The Body of Labor: A Cartography of Three Scenes from the Perspective of the Feminist Strike

Anni Albers, Fox I (1972)

I start with the feminist strike in order to think about the intersection between the feminist movement and laboring bodies. Since 2016, the strike has successively taken on several names: the national women’s strike; the international strike of women, lesbians, trans, and travestis;1 and finally, the international and plurinational feminist strike or even general strike. It has been woven together as a saga, crazy and relentless in its force and continuity. The strike is not an isolated event, but is structured as a process. In that sense, it continues to be open. In the space of less than three years (from October 2016 to March 2019), the strike has become the tool driving the movement of women and dissident bodies in a new way at the international (and transnational) level.

In Argentina, that movement was fueled by the slogan #NiUnaMenos (Not one woman less) that convened the first, and massive, mobilization against femicides in June 2015. A year later it grew under the slogan: “We want to be alive and free!” Then, in October 2016, the strike produced a qualitative leap: it transformed the mobilization against femicides into a radical and massive movement that was able to politicize the rejection of violence in a new way.2 The strike, however, while novel, also brought a historical accumulation of previous struggles to the stage – human rights struggles and movements of the unemployed, along with the women’s movement –, connecting them in novel ways.3

When the idea to call a strike emerged in the heat of a multitudinous assembly, it brought together the power [potencia] of an action that allowed us to go from mourning to expressing our rage in the streets. By calling a strike, we perceived the strength of being able to summon and speak among ourselves: housewives, workers in the formal and informal economy, teachers, members of cooperatives, laborers and the unemployed, the part-time self-employed and full time mothers, activists and domestic employees, students and journalists, unionists, retail workers, women organizing neighborhood soup kitchens, and retired women. We came together on the basis of our doing, a territory of multiplicity in which we were able to find common ground.

Here I want to propose three problem-scenes for thinking about the laboring body in the current moment and then situate them in relation to one another through the strike. These are scenes where the body is put to work in different ways. From a certain point of view, they are a counterpoint to the idea of a growing “immateriality” of labor. Rather, the question is: what other materialities are put into play today and violated through different apparatuses of abstraction? I will highlight three idea-forces that unfold in each one of these scenes.

The first hast to do with the servitude and infantilization used to exploit the work carried out by women answering a gender violence telephone helpline. What I am interested in exploring in this scene is how women workers explode the logic of the call center, which is one of the transversal paradigms of the flexible production of services.

The second demonstrates the reconfiguration of reproductive labor when it overflows domestic confinement. My hypothesis is that that spillover produces a new territory of the domestic where there is a clear dispute over its political character and, therefore, over its capacity to produce social prestige and new forms of authority practiced by women.

Third, I am going to linger on the manifesto titled “We Want to Be Debt Free!”4) that we wrote as the NiUnaMenos collective to explain how that manifesto was reinterpreted by Eva Reinoso, a former incarcerated poet. This displacement is key for thinking about the exploitation of time, in particular, from the specific vantage point of women whose time appears “not to count” in terms of productivity, precisely because they are imprisoned, or, in principle, are completely confined.

The thread connecting these scenes is a very precise one: the feminist strike. I hypothesize that it is not a coincidence that each one of these scenes was woven together in practice by starting from the questions raised by the international feminist strike. In this sense, I want to propose the strike as a new form of practical cartography of labor from a feminist viewpoint. The strike as an analytical and political perspective is able to put forth an anti-neoliberal feminism precisely because it allows us to problematize the unmeasurable excess of the forms of production and exploitation of value that are found in the multiplicity of tasks that make up feminized labor today.

The question that functions as the guide, orienting point, or compass in this sequence is the following: Where do we find laboring bodies in a cartography that transforms new grammars of exploitation into new grammars of conflict? How are strikes carried out in territories and from experiences that supposedly do not fit into the strike? What happens with the very practice of the strike when it is theorized and practiced from a call center, a neighborhood soup kitchen, or a prison? These questions are connected: Why is a feminist perspective the one that today is able to highlight the map of labor in all of its heterogeneity, complicating the very idea of the laboring body and the bodies that strike? What are the apparatuses that attempt to abstract those bodies that we mobilize today in our effort to make social conflict clear?

