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Interview with Verónica Gago and Luci Cavallero
“Debt Is A War Against Women’s Autonomy”
by Verónica Gago , Luci Cavallero , Beatriz Ortiz Martínez
22 April 2021

On the occasion of the publication the expanded edition and English translation of A Feminist Reading of Debt, Beatriz Ortiz Martínez, from CADTM, interviewed its authors Verónica Gago and Luci Cavallero, researchers and professors in Buenos Aires, and members of the Argentine feminist collective Ni Una Menos. The reading of debt proposed by Verónica and Luci articulates elements of a diagnosis, theory, practices, and resistances. By shaking up all these ingredients, they unmask debt, they remove it from the private sphere and reveal it as a common problem against which we must organize collectively.

The original edition of your book developed the idea of “taking debt out of the closet” to remove its power of abstraction and reflect on how debt at the macro level is translated into the micro level and how it affects our lives. What have you added to this expanded edition, recently translated into English? What were the motivations behind the book?

Verónicat: The first edition was published in February 2019 and it was originally proposed as a tool, a political artefact, for holding workshops and opening discussions. And that was what we did with it. We went to producers’ markets, unions, schools, universities, feminist organizations, assemblies of migrant persons, etc. We went out with the book, organizing workshops, presentations, and discussions everywhere. Many things emerged out of that exercise of feminist pedagogy against debt, as we call it, and we started writing more based on how the book was operating, adding new layers.

On the other hand, 2019 was also a year of intense electoral debate in Argentina, as it was (luckily!) the last year of Macri’s government, and we, in the feminist movement, were very determined to defeat him. That year, the country took out more debt with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a debt that was explicitly for funding Macri’s re-election campaign. The IMF loaned the government money under direct orders from Trump. It was also a year with a lot of agitation related to the currency, because there was a devaluation and an enormous spike in inflation. In other words, there was an intensification at the macrostructural level of all the debates in which the book was intervening. In fact, in this edition of the book, we also discuss an action-intervention that we did carried out in response to the “gentlemen’s agreement” – a non-binding pact between the government and businessmen – that Macri proposed as a way of dealing with the inflation in food prices that accelerated the impoverishment of the population.

All of these interventions, located in the space between the political conjuncture and the result of our micropolitical work using the publication in workshops and discussions, expanded and broadened the book. So, when we were preparing the English and Italian versions we decided to include all of these elements in an expanded edition because we feel that it is a living book. Everything produced around the first edition is what makes up this expanded version.

Luci: There is something very powerful about this expanded edition in that it shows how the original book produced a whole process of pedagogy, especially at the level of feminist organizations. The book started to open up a way of understanding finance based on specific, grounded conflicts. For example, we see this in a conflict in Villa 31 (an informal settlement and slum of Buenos Aires), which arose from the fact that the urban redevelopment plan proposed by the government, offering people titles for their homes in the slum, was based on debt. That is, they would give residents a title, but they would have to pay off the debt and, furthermore, these are debts that they are not going to be able to repay. Thus, it is a way of evicting people from that territory, which is central to the city of Buenos Aires. The Feminist Assembly of Villa 31 reached out to us because they had read the book and they realized that they were going into debt, that, to access the housing that they deserve, they have to take on a debt that they cannot pay and that would ultimately end in an eviction. That was also one of the motors driving this expanded edition: how the elements of A Feminist Reading of Debt started to operate in concrete conflicts.

Verónica: Another conflict discussed in this edition, which was very important for us, has to do with Macri’s government’s attempt to cut the program that gave housewives the possibility of receiving pensions. We organized a major action with different collectives, under the slogan “the patriarchy has my missing contributions.” In other words, we argued that housewives, who had not been able to make contributions towards retirement, should not have to go into debt and that the solution should not be to make them pay the contributions that had not been made on their behalf by, we could say, their bosses.

