Between the home office and loka life

Image: Stela Grespan
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By HENRIQUE COSTA*

Popular entrepreneurship in the pandemic

Introduction

As if the flexibilities and elimination of labor rights were not enough, the rise of robotics and artificial intelligence to eliminate thousands of occupations and the return of the extreme right, came the virus. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has progressively reached the whole world, has interrupted financial flows, questioned government officials and scientists and imploded the routines and life projects of literally billions of people who were suddenly prevented from working. More importantly, the virus has not stopped killing every day since it emerged in Wuhan.

In Brazil it was no different, but with peculiarities directly resulting from the rise of Jair Bolsonaro to the presidency of the Republic and the mutation of Lulism, whose successful social programs remain even after the fall of Dilma Rousseff and the Workers' Party (PT) in 2016 (cf. COSTA, 2018). Lulism is a malleable narrative that, between public policies and some reduction in labor income inequality, intended to transform Brazilian society into a “new middle class” and made precarious young workers from the peripheries, turners in general, small businessmen who follow the theology of prosperity and residents of highly qualified cosmopolitan enclaves and deliberately without formal ties were thrown into the same category, that of entrepreneurs.

In the extreme situation that hit the pandemic, this discourse takes another step forward, as the general precariousness of the world of work is revealed precisely in the intensification of telework, even though the lived experience of workers remains distant, because while the popular classes fear that their income will be subtracted, run health risks by maintaining their activities in breach of the law or resort to state aid, others in a much smaller number can “enjoy” the home office[I]. In the world of work, the collapse, which is not new, now shows its more “democratic” face of desocialization due to precarious work, affecting other occupations that were once less vulnerable to its impacts.

With the technological revolution, self-management took on even more advanced forms, especially in the so-called gigeconomies and in work mediated by digital platforms, a phenomenon that became known as uberization, but whose mechanism refers to “modes of subjectivation related to contemporary forms of work management and neoliberalism, which demand an understanding of engagement, accountability and management of one's own survival ” (ABÍLIO, 2020, p. 113). Despite the innovative tools, self-management crosses the entire contemporary labor market by determining that each worker invests in his “human capital”. As both telecommuting and app delivery services expand, becoming increasingly present in the popular imagination with the application of quarantine, these new technologies converge with popular entrepreneurship on the rise.

For Christophe Dejours (1999), managers and leaders deliberately inflict suffering on workers by imposing “engagement” and self-management tools that, naturally, are confused with surveillance and control. Telecommuting still makes working time and non-working time diffuse, since, “freed from the time clock, the cubicle of an office, the figure of the manager”, the worker “has his working time and his productivity highly controlled by new mechanisms, such as targets and deliveries by product” (ABÍLIO, 2020, p. 115). Seen as a privilege during the pandemic, the home office — as well as delivery services via applications, characteristic of uberized work — integrates the same work intensification system that, in turn, has always been present in popular entrepreneurship modalities.

But other divisions overlap with the one between telework and precariousness, such as the division between essential and non-essential jobs. Shops, schools, restaurants, cinemas and any public or private establishment subject to generating crowds — therefore enhancing the spread of the virus — and that were not considered “essential” should close, eventually serving by delivered. The expression “loka life”, commonplace in the hood, gains a new dimension in the pandemic, when the routine of app delivery people, bus collectors and health professionals, among others living on the border between life and death, reveals precisely that the categories considered essential are, in turn, the riskiest and which almost always pay the least. Of home office to loka life, the logic that imposes itself is that of self-management.

In the world of work, there are enough elements to say that the pandemic is enough to accelerate the ongoing disaffiliation process[ii], forcing the ethos entrepreneur also for CLT holders and civil servants, forced to incorporate in their routines self-management technologies developed for the viability of the home office on a large scale. Common in the private sector, formal and informal, the rise of these tools indicates that there seems to be no longer a safe place where working time and non-working time can be separated.

The pandemic also imposes other questions on us. All over the world, basic income policies to face mass unemployment and the dramatic social issue that emerged from determinations of isolation and radical closure of the economy were the emergency solution and show their effectiveness in maintaining the system. Would that be just one tactical retreat so that accumulation by dispossession will soon return in full force? Or the glimpse of a new social pact and the return of the State to the center of society's organization for universal basic income and the revaluation of public health systems?

In mid-August, I was in Santo Amaro, a rather uneven region reasonably close to the expanded center of the city of São Paulo. On Rua Barão de Duprat, continuous with Largo Treze and the Municipal Market of Santo Amaro, a few dozen popular shops were operating normally, except for the usual masks and jars of gel alcohol at the entrance to the stores. There I followed the same itinerary that I had followed a few days before, almost 30 km away. In the district of Parelheiros, in the extreme south of the city, I walked around the popular shops in the neighborhood of Vargem Grande, characterized by its dirt roads and for being located on the Colônia Crater, an area listed as geological heritage, part of an environmental protection area ( APA) and the protection of springs at the Billings dam and, therefore, populated by irregular occupations where around 50 people live (cf. VOIVODIC, 2017).

The subjective dimension of the crisis points to complexities that go beyond a simple review of the role of the State in post-pandemic life. In this article, I seek to investigate these tensions through a theoretical approach that incorporates a discussion about the new centrality of work that emerged in this crisis and the role of the State in its regulation. Next, I add empirical data from the ethnography that I developed in two commercial regions in the South Zone of São Paulo with small business owners during the pandemic[iii], one peripheral and the other more central, revealing important details for understanding this sector of the population, emblematic of a “classless” society and positioned between the illusionism of telework and crazy life.