The scenes that I refer to seek to build a corpus, in the sense that Josefina Ludmer gave that word: a set of heterogeneous materials that allow us to think and that in their very assembly display a methodology of composition.5 The scenes that I propose here generate a plane on which we can diagnose disputes over the present. The scenes are, in this sense, lines of force in which bodies are exposed, they take on a risk, they confront a limit, and they deploy a not-knowing, as the expression of a potency of indeterminacy that is key to the body put to work. Why? Because what defines the body of work is being living labor, or following Marx: pure potency [potencia] that is irreducible to a specific task and, at the same time, capable of becoming singular in each task.

Therefore, these scenes host instances of resistance to neoliberalism in its most immanent aspects, since neoliberalism cannot be understood without taking into account how it has captured, aroused, and interpreted popular forms of life, arts of doing, tactics of resistance, and modes of inhabiting that have combated it, transformed it, taken advantage of it, and suffered from it.

Scene One: Who’s speaking?

The women workers who attend the 1-4-4 hotline in the province of Buenos Aires 365 days a year responding to cases of gendered violence do so in conditions of extreme precarity. They put their own bodies on the line to respond to violence against the bodies of other women; they experience physical and psychological pathologies as daily symptoms.

The women who aid, diagnose, and handle cases of gender violence in the largest province in the country do so as outsourced workers without rights, earning miserable wages disproportionate to their tasks, and without dignified working conditions. How can we understand that particular type of violence? We must ask: How is those workers’ personal and professional commitment to the women whom they assist exploited? Why must their own condition as women workers be included in the diagnosis of sexist violence which they produce and systematize?

During the night shift, the rhythm of the telephone intensifies. And that intensity is tattooed onto the bodies of those workers, of all different ages, and is transformed into specific pathologies: spots on their skin due to stress, gastrointestinal problems, insomnia, anxiety, dysphonia, hearing problems, different types of fear due to calls from aggressors threatening retaliation.

The logic of the call center, those “conversation factories,” as Paolo Virno named them in a conversation we had in Buenos Aires, is put into tension when the calls being answered are not from customers dissatisfied with some product, but victims of sexist violence in extreme situations.6 Even so, when the logic of the call center becomes a mode of public policy, it attempts to impose its criteria of productivity and timing, even when faced with situations in which fixed scripts and standardized responses are impossible.

What these workers bring into play is their knowledge, which is mobilized in each concrete situation (each call), in order to dispute the very notion of productivity: they not only fight over their labor conditions, but also over how the work is organized. That is, over the necessity to have time to talk, to modulate the duration of attention, to capture the intensity of the risk through listening. What these workers put into practice is a mode of evaluation in situ, translating their subjective perceptions into an objective criteria (which later can become the input for a protocol).

If we accept that all problems of evaluation are problems of political economy, what we can read in this telephone work is a strong emotional, affective, and political involvement that is meticulous attention to the details of an emergency. This allows for a mobile detection of the contours of risk, constantly updating a map of different forms of sexist violence.

The critique of political economy, theorized from a feminist perspective, is what allows us to rethink these contemporary forms of exploitation, entrenched in the knowledges that emerge from resistance, from sabotage, from conflicts that are simultaneously about labor and about life. What these women workers dispute is precisely the body of knowledges that creates productivity and that is expropriated when it is subjected to a script and chronometer, at the same time as its surplus value is exploited insofar as it brings into play intensive, non-regulated knowledges and temporalities that are productive precisely in their excess. In this sense, the so-called feminization of labor in relation to the mutations of contemporary capitalism finds a favored deployment in scenes like these. This is due to the fact that the affects and knowledges that workers apply in their tasks are both recognized as expertise and, at the same time, codified as subservient forms: it is in this double bind that they can simultaneously be exploited and disregarded as a source of surplus value.

Therefore, exploitation is intensified: these workers manage the violence against the bodies of women whom they assist at the cost of the violence to which they are subjected to as workers. But it is recognizing themselves as connected in a common web with those whom they “assist” that gives them strength. It is that same web that reveals the systematic links between different forms of violence and the connected acts of aggression that link the public and the private, weaving together differentiated but assembled types of violence, that allows them to put their knowledges into practice as professional knowledges and as knowledges of resistance, as a labor knowledge of assisting others and as a knowledge for one’s self.

