Debt and Desire: Differential Exploitation and Gendered Dimensions of
Debt and Austerity
Jule Govrin
Krisis 2023, 43 (1): 25-45.
Austerity as management of public debt is at the core of neoliberal policies and proceeds as
differential exploitation. To explore its gendered dimensions of debt, the paper inquires how
debt is bond to desire and inscribed in bodies. After indulging in David Graebers, Gilles
Deleuzes and Félix Guttaris work, the analysis focusses on accumulation through debt and
dispossession. Drawing on Verónica Gago, Luci Cavallero and Silvia Federici, it reflects how
current economies of debt exploit feminized work in times of authoritarian neoliberalism. The
paper sheds light on solidaristic struggles against austerity that manifest a desire for social
transformation and economies of care.
Austerity, Authoritarianism, Debt, Desire, Dispossession, Neoliberalism
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC
BY 4.0). © 2023 The author(s).
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
Debt and Desire: Differential Exploitation and Gendered Dimensions of
Debt and Austerity
Jule Govrin
Debt is present every day, in direct forms, such as when one is in debt, or in indirect forms,
when one feels the impacts of austerity. And debt manifests itself in bodily manners. The pan-
demic unveiled these concrete corporeal effects of economy: the Corona crisis was massively
exacerbated because health systems were weakened by decades of austerity; moreover, many
people lost their homes due to sudden unemployment, whereas others were confined in their
homes, and often, especially mothers, overloaded with care work. Economies are not mere
abstractions, economies are embodied. Debt and austerity hint at this corporeal dimension of
capitalism - they cannot be conceived only in terms of abstract economic models. To under-
stand the socio-somatic dynamics of debt in the era of austerity, an expanded feminist-philo-
sophical perspective is needed that involves bodies, social bonds, and desire.
There is a long intellectual lineage that examines capitalism not as a rational system of inter-
ests, but in its destructive, disruptive tendencies and affective ramifications, deploying desire
for this purpose prominently in the works of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. This paper
pursues this path and takes the relation between desire and debt as an analytical point of de-
parture: this focus on desire may reveal the moral dimension of debt, as a form of economic
subjectivation that disciplines desire. Moreover, desire involves gendered relations, which al-
lows considering the connection between indebtedness and gender politics, for neoliberal aus-
terity is closely linked to conservative family policies and increased exploitation of care work.
Debt as analytical departure helps to show how the moralizing and material impacts of debt
and austerity affect every body, albeit in different ways. Understood as pre-personal force,
desire also hints at social relationality, and this guides us towards conceiving economy as so-
cial, embodied practice. Drawing on David Graebers anthropological study, this paper lays
out how debt fundamentally builds on relationality. Concurrently, with reference to Luci
Cavalleros and Verónica Gagos studies, it illustrates how austerity, as neoliberal manage-
ment of public debt, exploits and disrupts this relationality. The analytical focus on desire
allows the reconciliation of these two contrasting understandings of debt.
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
I. Differential Exploitation and Embodied Economies of Debt and
Desire Legacies
The history of philosophy already offers hints of how debt is manifested in material manners,
and how it disciplines desire. A prominent, pivotal text is Friedrich Nietzsches Genealogy of
Morals, published in 1887. It unveils how the exchange ratio is based upon an affective debt
economy. Roman law required an equivalent of pain, if a debtor could not pay his debt, which
ought to provide a certain degree of sadistic satisfaction to the creditor. And this “enjoyment
will be the greater the lower the creditor stands in the social order” (Nietzsche 1967, 64-6).
Economic debt is turned into social debt. Nietzsches narrative of debt discipline and punish-
ment points to aspects that are also important for the analysis of neoliberal austerity: he first
emphasizes the bodily effects of debt. Then he highlights how debt aligns with morality; debt
morality inscribes itself as discipline in the debtor, who is subjectivized as a morally depraved
person (see also Foucault 1995, 136-40). This subjectivation works through desire; in other
words, debt disciplines desire.
