Years ago, when I was doing my minor diploma in Sociology together with my major in Political Science, I was taught by one of the most important sociologists of my country. He had done path-breaking fieldwork in rural villages in the 1960s and 1970s and wrote on agrarian change. We were in the late 1990s and rural fieldwork was no longer popular in Turkey. The professor was teaching us Parsons whom I had found very boring and reading sentence by sentence New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time by Ernesto Laclau. And the title of the course was Sociology of Change and Transition! I wish he talked more about fieldwork, comparative studies and some ‘real’ theoretical issues on change…. Anyway, if I myself design a course like this, I would pose problems for my students. For instance, one question from my fieldwork: There are two migrant communities in the city, which rely on wastepicking (the object of my enquiry in the fieldwork). Whereas one community is reproducing itself as a kind of petty commodity producer (small family units which collect waste and sell it to recycling factories), the other one exhibits patterns of differentiation (proleterianisation and accumulation within the community). What kind of questions would you ask in order to understand the root causes of the difference?

This is the way in which I would formulate my question to my students but in the real fieldwork the differences emerged as a result of my investigation and their causes are cited below. I find this discussion relevant to the question formulated by Bhaskar and Levi Bryant I was engaging with in my previous post: Under what conditions are some tendencies/potentialities (of capital in this context) actualized and when are they inhibited?

The first wastepicking community A, started picking waste as family units in 1994 after their village was evacuated and they had to come to Ankara. Many of them set up warehouses in a squatter settlement in Ankara. Some of them were just collecting waste and selling waste to the warehouses in the area. Some of the warehouses started earning money, both thanks to family members who work and poorer wastepickers who sell to those warehouses. The warehouses could be considered as petty commodity production units (PCP), whose class position is ambivalent due to the oscillation between survival and accumulation and due to the fact that the producer is at the same time a worker.

Some members of the community A enjoyed especially significant customary rights in the city center. Thanks to high quality garbage provided by restaurants, cafes, bars and supermarkets they could get access to constant sources of income every day. The daily income was much higher than an individual wastepicker who had walk 8-9 hours in order to earn money. Moreover a recycling factory owner, gave advance money to most of the heads of families to buy their own trucks to transport waste paper, on the condition that they (wastepickers) would sell to his own factory. Ownership of warehouses, access to city center garbage and transport facilities put those family units into an advantageous position and gave accumulation possibilities. However such prospects were not actualised due to a number of reasons.

First of all, the organisation of economic and social life. The tribe is organised as extended family units and even though some families are more powerful than others, forced migration equalised those families in terms of wealth in the city. The income obtained from wastepicking is not low due to the huge amount of waste, but families are extended and daily consumption (food, rent, school for younger children) items are multiple. Moreover some money is saved for buying a house in the future or for the weddings. In the tradition of the community, when there is a marriage, the heads of all families give a high amount of money to the bride and groom so that they have the financial means necessary to set up their lives. In that sense money earnt is spent on consumption for family, rather than on investment for the business. Family in the community A is an important economic and social unit, which needs to be reproduced every day. Since each family works on its own, there is no chance to mobilise labour from within the community.

Second, the warehouses set up by those families were demolished by the local state police forces in 2004. Before this confrontation with the police, community A families had warehouses and some were also buying waste from outsiders, thus could have some chances to grow with additional labour force. But after the demolition of the warehouses, each family had to rely exclusively on the waste collected by family members. Also, they had to transport waste regularly every day with their trucks to the recycling factories, since they did not have any storage space. Had many families not owned means of transport (thanks to the recycling factory owner I mentioned earlier) some of those families could have depended on foreign warehouses, in order to sell their waste. In the recycling industry, one has to store or transport waste. This factory owner had given advance money to many of the families of the community A, on the condition that they would sell the paper to his factory. He created a large number of self-employed wastepicker families dependent on him, able to solve transport problem and provide very regularly waste paper to his factory. The latter’s possibility to accumulate, in turn, was seriously limited by the need to reproduce extended families and a direct intervention of the local state. The local state’s deliberate aim in evacuating the warehouses was to push the wastepickers to sell for a large recycling factory supported by local state officials. The wastepickers had only the trucks they could buy and had to keep it as a daily storage. In the absence of those trucks, they would need to depend on other intermediaries to sell their products (given that they are an established community rather than migrant workers who have better chances to travel to any neighbourhood where they can find a warehouse to rent or a warehouse to work in) or even become proletarians. But their PCP properties were preserved by those circumstances. Therefore the factory owner’s strategy of giving debt for buying trucks, contributed to the reproduction of family units as petty commodity production units.[1] Every day, wastepickers leave their trucks at some strategic parking points before starting to work and then finish their job around 1 or 2 Am in the morning, put all the collected waste in the trucks and go back home. Next day, they go to the recycling factory to sell their waste and then come to work again around 4 or 5 PM. There is no intermediary agency (a warehouse) between wastepickers’ families and the recycling factories, which makes their income higher.[2] 

