Across Latin America, the Feminist Movement Is in the Streets
On March 8, 2020, thousands across Latin America participated in an international strike to protest gender-based inequality. The movement has attempted to redefine the politics of strikes by acknowledging the value of reproductive labor.
- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
Two years ago on International Women’s Day, thousands of workers took the streets in major cities across Latin America to protest inequality. The mass mobilization — a product of decades of feminist organizing — focused on broadening what we classify as work and who we consider workers.
For the Jacobin Radio podcast The Dig, Daniel Denvir spoke with Verónica Gago, a professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires and author of Feminist International: How to Change Everything, to learn how the movement became so massive and what it means for the majoritarian workforces of Latin America. You can listen to the episode here. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Argentina was the starting point for the new feminist movement that has become a powerful political force across Latin America over the past half-decade. How did that movement take shape in Argentina and then spread across the region?
Queer activism and traditional feminist meetings have helped various generations over the past three decades. Then the dictatorship and the human rights movement Madres y Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, or Mothers and Godmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, became part of the new social protagonism. And after the crisis in 2001, the unemployed movement in Argentina showed how work was problematized, and a movement against the notion that wage work was the only possible dignified life emerged. These and other mobilizations that started from the margins, reorganized politics, and narrated conflicts as political rather than individual made the feminist movement in Argentina massive.
Organizations’ strategic political work also built this massiveness. Unions, social movements, collectives, and territorial struggles were protagonists in conflicts that became part of the feminist agenda. Feminism stopped being provisional initiatives, academic discourses, or institutional demands. Rather, it became the overflow of bodies, territories, and problematics around work, extractivism, and migrant and indigenous demands.
The movement thinks of feminism as a political praxis in spaces like unions, political organizations, schools, universities, and communitarian spaces. And, in Latin America, there are different political compositions, too — feminismo afro, feminismo de los estudiantes, and more.
What accounts for the movement’s regionalism and internationalism, and why is this internationalism so important?
Cross-border politics enables us to think beyond our own territories. One year, the movement was strong in Argentina. Next, it became strong in Spain. A year later, a movement arose in Mexico. Now Chile is on the front line. The experience of being a part of a movement that goes beyond your country is powerful. We are rethinking internationalism as something that we are rather than an abstraction. We are sharing statements, vocabularies, and images of different mobilizations around the world.
Socialist and communist traditions have a presence in this internationalism. Our internationalism is not built on the protagonism of political parties. This is a formation that is different from historical ones. We are reclaiming the transnational perspective that we need to rid ourselves of neoliberalism and financial capitalism.
We are also asking, “How do we reframe the struggles that are embedded in our territories as struggles that connect with others?” For example, migrant, domestic workers are producing a practical internationalism when they try to organize within the feminist strike. But at the same time, it’s not easy for them to do so without legal status or papers in their countries to organize.
The international feminist movement is reconceptualizing what we understand as a decolonial movement through its relationship with these different agendas around extractivism, migrant workers, and new modes of imperialism.
You write, “Against the narrow model of who can strike — white, male, waged, unionized workers — we have expanded its political capacity, languages and geographies.”
Why did the feminist movement take the form of the feminist strike? What is a strike and what makes the feminist strike a strike?
The strike makes sense for different kinds of workers, including social reproduction workers and informal economy workers. The feminist strike redefines a popular form of struggle in this new historical moment by connecting sectors, rethinking their role in unions, and including struggles that are usually not recognized as labor strikes. In this way, the strike is a vector for transversality. It includes people, subjects, and conflicts that have historically been excluded from strikes.
The feminist strike provides class content to different demands and expands the question of what a strike means. We began by considering the impossibility of a strike: we cannot strike in our everyday life, jobs without bosses, and states of precarity. But then we organized to redefine this impossibility into a new form of struggle and to recreate the strike.
Usually, mass politics entails moderating demands to suit the narratives and softer language of the mass media. The feminist movement does the opposite: we are radicalizing the narrative by, for instance, connecting housing demands with external debt and the refusal of gender mandates. This arouses the desire to change everything.
The media told us, “You are mixing up everything. What does feminism have to do with external debt or housing? This is not a feminist movement.” In a radical gesture, we connected different forms of violence to concretely explain the precaritization of our everyday lives.
