Readings on Feminism and Neoliberalism

Approaches from Latin America

June 8, 2023

This essay was originally published in Spanish in Nueva Sociedad 290 (November–December 2020) as “Lecturas sobre feminismo y neoliberalismo.” It is translated by Camila Valle. Much of the latter part of this essay was also included in Liz Mason-Deese’s translation of Verónica Gago’s Feminist International: How to Change Everything, chapter 6, “The Feminist International” (New York: Verso Books, 2020).

A whole series of recent books are nourishing an exchange: What do the feminist mobilizations of the last years say and synthesize about an understanding and confrontation of neoliberalism? What do current feminisms allow us to read as maps of contemporary violence?

We can start from a hypothesis: An analysis of neoliberalism has been a central feature of contemporary feminisms and constitutes a crucial element of their internationalism. First, because that analysis maps certain connections between the conflicts that have populated feminisms, through which they have achieved mass appeal. Therefore, it is what allows them to accumulate strength through anti-neoliberal struggles. Second, because this entangling is part of a debate and diagnosis in the face of a conservative reaction unleashed against the transnational power of recent struggles that have contested the effects of successive economic crises. More than anything, it has been the feminisms from the south of the planet that have made it possible to displace the Euro-Atlantic narratives from which neoliberalism is usually conceptualized. Let’s proceed in sections.

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How should we characterize a neoliberalism that allies itself with conservative or directly fascist forces without ceasing to be neoliberalism? This raises two issues. On the one hand, it forces us to revise, over and over again, what we call neoliberalism and to contextualize its mutations (a book compiled by William Callison and Zachary Manfredi speaks of a “mutant neoliberalism”).1William Callison and Zachary Manfredi, eds., Mutant Neoliberalism: Market Rule and Political Rupture (New York: Fordham University Press, 2019). On the other hand, we can deny the “novelty” of the alliance between neoliberalism and right-wing authoritarianism (what some authors, such as Zeynep Gambetti, do not hesitate to call “new fascisms”), as postulated by certain Atlantic-Eurocentric narratives, which makes the current moment seem like a kind of degeneration or anomaly.2Zeynep Gambetti, “Exploratory Notes on the Origins of New Fascisms,” Critical Times 3, no. 1 (2020): 1–32. In this conception, neoliberalism has always been characterized by its political liberalism and only now is being forced into a repressive turn.

In Latin America, the origin of neoliberalism is undeniably violent. Its beginning was marked by dictatorships that repressed a cycle of worker, neighborhood, and student struggles. As a principle of method and perspective from this continent, therefore, we must highlight the emergence of neoliberalism as a response to a set of struggles. From this perspective, neoliberalism is understood as a regime of social existence and a mode of political command installed regionally through the massacre of popular and armed insurgency by the state and parastatal forces. It was consolidated in the following decades by enormous economic reforms according to the logic of global austerity policies. In Latin America, the conjunction of neoliberalism and authoritarianism is a foundational starting point.

If Chile is the vanguard, with the Chicago boys and the military coup against Salvador Allende (which inaugurated a neoliberalism with a constitutional capacity that is only now being discussed, thanks to unprecedented social revolt), Argentina is its perfection in terms of systemic state terrorism, inseparable from simultaneous financial reforms (which are still in place). The visits by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman to the region in those years mark a special chapter in the development of neoliberalism’s doctrinaire component in our countries. Under Hernando de Soto (who also ran for president in 2020–21), Peru is another inescapable bastion of neoliberalism.

I think this puts forward a different perspective on the “novelty” of a neoliberalism that has shed its liberal, even progressive, clothing, connecting its current form with its originary emergence in certain regions (in the Global South) of the world.3Translator’s (CV) note: In this sentence, originary is an allusion to the Spanish-language translation of Karl Marx’s Die sogenannte ursprüngliche Akkumulationacumulación originaria—often (mis)translated in English as “so-called primitive accumulation” (instead of “original” or “originary” accumulation). In his writing, Marx was making a joke about and reference to Christianity’s conception of original sin. For more on this, see Ian Angus, “The Meaning of ‘So-called Primitive Accumulation,’” Climate & Capitalism, September 5, 2022. This analysis also underlines the political and methodological importance of these regional uprisings as challenges to the legitimacy of neoliberalism—challenges that have been building since the beginning of the century and up through the cycle of feminist revolt. This kind of analytical mapping offers frameworks for what is really “new” about the current scene of neoliberal violence.

