enslaved the peoples of the “new world,” and as it and the “old world” were enclosed – as resources like lakes, valleys, rivers, and arable land were privatized and subordinated to the demands of profit, so too were women enclosed, privatized and subordinated to the demands of profit.24 Globally, landscapes, the systems of life, and the bodies they sustained were physically and conceptually retooled to suit the needs of capitalist social reproduction. According to Federici, from the early modern period onward, the earth and its beings have been subject to a brutal and unending “mechanization.”25 Federici writes, “in the case of women,” we became, “a machine for the production of new workers.” The category of woman, Federici argues, “signifies not just a hidden history that needs to be made visible; but a particular form of exploitation, and therefore, a unique perspective from which to consider the history of capitalist relations.”26 Marxist-feminism has long been a project involved in tracing the specific ways the mystification of this history has impacted both the development of Marxist theory and the social reality of women under capitalism. Yet what I argue we should conceive of as the “magical” nature of this mystification and alienation has been concealed through the discourses which paint these processes instead as “management” and “rationalization.”

The idea of capitalism as a rationalizing system led Max Weber to famously declare that “the fate of our times is characterized above all by the disenchantment of the world.” Unsurprisingly perhaps, Weber’s claim functions as the terminus for Federici’s main thesis and titular premise, presented most fully in the introduction and final chapter of Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons. Federici’s reading of Weber suggests that he may have been referring more to the “vanishing of religion and the sacred,” produced by “modern forms of social organization,” than her more “political” interpretation of the statement, in which she suggests that what has been stolen by rationalization is our capacity to imagine another type of world or at least economic system.27

Yet it is arguable that Federici’s reading of Weber is intentionally selective here. Despite the implications of the excerpted quotation which serves as a springboard for her larger argument, Weber was well-known for his observations about the persistence of enchantment in its many guises, including religious, under capitalism, evidenced by his influential theory outlined in the 1905 book The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Here he declares:

For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.28

Weber in this passage is far from suggesting that religion has been evacuated from the modern world due to rationalization. He remains attuned to the vital structural role of religion or what might be called enchantment in capitalist life, describing the “irresistible force” exerted by the asceticism and its role in the maintenance of the capitalist society, the “tremendous cosmos of modern economic order.” The last sentence in this passage speaks to the sense of inescapability produced by capitalism that has been commented on perhaps most famously in the much-quoted observation of Mark Fisher that it is “easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.”29 Like Federici, Fisher and Weber suggest capitalism produces blockages that prevent our misery from transforming into revolutionary action. Weber diagnoses these blockages as the Protestant work ethic. Yet Federici opposes blockages to enchantment. She suggests one of the major sources of our blocked imaginations is what she terms the “seduction of technology,” and especially the notion that it “appears to give us powers without which it seems impossible to live.” The purpose of her chapter is to challenge this “myth,” to acknowledge the cost of the technological innovations by which we are “mesmerized,” and to “remind us of the knowledges and powers that we have lost with their production and acquisition.” Yet she suggests this should not be seen as a “sterile attack against technology” or a “yearning for an impossible return to a primitivist paradise.”30  There is significant tension in Federici’s effort to establish a dichotomy between the disenchanted capitalist world, and the re-enchanted world after capitalism. For example, consider the very language Federici employs to describe capital and industrial technology’s hold over the population. She speaks of technology’s “seduction,” the “myth” that we cannot live without it, its capacity to “mesmerize.”31 Despite employing this language Federici neglects to observe that these blockages themselves may be conceived of as forms of enchantment in its more pernicious manifestations.

