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  • Neoliberalism from Below: Popular Pragmatics and Baroque Economies by Verónica Gago
  • Steven Schmidt
Verónica Gago, translated by Liz Mason-Deese
Neoliberalism from Below: Popular Pragmatics and Baroque Economies.
Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017. 277 pp. Notes, references, and index. $25.95 paper (ISBN 978-0-8223-6912-7); $94.95 cloth (978-0-8223-6883-0).

In Neoliberalism from Below, Verónica Gago examines new configurations of neoliberalism in Latin America through the lenses of state power, the informal economy, and transnational migration. Based on her field work in La Salada—a sprawling complex known as “the largest illegal market in Latin America, occupying over twenty hect-ares on the border between Buenos Aires and its urban periphery” (p. 16), which supports thousands of vendors and textile workers in the marketplace and nearby villas—Gago articulates [End Page 221] how entanglements between Argentine neo-developmentalism, the dismantling of the welfare state, and migrant labor explain the persistence of a neoliberal ethos among the urban poor in Buenos Aires. Central to her thesis is the idea that neoliberalism is not a singular, state-backed policy imposed upon a population, as is often theorized. Rather, it is also produced “from below” and as such, is rooted in specific territories and practices. Gago argues that paradoxically, neoliberalism persists under neo-developmental projects precisely because the developmentalist state has failed to guarantee participation in the formal economy, opting instead to incorporate the informal economic practices that proliferated under austerity. She theorizes neoliberalism not as an external force that “captures” the state, but also as a Foucauldian subjectivity reproduced by the quotidian economic actions of the working-class.

Using Buenos Aires’s La Salada market as a point of departure, Gago argues that neoliberalism uses participation in a burgeoning, illicit garment industry and “communitarian capital” held by Bolivian migrants as new sites of surplus and extraction. Nonetheless, she maintains that this “terrain of resistant subjectivities” (p. 2) not only reproduces neoliberalism but also challenges its hegemony. These seemingly contradictory practices constitute a series of “baroque economies,” or “an articulation...that mixes logics and rationalities that otherwise appear to be incompatible” (p. 14). Gago’s analysis is shot through with these oppositions: entrepreneurship and survival sit beside profit extraction and exploitation, and economic dispossession with selective incorporation into the informal economy. These dialectics, she argues, resist easy narratives of victimization that can dominate scholarly accounts of neoliberalism. For instance, she points out that Argentina’s informal garment industry proliferated after the imposition of neoliberal austerity measures and also maintains the political viability of the neo-developmental Argentine state. Nonetheless, as this industry relocated to individual homes, it also reconstituted these previously-erased inputs—the feminine and the household—as visibly fundamental to capitalism’s operation. Of course, gendered, household labor has always undergirded capitalism, and the extent to which inclusion in capitalist modes of production can be considered liberatory is itself debatable. This is a tension that runs through Gago’s text: a “pragmatic politics” (p. 235) ensures the survival of the working class, while simultaneously reproducing the structures that maintain their exclusion.

Gago cautions against moralizing statements regarding these same pragmatic strategies. Critically, she invites social scientists to understand participation in this economy not as bald-faced exploitation, foregrounding instead how its contradictions permit some agentic moments. For instance, she describes a system of deferred reciprocity, wherein migrants opt in to precarious labor conditions to be “paid back” later as workshop owners or managers. Similarly, she develops the term “communitarian capital” to describe how the values ascribed to indigenous Bolivians articulate particularly well with the labor needs of post-Fordist capitalism, while also constituting the basis of “self-management, mobilization and insubordination” (p. 45). [End Page 222] Gago aims to contribute to our theoretical understandings of late capitalism. Accordingly, the text departs at length from its case study to consider neoliberalism more generally. Nonetheless, Gago’s arguments are at their most lucid and nuanced when she explicitly links her theoretical claims to an empirical case.

Neoliberalism from Below, which is part of Duke’s “Radical Américas” series, was originally published in Argentina in 2014. Liz Mason-Deese...