Lucí Cavallero and Verónica Gago, translated by Liz Mason-Deese
A Feminist Reading of Debt
Pluto Press, 2021
Reviewed by Kathleen Field
Lucí Cavallero and Verónica Gago’s 2021 intervention, A Feminist Reading of Debt, is a slender but powerful condemnation of debt as a tool of patriarchal state violence. Uplifting the voices and lived experiences of women, non-binary, and transgender folks through manifesto, interview, and scholarly research, Cavallero and Gago “take debt out of the closet,” exposing how the paradigm of the indebted man, and even the indebted masculinist public, fails to account for vast networks of queer and female labor, subordination, and resistance. Debt, the translator writes in her note, “extracts value from social reproduction and from feminized labor and also reinforces and produces gendered differentials,” and a feminist reading of debt unearths that labor in order to “expand disobedience.”
The text itself is delightfully disobedient in structure and origin, emerging “as the outcome of a collective reflection” and “a knowledge produced in movement.” Cavallero and Gago are both feminist activist-scholars devoted to the Ni Una Menos Collective, an Argentine group that boasts an impressive resume of demonstrations against domestic violence and femicide and which has recently celebrated success following the legalization of abortion in Argentina. The authors, as well as their collective, emphasize the deeply entrenched relationship between sexist violence and economic violence, which they call “financial violence” and “financial terror.” They cite the feminist movement and its vast orchestration of labor strikes as key to offering “new life” to the “anticolonial tradition” of South America. By chanting “the debt is owed to us,” feminist strikers center themselves as creditors and the Argentine state, with its foreign-creditor accomplices, as those who
owe safety, livelihood, and bodily autonomy to its female and queer subjects.
The authors begin with a brief historicization of debt in the Argentine context and argue that it has long been “articulated with sexist violence” and used as a means of “disciplining” Latin America. In translating “intersectionality into a concrete politics,” a feminist reading of debt has a responsibility to understand obedience on a macro and micro level. Foreign creditors demand obedience from state borrowers, and state borrowers demand obedience from their own subjects, but this analysis falls short if it does not trace the way that “obedience at the level of the state also…organizes daily life in each household.” In protesting the extraction of feminized and social reproductive labor, and in demanding bodily autonomy alongside the right to retire and the recognition of invisibilized household work, Cavallero and Gago seek to remove debt’s power of abstraction. They “affirm that there is not a singular subjectivity of indebtedness that can be universalized nor a sole debtor-creditor relation that can be separated from concrete situations and especially from sexual, gender, racial, and locational difference, precisely because debt does not homogenize those differences, but rather exploits them. The way in which debt lands in diverse territories, economies, and conflicts is central, not a secondary feature.” In order to write (and demonstrate) against abstraction and in excess of the universal creditor-debtor relationship (think Lazzarato’s Indebted Man), the feminist anti-debt movement sticks to three organizing frameworks: first, it works “concrete bodies and narratives;” second, it detects the mechanics of debt’s relationship to violence against women and trans bodies; third, it establishes “domestic, reproductive, and community labor as spaces of valorization that finance sets out to exploit.”
The text is organized into short, hard-hitting sections that explain but do not overcomplicate various facets of debt’s functionality in Argentina, Latin America, and on a theoretical scale more broadly. However, the authors are careful to always remain specific as they build a compelling and accessible argument for how debt functions as an instrument of terror. Beyond directly benefiting a system that protects state violence and individual violent offenders, debt also forecloses futures and free, creative will by creating not only physically vulnerable spaces in the present but also future financial, physical, and psychological types of gendered precarization. They highlight that once a person is in debt, which many people, and particularly feminized people, are quite literally forced to be, they are then put in the position to have their gendered labor discounted and to take on additional exploitative types of work in order to pay off their debts. In Argentina, they note how this system is concretely pitted to exploit women, given that debt perpetuates dependence on state services, which in turn perpetuates additional forms of debt, specifically citing neoliberal re-routings of welfare assistance and even agricultural programs that disproportionately dispossess women and queer people.
Cavallero and Gago go on to link “terror” and the abolition of unpayable debt to prisons, policing, and extraction, as well as to public demonstrations that have challenged the obedience demanded by state financial and carceral practices. They draw both connections and distinctions between debt and incarceration: “Both prison and debt work over future time. But if prison fixates and disciplines, debt puts us to work, mobilizes, commands…debt functions backwards, functioning to exploit and contain the excess of popular productivity, which feminism has radicalized. Social protests provide us with the interpretative coordinates for understanding how debt has organized its expansion as an apparatus of class government.” Their lineage is as explicit as their as their call to action: the authors cite the leftist anti-debt canon, including David Graeber, Silvia Federici, Maurizio Lazzarato, David Harvey, and George Caffentis, among many others, as they build a case for the potencia (the power and potential) of aligning the feminist movement with nationwide unions in order to combat governance and open up the future. All women are workers, they emphasize.
A Feminist Reading of Debt explores the notion of what “not paying” debt might look like, concretely, and how this transversal politics of refusal translates into collective and individual action. As a means of “disobeying finance,” they cite a lineage of debt resistance that traces back to the nineties, highlighting actions by peasant farmer collectives who refused to pay as well as various “occupiers” (of Wall Street, but also across Bolivia, Mexico, and Spain, and more recently Puerto Rico), and pointing to groundwork being done to challenge mortgages, real estate inflation, and to denounce the moral integrity of banks and microfinance. In keeping with their methodological aims and politics, Cavallero and Gago do not simply summarize nor theorize feminist debt abolition and the impact of debt on feminized bodies. They also close with a series of interviews and manifestos that uplift the voices and demands of people involved in these grassroots struggles, and on whose behalf they are fighting.
A Feminist Reading of Debt is a welcome contribution to a burgeoning discourse that identifies unpayable debt and advocates for its refusal and abolition. It is a refreshing addition for a field heavily dominated by masculinist voices, and one with enormous stakes for anyone interested in liberation from financial terror. While the book draws predominantly from Latin American examples, it speaks to a global community of activists, artists, and scholars working against the terror of our indebted reality, and it will appeal equally to those in the streets and the academy, those who are first and foremost feminists and those who are not yet quite there.