Juan del Nido on his book, Taxis vs. Uber

Cover of Taxis vs. Uber by Juan Manuel del Nido

Interview by Diego Valdivieso


Diego Valdivieso:  For those who have not had the opportunity to read your book and have a glimpse of the vicissitudes of Buenos Aires middle class, its taxi industry and how the arrival of Uber was signified and experienced by these actors, could you please summarise the main topics you cover in your work?

Juan Manuel del Nido: In late 2015 I arrived in my hometown of Buenos Aires, Argentina to study the taxi industry. Everyone – taxi drivers, union leaders, the city’s middle class – was convinced that, due to the partisan and political make up of the city and the country, Uber would never arrive. But in April 2016 it did! I had by then amassed mountains of ethnographic material on taxis: their laws, governance, economy, infrastructure, sociocultural practices. As the conflict between the company and the taxi industry escalated, I noticed that a certain segment of the city’s middle class – superficially ecumenic, techno-idealist, managerially-minded, anxiously globalist, performatively cosmopolitan – set the tone that defined public debate around the conflict. In that tone, they increasingly naturalised their own reasons and logics and disavowed the reasons and logics of others – specifically, the taxi industry whose workings I had come to know quite well. They were not just political adversaries, but they and their reasons came to be pathologised, written off and explained away; in a way, they stopped counting, even if they were still there and still protesting. I decided then that this would not be a book about taxis or Uber in themselves, or about precaritisation, platform capitalism, the gig economy, but one examining what I call “post-political reasoning”: the logics, rhetoric, and affects through which people imagine, legitimize, and argue for an experience where it is hard, or impossible, to disagree in certain ways.

Diego Valdivieso:  This book may be the outcome of the only ethnographic project carried out while Uber was (crash) landing in a territory. What advantages did this unexpected event bring to your research approach? How did you realise that the unstoppable arrival of Uber was a rich area of research?

Juan Manuel del Nido: It was a truly exceptional opportunity to see abstract logics come to life in a very literal and raw way. Until late March 2016 Uber was viewed as impossible; by mid-April it was allegedly processing tens of thousands of ride requests per day. Before my eyes taxi drivers, judges, federal attorneys and city dwellers began triangulating reasons and arguments that added up to fascinating interpretations of “competition”, “monopoly”, “freedom of choice” and “market forces”, for example, or of the divide between economic and political domains. Drawing from common sense truths, cultural anxieties, urban practices, political conjunctures and other affects and logics, these triangulations would have been entirely speculative or even unpredictable just a few weeks prior. Notions like “competition”, for example, are hugely abstract and ethnographically elusive. I had just spent half a year researching the very relations such notions were reframing – those of the taxi industry, of Peronism, of city and national politics “before Uber”. This knowledge offered me a chance to make anthropological sense of how such abstract notions take concrete forms, something an ethnographer arriving to a place where Uber, or any disruption, has already happened, would struggle to do.

The book was born out of my attempt to turn that luck of being in the right place at the right time into an ethnographic opportunity that I figured others, or even myself in future endeavours, would be unlikely to have: what is it that someone who does not get to see this pivotal break happening is unlikely to capture? On a different level, I was fascinated and alarmed by the fact that, as you say, Uber’s arrival seemed unstoppable. Already anthropologists were critiquing the platform’s precarisation of working conditions, denaturalisation of labour and more, but I do not think then, or now, scholars really asked: how did this come to appear as unstoppable to a certain group of people who are familiar, and may even agree, with our long-rehearsed arguments about labour, precariousness and such? Rather than focusing on denunciation and moralisation, I think we need to produce better ethnographies of how, increasingly, certain ways of thinking – managerial, technocratic, moralised and moralising – are becoming harder to actually challenge, that is, to disagree with beyond the protected confines of our academic seminars.

Diego Valdivieso: Throughout the book you are able to tackle a particular kind of reasoning by focussing on what people see as relevant and the affects, emotions, motivations and aspirations involved in this process. Although you give us some hints, could you share your reflections on how to address ethnographically something like reasoning through logics, rhetoric and affect?

Juan Manuel del Nido: I think it’s about fostering a different ethico-narrative disposition than the prevailing one, aiming to be alert to how things, affects, and rhetoric combine, catalyse or stunt each other, shaping social relations in often quite complex or even counterintuitive ways. To be clear: this is not yet another plea for seeing the world as emergent, contingent, becoming, fragmented, multiple, multifarious and so on, but rather an exhortation to ethnographers to reflect on the difference between pedantic, neurotic and often moralising literalism, on the one hand, and actual critical engagement with our interlocutors and ethnographic encounters, on the other.

