Is there a war “on” the body of women?: Finance, territory, and violence

Louise Bourgeois, ’10 am is When You Come to Me’


Why do they kill us? What would allow us to name the escalation of women’s deaths (more than 80% of which occur at the hands of current or former lovers, boyfriends, or husbands) as a war? 1 Clearly it is not a war in the sense of a confrontation between two symmetrical parties. Nor is it conflict with clear rules of engagement. It is certainly necessary to conceptualize the scale and character of that antagonism, especially since now, at least in Argentina, it involves the death of one woman a day, a rate that increased dramatically in April of last year, following the International Women’s Strike in March. Proposing the category of war as a specific type of economy is part of a commitment to the intersecting epistemologies that make up the critique of economy today.

The notion of war enables us to highlight a dynamic that is defined by a dispute over force. It also allows us to challenge notions such as an “epidemic” of femicides, or other forms of the pathologization of violence against women. In Latin America, these discourses are used to blame women, and our collective political presence in public spaces, for the increase in violence. Therefore it is essential to critique the discourse of “juridical rationality” that argues that mass mobilizations have no effect in preventing murders, 2 as well as the “psy” discourses that claim that it is the illusion of women’s “empowerment” that leads women to their deaths. While these are specialized, professional, languages, they are also propagated in the media. Based on this supposedly “expert” knowledge, the media thus reinforces two key ideas: that there is causal link between larger women’s mobilizations and a greater violent response (the idea that women are responsible for the backlash against their growing politicization), and second, that women on their own are incapable of stopping femicides.

But why invoke the language of war? I propose that we recall Rosa Luxemburg’s vital analysis of war from the proletarian viewpoint, an analysis that understands the effect of war on the disorganization of workers’ struggles. Only when we analyze war outside of the framework of the nation can we grasp its mutations, or what Rita Segato calls “new forms of war.” They are “new” because violence against women’s bodies is their privileged text, 3 highlighting a crucially important colonial dimension. This dimension is expressed in the properly colonial methods of murdering women (such as impalement, but also through acid and dismemberment), as well as in the “colonial unconscious,” as Suely Rolnik calls it, which operates by devaluing the bodily knowledge that women prioritize in their new forms of sociability and politicization. Only in this way is it possible to understand the intense and increasing “pedagogy of cruelty” as Segato also conceptualizes 4– of this “expressive” (no longer only instrumental) violence that spreads enabling abuse and reproducing the mandate of patriarchal masculinity. But we can also add that its novelty comes from its reactive character, a misogynist response, to the growing and diverse forms of women’s autonomy. It is therefore connected to what Silvia Federici has long insisted on: the common denominator of violence against women is the devaluation of life and work brought on by this phase of contemporary globalization. This is why Federici speaks of “a permanent state of war.”

Starting from these points, it is possible to put together another logic to explain these supposedly aberrant crimes. My hypothesis is that today the war against women is expressed in four special scenes that are the foundation of femicides, that are the underlying layer of their prior production, or paraphrasing Marx, their primitive accumulation, and that there is a logic of connection between them. In this text, I want to highlight the specificity of finance, which gives the logic of connection between these four areas:


  1. The implosion of violence in households as an effect of the crisis of the figure of the male breadwinner and the related de-hierarchization of his role in the labor market.
  2. The organization of new forms of violence as the principle authority in working class neighborhoods based on the proliferation of illegal economies that replace, under different logics, methods for provisioning resources.
  3. The dispossession and looting of the common land and resources that enable communitarian life by transnational corporations, depriving other economies of their material autonomy.
  4. The articulation of forms of exploitation and extraction that share the common element of the financialization of social life, and particularly the apparatus of debt.

In this text, I want to do the following: first, to propose the organic relationship between these four dimensions; then, to return to the characterization of the “war”; and finally, return to the beginning: what type of force is this escalating offensive of male violence against women responding to? In what economies is the autonomy of women inscribed? Here I will especially concentrate on the experience of the women’s strike in Argentina. At this point war will undergo a displacement: because a war “on” the body of women means that there is a war “against” women.

