On February 23 2019 the Norbert Elias Foundation organized a mini-symposium, ‘Civilisation and Informalisation’, in honour of Cas Wouters who became 75 years old. The speakers were Paul Schnabel, Fernando Rodrigues, Stefanie Ernst, Michael Schröter, Raúl Sanchez, Mischa Dekker. I gave a short version of my talk in Paris, in May 2018, at the meeting ‘Social reflexivity and Informalization’, organised by the group where Misha Dekker is working, the Lier in Paris (L’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales EHESS, the Laboratoire interdiscipinaire d’études sur la réflexivités (LIER)). I used this occasion to refresh my knowledge of informalization, and I rediscovered how useful the concept of informalization can be.
The central issue of my talk in Paris was the question what happened with informalization now economic inequality has started to increase, in the Netherlands, beginning in the 1980s? Did the development of interactions, of behaviour and feelings, take another course, did it change direction towards more formalization? In exploring these issues I used several cases and today I will talk about one of them: about manners in the street, in particular in the traffic. I focused on the interactions between the so called traffic regulators and cyclists, walkers and other traffic in a chaotic situation in the middle of Amsterdam. The last sentence of my Parisian talk dealt with the traffic regulators. I wrote: ‘Their work is part of a new surveillance regime, but it is policing-light, balancing on the edge of intervention and ‘let go’’. After the meeting Cas wrote me an email, in which he told me that he couldn’t forget the last phrase of my talk: ‘balancing on the edge of intervention and ‘let go’’.
And this indeed touched the core of my presentation – it is typical for Cas to remember the most significant point. My conclusion was that informalization continued to proceed, while the inequality increased as well, and I explained that phenomenon by referring to the existence of a broad and differentiated middle class. Processes of informalization are characteristic for societies with a large middle class, and because a large middle class is there to stay, the informalization seems to continue.
Who are the traffic regulators?
Most of the time an unregulated regulation of the moving cyclists, walkers, scooters and others is sufficient to perform a smooth going traffic in Amsterdam. Traffic lights are enough. But in exceptional cases, like repairing the streets which makes detours necessary or in exceptionally crowded situations, the normal, ‘unregulated regulation’ is not seen as sufficient to prevent accidents. Then, the municipality hires security protectors who have to deal with the traffic streams, taking care of the safety of the participants in the traffic. In 2009 this new work was institutionalized by the Ministerie van Verkeer en Waterstaat, the department responsible for physical infrastructure, and it became outsourced to private companies. People performing this function have to submit a declaration of good behavior and they have to qualify themselves by following a short training, finished with an examination which has to be performed in the presence of a policeman.
So traffic regulation as a separate job is new work; it is part of the tasks the police did in earlier days. In the new division of labor traffic regulators have quite restricted tasks and they have less legal authority than the police. They are not authorized to give penalties, but in cases of more than one tresspass they can call the police who has the authority to penalize and who will take over. But their instructions have to be obeyed and these even have more weight than traffic signs – I do not think however that many people are informed about these rules.
On the site of Traffic Service Nederland, the private company, which works for the municipality of Amsterdam, the increasing use of traffic regulators in cases of public works causing problems for the normal traffic is framed as follows: […]. Everyone is in a hurry and delay can cause more traffic jams, and if one is not alert, chaos and agression can be the result. Personal contact with road users can diminish hinder experience and a smoother streaming of the traffic.’ (Het persoonlijke contact met de weggebruiker zorgt voor een verminderde hinderbeleving en een betere doorstroming)’. These arguments refer to increased inconvenience on the streets, but also to changes in the social and emotional behavior of people that is characteristic for today. The security company states that people are in a hurry and that they are quickly inclined to agression, and they expect to be able to tackle these ways of behaving by the personal contact between traffic regulators and the users of the road. These elements of the traffic regulation brings us close to the work of Cas Wouters.
The research: observations and interviews
So traffic regulation is a semi-public way of surveillance. Based on my research on the Weteringcircuit, in the centre of Amsterdam, I called it surveillance-light. On my research setting large public works were going on, the street design was radically adapted to a new subway system. The chaos was huge. Cyclists and car drivers had to make unclear detours, walkers couldn’t find the tram stop anymore. Nine traffic regulators were employed, from seven tot seven o’clock, and one coordinator. The regulators do not have other tools than blowing on their little flute in cases of much disorder, and talking, in Dutch or in English, dependent on who is passing-by -‘ This side, lady. Come one. Please, a little quicker. Thank you’. If people want to start a discussion, for example about the trajectory of the detour, the traffic regulators seldom do get involved. Discussion takes too much time and moreover, such discussions are most of the time useless – they often degenerate in a stalemate position in which neither of the two parties is persuaded or will concede.