In community B, on the other hand, the organisation of economic and social life is completely different. Community members live in warehouses they rented in a neighbourhood close to Ulus, the second city center after Kizilay in the city of Ankara. This neighbourhood was very alive when it was occupied by car repair, maintenance and building material shops. Some small warehouses buying scrap metal, paper and plastic were in the periphery of this cluster of car repair and auto spare parts shops. In 2005, those shops were relocated to a different neighbourhood due to the urban regeneration plans of the municipal administration. Some wastepickers who were very poor and did not have transport to bring their waste to the factories and depended on intermediary agencies stayed. Some other small warehouses stayed as well. However, the municipality plans to build a shopping complex for urban regeneration did not materialise. New warehouse owners benefited from this opportunity and started recycling businesses. In 2006, a group of Kurdish migrants originally from Urfa (a south eastern city), who worked in the informal recycling industry in Istanbul came to Ankara. They rented some of the empty warehouses at a relatively cheap price. With the coming of relatives and setting up of new warehouses, by 2008, there were already 30 warehouses in the area, each of which employing, depending of the season and availability, 10-30 wastepickers. The majority of wastepickers came from Urfa and had tribal linkeages, as in the case of community A, which migrated from Hakkari. 

In the community B, the population is only male, because only men come to the city to work. As opposed to community A, women work and stay in the villages in Urfa. In each warehouse one can see the warehouse tenant, an elder and respected member of a family, his brothers, cousins, nephews and different types of relatives as well as other workers who come from the same village (hemsehri). Here apart from the warehouse tenant and his first-hand relatives (his brothers) all other relatives and hemsehris are working as wage-labourers. Advance money is used, but not in order to make the worker dependent (given that he does not prefer working in another foreign warehouse), but when the worker needs, for instance, to send money to his village, to his parents. The limits of such paternalism, on the other hand, are obvious when the cars of the wage-labourer are taken by the police and when the wastepicker needs to pay the cost of a new car. Even though the warehouse owner is willing to help the wastepicker, he is reluctant to provide a new car all the time and subtract the cost of the car from his daily wage. Some of those workers are seasonal workers. Their dependence on the specific warehouse is due to the fact that they are hired and then protected by the tenant as a whole group of workers coming from the village together. They exhibit the characteristic features of seasonal workers. Therefore in some seasons of the year, there are a lot more labourers working for the warehouses.