This leads us to look at embodiments of economy. Such an approach is suggested by many
different scholars. Two of them are the medical experts Sanjay Basu and David Stuckler who
analyse austerity in the context of public health. Their research reveals that rigid austerity not
only reinforced the economic crisis, but also resulted in health crises when many lost their
jobs, houses, and, consequently, access to healthcare, for example 2009 in the US, or 2012 in
Greece (Stuckler and Basu 2013, 101-5; 77-85). Basu and Stuckler suggest studying economy
“as body economic” (Stuckler and Basu 2013, 139) in a very basic, materialist understanding:
as an organization of bodies among bodies. This analytical approach carries a normative com-
ponent as it foregrounds the well-being of every body rather than private profit. Understood
as body economic, capitalism relies on the relationality of bodies and exploits dependency and
Basu and Stuckers suggestion resonates with Gagos and Cavalleros “feminist reading of
debt” that “proposes concrete bodies and narratives of its operation in opposition to financial
abstraction” (Cavallero and Gago 2021, 5). So, debt is much more than an abstract system of
financial speculation; rather, it is being inscribed in bodies, and embodied by those who carry
its burden. To understand the disruptions of neoliberal debt, we must begin with the bodies
most affected by austerity: the bodies of those being pushed into precarious work, left without
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
healthcare, burdened by the extra effort of care work, and under constant stress to pay the next
Maurizio Lazzarato elaborates on Nietzsches thinking in view of neoliberal austerity carving
out the transnational realm of deterritorialized debt dynamics. According to Lazzarato, this
austerity regime produced the new subjectivity of the “indebted man” (Lazzarato 2011, 162),
i.e. the debtor in the face of “Capital as Universal Creditor(Lazzarato 2011, 162). But as
Nietzsche emphasizes the embodiment of debt, it is not sufficient to claim a universal debtor-
subject, as Lazzarato does, since this neglects the differential logic of debt discipline. Accord-
ing to Gago and Cavallero no “debtor-creditor relation […] can be separated from concrete
situations and especially from sexual, gender, racial, and locational differences, precisely be-
cause debt does not homogenize those differences, but rather exploits them(Cavallero and
Gago 2021, 4). Debt rather operates as “differential of exploitation” (Cavallero and Gago 2021,
VIII). Exploitation proceeds through the inscriptions of class, race, and gender. People whose
bodies are marked as “other” are economically more exploited, thus differential exploitation
works along the axes of the international and gendered division of labour. Differential exploi-
tation both builds on and deepens social differences (Govrin 2022, 139-41). This seems to be
the case when it comes to debt. Therefore, the question is not only how debt is inscribed in
bodies, but also in which bodies it is inscribed. As Rocio Zambrana states, debt is an “apparatus
of capture,” which “involves expulsion, dispossession, and precarization through which
race/gender/class hierarchies are deepened, intensified, posited anew” (Zambrana 2021, 10).
It seems, then, that debt is not just one of many examples of the differential body economic of
capitalism; rather, debt seems to play a key role in how people are rendered unequal based on
difference. This assumption will be explored in what follows.
To commence with bodies draws attention to desire and needs, as well as dependency and
vulnerability. This foregrounds a feminist-materialist approach, as feminist critiques of eco-
nomics focus on issues of care and common needs. It takes the household the oikos
as the
starting point, which is linked to debt and desire in different ways: in times of public debt and
austerity, the household can be in debt as in the subprime mortgage crisis in the US, starting
in 2007, which resulted in the “loss of home for millions in the United States” and “over-
whelmingly affected Black and Latino/a borrowers and communities” (Ferreira da Silva and
Chakravartty 2012, 361). On another level, debt reorganizes the household; as Silvia Federici
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
spells out, austerity comes along with a financialization of reproduction” (Federici 2019, 18),
when care work is re-privatized and turned into precariously paid or unpaid, unrecognized
work. This exploitation of gender inequality displays how the household is tied to debt.
Apart from these effects of austerity on housing and households, debt is tied to oikos in quite
fundamental ways. In this regard, Graebers anthological study (2011) offers insights. In an
anthropological perspective which exceeds contemporary capitalism, debt used to be crucial
for communal economies that evolve around the oikos and not around markets. The household
is thus closely connected to debt as embodied social practice; in this very broad understanding,
debt defines social relations (Graeber 2011, 266). In communal economies, debt reassures so-
cial bonds, organizing needs and relations. Reciprocal debt relationships therefore sustain
communities that are driven by their dependency.
By ensuring that everyone was always slightly in debt to one another, they actually
created human society, if a very fragile sort of society a delicate web made up of
obligations to return three eggs or a bag of okra, ties renewed and recreated, as any one
of them could be cancelled out at any time (Graeber 2011, 122).
In communal economies debt relies on relationality and enables egalitarian practices. How-
ever, it becomes an instrument of divide and rule when it is institutionalized and hierarchized,
as in early forms of credits given by temples, with interest-bearing loans (Graeber 2011, 64).
To cut a long story short: Graeber argues that in times of capitalism we see solidifying an
institutionalized form of indebtedness which systematically entrenches inequality. Due to its
financialization in capitalism, debt reinforces asymmetric power structures (Graeber 2011,
335-49). Whereas communal economies used debt as social bonding that enhanced egalitarian
practices, credit debt in capitalism installed structural asymmetries (Graeber 2011, 64-7; 120-
Graebers description of debt as an organizational principle of the oikos, and of credit as a
hierarchizing principle of modern societies, hints at desire in two regards. First, debt in com-
munal economies accounts for dependency and relationality, and thus involves desire, under-
stood as a pre-personal, relational force that produces social bonds, as Deleuze and Guattari
note (Deleuze and Guattari 1987, 219). Second, credit, and the moralizing discipline of debt,
are embedded in modern family formations. Drawing on Nietzsche, Deleuze and Guattari
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
argue how social debt the debt to the king or in secularized times to the father works in
favour of the bourgeois family, the oedipalized desire regulates sexual and gendered orders
accordingly. Debt defines the foreclosure of desire in family formations, ascribing fixed posi-
tions of obedience, and these subjectivations seek to discipline desire. For “debt is the unit of
alliance,” the “alliance-debt” (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 185) that regulates free-flowing de-
sire and reterritorializes it in the representation of the bourgeois family. For Deleuze and Guat-
tari debt is linked to heteronormative family structures in terms of social and moral guilt. To
stand in debt is a form of subjectivation that upholds authoritarian hierarchies. To them, this
is part of a long tradition of patriarchal power; the precapitalist indebtedness to god in the king
was transferred in capitalism to the figures of the father and the boss. Whether it indicates how
debt is tied to moral discipline and family formations, Deleuze and Guattaris description re-
mains rather abstract. Even though their term of “alliance-debt” might be fruitful, their analysis
reduces debt to the symbolic sphere of the social. The following analysis will show how con-
crete economic debt reinforces conversative family values.
