Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 359 | Junio 2011


Central America

The four horsemen of neoliberalismo in the vacuum left by waged work

Neoliberalism has unleashed four horsemen across Central America: drug trafficking, NGOs, youth gangs and fundamentalist evangelizing churches. They gallop across a devastated land of unemployment, underemployment and a range of uncertain and ephemeral forms of self-employment… They are free to trod the land thanks to the decline of waged work in Central America and the rest of the world.

José Luis Rocha

Remember the 1970s and 80s? The military in Honduras, the death squads in El Salvador, the bloody death rattles of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua and the kaibiles—special operations force—with fixed bayonets whose scorched earth policies erased indigenous communities from Guatemala’s spring-like face. Gustavo Álvarez Martínez, Roberto D’Aubuisson, Anastasio Somoza and Efraín Ríos Montt are just around the historical corner, yet they already seem so distant.

We’d like to think of them as horrendous dinosaurs of the kind that Dirk Kruijt and other archeologists of Central American miseries extract from their Jurassic Park every once in a while to illustrate stories of terror that their beardless readers—born and raised at the cusp of two millennia—can barely imagine. Our lands are no longer lands of volcanoes and Balkans, yet there are many consequences of that half-passed past, both buried and out in the open, bragging and ashamed.

Other times, other struggles

One reason those figures seem so far off is that the struggles waged against the oligarchic interests they embodied have lost their justifications. The solid rural nature of the world of waged work has declined. The strategies of big capital are successfully dismantling the world of waged work and the hindrances it brought. If there are no workers, they have no rights and nobody to raise them as the standards of their struggle. The problem is more acute now, but the very problem generates conditions that make any cure impossible: the absence and precariousness of employment has a devastating effect. Migration is a safety valve for civil unrest that would otherwise lead to more forceful explosions than we are currently experiencing.

Liberalism—with or without the prefix “neo”—is the dominant ideology. Its creed classifies as indisputable the preeminence of the rights of private ownership. The demands for land—save in still very rural Honduras—and for improved working conditions—above all, wage increases—don’t consume the energies of discontent, which emerge in the search for religious comfort, identity, a sense of belonging, basic services, the right to abortion, punishment for sexual attackers, access to water, an uncontaminated environment, food security…

Even in Honduras, the current search for land is rooted in the agrarian counter-reform, a process in which the geophagy of Facussé and other landlords linked up with the distancing from the world of rural work of cooperativized peasants who were willing to sell their farms off cheaply and become self-employed merchants, transport workers, moneylenders, etc. Between 1992 and 1997, no fewer than 73 cooperative groups from the Aguán Valley sold over 250,000 hectares, 34% of which passed directly into the hands of one Miguel Facussé.

The struggles of the 20th century—for land and working conditions—were headed by professional guilds, unions and socialist parties. Roque Dalton’s memoirs of Miguel Mármol, Onofre Guevara’s history of the workers’ movement in Nicaragua, and the four novels about the US banana companies in our region—El Papa verde by Miguel Ángel Asturias, Prisión verde by Ramón Amaya Amador, Bananos by Emilio Quintana and Mamita Yunai by Carlos Luis Fallas—give us a glimpse of the enormous dimensions of those struggles, focused on the world of waged work or the demand for land.

Other leaders, other struggles

Fallas was one of the leaders of the banana strike in Costa Rica in 1934 that brought together over 10,000 banana workers. Miguel Mármol led the strikes of Salvadoran cobblers, tailors and railroad workers over a daily wage and the right not to be swept away in the hurricane activated by the onrush of machinery. It was another story in the 1990s, with the introduction of bundles of used clothing from the USA and of transnational maquila companies sewing together imported cloth and leather for re-export as garments and shoes to our northern neighbor, a combination that dealt the coup de grace to local tailors, dressmakers and cobblers. They were executed in summary proceedings without the right to appeal, accused of crimes against competitiveness. There were no protests. The accusations, if they merit such a name, were confined to the elitist catacombs of forums and congresses where the unconvincing preach to the convinced and the packaged friar-to-friar style sermons neither convert, divert nor subvert.

