Verónica Gago’s Territories of Revolt

A conversation with the Argentine feminist scholar and activist in New York: Latin America’s feminisms “have fundamentally altered what we understand about politics.”

July 7, 2023

Verónica Gago, Pamela Calla, and Julianne Chandler at New York University in May. (Julianne Chandler)

Leer este artículo en español. 

When Verónica Gago and Silvia Federici convened a conversation in March on feminist dynamics of politicization and re-enchantment at New York University’s King Juan Carlos Center, the auditorium was so full that people were turned away at the door. Gago and Federici have nurtured a long friendship and intellectual dialogue, uniting the radical feminist currents of the 1970s pioneered by Federici with Latin America’s burgeoning feminist movements. In recent years, Gago—who helped lead the #niunamenos movement in Argentina—has become one of the most well-regarded feminist theorists and activists in the Americas.

At the public event in March, Gago acknowledged Federici’s body of work as “a river that has shaped the feminist movement around the world today.” The language evoking land and body is not accidental; both women have been fundamental in expanding the terrain of feminist struggle beyond isolated demands—unpaid labor, the right to choose—to a coordinated constellation of struggles that are building alliances across bodies and geographies and shaping new vocabularies of resistance. Gago’s book La Potencia Feminista (The Feminist International in the English edition, 2020) serves as a map of that amplified terrain. Feminist mobilization, writes Gago in her book, “is the composition of a common body that produces a kind of resonance: a politics that makes the body of one woman the body of all.” The key to unlocking that resonance is both primal and calculated: “disobedience in a broad sense.”

Gago’s current research examines capitalist mechanisms of debt and financialization as the most recent iteration of patriarchal dispossession, a policy of slow warfare through austerity, impoverishment, and the erosion of social services that targets the everyday reproduction of social life. Women and feminized bodies are at the center of these processes of precarity and financialization. They are also leading the movements and struggles to combat them.

Gago and Federici’s conversation is part of a series of public events, seminars, and feminist practice carried out by Gago this past spring as Andrés Bello Chair in Latin American Cultures and Civilizations at NYU. In addition to the dialogue with Federici, Gago also gave a talk on neoliberal variations in Latin America through a critical feminist genealogy; a graduate seminar titled “Feminist Practices: Times and Territories of Revolt;” and a three-day workshop on feminist research methodology and experimentation featuring the participation of a dozen feminist scholars and activists from across Latin America. The carefully curated series is at the core of what makes Gago’s work so exciting and transformative: uniting theory and practice, meeting a desire amongst autonomous feminist movements in the Americas for both action and research, and articulating transnational alliances that both strengthen each movement, and exemplify the innate connections between struggles and systems of oppression.

As Federici and Gago reminded us during their conversation, capitalism disenchants, destroying our collective knowledge and creativity through deepening cycles of debt, extraction, impoverishment, and isolation—”even knowledge about our own body.” It is through the work of collective struggle that we recover a sense of enchantment with the world, circulate ideas between other bodies and territories in struggle, and imagine alternative collective futures. The complexity and plurality of Gago’s notion of potencia feminista also allows us to strengthen and visibilize emergent processes of articulation between our feminisms and our environmentalisms, anti-racisms, and Indigeneities from below.

On May 1st—the International Day of the Worker—we sat down with Gago to reflect on her time in New York, the themes animating her current research, and the contours of joyful militancy in times of both violent backlash and radical renewal.

Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Pamela Calla: Can you tell us about your motivations and objectives in serving as the Andrés Bello Chair here at NYU? What did you hope to achieve with your time in New York?

Verónica Gago: The seminar program expresses many of the readings I have been working on in recent years that are a fundamental part of the dialogues that allowed me to write the book, La Potencia Feminista, in the midst of the cycle of feminist mobilizations in Argentina and on our continent in particular.

The purpose was to unfold those dialogues and use them to construct some problems. I situated those problems as territories. I am very interested in the territorialized dynamics that feminist practices are putting into evidence today, but also problemetizing what we understand by territory. The notion of territory is one that I still find very fertile to understanding the dynamics of struggle, resistance, and creation that feminist practices are putting into play in their multiplicity at different scales.

