In Neoliberalism from Below—first published in Argentina in 2014—Verónica Gago examines how Latin American neoliberalism is propelled not just from above by international finance, corporations, and government, but also by the activities of migrant workers, vendors, sweatshop workers, and other marginalized groups. Using the massive illegal market La Salada in Buenos Aires as a point of departure, Gago shows how alternative economic practices, such as the sale of counterfeit goods produced in illegal textile factories, resist neoliberalism while simultaneously succumbing to its models of exploitative labor and production. Gago demonstrates how La Salada's economic dynamics mirror those found throughout urban Latin America. In so doing, she provides a new theory of neoliberalism and a nuanced view of the tense mix of calculation and freedom, obedience and resistance, individualism and community, and legality and illegality that fuels the increasingly powerful popular economies of the global South's large cities.
About the Author
Verónica Gago is Professor of Social Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires, Professor at the Instituto de Altos Estudios, Universidad Nacional de San Martín, and Assistant Researcher at the National Council of Research (CONICET). Her work is deeply influenced by active participation in the experience of Colectivo Situaciones.
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Between the Proletarian Microeconomy and the Transnational Network
La Salada in the Triple Frontier
The market La Salada is a space of intersection and movement, at the border between the city of Buenos Aires and the districts of Lomas de Zamora and La Matanza in the urban periphery. In its twenty hectares, numerous bustling transactions accumulate: food, clothing, technology, leather goods, shoes, music, and movies are bought and sold. In the early days, it took place only at night, always on the threshold between Wednesday and Thursday, and between Sunday and Monday. An area that was once a popular riverside resort during the 1950s is being renewed today as a transnational and multitudinous shopping zone. Each day more and more buses, vans, and cars from all over Argentina, as well as Uruguay, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Chile, arrive at the market.
La Salada has been characterized as the largest illegal market in Latin America. It is divided into three sectors of warehouses: Urkupiña — in honor of the Virgin of Cochabamba: the Virgin of Urkupiña; Punta Mogote — referencing the traditional Mar de Plata beach; and Ocean, also referring to the seaside, reinforced by the feeling of oceanic immensity that is awakened upon seeing the market in all of its unfolding. Additionally, La Salada had an entire sector of open-air sales, called La Ribera, which was much more precarious. This sector has currently been suspended, although sections of it are sporadically assembled. It is the space subjected to the most pressure, because it has been the market's most informal and most conflictive boundary ever since the gendarmerie was moved in and held ready on the edge of the Riachuelo, as a border force for establishing order.
La Salada is a migrant territory because of its composition: it was founded by a handful of Bolivian women and men at the beginning of the 1990s. Currently, the majority of vendors come from different parts of Bolivia, but there are also Argentines, Paraguayans, Peruvians, and, recently, Senegalese, who are responsible for selling bijoux (cheap jewelry). La Salada is also a migrant territory because of the circuit that its merchandise follows: buyers arriving from neighboring countries open routes of distribution and commercialization toward their countries, while many of the goods arrive from various parts of the planet. La Salada, in its apparently marginal character, is a node in an expanding transnational network and a privileged site for demonstrating the multiplicity of economies and heterogeneous processes of work through which the global economic system is materialized. This singular locality constitutes an assemblage, combining an anomalous and differential component (one that is capable of sustaining the hypothesis of popular globalization "from below") and dynamics of subordination and exploitation, indicating a modality that is characteristic of the postmodern phase of capitalist rule.
La Salada proposes — it exposes and invites — an epistemology that measures up to it (to its height and its overflowing width), a border epistemology, to use Gloria Anzaldúa's (2012) expression. This is a mode of knowledge that emerges from the displacements of territories, occupations, and languages. This requires paying attention to those trajectories and trusting that there is an expressive force, a vital promise, a knowledge of movement, a perspective capable of being elastic and generous with the tumultuous rhythm of what is taking place. How is La Salada a border zone? Why locate La Salada in the Triple Frontier?