The agitators of the first half of the 20th century, committed to their causes with fire and blood, were martyred: Juan Pablo Wainwright was executed and Manuel Cálix Herrera died at 30 from tuberculosis contracted during his many imprisonments. These founders of the Communist Party and the Union Federation of Honduras displayed unbribable tenacity during the strikes that rocked the banana companies in 1931, the year of their unappealable announcement of a 20% wage cut for workers and a 25% cut in the price paid to the small-scale banana growers known as poquiteros.

Their fights had broad resonance. The strike in La Ceiba in 1920 involved almost the entire population. The banana strike in 1954, which turned Puerto Cortés, San Pedro Sula, La Lima, El Progreso, Tela and La Ceiba into a powder keg and extended to Tegucigalpa is a milestone in Honduran history. Although it had a prolonged gestation, one of the initial detonating factors was a demand that is unthinkable now: payment for days worked during Holy Week. Those were times of almost full employment and union effer¬vescence.

Eduardo Galeano tells us in his third volume of Memory of Fire of the excesses of the insubordinate President Árbenz in Guatemala: “Jacobo Arbenz, accused of communist conspiracy, isn’t inspired by Lenin but by Abraham Lincoln. His agrarian reform, which proposed modernizing capitalism in Guatemala, is more moderate then US rural laws of a century ago.” Arbenz committed the terrible crime of expropriating the United Fruit Company’s lands, taking the banana company’s accounting books at their word and paying them compensation at the value the company itself had attributed to them in order to dodge taxes. Those were anti-imperialist times.

In Nicaragua in February 1952, a strike blew up over the demand for wage increases by almost a hundred workers from Calzado Serrano in Managua, the importance of which lay in the fact that the workers struck even though their shoemakers’ union had recently been declared illegal and was being strangled through the freezing of its contribution fund by order of the Ministry of Labor.

The guerrillas diverted attention
from the professional guilds and unions

All of these groups were more or less intensely connected to proletarian internationalism. What were they demanding? Fair salaries, nationalization of monopolies (banks, railroads, banana companies, etc.), improved working conditions, payment for holidays and extra hours, etc. Authorship rights over their decline have been better adjudicated than the merits of their best moment. Their guilty submission to the dictates of the International Red Aid, their fragmentation and their sectarianism are often remembered, but little or nothing is said about the actual lives of the people involved: about a Juan Pablo Wainwright who left the comforts he was born into to try his luck with the workers; or a Manuel Cálix Herrera who became a carpenter, banana worker, cobbler, or whatever it took to generate class awareness and recruit shoulder to shoulder, man to man. Elena Poniatowska’s wonderful historical novel Tinísima perhaps most provides a flavor of that era of heroism and self-immolation that are incomprehensible according to the moral parameters of postmodernity.

The crushing effect of the guerilla movements—a thousand times more media-oriented than the workers’ movements—displaced the guilds and unions from the leftwing popular imagination, from the prototypes of struggles and paladins. Grassroots and elite artistic production—literature, songs, oil paintings, murals—glorifying guerrilla groups, which were not constantly present in the 20th century, produced a mirage that attributed greater representation, duration and support to them than they actually had.

The fact that two guerrilla groups—the FSLN and the FMLN—have become important political forces in the Central American region since the 1990s informs a reading of the past that magnifies guerrilla groups’ leading role, turning them into the driving force behind the social movements, overshadowing the trajectory of unions, associations and socialist parties. A contributing factor in this overshadowing was the dependence of the unions, guilds and parties on the Soviet policy of light interventionism and its imposition of a strategy of taking power via the ballot box.

Immanuel Wallerstein interprets this as a territorial distribution that provided stability to capitalism and frenzy to US imperial expansionism. In the waning of the Cold War this tepidness made it possible for the guilds and unions to be subjugated by the guerrilla movements, insurgent coalitions that involved very diverse groups, not all of them interested in radical transformations. Communist Dagoberto Gutiérrez insists that the FMLN was a conglomerate not only of communist and non-communist forces but even anti-communist ones.

Farewell to the world of waged work

Perhaps this turnaround of the leading actors would have to be identified as a symptom of the decline of the world of waged work, a key element of the transformation of politics and its possibilities in Central America. Many changes occurred from Miguel Mármol’s times to Roque Dalton’s. Many more unfurled from the ascetic Carlos Fonseca Amador to the curious Christian, socialist and solidarity-based project of today in which Daniel Ortega hands out $35 bonuses but doesn’t alter the national tax system’s regressive structure. All these changes have affected the world of work and the coordinates of politics. It has been a silent transformation that took many by surprise.