Federici opposes “enchantment” to broadly defined spheres of “science” and “technology,” taking aim at computers in her attack, stating “in brief, computerization has added to the general state of misery.” She argues computers have failed to shorten our work week, increase our capacity for communication and cooperation, and reduce the socially necessary labour power required to produce commodities as promised. Instead, Federici writes, “they contribute greatly to our violent and unsustainable extraction of resources, and lead to the further exploitation of vulnerable lands and peoples necessary to acquire the raw materials and labor power necessary to produce them.” Beyond this, computers have “increased the military capacity of the capitalist class and its surveillance of our work and lives,” which are “all developments compared to which the benefits we can draw from the use of personal computers pale.” Indeed, under the reign of computerized capitalism, “we now work more than ever.” Federici goes so far as to make the provocative claim that “the stress of digital labour can be measured by the epidemic of mental illness—depression, panic, anxiety, attention deficit, dyslexia—now typical of the most technologically advanced countries like the U.S.—epidemics that can also be read as forms of passive resistance, as refusals to comply, to become machine-like and make capital’s plans our own.” Further, she disputes the idea that social media’s capacities for connectivity have decisively contributed or aided revolutionary struggle, noting that a call to arms online can only reach an already mobilized a population.32  In making her case so strongly against modern technologies that structure or dictate the terms of our lives, Federici insists she is not engaged in a romanticization of a lost “primitivist paradise.”33 And yet, the dichotomy she constructs between the precapitalist past and capitalist present lead reviewers of her book such as Alva Gotby to note her rosy vision of precapitalist societies fails to acknowledge “the struggle and conflict in these histories” and falsely assumes and generalizes “that pre-capitalist communities lived in harmony.”34

When thinking through the terms of Federici’s dichotomy between pre- and post- capitalist societies, it is helpful to recall Bruno Latour’s declaration in We Have Never Been Modern: “no one has ever been modern. Modernity has never begun. There has never been a modern world.” Latour continues:

At the very moment when the twin Enlightenments of Marxism seemed to have explained everything, at the very moment when the failure of their total explanation leads the postmoderns to founder in the despair of self-criticism, we discover that the explanations had not yet begun, and that this has always been the case; that we have never been modern, or critical; that there has never been a yesteryear or an Old Regime (Mayer, 1982); that we have never really left the old anthropological matrix behind, and that it could not have been otherwise.

Mocking the “chief oddity of the moderns, the idea of a time that passes irreversibly and annuls the entire past in its wake,” Latour advocates for a vision of the world and its causal logics not as a boundary or a line, but as a network. He writes:

seen as networks, however, the modern world, like revolutions, permits scarcely anything more than small extensions of practices, slight accelerations in the circulation of knowledge, a tiny extension of societies, minuscule increases in the number of actors, small modifications of old beliefs. When we see them as networks, Western innovations remain recognizable and important, but they no longer suffice as the stuff of saga, a vast saga of radical rupture, fatal destiny, irreversible good or bad fortune. 35

Positioned against the linear division between past and present and science and magic in which Federici grounds her calls for re-enchantment, the image of the network allows us to see forms of continuity between pre- and post- capitalist society that she suggests have been lost. Rather than presume capitalism has evacuated the autonomous powers Federici is desperate for us to recover, as the dichotomous model she develops implies, perhaps we might see these powers not as lost but simply in wait, temporarily inaccessible or hidden from view, but underground, ready for their timely and cyclical return. Further, if we are not to be guilty of a colonialist, Orientalist, and myopic attribution of “technology” to “modern” Western societies, which I do not believe is Federici’s intent, as she makes reference to the fact that “the most important scientific discoveries have originated in precapitalist societies,” then it is important to consider alternate possibilities for contemporary technology that would not equate to their wholesale refusal.36 For if it is true that technology is not strictly speaking a tool of capitalism, then there is no reason it can only serve capitalist means.

In keeping with this possibility, Latour describes some of the psychological work at play in the vaunted distinction between modernity and its historical others. He writes:

We are indeed different from others, but we must not situate the differences where the now-closed question of relativism had located them. As collectives, we are all brothers. Except in the matter of dimension, which is itself caused by small differences in the distribution of entities, we can recognize a continuous gradient between premoderns and nonmoderns. Unfortunately, the difficulty of relativism does not arise only from the bracketing off of Nature. It stems also from the related belief that the modern world is truly disenchanted. It is not only out of arrogance that Westerners think they are radically different from others, it is also out of despair, and by way of self-punishment. They like to frighten themselves with their own destiny. Their voices quaver when they contrast Barbarians to Greeks, or the Centre to the Periphery, or when they celebrate the Death of God, or the Death of Man, the European Krisis, imperialism, anomie, or the end of the civilizations that we now know are mortal. Why do we get so much pleasure out of being so different not only from others but from our own past? What psychologist will be subtle enough to explain our morose delight in being in perpetual crisis and in putting an end to history? Why do we like to transform small differences in scale among collectives into huge dramas?37