From the “new middle class” to a classless society

commenting on the novel hindrance, by Chico Buarque, Roberto Schwarz (1999) saw in the central character “a boy from the family living like a nobody on the way to marginality”, that is, alternating between spaces of illegality and privilege and making the synthesis of redemocratized Brazil. Its place in the social fabric would not be explained by the antagonism between rich and poor, but would rest on “the fluidity and dissolution of the boundaries between social categories”. The singer-novelist seemed to envision, in the rubble of the Collor years, the now consolidated classless society, in which the entrepreneur and enthusiast, as a phenomenon that crosses social classes, embodies the contradictions of discourse and subjectively re-elaborates them. Buarque's character would become a protagonist in the apotheosis of Lulism and a symbol of the then president's explicit intention to sell the country's success for the rise of a “new middle class”. This section, core of what I call “classless society”, comprised at the time almost half of the Brazilian population.[iv].

What distinguishes us is that the modern and the archaic are endogenous mirrors of accumulation, as pointed out by Chico de Oliveira (2003). The rule that imposed self-management on the majority of the Brazilian working class, born into a world “already turned upside down” (cf. TELLES, 2005), is what characterizes the ornithorrinc at the moment. Faced with the collapse of the Lulista experience of social pacification and inclusion through consumption, the “new middle class” would prove to be, in essence, a set of turning individuals in a permanent quest to qualify their human capital and compete in an increasingly demanding job market. degraded.

The notion of middle class in Brazil went against the grain of its consecrated counterpart in Europe and the USA, where distinct classes were distinguished by their ways of life, but shared standards of living.[v] similar as a consequence of the local wage society and social welfare policies. As Guilluy (2020) noted, in the global north, the shuffling of the notion of the middle class serves the purpose of confusing rich and poor, winners and losers of globalization, and obfuscating divergent class interests, since its re-signification has the ideological objective of understanding it as “new” and globalized against an “old” and outdated one.

In Brazil, this aim was partially achieved with the narrative, widely disseminated in the 2010s by the media and governments, of the “new middle class”, measured by purely statistical criteria (cf. NERI, 2008). As much as the logic of the discourse on the middle class is similar (after all, the discourses have also been globalized), the Brazilian case is peculiar, as it triumphs in a country on the periphery of capitalism that never actually had a “middle class” in the sense of European. On the contrary, far from the formation of a salaried society, Brazil was constituted from its origins as a modern country, stimulating a “popular entrepreneurship” that established itself from the turners of the periphery of São Paulo to the factions of jeans in the agreste of Pernambuco (cf. BRIGUGLIO et al., 2020; OLIVEIRA, 2003).

Ruy Braga (2019) sees in the frustration of those who got into debt in recent years — especially those with a family income between two and five minimum wages — the source of subsequent political events, since such investments, encouraged by PT administrations, exacerbated, in fact, the feeling of meritocracy among the families of workers. This is a cut that matches very accurately with what I expose in this article. Even more arduous, the hope of those who invested years and money in higher education re-emerges soaked in skepticism, as I observed in my research with scholarship holders from the University for All Program (Prouni), an emblem of Lulism that promised to turn the son of a bricklayer into a doctor ( cf. COSTA, 2018), when the recent reality is that 40% of university graduates do not get qualified vacancies (cf. LIMA and GERBELLI, 11/08/2020; MACEDO, 2019). As a domino effect, they fill the vacancies that would previously be occupied by those who completed up to high school.

In urban peripheries, the entrepreneurial logic that runs through evangelicals, “bandits” and state actors, transforming all of them into market operators, universalizes the monetization as the only possible language for managing social and urban conflict. As Feltran (2014, p. 14) points out, “when neither the law nor what is considered right can mediate the relationship between population groups and their progressively autonomous ways of conceiving themselves and others, it is money that appears as the only objective way of mediating their relations”. In post-Lulist Brazil, marked by the deep economic crisis and the breakdown of public policies, the policy that emerges is mediated by precariousness and frustration with “inclusion through consumption”, leaving only the “entrepreneur” in its multiple versions.

A considerable part of the energy spent by recent governments in “promoting” the Brazilian labor market, incidentally, took place on these bases. In 2004, the Ministry of Labor launched the Young Entrepreneur program, developed together with the Brazilian Micro and Small Business Support Service (Sebrae), aimed at encouraging young people to enter the job market with the aim of “offering training to access credits , drawing up a business plan and post credit follow-up. But it fails in its attempts, mainly due to the difficulty, for young people, of having access to credits” (cf. TOMMASI, 2016, p. 111).

The economic crisis that followed Rousseff's re-election — a 3,8% drop in gross domestic product (GDP) in 2015, with a 6,2% decline in industry and 2,7% in services, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) (2015) — deepened in recent years and was just beginning to recover. On the eve of the start of the pandemic, the unemployment rate continued to fall at the 11% level, but the country ended 2019 with 19,4 million self-employed workers in the informal sector, almost 2% more than in 2018 (IBGE, 2019). The number of individual microentrepreneurs (MEI) jumped from 7,7 million to 9,4 million in one year.[vi]

This is the current reality of the world of work that the pandemic is now intensifying, and it is in this context of accelerated desocialization that Covid-19 landed in Brazil in 2020. unemployment of 100% at the end of June 13,1. Until the first half of June, 2020 thousand companies closed their doors, according to the Pulse Company Survey: Impact of Covid-716 on Companies, carried out by IBGE. Of the total number of businesses temporarily or definitively closed, 19% (40 firms) told the institute that the closure was due to the health crisis.

