Verónica Gago on Zoom

“The Logic of Plunder” | An Interview with Verónica Gago

The Drift

Over the past five years, leftist political parties have swept into power across Latin America, in what has been called a “pink tide.” In Mexico, Honduras, Colombia, Brazil, Bolivia, and Chile, politicians have channeled collective anger against reactionary regimes, catastrophic debt, and violence against women and Indigenous people into broad political victories. 

Verónica Gago is a professor of social sciences at the University of Buenos Aires and the National University of San Martín. As a leader in the Ni Una Menos collective — a grassroots group of feminists that formed in response to the murder of a pregnant fourteen-year-old, as well as high rates of femicide in Argentina and beyond — Gago helped organize the nation’s first women’s strike in 2016, and was part of the International Women’s Strike in dozens of countries across the globe the following year. In her 2017 book Neoliberalism from Below, she built on the activity of informal and unsanctioned workers to develop a new theory of neoliberalism, and in her 2020 book Feminist International, she drew from her work as an organizer to disentangle the social and historical forces behind the feminist strike. Gago is more recently a coauthor of A Feminist Reading of Debt (2021) and the forthcoming The Home as Laboratory (2024). 

Gago has established herself as an indispensable thinker for anyone trying to understand the global struggle against extraction, immiseration, and gendered violence. Over Zoom, we asked her about feminist organizing, the pink tide governments, neoliberal and neo-extractivist policies in Latin America, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent visit to the region, and more. 

What do you make of the relationship between Ni Una Menos and #MeToo? What do women outside of Latin America misunderstand about Ni Una Menos — how it started, its context, aims, and tactics?

In some senses, Ni Una Menos is specific to Argentina, as a movement that started in 2015 by saying, Stop killing us. And after that, the movement became more and more complex, and wider. It was not just the cry, Stop killing us. Rather, we wanted to be alive, free, and debt-free. But then there’s another layer to the movement, beyond Argentina: Ni Una Menos became a transnational movement, first in Latin America, then beyond. It’s very interesting how transnational this feminist cycle is.

In Spain, for example, this fall there has been a feminist reaction to the sexual harassment committed by Luis Rubiales. It is understood as part of the feminist movement in Spain, of course, but it has had repercussions in different parts of the world. And when something happens in Brazil or Mexico or Colombia or the United States with abortion rights, I think that we have a political perception that we are part of a movement, even though we have very different contexts and different genealogies, histories, and even current tactics.

Of course, Ni Una Menos as a movement is very heterogeneous. It has particularities that have to do with the political history of Argentina — the importance of the union movement, and the movement fighting for incomes and for social rights that came out of the politicization of unemployed people after the crisis of 2001. There’s also a very important LGBTQ history of struggle from the ’70s to now, especially by the travesti organizations and trans people.

In Argentina, we now have a lot more monoparental homes than we used to recognize as such — homes that are run by women. And they are producing another network of affects, of resources, of forms of relationships. In Argentina, the feminist movement is very popular. It’s massive. It has led to an experience of freedom that we have achieved in the streets. We know that the younger generations are now living with other horizons, with other perspectives. This cycle of the feminist movement only started in 2015. So it hasn’t been so many years — and at the same time, so much has changed. 

The recent feminist movement has been very important in helping us reject gender mandates and create space for the possibility of other forms of life: other forms of gender identification, other forms of collectivity. I know that there are recent important books about the abolition of family, for example — that is not exactly the term that is used in Argentina, but in fact, the social composition of the household is completely changing. And I think it’s very interesting how these changes are being politicized inside the feminist movement.

The 2017 International Women’s Strike involved millions of women from over forty countries. From an organizing perspective, can you tell us about the mechanics of a feat like this? What were the lasting effects of the strike?

The feminist strike was a turning point. It was a very creative idea, to call a strike in response to sexist and machista violence. The strike is traditionally a tool of the working class, and now it’s been reappropriated by the feminist movement to politicize violence against women, lesbians, and trans people. At the same time, it was politicizing the precarity of women who do a lot of the unpaid work of social reproduction for free. That combination was very important. And it was a shock for the unions: to see this tool of struggle reappropriated by a movement that centers historically unrecognized and unpaid workers.

Striking, in this feminist meaning, is more complex than the factory strike — above all, because the strike unfolds and spills over into the street, the community, and the home. This practice reveals how spheres that have been arbitrarily segmented and partitioned are, in fact, connected. 

The feminist strike was also an opportunity for women to incorporate a feminist agenda into the unions, which we know are very patriarchal structures. Argentina is one of the most unionized countries in Latin America. But it’s also very important to understand that we have what in Argentina are called “popular economies” — self-managed informal economies, where women are street vendors, trash collectors, community caregivers, and cooks, where women do piecework out of their homes. So you have these political dynamics in very different domains, and that grassroots infrastructure was very important for the feminist mobilization.