What sort of shared condition is precarity, and how does it compare to the shared condition of the more classical proletariat? How does the strike power of the precarious compare to that of the classical proletariat?
We can’t say that all is precarious, but we can work politically with the idea that precaritization is a common ground. Connecting the strike with precarity is a way to analyze the crisis of patchwork wages, to quote Silvia Federici, and specialties of work that are not recognized as such. The feminist perspective recognizes all invisible and nonpaid work that functions within informal and popular economies and builds the popular infrastructure to sustain everyday life.
The strike enables us to map different conditions of precaritization, but the political problem is building a strike in those conditions. It’s not just a question of reintroducing the word “strike” into our political discourse. There is a statement in Argentina, “trabajadoras somos todas” — all women and all of us are workers. This is not a blanket that covers, homogenizes, or obstructs class identity. Rather, it reveals the multiplicity of what labor means with all of the hierarchies that precaritization produces, from the feminist point of view. Striking in these difficult conditions is a form of persisting in our organization.
You write that one way the feminist strike functions as a lens is by allowing us to better understand the totality of the present order, specifically, “connecting domestic labor with financial exploitation.”
What is that connection between domestic labor and financial exploitation? What role is it playing currently in Argentina and in the capitalist world system, and how does the feminist strike illuminate it?
We are studying and confronting household debt. Household debt operates as a mechanism to force precaritization: it forces workers, especially women, lesbian and transgender people to accept work that is increasingly poorly paid. As a result, debt becomes the internal motor that drives flexibility; it commands and organizes precarious labor. At the same time, debt is a means of exploitation that intensifies and adapts to the heterogeneous realities of labor.
The Unanimous Collective in Argentina created a statement that combined the struggle against femicide, the work we want, and also the debt we don’t want. Our statement is that we want ourselves alive with freedom and without debt. The connection between these terms is important: it produces something other than victimhood. We are not just saying, “stop killing us.” We are disputing the libertarian idea of freedom and its connection with economic autonomy.
When we say we want to exist without debt, we connect the effects of external debt with household debt by addressing how the politics of austerity created both: you must assume household debt in the everyday economy to confront the austerity measures of the government, which is obligated to those measures by the International Monetary Fund. Drawing this connection from household debt to sovereign debt and global finance is part of feminist pedagogy.
In Argentina and Latin America, indebtedness, especially in popular sectors, relates to the blossoming of illegal economies. The violence of illegal economies is a solution for individuals who are in debt. Illegal fluxes are their saviors.
It seems similar to how primitive accumulation works by separating workers from the means of subsistence and forcing them to work for a wage in order to survive.
Exactly. It’s another level on top of that, because financial extractivism is more sophisticated. It connects land, natural resources, and real estate speculation with these devices of debt.
From the feminist perspective, when we try to organize the territories with precarious lives, precarious jobs, and the difficult conditions of social reproduction, we also confront the problem of finding time for political organization. Debt obstructs our time for political organization: it is difficult to sustain political spaces or, for example, organize a soup kitchen in your neighborhood when you need to accept another job to complete your income.
Autonomous feminists and Marxist social reproduction theorists like Paula Varela and Tithi Bhattacharya argue that reproductive labor outside of the wage relationship does not produce value in the Marxist sense. Varela writes, “Social reproductive labor is not value production precisely because it [is] not commencerable. It cannot be abstract labor.”
What do you make of the social reproduction theorists’ argument that we must recognize the distinction between productive and reproductive labor, not because either is less important, but precisely to understand the contradiction between the two under capitalism?
The contradiction is an important political point. But, following Silvia Frederici’s point of view, much exploitation has not been recognized: those who are recognized as workers in Latin America are a very small part of all working-class people. When seventies feminists said that unpaid labor is abstracted from the waged workday, they put forward the notion of “measure.” Measure is what capital needs to not be considered as value.
The problem of measure is not the same as the problem of not producing value. Feminist struggles put the idea of measure in crisis when they analyzed wages and the duration of the working day. To reduce the idea of value as it may be measured in terms of wage and the duration of the working day is very restrictive. In the “Third World,” unpaid, free, and informal labor is almost the majority. Those who comprise the working class must be themselves value-producing.