The texture of this conflict, however, is read and understood in light of the movement of the feminist strike. There is no way to separate the way in which these workers are mapping the intersection of (sexist, institutional, labor, police, etc.) forms of violence in their own labor diagnostic from the diffusion of an understanding that escapes a more limited diagnosis (pointed to by institutional and media language). In the knowledge that they bring into play as women workers, they also put themselves on the line, because there is no way to fulfill their tasks without professional involvement that is also political and personal.

Connecting the web of different forms of violence is key to the production of a political diagnosis that has been initiated by the feminist strike. This is what allows for constructing and moving on a plane of comprehension, expanded intelligibility, and analytical method that makes visible the specific intersection of exploitation in the world of work and our precarity with the new forms of servitude involved in affective tasks. At the same time, it demonstrates how governmental marketing defines the question of “gender” in neoliberal terms in an attempt to capture the movement’s dynamic. The elaboration of a casuistry emerges in the line 1-4-4 workers’ task of evaluation: each concrete case of violence becomes part of a singularization of the web of violence and not, as the policies of bureaucratic management speculate, a particular case in isolation.

Those workers called for the strike on March 8, 2017, and again in 2018 and 2019. They used the strike as a common horizon of protest against the multiplication of situations of precarity and uneven contractual agreements that seek to divide and create hierarchies between them. Over the last year, several of those workers were fired. In that context, they, along with other organizations, marched at the forefront the #NiUnaMenos demonstration on June 4, 2018. The government’s argument for firing them was that they ignore other women’s emergency situation of violence. The perversion is doubled: not only are they disciplined as workers, but they are also blamed in individual terms for a labor complaint.

In this way, the strike served to value and dispute, in that specific context, what the workers produce insofar as they recognize the body of knowledge that they mobilize. “We organized ourselves even before the union arrived,” one of them commented, demonstrating another key element: the strike overflows the union call, even if it is later able to ally with union initiatives and even push and strengthen them. In conversation, anecdotes of the 2017 March 8 strike occur as a tale of feminist appropriation: “We went on strike as difficult as it is for our work, because the strike was part of our feminist commitment, that is what leads us to be here despite its costs in personal terms.” “We strike for all women and we strike for ourselves,” another one of the young women says. They also emphasize that, as part of the still ongoing labor dispute, the contracted woman went on strike for the first time precisely because they weren’t being paid. “The authorities told us that we couldn’t go on strike, because that wasn’t among our entitlements,” they recall. “When they tell us that, the subtext is the same: ‘you should be grateful for having work.’ But nobody is doing us a favor. We are workers. And we organize ourselves because it is also a way of caring for ourselves and recognizing the value that we produce.”

Scene Two: The Raw and the Cooked

In this second scene, I want to stop and focus on one of the preparatory assemblies called by the NiUnaMenos collective along with many other territorial organizations for the March 8, 2018 strike that took place in Villa 21-24 [a shantytown] in the city of Buenos Aires. The majority of the participants are workers from the popular economy7 and they carry out tasks of social reproduction in the neighborhood. Many serve food in community soup kitchens, which have become increasingly important in the face of the inflationary crisis unleashed over the past year. They insist on something that brilliantly points out the singularity of the feminist strike: they say that they cannot strike and that they want to strike. That phrase opens up a situation of problematization; that is, a moment of thought. The supposed impossibility summarizes the practical dilemma of the feminist strike. In the case of women workers in the popular economy, the desire to strike is demonstrated by those who are assumed to be excluded from the prerogative (a quasi “privilege” from a certain perspective) of that labor tool traditionally associated with the organized, waged, and masculine movement.

They cannot strike, they argue, because they have a responsibility to feed neighborhood residents, especially the children. But they want to strike because they want to be part of the measure of force and to be in the street with thousands of other women. The affirmation, which at first glance seems contradictory, broadens the strike. It makes it more complex, it forces it to live up to the multiplicity of tasks that redefine work itself from a feminist point of view. Thus an idea emerges that takes form like this: “Why don’t we hand out raw food? We’ll leave the food at the door of the soup kitchens, but raw food, removing all the work of cooking, serving, washing,” Gilda, one of the workers, summarizes. The political occurrence unblocks the situation and adds an additional level to the very practice of the strike. The idea was turned into a graffiti spread across the neighborhood: “March 8, today we distribute raw food – Not One Woman Less.” The assembly thus becomes a way of evaluating the logic of the sensate qualities of things (the raw and the cooked) from the point of view of women’s labor.

