Illegality: Deviation

From the Series: Illegality

Photo by Patrick Pierre.

My friend Mariano was working as a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company in Lima, visiting a regular circuit of customers in some of the city’s poorest districts. One day, as he pitched his company’s brand at a pharmacy, he saw a batch of his own medical samples up for sale on a shelf. He feared he could be made responsible for the offense—“It’s a mortal sin to sell your samples!” he says. He pressed the pharmacist to tell him where he had obtained the medicines. The man replied: “El Hueco.”

Mariano and a security agent at his company drove downtown to El Hueco—The Pit—to confront the crooks and seize the medicines. Mariano waited outside as the agent descended into the crammed corridors of the belowground, largely unregulated market. Some of the vendors looked at her—all dressed up, looking nice in her pantsuit—as if they instinctively knew what she had come to do. They rolled down the fronts of their stands and turned to her, menacingly. The agent ran out without the medicines, pallid with fear.

“That’s a sordid place!” Mariano says of El Hueco, one of hundreds of unregulated markets and bazaars in Lima. “The atmosphere, super chunga [ugly]. It attacks all your senses. . . . It’s base . . . Lumpenesque.” That’s how Mariano remembers the infamous but always crowded market. (He also remembers it from prior visits for the wonderful, most likely contraband, chocolates you couldn’t find anywhere else in the city. If the market repels, it also entices and thrills. But that’s a subject for another posting.)

Lumpenesque? The term “lumpen” means “rags” and “rogue” in German, and it was popularized by Marx and Engels when they adopted “lumpenproletariat” to make a crucial distinction: between the productive, wage-earning classes and the nonproductive, “ragged,” and “dangerous classes” that so haunted the European bourgeois imagination. Hal Draper examines their rhetorical efforts to purify the term “proletariat” from all the lumpen elements—the illegal, deviant, declassed, parasitic, and dirty, which Marx and Engels viewed as “excrescences (not functionally integral to the social system)” (1972, 2306). The result was a proliferation of categories of laborers, such as “floating,” “latent,” and “stagnant,” that they kept dividing into even lower, more offensive subcategories. It is as if Marx and Engles knew this lumpen element was uncontainable, an excess impossible to completely assimilate into society’s productive structures. As they parsed out the proletariat into ever more wretched subcategories, this excess kept creeping back in and deforming the neat classifications—proletariat and bourgeoisie—on which the “class struggle” depended.

Poorly regulated or unregulated economies, in Lima and elsewhere, pose similar classificatory challenges. While not quite lumpen, as Mariano suggests, they seem to have similar deforming effects. Back in 1986, Hernando De Soto said law-defying vendors resorted to “illegal means to satisfy essentially legal objectives” (12). He called these vendors “informales,” a term used today even by vendors themselves. It was always obvious, however, that the distinction between means and ends isn’t so clear. At El Hueco and so many other markets, legal pursuits fluidly mesh with simple evasion of regulations, piracy, contraband, brand tampering and forgery, money laundering, and bribing. This has led to interesting arguments regarding illegality: “The distinction between ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ economic behavior,” John Cross says, “is [one] of definition, motives, and power . . . [of] the ability of competing interest groups to impose and enforce their own perceptions of legality” (2000, 32).

This is useful. But appropriateness and legality aren’t just relative. What Mariano’s visceral (and honest) reaction exposes is the class outrage and disgust that has come to be implicit in the term “informales”—without form—which refers as much to the open defiance of the law as to the self-built, hodge-podge aesthetic of markets like El Hueco. When it comes to Marx and Engels, Robert Bussard says we must consider their bourgeois “mode of sensibility” and “attitude of aversion” toward the lower classes to explain their vehemence against the lumpenproletariat, whose illicit character was implied in its raggedness. It was their way of making a distinction in their own minds between ‘good’ proletariat and ‘bad’ proletariat based on class and racial prejudice (they saw “the Irish” as an intrinsic part of the lumpenproletariat). Ultimately, they were reacting to those elements of the proletariat which did not behave as they expected or hoped (Bussard 1987, 687).

“Ilegales,” traffickers, or, “informales”: Are these names for some of today’s “dangerous classes”? When it comes to policy-making, advocacy, and even scholarship, do we make similar distinctions based on behavior we expect or hope for? What places like El Hueco make evident is both, as with Marx and Engels, the Sisyphean character of projects to cleanse any conception of the legal, appropriate, or legitimate of all “excrescences” and deforming elements; they also make evident the extent to which the desire to do so is rife with a mode of sensibility, in relation to which their dominant ethic and aesthetic is deviant, nonconformist, excessive. It “attacks all your senses,” Mariano says.

It helps knowing what to think when the aspiration to become productive, law-abiding citizens is clear, as can be implicit in the distinction between the person and the actions of undocumented immigrants (Goldstein); or when the distinction between victim and victimizer, as in human trafficking, is well defined (See Ramachandran).

It isn’t as easy to know what to do—whether we are talking about undocumented persons, traffickers, or law-defying vendors—with the anti-establishment values, the desperate or calculated risk-it-all attitude, the nonconformist aesthetic, and the inassimilable behavior. This dimension, which Mariano called lumpenesque, makes us vacillate in our allegiances, makes it difficult ultimately not to betray an adherence to the system we oppose. This shouldn’t surprise. In the spheres of social and political action, “forces which have constructed their antagonism on a certain terrain show their secret solidarity when it is that very terrain which is put into question”—as such lumpen elements do, according to Ernesto Laclau. “It is like the reaction of two chess players to somebody who kicks the board” (2005, 140–41).


Bussard, Robert L. 1987. “The ‘Dangerous Class’ of Marx and Engels: The Rise of the Idea of the Lumpenproletariat.” History of European Ideas 8, no. 2: 675–92.

Cross, John. 1999. “Street Vendors, Modernity and Postmodernity: Conflict and Compromise in the Global Economy.” The International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 20, no. 1–2: 29–51.

De Soto, Hernando. 1986. El otro sendero: La revolución informal. Lima: Editorial Barranco.

Draper, Hal. 1972. “The Concept of the ‘Lumpenproletariat’ in Marx and Engels." Économies et Sociétes VI, no. 12: 2306.

Laclau, Ernesto. 2005. On Populist Reason. New York: Verso.