There are also domestic territories beyond the household, such as popular infrastructures, popular economies, and communitarian labor, that contribute to domestic reproduction. Not considering those territories as value producing is a political decision that deems those workers’ lives “not productive.” But financial devices are smart and speedy at recognizing value production in these terrains of social reproduction and extracting value from them. The feminist strike has showed what the current dynamics of precaritization are and how the system and its financial devices take advantage of, exploit, and extract value from those terrains of social reproduction.
Neoliberalism might have killed the Fordist family wage, but it did not substitute something more liberatory in its place. You write that we’re experiencing “the crisis of the patriarchy of the wage. This does not mean the end of patriarchy, of course, but the decomposition of a specific way of structuring the patriarchy. The intensification of sexist violence demonstrates that excess of violence that is no longer contained by the wage form.”
You’re arguing that neoliberalism is fundamentally socially reactionary, in part because it forces women to do more reproductive labor. But you argue that it includes a lot of other things as well. What function do social reaction and anti-feminism serve for neoliberalism?
In Argentina, debates about remuneration for reproductive and informal labor overlap with the history of social subsidies, challenges to neoliberal social policies, and the decline of the male breadwinner. Illegal economies have offered a new form of authority and income that replaced the breadwinner. This complex web of violence has restructured the majoritarian landscape in Latin America and Argentina. Conservative and reactionary forces intervene in this landscape to offer new forms of recognition for those declining male breadwinners and to offer security in precaritized neighborhoods.
The destabilization of patriarchal, racist authorities by the feminist movement’s mobilization and politics threatens devices of security and capital accumulation. We have to give credit to feminism and the movement within migrant slum, union, student, indigenous, and other popular compositions for the neoconservative turn and new reactionary forces. These compositions’ massive, radical, and transnational character are destabilizing the sexual, gender, racial, and therefore neoliberal political order, which materialized to dispute over the directions of the 2001 debt crisis.
Neoliberalism and conservatism share the strategic objectives of normalizing and managing crises of obedience. Feminism is a politics of everyday disobedience, and these politics defy hegemonic notions of security and hegemonic notions of the debt crisis’s management.
Anti-feminism has really become core to the new Latin American right wing, specifically the demonization of what they call the “ideology of gender,” ideología de género. The Latin American right is particularly fixated on Judith Butler.
What does the ideology of gender and Judith Butler mean for the Latin American right? Why have they become central to their reaction against social movements and the pink tide left?
Judith Butler’s work is iconic here. It is not limited to academic discussion. It is completely incorporated here as a political reference, and reactionary forces understand this well. The discussion about sexual education in schools is mainly where ideología de género started as a debate. Various organizations, NGOs, and religious organizations refused sexual education at schools, saying that the education, which included Judith Butler, promoted homosexuality.
The feminist movement challenges two issues: security and the economy. It reimagines our understandings of freedom, economic autonomy, education, and abortion rights. For instance, it challenges the notion of freedom as something individual or isolated to owning oneself as property. Rather, it imagines freedom in relation to a collective fabric; groups are organizing for collective protection and self-defense.
These experiments are seen by reactionary forces as direct challenges to notions of security, the economy, and individual property. In Latin America, the political protagonism of the feminist movement is analyzed by the reactionary force as a destabilizing and political movement, rather than just identity politics or academic debate. The movement’s massiveness and radicality, which dispute the new generation’s sensibility, are intolerable for reactionary forces.
You write, “Since the 1970s, after the defeat of the revolutionary movements, Latin America has served as a site of experimentation for neoliberal reforms propelled from above by international financial institutions, corporations and governments.” But you argue that neoliberalism comes not only from above, but also from below. And you draw on [Michel] Foucault’s concept of “governmentality,” arguing that neoliberalism is also “a set of skills, technologies, and practices, deploying a new type of rationality that cannot be thought of only from above.” So you argue that after neoliberalism lost its political legitimacy during the first decade of this century in Latin America, that it still remained rooted “in popular subjectivities.”
What is this popular subjectivity of neoliberalism from below, and how does it relate to that neoliberalism that was imposed from above?
In Argentina, the prevailing argument was that neoliberalism belonged to the past and was strictly associated with neoliberal reforms of the ’90s. In my book Neoliberalism From Below, I confronted the idea that neoliberalism is synonymous with the market and that the opposite of neoliberalism is the intervention of the state.