Another one of the women, Nati, clarifies during the same assembly: “I want the strike to make people notice my absence.” This supposes that the absence is not perceived, that it is corrected, replaced, precisely because there is a presence that permanently remains invisibilized and naturalized. A discussion continues about the lack of recognition and the invisibility of reproductive tasks, the naturalization of “services” of cooking, cleaning, attending, calculating quantities. As if they were the real “invisible hand” of the economy that Adam Smith talks about. At the same time, they discuss how this work is building the neighborhood’s concrete popular infrastructure today, producing common services that have a clear political value. The question becomes urgent when faced with the scenario of crisis. Austerity has a differential impact on women in these neighborhoods: they are the ones juggling everything so that there is enough food. To start, they reduce their own intake so as to not decrease collective distribution. These women literally put their bodies on the line so that austerity is felt as little as possible in the daily lives of others.

It is in these situations of collective problematization that there is an elaboration of how the specific exploitation of women’s labor is a point of view that allows for reconceptualizing the very notion of the bodies indicated in that work. That work is named, it becomes visible and recognized in its concrete manifestations: that is, based on everything that is put to work in contemporary economies, overflowing the map of formal waged labor. But by doing this based on the strategic thinking necessary in order to strike, these forms of exploitation are revealed by the possibility of their refusal, beyond a mere analysis of submission. 

In this sense, the feminist strike functions as a chemical catalyst: it demonstrates relations of power, it shows where and how they are inscribed and function, it discovers the bodies, times, and spaces over which they are applied and also the mechanisms for their disobedience. Thus the strike becomes the key to an insubordinate reading when it begins operating as an element of disobedience and not simply as part of a repertoire of actions of negotiation.

There is a unique element expressed in this scene of women workers from the popular economy in a neighborhood soup kitchen that I narrate here. In the Argentinean crisis that exploded in 2001, it was women who made an inaugural gesture: they took charge of creating spaces for the reproduction of life in collective and community terms, in the face of the devastation caused by unemployment. This devastation was especially felt among men, whose numbers as “heads of household” declined; alcoholism and depression were recurring images for many of those suddenly evicted from their jobs. The formation of movements of the unemployed implied, in this sense, two decisive things.8

On the one hand, the politicization of reproductive tasks that were extended to the neighborhood, leaping over the barriers of domestic confinement. The work of reproduction was able to build the infrastructure necessary for the roadblock to occur, spatially displacing the picket from the factory gate to the routes of communication and commodity flows. On the other hand, those movements demonstrated the political nature of those tasks by producing a community value capable of organizing resources, experiences, and challenges to how the unemployed were condemned to the categorization of “exclusion.”

These movements thus initiated a radical problematization of work and the meaning of a dignified life understood as decoupled from the wage regime.9 This is one of the fundamental innovations of the crisis. What those movements invented as forms of self-managing a multiplicity of tasks without a boss was maintained during the following decade’s so-called “economic recovery” in a way that allowed for the stabilization and systematization of a new proletarian landscape. That fabric is what we refer to as “popular economies.” Thus I want to emphasize that the political dimension of popular economies has to do with a politicization of reproduction and with the refusal of the miserabilist management of its activities, the “origin” of which lies in the 2001 crisis as a moment-force that overturned the political legitimacy of neoliberalism in Argentina.10

In a different way in respect to that cycle of organization, in which women’s participation was very strong, today a new cycle of politicization emerges, which explicitly identifies as feminist and for which the popular economies are a decisive terrain for its expansion. Here we must point to another key element for understanding this politicization: the passage from the wage to the subsidy. This does not mean that the wage ceases to exist, but rather that there is a growing number of people who must achieve prosperity without taking the wage for granted as their principal income. But the hypothesis that I am interested in exploring is how this reality reworks the idea of the “patriarchy of the wage” proposed, among others, by Silvia Federici.11

There is a double path to the destructuring of male authority produced by losing the wage as the objective measure of its power inside and outside of the home (and as the marker of that spatial-temporal boundary itself) and the decline of the figure of the breadwinner. On the one hand, that male destructuring is amplified and accelerated by the politicization of reproductive tasks that are de-confined from the home, spilling over onto a broader social terrain and achieving new social “prestige” that is embodied in feminized leadership. On the other hand, when male authority as the structuring element of relations of subordination falls into crisis, it leads to forms of unmeasurable violence, especially within the home.