All in all, the formation of the heteronormative family as an economic unit appears as the
economization of desire. According to Deleuze and Guattari, economies are driven by a desire
for accumulation. Conversely, desire is economized, the economic order affects people
through desire and directs them to their societal positions in terms of social organization and
sexual orders (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 25; 239). Capital feeds on this economization of
desire, which enables the exploitation of reproductive work which is essential in apparatuses
of austerity. Thus, economies of debt may be grasped as economies of desire in a systematic
and in a social regard: in a systematic regard, austerity unveils capitals desire for accumula-
tion, which manifests materially by moving bodies and making them work. In a social regard,
it involves specific subjectivations. Neoliberal debt interferes in social relations and disciplines
desire. Moreover, it exploits care work in gendered economies.
To study how debt operates as differential exploitation, we need corresponding methodologi-
cal tools. Deleuze and Guattaris perspective on capitalism as economy of desire resonates
with an analysis of austerity and its disruptive tendencies, showing the circles of destruction
enhanced by a “debt drive” (Schuster 2016, 172). To understand these disruptive dynamics of
debt, their conceptual pair of de- and reterritorialization may be applied (Deleuze and Guattari
1983, 181-4). Similar to Marxs concept of exchange value, deterritorialization describes a
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
dissolution of boundaries, for instance when land no longer serves subsistence but the extrac-
tion of surplus value. Reterritorialization refers to the binding back into state structures. De-
and reterritorialization go hand in hand, because in its transnational financial flows capital
deterritorializes, while simultaneously, due to economic state policies, it “reterritorializes the
deterritorialized flows” (Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 266). To take another example, the deter-
ritorializing dynamics of financial speculation provoked the economic crisis in 2008; the sub-
sequent state interventions and investments to save banks can be seen as reterritorialization
(cf. Tooze 2018).
Next to the molar formation of debt state debt in particular its molecular movements lead
back to desire: debt discipline proceeds as subjectivation, which organizes social, and hence
gendered, relations. In view of this, how does neoliberal debt feed on desire as social force?
How does debt reshape social relations? And alternatively, how does desire undermine debts
II. On the Alliance of Austerity and Authoritarianism
Federici writes that debt “has been an instrument of class rule through the ages” (Federici
2019, 60) a statement that falls short of the social function of debt in communal economies
described by Graeber. Despite this, she is right that debt cannot be conceived as “political
universal” because it “has undergone significant transformations“ (Federici 2019, 60).
In capitalist history debt undermines the liberal assumption of the “free market” enabling
equality. Capitalism was founded on colonialism and the constitutive force of finance. A par-
adigmatic figure is the indebted king at the end of the seventeenth century depending on the
goodwill of his creditors (Vogl 2017, 76-9). Likewise, colonial expeditions were financed by
bank loans. In the long run, this debt burden was eventually placed on colonized states. For
instance, in the aftermath of the Haitian revolution in 1804 an “independence debt” imposed
by France “operated as an apparatus of economic capture and political control” (Zambrana
2021, 83). Colonized states were forced to pay a centuries-long debt as price for their inde-
pendence. Colonial debt forms a condition of coloniality, which continues into present times
(Zambrana 2021, 10), because contemporary austerity perpetuates this colonial condition of
unequal indebtedness. Based on the so-called Washington Consensus the free-market doc-
trine of privatization and deregulation the International Monetary Fund (IMF) imposed
“Structural Adjustment Programs” (SAP), particularly in the Global South, which increased
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
global inequalities. Considering this background, austerity programs appear as neocolonial
1973 may be assigned as neoliberalisms hour of birth, namely the year of the coup against
Salvador Allendes government in Chile (Marchart 2013, 110). It was preceded by an alliance
of conservative Catholics and new economic experts, the Chicago Boys who rendered Chile
the “epicenter of the Chicago experiment” (Klein 2008, 63). To briefly sketch this story: even
before the coup, Chile was perceived as a laboratory for testing economic programs (Fischer
2009, 305). In the context of exchange programs “approximately thirty Chilean economists
were trained in Chicago between 1956 and 1964” (Fischer 2009, 310) at the famous institute,
led by Milton Friedman that was next to Friedrich von Hayeks Austrian School and the
Mont Pèlerin Society an intellectual centre for neoliberal thought (Edwards und Montes
2020). Back in in Chile, the Chicago Boys were partly involved in preparing the military coup.
They obtained positions in the junta under Augusto Pinochet, and in 1975 when recession
kicked in, “a window of opportunity for a radical neoliberal transformation opened” (Fischer
2009, 309). They implemented the so-called shock treatment: measures of privatizing state
infrastructures, destroying syndicate structures, abolishing workers rights, and dismantling
social state structures (cf. Harvey 2007, 8-10; 39). These early neoliberal economists closely
collaborated with military regimes that carried out systematic kidnapping, killing, and tortur-
ing, which took place in Chile and also in other countries.