1. The border as the social space of the heterogeneous. That the majority of its founders and current stallholders are migrants imprints a transnational character on La Salada that then disperses itself throughout Buenos Aires. However, it is not only a question of origin. It is also about projection: the merchandise of this megamarket crosses internal and external borders and remaps the circuits of commercial, political, and familial comings and goings. In turn, the replicas that La Salada sparks in different places (called saladitas, or little Saladas) expand its influence and, in their itinerant multiplication, demonstrate a capacity to rapidly conquer new spaces. Thus, La Salada is anxious to expand to other places or to directly invent them. It is a successful formula for a type of popular business at different scales. But, above all, it is a dynamic that is informed by procedures and knowledges articulated in an assemblage of highly variegated and dissimilar components (a contingent web of routes, uses, and affects) that favor a series of what I will call proletarian microeconomies.
2. The territorial border. The spatial border is not only a metaphor but also a concrete location. La Salada is a borderland, in the sense of the intersection of jurisdictions situated next to the Riachuelo (Little River), as well as the border between the urban periphery and the capital city. It is also the limit and overlap between land and water: riverbank and cornice. Taking La Salada to other locations, placing it in other neighborhoods, cities, and countries, is also a way of relocating that bordering practice to other sites and producing a new cartography of transactions, travels, expectations, and ventures. In recognition of its border character (as in other urban territories), the national gendarmerie has been chosen as the security force that monitors it.
3. The analytic bordering zone. The market, as a mass phenomenon, concentrates a radical mutation of concepts and binaries, between center and periphery, marginal zone and scarcity, suburb and merchandise, small-scale economy and informal economy. In addition to the "inversion" of prices that takes place from the viewpoint of the real estate market — the extremely high cost per square meter in La Salada is on par with that in the wealthiest and most exclusive zones of Buenos Aires — we should also note the insinuation of growth and, thus, the perspectives on productivity distilled in market spaces (in the material plane as well as in the virtual plane through Internet sales). The velocity of the trajectories involved, the routes of vendors and visitors, situate the market at a spatiotemporal cross point: a laboratory of expanding popular economies that challenge (or explode) certain categories of analysis and force concepts to cross their own disciplinary borders.
Popular markets reached their peak during the crisis of 2001 with the massive experience of barter. The multiplication of currency notes and the possibility of exchange under rules different from those of the formal-legal market are a decisive precedent for understanding the success of the megamarket La Salada. One moment, that of the crisis, when much of the country maintained itself through quasi-fake currencies, expanded modes of production and consumption that combine self-management with smuggling, piracy, and invention. In times of turmoil, currency becomes, to use Pierre Klossowski's (2012) beautiful expression, a living currency, because the norms of economic functioning reveal themselves, more than ever, as a "substructure of social affects" (17). In turn, La Salada's recent impact cannot be understood outside of the inflationary rhythm, another way in which a certain excess of currency (and its virtual falsification or devaluation) is again shown as "one mode of the expression and representation of instinctive forces" (17). La Salada opens the possibility for small-scale popular consumption and enables access to cheap goods and services at a time when consumption is becoming the quickest and most dynamic form of social inclusion, and it does so as an expressive space of a mode of baroque transactions.
La Salada was strengthened during the crisis of 2001, although, strictly speaking, it does not owe its origin to that decisive conjuncture. Nor was it weakened following the crisis; the recent economic recovery has not caused it to stagnate or decrease in size. On the contrary, the conglomeration of La Salada and the complex economic web connected to the megamarket have become key pieces of new political-economic articulations. If the market and its first breakthrough, linked to the simultaneous scarcity and multiplicity of currencies, are intimately connected to the conjuncture of crisis, it should be emphasized that market know-how becomes a way of permanently managing a greater crisis: that of the world of formal wage labor.