Some of those warehouses (but especially a very large one) had important accumulation possibilities and they partly owe this accumulation to their capacity to mobilise labour rather than previous assets or capital. In other words, intensive exploitation of labour (including their own initially) lies behind original accumulation. Kinship networks whose origins are in the tribal relations in Urfa, provide the Iskitler warehouse owners the necessary resources to have this capacity to mobilise. The tribe (asiret), which had a strong “feudal and pre-capitalist” connotation in Turkish society, transforms, in the urban slums of Ankara, a resource to feed capitalist relations, by reproducing the young male wastepickers as wage labourers and by enabling gradually growing accumulation strategies. The moral rues of the tribe apply to the urban life in the same way it does to the community A and wastepickers work very hard without any tendency of escapism. The capitalist relations in community B developed via family and tribal relations, not despite them. In the community A, on the other hand, tribal relations with similar origin had different effects: The need to reproduce the family as a social and economic unit (together with other reasons cited above) blocked the use of money in further investment. Community A members had easier and better access to large quantities of waste in the city center than community B members who worked in other neighbourhoods. But this initial advantage could not transform into a means of accumulation. In community B, the individual wastepickers had to work many hours per day and still would not bring waste whose value would be equal to the waste brought by community A. But by mobilising a huge labour force, by devoting their time to work (with little family responsibility in the city), by reinvesting money into more trucks the Iskitler entrepreneurs transformed the spatial disadvantage into an advantage and their warehouses into accumulation units. Contrary to community A, the money to reproduce families in the villages was sent by the individual wage labourers. The warehouse owners, on the other hand, could use the surplus for re-investment. Some of the warehouse owners, even if they do not collect waste, work in the segregation, storage, package and transport of waste. 

Community B warehouse owners enjoy all the advantages of working in the informal sector: Labour costs, apart from the wage paid, are almost none (wastepickers sleep in the big warehouses, no social security is required); rent of the warehouses is very low (300-400 lira per month); there is no license or legal permission to get (except for some amount of bribe to pat to the zabita who occasionally checks the area). Initial cost of buying a transport (vans or trucks) and its fuel can be considered as important items only. Given that some of the recycling factory owners come from this background, warehouse owners in the informal recycling sector remind the creative entrepreneurs of De Soto (2000) at first glance. However, this is not an opportunity everyone enjoys equally. Some warehouse owners can grow thanks to the labour force he mobilised and thanks to the many other small warehouses, which depend on his networks and transport to sell their waste. Therefore creative entrepreneurs are made possible by the emergence of a set of unequal class relations within the recycling sector.

A final issue, which was a disadvantage for the community A and an advantage for the community B is the relationship with local state authorities. The municipality police forces demolished the warehouses of the community A in 2004, which eliminated storage possibilities and contributed to the reproduction of the families and petty commodity production units. The neighbourhood where community B lives, due to the pending plans of the municipal government, was not intervened by any police while some of the warehouse owners were accumulating. Moreover, even though wastepickers occasionally experienced violence by the police, they were not subject to violence similar to community A, which worked in the city center, close to each other and were publicly visible. Community B workers usually worked in different neighbourhoods and dispersed from each other.

Such differences and their impact on accumulation opportunities do not mean that specific organisations of social and economic life are in general better suited to the development of capitalist relations. But under certain conditions (or better put, when interacted with certain social relations) some forms of social and economic organisation can create the consequence of adapting better to the development of accumulation. Such organisations effect the pace and form taken by capitalist relations. While capitalist relations transform social settings, the latter give to the former their specific color. But this “color” needs to be analysed, each time, historically and specified empirically. 

Abundant labour and lack of necessity to reproduce family units immediately for community B are good resources for accumulation as long as there exist bricoleurs who use available materials for new ends. The story of a successful bricoleur in Community B, Apo, provides important insights about processes of accumulation in the informal recycling sector. His strategies not only invent him as a successful entrepreneur but also shape the specific social and spatial organisation of the wastepicking as an economic activity. Apo is the largest warehouse owner in the community B. He started his work with one warehouse and family labour in 2005. Then, he hired more labour by using his kinship ties (he is the eldest son of one of the major leaders of a tribe in Urfa). Initially, he had just one small truck to carry the waste collected every day to the recycling factories. Over time he developed two strategies: he started using his truck to go other neighbourhoods to work as an intermediary for those small warehouses or wastepickers who do not have sufficient means of transport. Second, he gave money to some of the relatives in the asiret so that they come, set up their own warehouses. Those relatives started bringing migrant labour from their regions. Apo contributed to the formation of many warehouses (in different size) in the region where community B lives and making sure, at least for an initial period, that they do sell their waste directly to him. In that way he made sure that he has a constant source of waste (plastic and paper mainly, but also scrap metal). Such strategy had immediate successful outcomes: The money was reinvested in the buying of two very large trucks for transport and Apo is now planning to open, in the future, his own recycling factory by buying the necessary machinery. The potential proletarians were transformed into petty commodity producers by Apo so that the latter could mobilise labour on behalf of Apo and so that the surplus created can contribute to the ability of Apo to invest and accumulate. Some of those warehouses, which depended initially on him, were also able to accumulate some degree of wealth and they started selling directly to the recycling factories, rather than to Apo himself. Apo was aware of this and constantly sought for other small suppliers in different parts of the city.