These regimes of “bureaucratic authoritarianism” started in the late 1960s the Revolucíón
Argentina, the military regime in Brazil, the Pinochet regime in Chile, and Juan María Borda-
berry in Uruguay in close collaboration with Friedman and Hayek (ODonnell 1973, 91). For
instance, Pinochets regime adopted Hayeks idea of “authoritarian freedom” that pleads for
an absolute freedom of the market, “recombined with traditional patriarchal and authoritarian
concepts of the state“ (Fischer 2009, 327) for its new constitution.
Austeritarian privatization
is deterritorializing at this point, the territorial metaphor becomes material, as deterritoriali-
zation involves land-grabbing and extractivism, exploiting ecological resources for the profit
of international investors. At the same time, the regime reterritorialized these changes by
means of a rhetoric of renationalization that upheld Catholic ideals of the patriarchal family.
It was similar in Argentina, where the junta “legitimated its mission with the rhetoric of Chris-
tian and family values” (Taylor 2001, 100), deploying a double figure of femininity:
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
On the one hand, the junta honored the symbolic image of pure motherhood associated
with the Patria, the goodwoman, and made clear to women that their role was also to
be pure, that is non-political, mothers confined to the private sphere. On the other
hand, active women were bad women, associated with deviance and subversion.
Women who were not content to stay home were often targeted as enemies of the State
(Taylor 2001, 99).
During the so-called Dirty War that took place from 1976 to 1983 in Argentina, thousands
disappeared in a climate of political repression and violence (Taylor 2001, 100). In the midst
of this, the movement of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo arose: “the Mothers went to the
Plaza de Mayo, the most public space in Argentina, to protest that it was the military that posed
the gravest threat to their children” (Taylor 2001, 100). The fusion of Catholic family values
with neoliberal policies indicates how the economic ratio merges with excesses of violence
which also articulates itself as gender-based violence.
All in all, the shock treatment was driven by the desire for accumulation for unregulated
access to the exploitation of ecological resources and unlimited extraction of surplus value.
This economic deterritorialization was accompanied by political reterritorializations of the
military regime. On the molar level, the desire for accumulation drives the disruptive dynamics
of debt. On the molecular level, desire is disciplined and reterritorialized in family formations.
The deterritorialization of flows of finance capital enforces social reterritorialization, so that
gendered inequality is perpetuated. The more land and social spaces are dispossessed, deterri-
torialized, and rendered to mere markets for international investors, the stronger the rhetorical
reterritorialization through nationalist, patriarchal discourses.
Despite geopolitical differences, the alliance of austerity and authoritarianism remains essen-
tial for understanding the present exigencies of authoritarian neoliberalism. Due to the contin-
uing economic crisis, Chile was dependent on an “external inflow of capital,” and “Pinochets
decision in favor of shock treatment and monetarism helped to facilitate better relations with
the IMF (Fischer 2009, 320). This path continued, the IMF granted credit while insisting on
further reforms, and Chile negotiated three structural adjustment loans in 1985, 1986, and
1987, implementing “tariff reductions and privatizations” (Fischer 2009, 331). Chile “helped
pave the way for the technocratic management of the debt crisis in favor of the interests of
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
international lenders […]. The plan chileno […] introduced new programs […| that were
later employed in Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil” (Fischer 2009, 331). After the
transition to democracy, the Hayekian constitution was still in place under the governance of
Sébastian Piñera until 2022, brother of Chicago Boy José Piñera. Debt defines life in Chile: in
2018 the private debt per household was as high as 70 percent of income (Cavallero and Gago
2021, 13).
III. From Molar to Molecular Indebtedness
The “Chilean Road to economic recovery” (Federici 2019, 45) served as a global model for
the IMF. Subsequently, the shock treatment hit not only states with authoritarian regimes, but
also those that had just overcome such regimes, and had newly elected democratic govern-
ments, such as South Africa or Poland in the 1990s (Klein 2008, 95-100; 172-80). The IMF
pressured such states in crisis to fulfill structural adjustments that involved “dismantling of the
welfare state” (Federici 2019, 2018) and “enclosing the commons” (Harvey 2005, 148).
Politics of public debt are driven by the deterritorializing desire for accumulation (cf. Federici
2019, 18). Under the guidance of the US, austerity policies engaged in neocolonial practices
of primitive accumulation: David Harvey conceives this development as the project of a new
imperialism, because “[o]ne of the prime functions […] is to orchestrate devaluations in ways
that permit accumulation by dispossession to occur without sparking a general collapse” (Har-
vey 2005, 150-2).
Capital is continuously in crisis, caused by its inherent contradictions. In
case of overaccumulation, it must expand the fields from which it can derive surplus value.
Accumulation through dispossession proceeds through practices such as land-grabbing, but
also through organizing labour force as a “latent reserve” (Harvey 2005, 141), a subaltern
manifestation of Marx industrial reserve army. Their labour force is “reduced to […] pure
labor power, with no guarantees, no protections, ready to be moved from place to place and
job to job” (Federici 2019, 18). Capitalism “throws workers out of the system at one point
[…|to have them to hand for purposes of accumulation” (Harvey 2005, 141), pursuing a logic
of differential exploitation.