On the other hand, 67,2 million people received emergency aid of R$600,00 between April and August, for whom, according to Gonzalez and Barreira (2020), the increase in income more than offset the losses arising from the crisis. The numbers and work processes that are generalized in the quarantine intensify the expansion of self-management that was under way: between March and July, 600 thousand workers became MEIs, a growth of 20% compared to the same period of 2019, a result, to a large extent, from the increase in unemployment and entrepreneurship out of necessity[vii].

The “classless” society is the inevitable result of the proliferation of self-employed individuals, as “there seems to be considerable evidence that the corporation has become a paradigmatic institution of contemporary society and that many of its values ​​are also spreading to the rest of society. society” (cf. LÓPEZ-RUIZ, 2006, p. 96, my translation). Equally, but from another perspective, this society conforms to the indebtedness and responsibility of families to the detriment of the State (cf. COOPER, 2017; LAZZARATO, 2012), whose title “new middle class” represents its convenient and spectacularized version.

From Merchant to Entrepreneur

On the way to the South Zone of São Paulo from the city center, taking the bus along Marginal Pinheiros or taking the CPTM Esmeralda line by train, you can see the bridges that adorn the battered river that lends its name to the road. For a good part of the route, mirrored and neoclassical buildings, headquarters of multinationals, international chain hotels and temples of luxury consumption are reproduced in the unusual landscape of the largest city in the southern hemisphere. Around June 2019, the phrase “Let's undertake, Brazil”, a campaign by Banco Santander, was stamped on the facade of one of these buildings, so that it could be seen from many kilometers away. About a year later, with the pandemic still out of control in the country, the same bank publicized the campaign for its “Responsa prospera” program in the media, aimed at small entrepreneurs in trouble due to restrictive measures and starring Adriana Barbosa, founder of São Paulo. Black Fair.

The positive entrepreneurship discourse, its popular variant, the viração, hides its essence of precariousness. But, for Adriana and other “peripheral subjects”, it is almost a truism, because in the perspective that she divulges in the infinity of events that she participates, the black population “has always been enterprising”, indicating, between the lines, that the salary society has always it had been a chimera for the majority of the Brazilian precarious working class.

The timid economic recovery that took place at the beginning of 2020, instead of moving towards a restructuring of the labor market, made it even more precarious, since the drop in the unemployment rate was sustained by the increase in the number of employees without a formal contract in the private sector (41%, according to IBGE). This helps to explain the success of the MEI in the Campo Limpo district and in the neighboring districts of the South Zone of São Paulo, where I have been developing an ethnographic study for some years: at the time, of the 660 individual micro-entrepreneurs formalized in the capital, according to the Development Secretariat Economic and Work, it concentrated 26.870, less only than the central district of Sé (cf. FONSECA, 06/08/2019).

Popular entrepreneurship is everywhere on the outskirts of São Paulo. There are thousands of cases and, more or less successful, they are identified with each other by the need to generate income, that is, the challenge of moving the economy in a place where there are almost no qualified jobs and no generation of endogenous value. It includes those who know they are entrepreneurs and seek the attention of the center (due to the idea of ​​“social impact”) and those who, outside this discourse, replicate the practice of entrepreneurship.

These former peripheral merchants occupy the modest commercial centers of their neighborhoods, almost oblivious to the rest of the city. The South Zone of São Paulo, due to its gigantism, is home to places that are so unequal that their heterogeneity is surprising, as can be seen in the well-structured Campo Limpo region in front of the precarious Jardim Maria Sampaio, with its large open-air swimming pool with an abandoned appearance . Shopping centers exist in all of them, almost always with a popular profile, and in them turners and more established merchants share the space and attention of thousands of loyal or potential customers.

Pedro Luís is 50 years old and has owned a pet shop in Vargem Grande for over two decades. He appreciates the neighborhood and considers that his customers, who are all neighbors, are actually friends. But he mentions a notable difference between Santo Amaro and his neighbourhood, which has no bank or lottery branch. He says that “our politicians are slow there, they don't want to put a lottery here because they are afraid of theft”. He usually runs the establishment with an employee, but at the time of the interview, he managed alone. He complains that “I had a boy there, but the boy was making me angry, so I sent him away. No, to get angry and spend the money, I prefer to be alone”. Boasting, he delivered the conversation wearing a mask emblazoned with a slightly sinister and uncomfortable smile for the caller. As he was alone in the store, he interrupted the interview numerous times to attend to customers and suppliers. Pedro even has a bar on the same street, which operates clandestinely and which, of course, did not close or lose customers during the quarantine. “At the moment, I'm withholding”, he confesses, by not legalizing the bar.

The owner of the pet shop and the irregular bar is an old school “entrepreneur”, that is, he started working in an uncle's supermarket at the age of 12, studied until high school and never left the trade. He works ten hours a day at the pet shop seven days a week. Obviously exhausting, such a routine is quite common in that trading region. Asked if he doesn't feel tired, he admits that he does, but resigns himself. Like a bakery, he says, “it's no use for a guy to open a bakery for him not to open at the time that everyone else opens. It's not even for the money, it's for the customer who has to arrive and has to be open”. Pedro Luís says that he even got rid of the store because he couldn't reconcile it with his marriage. He bought it back and infuriated his wife, who made him choose between her and the pet shop. He chose the petshop and they broke up.

