Mutant Neoliberalism, Originary Violence and Feminist Revolts in Latin America

This post is part of our symposium on Mutant Neoliberalism. You can find the full symposium here

Verónica Gago – 

mutant neolib imageIn an interview, Michel Foucault said that when “actually existing” socialism was put in scare quotes, as if it were not exactly “real,” the only thing the scare quotes revealed was the strength of an abstract ideal that theorists invariably used as a measuring stick to evaluate, and theoretically marginalize, whatever was actually happening on the ground. What if we were to apply such an ironic qualification to neoliberalism? Consider Latin America, for instance: Is there an “actually existing” neoliberalism in Latin America that fails the normative ideal of its theorists? Is this a geographically specific version of neoliberalism that has just been marginalized due to the region’s peripheral reality and unique history? It would seem, instead, that the opposite is true: The problematic feature of neoliberalism is its polymorphism, its capacity to combine and adapt. The thesis of this book points to precisely this capacity: neoliberalism’s mutant character.

With this thesis, the book seeks to answer a conjunctural question which I will also consider in this comment: Why is neoliberalism—in different geographies—allied with extreme conservatism, and even with fascism, today? The book also addresses a longstanding question which we have repeatedly posed in these years of permanent crisis: Is there any force that is capable of burying neoliberalism? Indeed, each new conjuncture only differently conjugates the question: Can the coronavirus pandemic annihilate neoliberalism? Following William Callison and Zachary Manfredi’s text on the notion of mutant neoliberalism and the possibility of its extinction, the chapters in the book respond to this series of questions with a complex answer: Even political conjunctures that seem to be animated by an opposition to neoliberal presuppositions can ultimately give them new impetus, reassembling and relaunching neoliberalism in ways that demonstrate its mutant cunning.

I would like to do two things in this comment. First, I will examine key aspects of recent Latin American developments in order to suggest a certain genealogy of neoliberalism. Second, I will address Etienne Balibar’s chapter in the book, linking it to the dynamics of generalized indebtedness in subaltern populations, and drawing connections with the recent cycle of feminist struggles.

In Latin America, the origin of neoliberalism is indisputably violent. As a matter of method and perspective, it is important to underscore that neoliberalism emerged in response to specific struggles, namely those of workers, neighborhoods, and students. It must be understood, then, as a regime of social existence and a political mandate that was installed through state and para-state massacres of popular and armed insurgencies. It was consolidated through dictatorships which implemented deep structural reforms in the subsequent decades, following the logic of “structural adjustment” policies around the globe. In other words, Latin America presents a deep archive for examining the relationship between neoliberalism and fascism.

Think of Chile as the vanguard, with Pinochet’s military coup against Allende inaugurating constitutionalized neoliberalism with a boost from the Chicago Boys. Chilean neoliberalism has only recently faced serious threat, thanks to an unprecedented social revolt in the country. Argentina then perfected the project with systemically planned state terrorism combined with simultaneous reforms of financial laws (which are still in force to this day). Those early years, with F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman’s visits to the region, were a crucial chapter in developing the neoliberal doctrines. I believe that this point, in particular, helps us see neoliberalism’s “novelty” through a different perspective—one that strips off its liberal and even progressive clothing, and that connects the contemporary context with the originary experience in certain regions of the (third) world.

But it also allows us to mark the political and methodological importance of recent regional revolts that—having accumulated since the beginning of this century—challenge the political legitimacy of neoliberalism. If we agree that neoliberalism responds to certain cycles of struggle (and hence varies in its scale of violence), then it is necessary to rethink how it might be confronted, appropriated, and destroyed. The question is thus: How to identify neoliberalism’s forms of persistence and recombination and to simultaneously resist the assumption that neoliberalism can eliminate all antagonisms by equating life and capital? Put another way: What kinds of antagonism does neoliberalism incorporate and in response to what conflicts does it mutate?