In our region, more than four decades of neoliberal mutations allow us to read a number of things. For one, as I noted, appreciating this history allows us to understand the very origin of neoliberalism in terms of violence. For another, neoliberalism’s mutations are seen from the struggles that defied it, allowing us to posit subversion as that which determines its mutation. To speak of the polymorphic character, combinatorial capacity, and versatility of neoliberalism reveals how its political rationality cannot be reduced to governmental apparatus and how subjectivities are a strategic space for the production of governing.

If neoliberalism now needs to ally itself with retrogressive conservative forces—from white supremacy to religious fundamentalism, from the colonial unconscious to the most unhindered financial displacement, as Wendy Brown, Suely Rolnik, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Silvia Federici, and Judith Butler have theorized—it is because the destabilization of patriarchal and racist authority risks its very own accumulation of capital.4Wendy Brown, “Neoliberalism’s Frankenstein: Authoritarian Freedom in Twenty-First Century ‘Democracies,’” Critical Times 1, no, 1 (2018); Suely Rolnik, Esferas de la insurrección (Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón, 2019); Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019; Silvia Federici, Re-Enchanting the World: Feminism and the Politics of the Commons (Oakland: PM Press, 2018); Judith Butler, The Force of Non Violence: An Ethico-Political Bind (New York: Verso Books, 2020).

Once the factory and the heteropatriarchal family (even as imaginaries) can no longer sustain us and control is challenged by transfeminist and ecological forms of interdependence in times of existential precarity—which includes not just recognizing care work, but also demanding social services, higher wages, housing, debt cancellation—the counteroffensive doubles down. This involves giving credit to feminist and sexual dissident movements, in their migrant, favelada, union, student, rural, Indigenous, popular makeup, and mass, radical, and transnational character, as key dynamics of the destabilization of the sexual, gender order, and therefore to the neoliberal political order. These movements contest the effects of the crises that haven’t stopped deepening since 2008. In this sense, neoliberalism and conservatism share strategic objectives of normalization and managing the crisis of obedience that is vital for accumulation.

Against the counterposing of identity versus class or power versus exploitation that often attempts to corral current struggles, the feminist revolts express, mobilize, and generalize a change in the composition of the working classes, in what is considered work, overflowing its classifications and hierarchies. The class dimension of feminisms is at play when we speak of reproductive labor, from the strike to the violence that sustains the extractivist appropriation of certain bodies and territories. It reveals not a substitution or dissolution of the question of exploitation, but a reformulation of how that exploitation is organized when gender mandates and racist privileges are questioned as part of the unbreakable triangle of capital, patriarchy, and colonialism.

Various analyses signal a new articulation between patriarchy and capitalism (for example, Étienne Balibar and his debate over the notion of “absolute capitalism”), expressed as a new intersection of production and reproduction. The question is: Why does neoliberalism mutate in this direction? In the analysis of social reproduction, the financial dimension is a concrete place where morality and exploitation are knotted together. The book A Feminist Reading of Debt details the flows of debt to map out exploitation in its most dynamic, versatile, and seemingly “invisible” forms, in which neoliberal mutation roots itself.5Verónica Gago and Luci Cavallero, Una lectura feminista de la deuda: ¡Vivas, libres y desendeudadas nos queremos! (Buenos Aires, Fundación Rosa Luxemburgo, 2019). In Latin America, the debt taken on by domestic economies, non-waged economies, and economies historically considered non-productive means that these economies are captured by financial devices. This debt acts as a real mechanism of value extraction and confinement of life, deepening the division of labor according to gender mandates.

To think about the expansion of the financial system, we must outline the recomposition of what is classically called the labor struggle, outside of its usual—waged, union, masculine—framework. On the one hand, it is a response to a specific series of struggles and, on the other, a containment dynamic that organizes a particular experience of the current crisis. This perspective also allows us to understand how the massive indebtedness of populations—mainly non-waged, migrant, feminized—requires a specific type of discipline and, ultimately, criminalization. Doing so provides another way of characterizing the labor question from a feminist perspective and of understanding neoliberalism’s contemporary forms of exploitation. A fundamental component of this battle against neoliberalism’s mutation ad infinitum (the utopian financial infinity) is a precise sense of how feminist revolts have opened up new forms of subjectivation of masses of people.