As I pointed out earlier, the neoliberal discourse spread and discovered a popular variant, but it is interesting to observe the way in which this term is interpreted by Pedro Luís' generation. Joseph Schumpeter (1982) identified in the entrepreneur the personification of the force of new, translated into the capacity to imagine and the innovative spirit, that is, a “creative destruction”. The elaboration and execution of new productive combinations make him a triggering agent of changes. But for Pedro Luís, an entrepreneur is above all someone who battle, goes through setbacks, but knows how to reinvent itself. Far from the Schumpeterian profile, this perception is based on a modest ambition and hard work, which involves personal sacrifices simply to earn a day and support the family, eventually resorting to petty crimes, such as running a speakeasy.

— This store right here I change something in it. I take different goods so as not to be the same, otherwise it would break. So this is entrepreneurship, having a vision of what the market needs at that time, so I think I consider myself an entrepreneur. I had the store here a little shaky, a little bad before the pandemic because of personal problems, then I already invented a little bar, I already put it to work and came back again, you have to change it to be able to… if you keep asking God it just won't work, you'll die. I think I'm a warrior. I always try to look at the market as it is, the rations that are most popular at the moment, so as not to get stuck. People get bored of the same thing, so you have to change it all the time and then you always have a market. Stopped in time, chipped. I think that's what being an entrepreneur is.

The determination to fight and transform when necessary is the foundation of this popular entrepreneurship, which does not let itself be discouraged and finds solutions when the situation demands it. It's the same with young admirers of entrepreneurship, but what sets them apart is their ambition and a certain ethos neoliberal. At the age of 36, Tiago Fonseca opened his gift shop in Santo Amaro in the middle of the pandemic. And it wasn't the first: he has three more businesses on the outskirts of Jardim Ângela, close to where he lives, a clothing store, a flower shop and another gift shop, like the one I visited. About five years ago, he left his job as a manager at a well-known auto repair shop, where he had a formal contract and no complaints.

Tiago says that he already had the venture “triggered”, as he saw in it a “greater capacity” of his knowledge. He has a degree in human resources, with a postgraduate degree in psychology at the same private university located nearby, in Largo Treze. He completed his studies without any scholarship or funding of his own choice, as he was able to apply. Despite not practicing the profession, he believes that his university education is fundamental for dealing with people and meeting future partners; moreover, he values ​​the acquired knowledge, as this “no one takes away”.

His store on Rua Barão de Duprat was the result of daring and planning, he says. According to him, in Santo Amaro there is not much competition in his field, because “wholesale and retail are only available in the center, so based on everything I studied and planned, I believe there is no way to go wrong”. In fact, at least at the time of the interview, Tiago claimed to have increased his revenue during the pandemic, selling via WhatsApp and Facebook while clothing stores remained closed. He kept the four employees of the Jardim Ângela stores at home, paying half their salary, but did not fire anyone. He made the deliveries himself, up to 5 km away.

— I'm not going to tell you that being a merchant is better because you work three times as much, you don't have vacations, you can't rest properly. In the company I was at, my salary was really good, but I just felt that they didn't value me the way I felt I should be valued, I was supposed to be on one level and I was on another and not because of lack of knowledge.

As in the case of Pedro Luís, his workday is impressive, a rule among old and new entrepreneurs, even more so as he is married with three children. But what motivated him to leave the company where he had a stable job and dare to start his own business is something very characteristic of his generation, the need to feel “appreciated”, which does not seem to make sense for Pedro and other interviewees from the same age range, for whom becoming a trader was something almost involuntary and externally determined. He does not see himself as a company of himself, he does not think in terms of “human capital” and his alleged lack of studies — he finished high school — serves as a justification for not having a better job, the opposite of Tiago, who saw his university education as an asset for the success of his business. As I noticed in my master's research (cf. COSTA, 2018), higher education brings enormous expectations to young people from the working class in search of avoiding manual occupations, what Beaud and Pialoux (2009) called “escape from working-class destiny”. .

Thus, according to Ehrenberg (2010), in the new configuration erected by the cult of performance, everyone must, regardless of their origin, “perform the feat of becoming someone”. At the origin of this new entrepreneurial understanding is the shattering of the representation of society in terms of social classes, that is, between the low and the high of society and its antagonism.

Essential vs non-essential

Ana is 40 years old and became an “entrepreneur” as a direct result of the pandemic. She and her husband have a picture and frame shop on Barão de Duprat, which at the time of the interview had only her in attendance. That's because, with the closure of non-essential businesses by determination of the state government, her store had to fire the six employees. So she had to leave her job at a law firm to help her husband with the shop: she is in customer service while he produces the paintings and frames. She misses the “signed card”, the benefits that the CLT guarantees. Being a boss, for Ana, does not mean an advantage, since the responsibilities increase a lot and “there is no one above you that you can turn to”.

In the two months that he worked behind closed doors, they answered via WhatsApp. Ana explains that renting the space is expensive and was not renegotiated due to the owner's intransigence; in addition, her clientele is older and, even after reopening, she does not frequent the store for fear of the virus. Faced with the prospect of lockdown commercial activities, which ended up not materializing, she had feelings similar to those of other traders who are not considered an “essential service”, that is, a strong rejection of the proposal. Thus, it was quite noticeable among respondents a certain conflict of perceptions about the total closure of trade between those who have businesses considered “non-essential” and their indispensable counterpart.