 Certainly in Federici’s call for re-enchantment and rejection of technology, we can locate despair, fear, and an urge to differentiate the past from the present. Yet Latour’s critique, while not generous, does offer some reparative solutions. He suggests we conceive of “a continuous gradient between moderns and premoderns,” and advocates for locating forms of continuity, and in so doing, speaks to the ambivalence of enchantment I describe above. Latour’s instructive critique suggests that enchantment cannot be irreversibly temporally located as either a quality of the past or promise of the future. We must attend instead to the variable forms enchantment takes in different historical configurations if we are to harness its powers for good, and not let it threaten us into passive despair, as Federici suggests capitalism does.

Of course, Federici is right to contend that a collective revolution will require some invention, some fabulation, which one could call enchantment. Yet I fear the implication that follows from this terminology.  Namely, I am concerned that the organization of politics around the goal of re-invigorating the enchantment of the world that has supposedly been lost to capitalism risks naturalizing the very enchanted processes by which capitalism operates. By suggesting that the commons require “re-enchantment” it follows that capitalism operates through disenchantment. I am wary that this line of thinking might render those enchanted thinking processes on which capitalism relies even more concrete than they already are, more immovable and supernatural when they are in fact at least in part immaterial, products of human invention: fantasies. This inverted relation between subject and object, otherwise understood as reification is, after all, the problematic way Marx argues both capitalism and religion operate. Whereas religion and the economy appear to humankind to exert their force upon them, they are in fact products of humankind’s invention, as Marx notes in Capital Vol 1, where he describes primitive accumulation as playing “approximately the same role in political economy as original sin does in theology.”38 We might call this the naturalization of capital, and it is this naturalization that produces the blockages of imagination that Federici suggest must be eradicated to re-enchant the world. Federici is cognizant of the threat that “naturalization” poses with regards to the role of women and reproductive labor under capitalism. For example, she writes:

The expulsion of reproductive work from the spheres of economic relations and its deceptive relegation to the sphere of the ‘private,’ the ‘personal,’ ‘outside’ of capital accumulation, and, above all, ‘feminine’ has made it invisible as work and has naturalized its exploitation.39

Interestingly, elsewhere the terminology of “naturalization” that is used to describe the process of rendering women’s work invisible as such has shifted to “mystification,” as when Federici writes that: “… not only is the personal political, but the private/public divide is a ruse mystifying women’s unpaid work as a ‘labor of love.’”40 It is not just women impacted by mystification and naturalization. In a footnote to the chapter entitled “From Commoning to Debt,” Federici describes the mystification involved in the concept of poverty and wealth, writing:

I place ‘poor’ in quotes to highlight the mystification implicit in this concept. There are no ‘poor’; they are people and populations who have been impoverished. This may appear a minor distinction, but it is a necessary one to prevent the normalization and naturalization of impoverishment that the concept of the ‘poor’ promotes.41 42

The goal in providing these examples is to elucidate the similarities and points of tension between mystification and naturalization generally and in Federici’s own work, central processes to capitalist functioning, but also to anti-capitalist ethics that refuse to uphold the categories of poor and rich which capitalism conjures.

Mystification describes a process whereby something is obscured; naturalization describes a process whereby something is rendered natural. Mystification produces naturalization. Change produces the appearance of stasis. The Oxford English dictionary defines naturalization as “the action of making natural,” and mystification as, “the action of mystifying someone, or of making a matter, subject, etc., unduly mysterious or confusing.”43 These are not dichotomous processes, in so far as they often produce similar results, especially as applications of ideology. Yet nor are they identical. They are, in my thinking, something like the rectangle and the square. Naturalization (square) is a form of mystification, but not all mystification (rectangle) is naturalization. One can mystify something without rendering it natural. Yet one cannot naturalize something without in some way mystifying it. Capitalism’s naturalization of poverty is a form of mystification. It produces an image of stasis through naturalization, which is in fact a process of transformation. Like magic. As Federici writes of technology, capitalism appears to “give us powers without which we cannot live.”44 And as Fisher famously writes, its force has rendered it so seemingly basic to the world that we cannot imagine the world without it. But this naturalization is all a deception, a mystification. Thus, while Federici’s call to re-enchant the world suggests the world has been de-enchanted by capitalism, the reparative communing of our relations with others, including animals, waters, plants, and mountains, might more usefully be said to require de-mystifying or dis-enchanting processes that seek to dispute the naturalization of the capitalist organization of the world. I will further discuss mystification and naturalization as processes of capitalist enchantment below.