If neoliberalism now needs to ally itself with retrogressive conservative forces—from white supremacy to religious fundamentalism, from the colonial unconscious to the most unhindered financial displacement...it is because the destabilization of patriarchal and racist authority risks its very own accumulation of capital.

A few years after the debate on post-neoliberalism in the region, we are facing a renewed conservative neoliberal attack. The deepening of the crisis of social reproduction is sustained by a brutal increase in feminized work that is replacing public infrastructure and implicated in dynamics of super-exploitation. The privatization of public services and the restriction of their scope mean that these tasks (of health, care, food, etc.) must be made up for by women, lesbians, travestis, and transgender people as unpaid and obligatory labor, coupled with a widespread indebtedness of lower-income sectors.6Translator’s (CV) note: Travestis is a regionally specific gender and political identity.

Several authors have highlighted how this same reproductive crisis has been moralizingly taken advantage of—that is, used to reaffirm familialist mandates—and how the bases of convergence between neoliberalism and conservatism emerge from there. To justify its austerity policies, neoliberalism revives the tradition of private family responsibility, as Melinda Cooper points out, and it does so in the language of… “domestic debt”!7Melinda Cooper, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism (New York: Zone, 2017), 23. Indebting households is part of the call for neoliberal accountability, while condensing the conservative aim of folding social reproduction into the confines of the cis-heteropatriarchal home.

The conservative twist attempts to reinforce, on the one hand, the obligation of compensation for social support with familiarist demands as the logic of care and responsibility, and, on the other hand, makes churches privileged channels for the redistribution of resources. In this way, we see the consolidation of a structure of obedience around the day-to-day and around future time, forcing us to shoulder the costs of austerity individually and privately, and to receive moral conditioning in return for scarce resources.

All of this gives us, again, a broader and more complex possibility of diagnosing the alliance between neoliberalism and conservatism, expressed as violences enacted on feminized bodies as new territories of conquest. We must animate the critique of neoliberalism with a feminist perspective on the machinery of debt—as a broad mechanism of financial exploitation—a perspective that also acts against the neoliberal apparatus of blame, which is sustained by heteropatriarchal morality and the exploitation of our life forces.

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Here, I want to focus on the work of Wendy Brown and Nancy Fraser, because their interventions are simultaneously philosophical, political, and epistemological, and because they put into play the definition of neoliberalism while linking it to questions of feminism. They are in many ways central to the (Euro-Atlantic) definition of neoliberalism.

In her book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, based on a reading of Michel Foucault’s 1979 lectures, Brown questions the notion of a neoliberalism that seems to contain everything.8Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution (Princeton: Zone Books, 2017). To do so, she deepens “the antagonism between citizenship and neoliberalism” and critiques the model of neoliberal governance, understood as a process of “de-democratizing democracy.” In her argument, neoliberalism restricts democratic spaces not only at the macrostructural level but also on the level of the organization of social relations, insofar as competition becomes the norm of every relationship. She underscores this process as an economization of social life that alters the very nature of what we call politics, reinforcing the contrast between the figures of the Homo economicus and the Homo politicus.

Brown emphasizes that, in neoliberalism, citizenship is not just a set of rights, but also a sort of ceaseless activism in which we are obligated to participate to make ourselves valuable. For Brown, who claims that “there are no citizens” in Foucault’s genealogies, the penetration of neoliberal rationality into modern institutions such as citizenship blurs the very concept of democracy. While her critique of neoliberalism as the neutralization of conflict is important, her analysis, though very sharp, remains within a politicist framework: the ability to analyze neoliberalism as governmentality is again restricted by her postulation of neoliberal reason as synonymous with the disappearance of politics. Thus, she recreates the distinction between economy and politics (a distinction foundational to capitalism) in a way that preserves an “autonomy of the political” as a now-colonized field still worth defending. From a clearly Arendtian perspective, the “realm of rule” is the privileged space for the democratic deployment of the Homo politicus.