Luci: We primarily denounced the fact that this was a specific demand made by the IMF. The first concrete demand made by the IMF was that women, who had worked for free their entire lives, not receive retirement benefits. So, for us that is a clear message about what feeds the external debt: a ton of women who work for free their whole lives, or who work for low pay or in precarious jobs.

Verónica: So, you have the issue of pensions, of food, of urban development. This led to new forms of what we call the process of debt landing in specific conflicts and territories and it seemed that it was part of that political machinery that we wanted to make function with the book.

So, the first edition of the book has been a success because it fulfilled its objective as a political artifact to identify how the IMF’s requirements and structural adjustment are imposed on people’s everyday life. The book also takes up the challenge in terms of pedagogy and an approaching debt, in particular, and finance, in general, based on a feminist reading. This brings me to my next question: One of the major contributions (and challenges) of feminist economics lies in showing how the financial universe and macro-economy are connected to our everyday lives, micro-finances, micro-credits, etc., ultimately, revealing the mutual feedback between capitalism and patriarchy. How are economic violence and sexist violence connected and imbricated through debt? How can we show the connection between the expansion of women’s (and household’s) private debt and social debt, reproductive debt, and care debt?

Luci: Well, for example, we can go back to what we were talking about in regards to pensions. From a macro level, the feminist movement asked: What does it mean that the IMF’s first demand is to put a stop to the retroactive remuneration of women’s unremunerated labor? There we have a first connection: when there is external debt, when states take out debt, what they are promising as a guarantee for payment of that debt is not paying for women’s labor, an intensification of women’s work, and, especially, that the state will stop providing public services. This has direct repercussions in terms of an intensification of the work that women carry out to provide or cover those services that are no longer provided by the state. Then, we see a concrete connection in how external debt promises more unremunerated labor for women. The conflict could even be formulated in those terms.

Therefore, feminism and feminist economics must be at the center of addressing this issue.
On the other hand, when we came up with the slogan “We want ourselves alive and debt free,” what we were doing is making a very direct link between how that external debt (that involved a process of generalized indebtedness, of the state’s withdrawal from providing public services) is also translated into more private indebtedness, in more debt for households economies. Here we see another very telling fact: starting in 2017 (even if the process of household indebtedness doesn’t begin then), the state starts to give loans to women who receive benefits to maintain their children, the Universal Child Allowance, which is a subsidy that the state gives mothers in households that don’t have incomes from formal work. That is, it is state policy to promote women’s indebtedness by launching a direct credit line for them. What we detect there is a change in the target of indebtedness since we see that there is already a very profound economic crisis, as a result of the external debt, and that what the state does is amortize the costs of that crisis by putting mothers in debt, precisely taking advantage of the fact that those mothers from the popular sectors are going to do whatever it takes to be able to repay those loans.

That is what we are referring to when we talk about how gender mandates are assembled with financial obligation. Debt, taking out debt to live, to buy food or medicine, in many cases traps those women in violent homes. Being indebted makes it so that they depend on a man’s income to repay that debt and forces them to accept or invent more precarious work. These are also ways of making you vulnerable to violence because the most precarious jobs are also accompanied by harassment, abuse, etc. Thus we see how this assemblage between financial violence and sexist violence is very powerful, how debt is a war against women’s autonomy. And, in many cases, it operates by trapping them in situations of sexist violence.

What does the IMF demand? More unpaid work from women, fewer public services, and more private indebtedness. That is an attack against economic autonomy. Additionally, the state provides loans at very high interest rates, more than 40%, to mothers who rely on state benefits to feed their children. Benefits that, in a context of impoverishment and inflation, have been transformed into nothing more than an excuse to take out debt. Because the proportion of debt in relation to the income needed to meet one’s basic needs continued to grow. That is a very concrete connection between financial violence and sexist violence.

Maurizio Lazzarato has drawn attention to how your book shows that women’s reproductive labor, precarious labor (and labor not even recognized as such) are integrated and exploited (value extraction) not through the wage or the state, but through debt. Can you say a little about this? How is the transformation of work spaces and precarization related to the increase in household debt and how are processes of financial exploitation produced within reproductive work? In short, how has debt colonized the sphere of social reproduction?

