Thursday, November 11, 2010

Balloons, and the Political Economy of Marginality

Fruit vendors, squatting communities, balloon-sellers, and taxi drivers are hardly the stuff of political legend. But in Mexico, such economically marginalized populations have long been a staple of urban politics, organized into countless trade unions and civic associations by ambitious politicians and upwardly mobile leaders. The proliferation of this low-level corporatism is not hard to understand in a country where millions live in the gray shadows of the informal economy, their livelihoods determined by the largesse and tolerance of often capricious authorities. For those who must obtain official permits--or achieve the official condonation of their absence--in order to survive, this vulnerability provides a strong impulse to organization, both for those who seek to defend legally-granted privilege as well as for those who must bitterly defend their non-legal means of subsistence. That there should exist a balloon-sellers union, then, is not surprising: how else to defend access to public plazas and confront extortion from police officers? But the price of defending or ensuring such privileges has never been cheap, and Mexico's one-party system was skilled at both incorporating and manipulating these groups, turning them into fiercely loyal clients of the regime. But lost in the chaotic swirl of Uniones, Coaliciones, Frentes, and Sindicatos, is the fact that these groups--prey as they might upon their members--also provided a certain degree of meaningful benefits. Corporatist incorporation into the PRI may have often meant subjugation to the demands of the state, but it was a relationship that only functioned due to its inherent reciprocity, and even balloon-sellers knew how to play the game.

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