The connection between different forms of violence

Limiting discussions about violence to “gender violence” has a victimizing effect: women are made one-dimensional, so that they only exist in relation to the violence directed against them. Their pacification is complete because that violence is “isolated.” Gender violence has been converted into a sort of corset and confine, women, it is said, cannot escape from it, or can only escape through the rhetoric of salvation of the organizations that seek to rescue us. That is the focus of most of the anti-trafficking discourse. The focus on trafficking is promoted by NGOs and sponsored by international financing networks with the spiritual support of the church. This paternalism completely obscures, first, an explanation of women’s exploitation in terms that are not moralizing, and second, a complex game of desire and calculations of progress and risk that women make through different forms of migration. So by rejecting their strategic rationality (with plans, frustrations, recalculations, lessons learned, sacrifices), this framework underestimates women’s knowledge in the name of a paternalism that repeatedly reproduces colonial logics.

As with migrant workers, the discourse of trafficking and slavery use a part to represent the whole. Taking a case that is  postulated as emblematic, with images that sway public imagination (a worker handcuffed to a sewing machine or a young woman chained to a bed), these discourses seek to explain an intrinsic, natural submission and thus negate any autonomous rationality or will. The concept of trafficking is an example of precisely what we seek to combat: the seamless identification of women with victimhood. It is that “stereotype” that produces a discourse that fits perfectly into the tutelary logic that we want to critique and that reaches its peak with femicide. That is why journalistic accounts place so much emphasis on describing women as perfect “victims”; any suggestion of decision-making is denied because that would make them “suspicious” of not fitting into that fixed image. The same thing happens to migrant women: the rhetoric of trafficking denies their ability to take risks and make calculations, in order words, to possess any rationality.

Now, discarding the perspective of violence as victimization does not get rid of the problem of violence, nor does it it free us from the need to understand its specificity. On the contrary: it repositions it and produces a strategic displacement. It is the intersection of domestic violence and sexual harassment with economic and social violence that enables us to move beyond the former’s segregation it as a “gender issue.” Its specificity emerges from that connection and not a procedure of isolation. The specificity is given by the situated perspective that allows for understanding the process as a moving totality or a partial synthesis.

That connection allows us to build and move in a plane of comprehension, intelligibility, and method that gives meaning to violence as an expression of a web that ties together the world of work and the exploitation of our precarity with the new forms of financial exploitation beyond the wage. That connection explains that the it is impossibility of having economic autonomy that leads to entrapment and immobility in households that become a hell; and it also allows for seeing migration as a line of flight, a form of escape, for which it is worth taking increasingly high risks.

The reactionary modes – that is: the punitive, racist, and sexist ones – with which the political system resignifies that violence, allying with para-state and para-legal forms of repression, promotes renewed forms of counterinsurgency that characterize the new forms of war. The material web of a critique of contemporary violence is shaped by the intersectionality of 1) the world of work mapped from a feminist perspective that recognizes non-waged economies, 2) the emergence of a political ecology from below that understands land and resources in a non-liberal way, since it emerges from the struggles in support of communitarian life, and 3) the struggles for justice – understood as an extension of the work of collective care, as Selma James has indicated.

In Argentina, that intersectionality has been produced in practice through two massive strikes in less than a year: the National Women’s Strike of October 19, 2016 and the International Women’s Strike on March 8, 2017. Naming the strikes, I want to highlight the materialist element of the women’s insurrection that we are experiencing. It was the practical labor of building “unprecedented alliances” – a term that we take from the feminist collective from Bolivia, Mujeres Creando – that allowed us to arrive at unexpected convergences that redraw the map of feminism beyond the frontier of gender violence as a conceptual perspective. This is how we stop it from functioning as a mechanism of capture. On the one hand, as I indicated above, we must avoid the establishment of a gender “ghetto” that proposes equally isolated “responses” and “solutions”: a new secretariat (of state) or a new section (of the union) or a new program (of health care), neutralizing the potential for transversal radicalization. On the other hand, we must avoid allowing that violence to be conceptually confined within the domestic sphere, since, to the contrary, it is connected to economic and social spaces in an increasingly direct way (no longer exclusively through the so-called “patriarchy of the wage”), demonstrating how the walls of the domestic space have exploded.