Verónica: The term “colonization” is a very strong and graphic way to think precisely about how finance is deployed as an apparatus for the colonization of territories because it accounts for, on the one hand, a historical connection (of how dynamics of colonization and value extraction operate). And, on the other hand, it draws attention to how capital needs to update those (imperialist, colonial, and extractivist) forms toward new limits in order to expand them. What we see today is that thanks to policies of dispossession carried out by liberalism, which especially affected social reproduction, those territories of social reproduction have been made available to be colonized by finance. Then, to us, this image is not only metaphorical, because it draws a connection with, in historical terms, dynamics of colonization that are renewed again and again, but also because it is important to remove the abstraction of finance and analyze it as an apparatus of colonization.

Today financial colonization takes the spaces of social reproduction and, therefore, the bodies that do the labor in those spaces, as its war loot. This allows us to clarify a definition of neoliberalism, of how it develops by removing public and common resources from spaces of social reproduction, to the point that one’s income is not even enough to guarantee social reproduction. Today, having an income (whether a wage, state benefits, or pensions) does not guarantee basic social reproduction. When neoliberalism creates this situation, in which an income does not guarantee social reproduction, debt becomes obligatory and compulsory, as we say. And when debt becomes obligatory and compulsory, wages or incomes start to be a sort of excuse and guarantee for indebtedness (as has already happened in Argentina with state benefits) and there we see the complete deployment of this process of colonization. We see emptying out and looting, financial colonization and, therefore, a relaunch of the modes of exploitation of reproductive labor. This is what we have been researching and organizing around during the pandemic (although it is not included in the book because the expanded edition only goes until the 2020 feminist strike), in which there has been an intensification of this paradoxical and dramatic situation: more domestic work and more debt.

Drawing on the interviews and research we have carried out, one of the lines of investigation that has emerged has to do with analyzing the new debts in the pandemic. In Argentina, many people have gone into debt to pay cell phone bills, used to access the internet, for children’s school work. Here not everyone has WIFI or a computer. And, in general, during the pandemic, school work is accessed through a cell phone. That means paying for extra data, for connectivity, to dollarized corporations that charge very high rates for connection. Women, besides having to do the work of schooling in the household, end up taking out even more debt to be able to fulfill those tasks. Additionally, private telephone companies become the mediators of access to public education. Even a public right such as access to public school ends up being mediated by corporations that charge rates in dollars. Therefore, we carried out a large campaign against cell phone debt. What areas don’t have good connectivity or don’t have computers for school work, etc. is clearly a class issue. And, because that fact was rendered visible by different feminist organizations, after two months of the pandemic, the government responded and decreed all telecommunications as public services.

Luci: It is also important to emphasize this experience to show how colonization is not inevitable, if they ways in which financial mediation intervenes in life are illuminated and confronted. In this case, we brought that to light and, at least, we provoked a response. If an internet connection is necessary to access public education, we cannot allow it be colonized by finance. And the state responded by declaring telecommunications as public services to de-dollarize those rates. Because here financial colonization goes hand in hand with the dollarization of goods and services. What is devalued when the national currency loses purchasing power is made up for with debt.

Even with access to the internet or a computer, the tools or applications that we use also mediate our access to those public services. Ultimately everything is mediated by multinational corporations and applications that aren’t public access.

Luci: Exactly. That is another ongoing investigation that we are working on. We are starting to study electronic means of payment, credit, virtual wallets, etc. and how these technologies play a central role in the pandemic, by allowing people to avoid physical contact. There is also a dispute because, before the pandemic, the Central Bank of Argentina had detected that many people were starting to go into debt through virtual wallets that charge very high interest rates. So, there was an attempt to regulate that. We also have to show how financial colonization is increasingly mediated by the digitalization of the means of payment.