Therefore, my hypothesis is that popular economies are a privileged prism for understanding the crisis of the patriarchy of the wage. This does not mean the end of patriarchy, of course, but the decomposition of a specific way of structuring the patriarchy. The intensification of sexist violence demonstrates that excess of violence that is no longer contained by the wage form. However, it is also that violence as a “productive force,” as Marie Mies argues in analyzing the relation between patriarchy and accumulation, that accounts for the strengthening of illegal economies.12

By this I mean that illegal economies provide new “authority” figures, especially male ones to replace masculinities in crisis. The same thing happens, legally, in the recruitment of young men to state security forces. Then on the state side and on the para-state side, these offer ways out of the crisis of male authority by recruitment into the new economies of violence over territories. This demonstrates, furthermore, a sort of competition and complementarity between state and para-state violence that are often deployed as dynamics exercised by the same subjects, combining and disputing instances, resources, and spaces. The question of commercialized drug trafficking is the most obvious, but not the only one.

My second hypothesis about popular economies is that their feminine leadership implies, above all, a dispute with the illegal economies over the management of the decline of the “male breadwinner” and over new sources of “social prestige,” and therefore of managing violence. Then, the question is: what type of fabric do the popular economies construct from the point of view of feminist economics?

Today the popular economies are led by the daughters of the piquetera women. They are youth who were around five or seven years old when their mothers participated in the assemblies of the unemployed. In practice, this generational element traces a genealogy between the current moment and those struggles because their mothers and grandmothers are still in charge of the enterprises of popular urbanization, community care, and domestic labor that, as I have remarked, are tasks that are not only limited to those that occur within the walls of the home.

These popular economies involve a central reproductive dimension, in which the task of organizing everyday life is already registered as a productive dimension and the categories of the street and the household take on a practical indistinction for thinking about work. The historical affinity between feminist economics and the popular economy has to do with the politicization of social reproduction based on political practice within the crisis. This is what allows the strike to become more complex and to broaden.

In this sense, the social reproduction of life appears to resolve and replace, while also critiquing, the plundering of public infrastructure. Today it is popular economies that are building common infrastructure for providing services that are called basic, even though they are not: from health care to urbanization, from electricity to education, from security to food. In this way, popular economies as a reproductive and productive fabric raise the issue of concrete forms of precarization of existence across different fields and demonstrate the level of dispossession in urban and suburban territories, which is what enables new forms of exploitation. In turn, this implies the deployment of a concrete type of conflict by ways of understanding the territory as the new social factory. And through that conflict, the strike is reinvented as a new political cartography.

Scene Three: We Want to Be Debt Free!

“In the same era in which they stopped burning witches in England, they began to hang the forgers of bank notes,” Marx writes commenting on the creation of the Bank of England, in his analysis of so-called “primitive accumulation.”13 What does this passage tell us about the disciplining of bodies: from the bodies of women-witches to the bodies of money forgers? In both cases what is at stake is monopoly over the sign of wealth; in other words, control over becoming.

Money functions by abstracting the body of labor. There is no abstraction without its synthesis in the abstract body of money. But for that synthesis to function as a “social connection” it is necessary to previously burn the concrete bodies that are expressed in the figure of witches. The abstraction of money consecrates, as Marx says, a social power defined by the relationship between the property owner and the non-owner. The counterfeiter puts the command of abstraction as a property relation into danger. The person who copies the bill (or marks it or makes any other sign of distinction) puts the hierarchy that consecrates its exclusivity at risk. The difference between witches and forgers of banknotes is the existence of the banking institution, constructed after the stake.

I want to use this scene to highlight the relation between bodies and finance today. And, by specifying that relationship, to analyze in the concrete role that financial hegemony plays in contemporary capital accumulation, based on a feminist perspective.

Following the call for the 2017 international feminist strike, the NiUnaMenos collective wrote another manifesto entitled “We Want to Be Debt Free!” showing how the antagonism between life and finance is also a fundamental question for understanding the strike. In that document we said that we wanted to declare ourselves in defiance of finance. The Financial Objectors was an action that we carried out in front of the Central Bank of the Republic of Argentina (June 2, 2017), with the idea of giving a body to what domination seeks to make more abstract.