This is clearly the case when it comes to neoliberal austerity which promotes “levels of debt
incumbency that reduce whole populations, even in the advanced capitalist countries, to debt
peonage” (Harvey 2005, 147). Austeritarian accumulation through dispossession therefore re-
lies on relationality and cooperation, rendering people as mere masses of an exploitable,
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
exchangeable work force. As body economic it feeds on their needs and desire for subsistence
and forces them to accept the most precarious work conditions. In the phase of increased eco-
nomic globalization in the 1990s, financial capital deterritorialized, as did production, which
shifted to the global south where cheap labour was available. This development of financial
deterritorialization becomes reterritorialization in neocolonial configurations, as global ine-
quality perpetuates. Consequently, the path of authoritarian neoliberalism and austerity that
began in Latin-America reduces people to surplus populations who provide latent reserves of
labour force, if needed, and who are neglected, exposed to hunger, disease, violence, and death,
if not needed. Austerity thus translates as neoliberal necropolitics (cf. Mbembe 2003).
The austerity measures enabled “new enclosures” (Federici 2019, 29) of the commons: in the
first phase from 1980 to 1984 “country after country defaulted on interest payments, arrange-
ments were made with the IMF for standby loans in exchange for the infamous IMF condi-
tionalities” (Federici 2019, 39). After resistance against the IMFs privatization persisted, a
new strategy was needed. The second phase, from 1984 onwards, “took the form of a World
Bank promoted economic recovery and development plan” (Federici 2019, 39). This shows
how deeply diverse apparatuses of austerity are intertwined, the molar indebtedness of state
debt and the molecular indebtedness of private debt. Molar indebtedness leads to a “financial-
ization of reproduction” (Federici 2019, 18), which increases molecular indebtedness: those
who depend on social state structures must take out loans to pay for the privatized costs of
education, health care, and so forth.
Here the reorganization of social reproduction is crucial. Since the 1980s “a whole ideological
campaign has been orchestrated that represents borrowing from banks to provide for ones
reproduction as a form of entrepreneurship” (Federici 2019, 64). This campaign turned the
most precarious subjects into targets of microcredits offered by the World Bank. Particularly
women in the Global South are interpellated as entrepreneurial subjects. Such entrepreneurial
interpellations foster the privatization of responsibility and render solidaristic organizing even
more difficult. Moreover, they lead to social practices of shame as women are stigmatized for
not being able to pay their loans (Federici 2019, 96-8). Economic debt translates into social
debt and moral guilt. These debt practices thus reorganize social relations, influence family
formations, and de-collectivize care.
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Microcredits are profitable, because they provide direct access to indebted subjects, and “tap
the energies of a population of women who in the wake of structural adjustmenthave been
able to create new forms of subsistence outside or at the margins of the money economy”
(Federici 2019, 68). Microcredits exploit their communal capacities of turning unwaged labour
into money. Once again, we see how debt builds on relationality and at the same time disrupts
communal organizing. Federicis analysis hints at Harveys observation that accumulation
through dispossession does not aim at integrating exploited populations into a proper wage
condition, but at keeping them in precarity (cf. Harvey 2005, 139). The subjects made most
vulnerable bear most of the burden of debt, “especially low-income women and women of
color” (Federici 2019, 20). Debt thus works as differential exploitation, rendering bodies at
Desire does not only point to the gendered dimension of debt as it is associated with sexual
orders, gendered economies, and family formations, but also because desire is tied to relation-
ality: neoliberal debt profits from relationality but operates along the maxim of divide and rule.
Economies of debt exploit social differences. Moreover, they rely on the unequal distribution
of vulnerability. Indebted bodies are embedded in political ontologies of modern societies
which epistemically link individuality to property. Yet those not entitled to property “are re-
duced to improper and propertyless alterity, to fundamental abjectivity” (Athanasiou and But-
ler 2013, 159). To intervene in this ontology, Athena Athanasiou and Judith Butler propose
the concept of double dispossession. In times of the “debtocracy” economic dispossession
manifests materially as “violent appropriation of labor and the wearing out of […] bodies”
(Athanasiou and Butler 2013, 11). Ontological dispossession applies to those who do not even
come close to embodying the masculine and Euro-centric norms of the liberal owner-subject.
Those who are racialized, feminized, or simply considered being poor, are ontologically dis-
possessed (Athanasiou and Butler 2013, 159). Hence ontological and economic dispossessions
mutually support each other, as those being marginalized due to racialized and gendered orders
are subject to differential exploitation. Butler and Athanasiou link dispossession to an ethics
of vulnerability, assuming a shared ontological vulnerability. It is bound to bodies that are
always already in a “mode of dispossession” (Athanasiou and Butler 2013, 95) by being ex-
posed to each other. As "a social phenomenon in the public sphere, my body is and is not mine"
(Butler 2004, 21).