Labor and Finance: The proliferation of illegal economies capturing subaltern networks

Intersectionality, understood in this way, is a method and a perspective that can make at least two simultaneous movements. On the one hand, it goes beyond the binary opposition between the totality and the part. From the intersectionality of gender violence and economic and social violence, a feminism emerges that puts forth a critique of capitalism based on assemblages that link exploitation in the workplace to the implosion of misogynist violence in the home due to the collapse of the male ability to monopolize the provision of resources. But it also makes it possible to account for the multiplication of forms of exploitation of economic spheres (affective, communitarian, informal, etc.) that go beyond the waged world. In this sense, it frames an understanding of the violence of neoliberalism, as a particular moment of capital accumulation, that simultaneously recognizes structural adjustment measures and how exploitation is rooted in the production of subjectivities that are both compelled to precarity and struggling to prosper in structural conditions of dispossession.

Today the household has gone from being an apparently pacified place to becoming a battlefield. Domestic violence does nothing but show scenes of a domesticity that explodes and homes as sites of gruesome scenarios. Rita Segato explains how this violence is the effect of other forms of violence: the violence that men experience as humiliation in their workplaces, in a sort of sequence of interconnected pedagogies. The home is no longer the place for the warrior to rest, as proposed by the sexual division of labor in which women were responsible for romanticizing the home. The home is now a place where the “warrior” (one of the traditional figures of the patriarchal mandate) attempts to make war as a symptom of his impotence.

Questioning the distinction between the public and the private, raising the question of labor from a feminist point of view, from a subjectivity that is supposedly “exterior” to or “removed” from the central place of waged labor, also allows for questioning the very notion of work. In Argentina, this displacement has a genealogy connected to the movement of the unemployed, that, in the midst of the crisis at the beginning of this century, radically questioned what was called work, employment, and remuneration. It also managed to resignify the traditional tool of the picket line, moving it outside of the factory, using it to block the circulation of goods through the collective organization of roadblocks. Now we are faced with women’s ability to bring all the blurred borders into play – blurred because they are politically disputed, not due to an abstract fluidity – that have been elaborated for years between domestic, reproductive, productive, affective, and care labor in the context of a crisis that focuses on the body of women as a territory under dispute. Today that same dynamic of crisis makes a type of expanded social coöperation visible in neighborhoods where popular economies permanently proliferate and where the violent offensive is especially strong. A similar thing happens in territories where the conflict between neo-extractive enterprises seeking to expropriate resources for multinational companies promote what compañeras in Guatemala and Honduras have called “territorial femicides.”

Another important dimension emerges that must be reworked from a feminist perspective: the role of the financialization of apparatuses of social inclusion (for example, subsidies to diverse types of coöperative enterprises) in relation to financial exploitation, as a key element of relaunched capital accumulation. Today finance captures, through massive indebtedness, wage and non-wage incomes from the popular classes, who were traditionally excluded from the financial imaginary. Thus debt structures a compulsion to do work – of any type – to pay the obligation to the future. This capture of the obligation to work leads to the exploitation of creativity at any price: it doesn’t matter what type of work you do, what matters is that you pay your debt. This general modus operandi of the debt apparatus acquires a specificity when it becomes based on state subsidies to so-called “vulnerable” populations. While the state functions as a guarantor to supposedly “excluded” populations, including them through consumption, it also enables a quick connection with informal, illegal, and popular economies. Those become essential as polymorphous quarry of activities and sources of income beyond the wage, and through their imbrication with debt, their dynamic energy is extracted. Thus they do not fit into the cliches that tend to associate informal economies with illegality and the absence of the state or poverty and financial disconnection. To the contrary: they situate the financial exploitation of popular classes within a modality of inclusion through consumption that legitimates the financialization of less formal, structural, and routine activities. The affinity between this dynamic and the gender dynamic is fundamental for various reasons.

First, the work of care, reproduction, and production of the common is an important part of popular economies and is directly interwoven with labor tasks. This is a key point that should not only be understood in terms of the feminization of poverty (although it also accounts for that), but also in terms of an ability to redefine the production of value. Women occupy a fundamental role in the framework of the compulsory bankarization of social subsidies – which has incorporated thousands of new users into the financial system in recent years under the slogan of the “democratization” of banking – as heads of household and providers of resources in the webs of social coöperation. For this reason, the relation between gender and finance reveals specific uses of money, particular connections with different forms of debt, and, finally, a flexible relationship with finance linked to how the reproduction of life depends, in most homes, on women and their everyday management tactics.

