Under the radar, off the books

By Robin Nagle

“What is the aboriginal Self, on which a universal reliance may be grounded?”  Emerson, “Self Reliance

Nannies, drug dealers, pimps and prostitutes, freelance carpenters, water entrepreneurs, “gypsy-cab” drivers, babysitters, street vendors and sidewalk gamesmen — what they all share in common is a life spent precariously under the radar (Venkatesh 2006), or as Robert Neuwirth calls it, life spent in “system D.” The “D” is Neuwirth’s shorthand for debrouillard, a French term meaning a self-reliant or extremely clever person.

In this month’s Wired Magazine, Robert Capps interviews Neuwirth about his latest book, Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy.  A sociological journalist, Neuwirth, familiar to some as the author of Shadow Citiesbrings us face to face with the “unregistered, unregulated, untaxed” economy that represents $10 trillion and grows each year.  “Half the workers of the world are system D” he writes, workers flying under the radar of government and tax collectors, running their businesses oftentimes through their cellphones, and providing much-needed services to the poor, those living in the many shantytowns ringing large cities, as well as first-world tourists seeking bargains and knock-offs.  Street markets, kiosks, street-side tables, behind-the-church auto repair lots, parked vans — these are the sites for the activities of the underground economy.

There are other dimensions for us to consider when we begin to try to wrap our thoughts around the immensity of the untaxed and unregulated economy.  For example, in Africa many people struggle to find clean drinking water; system D entrepreneurs provide “pure water…in a baggie” and fill in for what in other places would be a government-run municipal water authority.

Having spent years as an ethnographer in the South Side of Chicago, another social thinker, Sudhir Venkatesh expands our understanding of the shadow economy by including a store owner who “might hire a local homeless person to sleep in his store at night, in part because a security guard is too costly.” Venkatesh focuses on the hairstylists, nannies, baby-sitters, errand-runners, and caterers (oftentimes female heads of households) who serve the poor and the marginal.  He describes the underground economy as an “invisible web” that links “those at the margins” together.

System D and the shadows contain both licit and illicit activity, everything from mowing someone’s lawn to performing sexual favors.  The list is long.  “Not all who participate are criminals,” writes Venkatesh.  “Some move with ease between underground and legitimate economies.”  We are reminded of Duneier’s Sidewalk in which men on the street sell other folks’ magazines that had been tied up for recycling — when sleeping on the street they are deviant but when they dine in local restaurants they abide by all of the rules and are conformists.

So, the next time you pass the unlicensed roadside hawker or the street-smart operator of a down and dirty chess game, take a moment to think about all of the risky, innovative social and economic activity that sneaks under the watchful eye of regulation and brings goods, a moment of play, and a variety of services and resources to billions of consumers.