How and why did we identify finance as a target? In the action, we explained how we spend all day managing our accounts so that there is enough money, how we go into debt to finance daily life. We describe the experience of ambivalence of wanting to achieve economic autonomy and negate austerity in the here and now using the promise of our future labor while it imprisons us through the blackmail of debt. Current feminist struggles are driving a movement of the politicization and collectivization of the financial issue, proposing a specifically feminist reading of debt.14

Furthermore, our manifesto “We Want to Be Debt Free! ” was re-written as a poem, read and interpreted in a prison workshop under the same title by Eva Reinoso:

Indebted women in the everyday economy, austerity encloses us more and more in a cycle where we cannot say NO to working more for much less, to buying less for much more. 

We are conditioned, both as single mothers, who will surely suffer exploitation and precarious labor, and as domestic workers, “housewives,” who are completely exposed and subjected to sexism since they have to economically depend on their husbands and do not have resources to achieve autonomy, which is one of the worst forms of violence: not being able to escape subjugation because they are obligated to guarantee a plate of food for their kids.

The state, who one supposes should guarantee more resources so that our rights are respected, the only thing that it guarantees with this debt is more oppression and violence in all the areas that we pass through everyday: we pay 7 pesos for a ticket, 50 pesos for a kilo of bread, 25 pesos for a liter of milk, in the health centers and social assistance offices there are no resources and fewer professionals, the service getting worse. Electricity, water, gas, rent rates: impossible to pay. You have to choose what debt you will take out this month because you know that you can’t pay all your bills. 

This debt condemns us to remain in the circuit of consumption that capital manages, in which the profit percentages are excessively unnecessary, maintaining the increase of their capital, so that we are involuntarily financing more power in the time of the patriarchy.

Debt is understood as the expropriation of one’s own time, as well as the “involuntary” financialization of “patriarchal time.” In this sense, debt as a financial control apparatus poses a dispute over the temporality of the future. At present, that apparatus draws value from the indeterminacy of tasks. This is due to the fact that debt exploits, once it is detached from waged, stable labor, the very indeterminacy that arises from obedience. Then what does it mean to disobey finance through the strike? How we can confront debt’s power of abstraction?

At the same time as political control loses its most recognizable characteristics, it becomes more abstract and all encompassing. Two aspects become salient: abstraction is present, above all, in communication and finance and yet, in spite of the apparent immateriality of those apparatuses, that conflict takes place in concrete bodies. It is not a coincidence then that there was particularly violent repression against the incarcerated women who participated in March 8, 2018 feminist strike, who were attacked that very night after denouncing how the prison system exploits their labor.

The strike, which spread to several prisons in the country, was against the violence and discrimination exercised by the system. “We strike because we want to work. We want to put an end to exploitation by the prison system which pays us 16 cents an hour,” stated women prisoners striking in the Province of Buenos Aires. The prison strike was another scene that decentered the strike from its usual coordinates and exposed the prison as a unique site of exploitation. In this sense, the prison strike also renews the cartography of the inside and outside, of exclusions and borders, where women’s lack of economic autonomy explains multiple forms of enclosure at the same time as the attempt of expropriation of the very notion of an outside which is what constitutes the strike.

Conclusion: What Does It Mean to “Become a Body” Today?

What does it mean to “become a body” today? The question was posed by the Brazilian philosopher Suely Rolnik in a meeting we had in Buenos Aires, weeks after the first international women’s strike in 2017. Thus she raised the idea that each movement, when it truly unsettles and moves modes of feeling, perceiving, and struggling, recomposes the bodies of those who are involved. This means that it redefines them, but above all that it opens up a time of questioning: that of becoming body. It is a time of investigation that blurs the boundaries between the individual body and the collective body. And that connects it with the Spinozist assertion: No one knows what a body can do.

The same thing happens with what we have called the body of labor. We believe that it is redefined and recomposed by the experience of the feminist strike that reshapes and reconceptualizes both what we understand by labor and what we understand by strike. In this sense, I have developed here the idea that the strike functions as a cartographic method and organizational apparatus.

Certain lines of analysis have historically emphasized the “making of” and the “composition” of the working class to demystify and counter a certain crystallized idea of a class “consciousness.”15 The strike forces us to re-investigate what working class lives are today. In this sense, the impossibility of the strike as an opening to its possibilities shows that the feminist movement is not only a set of sectoral or corporate demands. To the contrary, it launches a question that affects the entire working class by its redefinition of class itself. And it opens up a situated field of investigation.