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
Vulnerability is closely connected to desire. As much as Butlers concept of desire differs from
Deleuze and Guattaris, it is also defined as relational and embodied force. Desire creates the
constitutive social bond that precedes subjectivation, as it always aims outside the desiring
subject, it is ek-static (Butler 2012, 39). Subjects are depending on each other and bound to
each other. Hence due to desire and embodiment, we are bonded by an ontological vulnerabil-
ity. Still, in its concrete manifestations, vulnerability is unequally distributed (Athanasiou and
Butler 2013, 158). It is thus important to differentiate between vulnerability as a mode of rad-
ical, relational equality, and the unequal distribution of vulnerability. My suggestion is to an-
alytically distinguish ontological vulnerability on the one hand, and structural vulnerabiliza-
tions on the other (Govrin 2022, 68-72).
Considering the double dimension of dispossession, economies of debt benefit from relation-
ality, exploiting the communal care work of women. Still, in its privatizing effects, debt ob-
scures ontological vulnerability and relationality, as in the case of microcredit entrepreneur-
ship. It exploits structural vulnerabilizations by turning the most vulnerabilized subjects into
targets of debt, deepening the unequal distribution of vulnerability. To grasp how gendered
differences serve for extracting surplus value, a closer look at current forms of molecular in-
debtedness is insightful.
IV. Debt as Discipline, Debt as Dispossession
To conceive debt in its gendered dimensions, Gagos and Cavalleros reading is revealing:
[G]ender difference operates differently in regards to debt. […] (1) a particular form of
moralization, directed toward women and feminized bodies; (2) a differential of ex-
ploitation due to the corresponding relations of subordination; (3) a specific relation
between debt and reproductive tasks; (4) the concrete impact of sexist violence, to
which debt is connected, and (5} fundamental variation in possibilities for the future
involving financial obligations in the case of feminized bodies (Cavallero and Gago
2021, 4).
Pursuing their proposition to inquire into embodiments of debt economies, the focus lies on
the disciplinary effects that debt displays, and its enforcement of gender-based violence. Still,
their approach mentions desire only marginally, and it seems useful to shed more light on its
role to understand economy as relational body economic. To analyze debt in terms of desire
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
and differential exploitation, a perspective from below is needed which begins with the bodies
that are burdened by debt. Discipline entails the exploitation of bodies by ascribing modes of
subjectivations according to capitals need, which leads us to debt discipline and family for-
mations. Broadly speaking, in its ethic-economic effects, the “moral grammar of neoliberal
debt management” (Ferreira da Silva and Chakravartty 2012, 363) isolates debtors who are
burdened with mortgages, but also shames them, when indebtedness is coded in terms of ne-
oliberal self-responsibility. Due to differential exploitation and the discipline of desire, debt
enhances “a differentiated moralization over the lives and desires of women and feminized
bodies” (Cavallero and Gago 2021, 20).
Debt discipline reterritorializes desire in heterosexual orders and fixed family formations,
which actualizes the debt-alliance. For instance, a new housing project in Buenos Aires rebuilt
houses in one of the villas, the slums in the citys centre, offering loans for the exposed inhab-
itants to buy one of the newly built houses based on the assumption that they will not be able
to afford to pay the mortgage (Cavallero and Gago 2021, 28-30; Cavallero 2020). This is quite
a common procedure of accumulation through dispossession:
A house in poor condition is bought for next to nothing, given some cosmetic improve-
ments, then sold on at an exorbitant price, with the aid of a mortgage package arranged
by the seller, to a low-income family looking to realize its dream of home ownership.
If the family has difficulty meeting the payments or dealing with the serious mainte-
nance problems […], then the house is repossessed (Harvey 2005, 152-4).
Such a loan offer for housing feeds on a desire for a future, it is nourished by a “cruel opti-
mism” (Berlant 2010, 94), and directed towards “happy objects” (Ahmed 2010, 38) which
offer imaginaries of happiness structured by racialized, gendered, and heterosexual norms. The
imaginary of suburban life with a proper house reactivates the ideal of the white, bourgeois
family. This appears to be the case in the housing projects in Buenos Aires, as gentrification
went along with a heteronormative agenda whereby loans were only offered to heterosexual
families so that single mothers, queer people, and travesti
were removed from the quarter
(Cavallero and Gago 2021, 29). This alliance of neoliberal austerity and neoconservative fam-
ily values bears a long history (see also Cooper 2017): the family is presented as a safety net
that was withdrawn by the demolition of social state structures to privatize the costs of austerity
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
“under the language of individual responsibility and family indebtedness” (Cavallero and
Gago 2021, 27).
Their diagnosis affirms Deleuze and Guattaris thesis on alliance-debt. Credit debt deterritori-
alizes capital. In its social, molecular movements, it reterritorializes desire and binds it back
into the heterosexual matrix. Debt deterritorializes the commons, and this dispossession comes
along with the reterritorializing reactionary rhetoric of the private home of the patriarchal fam-
ily. Particularly Catholic and Evangelical organizations praise the nostalgic image of the
breadwinner, hence the heteropatriarchal family is displayed as a safe harbour against aliena-
tion and precarization caused by globalized austerity. Authoritarian rhetoric itself blames fem-
inism for a rhetorical twist by associating neoliberalism with an alleged “gender ideology,”
while pursuing politics of privatization.
For instance, there is a strong call for including “fi-
nancial education” in the curriculum of schools, while sexual education is defamed as alleged
gender ideology (Cavallero and Gago 2021, 29).