Different studies on debt note women’s preponderance as debtors, usually classified as “exemplary payers.” Women’s relationships of trust and kinship are brought into play as a value that the financial system never ceases to exploit (there is an entire corpus on microcredit turning this into “comparative advantage,” as well as a series of critical perspectives that emphasize the exploitation of women’s networks of affect and solidarity). We also know about the “moral” construction of the debtor’s responsibility; the evaluation of risk is also linked to it. It is important to analyze these classifications in relation to the attributes assigned to feminine tasks of flexibility, versatility, and the generation of trust to the extent that these are linked to a certain financial training that is able to manage different monetary flows of different forms of debt. The importance of these tasks is even more clear in the context of austerity measures and the restriction of consumption (see the case of Italian NGO financing women in the neighborhood Alto Comedero, Jujuy).

We propose a perspective on financial exploitation 5 that allows for tracing a connection between the increase in sexist violence and the financialization of popular economies because it reveals the intimate relation between debt and subjugation, between debt and the impossibility of economic autonomy, and because, in a literal way, it turns debt into a form of fixation and subordination to the spheres of violence. Debt, in many cases, is an obstacle to escape. In other cases, it is duplicated in order to be able to escape.

Dispossession and Looting of the Lands and Resources of Communitarian Life

With the offensive of agribusiness and extractive industries in Latin America, an analysis of our countries’ insertion into the world market becomes essential. Here the clue left by Luxemburg also stands out for its prescience: what she theorized as colonial expansion against what, in the language of her era, were called the “formations of the natural economy.” Of particular importance is the dispossession of lands in order to put an end to the self-sufficiency of peasant economies. We should not forget that she highlighted mortgage debts of farmers in the United States and the imperialist policy of Holland and England in South Africa against black and indigenous populations, such as concrete acts of political violence, tributary pressure, and the introduction of cheap merchandise.

Diverse struggles have started using the concept of body-territory to talk about the communities that resist neo-extractive attacks, a resistance largely led by women. That is the case of Berta Cáceres, whose murder the movement has named as a “territorial femicide.” This point connects a notion of the body that not only goes beyond the human, but also refers to the question of nature from a non-liberal point of view. It is not abstract conservationism, but rather it confronts the dispossession of material possibilities of life that today shape the antagonism between multinational companies and states against populations that are being looted and displaced. This extractive paradigm, however, should also be extended to urban and suburban spaces, where we again find finance acting in multiple aspects of “extractive” operations: from (formal and informal) real estate speculation to massive indebtedness. Following that line, it is necessary to conceptualize extractivism in an expanded way, as the operation through which capital captures value today. 6

War as Key

Foucault proposed war as a principle for analyzing the relations of power and, more precisely, the model of war and struggles as a principle of intelligibility and analysis of political power. He argued that a sort of permanent war exists behind all order. Thus war would be the “point of maximum tension” or “force-relations laid bare,” but itself a web “of bodies, passions, and accidents”: a real entanglement over which a “rationality” is mounted that seeks to pacify war. 7

Silvia Federici starts from the intersection of the Foucauldian perspective with feminism and Marxism to show how capitalism, since its origins, has persecuted and fought women with ferocity and terror. 8 To do so, she ties together three concepts: women, the body, and primitive accumulation. And she asks fundamental questions about that emblematic figure of the feminine: why does capitalism need to carry out war against those women? Why is the witch hunt one of the most brutal and least remembered massacres in history? What were they trying to eliminate when they condemned those women to the stake? How can a parallel be drawn between them and the Black slaves on plantations in America?