First, because it shows how all of the exclusions that historically constituted the “class” have been contested and disputed by concrete struggles. Today the class is a multiplicity that has shifted the borders of what we understand by the working class thanks to those struggles that contentiously raised the issue of redefining who are considered to be productive subjects. At the same time, the class never ceases to be a partiality: a division in society between those who, following Marx, depend on their labor power in order to relate to themselves and to the world, and those who do not.

By not accepting that workers are only those who receive a wage, the current feminist movement expands the notion of the class through the multiplication of labor. In this sense, through expanding the tool of the strike, we put the patriarchal concept of work in crisis because we question the idea that dignified work is only that which receives a wage and therefore, challenge the fact that recognized work is predominantly masculine. Like in a game of dominoes, this then implies questioning the idea that productive work is only that which is done outside the home.

Thus, feminism takes charge of the problem of redefining labor – and, therefore, the very notion of class – because it demonstrates the heterogeneity of non-recognized tasks that produce value and disobey the hierarchization and division that the wage creates between workers and the unemployed. It is a political movement: by decoupling recognition of work from the wage, it rejects the idea that those who do not receive a wage are condemned to the political margins.

The feminist movement, especially as connected to popular feminism and popular economies, thus shows that we cannot delegate to capital – through the tool of the wage – recognition of who are workers. That is why we say, “All Women Are Workers” (#TrabajadorasSomosTodas). Now, that statement does not operate as a blanket that covers up and homogenizes an abstract class identity, but rather it functions because it reveals the multiplicity of what labor means from a feminist point of view, with all of its hierarchies and all of its struggles.

Therefore, what feminism proves, in historical terms and in terms of the current expression of the masses, is that exploitation and labor can exist without the wage. In this way, we also put another idea of productivity into play. Being productive is not confirmed by whether or not we are exploited under the wage form. Rather, the reasoning is different: the form of exploitation organized by the wage makes other forms of exploitation invisible and creates hierarchies between them.

Thus it can be said that the body of women functions as a territory, the object of new colonial conquests, where the financial dynamic lands, replicating other scales of indebtedness. Today, the patriarchal-financial apparatuses that renew the colonial pact in the present, combining it with the forms of domination and exploitation, are revealed to be a fundamental point for understanding the counter-insurgent dimension of the war against women and feminized bodies.16 It is in this sense that Latin American feminist positions today take on an anti-colonial, as well as class-based, dimension in the face of finance and predatory and neo-extractivist formulas. This is important both for thinking about what a relationship with the state means in our societies and the state’s complicity with projects that dispossess bodies-territories, as well as to account for the historical and lasting misencounters between a certain liberal feminism and popular struggles.

By making the connection between gender violence and economic,social, media, and colonial violence visible, we are able to build a feminism that puts forth a critique of capitalism based on demonstrating the rationality of the assemblages that link exploitation in the labor sphere with the implosion of sexist violence into the home. In addition, it allows us to account for the multiplication of forms of exploitation in the affective, communitarian, informal economies that go beyond the world of the wage, but that play a central role, as dynamics of the feminization of labor, in the valorization of capital.

Therefore, one of the strategic tasks for the feminist movement is to make connections between the most precarious territories of labor and the abstract apparatus of finance in order to understand the new forms of exploitation and value extraction and, particularly, the role of women’s and feminized bodies in them.

By challenging the distinction between the public and the private, the reading of labor from a feminist point of view also allows for displacing and redefining the very idea of work, its zones and its tasks, based on a subjectivity that is supposedly external to or expelled from the central place of waged work.

As I have shown, in Argentina the genealogy of this displacement includes the movement of the unemployed, that in the midst of the crisis at the beginning of this century, managed to radically question what was meant by work, occupation, and remuneration and to resignify the traditional tool of the picket outside of the factory, using it to block the circulation of goods through the collective organization of roadblocks. Today, we see women, lesbians, trans persons, and travestis questioning the porous borders – porous because they are being disputed politically, not because of an abstract fluidity – that have been elaborated for decades between domestic, reproductive, productive, affective, and care work, in the context of a crisis that turns feminized bodies into a key territory of dispute.