Debt discipline exploits reproductive labour in new ways, while deepening structural vulnera-
bilizations. In the era of austerity, women especially are interpellated as debtors, as they hold
the reproductive responsibility for their families. Next to microcredit-programs, Gago and Ca-
vallaro observe that popular economies offer another source of extraction surplus. In Argen-
tina, loans are not only offered to those receiving a formal wage, but also to those who merely
make a living working in popular economies without a fixed wage. Consequently, debt “be-
comes an apparatus that is increasingly tied to new labor forms, which are largely not waged
in the traditional sense” (Cavallero and Gago 2021, 9). Simultaneously, since the early 2000s
in Argentina, the “financial exploitation of assistedpopulations” (Cavallero and Gago 2021,
7) takes place by giving credit with increasing interest rates. Like microcredits, women are
addressed as debtors partly because they bear the responsibility for their families. As they play
a key role in upholding communal economies, they are targeted because of their capacities of
turning unwaged work into money. They are thus exploited as a workforce based on their
communal capacities, as consumers as well as debtors. Debt becomes super-exploitation which
extracts surplus value from all spheres of reproduction (Gago nd Cavallero 2022, 48).
An anti-austerity manifesto of Ni Una Menos, the feminist strike movement, states that as
“female heads of households, we occupy a central role in the organization and self-
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
management of networks of cooperation,” yet, “[f]inancial corporations exploit these commu-
nity economies by charging commissions on benefits and wages and applying exorbitant in-
terest rates on loans, credit cards, and microcredit” (Cavallero and Gago 2021, 81-3). This
analysis links molar indebtedness to molecular indebtedness, unveiling how state debt sabo-
tages social structures which increases the exploitation of reproductive labour. In this way, the
financial sector gains access to areas of reproductive life that were previously excluded from
the logic of exploitation; these include infrastructures that were formerly public goods and
communal economies that previously only served subsistence purposes (Cavallero and Gago
2021, 10). Hence, gendered dynamics of debt show how reproductive work is used for accu-
mulation though dispossession.
In terms of differential exploitation, it is crucial to consider the concrete bodies that debt is
being inscribed in, and how debt deepens their differences by structurally vulnerabilizing
them, for instance, the bodies of women skipping their meals to be able to give it to their
children, where the monthly mortgage cuts the money for food (Cavallero and Gago 2021, 17);
the bodies of those caught in the endless cycles of debt, haunted by the constant stress of
paying mortgages, the headache, the rising blood pressure, the insomnia (Cavallero and Gago
2021, 58).
Molar indebtedness multiplies molecular indebtedness and transforms social bonds. The “pri-
vatization required by the states indebtedness” enhances “forced indebtedness of subaltern
sectors,” modifies “the relation between income and debt,” and converts “bonds of mutual aid
into means of exploitation and vigilance” (Cavallero and Gago 2021, 10). As private and public
indebtedness goes along with the demolishment of social state structures, this economic vio-
lence increases gender-based violence. Austerity policies and its accumulation though debt
and dispossession intervene in communal economies and turn them into a battlefield. This
economic violence translates into violence against the bodies of those who are perceived as
patriarchal possessions of their partners, or that which is perceived as abject and alien, such as
the bodies of queer people, trans persons, and travesti. Ni Una Menos thus names debt as “a
form of violence that puts our lives at risk” (Cavallero and Gago 2021, 81), affecting, for
example, women, being tied to their violent partners due to debt; or travesti, queer people and
single mothers being excluded from their communities because of gentrification programs.
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
Rita Segato points out how violence in the form of feminicides literately proceeds as inscrip-
tion on feminized bodies (Segato 2013), as differential exploitation debt works through pow-
erful inscriptions on bodies that are marked as “other,” while further exploiting their differ-
ence. Cavallero and Gago mention the ollas cocinas, the collective kitchen that provide alter-
native economies of care, “where resistance is woven together, where the common body is
manufactured as a spell against hunger” (Cavallero and Gago 2021, 16). In 2018, Corina de
Bonis, a teacher who protested school closures in the periphery of Buenos Aires, was tortured;
her torturer carved the words “no more pots” in her skin (Cavallero and Gago 2021, 16). This
violent act of enforced inscription exposes the strong reaction against communal feminist or-
ganizing. The pots symbolize an alternative to austerity, bringing them to the streets means
de-domesticizing care, revolting against the privatizing discipline of debt, and resisting its
reactionary reterritorializations.
V. Debt, Desire, Disobedience: from Austerity to Solidarity
The temporalities of debt and desire are deeply intertwined: debt feeds on the desire for a
future, be it a safe home, the possibility of education, or simply having means of subsistence.
In the meantime, debt incites a foreclosure of the future, because those being in debt will take
any work no matter how precarious it is, deprived of the possibility to navigate their future,
caught in daily struggles to repay the rents that rise with every delay (Cavallero and Gago
2021, 9). This plays into the hands of reactionary forces who seek to reterritorialize social
dynamics in fixed sexual, gendered, national, and cultural identities: debt provides a linkage
“between the neoliberal project that financializes ever more areas of life and fascism that today
focuses on disciplining indeterminacy in desires, practices, and modes of life” (Cavallero and
Gago 2021, 19). In times of authoritarian neoliberalism, austerity and credit debt discipline
and debilitate the desire for a potential transformation (Cavallero and Gago 2021, 13). Econ-
omies of debt reveal the conflictive dynamics between desire as capitals drive for accumula-
tion and desire as transformative force.
