Let’s feminise politics and politicise care: thoughts from Argentina on the feminisation of power
For the past four years, the people of Argentina have experienced a profound setback at the hands of a neoliberal government that has systematically eroded living conditions. Whilst this has had a significant impact on the consumption capacity of the middle classes, the most vulnerable have found existence itself to become increasingly precarious. Increasing numbers have found themselves expelled to the margins of society, left without any guarantee they will be able to secure the minimum necessary to live a dignified life.
“Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul,” Margaret Thatcher would say, making it clear that neoliberalism is a form of life that makes competition the backbone for organizing people’s behaviour and life in society. Neoliberalism is both a political project that operates at the macro-scale through economic policies of structural adjustment, as well as (and primarily) at the micro-scale, colonizing the modes of production of everyday life in which each person becomes an enterprise of themselves. If this is so, at least two questions arise for me as an activist: what has happened, in addition to the intense material economic deterioration, to our lives (and our souls) during these years of the neoliberal offensive? Is defeating Macrisim at the ballot box enough to put an end to neoliberalism?
The second question is easier to answer. Clearly getting rid of a government is not enough to get rid of neoliberalism. As Paula Canelo has argued, Cambiemos (President Mauricio Macri’s political party) “interpreted better than anyone the process of individualization that has been taking place since at least the last dictatorship. For the last dictatorship, individualization was a strategic component of its project for the country, from the economic, social, repressive, and political points of view. That is, it aimed to fragment solidarities. […] In the 1990s, we returned to another process of individualization, although with different objectives from those of the dictatorship. Menemism managed to value individuality, not only through the pro-market neoliberal boom and transformations in the workforce, but also through a certain type of consumption that had been previously prohibited.” As Seoane and Pamich Roca explain, the neoliberal wave of recent years advances with “new business operations that […] represent a change in the production of subjectivities, values, modes of thinking and doing, that also impose new cultural consumption according to the times.”
Even if winning elections is not sufficient, doing so is an essential step in order to stop going backwards and to start moving forward. Therefore it is worth celebrating that the primary elections in Argentina demonstrated a clear rejection of the current government. However, in Ciudad Futura (a movement party, which originated in Rosario, Argentina to then grow in other towns and cities of the province of Santa Fe) we are convinced that the main challenge that emerges in this context is related to the possibility of beginning to set out where we want to go. How do we want to move forward and with whom? How do we offer ways out that do not continue to reinforce the technologies of neoliberal reason that promote isolation, individualism, competition, segregation, loneliness, and the logics of “each individual for themselves”?
Lessons from feminism
Before beginning to sketch out some points within these lines of questioning, it is essential to recognize the leading role that the feminist movement has played, not only in Argentina but also around the world. It is the feminist process of mass organization and mobilization that have counteracted the accelerated individualism of the neoliberal offensive and the attempts, emanating from the discourses and practices of Macri’s government and its local and international allies, to break down all collective actions and solidarity. In the 1980s it was the human rights movement, with the struggles of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo as a guiding light. Following the 2001 crisis it was social movements and the unemployed, with the women of each neighborhood on the front lines, who emerged as political subjects of resistance and hope. Today it is the movement of women and dissidences [a broad term referring to people who defy the gender order, including lesbians, gay, bisexual, queer, trans and non-binary persons, among others] that emerges with force in this new era. An essential first step is to take the best of each of these collective practices to help us approach what is coming.
Looking at these experiences today, leads me to think about and recognize, in each of them, many of the ideas and actions that we are attempting to develop in Ciudad Futura when we think about the need to feminize politics: women’s emergence in the public-political scene; innovation in forms of struggle that prioritize affects and empathy; demands to place care and people’s needs at the center of the debate; and, modes of political organization linked to the construction of popular power in which democracy plays a leading role.
That said, I’ll go back to the challenge that, after we defeat neoliberalism at the ballot boxes, arises for those whom have been taking on the work of having one foot in the institutions and state trenches and hundreds of thousands of feet in the territories. This is the challenge faced by people who are busy building new modes of production and reproduction against capitalism. The “new” governments that will belong to this coming era, as a comrade would say, are still new governments of the old form of politics, and must be disputed. That means we are responsible for sharpening our collective intelligence in order to define strategies for the time to come, strategies that will amplify the field of political and social possibilities.
It is this challenge that leads me to reaffirm that it is through the feminization of politics that we will find a necessary and vital strategy, starting from the territories, not only for confronting the harsh consequences of the crisis and to start the process of rebuilding the rights lost during Macrism, but also a path to build dignified and egalitarian modes of life. Questioning the ways in which we conceive of politics and build power is one of the important challenges that we face when thinking about how to dispute the future.