In the first half of the 20th century, the main Central American cities weren’t the chaotic ant nests into which they were transformed by an urgent and hasty rural-urban migration. The contrasts in this field are brutal. Costa Rica saw its urban population grow from 38.7% to 62.6% between 1970 and 2005, and the other countries followed behind: from 39% to 57.8% in El Salvador all the way down to only from 29% to 47.8% in the still very rural Honduras.

While the urbanization in Costa Rica was supported by the growth of the industrial and tertiary sectors, the migration in the other countries fed informal work in its diverse forms (underemployment or casual work, where there are no complete days or weeks), self-employment, piece work, etc. Self-employment (a single-person or family business) accounts for 41% of regional employment and almost 50% in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. In 2006, it respectively accounted for 62% and 41% of new jobs in Honduras and Nicaragua.

Other times, other jobs

Micro-businesses provide over two-thirds of the jobs in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Micro-businesses and self-employment are synonymous with job insecurity: exposure to abuse, lack of a contract, low or nonexistent social security coverage and, above all, minimal stability.

The changes in labor legislation during the nineties paved the way for labor flexibility, including abolition of time periods for contracts. And that led to the boom in the indirect point-of-sale tax on consumption known as value added tax. Income tax can’t be the great pillar of tax collection with fewer wage earners and an unwillingness to prejudice big capital. In the Nicaragua of the nineties, 70% of taxes came from indirect taxes and 30% from direct ones. In those years the inequitable ratio was maintained at a constant 85:15. As can be seen in the table above, wage earners accounted for 50% or less of the total people working in 2006 in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

According to estimates from the International Labor Organization, the percentage of wage earners has dropped during the first decade of the 21st century in all Central American countries except Costa Rica, where it has remained at 70%. In 2009, the percentage was 56%, 55% and 54.5% in El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, respectively. In these three countries, independent non-professional workers, people working out of their own houses and auxiliary family workers represented almost 40% of the working population, a rise of 2-3% in 2000-2009.

Underemployed, insecure,
freelance, unretirable...

A reduction in waged work has seriously eroded workers’ rights. This is undoubtedly directly related to informali¬zation, underemployment and self-employment: only 40.2% of independent workers had social security in Costa Rica, while the figure didn’t even pass the 4% mark in the other countries, with Guatemala and Honduras achieving only 0.8% and 0.7%.

The growth of informality and instability has produced an ominous rotation among social security contributors, with people entering and leaving the system and workers who pay in funds but never accumulate enough to retire and draw their old-age, disability or death benefits.

While the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS) lacks statistics on the rotation of its contributors, it’s possible to form an idea of that rotation by comparing the number of active contributors with the number of new ones. In 1994-2009 INSS had 892,811 new contributors, although the difference between this figure and the number of active contributors was just 311,867 for this period. This means that an undetermined number of workers made 580,944 entries into and exits from the social security system in that same period, leaving occasional contributions. The figure of temporary contributors (516,376) must undoubtedly be a significant percentage of the number of permanent contributors.

One result of this trend is a lack of social security coverage. With the exception of Costa Rica it fails to cover even 20% of the population, covering only 7.7% in Nicaragua. Another result is that the solidarity principle of social security has been distorted. Where informality alternates with formality and sporadic contributions tend to become the norm, it creates a system in which a small segment—those who will reach the target number of contributions and therefore the right to a pension—lives off those who contribute 3 months, 2 years, 10 years, 15 years, etc., without ever reaching the desired category of pensioner. The formal/informal amphibians will never be able survive either in water or on earth. The common pot of social security is an alibi that allows only a small group to eat even though many contributed the food that will be munched up by other jaws. Those watching the meager or sumptuous banquet from the window are the unretirables.

The erosion of workers’ rights affects both independent and waged workers. Just over 5% of waged workers in Costa Rica belong to unions, and the figure doesn’t even break 3.5% in the rest of the region. Employment stability is less than 30% in Guatemala; only half of waged workers in the isthmus’s three most populated countries have the right to a thirteenth month Christmas bonus; and only 38% and 28% of waged workers in Nicaragua and Guatemala, respectively, have access to permanent jobs. Being a waged worker thus doesn’t even guarantee the right to a thirteenth month, a written contract, social security or stability. The region is filling up with insecure, self-employed and invisible workers, employees besieged by uncertainty and people who can’t retire with a pension.