Following this line of argument, the explanation for Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory—which Brown referred to as an “apocalyptic populism”—would be the consummation of neoliberalism’s hijacking of the political:

If this reproach to politics is one important strand of neoliberalism’s assault on democracy, equally important to generating support for plutocratic authoritarianism is what I call neoliberalism’s economization of everything, including democratic values, institutions, expectations and knowledge. The meaning and practice of democracy cannot be submitted to market semiotics and survive. Freedom becomes reduced to advancing in markets, keeping what one gets, hence legitimating growing inequality and indifference to all social effects. Exclusion is legitimate as strengthening competitiveness, secrecy rather than transparency or accountability is good business sense.9Wendy Brown, “Apocalyptic Populism,” Eurozine, August 30, 2017.

For Brown, the economization of life hollows out citizenship as a form of “popular sovereignty.” The privatization of public goods and higher education also contributes to the weakening of democratic culture, while the notion of “social justice” is consolidated as that which restricts private liberties. In summary: “Together, the open neoliberal disparagement of politics; the assault on democratic institutions, values and imaginaries; the neoliberal attack on public goods, public life, social justice and an educated citizenry generate a novel anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian, libertarian, authoritarian political formation.”10Brown, “Apocalyptic Populism.”

In Brown’s perspective, this economized form of politics produces a type of subjectivity that stands in opposition to the stability and security of citizens: “This formation now burns on the fuel of…fear and anxiety, sliding socioeconomic status and rancorous wounded whiteness.” Fear, anxiety, precarity, and rancorous “whiteness” are the affects that are liberated when the confines of citizenship do not produce or regulate democratic subjectivity. Therefore, Brown’s formula is: freedoms grow to the extent that politics is reduced; pernicious energies are freed to the extent that there is no citizen contention. The result is not an anti-state politics, but, as in the case of Trump, the corporate management of the state.

From what point of view can the politicism of this vision be criticized? There are several problems with this perspective. I think that the right-wing vote, considered in very broad terms, cannot be reduced simply to an antidemocratic spirit. Here I am thinking both of Trump’s victory and the so-called turn to the right in Latin America, because it has driven a similar search for explanations about such a shift in electoral preferences and support for coup maneuvers.

Right-wing governments, to put it in the memorable words of the vernacular right, “make sincere,” through a cynical materialism, the undemocratic nature of (liberal and progressive) democracy. By this I mean that there is a double idealization of democracy at work in Brown’s argument that is the source of her politicism. First, it erases the violence that gave birth to neoliberalism, both in its origins (the coup d’états and state terrorism in Latin America, as well as the racism legitimized by democracy) and in its prolongation by post-dictatorship democracies in diverse but constitutive ways. Second, Brown’s conception of democracy as the realm of rule and its projection onto citizens prevents us from seeing its repressive violence in terms of how social conflicts are structured today. These conflicts underscore that to understand politics as a field of rules is a discursive privilege of the elites, because these rules don’t apply equally to everyone, as is made clear, for example, by the Black Lives Matter movement and the murders of poor youth in Latin American metropoles.

We must animate the critique of neoliberalism with a feminist perspective on the machinery of debt—as a broad mechanism of financial exploitation—a perspective that also acts against the neoliberal apparatus of blame, which is sustained by heteropatriarchal morality and the exploitation of our life forces.

I think that this critique is weakened when neoliberalism is considered nonpolitical. Within this framework of politics, the properly political moments of neoliberalism are erased and, in particular, the “operations of capital,” in their immediately political efficacy, are made invisible—that is, both in the construction of norms and spatiality, and in the production of subjectivity.11Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, The Politics of Operations: Excavating Contemporary Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019). It is crucial to think about the political practices capable of questioning neoliberalism without considering it the “other” of politics. If there is something challenging and complex about neoliberalism, it is that its constitution is already directly political and, as such, can be understood as a battlefield.

In her latest book, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West, Brown revises the arguments of her previous book.12Wendy Brown, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019). She starts from the failure to predict and understand the advance of the right together with “libertarianism, moralism, authoritarianism, nationalism, hatred of the state, Christian conservatism and racism.” In this work, Brown seeks to move away from what she calls the “common sense of the left” and highlights the articulation of neoliberalism with traditional morality. The emphasis on the “moral side” of the neoliberal project becomes the basis for how “society must be dismantled” (a play on the Foucauldian “society must be defended”) and refers to how the “wound of privilege” of whiteness, masculinity, and Christianity becomes antidemocratic reaction. Subjectivities are placed at the center of the political dispute.