For example: when the courts struggled, in technical terms, to block Uber’s services from the territory of the city of Buenos Aires, the middle class saw in that technical difficulty evidence that “economic forces” trumped “the political”. One way of addressing this ethnographically, common in anthropology today, is through a “well, actually…” disposition – a literalist deconstruction of an argument, however spurious. Such pedantic literalism increasingly passes for a kind of rigour, and even for a righteous concern with what we understand to be the truth. What I propose in Taxis vs Uber is to take these ethnographic encounters seriously, instead of literally, to produce an actual critique of how they organise knowledge and how they manage to persuade. In the case of this example, a historical distrust in the courts, the government and the union; an unreflexive, bourgeois sense of one’s own agency and what it demands of the world; and a habit of casually crossing jurisdictional borders, all fed into each other in the reasoning of a certain segment of the middle class and give us far richer insights into how it was even possible to imagine that Uber, or its relations, trumped what scholars see as the political – regardless of the technical, moral, or truth value of such a claim. However spurious, this is the reasoning that made it so hard for the taxi industry to even be heard. The capacity of a kind of reasoning to persuade does not depend on a soundness one can cross examine through a literalist sequencing, as it were, but on how affects, practices, materialities and other ethnographic features, truths in a subtler, and in the actually interesting sense of the term, give flesh to that reasoning as they buttress and propel each other. We miss these configurations if we do ethnography with militant (and increasingly, moralising) pedantry.

Diego Valdivieso:  Your book gives fundamental clues to understand the scope of non-expert reasoning and the socio-political consequences that this way of knowing can generate. Beyond the particularities that your analysis of Buenos Aires middle class and the arrival of Uber suggest, what phenomena do you think could be addressed from an approach centred on the distribution of the sensible?

Juan Manuel del Nido: I think it is an immensely generative and underexplored possibility! As Ranciere formulated it, the distribution of the sensible suggests we think of the political as the distribution of parts, roles, and voices in a society or even an epoch, a pattern of differences and proportions whose language we broadly share and where we roughly know our, and others’, part. This distribution is always unequal: parts count in different ways and some parts are there but somehow do not count. Parts, here, is not necessarily byword for class, caste, or any sort of inexorable partitioning of society, but rather particular convergences of bodies, interests, and things in the face of a social question.

Ranciere was thinking about a very big picture, political-system-kind-of-magnitude, but I kept thinking in his terms to understand how different  parts of society – unelected experts, gangs, a globalist middle class, a particular industry, an elite producing the dominant aesthetics – make up a social problem at ethnographic level: a conflict over an app, homelessness, building a house, whatever. An ethnography approached through the distribution of the sensible is one that focuses on what emerges ethnographically as being at stake, a site of contention, as disagreement in the broadest sense of the term, by looking at how voices, people, things participate in the distribution of the senses those stakes can have. What are the material or rhetorical cleavages that catalyse, hinder or shape the stakes? How do different parts consolidate themselves, seek to reframe the terms in which other can participate in the stakes, or to change what counts as a valid argument, or presence, and what counts as noise? Which voices give their tone and grammar to the whole, which ones can share a lexicon with which others and which ones are disallowed?

Political anthropologists might recognise here Jonathan Spencer’s invitation to follow disagreement in their ethnography. In that vein, in Taxis vs Uber I found the distribution of the sensible is a particularly powerful approach to examine the increasing moralisation, pathologisation and disavowal of genuine disagreement in our societies. It is increasingly difficult to disagree and remain a political equal: to disagree is to be an idiot, recalcitrant, morally toxic and be written off, or in Ranciere’s terms, to become those whose voices count as noise, “the part that has no part”. In Taxis vs Uber this was the part of the taxi industry and of whoever disagreed with Uber, but increasingly, all around us, this is the part for whoever tries to claim that a particular question, from public health to migration, from an app to climate change, could be asked in different terms, or answered otherwise.

Juan del Nido discusses his dissertation about Uber

Page 99 is home to one of the most linguistically precise segments of my dissertation, concerning the construction of a legal case against Uber in Buenos Aires, Argentina, by five taxi drivers’ associations on the night of the 12th of April, 2016. The case was set in a language of urgency and accusation and routed through a “writ of amparo” – an Argentine legal device designed to be expeditious and that judges have to react to quickly, lest a claimant’s fundamental rights are irreparably harmed. The right in question was the right to work, taxi drivers claimed, knowing but not explaining in that document that the temporalities of technological novelties amid a population anxious for modernity benefitted Uber, which had launched its platform at 4 pm that very same day.

This micro-anecdote, specific and dry, does more justice to Madox Ford’s test than he himself may have sought, for in a sense my entire research hinges on the events of that day. I was in Buenos Aires, my hometown, researching the political economy of the taxi industry in a 13-million strong metropolitan area largely unaware at that time of Uber’s expansion plans. The day before the 12th Uber existed only in people’s imaginations and the companies’ social media taunts; the day after was the first of an economic, political, legal and cultural conflict centered on the industry I had come to know quite well. Buenos Aires was then the latest installment of a world saga, epic and viral, but also a deviant: when authorities declared Uber’s activities illegal and ordered it to leave, Uber refused to go, claiming Uber was what “the people” wanted. As an industrial conflict turned into contempt of court, the conflict became an exceptionally fertile site for a series of infrastructural, temporal, technical and economic imaginations about what constituted progress, modernity, and political virtue. At stake in the conflict, summed up in that page, was whether an order beyond the political existed or not; how some Argentines understood what it was made of, who belonged in it and how history had drawn its lines, and ultimately, how a post-political order would grant the Argentina that the middle classes imagined as theirs a place in the world .

Juan M del Nido. 2018. “Uber in Buenos Aires: an Ethnographic of the post-political as a modality of reasoning”. 2018. Ph.d dissertation. Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester, UK. .