State employment:
The Nicaraguan case

The public sector is an ever less important generator of employment in Central America. Diverse factors are reducing the State-as-boss throughout the region in both absolute and relative terms: privatizations, the State’s reduced or non-existent participation in production, the reduction of the social apparatus and population growth. In Costa Rica, the public sector accounts for 10% of jobs, but in the other countries it doesn’t even contribute half of that percentage.

What’s the story in Nicaragua? During the last years of the Somoza regime, the central government provided employment to 5.4% of the economically active population (EAP). This state paternalism peaked at 7.4% in 1984, during the revolutionary government, descended during the acute crisis at the end of the eighties and recovered to 8.8% in 1990, after the elections, when the 14 parties that made up the winning National Opposition Union (UNO) alliance paid back their many electoral debts by distributing ministries, directorates, other major posts and thousands of lesser ones.

Urged on by the IMF and its structural adjustment programs, the government’s salary and human masses had to be pared down. By 1995 the government only employed 5.4% of the EAP, a figure that shrank to just 2.9% by 2000. The nepotism of the Bolaños years, based on cousins and other relatives, inflated the payroll back up to 3.2% of the EAP by 2005 and Sandinista clientelism pushed it back up to 4% by 2009. With an EAP 209% greater than in 1980 and a job supply of around half of what it was in the eighties, state employment has become diluted and lost significance, its lightened weight rounded off by high levels of rotation.

We’re currently witnessing the consequences of these transformations. I’m going to mention just two of the hottest. First, the political parties’ offer to provide employment to people close to them must be more modest and can only be achieved by sweeping out those employed by the previous administration, preventing the consolidation of a professional civil service. This “broom” makes it impossible to create a corporative identity, loyalty and identification with a project, cause or institution. Second, the reduced state supply of employment is happening in a State that is ceasing to be an axis of social cohesion and identity or has to share this role with other actors better endowed to perform it. This has repercussions in terms of involvement in politics as a means for cultivating an identity, generating a sense of belonging and accessing a job.

In the countryside and the cities

The rural world has also been touched by the magic wand of independent work and insecurity. Silent transformations in the agricultural sector transformed the world of waged work during the eighties and nineties.

Self-employment increased in Honduras’ countryside, to the point of absorbing 63% of employment. There was also an increase in non-agricultural rural jobs, associated with insecurity, low income and vulnerability. Of the total number of women working in rural areas in 1998, 88.3% (Costa Rica), 81.4% (El Salvador) and 83.7% (Honduras) were doing so in non-agricultural activities, which was also true of 57.3%, 32.7% and 21.5% of men who had some kind of work. It is assumed that the pluri-activity that leads to non-agricultural income in rural areas is characteristic of poor countries. But that path of self-employment is becoming well worn by those expelled from waged work.

Orphaned from the boss
with no protest banner

The mix of unemployment, underemployment, self-employment, informalization, flexibilization, outsourcing, piecemeal subcontracting… creates the material basis for displacing the world of waged work as an axis for demands. Big capital’s strategy has provided an antidote to the kinds of afflictions caused by the Miguel Mármols and Manuel Cálixes of the world. Wage demands topped the agendas of the professional associations and unions they led and of the teachers’ and rural workers’ associations.

The socioeconomic premises of these demands were certain contractual, political and even cultural links between employee and employer. The father-boss could be an exploiter, but he was a persistent figure with whom the workers established links of a recognized solidity. Unemployment was a temporary illness, even during epidemics.

Subsequently, the ephemeral abandonment of unemployment started to be accompanied by permanent irresponsible bossdom in the form of subcontracting with its outsourcing of costs. Sub-contracting diluted the employer/employee links and did away with the world of salaried work. The absence of a world of work dismantled the world of protests, which big capital knows, multiplies and rewards. We should remember Chase Manhattan Bank CEO and chairman Thomas Labrecque, who awarded himself a US$9 million a year bonus in recognition of his role in eliminating 10,000 jobs.

The end of the work ethic

In Work, Consumerism and the New Poor, Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues that we have passed from a society of producers to a society of consumers, from a work ethic to a consumerism aesthetic. The work ethic was characterized as doing something that other people consider valuable in order to achieve what is necessary to live and be happy, and not being content with what has been achieved and satisfied with less rather than seeking more.