Just like Pedro Luís, Elaine has an “essential” establishment in Vargem Grande, an optician that stands out on the local shopping street for its organization and for its three uniformed employees. She owns the business since 2015, when she bought it from the previous owners. She claims that, since then, she runs the store "fighting" a lot. At the age of 46 and having completed high school, Elaine says that she even started a higher education course, but gave up and opted for a technical course for autopsy assistant, but which she also does not practice, as “it is not financially viable”. Like her fellow pet shop owner, she has an affective relationship with the neighborhood, her second home, she says, as she lives in Grajaú, also on the outskirts of the South Zone. Elaine is very proud of the relationship she has established with the neighborhood: “We have a very good relationship with the population, people have known me for a long time, I am friends with all the traders, with many residents who have become not only customers, but they became friends”, he says.

In this case, he says that his optics remained profitable during the pandemic and the lockdown it did not inspire her concern. Elaine demonstrates a strong voice and conviction in what she does, and a strong work ethic with echoes of prosperity theology[viii]. For her, who is an evangelical member of the Assembly of God, being an entrepreneur means “leaving out early, working, building our heritage. Offer what we have to our customers, give all the attention, service, not only the 'pre', but the 'post'. Helping our neighbor, doing campaigns, so I understand it that way”. The pandemic has not changed her routine much, which continues from Monday to Monday, with a day off for the two salespeople and “a boy”, but it has included the constant cleaning of the products and having to deal with the lack of them, as many of her suppliers closed until the service gradually returned to normal.

The examples of Ana and Elaine illustrate a certain existential crisis that the pandemic and government measures brought to many popular entrepreneurs and hit harder those who work closer to the city center, where City Hall inspection is more intense and is not as easy to bypass the quarantine. So, both Ana and other traders I interviewed, whose businesses were not considered essential services, from frame shops like hers to small accessories and trinkets establishments in general, were very opposed to the possibility of general closure, which they had already hit hard, as seen in the interruption of work itself, including formal work, to replace employees who had to be dismissed. Ana still “made do” with new tools, such as WhatsApp, but for Dilson, another business owner in Vargem Grande, this was not a reasonable possibility, since he works with pirated DVDs with very low added value. That, of course, if he had closed his shop.

In June 2020, the news broke with the mobilization led by app service delivery people, which became known as the “app break”. Seen as essential workers, they faced the risk of contagion during the pandemic, accentuating their loka life side, which, for Hirata (2010), identifies the daily drama of precarious lives, the perception of life as war and surviving in adversity, common to the inhabitants of the ravine. Without the same visibility, popular entrepreneurs considered “non-essential” remained active, ignoring the rules imposed by governments and exposing themselves to the virus, or turning around to comply with them, which meant fear, insecurity, fired employees and professional realignments.

Pandemic, State and popular neoliberalism

In Dilson's small store, the collection of hundreds of pirated DVDs that accumulate in the shelves, from action movies to forró shows, is noteworthy. On the other side, between chargers, superhero dolls and protective masks hanging on the wall, sits this 50-year-old Bahian man, who has lived in Parelheiros for 20 years. Before, he worked as a security guard in a condominium, which he left to become a street vendor in Santo Amaro. There, he sold beer, toys and boiled peanuts. Despite having decided to leave work, even against the wishes of the private security company, he considers that the registered job was better, as he worked from 6 am to 14 pm and, when the holidays arrived, “I went to Bahia, stayed 25 days in Bahia, it would come back again, it would start, something he was sure of. Not here anymore, here we have to to battle every day". The way in which Dilson justifies his choice is confusing, as his digressions on the guarantee of salary at the end of the month, opposed to the idea that as a street vendor he works much more and the return is much more uncertain, suggests that formal work made him comfortable. With the increase in inspections against street vendors at the bus terminal, his income decreased and he moved to Vargem Grande, where he started working on the street until the salon appeared for rent, where he is to this day. But the transition to the neighborhood was even more complicated:

— So, the experience you start to have a different vision. I was growing up, thinking about different things, seeing that it didn't work here, you have to do it here and I did well, I feel that I did well. I just didn't do well when I was in Santo Amaro, I came to grow financially and mentally when I got here. (...) It wasn't easy for me, because I left a place where my income was higher and I didn't have clients here, I hardly knew anyone, and there in Santo Amaro was where my income of my life was, it was a good income. When the circle for street vendors was closing I came here, so I started from scratch and the doors were opening, I got to know the people, picking up the clientele. Then things also got better, they got better and thank God we are there.

From Monday to Monday he works in the store, without employees, from 9 am to 20 pm, practically without rest. The routine is difficult, and his wife, who was also a street vendor, only helps in the morning. His last break was seven years ago, when he spent 15 days on vacation in Bahia, the land of his parents, and in Alagoas, where his in-laws live. His work there at the store is not exhausting, he says, but he misses a few days to lighten up. “Mentally you get a little worn out, but the body is fine”, he comments with a certain pride. But for Dilson this is not of great importance, since he started working in the fields at the age of five doing “lighter work”, like planting corn and beans.