The formula of the state versus the market is a simplified way of thinking about the role of the state in neoliberalism, the market, and the structural reforms of the ’90s. These forms of neoliberalism were not just declared from above; they were forms of everyday life. They redefined entrepreneurialism, politics in terrains and neighborhoods, and public services. The migrant workforce has also been constantly compelled to reinvent and reorganize its ways of producing and conquering various rights. Neoliberalism from below emphasizes this pluralization of logic and popular subjectivities.
There are ambivalent and political ways of confronting neoliberalism’s hegemony while not having an alternative. Popular sectors, especially popular economies, antagonize the neoliberal agenda, but at the same time they are obliged to assume neoliberal conditions and ways of doing things. Neoliberalism cannot be reduced to structural reforms. Those structural reforms are important and a key aspect of the Latin American landscape. But neoliberalism is a way of doing things for the popular sectors and affects dispossessed people in their entrepreneurialism and self-management.
I have seen this idea that neoliberalism is something completely of the past — an external force that has nothing to do with everyday economies of the poorest. But thinking about forms of inclusions, popular sectors are embedded in exploding this idea of entrepreneurialism. Indebtedness connects to social subsidies and autonomous ways of finding support.
In Latin America, the debate around neoliberal politics and subjectivity relates to the idea of the popular economies as a machinery that is all constantly in the midst of these neoliberal conditions and forms of political activism against neoliberalism.
Is the entrepreneurial subjectivity crafted by neoliberalism a reflection of hegemonic neoliberal ideology, a dissident departure from it, or a contradictory mixture of both?
Neoliberalism is not a complete ideology. It’s not an autonomous trend of capital that develops with its own rationality. [Neoliberalism from below] is a way of thinking about the violence of neoliberalism against the poorest sectors of our countries; it challenges the notion that neoliberalism is just an ideology that you can read about and then see its application.
The popular sectors or more dispossessed sectors are confronting neoliberalism. The worst thing about neoliberalism is the belief that there is no longer any kind of antagonism and that neoliberalism is a sort of monster that has the capacity to absorb any kind of struggle, inflection, or confrontation. Popular economies are disputing what neoliberalism is and do not fit completely in the idea of neoliberal entrepreneurialism. The ideas of individual rationale and the neoliberal subject are not working on those popular economies.
At the same time, they are not developing alternative economies. This kind of antagonism is not classical antagonism. But it is part of very concrete struggles, like the demands for housing in slums, public services, a reorganization of the workforce, especially the migrant workforce, and new kinds of unionism.
You write that the Latin American left that arrived with the pink tide marks, “the emergence of a populism that is seeking to become the reigning ideology in accordance with a return of the state, attempting to assert itself as synonymous with the end of neoliberalism in the region.” You argue instead that, “neoliberalism and neo-developmentalism are combined to give a particular character to state intervention, as well as to the very concepts of development and social inclusion.”
How does your analysis depart from those that are more sympathetic to pink tide governments? In what sense have they both failed to put an end to neoliberalism and facilitated the extension of neoliberalism in a new form?
It’s complicated to discuss in the present, because some argue that we are witnessing a second wave of the pink tide with the prospective [government] in Chile, the upcoming elections in Colombia and Brazil, and the defeat of [Mauricio] Macri in Argentina.
The levels, rhythms, and maps of the progressive first and second waves need to be put in discussion with what kind of reformism is possible, how this reformism is enabled by social movement and popular uprisings, and how it is conditioned by neo-extractivist policies.
These three angles of the problem are entangled in the question of what a progressive or popular government is nowadays. Latin America is not a pacified region. Neoliberal and conservative attempts to found a new order are always failing. Different mobilizations, crises, and election results are constantly complicating the idea of a complete victory for right-wing governments. In this sense, Latin America is a very dynamic region.
We are constantly debating what the main objective of progressive governments was five years ago. What happened or what failed to give rise to the right-wing governments after them? And what situations remain nowadays after right-wing governments, like in Argentina after four years of Macri’s government? What will the conditions be after [Jair] Bolsonaro’s government?
We are also constantly investigating what type of reformism is possible when we take into account the role of Latin America in the world market, how it is completely marked by neo-extractivism, and how these forms of disputing public policies, disputing austerity measures, and confronting external debt are part of the political programs of the popular governments, which depend on the strength of the popular movements. Sometimes governments forget that they depend on those political and social movements to open up possibilities and horizons of sovereignty.