About quiet encroachment

I have always been taught, that law was there to be broken, or as my grandmother said “interpreted for one’s own interest”. Through Asef Bayat’s book How ordinary people change the Middle East I discovered a whole new dimension of lawbreaking, which he calls “Quiet Encroachment”. Bayat defines it as a

“Silent, protracted but pervasive advancement of the ordinary people on the propertied, powerful, or the public in order to survive and improve their lives.”

As an example one could take those who tap the electricity from municipal power poles in order to aim for a redistribution of social goods. This is specially present in the Southern world according to Bayat. But although this encroachment can be a common practice, it doesn’t make it a social movement. Indeed there is no leader of “electricity tapers” for example, and those who tap electricity will not claim it publicly. Therefore quiet encroachment is not a political action but “the aim to attain autonomy and to live outside the bureaucratic institutions.”

It appears that the ordinary citizen who lives using these methods,  could be perceived as a “modern Robin Hood”, taking from the state and distributing to what they feel they belong to; “the poor”. Of course it could be questioned why these people don’t organize in order to make a political change. I think that most people practice a wait-and-see policy. The risk is higher than the achievement. In addition to the fact that claiming publicly to tap electricity means risking legal procedures, there is no certainty that the claim issued will be granted. Using again the example of electricity: they might reach an agreement of a a cheaper prize, but cheaper is still more expensive than free. People have therefore no interest to enter the political sphere.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the concept of quiet encroachment, and try to implement it to every example I could think of. This process made me extend Bayat’s definition of quiet encroachment. For this I would like to use the example of the Chinese Household Registration System: “Hukou”. This system classifies Chinese in categories of “rural” and “urban” depending in the region they live in. Chinese are classified between “rural” and “urban” workers, living in a certain region of China. If a “rural” worker wishes to migrate to another region in order to become an “urban” one there must be a bureaucratic application. However, migration is strongly regulated. So most workers migrate illegally to the urban sectors in order to work in a factory, loosing their social rights linked to their rural hukou, but earning more than they could have in their homeland. This is clearly quiet encroachment. The worker lives outside the bureaucratic institutions in order to improve their lives. Even tough their situation is still very poor. Indeed they earn less than those who have the right to work and as previously said, they have no social rights. While they seem to loose so much, they do not claim the same rights as the ones entitled to work. And if the worker got a valid hukou, he would risk to get fired, because the company would not want to raise the worker’s salary. This is because companies who hire them, have no interest to pay them more. Of course, companies hire workers with valid hukou too, but mainly for the case of an inspection.

So there’s the question: Do companies use quiet encroachment, too? If I take Bayat’s definition again, it would be a “Silent, protracted but pervasive advancement of the ordinary people (= “ordinary company directors”) on the propertied, powerful, or the public (= the workers) in order to survive and improve ( = liberal capitalism) their lives.” This may sound provocative, and distant form Bayat’s point of view, but is it really wrong? Doesn’t the economic background based on post-Washington consensus and on market liberalization force private companies to encroach law? Moreover there is an actor which should not be forgotten: the Chinese state itself. China’s position on the topic is that China first focuses on economic prosperity in order to increase social, political and human rights. The increasing number of social movements in the country should have proven their theory. Which brings us back to quiet encroachment again. Is a change really profitable for the different actors? From the Communist Party of China’s point of view, there is no interest to give up its economic prosperity for the well-being of its people. To compensate, China is plundering Africa.

In my point of view there is quiet encroachment on every side. Every actor is encroaching another seeing himself like a Robin Hood, taking from the one who shouldn’t have resources, and keeping them. But there is no Robin Hood, the world is functioning in an egoistic way, where quest for the individual gain is higher than the collective loss.

Let’s end with a pessimistic point of view: I may quietly encroach on the resources of another person through my Western way of life, certainly feeling ashamed this instant, but as long as the one driving his Mercedes may encroach on ten people, I can say I’m not the worst person enjoying a movie I didn’t buy.

Obviously there is encroachment everywhere.

J.B.

 

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