Most importantly, the feminist strike does not have a single aim. Rather, it opens up many practical questions: what does it mean to strike from each different position? What form does the strike take in each working and living situation? What are we striking against? Who recognizes that we strike? What hidden bosses are we striking from?

What has the U.S. media gotten wrong about the so-called pink tide across Latin America, particularly the most recent wave of newly elected leftist leaders in Chile, Honduras, and Colombia?

It’s important to underline that those governments have been possible because they were preceded by a variety of social struggles — Indigenous, popular, feminist, anti-extractivist. At the same time, a government can never be a “direct translation” of these struggles, because social struggles and institutions are part of different orders. The former introduce force, and the latter stabilize it.

When I refer to different orders, I mean that you do not have the same forms of action, the same desire for transformation, the same urgency in government. If you are part of the state, the political logic is different. You are trying to translate demands into an institutional scenario. Those demands — the idea of a demand itself — look different in institutions than they do from below, from grassroots experiences. But, at the same time, those struggles can force, transform, and even create institutions. In short, the translation is a battleground.

The uprisings, strikes, and anti-austerity struggles in Latin America have had the force to say no to the neoliberal agenda, and open up a space for other kinds of governments and policies. I insist on this point to underline how the struggles precede these institutional possibilities. Otherwise, everything remains an analysis from above, and it seems that things happen only because of the cunning of the institutional leadership.

You’ve written about “neo-extractivism,” the increased dependence of Latin American countries on the global trade of natural resources and the exploitative conditions that result. How do you see international economic structures constraining pink tide governments? 

In the so-called Global South, our countries are in a very dominated position in the world economy, to use the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein’s term. Neo-extractivism in our region is a new form of imperial imposition on our territories and our resources. In the case of Argentina, the debt owed to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) since 2018 is a device of governance. It was the biggest loan in the history of the IMF, and it was made with Trump’s support. Now, the state needs to be able to repay its debt in dollars, which forces the government to rely on profits from the extraction of natural resources. 

Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile are known as the “lithium triangle” because they contain most of the world’s supply of the metal that powers our electronics, which is so valuable it’s referred to as “white gold.” This is the impetus for the ongoing process of recolonization. We’re seeing the same thing in the Amazon. The U.S. military has made explicit statements about why this region matters, making it clear that extractivism is a form of war in the contemporary moment, especially in our region. Or, in other words, extractivism is not possible without certain forms of war against some populations and some territories. The people in those territories are struggling against dispossession, against displacement, against the criminalization of protest, against the impoverishment that extractivism produces. In Argentina, debt is a very important tool, a spearhead that opens recolonization. The different governments accept the pressure of corporations and also the blackmail of external debt, which is a kind of plunder.

How has debt to the IMF taken the place of older forms of plunder, as you say, and of imperialism? More concretely, how do international organizations like the IMF and the United Nations hinder the Global South, even as they’re nominally supposed to be doing the opposite?

The IMF policy of debt imposed on Argentina is a policy of plunder. This debt was assumed in 2018 by the government of Mauricio Macri, and the IMF was betting on his reelection, which did not occur. The debt became a device for imposing different policies of austerity (enforced by a daily monitoring of finances and quarterly IMF reviews). Now, we have a lot of people below the poverty line; this is an effect of the accumulation of these austerity policies. To buy food or medicine, or to pay the rent, people need to go into household debt. The external debt has translated into household indebtedness, and this is a sign of how the plunder — in terms of debt — is also connected with an attack on social reproduction. This kind of financialization of everyday life enacts the logic of plunder on the most precarious populations. The debt orients the productive profile of economies like Argentina’s toward the world market and, of course, makes people pay out of their own pockets for underfinanced and low-quality public services. What does the IMF demand, ultimately? More unpaid work from women, precarization of work in general, fewer public services, extraction of natural resources, and more private indebtedness.

How are activists responding to the forces of neo-extractivism?

In Argentina, there is an important struggle in the northern province of Jujuy, where the governor established a new constitution in June. One of the main elements of this constitutional reform was a failed attempt to privatize Indigenous lands, and another was the criminalization of protest. In the first line of struggle against the new laws, there were Indigenous communities and unionized teachers — especially women teachers — fighting for better salaries, for the right to ancestral land and to water. One of the forms of protest entailed blocking the roads to the lithium mines, as communities claim that the mining requires huge amounts of water and causes water pollution locally.

The level of repression during these protests was enormous. We saw images that looked like dictatorship. People from these Indigenous communities went to Buenos Aires, asking to be heard by the national government and chanting, “¡Abajo la reforma! ¡Arriba los derechos!” (“Down with the reforms! Up with rights!”) Jujuy is a laboratory where we can study the combination of extraction, the pressure of corporations, and the complicity of certain political and juridical structures.

