Politics of the Commons: And Yet They Move

VA columnist Reinaldo Iturriza sets his gaze on an "army" of workers that sort through waste to complement poor wages.

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The economic crisis and the modest recovery have left a trail of inequality in Venezuela. Reinaldo Iturriza looks at one symptom. (Venezuelanalysis)
The economic crisis and the modest recovery have left a trail of inequality in Venezuela. Reinaldo Iturriza looks at one symptom. (Venezuelanalysis)
By Reinaldo Iturriza López - Venezuelanalysis.com
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A human contingent walks the streets of working-class Caracas carrying bags or boxes full of plastic, glass, paper, or some other recyclable material. A few of them are pushing supermarket carts.

As I enjoy the masterpiece that is The Wire (2002-2008) by David Simon for a second time, I have also seen Bubbles in some faces in Caracas. Like Bubbles, our waste-sorting workers mimic the urban landscape. But if this circumstance can be considered an “advantage” for our fictional character (allowing him to go unnoticed, to slip away, etc.), in the second case it tells us the tale of the worker’s disadvantageous social situation. Of course, Bubbles doesn’t have it good: Lumpen, black, heroin-addicted, and often on the verge of death, he is almost the epitome of everything that can go wrong in US society. He is a man who has hit rock bottom. But he is also a person who has learned to move with ease in the underworld.

Our waste-sorting workers, on the other hand – or at least the vast majority –, are not lumpen (and I use the term without judgment). They are members of the sub-proletariat. That is, they are members of the working poor whose job does not provide them with sufficient means to ensure the reproduction of their labor force. Moreover, they have joined the sub-proletariat of recent date – and this is a datum of the most significant relevance. They are part of an enormous mass of workers impoverished by the collapse of the Venezuelan economy.

They are workers who, in effect, mimic each other to the point that they constitute an invisible army. Unlike some of their class fraction peers, which include the street sweepers and the motorized delivery workers, they don’t carry brightly colored vests or uniforms. Waste sorters can be identified by their asphaltic, opaque attire, and by their leaden bluish skin. Of course, their appearance is determined by the environment in which they operate (the street) and by their proximity to the recycling centers scattered throughout the Libertador municipality [Caracas], where they line up after sunset or before sunrise. Their clothes are discolored by use, rather than blackened by the rigors of life in the outdoors.

It is a matter, and I must insist on this point, of workers who mimic each other to the point of becoming an invisible army: they are unseen as an army, as workers, and even as victims. Unlike what might have happened in the recent heyday of tabloid journalism, they are not tallied as "humanitarian victims" – like those who walked across the Darien jungle [between Colombia and Panama] not so long ago. But, of course, they are not part of the “economic miracle” story either.

And yet they move as an army that bears witness to the fact that Venezuelan democracy is going through a severe crisis of authority. They are not recognized as workers, they don’t have rights, and to some, they might be an uncomfortable excrescence of a society mutating towards “post-rentierism.”

But precisely because a part of Venezuelan society chooses not to see them, because nobody looks after their particular plight, it is necessary to recover a big picture perspective, to dig and rummage so that we can see beyond the dominant narratives, which ceased to translate the reality of the popular classes a long time ago.

It is false that we are facing an “untranslatable” country. On the contrary, we live in a country that demands translation. In these times of humiliation and degradation, the translation effort goes hand in hand with the recovery of dignity. Ours must be a gaze bearing dignity, a watch capable of recognizing that which is dignified at first glance. And now, above all, our gaze must be capable of finding dignity in what insists on being invisible to our eyes.

I am not suggesting anything new, of course. I suspect that something similar must have gone through the minds of those who conceived Kuhle Wampe (1932), the film directed by Slatan Dudow. With a screenplay by none other than Bertolt Brecht and music by Hanns Eisler, the story is set in Berlin in the early 1930s, right before the rise of Nazism. The first part includes memorable scenes of unemployed youths cycling through the city, from one employment agency to another. It's a desperate few minutes. You don't have to have lived through an economic depression to recognize yourself in the anguish reflected in the close-ups of their faces. They are workers competing for a job they cannot get. They are defeated workers. But they are also – and fundamentally – dissatisfied workers who can succeed at changing the world, as the last line of the film reminds us.

In these times of renunciation of strategic reasoning, when long-range perspectives are overcome by short-term political calculations, I stick with the waste sorting workers and, in general, with a working-class forced by their circumstances to live from day to day, and sometimes not even that. I am left with their anguish, with their deep dissatisfaction, which is my own.

Reinaldo Iturriza López is an activist, writer, and sociologist with a degree from Venezuela’s Central University. He is the author of several books, including 27 de Febrero de 1989: interpretaciones y estrategias and El chavismo salvaje.

Iturriza López, father of Sandra Mikele and Ainhoa Michel and Venezuelan baseball enthusiast, is a former Culture Minister and Communes and Social Movements Minister. He also headed the Audiovisual Production School at Ávila TV. He writes regularly for the blog Saber y Poder.

Translated by Venezuelanalysis.com.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.