If Brown highlights the apocalyptic features of Trump’s populism and its perverse continuity with the undemocratic character of neoliberalism, Fraser speaks of Trump’s victory as an “electoral mutiny” against neoliberal hegemony, or more specifically as a “revolt against global finance.” She also places Brexit, Bernie Sanders’s campaign, the popularity of the National Front in France, and the rejection of Matteo Renzi’s reforms in Italy within this narrative. In these diverse events, she saw the same will to reject “financialized capitalism.” This reading is part of her analysis that the contemporary crisis is one of “progressive neoliberalism,” as she wrote in an article on the conjuncture at the beginning of 2017:

In its U.S. form, progressive neoliberalism is an alliance of mainstream currents of new social movements (feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ rights), on the one side, and high-end “symbolic” and service-based business sectors (Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood), on the other. In this alliance, progressive forces are effectively joined with the forces of cognitive capitalism, especially financialization. However unwittingly, the former lend their charisma to the latter. Ideals like diversity and empowerment, which could in principle serve different ends, now gloss policies that have devastated manufacturing and what were once middle-class lives.13Nancy Fraser, “The End of Progressive Neoliberalism,” Dissent, January 2, 2017.

This argument was already present in her essay “Contradictions of Capital and Care,” where she argued that the mainstream imagination of gender equality feeds a liberal individualism in which the privatization and commodification of social protection are able to imbibe a “feminist aura.”14Nancy Fraser, “Contradictions of Capital and Care,” New Left Review 100 (July–August 2016). Such a feminism entails the presentation of reproductive tasks as simply obstacles to women’s individual professional careers; tasks that, fortunately, neoliberalism frees us from via new markets for waged reproductive labor. In this way, feminist emancipation takes on a reactionary character, Fraser argues, by reformulating the division between reproduction and production. Thus, it normalizes the field where many of the deepest contradictions of capital are situated today.

In this sense, “progressive neoliberalism” would be the counterrevolution to the feminist hypotheses of the 1970s in which emancipation is produced for two reasons. On the one hand, because we are pushed into the labor market, establishing the model of the “two-income household” as a perverse metabolization of the feminist critique of the family wage. And, on the other hand, because this situation is sustained by an evermore classist and racist hierarchization of the global division of labor, in which poor migrant women from the Global South fill the “care gap” of women in the North, who are dedicated to their “careers.”

From this perspective, “progressive neoliberalism” is the response to a series of struggles against the disciplining hegemony of waged, masculine labor that converged in social movements that politicized and challenged sexist and racist hierarchies. The strength of neoliberalism, understood as reaction and counterrevolution, would be to convert those struggles into a sort of multicultural and freelance cosmetics for policies of austerity, unemployment, and social disinvestment, while managing to express them in the language of minority rights. Melinda Cooper warns of the risk in Fraser’s argument: “In her most recent work, Fraser accuses second-wave feminism of having colluded with neoliberalism in its efforts to destroy the family wage. ‘Was it mere coincidence that second-wave feminism and neoliberalism prospered in tandem? Or was there some perverse, subterranean, elective affinity between them?’”15Cooper, Family Values, 12.

Cooper’s suspicion in regard to Fraser’s questions is important for building a critique that does not rely on nostalgia or the restoration of the family (even if in more egalitarian ways) in the name of a lost security, as these are precisely the banners under which the most conservative neoliberalism is emboldened. The dilemma lies in ensuring that this reading does not turn into a rationalization of an always-anticipated defeat. In other words, the question is how not to assume—through an a priori logic confirmed through an a posteriori assessment—neoliberalism’s capacity to metabolize and neutralize all practice and critique, thus guaranteeing its success in advance.

Along with Cinzia Arruza and Tithi Bhattacharya, Fraser is a coauthor of Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto, published in 2019 and since translated into many languages. This slogan of the 99%, originally popularized by the Occupy Wall Street movement, is taken up in direct opposition to corporate (“lean-in”) feminism. Nevertheless, two lines are problematically inscribed within it: a populist articulation and an intersectionality of struggles. This premise opens up a discussion about the political practice through which a feminism of the majority, with a radical critique of neoliberalism, is produced.

Feminist revolts persist, sustaining networks of care, of self-defense, of mutual aid, that directly contest the conditions of reproduction—from healthcare to housing, from pensions to the cost of internet provision. At play is the very conception of work, who produces value, which ways of life deserve support and care, and from where will come the resources to do so. Feminist readings to confront neoliberalism in its conservative form are more strategic than ever.

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