The crisis is revealed as the privileged locus of analysis, because it demonstrates the social dispute over obedience, through rules that enable and hinder accumulation, but also because it is a moment of collective experimentation with other forms of living, cooperating, exchanging, and protecting one another. La Salada thus becomes a sort of laboratory for new forms of producing, consuming, and constructing networks of distribution and commercialization, structuring itself as a quarry of new types of employment.
Textiles are the market's key sector, and their trajectory during the last two decades represents a prototype. If in the 1990s the textile industry was dismantled as the result of the massive influx of imports favored by peso-dollar convertibility, the industry was revitalized after the crisis, the end of exchange-rate parity, and the devaluation of the Argentine peso, although with a new base: the outsourcing of production to small workshops whose labor force is made up of sewing workers from Bolivia.
In La Salada the formal desalarization seen during the employment crisis is stabilized. It is clear that moments of economic fragility intensify hierarchical relations (Moulier Boutang 2006), but in La Salada we see a framework that exhibits these same problems in a space of strong prosperity and the creation of new modes of employment.
The contemporary situation is characterized by the emergence of new forms of dependent activities combining freedom from the regulations of Fordist dependency with new forms of servitude to market fluctuations in unprecedented forms (Virno 2004). In this way, the multiplication of labor realities is replicated as the multiplication of the levels, scales, and dimensions that make global space heterogeneous, crisscrossed by different migratory movements that transform the international division of labor (Mezzadra and Neilson 2013a). Thus, the current capitalist drive becomes competitive and dynamic by flexibly articulating itself with the practices, networks, and attributes that have historically characterized the flows of unpaid labor. This allows us to understand the labor market as a "pluri-articulated" assemblage where mixed and hybrid forms coexist (always as a counterpoint to a homogeneous ideal of wage labor).
This argument, capable of gauging the heterogeneity of the contemporary world of work, is especially useful for arguing against the unidimensionality of informality. Informality, if understood only in terms of deproletarianization, risks being reduced to the privileged source and space of violence and crime. By emphasizing La Salada as a territory marked by extreme and exceptional violence, while also marginalizing it, this discourse appraises in a strictly negative way that which in fact functions as a possibility for life (and not only survival and violence) for a massive portion of the population, as a space for highly innovative modes of coping with scarcity, violence, institutions, and consumption.
All the vitality involved in the creation of a space of popular commerce and consumption, with its tactics and hierarchies, transactions and appropriations, comes undone if there are only victims (of neoliberalism, of unemployment, of mafias, etc.). This does not deny the violence of social relations, nor romanticize their transactions, but neither does it unilateralize them.
I call these economies proletarian microeconomies in order to show a new landscape of the proletarian beyond its Fordist definition and to highlight the question of the scales that make these economies function primarily as assemblages. Also, as noted above, I argue against the notion of the deproletarianization of the popular world.
In this respect, La Salada manages to combine a series of proletarian microeconomies composed of small and medium-sized transactions, while also serving as the base of a large transnational network of (mostly textile) production and trade. This occurs because of the development of small-scale commercial retail, enabling diverse survival strategies for resellers and opportunities for big business for small importers, manufacturers, and market sellers, as well as creating a space for mass consumption. Enormous numbers are managed in La Salada: with only two days of activity per week, in 2009 more money passed through it than in all the country's shopping malls combined (nearly 15 billion Argentine pesos as opposed to 8.5 billion in the shopping malls, according to the official data of the National Institute of Statistics and Census).
La Salada and the textile workshops form a circuit in which labor categories are changing and intermittent: flexible transitions between dependent work and self-employment initiatives, ranging from engaging in moments of informality and never-abandoned aspirations of "going formal," to receiving state subsidies, to relying on communitarian networks, tactically transiting, using, and enjoying family, neighborhood, commercial, communal, and political relationships. In short, the border zones populated by this economy reveal the plurality of labor forms and call into question the very limits of what is called work.