The essence of grassroots entrepreneurship comes from its strict work ethic. In Dilson's generation, it was little defined by studies, but the rapture by the ideology of human capital appears here in an unexpected way, a dramatic symptom of its spreading through the subordinate classes. He studied up to the seventh grade of elementary school and is thinking about going back to school, pressured by what he sees as a change in the job market, “totally different” from what it was when he worked as a security guard, and brought about by the new generations of workers, who in your vision come out ahead for vacancies “because of the study you have. The most important thing today is that you study”. Mentioning that he would do mathematics, Dilson, on the other hand, does not make a point: “To me today, any type of course helps because today I always need something extra, you say 'no, I took a course', but you always need more”. By the way, both of your kids are in college.

As we saw in the other popular entrepreneurs interviewed, this ethics in a profoundly Weberian sense, in which work predominates over the way in which the individual identifies and positions himself in relation to the world, that is, an end in itself, determines his worldview. in a very evident way in the outskirts of São Paulo. Living in the iron cage of capitalism, they see the letter of the law as a refuge against what they see as injustice, even if they eventually break it for their own benefit (cf. WEBER, 2004).

An example brought by the pandemic highlights this ethics in a rare way: the emergency aid of BRL 600,00 approved by Congress and paid monthly since April 2020. Unanimously, all respondents supported the initiative, but made the same reservations: the aid has to be paid to those who “really need it”, indicating among them a rancor against those who, supposedly, take advantage of the benefit without needing it. Pedro Luís, for example, thinks that there are a lot of “noia” in the queue for assistance, but he receives assistance because he is “unemployed” — the pet shop is in his wife's name and the bar does not have a CNPJ. Another notable contradiction is the fact that these businesses continued to have customers because part of them used their emergency aid even to buy superfluous products, as Tiago admits, when commenting on the increase in sales in his gift shop. Dilson goes in the same direction:

— I'm not going to say it didn't help because the guy gets 600 reais so he can pay a water bill, a light bill, he can do something, buy. I'm not going to say it didn't help, but I'd rather be working because when you're working, you know what you can achieve, and depending on others isn't cool. I think it's cool that you win by working, but depending on it... then you say “the fifth will fall”, when it was another month “the fifth will not fall, it will fall on the 15th”. It's something you're not sure about, but saying that it helps, it helps, especially for those people who depend on it, who are unemployed, who have nowhere else to get it, even that money that falls already helps.

This work ethic has been undergoing a subtle but equally relevant transformation, in which elements of neoliberalism become commonplace in the discourses of popular entrepreneurs. Far from a Eurocentric model of neoliberal subjectivity as Dardot and Laval (2013) theorized — which, despite this, is present in the cosmopolitan enclaves of São Paulo, which denounces the split between them and the peripheries of the city itself —, there is, for on the other hand, a speech that emphasizes a negative opinion about the State. Adriano has an accessories shop on Rua Barão de Duprat, where he works alone. He is 48 years old and came from Ceará in 1985. A few years ago, he fired his wife, who was registered, and started working without registration. He would even like to define himself as a businessman, but he doesn't because, he says, “I've been deregulated and I'm trying to regularize it [the store], there is little to be considered as an entrepreneur”. Highlighting the difficulties he has had in the occupation, he believes that the economic situation has improved in recent governments (Temer and Bolsonaro), which would have been interrupted by the pandemic, which brought more unemployment:

- At the time [the difficulty] being unemployment, which dropped sales a lot. Due to this aid, it helped a lot, people spend little, but that has been the difficulty. Another major difficulty that has been going on for many years and I don't know if it will change with some reforms that are imposed on domestic products, that's why I even work with some imported things Made in China as you are seeing. I try to work with national things, but I don't notice it, because of the high tax.

Veena Das and Deborah Poole (2004), when producing an “anthropology on the margins of the State”, believe that the power of the State is always exercised from the differential distribution of its presence, and not through an omnipresent sovereignty. Its legitimacy would always be at stake in its practices, in which the “intelligibility” of the State's presence is always given by its participants, who find themselves in those frictions between different normative regimes. Emergency aid reveals contradictions among the interviewees regarding work, but the State is also under suspicion, and the contradictions increase. In addition to doubts about the benefit, it is perceived that the interviewees adopt an opinion on public policies that is surprising due to its skepticism and suggests a change in perception, which is now tempered with a certain neoliberal pragmatism. Adriano, for example, casts doubt on the possibility of maintaining the emergency aid, because “let's see how the country is doing, how it will pay this bill”. At the same time, he defends that the Unified Health System (SUS) and health professionals are valued. He has no health plan and now feels that only the public service can guarantee his care — even if the appointment takes three months, complains Adriano.

"Let's touch life"

In the week in which Brazil would surpass the mark of 100 deaths from the new coronavirus, Jair Bolsonaro tried to regret the fact, but in one of his traditional lives on Facebook, he said that it is necessary to “touch life”, which, in any case, reverberates what he has been suggesting since the beginning of the pandemic. As insensitive as the statement may seem, it expresses exactly what almost all workers and traders on the outskirts of São Paulo have done. And perhaps, precisely for this reason, the controversial president maintains a good number of popularity despite disdaining the disease and critics of the way he conducts his confrontation[ix].

