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Neoliberalism from Below: Popular Pragmatics and Baroque Economies by Veronica Gago

Gago, Verónica. 2017. Neoliberalism from Below: Popular Pragmatics and Baroque Economies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 288 pages. Cloth $94.95; Paperback $25.95

There are two important conceptual gestures in Verónica Gago’s recently translated Neoliberalism from Below that give us a sense of its major contributions to current conversations in the Anglosphere highlighting, once again, the need (actually, the urgency) for a more fluid conversation between North and South about the political and cultural experiences shaped by neoliberalism. Neoliberalism from Below is a remarkable example of this. Neither a theory book nor a case study—although it offers plenty of both—it does something else: it traces a transversal view across neoliberal logics that moves between economy, subjectivity, culture, social movements, and techniques of governance. From this vantage point, the book builds a perspective that helps us understand not just the playing field of neoliberal policies and its resistances, but the fundamental ambivalences at work within neoliberalism and the possibilities that emerge from them.

These two conceptual gestures are complementary. On the one hand, the author focuses on subjectivity (instead of, for instance, “market ideology,” “consumerism,” social control, etc.) as the domain through which the logics of neoliberalism need to be explored in order to understand its grasp on people’s decisions, as well as on (and this is the point of the book) the way in which people appropriate, deviate, and transform it into something different from what was intended. The second gesture revolves around the notion of calculus as survival strategy and the “vitalist pragmatics” shaping the field of application. This is the terrain of informal and migrant labor of neoliberal policies. At the intersection of these two gestures, Gago situates what is the central argument of her book, and gives it the title: neoliberalismo desde abajo, neoliberalism from below. Neoliberalism from below speaks to existing neoliberal practices that are both distant from the exclusively doctrinal corpus analyzed, for instance, by Foucault in his early reading of neoliberalism (in The Birth of Biopolitics) and, at the same time, where a dense configuration of migrancy, cultural formations, gender strategies, territorial logics, and global forces push neoliberal techniques to a complex field of application in which resistance and deviation becomes immanent to it, instead operating as its “outside.”

The gesture of zooming in on subjectivity in the analysis of neoliberalism, in Gago’s argument, pays homage, clearly, to the Foucauldian tradition (significantly evinced in Foucault’s interest in the migrant as a model of the “entrepreneur of the self”), but more significantly to the feminist and indigenous traditions that to a decisive degree infuse, in her view, the terrain upon which neoliberalism deploys in Latin America. Here the neoliberalismo desde abajo, against the common views of neoliberalism as a curse sent by the demigods of World Bank and Thatcherism, turns it into a popular matter, a technique of the popular, and a strategic terrain of the poor; it insists on a perspective in which neoliberalism is not only a model imposed from above, but rather a complex field of strategies and experimentation in which different precarious groups articulate new configurations of the collective. This field is intelligible through the lens of subjectivity and its production, as a notion that can illuminate the transversal lines moving between the economic and the affective, and between cultural temporalities and situated productions of knowledge.

In this sense, Neoliberalism from Below places at the center of the analysis the knowledge production of women, echoing, of course, the feminization of labor (especially migrant women’s labor) as one of the tropes of neoliberalism, but significantly situating this feminization as a site of knowledge production of strategies and collective calculus. This relevance of women at the heart of the reconfiguration of labor is, evidently, another contribution to current conversations in the US (the dialogue with Silvia Federici’s analysis is central here), in which an identitarian and cultural tradition of feminism have not paid much attention to the situation of women—usually brown and black, and migrant—that cannot take part in the struggles around formal labor. This is precisely the focus of Gago’s reading: the terrain of the informal, below the “norm” that defines what counts as labor, becomes a site of exploitation and, at the same time, the instance of a “baroque economy” that replicates and deviates from the mechanisms by which neoliberalism produces its forms of subjection and control.

The Pragmatic Precarious

The second conceptual gesture decisively at work in Neoliberalism from Below is the notion of calculus. Here, subjectivity and neoliberalism meet at the intersection of a calculus that is the survival strategy of the precarious, and that reshapes the field of freedoms. Against the grain of the liberal understanding of abstract individual freedoms, Gago reads freedom as a field always configured by both power technologies and the calculus of the poor, who will use and deviate from it, and direct it towards potentially new and resourceful uses. If neoliberalism enshrines market freedom as the matrix of social life, Gago’s poor—who are fundamentally the migrant women working in Buenos Aires’ informal sweatshops and markets such as La Salada—will work through its very terrain and orient its rationality towards strategies of investment, exchange, and economic projection through collective networks and a communitarian logic that is at odds with neoliberalism’s “possessive individualism.” The key gesture in Gago’s analysis is to situate this resistance not in the ideological traditions or class narratives of the actors, but in their very practical, concrete, material world, as part of their life-affirming strategies, what she calls “vitalist pragmatics” (the background of the crisis in 2001 serves as a repository of historical and cultural knowledge and strategies that are later mobilized.) In Gago’s formula, this pragmatics implies an affirmation of possibilities within a terrain demarcated by neoliberalism but not fully closed down, in which subjectivities, at the very interface between subjection and subjectivization, can expand their field of action.

In a political and cultural context in which reinvigorated neoliberal forces reshape social maps throughout the Americas, and where neoliberalism sometimes resembles an identical macropolitical technology moving across geographies, Gago’s analysis reminds us of the nuanced powers of ambivalence. The formula neoliberalismo desde abajo names precisely this shifting terrain made of possibilities (that may or may not be activated) in a field already demarcated by the powers “from above.” It is inherently ambivalent—as it harbors potentialities of counteraction and resistance, it also explains the popular support for neoliberal models that we have seen at work repeatedly in recent years.

This “neoliberalism from below” also serves as the background and the condition for the emergence of figures and territories that acquire texture in Gago’s writing. Particularly important here is the figure of the migrant woman as a force that reconfigures productions of subjectivity in our time, and consequently, the very terrain of what we call freedom. In the textures that shape this figure, we see the threads that redefine what we understand as “work,” “labor,” “agency,” the “communal,” and the “common.” We gain a more subtle understanding of how cultural memory is mobilized under shifting economic rationalities. The migrant woman as the nodal point of forces triggered by neoliberalism—forces of exploitation, of resistance, of reclaimed autonomy—emerges here as the vantage point from which to read broader social configurations. Gago’s prose—working at the intersection of social analysis, critical theory, and activist research—grasps something essential at work in the lives of these migrant women, something that gravitates forcefully in our current conversations about feminism, indigeneity, economy and neoliberalism: an affirmation that is the product of calculus and survival strategies that inoculate the powers of ambivalence in a field that, seen from above, appears as already foreclosed.

Gabriel Giorgi is Professor of Latin American Literature at New York University. He has also taught at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, and at Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, in Argentina. He published Sueños de exterminio. Homosexualidad y representación en la literatura argentina (2004) [Dreams of Extermination. Homosexuality in Argentine Literature] and Formas comunes. Animalidad, cultura, biopolítica (2014) [Forms of the Common. Animality, Culture, Biopolitics] He is currently working on heterogeneous temporalities and counterpublics in contemporary cultural imaginaries.