In a society of producers, where this ethic predominates, “Work was the main factor of one’s social placement as well as of self-assessment: for all people except those who thanks to hereditary or acquired wealth could combine a life of leisure with self-sufficiency, the question ‘who are you’ was answered by pointing to the company that employed the man questioned and the capacity in which it employed him… The work career marked the itinerary of life and retrospectively provided the prime record of one’s life achievement or one’s failure; that career was the principal source of self-confidence or uncertainty, self-satisfaction or self-reprobation, pride or shame.”

The type of work was the “‘independent variable’ that allowed a person to shape and forecast all other aspects of existence, with little error. Once the type of work had been decided and the career scheme ascribed, all the rest fell into place and one could be pretty certain what was to be done in virtually every field of life. To sum up: work was the main orientation point, in reference to which all other life pursuits could be planned and ordered.”

This doesn’t happen anymore because “permanent, secure and guaranteed jobs are now a rarity. The jobs of old, ‘for life’, sometimes even hereditary, are confined to a few old industries and professions and are rapidly shrinking in number. New vacancies tend to be short-term contracts, ‘until further notice’ or part-time. People often combine them with other occupations, deprived of any safeguards of continuity, let alone permanence.”

The CV of a carpenter
and a sociologist

To glimpse the dimension of the leap from the world of work to the world of consumption, it’s helpful to think of the contents of the standard curriculum vitae of a worker before that leap was made: 9 years in the El Halcón sawmill, 30 years as a carpenter in the installations of La Prensa newspaper and 15 years as advisor to a company specializing in furniture using pine from certified forests. The CV of a current carpenter would be impossible to check and compress: two months here, three months there, five days over there, etc., etc., etc.

The CV of an expert in Hispano-American literature about to retire could be summarized in a single line: 40 years of teaching and administrative posts in the Central American University of Managua or San Salvador. But as a literature expert would have very few opportunities in the current hard times for any university, let alone any other employer, to appreciate her philological abilities or literary erudition, we’ll take a look at the CV of a sociologist in the middle of her working cycle.

It would read something like this: two weeks applying a National Development Information Institute survey on adolescent pregnancy, a year directing microfinance workshops in the Nitlapán research institute, three months as evaluator of Common Fund projects, two months training empirical judges on community conflict resolution for an Organization of American States program, two four-month periods as social politics professor at the Autonomous National University of Nicaragua, one year as promoter of an organic agriculture project in a small NGO, three months without maternity benefits, five years with only sporadic text editing work and an indefinite chain of etceteras.

What this sociologist does in her work doesn’t define the essence of her life. Her life is elsewhere. Her dreams are being played out on other battle fronts: if she’ll be able to forge a life in a lesbian couple safe from neighborhood gossip; whether she’ll be able to abort her unwanted pregnancy, whether or not her house has a regular water supply, whether her kids will be able to study at a bilingual school, whether she’ll be able to develop her fondness for photography…

She has no possibility of developing a sense of work identity; no possibility of unionization. She can’t develop employee/employer, worker/company, worker/workers links. Her struggles are waged in the world of consumption, as the changes in the labor world generate a new attitude in the minds and actions of the modern producers, as Bauman describes it, “firmly and irreversibly displacing truly human motivations—such as a desire for freedom—towards the world of consumption” where they can be managed and satisfied.

Capitalism stopped being
a waged work system

How did we reach this point? According to Marxist tradition, in the world of waged work the worker sells his labor power to the capitalist.

“This labor power the capitalist buys for a day, a week, a month, etc…” wrote Marx. “Labor power, then, is a commodity, no more, no less so than is the sugar. The first is measured by the clock, the other by the scales. Their commodity, labor power, the workers exchange for the commodity of the capitalist, for money.” Waged work was a part of the capitalist system, but the current system can survive—better even—without waged work. With the decline of the world of waged work, the boss no longer consumes the employee’s labor power during an agreed period, but rather consumes products: documents, workshops, cell phone contracts, credit cards, classes, etc.

It isn’t the labor power that is priced, but rather the products that power produces or places: goods and services that demand labor, electricity, fuel, a vehicle and many other means of production that the contracted person selects, buys, maintains and replaces to make his/her typically one-person or family-based micro-business competitive enough to stay in the market.

