1. Work as a Mexican mask

One of the annoyances of driving in a metropolitan Mexican city are the platoons of street vendors, ‘acrobats’, and car cleaners that ambush you at streetlights. I hate these hard-sale ‘services’, not only because they make my car dirty, but because of what they symbolize. I have love, understanding and spare change for beggars, whom I much prefer of these folk. The relation of a Guatemalan migrant who wants two pesos is direct and open: both not covered in the pretext of a service, and itself not obscuring any problem. What is repulsing in our daily engagement with unwanted street vendors, ticket and toilet paper-handers and ‘viene viene’ folk is that this really is all part of a ritualistic dance ideologically obscuring deeper problems in society.

What is offensive in our interaction with these semi-services is that they are fundamentally idiotic, as in the core they are more symbolic than practical. To demonstrate this symbolic nature, three examples of the uselessness of some related activities:

– The unsolicited car cleaners: without fresh water they make your car rather dirty than clean. Even if they would clean it, there is no time to do so between traffic lights to any useful result.

– The people who hand paper towels in toilets: taking the paper from them saves little compared to the movement of taking it yourself, and taking out a money instantly desanitizes your hands. Not paying them reduces this to an absurd celebration of inequality.

– The ‘viene viene’ guys who offer parking spaces: this service seems useful at first sight, offering parking guidance and a parking spot when few seem available. Yet this can only be appreciated if we forget they illegally privatized public space in the first place and then ‘offer’ it back to us.

So why do we engage in these empty rituals? The answer can only be symbolic: For some of us, to enjoy the performance of service of another person doing useless things for us. For them, to appear deserving in our eyes by enacting work. By enacting that ‘at least they are working’, the heavily stigmatized poor can hope to seem deserving of our charitable help. For the donator, it creates the illusion they are not actually begging and absolute poverty is less than it seems. For the ‘worker’, one could argue this gives some dignity over direct begging, minus having to face negative reactions for not just offering but performing unsolicited services – they will wash your car regardless. But how much less dignified is it than real work? Or, what a crazy idea, enjoying social rights?

Before reaching further conclusions, the fact that we ascribe moral value to the enactment of work in itself regardless of content invites us to question what work is. In the broadest but analytically least useful sense, ‘work’ can refer to any useful activity requiring effort (‘working in the garden’ or ‘working out’). A narrower social reading would say work refers to activities that require effort and are useful to the wider community, which includes unpaid activities such as taking care of others, as well as paid ones such as brewing beer. With the introduction of money and later capitalism, we created a third position of ‘having a job’, which refers to activities that are regularly exchanged for money. Two observations: first, having a job often disguises that we are not actually working in the socially useful sense. Second, that the unsolicited services discussed above are neither useful, nor a real job. I will explore both conclusions separately.

Having a job, especially a formal job (which most Mexicans don’t have), is at the center of the maelstrom of societal moral expectations. Yet this obscures that the real ethical value of work must relate to its content. There are situations in which doing (or enacting) produces no social benefit, on the contrary. Valuing that a torturer has a job, hides that it was ethically better if he didn’t work. We might praise the brokered at wall street who boasts working 12 hours a day; even if his work might trigger the next financial crisis. How about the person in the laboratories of some fast food company who is ‘working hard’ on replacing the nutrients in that bun with some cheaper but more unhealthy substance. Or her friend who is engineering the next A.I. creation that will replace both her colleagues and human interaction in the sale of this fast food. I rather have these people staying at home instead of masking their destructive behavior behind formal success. Or in the case of judges who solicit corruption and injustice or teachers who don’t teach, to vacate the mask.

The other way around, in a research we did on the attitudes of upper class Mexicans on poverty, we found that those on top above all like to see the poor work or at least signaling willingness to do so. But it results in us valuing the performance of productivity by the poorest members of society, even if substantially nothing useful is done. This masks both unemployment and the anomaly of Mexico still not having a modern social security net. Those who cannot work should be able to claim their human rights to support, as well as efforts to help them find work. Why do we keep fooling ourselves that it is preferably to have people dance for us at streetlights over the government helping them out financially or with finding real work? The rest of society pays for them in both scenarios[1]. We should consider that while out claiming parking spots, they are not taking care of their family members, improving their house, reading, improving their skills, looking for real work, etc. All we need to do is wrap our head around the idea that it is more useful not to simulate work.

The new government announced two steps in the right direction: one, the income support for people with disabilities, which hopefully allows them to stop begging. Two, the plan to provide income support, training or employment to young people. What we still lack is a) proper, modern, contributionary schemes of unemployment insurance; b) labor market policy that actually guides people; c) direct social job creation for those who cannot find work on the labor market. I will offer a proposal for the later in a future essay.

[1] I am similarly puzzled by how people seem to prefer the ritual of giving tips for waiters (facilitating tax dodging and exploitation), instead of them having higher wages that would be incorporated in the price that we end up paying anyway.