In Vargem Grande, one of them is Fernando Souza, better known in the neighborhood as Fernando Bike, thanks to the bike shop he has had there for 25 years. With his parents, he left Curitiba at the end of the 1970s and settled in the Jardim Iporanga favela. His father disappeared when he was seven years old, fleeing threats and confusion with neighbors, his mother stayed where she was and Fernando moved to Parelheiros, where he got married, had children and fulfilled his dream of working with bicycles. He welcomed me into his home, where, from his small library, he pulled out books by Dan Brown and showed me, with particular admiration, the biography of Samuel Klein, the founder of Casas Bahia.

Reconciling the bike shop, which his wife manages most of the time, with his activity as a locksmith, Fernando is also active politically. He was already a member of the Socialism and Freedom Party (PSOL) and at the time of the interview he had switched to the PT and was preparing to support the candidacy of Jilmar Tatto for mayor, whose family has one of their political strongholds in the neighborhood. Walking around the place, paving works are easily noticed, but the thank you banners that adorn houses and businesses were at that moment for other politicians: councilor Milton Leite, his son and federal deputy Alexandre and mayor Bruno Covas. Fernando himself has already been a candidate for councilor on three occasions, with reasonable votes, but not enough to elect him.

Fernando runs a small workshop that housed three sewing machines for the production of masks at the time of the interview, in partnership with a local NGO. He says that he approached politics because he saw the neighborhood forgotten by the government and the presence of politicians only during election season. But he confesses that before living in Vargem Grande, “I thought like most people”, because “when I lived in Iporanga, I hated politics, 'everything is a thief, no shame'. You mature over time and participating in the meetings you see that it takes time for the guys to make the decision”. He says that he always voted for the PT and does not skimp on praising former President Lula, but despite that, he thinks that the party today is more of a “center-left” rather than a “left”. Both he and other popular entrepreneurs have a positive opinion about the period in which the PT was in the federal government, when they earned the most money, he says. However, already in the Rousseff government, he noticed that the number of unemployed people was increasing: “I had four people working directly in my store, today there are two people. I had to go earlier to do a bike assembly, because I sell a new bike, and it fell apart”.

Fernando sees that pessimism has spread among traders in recent years, despite some recent improvement, and this is reflected in politics. He repeats the discourse of a part of the Brazilian left that the former captain's victory was the result of fakenews, but that the left will soon turn around, as the current leader is unmasked. But an obstacle, according to Fernando, is the periphery’s lack of interest in participating in politics:

— The periphery does not have much [interest]… The workforce is there, most of the industries come from the periphery, these people, if you take the extreme of the South Zone here as a reference, you will see that most of the time these people spend on the bus, why do I say that? He leaves early, he doesn't participate in the neighborhood's decisions, in the discussions, sometimes there are public hearings on Saturday and Sunday or on a holiday, he's tired because he's worn himself out in transport.

A critic of the Bolsonaro government, Fernando is an exception among those interviewed. Not that the president awakens great passions among them, but most, when they criticize him, point to the intemperance with which he usually expresses himself, especially against reporters. Dilson, for example, vehemently repudiated the treatment given to them, mainly because they are “employees”, that is, workers like him: “Imagine [which] a reporter will ask you a question, he is an employee, he asks that question that the boss sends, everything is there in writing, then he arrives and says 'shut up'…”.

Melinda Cooper (2017), analyzing the American context, understands that the appreciation of the family in the face of the withdrawal of the State and the expansion of credit policies explains the possible alliance between neoliberalism and the “new social conservatism”. Here, the most “Bolsonarist” profile of the interviewees is also the most entrepreneurial. Tiago sees the problem of the president's behavior from another angle: precisely because of the way he is, Bolsonaro will have problems remaining in power. His lack of presidential posture, in the view of this shopkeeper, seems to be a problem not for the popular classes, but for the owners of money. So what he believes to be the great virtue of “our president” is exactly his flaw, and the candidate who is closest would be his exact opposite, the governor of São Paulo, João Doria, because “his marketing is very good":

— Bolsonaro, he is a great president, but he really says what he thinks and that is not very pleasant for a president in Brazil. He should only think before he speaks, because really he is very honest, very direct, very straightforward. Most of the population likes that, but for a president, I don't think it's very cool to speak what he thinks.

Accusations of a fascist or coup against Bolsonaro are far from the reality of these popular entrepreneurs, who as a rule approve of his government and his handling of the crisis. Especially among those considered “non-essential”, his defense of maintaining the economy and his rejection of social confinement measures are especially appreciated. The responsibility for the lack of control of the disease is not attributed to the president, and even if the pandemic worries them (they all know infected people), the perception that it is passing, even if there is still no vaccine, is shared by all. On the other hand, it is plausible that it is his behavior, breaking the ethics and respect that should exist between workers and bosses, an element of special damage to his image in the periphery and its old and new turners.

Final considerations

Robert Kurz (1992) wrote that the collapse of modernization meant that capitalism, due to increased competition, would start to increasingly neglect the workforce, replacing it with science and investment in technical development. The end not only of thousands of occupations previously vital for capitalist accumulation and social reproduction is not its only consequence, however, and the social precariousness of work spreads across the West. With globalization, not only do the living standards of the “Western middle class” disappear, as Guilluy (2020) says, but also their lifestyle find themselves under attack. In the context of the new coronavirus pandemic, the centrality of work is back to the fore, with billions of people around the world in their homes, enjoying telework, but facing physical and emotional consequences due to isolation; or unemployed and prevented from opening their businesses by social confinement determinations. Does the pandemic, finally, accelerate this collapse or restore the importance of work, when it is simply taken away from us?