Labor power was previously a piece of merchandise measured by the clock. Nowadays the capitalist buys products in which the labor force is just one of the components, submerged in a conglomerate of other productive means. Work is subsumed and remains outside of the discussion, the debate, the conflict. The massive conversion of workers into independent or subcontracted micro-businesspeople positions any conflicts far away from work, in a new arena where big capital is no longer the bad guy in the film.

What does the “worker” sell
in “Capitalism-Plus”?

The capitalist system is no longer one in which business¬people own the means of production and workers only possess offspring and labor power. It is no longer a waged work system. In capitalism’s post-industrial paradise—capitalism-plus or capitalism XP—workers own their own means of production and must bear the cost of amortizing it, updating the machinery and reproducing their own labor power. It amounts to a qualitative leap in the level of freedom.

In the slave system, the master owned the slaves, who in turn had absolutely no possessions. In feudalism, the serfs of the demesne owned their own bodies, but were obliged to pay tribute to the feudal lords.

Industrial capitalism freed workers from this shackle so they could sell their labor power to whomever seemed the best option. According to Marx, “The worker leaves the capitalist, to whom he has sold himself, as often as he chooses, and the capitalist discharges him as often as he sees fit, as soon as he no longer gets any use, or not the required use, out of him.” Today, in capitalism-plus, workers keep possession of their labor power and only have to transfer the products they generate.

Are you a worker or a
one-person micro business?

The freedom is never complete. In industrial capitalism workers could escape from the claws of certain individual capitalists, but couldn’t avoid belonging to the capitalist class as a whole because that was where they found a buyer for their labor.

In post-industrial capitalism, workers, who perhaps can’t appropriate that name anymore, have no escape from the system that now claims to be increasing their dignity. Hourly-paid lecturers aren’t wage-earners. They don’t sell hours of classes, although that’s the legal form their employer—the university, where books that contest other aspects of the system are debated and presented—uses to dress up the transaction. The hourly lecturer sells a packet of teaching, transport, marking examinations and attendance at meetings and training sessions of the university bureaucracy. The university buys the whole package without acquiring employer commitments with those people, who are one-person teaching micro-businesses.

To ensure their survival, lecturers must set themselves up as the representatives, promoters and executers of their micro-business services, which they have to offer to various universities, NGOs and institutes. If such lecturers were to find themselves in the dubious position of offering their classes to the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) in San Pedro Sula, their little business would be ruined: many lecturers at that university are owed two and even three years’ pay. The big university business expects the assets of these personal teaching micro-businesses to be enough to bear a three-year debt and the micro-businesses can’t expect the university business to match them in administrative agility.

From Matsushita in Japan
to FarmEx in Nicaragua

The essence of the labor transition can be expressed as follows: we’ve gone from the contracting model of Matsushita to the FarmEx model. Matsushita Electric, along with other giants in its sector (General Electric, Siemens, ITT, Philips and Hitachi), was one of the biggest companies in the world. Its products have been sold under the National, Panasonic, Quasar and Technics brand names. Good management gurus raised Matsushita to the rank of business management model. They highlighted the stability of personnel who gradually climbed up from basic posts, soaking up the company’s “style and spiritual values.” Young people who started their working cycle in that company could aspire to retiring from it. Seniority was a key element in the ascending career. It was hard to distinguish the individual from the organization, according to Richard T. Pascale and Anthony G. Athos in The Art of Japanese Management, expressing a similar ideal to the one aspired to by religious institutions.

Times have changed. They were already starting to change then, although not as much in Japan as in the United States. In 1981, the average 60-year-old Japanese employee had been at 2.6 companies, while his US contemporary had had 7.5 different employers.

Nicaragua’s FarmEx model is in the opposite corner. FarmEx is a chain of pharmacies that provide home deliveries. Four shop assistants attend to customers in the central headquarters in Managua. Most sales depend on a fleet of 40 people who deliver medicines across Managua—using their own motorbikes filled with gas they have to buy themselves—and for their trouble get a commission of 13 córdobas (just under $0.50) for each delivery. FarmEx entrusts them with a maximum of four orders per trip. Once they complete their deliveries for that trip, they return to FarmEx and join the waiting list for a new four-order delivery of medicines. A few years ago, they would have been on the company’s payroll, with fixed pay, social security, a thirteenth month bonus, seniority and other “benefits” associated with the wage slavery system. All of this onerous fat has been cut away by capitalism-plus in its quest for efficiency and cost reduction. Now they are free, and elevated to the condition of micro-businesspeople; they sell their distribution services free from any ties and from the master-slave dialectic.