On Mystifying the World

In her foundational 1977 manifesto “On the Super-Exploitation of Women,” Marlene Dixon details the function of mystification in ensuring a steady supply of workers by way of the heteronormative private family unit. She summarizes Friedrich Engels’ argument that the roots of women’s subjugation are the divvying up of individual families into isolated economic units responsible for their own survival. Engels sees this process as resulting in what he calls “the world-historical defeat of the female sex,” but Dixon corrects him, noting, with reference to the anthropologist Eleanor Leacock, that this “world historical defeat of the female sex” was not the ends, but the means, of the process.45 Dixon argues in turn that prior to the rise of industrial capitalism the European family was a unit of both production and consumption. For capital to gain dominance over the whole of life, the idea of the family unit had to be reduced to a unit of consumption. This is the mystifying process Federici traces in Caliban and the Witch. Dixon brilliantly summarizes the impacts of this mystification of the family’s ability to produce for itself:

With the complete triumph of commodity production, the family appeared to be reduced from a production unit to a dependent consumption unit, from an extended kin organization to the nuclear family defined by contractual marriage. This transformation of the family accompanied the transformation of labor (in the family production unit) into the commodity labor power (the ability to work sold as a commodity whose price is wages). These shifts in the function and organization of the family also created shifts in the function and role of women. As the family was increasingly isolated from any visible form of commodity production, it became, in appearance, more and more isolated from the central social and economic organization of society as a whole. The reduction of the family from the central unit of social organization to what appeared to be a peripheral “private” adjunct to the “real” social organization (commodity production) resulted in the “marginalization” of women’s work and the devalued (wageless) nature of female domestic labor. It appeared that the family was marginal to capital, marginal to commodity production. Thus it appeared that women’s domestic labor and, by extension, women themselves, dependent upon their husbands’ wages, were of little value.46

By transforming social reality so that it appears necessary to acquire cash to acquire the means of survival, Dixon argues that capitalism “justified the perpetuation of male supremacy,” and the ongoing subordination of women. Functionally, “the seeming ‘marginalization’ of the family and women’s work in the household mystified the real function of the family under capitalism: the production and reproduction of labor power.”47 This is the essential mystification behind most conceptions, including Marx’s own formulation, of the calculation of exchange-value, which can never account for the true volume of time congealed in any one worker. The family unit has been mystified by capitalism in such a way that it is blocked from perceiving its true role in the capitalist economic order as a site of labor production rather than a dependant consumption unit. This mystification requires dis-enchantment.

Alienation as Enchantment

I will now discuss alienation as a magical tool of capitalism. While the role of alienation in the production of physical commodity goods was thoroughly elaborated by Marx himself, most famously in his Fragment on Machines, Arlie Russell’ Hochschild’s The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling updates this aspect of the theory for an emergent economic hegemon: the service sector. In the Grundrisse, Marx writes of the animating, external power of machines and their impact on the factory worker:

The worker’s activity, reduced to a mere abstraction of activity, is determined and regulated on all sides by the movement of the machinery, and not the opposite. The science which compels the inanimate limbs of the machinery, by their construction, to act purposefully, as an automaton, does not exist in the worker’s consciousness, but rather acts upon him through the machine as an alien power, as the power of the machine itself..48

Marx returns to the alien power of the machine to comment upon how it usurps the agency of and animates the worker when he writes:

In machinery, knowledge appears as alien, external to him; and living labour [as] subsumed under self-activating objectified labour. The worker appears as superfluous to the extent that his action is not determined by [capital’s] requirements.49

He evokes the ambivalent boundaries between body and machine when he describes:

…the workers’ struggle against machinery. What was the living worker’s activity becomes the activity of the machine. Thus the appropriation of labour by capital confronts the worker in a coarsely sensuous form; capital absorbs labour into itself – ‘as though its body were by love possessed’.50

The worker is overtaken by the machine in Marx’s rendering; possessed, by an alien power that acts upon him, rendering him an automaton, not in control of his own action. Intriguingly, this power is compared by Marx (by way of Goethe) to love, elaborating the ambivalence of enchantment at the corporeal, sensuous level. That to be alienated, enchanted, by the machine bears some analogical resemblance to a lover’s possession recalls the ambiguous pleasures of subjugation, of the evacuation of subjectivity, that one might experience during a great romance, or at least great sex. No surprise we frequently employ machines in our sex lives. When we commune with another body, whether man or machine, where are the boundaries between the self and the other? When the machine operates the man, when the man becomes the machine, is this not some kind of enchantment? The “magic” of the machine enchants—it animates the inanimate, transforming object to subject and subject to object, machinic parts into animal limbs, animal limbs to cogs in a machine. Alienation colludes with mystification to block the worker from accessing a clear view of their role in the production process, and “the entire production process appears as not subsumed under the direct skillfulness of the worker, but rather as the technological application of science.”51 This is how alienation functions as a form of enchantment in a factory context.

Hochschild traces how alienation impacts the consciousness of workers who populate the service sector, in this case Delta flight attendants. Hochschild argues that just as the demands of physical labor in the factory lead to the alienation of the worker from an essential aspect of their self, their physical body, the demands of “emotional labor,” threaten to alienate and estrange another core aspect of the self: the emotions. Hochschild defines emotional labor, a notoriously misapplied term, as follows:

*I use the term emotional labor to mean the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display; emotional labor is sold for a wage and therefore has exchange value. I use the synonymous terms emotion work or emotion management to refer to these same acts done in a private context where they have use value.52

Hochschild is primarily concerned with emotional labor, or the commercialization of human feeling, and its potential to have an alienating impact on what she describes as the “signal function,” of a person’s feelings and their emotional display.  Drawing on Freud’s theory of anxiety and its biological purpose as a warning system against threats, Hochschild argues “every emotion has a signal function,” and “it signals the often unconscious perspective we apply when we go about seeing… feelings signals that inner perspective.” She compares feelings to seeing and hearing, as “a useful set of clues in figuring what is real.” The signal function of display is something different, and Hochschild does not explicitly define it, but in passing notes it “is the way we infer other people’s viewpoints from how they display their feeling.”53 We will return to this distinction below.

Hochschild acknowledges that we are managing and modulating our emotions all the time. Feelings have functions, and we try to make them function in certain ways. She writes:

Acts of emotion management are not simply private acts; they are used in exchanges under the guidance of feeling rules. Feeling rules are standards used in emotional conversation to determine what is rightly owed and owing in the currency of feeling. Through them, we tell what is “due” in each relation, each role. We pay tribute to each other in the currency of the managing act. In interaction we pay, overpay, underpay, play with paying, acknowledge our dues, pretend to pay, or acknowledge what is emotionally due another person.54

Hochschild draws a key distinction between private, personal acts of emotional management, and commodified emotional labor.  Both are acts of exchange, and as such, both have costs. Yet whereas the former is essential to operating in a “civilized” world, she draws an analogy with Freud’s theory of the role of temperance in our sexual drives described in Civilization and Discontents, the latter jeopardizes a person’s potential to live a fulfilling life. How? Because emotional labor, which involves the outsourcing of internal decision making to an external, profit-driven entity, alienates the person performing these acts of internal regulation from the very social and biological function of their feelings. Like the factory worker alienated from their labor by the machine who possesses his limbs, when the display and management of emotion become commodities to be bought and sold, the service worker is alienated from their labor by the commercial entities that possesses their minds. Is this not enchantment? Hochschild explains, describing conditions based on her observations of over-worked flight attendants:

… when the transmutation of the private use of feeling is successfully accomplished—when we succeed in lending our feelings to the organizational engineers of worker-customer relations—we may pay a cost in how we hear our feelings and a cost in what, for better or worse, they tell us about ourselves. When a speed-up of the human assembly line makes ‘genuine’ personal service harder to deliver, the worker may withdraw emotional labor and offer instead a thin crust of display. Then the cost shifts: the penalty becomes a sense of being phony or insincere. In short, when the transmutation works, the worker risks losing the signal function of feeling. When it does not work, the risk is losing the signal function of display.55

Hochschild describes both emotional labor and emotion management as a process of “transmutation,” itself a magical word, with roots in the mythical practice of alchemy.56 Like the magical process of alchemy, emotional labor transforms what is valueless into “gold.” We must accordingly be aware of the two risks posed to the emotional laborer. They risk losing the signal function of their feeling, their “inner perspective,” and they risk the signal function of display, their ability to convey their own feelings accurately to another. To Hochschild, losing the signal function of one’s feeling is akin to losing one’s orientation in the world, because “emotion locates the position of the viewer.” Thus, like a person who cannot feel pain and thus knows to avoid touching a flame, an emotionless person “suffers a sense of arbitrariness, which from the point of view of his or her self-interest is irrational.”57 Losing the signal function of display threatens to undermine one’s ability to accurately convey to others one’s feelings, and thus potentially, to be accurately perceived and received by the people in their lives. It is the possession, the enchantment by the logic of capital, that is to blame for the worker’s emotional alienation—both the way it impacts the conditions of their labor (alienation) and the fact that it makes it impossible to refuse these conditions (mystification).

Alienation can be read as a process of willful self-mystification, which is demonstrated in the differences Hochschild outlines between deep acting and surface acting. She notes that while we are often acting, we employ different methods depending on our purpose, the emotional intensity and demands of a situation.  She takes recourse to performance theory to illustrate the difference. Hochschild argues that in surface acting, the style common to theatrical display, “the body, not the soul is the main tool of trade.” This is the “art of an eyebrow raised here, an upper lip tightened there,” and crucially, the actor does not attempt to actually feel his characters emotions, simply represent them.58 In deep acting of the Stanislavsky variety, called Method Acting, things are different.59 Rather than simply attempt to convey an emotion, the actor must try to actually experience it. The goal is to draw upon “emotion memories” and attempt to experience them in the present:

The actor must believe that an imagined happening really is happening now. To do this, the actor makes up an “as if;’ a supposition. He actively suspends the usual reality testing, as a child does at play, and allows a make-believe situation to seem real.60

Clearly, this is a process of enchantment, in so far as the worker aims to actively believe a different reality. And it is this, the internal reshaping of reality, emotional alienation, that appears so enchanting to customers.

Disenchanting the World

Throughout this essay I have traced the manifold ways capitalism might be said to have an ambivalent relation to enchantment. I have argued that just as the rationalization and mechanization that characterize industrial capitalism can be conceived of as an evacuation of enchantment, these same processes can simultaneously be conceived of as forms of enchantment themselves. Beyond the ambivalence at the operational level of distinctions between enchantment and capitalism, we have briefly reviewed the intellectual and etymological history of the term “enchantment” to demonstrate that the umbrella terms “magic” and “science” share a long and interconnected history and that their division is a matter of historical and geographical context. Finally, we have explored through the works of Marx, Dixon, and Hochschild how mystification and alienation are capitalism’s own processes of enchantment that enable and perpetuate it. At one point in her text, Hochschild asks: “what happens when our feelings are processed like raw ore?”61 She writes that emotional labor transforms the face and emotions into a resource, like ore into gold, to produce profit. But when ore is transformed into gold, the change is not irrevocable. Gold cannot return to ore, but it can be transformed again. So, when we ask what happens when feelings, gestures, people, land, animals, and everything between heaven and earth are transformed into “gold,” we must not neglect that not all alchemy is permanent. What’s been alienated and mystified might yet be transformed. And that is what I call disenchanting the world.

Bio: Jillian Vasko is a filmmaker and  PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto’s Cinema Studies Institute. Her dissertation research reconceptualizes contemporary notions of ‘value’ and ‘labor’ as they structure prevailing accounts of the relation between bodies, media, and capital via a comparative analysis of online pornography and ASMR. She is a co-assistant editor at World Picture.