Étienne Balibar’s chapter moves us towards answering this question. He highlights the sexed and gendered dimensions of the capitalist economy of violence—a topic that Silvia Federici has, for instance, conceptualized as a “war against women.” Like many feminist scholars, Balibar suggests that the relationship between patriarchy and capitalism has shifted to reflect an even greater global reliance on reproductive labor. This raises the question: Why is neoliberalism mutating in this way?

This and related shifts disrupt patriarchal and racist authorities, risking their continued accumulation of capital. In response, neoliberalism forms new alliances with retrograde and conservative forces from white supremacy to religious fundamentalisms – as Wendy Brown, Melinda Cooper, and Leslie Salzinger have documented and theorized, most recently in their contributions to this book. We can thus see how neoliberalism and conservatism share the strategic objectives of crisis management and the normalization of relationships of obedience.

But once the factory, securitarian control, and the hetero-patriarchal family fail (even as imaginaries) to sustain discipline and are challenged by feminist modes of arranging interdependence in times of existential precariousness, the counter-offensive doubles down. One cannot fully appreciate the recent mutations in neoliberalism, then, without giving credit to feminist and sexual dissidence movements for their capacity to destabilize the orders of sex and gender and, therefore, the neoliberal political order. Amidst successive economic crises, from 2008 to today, the outcomes are subject to radical contestation.

Balibar helps us discern how financialization creates novel ways to (re)organize production and reproduction. But to understand how debt extracts value from domestic economies, non-salaried economies, and historically non-productive economies in Latin America, we must see financial devices as true mechanisms of both the extraction of value and the moralization of unfulfilled gender mandates—that is, of a certain articulation between reproduction and production. This “financial extractivism” is what allows us to connect debt with political-ecological struggles against neo-extractivist projects, thereby revealing the linkages between debt, dispossession, and exploitation. By adding this financial dimension to our struggles, we can better map flows of debt and modes of exploitation in the dynamic, versatile and apparently “invisible” forms in which neoliberal mutation is rooted.

In other words, I would like to add a feminist reading of financialization that characterizes it as a colonization of social reproduction. The expansion of the financial system is a (violent) response to a specific sequence of struggles, on the one hand, and a dynamic of containment that organizes a certain experience of the current crisis, on the other hand. Massive indebtedness is thus accompanied by new forms of discipline and (eventually) criminalization.

You might say that under contemporary neoliberalism, violence operates as the main productive force. It opens new spaces of valorization for capital via invasion and conquest, via the colonization of concrete bodies and territories. This is particularly the case in informal, popular and feminized economies, where indebtedness serves as one of the priveleged devices for invading not-yet-financialized territories, for experimenting with new forms of control, and for affecting the moralization and criminalization of subaltern sectors.

Here I would like to add one final point: We must understand debt as a privileged device in the “laundering” – “blanqueamiento,” not coincidentally a racist term – of illicit flows and, therefore, in the connection between legal and illegal economies as a way of increasing direct violence upon certain territories. Here again, neo-extractivist projects play a fundamental role—first in the dispossession and then in the financialization of subaltern economies. Which leads me to ask: Is this mutant feature of neoliberalism what allows Balibar to claim an “absolute” notion of capitalism, or what he calls “absolute capitalism”?

As I understand it, these features also show why the collective subjectivation deployed by feminist revolts today—in their popular, indigenous, village, dissident, queer, black and other compositions and territorialities—is a key component in the battle against neoliberalism’s power of limitless mutation (the seemingly infinite utopia of financialization).

Verónica Gago is a member of the Ni Una Menos collective, co-founder of Colectivo Situaciones, and Professor of Sociology at the National University of San Martín in Argentina. She is the author of Neoliberalism from Below: Popular Pragmatics and Baroque Economies (Tinta Limón, 2014; Duke University Press, 2017) and Feminist International: How to Change Everything (Tinta Limón, 2019; Verso, 2020).

Translated by William Callison and Andrea Sempértegui