The Dole combination shot

The Dole banana company—better known as Standard Fruit—also restructured its way of operating. In the 20th century subcontracting producers was just a temporary and marginal strategy, but by the 21st century it has become a definitive strategy because the most devastating risks—natural disasters and suits over environmental damages—lie in the production field. With a skillful combination shot, Dole eliminated the work/capital confrontation that had caused it so many headaches when unions and other specimens from the Pleistocene age got up to their old tricks. The latest suits against the banana companies have aroused a much fainter echo of the noises produced in the last century. The fights over the havoc wreaked by the use of Nemagon—a pesticide sprayed on Central American banana fields after its use had been prohibited by many national legislations—attracted little interest from either politicians or NGOs, even ecological ones. The struggle’s only aim is compensation for the sick and dying workers, a goal closely linked to the world of waged work that has become strange and malleable.

Drug-traffickers, youth gangs,
NGOs and evangelicals

In a world of economic growth with low job growth, in which labor power is merchandise with limited visibility and even less esteem, politics isn’t set out in the same terms. If the employee/employer relationship loses importance on the economic level, its role collapses and stops being so determining on the socioeconomic level. A world filling up with unemployable young people and unretirable old people isn’t just eliminating waged work and social security, but is also providing a hammer blow to work as a generator of income, identity and social links.

Labor that’s born, grows and reproduces as superfluous can’t have the same insertion in politics as indispensable labor, which can be replaced or, in the worst of cases, turned into an army of reserve labor. Where the labor itinerary doesn’t allow knowledge of who’s who, other generators of identity are sought. In what Jeremy Rifkin calls the end of labor, there’s a need to redefine human beings’ role in the processes and in the social surroundings. As a result, the demands of the world of labor have disappeared from party agendas.

It’s not only the abusive interference of the international finance institutions that make state control an impossible task for the great majority. States that aren’t a source of employment, don’t regulate the world of work and don’t lead national destinies degrade their nature as an axis of power. Their vacuum and the transformations in the world of work lead to the emergence of other political actors whose assault exceeds the ambitions of political parties, the actions of the now almost nonexistent unions and the hegemonic exercise of the elites.

I’ve selected four actors that shape both micro-politics and sub-politics, which Ulrich Beck defines as a set of opportunities for supplementary action and power beyond the political system. Although Beck presents sub-politics as a set of opportunities reserved for companies that operate in the sphere of global society, manage to dodge government and parliament and shift power to the self-management of economic activities, I propose recognizing those abilities in four entities I call the four horsemen of neoliberalism. In the field of paths toward Central America’s development, two of the horsemen, the ones that exercise that power, are NGOs and drug trafficking. In the field of the production of identity, the other two horsemen are youth gangs and fundamentalist evangelical churches.

The flourishing of these four actors is linked to the decline in the world of waged work and shows how this decline affects politics. The micro-politics of marginal neighborhoods and rural communities—with their street peddling, youth gangs, evangelical sects and NGOs—reveals a degree of coverage, penetration and configuration of the population’s identities, economic opportunities and destinies to which the other political actors, of course including “conven¬tional” ones, can no longer aspire.

These groups affect or absorb broad sectors of the Central American population into their militancy, but barely appear in structural and situational analyses because they don’t form part of what political thinking regards as politically correct. The social anomalies become theoretical anomalies. Phenomena that apparently have an abnormal and marginal participation in political life receive tangential treatment in the studies of reality, inserted like Fellini’s grotesques to spice up the story or round off a string of ridiculous elements.

From the world of work
to the world of consumption

The purpose of putting them in the same pot is to neutralize the almost inevitable moralizing tones that mark the treatment of openly criminal groups such as youth and gangs and drug traffickers. Such tones produce optical distortions because they paint as anomalies certain phenomena many aspects of which form part of the dominant trend of a large portion of the citizenry and, far from being exceptional, have correlates in all Central American societies. I will analyze them together, not to insinuate that there’s anything illicit within the NGOs or fundamentalist evangelical groups—although there undoubtedly is in some cases—but rather to highlight how presumably anomalous actors fit into the same system, co-exist and are connected by communicating vessels.

