Capitalism, debt and feminism

Kate Bradley reviews A Feminist Reading of Debt, finding an insightful account of the relationship between debt, gender, and capitalism, as well as examples of how to fight back against debt.

Original image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A Feminist Reading of Debt (2021) is the latest book in Tithi Bhattacharya and Susan Ferguson’s ‘Mapping Social Reproduction Theory’ collection.  This is a series many Marxists and fellow travellers have been following closely in the hope of updating orthodox theories of capitalism. Though there is disagreement about how novel the ideas in the series are, they have so far been very useful in helping the radical left – across many traditions – develop a widespread understanding of social reproductive labour and its importance for capitalism, and ultimately to overthrowing it.

Lucí Cavallero and Verónica Gago write with the experience of the Argentinian feminist movements from which Ni Una Menos and many other upsurges in feminist organising sprung. The second half of the book includes interviews with ‘compañeros’ from the feminist movement, providing anecdotal support for the arguments in the book’s manifesto-like first section. As is often the case in feminist works, the text is collaborative, featuring a chorus of voices: an editor, a translator, two writers and many activists. The force of the authors’ movement is behind every page, and it made me yearn for a feminist movement as theoretically generative.

Oppressive debt

Bhattacharya explains Cavallero and Gago’s project in her foreword:

‘Under capitalism, abstract mechanisms of the market have concrete consequences in the lives of the dispossessed. But those mechanisms, whether they are the intangible extraction of surplus labor on the shopfloor or the opaque financial operations of a subprime mortgage, remain obscured from the vision of those whom they affect and harm. Cavallero and Gago follow in the best traditions of left scholarship in making legible those operations precisely so that they can be resisted.’

In Cavallero and Gago’s sketches of the relationships created by financialisation, marginalised people take centre stage, since the debtor-creditor relation cannot be separated from concrete situations in their actual gendered, racialised, localised complexity. They argue that ‘debt does not homogenize those differences, but rather exploits them’ (p.4).

Financial Terror

Cavallero and Gago argue for an understanding of capitalism that affords debt its proper place in the new global economy, both at a macro scale (in the way it conditions the politics of particular nations in relation to each other) and at a micro scale (shaping the social and financial dynamics of households). Put simply, they argue ‘debt is what does not allow us to say no when we want to say no’ (p.6).

Cavallero and Gago argue that we should conceptualise the work of finance capitalism as a kind of ‘financial terror’ (p.14). ‘The financialisation of everyday life forces the poorest sectors to go into debt to pay for food and medication and to finance the payment of basic services in instalments with incredibly high interest rates. In other words, subsistence itself generates debt.’ When subsistence generates debt, ‘financial obligation makes relationships become increasingly fragile and precarious due to the permanent pressure of debt’ (p.15). In this way, a line is drawn between the expansion of finance markets across the world and interpersonal harms, from gendered violence to enforced heterosexuality, helping us to theorise how capitalism generates them. Debt becomes a ‘coercion mechanism’ (p.9) which keeps people in marriages despite domestic violence, ties young people to precarious work, prevents people from moving around, and threatens violence when people fail to meet their financial obligations. Rather than being angry with those to whom we ‘owe’ money, we are conditioned to feel shame if we cannot meet their obligations.

Fighting the debt system

Though the theory is thought-provoking and the book’s examples pertinent, sometimes its style is overly declarative and theoretically imprecise. I can think of many Marxists who would quibble with phrases like ‘fascist neoliberalism’ (p.19), and I’m still not entirely sure of the meaning of ‘differentiated moralization’ (p.20) – these are just two of many phrases I found challenging. It is possible that some sentences and phrases may be clearer in the original language and context. However, the style can make whole pages difficult to parse, taking the wind out of the sails of its arguments.

Still, it’s exciting to read about a movement taking debt seriously and theorising it through a lens that feels familiar to radicals – not as a ‘worrying social issue’ fed through a liberal lens (about as far as we’ve got in a British context) but as a core part of the functioning of global capitalism. Rather than an answer that involves debt advice, charity and gentle reforms of the welfare system, conceptualising debt in a radical way enables us to come up with more effective anti-capitalist strategies and tactics. In a section pleasingly titled ‘How to Disobey Finance?’, Cavallaro and Gago suggest ‘weaving together a refusal’, including ‘strikes and sabotage against finance’. They use examples from Mexico, Bolivia and the US (p.37-38) to show how this can be done – from occupations of banks to the burning of debt records, a useful companion to the many examples in David Graeber’s Debt. Their ideas are refreshing and revitalising, and make me want to get organising – surely part of their aim.

If you can get past some of the stylistic frustrations, this book is inspirational, highlighting the ways unions can work together with social movement organisations, and the way that debt resistance can undermine capital accumulation, both directly and by releasing people from the chains of debt. With England and Wales’ mortgage repossessions at a 5-year high after Covid, rent arrears spiralling, and an economy increasingly built on cheap consumer credit, Britain could do with our own debtors’ movement learning from international examples like those provided in this book.

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