La Salada is a territory of new regimes of submission and new places of social innovation. The question is how to also grasp the moments of seeking autonomy and freedom that function as "the permanent backdrop to processes of servitude and (internal and external) colonial hegemony" (18)? With his insistence on reading against the grain, Antonio Negri (2006) states that it is possible to understand migrant cultures and behaviors as constituent countercultures. This implies searching for a definition of labor in which the history of slave-migrants demonstrates a fundamental reality: they are entirely integrated within, but also remain outside of, capital. The potential for an independent political-social reality is at stake.
The Archaic as a Source of Innovation
La Salada exhibits a new composition of labor power — informal, illegal, precarious, innovative, and entrepreneurial — that has become notorious in postcrisis Argentina as the key element of an economic restructuring based on new forms of labor. It also demonstrates the decline of alternative practices challenging wage labor that had emerged from the most radical sectors of the movement of the unemployed.
La Salada and the textile workshops exhibit a singularity: the migrant composition of the labor force, which plays the lead role in this popular economy and is not restricted to a single nationality, brings out, in the extreme, forms of recomposition and transformation in the world of work that overflow its traditional coordinates (formal, waged, masculine, national labor, conceiving of the isolated individual, detached from his or her home and relations of reproduction).
A "communitarian capital" travels with Bolivian migrants and is reformulated, characterized by its ambiguity: it is capable of functioning as a means of selfmanagement, mobilization, and insubordination but also as a means of servitude, submission, and exploitation. However, the archaic is not confined to a traditional custom and usage that would contradict new forms of employment; instead, the operation is more complex: the archaic becomes the input for an absolutely contemporary recombination.
Hence, a unique form of entrepreneurship emerges, promoted by the informalization exploited by the textile workshops and continued in La Salada, which places value on domestic-communitarian elements, bringing dynamics of self-management into play and nurturing concrete political networks.
A Vitalist Pragmatic
To understand the dynamic of the migrant labor force, I will focus on the power of decision making and will to progress that mixes the Foucauldian definition of the migrant as an investor in himself or herself with the utilization of communitarian capital. This is a vital impulse that deploys a calculus in which a rationality based on the desire for personal and family progress is superimposed onto a repertoire of communitarian practices. A second, complementary hypothesis is the specifically postmodern articulation of the communitarian with the post-Fordist productive world: its capacity to become a labor attribute, a specific type of qualification, for the migrant workers from the Bolivian highlands who have come to Buenos Aires. In being put to work, the communitarian becomes a source of a pragmatic versatility that crosses borders and is capable of adaptation and invention.
Excerpted from "Neoliberalism from Below"
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments vii Introduction. Neoliberalism from Below: A Perspective from Latin America 1 1. Between the Proletarian Microeconomy and the Transnational Network: La Salada 29 2. Between La Salada and the Workshop: Communitarian Wealth in Dispute 78 3. Between Servitude and the New Popular Entrepreneurship: The Clandestine Textile Workshop 108 4. Between the Workshop and the Villa: A Discussion about Neoliberalism 153 5. Between Postnational Citizenship and the Ghetto: The Motley City 178 6. Between Populism and the Politics of the Governed: Governmentality and Autonomy 218 Conclusion. Neoliberal Reason 234 Notes 237 References 257 Index 271
What People are Saying About This
“Verónica Gago represents the incredibly exciting voice of Latin American critical thought at its very best, and with this book she emerges as the foremost analyst of popular economic practices. Neoliberalism from Below consecrates Gago as a new cartographer of popular practices, a philosopher of difference and a pioneer of a renewed kind of philosophical anthropology of the economy. Her voice announces with prescient vision the coming of a new Left.”
“Combining a sophisticated ethnographic analysis with philosophical nuance and an original theorization of neoliberalism, Verónica Gago offers a thought provoking and impeccably pursued analysis of the social, economic, and political processes that have shaped Latin America over the last decade.”
"This is a great book and one that we need to understand the neoliberal economy at ground level—and to do so for a wide range of processes, from the very complex to the rather straightforward. Verónica Gago is a master at making visible how sectors we might think only dwell in the rarified heights of finance do actually cross borders and enter the domains of the poor.”