So sometimes people obey the instructions of the traffic regulators, and sometimes they do not. And in the last case the traffic regulators do not have the time and the possibilities to intervene. They let it happen and they let go. They have the same strategy when they are confronted with insulting remarks, something which happens often -‘Drop dead (Val dood), or even with physical aggression. It is amazing how relaxed they respond to tensions and affronts. ‘Let it be’, that’s their modus of acting. And the project manager of the municipality supports them in that strategy. She is indignant about the debunking attitude towards the traffic participants, but she is at the same time in favor of ‘let it pass’. ‘People are crazy’, the traffic regulators say, and in particular the so-called ‘Amsterdammers’. They have only one aim: going as quickly as possible from A to B. If cars in the street are loading and unloading, they do not hesitate and take the sidewalk, by bike or by scooter, if possible without delaying their pace. Sometimes, but seldom, the traffic regulators call the police, who intervenes and penalizes (eg 390 Euro’s in the case of a tresspassing taxi driver).
In this way a new semi-public regime is organized, as a light form of surveillance. This form of policing-light aims at exerting external pressure, just enough to encourage a smooth going traffic, but not too strict, having trust in the balanced inner constraints of the ‘road pirates’. Complete compliancy is not performed, neither is it expected or demanded.
As regards inequality, the traffic regulators have to deal with a very differentiated bunch of people, rich and poor, young and old, with every gender and every colour. But interactions on the street are superficial and brief. The traffic regulators treat everyone in the same way, they are not able to make distinctions between the passersby. The shortness of the meetings has an equalizing effect.
Seen from the perspective of the passersby however another picture arises: the surveillance is performed by supervisors whose work is seen as a typical example of a very lowly qualified job. By way of illustration: I read a review of the book Bullshit jobs, by the anthropologist David Graeber and written by Dirk Vis in the DNBg (2019, 4, 1: 9). Vis wonders which jobs are examples of a bullshit job, and guess who is in his opinion entitled, that’s the traffic regulator. That tells something about the social position and the status of the traffic regulators, but I don’t think Vis is right. I wouldn’t call the traffic regulation a ‘bullshit job’, because according to Graebers definition a bullshit job is a job which can be skipped without anybody noticing it, and that is not the case with the traffic regulators. In June 2018 the traffic lights at the Weteringcircuit were made operational and that was the moment that the work of the traffic regulators was finished. There was a small festivity to celebrate this, but there was a short delay, a time-in-between, in which the regulators didn’t do anything, while the light didn’t work: immediately there was disorder and confusion. The traffic didn’t function smoothly without the regulators: the traffic regulators had passed the bullshit job test.
But that fact doesn’t change their image, as my observations show. Passersby treat the regulators in two ways – some people have a debunking attitude towards them, but others display compassion, while both attitudes do not guarantee the acceptance of their authority and compliancy with their instructions.
Inequality and informalization
The case of the traffic regulators can illustrate different aspects of the complexity of inequality today, while it also points to processes of informalization. The acting, thinking and feeling of both walkers, cyclists and regulators point to highly flexible relationships, to tuning and reflexivity in interactions and in emotions. All actors on the street have to imagine and to anticipate the behaviour of many other persons, they have to put themselves in the place of these others in order to be able to do so, they have to possess an alert presence of mind.
Walkers and cyclists are used to act autonomously, and just as in the case of traffic lights they are obeying as far as they judge it necessary in order to avoid danger. They are balancing between considerateness for others and individualist acting.
In the case of the traffic regulators, their instructions have to be obeyed, but they do not have many sanctions. They are continuously calibrating their surveillance, they have to assess each situation, they have to anticipate and to judge the behavior of the people they have to control, and they have to balance between interfering and accepting trespasses.
So in the interactions on the street a high level of reflexivity and self-control is demanded both from the traffic regulators and the walkers and cyclists. All these actors have to master the art of compromise, like ‘poldering’ in the street. In this context it is interesting to see the differences between cycling Amsterdammers and cycling tourists, who apart from technical problems with cycling also have difficulties in gaining control of the complicated cycling manners that are expected from them.
In this way processes of informalization are intertwined with processes of formalization. A new surveillance regime has been implemented, but this is a light regime, which is based on the assumption that all parties do have a high level of self-control; and which has been adjusted to the reflexive and assertive acting of the traffic regulators and the cyclists, walkers, and other traffic. The work of traffic regulators demands reflexivity and the capacity to assess situations and the behavior of traffic participants. Their work is part of a new surveillance regime, but it is policing-light, balancing on the edge of intervention and ‘let go’.