To a large extent, these actors owe their increased role as protagonists to a great change in the current socioeconomic and cultural conditions: the leap from the world of waged work to the world of consumption. The new social struggles are inspired by, imagined and built on other axes: a consumption that implies political positions and generates identity, and these actors have a proven capacity for generating clientelism, adhesion and identity. They’ve been taken as supporting actors in a drama in which they have succeeded in imposing more lifestyles, sense of belonging, consumption and identity, and have done so more persistently and penetratingly, than the State, political parties, social movements and communication media.

NGOs, drug traffickers, youth gangs and churches are platforms of identity-forming and material consumption. They represent four sub-cultures, four ways of conceiving development and the generation of identity: NGOs (administrative and liberal culture), drug traffickers (secret society culture), youth gangs (lumpen proletariat culture) and fundamentalist evangelicals (sect culture).

Have the politicians noticed?

Forced to formulate parallelisms, I would describe the NGOs as a kind of decentralized welfare state; youth gangs as the equivalent of the insurgent movements; drug trafficking as representing the emerging but sufficiently industrialized agro-export sector; and the evangelicals as liberation theory turned upside down, a kind of conflict-evasion theology whose shantytown version cultivates providentialism and whose upper class version establishes a religious appropriation of marketing and self-help manuals, turning their churches into an imitation of the Harvard Business School.

Have the politicians noticed these changes? Nicaragua’s FSLN undoubtedly has. In its chess game the pieces representing AMNLAE, ANDES (the teachers’ union) and the federations of rural cooperatives (all of which have Sandinista origins) are less deserving of attention than these new forces, with which it maintains relationships of alliance (evangelicals), manipulation (youth gangs), economic benefit (drug trafficking) and confrontation (NGOs).

Equally or perhaps more than others, these four horsemen reveal certain tendencies of the Central American societies, although we wouldn’t claim that this is irreversible. The decline in the world of waged work is a consequence of the overwhelming power of capital. But maybe that power isn’t the only cause. Are there other more lacerating and penetrating ones? Until we can make out the causal chain and its consequences, we won’t know to what extent and in which aspects we’re facing an irreversible situation. What is not in doubt, however, is that we’re facing one of capital’s cruelest onslaughts.

The universities that monopolize the delivery of professional titles have reacted languidly to the weakness of waged work, without warning their Central American clientele that once out in the streets they face only a 60% probability of obtaining a wage, a 30% probability of formalizing it through a written contract, a 25% probability of labor stability and a 2% probability of condemning—and in no way reversing—this situation through a union before ending up as part of the 8% unemployed, the 10% unpaid employed and/or the 90% left in a state of social insecurity.

Politicians aren’t afflicted by the syncope of waged work. Ignoring the reality principle, they travel from neighborhood to neighborhood unconcernedly promising the manna from heaven that many desire: thousands, even tens of thousands of jobs. Waged work is in a coma. We pessimists lament it; the gullible celebrate it. Some anticipate it passing away with a call to entrepreneurship: “Waged work is dead! Long live micro businesspeople and the entrepreneurial spirit!” While the big regional capitalists swap their companies for shares in Cargill, Claro, General Electric and Citibank, it occurs to the big prophets of development—the IDB, World Bank and NGOs—that entrepreneurship has descended as tongues of fire on each Central American and that we only need a little capital to develop our enterprising bent.

The charlatans get rich

Another cohort of optimists swearsthat the comatose state of waged work can be reversed. One such exponent is Roberto Debayle, a charlatan who has made his fortune as a labor adviser and sold thousands of copies of his latest book Finding Work in Difficult Times. According to the back cover, the author presents an integral analysis of that market and shows the reader all the tools needed to successfully sell him/ herself. With his colossal swindle, Debayle fill his pockets and the world goes on filling up with people who don’t know how or aren’t able to sell ourselves, even if we wanted to, because nobody’s buying. They just want to hire us, exploit us and dispose of us in an era in which the disposable cardboard worker has replaced the stainless steel one.

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Service for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council. His four horsemen will ride again in the next two issues of envío.

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