We are talking about a transnational movement, but at the same time there is a very strong emphasis on the regional aspect from the South, as well as the specificity of the political conjunctures of each of our countries with which feminisms are being woven. I find it very interesting how these territories and geographies and conjunctures are being woven together, and why in this great complexity feminist practices have achieved a very powerful protagonism in recent years that has substantially altered what we understand by politics.

We are contemporary to a very important process of feminist mobilizations. The territories that I have chosen from which to build the program—the territory of work and non-work, the territory of violence, the territory of knowledge, and the territory of social organization—are like problematic knots that allow us to map out what it is that these feminist dynamics propose to change. What are the limits that we have come up against? What has opened up as another way of thinking about conflict? And at the same time, how is collective knowledge produced from these moments of conflict?

The seminar "Feminist Practices: Times and Territories of Revolt" at New York University in May. (Oriele Benavides)

Julianne Chandler: You talk in your seminar about a kind of art of speculation, quoting the Argentina essayist and literary critic Josefina Ludmer. Can you explain how you conceptualize the multiple implications of speculation from a feminist perspective, and the role this concept plays in your political activism, inside and outside the academy?

VG: It's a term I like a lot, as used by Josefina Ludmer in a book called "Aquí América latina, una especulación." While she was principally concerned with literature, her work was also in constant conversation with politics, with philosophy, with forms of analysis that went beyond her field. Because precisely what she proposed was that it no longer served us to think in term of isolated disciplines.

What I like about the term is that it places a syntax, from a concrete place, to the ideas of others. On the one hand, it explains the co-authorship of everything we do, and at the same time there is something of this synthesis, of a way of connecting and reusing those ideas from a specific territory. 

In Latin America, we have to work on the speculative because oftentimes we are reduced to a place of pure experience, without concepts—as if ideas come from outside and we merely receive them—that replicates the model that Latin America has raw material, but it has no speculative-philosophical-conceptual capacity. I very much like the disobedient gesture of speculating because we are conceptualizing, thinking, building syntax, from our territories.

There is also a lot of feminist literature that is thinking about this speculative fabulation—the speculative gestures of Donna Haroway and Isabel Stengers, who are trying to open new forms of imagination that allow us to speculate about other times and other territories.

And on the other hand, I have been working a lot on the investigation of financial capital, particularly debt. Debt and financial capital in general are recognized as speculative capital, right? So there is a dispute there. To speculate means speculating about future time and future work. It is a term that allows me to interject precisely around who is wanting to appropriate the act of speculation. Why leave that term only to financial capital? What does it mean that financial capital is interested in speculation, which is really a dispute about our time and labor in the future.

JC: It’s very interesting, because it means reappropriating a term, removing it from the realm of exploitation, and then using the same term to critique that very process of exploitation.

VG: Precisely.

JC: In what sense are Latin American feminisms expanding and materializing this notion of territory? What are the principal territories in dispute and how does this key of territorialization help us develop strategies for radical transformation?

VG: The interesting thing about current feminist dynamics and practices is that they intervene at many levels. That is to say that we really have to put aside, even if it is a constant battle, this idea that our agenda is limited to rights issues or gender issues or issues that involve only identity dynamics.

When we talk about the many territories—when we discuss what work is, who is appropriating wealth, contest extractivist corporations, debate the financial dynamics of debt and impoverishment—the interesting thing is that they are not simply issues, but dynamics of struggle. So not only has it broadened the number of issues we are dealing with or taking a stand on, but it is doing the political work of connection between those territories. Because when you discuss what is happening with violence in the university, you are also discussing the public funding of universities and who guides the research agenda. And when you discuss the debt of the poorest households, you are also discussing the moralization of women in charge of reproductive tasks, the privatization of public services, and what it means that unpaid labor falls on certain bodies, and on women in particular.

So when we talk about feminism today, we are talking about a dynamic that is anti-systemic, because precisely what it does is dismantle this division, this grid in which each one of us is taking care of their own little thing, but nobody makes the systemic, structural connection of why the violence of capital today intersects all these territories and that they are all connected.

JC: How are feminisms problematizing the concept of violence?

This can also be considered in relation to violence. How do we stop talking only about domestic violence—or violence understood as a question of interpersonal or private ties—to connect these different violences and try to make the common matrix legible? I think there is a reconceptualization of violence and what I am interested in is how to produce a theory of violence, a conceptualization and a narrative of violence that is neither victimizing nor demobilizing.

