Mexico City and London: Striving to Survive

A neoliberal writes

You don’t come across many shirkers in Mexico City. Not even that many beggars. People work, and when there isn’t any work, they work. Six in 10 Mexican workers, or 30 million people, work in the informal economy — take the metro and at every stop there is someone who has got hold of some cough sweets, a few soft drinks or a box of cooking magazines and who is working as hard (and as loudly) as they can to convince people that they want them. As I sit and write this I lose count of the number who have passed my window selling food, collecting broken appliances, gathering garbage in that particular local combination of recycling and scavenging… . Mexico is a country of strivers and entrepreneurs.

*****

What can we make of this? It’s true that in DF that you don’t come across many people simply begging — not, at least, in relation to the amount of poverty that undoubtedly exists. It’s also true that there are people selling things everywhere — the area around the Zócalo (the enormous central square) has more face-to-face economic exchange taking place than anywhere I’ve ever seen. It’s a kind of economic activity similar to that which in Brazil is called biscate— hand to mouth existence sustained by small-scale informal activity on a massive scale, without any of the protections we are (quite reasonably) so very accustomed to and dependent on in most of Europe and/or the UK. People may be striving, but it’s not to succeed — it’s to survive in the absence of any kind of welfare state.

What doesn’t announce itself quite so visibly or so loudly are the immense difficulties which underpin this unprotected way of life. The consequences of failure in this intensely fragile and fraught fight for sustenance are immense. Not selling a sufficient amount of merchandise on any given day means hunger on a level that I for one am unable to imagine without great effort (although it is imperative that I try). Healthcare, for the poorest, is simply not an option. And as for housing, it turns out that most people working informally in DF do not live in large rented flats in the middle of Condesa… . Also less immediately noticeable is all the activity that goes on behind the scenes: the violence which so often mediates all kinds of informal transactions, the extortion, the drug gangs, the prostitution and trafficking in women, and so on. Not to mention, of course, that there are very many people who beg on the streets of DF, who live an even more precarious existence — the people from indigenous backgrounds, those right down at the bottom of society. Plus there’s also the fact that Mexico is a primate city, meaning that it concentrates huge amounts of economic activity which the rest of the country doesn’t get to enjoy. People in Oaxaca, Guerrero and Michoacán live an even more radically unprotected existence — there, any contact with the forces of public security is to be avoided at all costs. The Afonso Cuarón film Y Tu Mamá También (2001)is a subtle but forceful exploration and indictment of these contractions.

How does this relate to the UK? One interesting thing about the coverage of the 2011 riots, particularly in relation to the abolition of ESA , was learning just how much the economic lives of teenagers in some parts of London revolves around the circulation of small amounts of money for and from dealing in hash and weed. On the whole though, the culture that I’ve been trying to describe hasn’t really existed in the UK in my lifetime. Firstly, nowadays there simply isn’t the space to sell things informally. Service and retail industries are very tightly controlled, with supermarkets and aspirational malls having taken the place of (in the words of the 6-year-old daughter of Newham Mayor Robin Wales) ‘dirty’, ‘smelly’ street markets and carboot sales. Public space is also very restricted and controlled — anyone setting up a tamarind stand in Paternoster Square would be given very short shrift, and it’s hard to imagine what kind of response someone would provoke if they took to the tube in an attempt to knock out cut-price Juan Gabriel DVDs at very full volume.

Of course, if you want to sell goods or services, there is also the internet. Nowadays, while there is a distinct, but suspicious, lack of people who say they’re unemployed, there is an abundance of individual freelancers, hustling their products and skillsets online, always on the lookout for a creative opportunity in the brutal new world of the knowledge-based economy. Nowadays in the UK being an ‘entrepreneur’ is increasingly the only available or permitted mode of economic survival — just count the amount of times today you see the term ‘your business’. But this sexy fantasy hides the reality of people scrambling around doing odd jobs in a heart-racing struggle to be able to pay the rent. It is a term desperately in need of détournement — someone depending on Taskrabbit to survive enjoys fewer rights than a medieval serf, and to think of them in the same terms as Alan Sugar is something of a category error.

In Mexico this struggle for day-to-day existence is visible, on the surface. In the UK, it is less so. So much of the postmodern biscate economy takes place behind a screen, on smartphones whose expensive monthly tariff is even more important than rent for people whose basic survival depends on an occasional email or text message. For neoliberals, the internet appears to be a free market utopia: no taxes, no minimum wage, no contracts, no state regulation, just infinite human labour deprived of all social protection and begging to be exploited. For people who need to work to obtain food, shelter and healthcare (and, nowadays, communication), it is in many ways a nightmare come true.

*****

In the UK and elsewhere, the state than has sustained our lives, administered our births, fed, guarded and healed us is on the retreat, falling to its feet and discarding unused ammunition as it flees. In its absence, without the manifold protections it has afforded us, where do we find ourselves? It increasingly seems that in the imagination of many, we no longer live in what we’re now forced to call the ‘real’ world, amongst buildings and people and shouts and smells and incessant hunger and ugly human need. We are in the process of migrating instead to another realm, one safer, cleaner and easier to control (albeit almost impossible to switch off). But how will these screens we have erected around ourselves give us shelter from the gathering storms? How will these infinitely precious and meaningful religious icons, these handheld shrines, that we cling to for dear life redeem us from our all-too-earthy earthbound physical existence, our dependence on air, on water, on food, on the human touch? Increasingly, it seems, we live in gnostic times. The Gnostics believed that all matter is evil and the body is a prison to escape from. Perhaps, then, the essence of neoliberal faith and practice is not bare, brutal, atheistic social Darwinism, an animalistic fight of all against all unto death, but a belief in a higher realm, in an infinitely cruel deity which hovers over the furnace into which our physical environment and all our infinite hours, years and lifetimes of human toil and endeavour are currently being sacrificed. A Taskrabbit economy (final-stage turbocapitalism as a cupcake-cute bunny apocalypse) is a façade covering a fullscale hollowing out of social protection, increasingly desperate poverty and an economic existence just as vulnerable as that which I see around me every day on the streets of Mexico. And when George Osborne warns us of the need to strive, it’s not our aspiration to wealth and success that he has in mind, but the battle for survival.

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