The most immediate response in the first months in the presence of Covid-19 was the emergency basic income programs. Another, in view of what I have presented in this article, seems to be self-management as an emergency exit for a system incapable of providing solutions for large-scale precariousness. Its advance into new categories (such as motorcycle freight drivers) or those undergoing reformulation (such as an infinity of business management occupations) indicates that it is not just a discourse, but is effectively changing logic and eliminating pillars of contemporary work such as working time. and time off work, and the digital instead of face-to-face. In Brazil, inequalities between classes become even clearer with the determination of what is essential and what is disposable. What to do when you are not considered essential, nor are you available for the home office?

In the midst of this, the importance of work is reiterated, making it even more precarious, as the neoliberal discourse predicts that more rights imply fewer jobs. Nothing new, if not for its assimilation by subaltern families, managing amid debts and seduced by the new conservatism (COOPER, 2017). It is at work and in what is related to it that popular neoliberalism is revealed, even more than in the social devaluation of public services, since the SUS guarantees medical care for the poorest population at the worst moment of the health and economic crisis. Therefore, the material destruction of work also eliminates the ways of life that were associated with it. In its place, the discourse of entrepreneurship takes on material meaning when self-management progressively affects all workers through new management technologies and work mediated by digital platforms without rights or safeguards.

Popular entrepreneurship, however, balances between these two extremes, and obviously has not gone through the pandemic unscathed. Small businesses on the outskirts of São Paulo, where I develop ethnography, with few or no employees, family-run by a rigid work ethic, are divided between two generations separated by formal education. About the French working class, say Beaud and Pialoux (1999, p. 181) that the younger generations “experience a youth that imitates aspects of bourgeois adolescence. The transition to high school creates, and sometimes enlivens, the conflict between ethos worker of the parents and the ethos children's high school." In the case of popular Brazilian entrepreneurship, and specifically in São Paulo, this conflict takes place between those who do not call themselves entrepreneurs, but merchants and who made it through high school. For this older generation, what counts is being a fighter and knowing how to reinvent yourself when needed, and the quarantine was proof of that. For the younger ones, in turn, who had better education and who adopt the entrepreneurship discourse, they count on boldness, investment in human capital and being alert to new technologies.

In the article I presented, the opinion about Jair Bolsonaro is ambiguous, but revealing. Little questioned by the interviewees about his conduct in relation to the pandemic, his acceptance, however, is not complete. Among the older ones, it is his behavior that draws attention on the negative side, having his diatribes against reporters (who, after all, are employees) rejected, offending the ethics and respect that should exist between boss and employees. For Tiago, the youngest of those interviewed, it is also Bolsonaro's behavior that stands out, but on the contrary. Because he was truthful and sincere, he would not be acceptable to the elite (but would be acceptable to the people). Tiago is also the most emphatic in defending the government.

In common, the contradiction in relation to the role of the State and the relative agreement with emergency aid, which should only be for “those who really need it”. The continuity of the benefit beyond the pandemic seems to clash with that work ethic, which echoes the old distinction between worker and bum, as popularized by Getúlio Vargas. Self-management, in turn, converges with the withdrawal of the State from the world of work and the protection of the family, and the discourse that comes with it has its main result in Bolsonarism.

*Henrique Costa He is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Program in Social Sciences at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp). Originally published in the magazine Dilemmas .

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Notes


[I] Six months after its dissemination among companies, PNAD-Covid19 data indicate that of the 8,4 million remote workers in the country, 4,9 million are in the Southeast. About 10% of the employed population was in home office In August. Among these people, almost 73% had completed undergraduate or graduate degrees. Workers without a formal contract, in turn, represented only 15% of the total contingent, while they were almost 40% of the employed population (cf. GARCIA, 30/08/2020).

[ii] For Castel (2015, p. 478), the wage society is also “a political management which associated private society and social property, economic development and the conquest of social rights, the market and the State”. With its disintegration, the process of disaffiliation of subjects is accelerated unintegrable.

[iii] I tried, as far as possible, to guarantee my safety and that of the interviewees with the uninterrupted use of masks and distancing whenever necessary.

[iv] According to Neri (2008), the group he called “class C” reached 44,19% of the Brazilian population in 2002. For him, who was president of the Institute of Applied Economic Research (Ipea) in the Dilma Rousseff government, the “ earns on average the average income of society, that is, it is middle class in the statistical sense”.

[v] In this work I use “way of life” (wayoflife) as part of “a description (and sometimes an assessment) of qualities”, which is therefore based on the subjective experience of those who experience certain social processes. In the definition of EP Thompson (1966, p. 211), the way of life differs from “standard of living” (standard of life), which refers to objective and quantitatively measurable aspects.

[vi] Data from the federal government's Entrepreneur Portal. Available (online) at: http://www.portaldoempreendedor.gov.br/estatisticas

[vii] Two of the measured effects of the introduction of the MEI were that larger entrepreneurs reduced the scale to fit the program and also that some companies, in particular the smaller ones, began to use the program to change the salaried work relationship for the provision of services (cf. . CORSEUIL, NERI and ULYSSEA, 2014).

[viii] According to Valle (2018), not all neo-Pentecostal denominations claim prosperity theology, but their emphasis on the material prosperity of the faithful is notable even in these cases.

[ix] In a survey released on August 14, 2020, Datafolha showed an increase in the Bolsonaro government's excellent and good index from 32% to 37%, the best level since the beginning of the mandate, in January of the previous year.

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