In this blog, CURA’s Adam Fishwick (@Adam_Fishwick) and Valeria Guarneros-Meza (@valguarn) develop three avenues of enquiry relating to urban informality, following a one day workshop held in June 2019.
Informality, although a contested concept, has been considered relevant by interdisciplinary approaches to studying urban and rural environments as it has helped to unpick rapid transitions, change and resilience in periods of economic, political and social crises, while also helping to challenge injustices. For a recent debate see Acuto et al. (2019)
Urban environments provide dynamic sites for understanding the ways in which the state – intentionally or otherwise – produces and reproduces the informal practices enacted by individuals and communities. The state has played an important role in manufacturing forms of informality, in housing, planning, infrastructure and the other areas of life, as well as in managing, containing or co-opting the everyday practices of local populations, albeit in complex and contradictory ways.
Similarly, informal work plays a central role in political economies across localities in the Global South and, increasingly, Global North. Myriad forms of informal work cut across formal labour markets, contributing to capital accumulation as a cheap and disposable source of labour power, with the state being complicit in its spread and consolidation, again, in complex and contradictory ways.
Informal work provides a means of survival for poorer communities, particularly in the absence and decline of social provision, but, more importantly, it also engenders new dynamics of class formation and reproduction, with opportunities for new forms of collective organisation.
With this preamble in mind, new questions have risen that aim to unpick how different dimensions (economic, institutional/legal and social) of informality intersect with new understandings of work and class formation. Although the rural context is increasingly experiencing drastic changes as a result of capital accumulation and its associated technology, financialisation and precarity, the preference of the workshop upon the urban was justified as a result of austerity policies affecting social policies even deeper than previous decades and of increasing international migration rates that have been putting pressure to urban problems already accentuated by austerity in both global South and North.
These questions formed part of the agenda of a CURA-sponsored one-day workshop in June 2019, co-sponsored by LGRC and POWI. Here we set out three avenues of inquiry that emerged in the course of the discussions among participants and which we believe can guide innovative research, which will be fruitful to achieve through comparative and interdisciplinary collaboration:
Avenue 1: value and commodity chains
Informal work and labour are central to value chains and the production of value across cities. Reflections in the workshop on waste collection across Argentina and Nigeria illustrated the centrality of informal workers to the production of value through their incorporation into existing production networks coordinated by the state and private companies.
Discussions drew out the complexity of value production at the intersection of boundaries between state regulation, private sector accumulation and everyday practices of social reproduction. In particular, these exposed the intensification of exploitation that occurred with the incorporation of informal workers into the “formal” sphere – from state-subsidised waste collectors in Buenos Aires to the navigation of state repression and corruption in Lagos.
Theoretical discussion based on extensive field research in sub-Saharan Africa also focused on the limits of the concept of informality by asking not only how value is produced, but also how different practices are valued. This opened further debate around how we understand what counts within different informal practices, how these reproduce life, and how state actors’ interpretations contribute to their value formation.
Avenue 2: social reproduction and resistance
The spaces that are (re)produced by informal urban practices can enable marginalised populations to survive while, at the same, provide possibilities for new collective action and resistance. This was one of the key discussions throughout the workshop, drawing on diverse cases in Argentina, Mexico, Nigeria and the UK to explain how shared experiences of informality, exploitation and marginalisation enabled novel forms of collective organisation.
Contributions showed how sites of social reproduction were as significant to collective organisation as sites of production, demonstrating how the reproduction of life at the margins of cities can provide resources for resistance. Informal workers in waste collection, for example, pressured local government in Buenos Aires for formal recognition, while migrant workers in hostels in the UK developed new forms of sociality and solidarity as they navigated the “formal” means for their own reproduction.
This blurring of boundaries between production and reproduction was particularly clear when unpacking the working of informal practices of governance. For example, in examining the processes of land tenure and housing in Brazil and London, respectively, discussion centred on how contested processes of formalisation and informal agreements between elites and marginalised populations simultaneously addressed challenges of informal living while heightening the possibility of exploitation through private renting and state policy.
Avenue 3: state reproducing informality
It is widely recognised that the state is a main contributor to informal procedures that build differences in power relations. The discussions unpicked this aspect about the role of the state and the ways it influences the organising possibilities amongst precarious workers whose labour spans between the public (government) sector and informal markets. This was particularly observed in waste management in Argentina, Nigeria and Mexico.
These cities illustrated how the public sector provides a window for individuals to join the formal labour market, while individuals continue to draw on dynamics that interweave with social struggles based on self-governance to cope with the exploitation that the public sector increasingly applies. The latter contributes to the invisibilisation of waste workers through the beliefs of senior bureaucrats that were consequently reflected in government documents, all of which fed the concealment of informality within the state.
Concealment extends to areas of state violence, for example, in London and Madrid the cleansing activities that the state uses to eradicate stigmatised communities of immigrants in housing and the increasing coordination with policing and immigration enforcement agencies. However, the informality of the state can produce positive results. For example, during the period Barcelona was ruled by Barcelona em Comú, bureaucrats were closely involved in the social struggle aiming to change government’s informal practice in the fight against the austerity of social policies.
The authors are grateful to the workshop speakers and other participants for the ideas developed in this post. The speakers include:
- Dr Begoña Aramayona (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid)
- Dr Maurizio Atzeni (Centro de Estudios e Investigaciones Laborales, Argentina)
- Dr Precious Akponah (University of Leicester)
- Raphael Bishof (De Montfort University/ Universidade Federal do ABC, Brasil)
- Theodor Born (Queen Mary, UoL)
- Dr Adam Fishwick (De Montfort University)
- Dr Valeria Guarneros-Meza (De Montfort University)
- Dr Louise Guibrunet (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México)
- Prof. Vivien Lowndes (University of Birmingham)
- Dr. Colin Marx (Bartlett Development Planning Unit, UCL)
- Jacob Nielsen (University of Liverpool)