The current return of the crisis dynamic in Latin America revitalizes the visibility of a type of expanded social cooperation in the territories of neighborhoods where popular economies proliferate in a non-temporary way and against which the violent offensive is especially strong. It is over this social fabric that finance operates, in a way that links the neo-extractive advances in campesino and indigenous, urban and suburban territories.

The collective and multitudinous body of the feminist movement is today disputing the body in the sense of its power [potencia]: that is, reclaiming the indeterminacy of what a body can do. That is where its strength, its multiplicity, its expansion comes from. In this register, the body ceases to be an individual confine and the object of liberal rights to become interwoven with insurgent territories that dispute social wealth. In this sense, the notion of the body-territory that we are deploying expresses where the body is connected with diverse conflicts and is reinvented as a common body.

— Translated by Liz Mason-Deese


1 TN. Argentina’s travesti movement has politicized that identity over decades of struggle, for example through campaigning for the Gender Identity Law (passed in 2012) or, more recently, for the legal recognition of the crime of “travesticide,” which was first used in 2018 to convict the murderer of transgender activist Diana Sacayán.
2 October 19, 2016 was the first national women’s strike in Argentina in repudiation of the femicide of the sixteen year old Lucía Pérez. The strike was quickly taken up in other countries in the region. There was massive participation in the strike and on the streets, marking a new historical date.
3 In genealogical terms, there are four lines that should be taken into account. The first is the women’s movement, whose main reference is the National Women’s Gathering, which has been carried out annually in Argentina since 1986, as well as initiatives such as the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion, which has operated since 2005. The second is the human rights movement, led by the Mothers and Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo.Third, the line of social movements, especially the movement of the unemployed, in which women’s participation has been fundamental over the last decade and a half. Fourth, a long history of the movement of sexual dissidences ranging from the legacy of the Homosexual Liberation Front of the 1970s to lesbian militancy for autonomous access to abortion and trans, travesti, intersex, and transgender activism that revolutionized the bodies and subjectivities of feminism against biologicist limits.
4 The statement, originally released on June 2, 2017, was later translated and republished in Critical Times Journal vol. 1, no. 1 (2018): 173 -174 (“We Want To Be Debt Free!
5 Josefina Ludmer, “The Corpus Delicti,” Modern Language Quarterly, vol. 57, no. 2 (1996): 141-150.
6 Paolo Virno, “Sobre las fábricas de charla” in ¿Quién habla? Lucha contra la esclavitud del alma en los call centers (Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón, 2006).
7 The concept of the popular economy has been used to politicize and organize workers in the “informal economy,” such as street vendors, trash pickers and recyclers, artisans, and informal market sellers, as well as workers in the cooperative economy, including worker managed factories, community soup kitchens, and other social enterprises. Many of them are now represented by the union-like structure of the Confederation of Popular Economy Workers or other similar organizations.
8 TN. The movements of the unemployed, or piqueteros as they became known for their practice of carrying out piquetes (roadblocks) in major streets, highways, and bridges, became a massive force in Argentine politics in the late 1990s.
9 Colectivo Situaciones and the MTD de Solano, La hipótesis 891: Más allá de los piquetes (Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón, 2002).
10 See Verónica Gago, Neoliberalism from Below: Popular Pragmatics and Baroque Economies. Translated by Liz Mason-Deese. (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2017).
11 Silvia Federici, El patriarcado del salario. Críticas feministas al marxismo (Buenos Aires: Tinta Limón, 2018).
12 Marie Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour (London: Zed Books, 2014).
13 Capital. Volume 1. Section on the “Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist.”
14 Luci Cavallero and Verónica Gago, Una lectura feminista de la deuda. Libres, vivas y desendeudadas nos  queremos (Buenos Aires: Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, 2019).
15 For example, see E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1966) and Antonio Negri, Marx beyond Marx: Lessons on the Grundrisse (New York: Autonomedia, 1991).
16 Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, Horizontes comunitario-populares. Producción de lo común más allá de las políticas estado-céntricas (Madrid: Traficantes de Sueños, 2017).

Author of the article

is a social sciences professor at the Universidad Buenos Aires and researcher at the National Research Council (CONICET). She is the author of Neoliberalism from Below (Duke University Press, 2017), Feminist International (Verso Books, 2020), and co-author of A Feminist Reading of Debt (Pluto Press, 2021). She was formerly a member of Colectivo Situaciones and is currently a member of the Ni Una Menos Collective.