This is an extract from an interview by Beatriz Ortiz Martínez, from CADTM (Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt) with Verónica Gago and Luci Cavallero, the authors of the newly translated A Feminist Reading of Debt, researchers and professors in Buenos Aires, and members of the Argentine feminist collective Ni Una Menos, or ‘Not One Woman Less’, the hugely successful organizing force behind the Women’s Strike on March 8th. The reading of debt proposed by Verónica and Luci articulates elements of a diagnosis, theory, practice and resistance. 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.
It is translated from the Spanish by Liz Mason-Deese.
On the new edition of the book
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?
Verónica: The first edition was published in February 2019 and it was originally proposed as a tool for holding workshops and opening discussions. We went to producers’ markets, unions, schools, universities, feminist organizations and assemblies of migrant persons – organizing workshops everywhere. Many things emerged out of that exercise of feminist pedagogy against debt, as we call it, and we started writing more, 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), 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.
All of these interventions, located in the space between the political conjuncture and the result of our micropolitical work, expanded and broadened the book. We decided to include all of these elements because we feel that it is a living book.
Luci: There is something very powerful about this edition in that it shows how the original book produced a whole process of pedagogy, especially at the level of feminist organizations. The book opened 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 and would eventually be evicted.
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.
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, should not receive retirement benefits. For us that is a clear message about what feeds the external debt: many 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.
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, 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 unpaid labor? There we have a first connection: 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 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 was making a 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, for households economies. Here we see another telling fact: starting in 2017, the state starts to give loans to women who receive benefits to maintain their children, the Universal Child Allowance, which is a subsidy for 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, 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.
What does the IMF demand? More unpaid work from women, fewer public services and more private indebtedness. That is an attack against economic autonomy.
On the women’s strikes
I wanted to ask about the March 8 women’s strikes: Who does the women’s strike convene and interpolate when a large part of the labor that women carry 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 women’s strike?
Verónica: From the beginning, the women’s strike in Argentina was a tool to render visible a process of politicization known as informal work, 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 in the way which that agenda permeated and organized the unions, in how those demands, agendas, and languages broadened the notion of work in a very practical way. That is what gave rise to the important slogan ‘All women are workers.’ That slogan seals the alliance 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.
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, since all of the union organizations, along with all the organizations rooted in the popular 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. It allows for illuminating and valuing forms and spaces of work that generally do not tend to be recognized as such. This has consisted of an enormous amount of political work, of meetings, coordination and discussions, developing slogans and writing documents together. But what does that mean in organizational terms? I think that the women’s 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: 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. There has to be a way of organizing conflict for that work to be recognized.
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.
A Feminist Reading of Debt is out now.
Featuring interviews with women in Argentina and Brazil, the book reveals the real-life impact of debt and how it falls mainly on the shoulders of women, from the household to the wider effects of national debt and austerity. However, through discussions around experiences of work, prisons, domestic labour, agriculture, family, abortion and housing, a narrative of resistance emerges.