Following this thread of reproductive labor, when you speak of the expansion of territories of exploitation, how have the classic spaces in which labor conflicts take place been transformed? How could we identify them and denounce conflicts when they are no longer located in a factory or an office place, but rather in a home, in the space of social reproduction?

Verónica: Well, for example, the issue of utility prices is fundamental. That is how corporations’ direct intrusion into the domestic sphere, the household is expressed. The second issue that we have worked on this year is rental prices. It is a very direct form of extraction of rent. These are two very clear and concrete forms of introducing transational capital into the most intimate spaces of our lives: our homes.

Another concept that we use is financial extractivism. That is, thinking about the operative form of extraction as a way to conceptualize financial valorization. This is seen in those everyday issues of real estate rents and the dollarization of services, for example, in the cost of rent and utilities as a percentage of one’s wages or income. In other words, we have to increasingly work more to pay for basic things. As the comrades from the tenant’s union say here in Argentina, one salary to pay for rent and another to live. With that progression, in which you have to work a month (receive a salary) just to be able to pay rent, it’s easy to realize how real estate capital and the electric, water, telephone, etc. companies have a directly extractive function over one’s wages. Additionally, we could also add the consequences of the dollarization of activity, a transnationalization connected to the agroindustrial model of food production. It has to do with the basic elements of social reproduction: food, housing, services. These are images connected to the space of the everyday, of what we need simply to live, that is redetermined by transnational capital in its financial, real estate, and agribusiness form, which are the three areas we can identify in terms of the extraction of rent.

In a workshop organized by Viento Sur and Sylone Publishers about “Feminisms, Labor, and Social Reproduction,” Verónica described how the crisis does not explode outward but rather implodes in households and neighborhoods, “a crisis that seems to always be resolved through taking out private individual debt.” This image paints a very clear picture of the relation between public and private debt. In this situation, households are trapped in a vicious cycle that is difficult to break. How can a woman who turns to debt to be able to acquire something as basic as food, medicine, or to pay rent, engage in financial disobedience? How can we go on strike against finance and hold debt in contempt? How can we fight “financial terror,” as you call it in the book?

Luci: I think that the concept that Verónica uses of implosion is very important. Returning to Federici, we have to think about debt as a class instrument, and about the continued politicization of indebtedness. Comparing the outburst of the crisis in 2001 and Macri’s government (during which many of the social indicators, were just as bad as in 2001 and 2002), we asked ourselves: why doesn’t it explode? We started to study this phenomenon and what we saw was, for example, that while in 2001 there was an explosion of unemployment, in 2017 and 2018, there was more work. More women working, but in worse jobs, with more hours and less pay. That also affects one’s availability for struggle. It’s not that there isn’t work, it is that there is more work and more debt.

Then, what is taking place here is the privatization, in each individual household, of the economic effects of austerity. The tools of feminist economics are fundamental here because they allow for shining line on those modes of exploitation and subordination, from the perspective of the homes themselves. Furthermore, this is the concrete way in which the effects of austerity are being appeased and, at the same time, any mode of or time available for protest is being neutralized. That is why we started talking about “taking debt out of the closet,” in the sense of making it a political problem, collectivizing it, moving beyond the privatization of debt in each home and being able to narrate it as an effect of the crisis.
I think that the response to your question is always going to be: more political organization, more political organization and more political imagination. That is what gives rise to the slogan “We want ourselves alive and debt free.” It is a slogan that situates that problem in public space, in a feminist language, and moves toward deprivatizing the costs of the crisis. The first time that we took that slogan to the streets, we went to the doors of the Central Bank itself, which had not been formerly identified as a site of protest. The movement of deprivatization is completely indistinguishable from feminism’s modes of protest and politicization. In this sense, it has to do with how feminism starts with insubordination in our everyday gestures, for example, in how time is distributed. Because we can also think that indebtedness is precisely a way of governing time, the time that we have to protest, the time that we have to get together with others, etc. The movement of deprivatization goes in that direction, of occupying the streets, of making debt into a public problem, of being able to give voice to the ways in which debt governs the time that we have for militancy or to be with each other and how it makes relationships precarious.

