We Want Ourselves Alive and Debt-Free [Or a Manifesto on Financial Disobedience]

By Ailynn Torres Santana

¿Quién le debe a quién?, a book from Tinta Limón which was edited in 2021 by Silvia Federici, Verónica Gago, and Lucía Cavallero, starts as follows: 

The pandemic accelerated the global crisis. Life’s threats expanded, putting long-lasting destructive policies on the table. However, we would like to point out debt as the real plague of today, effecting millions worldwide, especially women, lesbians, transvestites, and transgender people. 

Over two hundred pages later, the book ends: 

We demand what is owed to us. We demand what is ours. Our demands must not be acknowledged in return for more work but in acknowledgment of all the work done daily by our communities and us.

We want you to think clearly about our fight, the work we are doing, and the work we have done. 

Between debt’s visibility as a comprehensive dispossession programme and the call for mobilization against the credit system, the book reflects on an age-old debate pushed into the spotlight of politics by contemporary feminism: whoever has the other’s permission to live lacks freedom. In the same line of thought as Marx and others’ understanding of labour as a modern form of slavery, this book positions debt as slavery and demonstrates it resourcefully. Through an analysis of the debt in family homes and daily life, ¿Quién le debe a quién? expands our comprehension of slavery beyond the legal status—humans as property—to a more comprehensive understanding, which includes those incapable of controlling their lives and without equivalent equality to negotiate with others. 

Structural adjustment programmes and external debt contracted between nation states with international financial organizations coagulate during times of crisis, affecting the homes and territories of families, especially those where social reproduction and daily life are sustained. Facing wage value decrease, a lack of income, or unemployment without public services in highly commodified societies, indebtedness becomes a daily survival strategy for ensuring household bills, food, education, care, internet connectivity, and a long list of essential goods are available. Therefore, debt is no longer a once-in-lifetime hazard but a daily resource, contracted through banks or creditors. 

From the 90s to 2016, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) family debt increased between 15 and 21 percent in so-called emerging market economies. Between 2013 and 2017, that proportion was 25.9 percent in Chile, 23.8 percent in Colombia, and 20.7 percent in Mexico. During the pandemic, as ¿Quién le debe a quién? suggests, family debt has been increasing continuously and obviously, creating an outright dependence among an increasing number of families and individuals. 

Nowadays, family debt has become a central system for extracting value. Employment is no longer necessary for accessing credit. Creating a new form of accumulation, the banks and creditors take ‘the risk’ of lending money to impoverished or unemployed people, generating interest on loans and further indebting those who must pay monthly minimum fees in order to purposefully accelerate indebtedness. This scheme combines the advance of indebtedness over precarious lives with multiple and heterogeneous operating forms of labour markets, which are highly informal and disenfranchised in the Global South.

At the same time, ¿Quién le debe a quién? helps one understand how the rise of family debt is one machination of the assemblage of the contemporary financial landscape. Among the assemblage are other sectors that focus on the financialization of land and water, seeds, households, pensions rights, producing the expansion of platforms and economies, digital credit, and the consolidation of finances in tech ecosystems. At the same line, the book demonstrates the correlation between family debt and the systematic dismantlement of the welfare system and its privatization, the colonial-past-imbedded and contemporary racial state, and the spread of microcredits and ‘financial inclusion’ aimed at impoverished people and women—producing a circle of debt duties and further indebtedness. 

These lines interweave in the thesis of the book. First is the idea of financialization as a new form of extractivism and enclosure. Second, the increasing family debt correlates with state debt, where working is perceived as relief from the crisis but actually creates a ‘ticking time bomb’ for extreme impoverishment in future. Third, for families and individuals, debt functions as a domination mechanism that compromises both the present and the future: once indebted, individuals must accept any job to pay. Domestic debt becomes financial obedience for families and a form of social control that expropriates and dispossesses people of assets, life choices, and freedom.

While politicizing the debt, the book engages and deepens another long-lasting feminist concern, that of giving significance to the domestic sphere in political reflections and the commonwealth. Historical and contemporary feminism, including those in ¿Quién le debe a quién? de-privatize domestic problems to transcend the seemingly innocuous split between public and private spheres, and identify the private relations in different places, not just the domestic sphere, such as those controlled by financial and credit mechanisms. 

The book asks questions about who is embedded in the domestic debt. The resulting study verifies that debt mainly affects women and confirms gender mandates as a reinforcement of credit duties. Women, lesbians, transvestites, and transgender individuals have less personal income. They are forced to participate under worse conditions in the labour market. They have increased in number as the heads of families or those responsible for singles parent homes and are, worldwide, in charge of the reproduction of life in homes and communities. The discharge of debt over socially precarious territories signifies an advance over theirs and an accentuation of sexual differential exploitation. However, this situation occurs in a specific historical context—the relationship of women to property, money, and financial systems developed later than for men. Women were considered less capable of managing credit; therefore, indebtedness was a practice undertaken through relatives or informal credit agents. The ‘privilege’ to get opportunities for bank credit—a doubtful privilege that the book points out—has implied a bigger impoverishment, mostly because debt appears while the labour market has become more precarious, during crises, and within the context of the withdrawal of state policies. 

This is not just a quantitative issue. Debt and low incomes can become obstacles, as they do to leaving violent family environments or having the capabilities to negotiate domestic needs or even participation in the public sphere. Debt reinforces women’s dependency. As the crisis continues, the situation becomes worse. Crisis implies an increase in unpaid care work, and that situation pushes women into debt. ¿Quién le debe a quién? inquires and gives an account of the mutually binding relation between the spread of the debt and the increase of domestic labour, functioning like an assembly line on which unpaid housework, precariousness, and indebtedness are the main gears. 

Finally, the book goes beyond the diagnosis and the critical inquiries. The authors manufacture a manifesto on financial disobedience and sketch an itinerary of action. The analysis of various contexts—from Argentina to Morocco, sailing back to Brazil and from there to Italy, the USA, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Chile, Spain, and Ecuador—reveals forms of collective action questioning the (neo)liberal programme of self-employment and entrepreneurship as an individual solution to a structural crisis and domestic debt. In its specificity, each paper states that the violence of property expressed in indebtedness must be resisted through collectiveness. The volume portrays programmes of re-appropriation as ways to ensure a debt-free existence and calls attention to the need for a dignified job and the guarantee of the right to life. Stopping indebtedness is a programme about liberty, rights, and life. With these sketches, the book imagines but also performs a global movement against debt arguing that pushing for it will be necessary in order to turn inevitable what seems politically impossible.