Apo’s strategy was similar to the recycling factory owner who helped the community A to buy trucks. In this warehouse-recycling factory relationship such strategy helped the accumulation of the recycling factory owner and helped the reproduction of the Turkozu families as PCP units. In the context of the relation between the warehouse owner and other warehouses, this strategy helped the accumulation by the former and reproduction and growth of the latter. Had the organisation of social life been different in the community A, the strategy of the recycling factory owner could also have helped some accumulation possibilities for some families. One strategy can be adopted to different contexts and generate different effects. It is difficult to weigh the role of the factors I am talking about (given that I am unable to test the outcome of what would have happened in the absence of X or Y) but comparative method still provides some insights in that regard.

The innovative strategy of the accumulators contributed to the perpetuation and increase of the petty commodity production units. One needs to be careful: There is not an inherent logic between PCP and accumulation. Under those historical circumstances, PCP helped the accumulation strategies of some individual entrepreneurs, and helped, some of the PCPs themselves to realise their aspiration for accumulation. The strategies of the accumulators coincided with the readiness of a mass of precarious, informal workers who were ready to work for those warehouses. It is correct that the recycling industry, which has developed in the 1990s and 2000s corresponds to a process of migration, urbanisation. However a large part of the workers interviewed for this study was already part of the proletarian workforce: Rural proletariat (seasonal rural workers), industrial proletariat (such as textile workers or construction workers). Some others were either self-employed or farmers cultivating their own land back in their villages.

In the case of community A, as a result of forced migration, families lost their land and started their urban life as PCP. This was a process of forced dispossession, which did not result in proleterianisation, but rather petty commodity production (involving use of family labour). De-peasantisation occurred as well since no family could continue rural activity due to state intervention. In the case of community B, most migrants were already rural proletarians (having nothing to sell but their labour-power, unemployed in some seasons and working as rural workers in others). Others who were in the same situation became self-employed warehouse owners and only a few could become real accumulators who are expanding their business (such as Apo). Therefore migration generated differentiation in this case: limited accumulation, continuation of PCP and proletarianisation (involving now both the rural and urban spheres). One needs to be cautious about the fact that the reproduction of the PCPs for Iskitler depends on the situation of the recycling industry (e.g. prices of plastic and paper) and on the ability to keep warehouses as places of residence and storage. If the urban regeneration plans are put into practice, the municipal administration will evacuate those warehouses and the warehouse owners wither look for a new place or may end up in becoming workers, because they are not settled in the city as the community A is and some do not have even transport.

Both communities A and B are enmeshed in capitalist relations of production and circulation. But the specific positions they hold in those relations, the degree of control they have over means of production differ. The possibility for accumulation was not actualised for community A and only partially actualised for community B (and we still do not know whether it will continue). Tendencies in the world of capital can be accelerated, inhibited or reversed. They have an extremely important temporal dimension. Change in capitalist society is not linear. The vocabulary of change for capital includes gradualisms as much as ruptures, bifurcations as much as reversals. 


[1] The recycling factory owner’s strategy aimed at making families dependent on his factory. However after his death his son-in-low took over the factory, wastepicking families started selling their waste to ITC, a very big company, which is supported by the municipal administration. Part of the violence exercised on wastepickers was to push them to sell their waste to ITC. A respected and wealthy member of the community A was appointed as manager to ITC and a compromise was reached between wastepickers and the municipality to sell part of their waste to the company.

[2] Most Community A families sell their waste to the ITC, one of the largest factories in which some members of the municipality administration hold shares.

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