There is a very interesting and constant challenge around how feminisms are producing narratives of violence—the violence of eviction, machismo, violence in the workplace, and so on—but within the framework of a discourse of struggle, not of vindication of the victims. This is very powerful, and at the same time involves an organic understanding of how these violences work and how they are interlinked.

This allows us to make connections across scales as well—helping us understand that what happens on a neighborhood level has to do with a global capital structure that is deciding to orient valorization in an extractive way, and that has direct repercussions on how other links and labor relationships are reorganized.

At the same time, this makes something that always seems very abstract—the violence of capital, financial violence—comprehensible. In the work I’ve been doing with Luci Cavallero, we asked ourselves: how do we go from finance to bodies and territories as a feminist methodology? How do we understand that finance itself needs a body and a territory? Who are the most indebted? This allows us to take away the power of abstraction.

What we feminists have to do is read on which bodies and in which territories this financial violence is being exercised and how we can resist it.

PC: That was clear in the workshop you organized that cited the slogans of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

VG: Yes, the slogan is: "Against IMF extortion, more feminist organizing," which has popularized, at least in Argentina, the discourse of economic violence. Why should the IMF debt mean that I have to work more hours to buy more expensive food, or that I get paid less because the State is in debt? So this connection between public debt, or state debt, and household debt has involved very important political work on the part of some feminist collectives in Argentina.

PC: On the other hand, there is this power of naming. And the power of naming does not get you out of the crisis, but it does allow you to deploy what you are naming elsewhere.

VG: Precisely.

JC: The strike is becoming a transversal issue in feminist organizing. What can we learn here in the northern context about the feminist strike in terms of scale and temporality?

VG: What I can tell from our experience with the feminist strike is that it has been an enormous political work of articulation—a lot of effort to build assembly spaces and to make those assemblies spaces of collective elaboration and not a kind of assembly mimesis, where nothing actually happens. I believe that it has been very important for those of us who have been in the assemblies to listen to compañeras and compañeres that otherwise we would not have listened to, to learn about struggles that otherwise we might not have heard about. It was a space—and many have said as much—for some of us to speak in public for the first time. It has been a kind of political education. And of course by moving through this process, when we arrived at the strike, we arrived in a different way.

It is not that we simply pick a date and say “March 8, feminist strike, we will see you in the streets.” The most interesting thing is how this process has been built, how we reach this moment and how this political articulation is sustained beyond March 8. That is why I insist so much in the book on talking about the strike as a political process and not as an event or an isolated date.

It has also been very important to make this key shift in which the strike ceases to be recognized only from the point of view of wages as workers. How does the feminist strike include precisely those who historically did not have the right to strike? Those who did not have the possibility of participating in this collective tool? In that sense, the strike has been a practical exercise in mapping precariousness and the multiple ways of understanding what our labor means today—to work with an employer, without an employer, freelance, with remuneration, without remuneration, discontinuously, in a neighborhood cooperative, etcetera. In that sense it has been very, very important as a collective experience.

The other element is the transnational dimension. What happens on March 8 in Mexico? What happens in Spain? And how do the compañeras in Italy organize? And what does it mean that that compañeras in Ecuador are converging for the first time with the CONAIE [Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador]? And what is happening in Chile where the strike process has been fundamental to shaping the revolt and now is the place to build a collective space in which feminisms clearly have a leading role, which is not easy.

I believe that we can see a cycle of strikes after the feminist strikes that begin to broaden who the subjects of the strike are, and that, above all, are being led by workers who the traditional left has been distrusting of—because they were in the process of formation, because they were very young, because they had no political party discipline, and so forth. I think there is something in the transnational process that opened up the meanings of the feminist strike and made it more inclusive. Who are the workers and subjects that are being called upon to reinvent the strategy of the feminist strike?

Julianne Chandler is an editor at NACLA and recent graduate of NYU’s dual MA program in Global Journalism and Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

Dr. Pamela Calla is a Bolivian anthropologist engaged with issues of gender, race, class, and state formation in Latin America. She is a professor at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University. She co-created and coordinates the Feminist Constellations Platform and the Working Group on Racisms in Comparative Perspective at CLACS.

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.