It is in this context that we must also read the attack against witchcraft and against that magical view of the world which, despite the efforts of the Church, had continued to prevail on a popular level through the Middle Ages.
At the basis of magic was an animistic conception of nature that did not admit to any separation between matter and spirit, and thus imagined the cosmos as a living organism, populated by occult forces, where every element was in “sympathetic” relation with the rest. In this perspective where nature was viewed as a universe of signs and signatures, marking invisible affinities that had to be deciphered (Foucault 1973: 26–27), every element — herbs, plants, metals, and most of all the human body — hid virtues and powers peculiar to it. Thus, a variety of practices were designed to appropriate the secrets of nature and bend its powers to the human will. From palmistry to divination, from the use of charms to healing by sympathy, magic opened a vast number of possibilities. There was magic designed to win card games, to play unknown instruments, to become invisible, to win somebody’s love, to gain immunity in war, to make children sleep (Thomas 1971).To eradicate these practices was a necessary condition of the capitalist rationalization of work, since magic appeared as an instrument to obtain what one wanted without work,that is, as refusal of work in action.
Magic, moreover, rested upon a qualitative conception of space and time that precluded a regularization of the labor process. For how could the new entrepreneurs impose regular work patterns on a proletariat anchored in the belief that there are lucky and unlucky days, that is, days in which one can travel and others in which one should not move from home, days in which to marry and others in which every enterprise should be cautiously
avoided? Equally incompatible with the capitalist work-discipline was a conception of the cosmos that attributed special powers to the individual: the magnetic look, the power to make oneself invisible, to leave one’s body, to chain the will of others by magical incantations.
The idea of transforming this lazy being, who dreamt of life as a long Carnival, into an indefatigable worker, must have seemed a desperate enterprise. It meant to literally “turn the world upside down,” but in a totally capitalist fashion where inertia to command would be transformed into lack of desire and autonomous will, where vis erotica would become vis lavorativa (labor-power), and need would be experienced only as lack, abstinence, and eternal indigence.
But regardless of the dangers magic posed, the bourgeoisie had to combat its power also because it undermined the principle of individual responsibility, as magic placed the determinants of social action in the realm of the stars, out of their reach and control.
What died was the concept of the body as a receptacle of magical powers that had prevailed in the medieval world. In reality, it was destroyed. For in the background of the new philosophy we find a vast initiative by the state, that branded what the philosophers classified as “irrational” as a true form of crime.