Re: [OPE-L] the working class and the informal sector

From: michael a. lebowitz (mlebowit@SFU.CA)
Date: Tue Dec 14 2004 - 08:52:07 EST

         I welcome your call for some others to join in-- I've been hoping
especially that people from the south on the list (eg., Brazilians) would
do so because I'm sure they've thought about this. Meanwhile, I don't think
you've been responsive on the particular case that I posed (in the process
you initiated of identifying things we might be able to agree on):

  You seem
> > prepared to accept someone who is unemployed as part of the working class.
> > So, does that person leave the working class when she gets some money
> > eg., from a family member) or some credit (high interest rate) to purchase
> > some shirts from a capitalist firm that she can sell on the street?
> > Recognizing  that this person would much prefer to be getting a regular
> > wage (even a  piece-wage) for selling the shirts, to be covered by the
> > law,  be eligible for pensions, medical care, etc rather than bear the
> > risk.

Is this person part of the proletariat? Or, do you disqualify her because
of her ('sham') property or because she is not really subsumed under capital?
         in solidarity,

>Michael L,
>Here are some reasons why I don't think it is at all "obvious" that the mass
>of people in the informal sector are part of the working class:
>*   A large percentage of people in this sector have never been
>wage-workers, have no realistic prospects of becoming wage-workers
>any time soon and -- given the low demand for labour-power by
>capital and the state in the urban areas and regions where they live --
>have no illusions about theirs prospects for becoming wage-workers.
>* We're not talking here about a short-term presence in the reserve army
>(as was the case when I mentioned "frictional unemployment"  previously).
>Rather,  a large percentage of people in this sector have been members
>of this sector for their entire lives -- indeed, there are many millions of
>families that for several successive generations have labored in the
>informal sector.  This can not be taken to be a transient or temporary
>* Most of the members of this sector didn't come from the working-class
>but rather the peasantry.  I.e. mass poverty in the countryside fueled
>a movement of people to urban areas in search of jobs.  They thus often
>have no historical memory of  being part of the working class. This leads
>them to develop, not just alternative ways of surviving, but also
>alternative  customs, norms, and lifestyles.  If they identify with another
>class, it is often a nostalgic identification with the peasantry from which
>they (mostly) came rather than the working-class.  Many of these
>same people yearn not for jobs for a wage but for land.
>*  They are self-employed.  Indeed,  they are not infrequently proud of
>that fact.  I.e. they may be poor, but at least they do not "work for
>someone else."
>* Being self-employed -- rather than being employed by capital and
>the state -- they have a lot of similarities to the poor peasantry and
>petty-bourgeoisie.   Indeed, many of these people may come to think
>of themselves as "small businessmen/women".
>* They, for the most part,  are not dependent on capital -- except in a
>_very_ indirect way.  I.e. they often sell goods and services to the
>working class (or other members of the informal sector) and consequently
>their money exchanges against wages.  This, of course, can benefit
>capital.  Yet, it also means that they frequently relate to workers as
>consumers rather than members of the same class.  This is a different
>social relationship.
>I realize that for many we're in the holiday season and the end-of-term
>work intensification period (and hence the recent sharp decline in list
>volume), but what do others think about this issue?
>In solidarity, Jerry

Michael A. Lebowitz
Professor Emeritus
Economics Department
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, B.C., Canada V5A 1S6

Currently based in Venezuela. Can be reached at
Residencias Anauco Suites
Departamento 601
Parque Central, Zona Postal 1010, Oficina 1
Caracas, Venezuela
(58-212) 573-4111
fax: (58-212) 573-7724

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