New forms of doing politics against the neoliberal model
In Argentina the social and economic situation is at a critical point. We are in a food emergency, with thousands of families who cannot obtain the minimum and indispensable resources needed for a dignified life, in which children are the most affected, and the situation of vulnerability and impoverishment of women has risen notably. Therefore, there is an urgent task from which to start: the organization of community initiatives in popular neighborhoods that seek responses from below to people’s urgent needs, strengthening the bonds of solidarity in neighborhood communities but also mobilizing the commitment and empathy of middle class sectors. The experiences from all these years – where women activists in every territory have established networks of contention and accompaniment along with other women, to create work for themselves, to finish their high school education, to start soup kitchens, or collectivize care work – are experiences that need to be multiplied in the coming months. Confronted with this task, I think that we should find a terrain of activism in the massiveness and heterogeneity of the feminist movement, in which each person who rebels against gender-based oppression also embraces the struggle against all forms of oppression and the desire to build a more just, a more free and more egalitarian world.
In the meantime, I think that we must deepen our work, both within institutions as well as in organized civil society, in regards to the need to construct a different political agenda, one that does not prioritize the needs of economic corporations and international financial capital, or the conditions set by the International Monetary Fund, but rather the concrete and real needs of people. To do so, we need political courage but also ideas, projects, and policies that are different from those we have known. Whilst traditional politics speculates on posts and positions, we should concentrate on elaborating an agenda of proposals that, built through territorial assemblies, dispute the direction of what is coming: prioritizing policies of food sovereignty, urban integration and urbanization of the villas [shantytowns], cooperative production, youth and children, environmental sustainability, access to housing, senior citizens, among others. To do so it will be necessary (both in our institutional and our territorial work) to deepen relationships of cooperation with other experiences, social organizations, and popular movements with which we share the struggle for each of the aforementioned policies, with the goal of articulating and strengthening legislative initiatives, pressuring the governments in power and/or prefiguring solutions, as we know how to do, through social management.
However, we have to be clear about the fact that none of this will be possible if we are not able to transform our political culture and construct a new type of power. On this issue, the contributions of the feminist struggle and social movements cannot be ignored. We are convinced that power is not something that one takes and exercises believing that changes will occur from above to below, but rather that power is a construction and, as such, is not located in a single place, but in every relationship that we enter into. This conceptualization allows us to conceive of a revolutionary strategy that, far from being focused merely on disputing leadership of the state, nurtures each collective action that emerges in the territory, each social relation, and each everyday practice, breaking with the passivity that they want to condemn us to.
In opposition to the patriarchal conception of power, we take up the desire to construct another political culture that would be reflected in multiple leaderships, collective references that are not based on rational and speculative calculation, but that are driven by empathy and solidarity. It has to do with transforming the modes of action, the way of resolving conflicts and forms of constructing political relations, placing value on collaboration, working in networks, participation, delegating tasks and active listening. A first sketch of how we are doing this in Ciudad Futura can be found in the collective book Futuras. Ciudades feministas (Futures in feminine: Feminist cities).
Prefiguring the future through municipalism
We have to work on the urgent issues, feminizing politics and feminizing care, without losing sight of the challenge that faces us as a political generation. We must construct and offer desirable and achievable images of a different future, one that breaks with the conception, which neoliberalism has managed to establish as common sense, that “there is no alternative.” To do so, in Ciudad Futura, we are wagering on prefiguring, here and now, innovative projects of production, consumption, education, culture, health, care, among others, with the goal of demonstrating that alternatives to capitalism and the sexual division of labor exist and they are based on social management of the common. Anticipating those images of the future, not only makes it such that people believe that alternatives exist, but also create a space for gaining knowledges and lessons to multiply these experiences in other spheres, in other territories.
Embracing prefiguration and social management as strategies of political construction enables us to start from one of the main premises that gives life to the feminization of politics as a practice: the recognition that people are vulnerable and interdependent beings and that, instead of competing to save ourselves individually, we are capable of building, in common, a life more worthy of being lived.
When we face processes of transformation this way, we open ourselves up to the possibility of politicizing the everyday, that is: making visible and denaturalizing the inequalities that we experience daily, challenging constant commodification, fueling citizen involvement, and wagering on a project that commits the community to the management of the common. In this way, it is possible to break (even if only in a fragmentary way) with dynamics that are created from above toward below. Politics begins to be about what is nearby, and with that, cities have become the most suitable territory for putting forth emancipatory politics with a strong element of popular participation.
The first step is to stop going backwards. Moving the work forward is an immense task and there is no time to lose. To do so we must deepen and multiply the experiences of territorial organization, go out and meet those people who need urgent responses and, at the same time, be able to interpellate ever more people in order to defeat the apathy and individualism that prevail in our societies. For this to be possible, politics must be constructed based on proximity. Paraphrasing the singer Nacho Vegas, if neoliberalism wants us in solitude, then let it find us in common!
Caren Tepp is a City Councillor in Rosario, Argentina. She’s also an activist at Ciudad Futura.
Translated by Liz Mason-Deese