The reaction against women was a response to their growing power and authority in social movements, especially heretical movements. Federici identifies a “misogynist reaction” to the mass movement, to the reproductive control that women practiced among themselves. “Clean sex between clean sheets,” that was the goal of the capitalist rationalization of sexuality that aspired to turn feminine sexual activity into work in the service of men and procreation. Additionally, it was a way to make women sedentary. It was much more difficult for women to become vagabonds or migrant workers, because nomadic life – Federici argues – exposed them to male violence, and at that time – in the moment of the capitalist organization of the world – misogyny was on the rise. However, as she insists, that violence did not remain a recondite tale of capitalism’s beginnings. For that reason, this image sounds so familiar, that of any type of feminine nomadism (from taking a taxi at night to leaving a partner) as, increasingly, the occasion of sexist violence.

The feminine body, Federici continues, replaced common spaces (especially lands) after their privatization. In the same movement, women were subjected to a form of exploitation that would lead to the growing submission of their work and their bodies as personal services and natural resources. Privatized women were those who took refuge in bourgeois marriages, while those who were left out in the open were turned into a servile class (from housewives to domestic workers or sex workers).

Women were seen as “rebels,” not in reference to any “specific subversive activity,” the Italian writer clarifies: “rather, it describes the female personality that had developed, especially among the peasantry, during the struggle against feudal power, when women had been in the forefront of the heretical movements, often organizing in female associations, in a growing challenge to male authority and the Church.” 9 The images used to portray them – in narratives and caricatures – described women mounted on the backs of their husbands, whip in hand, and others dressed as men, ready for action. In that wake, female friendships also turned into an object of suspicion, seen as counterproductive to marriages and as an obstacle to the women’s denunciations of each other, which was promoted by male authority and the church.

The role of the church today: The spiritual outpost

Recently, the Catholic Church has formulated the concept of “gender ideology” to speak about the struggle, or crusade, on which it has embarked. The concept coined by an Argentinean theologian serves to identify feminism as a new enemy. The ecclesial doctrine became a multi-use hashtag: #NoToGenderIdeology. First, it focuses its attack on struggles in support of abortion rights. But it also addresses educational disputes. “Don’t mess with my children,” is how the march against “gender ideology” developed: the Peruvian newspaper La República writes about the March 4 protest. In this case “gender ideology” refers to the content of a new school curriculum that, by incorporating notions such as “gender equality” and “gender identity” would promote, according to protesters, “homosexuality and sexual promiscuity in school children.”

In Brazil, a federal bill, baptized the “Law for Schools without Political Parties” would prohibit “the application of the postulates of gender theory or ideology” and of “any practices that could compromise, precipitate, or orient maturation and development in harmony with one’s respective biological sex identity” in educational institutions. In Argentina, the offensive of National Law 26,150 that would establish the right to receive comprehensive sexual education at all levels schooling met with resistance from an organizational front that popularized the slogan “Education is a feminist cause.” “The increase in femicides has has to do with the disappearance of marriage” 10 declared Archbishop Aguer, while education workers were taking to the streets demanding better working conditions last January. In 2009, that same Aguer had declared, in relation to comprehensive sexual education: “feminist thought is hegemonic.” In Colombia, meanwhile, there is an intense debate about the effects of the campaign that stoked the “gender threat” on the triumph of the “no” vote to the peace accords. Thus this ecclesial offensive expresses a way of condemning women’s bodily autonomy and of waging war against their disrespect.

What is the offensive responding to? The strike as a form of subtraction and contempt

As Rosa Luxemburg demonstrated, war has historically been a key moment for capital accumulation. Therefore, I proposed thinking about the type of war that is developed against women in order to understand the type of offensive launched by capital to preserve its mandate. But before that, in terms of the method and political perspective, we must account for the type of autonomy practiced by women, in order to understand the magnitude of the reaction against it.

By addressing multiple forms of the exploitation of life, time, and territories, the strike overflows and integrates the labor question because it involves tasks that are not usually recognized as work: from care work to neighborhood self-organization, from popular economies to non-remunerated social work, from unemployment to intermittent incomes. The strike, as we have proposed it, does not abandon the dispute over wages, but, at the same time, it redefines it and forces it to face the realities of non-waged labor. Thus it multiplies the meanings of the strike without diluting its historical significance. The strike is relaunched as the key for understanding how the transversality of social conflict is played out in the intersection between exploitation and sexist violence.