Verónica: We’ll give you a preview, a scoop, in relation to this question. We just finished editing a new book, that we put together with Silvia Federici called ¿Quién le debe a quién? [Who Owes Whom?] In the book, we compile different experiences (in fact, there is an article about microcredit written by Aziki Omar of ATTAC CADTM Morroco) from different places about financial disobedience. There are compañeras in Ecuador who organized a savings bank in a feminist organization, compañeros in Chile who talk about the issue of student debt, everything we have worked on this year with Inquilinos Agrupados, saying that the home should not be a place of economic violence (debt) or sexist violence, etc.

For us, this book works en bloc with A Feminist Reading of Debt, because in that book we already talked about the need to produce an archive of “non-payment,” of the historical experiences of financial disobedience. We were interested in continuing to speak with compañeres from different spaces and places around the world about how we can develop those practices and they conceptualize financial disobedience. We are very happy that this book is also coming out, to continue nurturing this pedagogy against debt.

Luci: In terms of the question about how to deprivatize it, the book also wagers on the need to multiply the images of financial disobedience. The idea of “non-payment” from the macrostructural level, even while that continues to be the horizon, or even the concept of odious debt, have not been effective so far.

«Ni una menos», action «We Want to Be Debt Free»

We say, if debt implies, as we were saying, privatizing in each household, governing the time available for protest or for meeting with other people, how can we multiply the imaginary of financial disobedience, precisely so that we are not trapped in an idea of impotency? Because we have been saying that these debts are illegitimate for 20 years, but they continue being paid… So, what struggles are implied by financial disobedience? For example, when we came out in opposition to the restriction on pensions for women who had not had paid jobs for their whole lives and we effectively stopped that from happening, it was a form of financial disobedience, through non-payment, in the sense of not compromising future labor.

I also wanted to asked about the March 8 feminist strikes: Who does the feminist strike convene and interpellate when a large part of the labor that women carry out out is not even recognized as such? How has this been woven together in Argentina? How can this diversity of experiences be included in a feminist strike?

Verónica: From the beginning, the feminist strike in Argentina was a tool to render visible a process, which was already taking place, of politicization in the sphere known as informal work. That sphere is also referred to with the more political term “popular economy” or “workers of the popular economy” to recognize a political subject and account for an organizational process, including in union terms. That is why we make the important differentiation between informal work and workers of the popular economy. From the beginning, those organizations played a fundamental role in the assemblies preparing for the strike and also in the way which that agenda permeated and organized the union agenda, in how those demands, agendas, and languages were composed and broadened the notion of work in a very practical way, based on those women who recognized themselves as workers in the assemblies. That is what gave rise to the slogan, which is very important to us, “All women are workers.” That slogan seals the alliance and coalition between different union federations, as well as with workers of the popular economy, and enables a plane of convergence and transversality that is a key feature of the feminism that we are interested in. It makes it possible to weave together these different spaces, these different trajectories, these different origins, without flattening or diluting differences.

Image of the Ni Una Menos Collective, March 8, 2021

Of course, a unionized waged worker is not the same as a woman street vendor, but that space of political recognition created by saying “all women are workers,” allows for taking a step forward in the demand for rights, incomes, and organizational strategy. That has been very important since the beginning here, and continues to be so, since all of the union organizations, along with all the organizations rooted in the popular economy economy and precarious labor of different types of work, all signed onto the strike call. What the strike makes possible is precisely a reading of labor in a feminist register. In other words, it allows for illuminating and valuing forms and spaces of work that generally do not tend to be recognized as such and are not taken into account when it comes to naming them politically either. This has consisted of an enormous amount of political and organizational work, of meetings, coordination, discussions, etc. It has taken many hours of work, developing slogans and writing documents together. Over these five years, we have dedicated significant time and political work to this, and, without all that collective effort, I think that these things would have remained on an analytical level and we could say “today labor consists of a multiplicity of labor forms.” But what does that mean in organizational terms? I think that the feminist strike enabled that leap, so that those analyses are not only theoretical, analytical terms of diagnosing contemporary capitalism, but are translated into organizational power.