Since 2019 there have been powerful demonstrations in Chile that protest the neoliberal para-
digm, a protesters sign said: Neoliberalism was born in Chile, Neoliberalism will die in Chile.
Recently, a new constitution is planned to replace the old one under Hayeks label of authori-
tarian freedom; the first version was rejected, the second version is being prepared. Maybe this
is indeed an indication that the end of the neoliberal era is upon us. Moreover, as the pandemic
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
uncovered the global crisis of social reproduction, it exposed the ruins of neoliberalism, and
cast doubt on austerity. In the meantime, resistance is relentlessly growing.
As has been seen, debt disrupts social relations. Nevertheless, the discipline of debt relies on
the desire for recognition. In the same vein, the surplus gained from debt and austerity is based
on labour power, which is always already cooperative. As Isabell Lorey writes: “Connected-
ness with others is turned into economically exploitable relations of exchange” (Lorey 2019,
157). This is shown by loan offers to precarious women that exploit their communal capacities.
All in all, even though austerity discourses stress the figure of self-responsible entrepreneur,
public debt policies remain dependent on social relationality. Although austerity seeks to pre-
vent solidarity and communal organizing and disguises shared vulnerability, it also provokes
situations in which people are strongly depending on each other, allying in the common desire
that articulates disobedience. Etymologically, the term of solidarity defined a collective of
debtors who decided to share their debt (cf. Brunkhorst 2002, 10). So, debt as hierarchical
division into single debtors may even enhance its communal and collective functions by unit-
ing debtors.
According to Butler and Athanasiou the anti-austerity-protests that occupied 2011 Syntagma
Square in Athens enhanced an “alternative economy of bodies” (Athanasiou and Butler 2013,
176) and communal forms of organizing. And in midst of the health crises caused by austerity,
a network of solidarity hospitals and pharmacies emerged offering healthcare for every body
(Chatzimichali 2020). The answer to austerity lies in body economics of care and solidarity.
Since the 1980s the ollas communes provide alternative economies of care against the finan-
cializaton of reproductive labour (cf. Federici 2019, 108). These different ways of doing econ-
omy evolve around de-privatized care, providing a body economic that aims at the well-being
of every body instead of private profit. In another strand, the issue of the household and hous-
ing was addressed by the anti-austerity movement that went against the dispossession of
homes, such as Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca in Spain. In the midst of the housing
crisis in 2009, the PAH movement reappropriated the houses which had been dispossessed by
In the context of Villa 31 in Buenos Aires, the feminist strike movement Ni Una Menos started
a neighbourhood assembly, including communal “soup kitchens, political parties, bachilleratos
Krisis 2023, 43 (1)
populares, migrant collectives, collectives of sexual dissidents, feminist organizations, and
unions,” thus “weaving alliances” of transversality to share the different experience and build
bonds of solidarity (Cavallero 2020, 639). These anti-gentrification struggles are embedded in
a larger approach to address the economic violence of austerity on manifold levels, be it hous-
ing, care work, or gender-based violence, “the Ni Una Menos Collective, along with other
organizations, coordinated an action in June 2017 at the doors of the Central Bank of the Ar-
gentine Republic with the call, We Want Ourselves Alive, Free, and Debt Free! […]”
(Cavallero 2020, 637).
Another example are debtor collectives of precarious women that create a communal fund,
which is used to repay the loans of single members, such as the practice of pasanukas (Caval-
lero and Gago 2021, 56-9). Such a form of disobedience goes against the asymmetrical debtor-
creditor-relationship. It retranslates debt into support and solidarity as it is de-privatized in
communal funds. This collectivized debt comes close to Graebers description of debt as social
bond and egalitarian practice in communal economies. In this regard, debt is not the main
target, it is capitalist debt management that is at the centre of criticism. Or, to take up the words
of Fred Mortem and Stefano Harney: “Credit is a means of privatization and debt a means of
socialisation. [D]ebt is social and credit is asocial. Debt is mutual. Credit runs only one way
(Harney and Moten 2013, 61). In this view, debt can point to new directions, away from the
exploitative body economic of credit and capital.
If debt exploits extensively precarious women, “it is also within the feminist movement that
new forms of disobedience to the power of debt are being articulated” (Saidel 2023, 31). Ni
Una Menos protests the economic violence that arises out of austerity measures and private
indebtedness, and highlights the importance of care work. “By inverting the hierarchy of
recognition of unpaid labor, it also inverts the burden of debt. The debt belongs to the state,
the bosses, and the patriarchs for having benefitted from this historically free and compulsory
labor” (Cavallero and Gago 2021, 47). This reversal of debt describes the gendered dimensions
of austerity in a nutshell. Along with this criticism, this movement does not only collectivize
debt, it also lays bare how bodies are bound to each other and create communal economies of
care. As prefigurative politics they reveal a horizon for future global societies beyond the