By including, making visible, and valuing the distinct terrains of exploitation and value extraction by capital in its current phase of accumulation, the strike as blockade, challenge, and subordination allows us to account for how struggles and resistance are reinventing a politics of rebellion today. Therefore, the women’s movement’s use of the strike characterizes, expresses, and disseminates a change in the composition of laboring classes, overflowing its classifications and hierarchies, those classifications and hierarchies that were representative of the patriarchy of the wage. And it does so through a practical feminism, rooted in concrete struggles.

There was thus a transversality to the political composition of the strike (unions, grassroots territorial organizations, queer collectives, student groups, health centers, migrant collectives, self-organized individuals, etc.). There was also an intersectionality of problematics that were able to make a concrete critique of renewed forms of capitalist exploitation, through their focus on labor.

This dynamic raises a challenge for an inclusive feminism, inclusive not in the sense of a moderated position or inclusion subordinated to a norm that is broadened to contain us, but inclusion through an ability to articulate contentious differences and radicalization from below. This issue is inseparable from another one: feminism’s ability to convoke the masses in all the languages and practices that are combined in a non-identitarian way today – popular, communitarian, indigenous, slum feminisms. Thus this debate gets out of the academic, liberal ghettos, avoiding specialist and institutional jargon.

The internationalist connection encouraged by the action is another important element. This was possible precisely because the scale of transversality and intersectionality was nurtured by a language and a set of experiences that overflowed and updated that tool that carries an indisputable working class memory. But, by doing so based on concrete situations of struggle and conflict, the global or internationalist effect did not mean, as it would have in another time, a homogenizing abstraction, that is: a loss of attention to landscapes and particularities in the name of a unity that easily fits into slogans.

Here a relaunching of autonomy is under way in a very precise sense: a new type of war is unleashed by the destructuring of the asymmetry that emerges from the gender mandate based on women’s practices of autonomy. Finance’s attempt to capture that autonomy does not take place outside of the war, but is one of its intrinsic dynamics in the contemporary moment of accumulation, in which women are, once again, the exemplary territory of the advances of recolonization.

Perhaps it could be said that mass, radical feminism taking place in the streets brings diverse epistemologies together for a practical critique of political economy. And it makes it possible to think about how moments of revolt cause crises for relationships of obedience. In Latin America this implies thinking about political calendars and cycles of crises and recent re-stabilizations from other registers. And even more: it presents us with the challenge of thinking about new forms of war in terms of disciplining and controlling the revolt, starting from the forms of violence in which finance, through its transversality, functions as a key element that disputes the very mode of operation. The war “on” the body of women, that I tried to address here, can be understood in relation to those heterogeneous ways in which autonomy and contempt produce insubordination in favor of knowledges of the body and, at the same time, they do not determine it because we do not yet know what a body can do.

— Translated by Liz Mason-Deese

References   [ + ]

1. A version of this text was originally presented at “Ce que femme fait à Philosopher”. Les épistémologues croisées de la critique de l’économie. May 30, 2017, Dite Olympe de Gouges, Paris Diderot.
2. For example, see
3. Rita Segato, “Territory, Sovereignty, and Crimes of the Second State: The Writing on the Body of Murdered Women,” in Terrorizing Women: Feminicide in the Americas, ed. Rosa-Linda Fregoso and Cynthia Bejarano (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), 70-92.
4. Rita Segato, La guerra contra las mujeres, (Madrid: Traficantes de Sueños, 2016).
5. Verónica Gago and Sandro Mezzadra, “A Critique of the Extractive Operations of Capital: Toward an Expanded Concept of Extractivism,” Rethinking Marxism 29, no. 4 (2018): 574-591; Verónica Gago and Alexandre Roig, “The Popular Economy and the ‘Real,’” Paper at the Real Economies Seminar (Rio de Janeiro, June 16-18, 2016).
6. For this, see Gago and Mezzadra, “A Critique of the Extractive Operations of Capital.”
7. Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-1976, David Macey, trans. (New York: Picador, 2003), 46, 55.
8. Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (New York: Autonomedia, 2004).
9. Federici, Caliban and the Witch, 184.
10. La Nación, March 1, 2017

Author of the article

is part of Colectivo Situaciones, teaches in the School of Social Sciences at Buenos Aires University, and is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET). She is currently working on a project exploring popular economies in post-neoliberal contexts.