In some leftist discourse, the term “neoliberalism” has become a catch-all culprit for… basically everything. In your work, and particularly Neoliberalism from Below, you’ve provided a new theory of neoliberalism, based on a study of Latin American urban economies. How can looking to Latin America revise our understanding of neoliberalism? 

Neoliberalism is a word that may seem worn out or overused. I believe that this has nothing to do with the fact that it has been part of certain theoretical trends, but rather with the fact that neoliberalism, as a global regime, seems to stretch, mold, and modify itself without pause. Does everything that happens fall under neoliberalism? Perhaps we should rephrase the question: how does neoliberalism, as Wendy Brown says, become a “Frankenstein” or, as William Callison puts it, “a mutant”? Latin America is the site of an “original neoliberalism,” so to speak. This is a provocative counterpoint to readings that seek neoliberalism’s origins in Europe and the United States. Neoliberalism as a violent regime had its first stage of action in our countries. I try, therefore, to reposition things, so we don’t think of our continent as a “case” or “place of application,” but as a site that associates the conceptual definition of neoliberalism with dictatorships and forms of state and paramilitary repression.

Nowadays, we are hearing people say neoliberalism is becoming authoritarian. That is true. But I think that we have to realize that an important antecedent of the connection between neoliberalism and violence, and neoliberalism and authoritarianism, can be found in the dictatorships in Latin America. In Argentina, neoliberalism would have been impossible to institute without state terrorism — through state and para-state massacres of popular and armed insurgencies. It was consolidated through deep structural reforms in the subsequent decades, following the logic of “structural adjustment” policies around the globe. This included the imposition of public debt, and the privatization of public infrastructure and public companies. 

By the 2000s, we had seen decades of the accumulation of neoliberal policies, but different struggles and different social organizations began to reject the neoliberal agenda, setting the stage, in some countries, for the possibility of the so-called progressive governments, as a new stage in politics.

I am interested in neoliberalism not just as an abstract or macro-political concept, but rather as it is embodied in the subjective experience of everyday life. Consider the entrepreneurial mindset, in which you are obliged to generate your own income as if you were a capitalist, but with no resources other than your own work. Financial capital has us believe that instead of being freelancers, and very precarious ones, we are entrepreneurs — that we are gambling and can expect to win. This is one way in which neoliberalism is enacted not only through policies from above; it’s a regime that people who are dispossessed are obliged to participate in — they are forced to incorporate neoliberal norms in order to survive.

How has the longer history of Latin America’s relationship to U.S. interventionism and state terrorism in the last century set the stage for these recent developments?

In Latin America, there is a strong tradition of anti-imperialism. If we’re talking about the last seventy years, we have to take into account the Cuban Revolution, a very important historical event for understanding the political radicalization in the ’60s and the ’70s in different parts of Latin America. And the United States’s interventionism in Cuba was very crucial for the development of its different policies of counterinsurgency in Latin America. The ’80s is known as “The Lost Decade” in Latin America, due to the external debt obligations pushed by the United States. The Washington Consensus in the early ’90s was another form of intervention. And I think that now we are seeing another scale of interest in the region with this new extractivist turn.

In September, we saw two events that could be interesting to think about. One is that Javier Milei, the candidate of the ultra-right wing in Argentina, did an interview with the Trumpist journalist Tucker Carlson. Elon Musk commented on the interview. And at the same time, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoke out about Justice Samuel Alito’s corruption in a case where he ruled against Argentina. Nowadays, the terms of intervention are different, and respond to different forms of capital hegemony.

Speaking of AOC, let’s talk about her recent visit to Brazil, Colombia, and Chile, where she discussed “postcolonial foreign policy” and “feminist foreign policy” with Latin American leaders. What should we make of these efforts, and in what areas do you see the most potential for a productive relationship between the U.S. government and these countries?

In Brazil, she met with Anielle Franco, the sister of Marielle Franco (a socialist politician who was assassinated in 2018) and the country’s minister of racial equality — a black woman, and a militant. In Chile, AOC met with different people from the government, at a moment when the country was discussing the fiftieth anniversary of the coup against Allende. And in Colombia, she met with Francia Márquez, a black activist and the country’s vice president, who is historically an anti-extractivist militant. I think that this triangle of contacts, this recognition of feminist leadership in Latin America, is very important. I was reading that all the journalists in Argentina were quoting AOC because she said, “The Argentinian women are an inspiration for all of us,” in relation to the abortion struggle. She is capable of denouncing the history of North American interventionism in our region, while activating other types of international links, all from a clear feminist and anti-racist orientation. A novelty in American foreign policy.