Luci: Building on the last thing Vero said, it seems important to me to underscore that here we, rather than speaking of a care agenda, talk a lot about feminist unionism, because we emphasize how we are transforming modes of organization. Calling it feminist unionism is also useful for showing that there is no care agenda that could be recognized by the state, without also transforming organizational modes, both of unions as well as other types of organization. There has to be a way of organizing conflict and confrontation for that work to be recognized. And also, when we say feminist unionism, we include the ways in which the conflict against the extraction of rents is organized.

In other words, we don’t limit ourselves to the agenda of unpaid work or care work, but we also talk about the unionism carried out by campesina women calling for agro-ecological modes of production and the way in which tenants fight against real estate capital’s extraction of rent. We think that the concept of feminist unionism perhaps does more justice to the ways in which modes of organization have been transformed and the transversality and connection between struggles produced by feminist organization around the international strikes.

The feminist strike has also been important in identifying and mapping different mechanisms of violence and their articulation. Now we no longer only consider the violence of feminicides or physical violence against women, but also other forms of violence of patriarchy and the capitalist system: labor violence, economic violence, neoliberal violence, etc. Could we say that the feminist strike, as a tool of analysis, has accelerated processes of politicization of domestic spaces at the same time as financialization and the “expansion of territories of exploitation” have been enormously transformed? At what speeds have these two processes occurred?

Vero: I think it is important to remember that finance comes after struggles, in temporal terms. That is, when we speak of that financial colonization, of the financialization of daily life, there is also a dynamic of finance that attempts to go behind and capture and codify certain spaces that have been politicized. What we see is that as feminism and the feminist strike have politicized domestic spaces and have identified debt as a problem, finance responds by intensifying forms of impoverishment, but also increasingly targeting women for credit. We faced this directly with the G20 agenda. When the G20 summit was held in Argentina in 2018, in a moment of upsurge of the feminist movement, the Women20 agenda came to Argentina to propose financial rights for campesina women, women entrepreneurs, and informal workers. It is clear that when the movement starts making advances, when there are protests and visibilization of particular dynamics, finance attempts to capture and convert those demands in a neoliberal register. What we discussed in the book was how it attempts to produce the figure of the woman entrepreneur. Instead of talking about women workers who have been made precarious, instead of recognizing those figures of labour in the register that we have deployed from the feminist movement, it converts them into that close-minded and neoliberal figure of the entrepreneur, the businesswoman who needs credit to be able to get ahead.

Luci: To cite one example, in the context of the pandemic, we said that in order to understand how exploitation and rent extraction were intensified during the pandemic, the language that was available to us was that of feminism. It was striking how, during the pandemic, the only language that was able to name what was happening, due to the politicization of the domestic sphere, was that of feminism. It responded to “stay at home,” with “I won’t stay at home, because it is not a safe space,” because there is sexist violence, because there is increasingly more debt, because rent continues going up and I have to work more and more… So I think that yes, as Vero was saying, we have been naming and politicizing spaces and, in turn, there are responses to that. In this case, we said that there was a restructuring of class relations centered around the domestic sphere during the pandemic. The place that were naming, from where insubordination must start, is the place in which they were attempting to confine us.

And, finally, I can’t help but ask you this, since you have carried out a major process of reinventing language and semantic elaboration to speak of debt from a feminist perspective, which also makes it possible to demystify debt. After this year’s feminist strike, if you had to choose a slogan, which would it be and why?

Luci: The slogan that we thought up to open the scenario after the strike: after the legalization of abortion, the “voluntary interruption of debt” must be next, and also thinking about it in terms of economic sovereignty and sovereignty over one’s body.

Translated by Liz Mason-Deese

Verónica Gago
Luci Cavallero
Beatriz Ortiz Martínez

Permanente au CADTM Belgique