Retropost: On “Governing Informality”

A version of the following was first posted as a Facebook status update on April 21, 2015.

Today in Eng10 we discussed “Governing informalities: Street vendors and social order making in Metro Manila” by Wataru Kusaka. Kusaka, whom I met at a conference about “global commons,” has written a book (in Japanese) on “Anti-Civic Politics,” which will be published in English within a year or so. In this book he analyzed  the informal security practices of the urban poor and other members of “uncivil society.” These informal institutions include palakasan (clientelism), lagayan (bribery), paluwagan (resource-sharing), bulungan (gossip/sharing of insider information), and pakikisama (compliance/complicity) in the context of a weak state.

His paper “Governing Informalities,” from the anthology The Politics of Change in the Philippines (Anvil, 2010), examines how the poor (whose agency is often discounted by many studies in political science that focus on such dominant actors as local elites and civic organizations) resist oppressive and exploitative institutions and dominant actors in the social order, but, by the same gesture, reinforce the very institutions that oppress them, since they employ informal/illegal strategies for negotiating with the dominant social order rather than pursue legitimate strategies for social reform (like lobbying and legislation), because this necessarily long and arduous struggle is obstructed not only by corrupt government authorities, but also by the poor’s more pressing concerns for mere survival.

In this light, the author argues that the state and civil society, or actors in the public and private sectors should work together to “create conditions that enable the poor to pursue social reform projects for their long-term interests and refrain from trying to secure their immediate interests through informal means,” rather than punish the poor for practices like street vending and informal settling, or perpetuate negative biases against the poor for not cooperating in state projects that threaten to destroy their livelihoods without helping to empower them in the legitimate pursuit of their interests.

While I appreciate the paper’s structure and the concise and illustrative writing by which the author concretizes his analytic framework, supports his claims, and justifies his conclusions, what I like most about this paper is how it humanizes and empathizes with a basic sector of society whose lives those who are more privileged often take for granted as disposable. (It is telling that during the 2002-2004 rallies against the violent street-clearing policies by then MMDA chairman Bayani Fernando, a.k.a. that guy who painted Metro Manila a disgusting shade of sky blue and baby pink, a common slogan of street vendor protesters was “Hindi kami basura.”) It behooves the reader to imagine how it is to fight daily for the conditions of one’s existence and interrogate assumptions about the poor as lawless parasites feeding off hardworking taxpayers (when, actually, they are triply taxed, formally by the local and national governments, and informally by corrupt officials who extort bribes). Furthermore, the author contextualizes their struggle within political, economic, and cultural systems that perpetuate inequality, and argues that the empowerment of the poor is essential to eradicating corrupt institutions, and should thus be undertaken not as a project of charity, but of democracy.

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