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Colección: INTERAMER
Número: 59
Año: 1999
Autor: José Luis Romero
Título: Latin America: Its Cities and Ideas

Mass Formation and Lifestyle

Whereas the physical appearance of many Latin American cities suggested that they were home to a split society, a wide variety of lifestyles were readily apparent. To be sure, nineteenth-century visitors came away with a very different impression, as they described homogeneous cities, inhabited by compact societies, regardless of the degrees of social differentiation that characterized them. But the outsiders who observed the cities hardest hit by the effects of the crisis of the 1930s saw great differences and real social gaps.

The migrations, and the social polarization they produced, transformed cities into a jumble of ghettos, into urban areas that were poorly connected with one another or had only very superficial and conventional contacts; in each area, people’s lives were shaped in uniquely different ways. The difference was not simply the one between those who lived in the aristocratic suburbs and those who inhabited the slums: within each group one could find stark differences that were often camouflaged by the things its members seemed to share in common. Anyone who took a close look at Lima’s slums would quickly learn to distinguish the ones formed with people from Ayacucho from those where people from Cajamarca had settled; in Mexico City, one could distinguish those that gathered people from Tepoztlán from those populated by people from Oaxaca or Veracruz; in Buenos Aires, the villas miseria formed by Bolivians or Paraguayans from those inhabited by people from Santiago or Corrientes. The observer would perceive not only the differences produced by geographic origin but also those created by social background, by the ability to adjust to an urban lifestyle and to the technological world, by the degree of literacy or proclivity for delinquency. By the same token, the observer of the various groups that constituted established society would notice that there were “exclusive” neighborhoods that differed from one another not just in terms of standard of living but also in lifestyle. Upper-class, middle-class or working-class groups might have certain external features in common, but their expectations were markedly different, as were their degree of cosmopolitanism, their attachment to tradition, and their readiness to accept change. Many lived as they wanted to, but many others lived as best they could, constantly contrasting their traditions with the circumstances that change had brought about.

In any case, the basic opposition between the social establishment and the anomic society was apparent. The differences between the two groups were so profound that the spectacle of their proximity could seem explosive. The attitudes of each group, taken as a whole, were so different that an observer could take them for two adjacent but separate worlds rather than two sectors of a single society living together. Behind those attitudes were views of life and of the world so different as to seem irreconcilable. The situation was indeed complex. Established society had very cohesive views and ways of life. Inherited and traditional, its ways were sustained by daily experience with certain unalterable norms and with slow, well assimilated changes that gave the establishment both flexibility and strength. As legacy of the old bourgeoisie that had become gentrified over the course of time, these ways of life were cohesive enough to cope with changes—which were now coming very rapidly—and give hope that their cohesiveness would not be lost. The legacy was strong, but the changes—too rapid and profound—called certain attitudes into question and showed that they were untenable in the new reality. Doubt began to penetrate this normalized, established society, which would have preferred to defend its lifestyle to the last, but understood that it had to adapt to the new circumstances.

This crisis forced established society, weakened and doubting itself, to open its ranks to new groups with other lifestyles. The inclusion of groups with such diverse attitudes ended up weakening the establishment, which saw the mass that was taking shape as an expression of an alien world. It would be no exaggeration to say that the initial reaction was an odd mixture of distaste and scorn. Those in the habit of stepping aside to let someone else by were startled by those who pushed and shoved to get where they wanted; those who bathed every day were repulsed by those who seemed indifferent to their own uncleanliness. Established society was slow to adjust to the idea that the structure that had once been its exclusive domain now included a different group that, for the moment at least, seemed irreconcilably different in terms of its basic attitudes and the standards it lived by.

The mass did not have a coherent system of attitudes or a balanced set of standards. Each group had its own, and it was established society that attributed to them a unity they did not have. This is precisely why the mass was an anomic society: it did not have a lifestyle of its own, but rather many ways of life without style. This anomie was perhaps what compromised most of the interplay of reciprocal influences. In the 40 years that followed the crisis of the 1930s, the two subsocieties that together formed the split society did not make much progress toward integration.

There was, nonetheless, some progress, albeit by very strange avenues. However paradoxical it might seem, every day more and more members of the mass felt called upon to participate and to come face-to-face with established society. The exchange sometimes began with insults and challenges, but it started nevertheless, and it did not stop. The two groups identified mutual interests and, above all, those places in the system where the mass could make inroads. The anomic society consisted of separate groups, each of which had an originary culture that it gradually stripped down until the only standards and norms left were those that matched the ones of established society. Moreover, necessity was a compelling force. Many began to imitate the behavior of established society: the standards of courtesy, the respect for the principles of the pecking order, and the rules of the game for certain types of relations. What they imitated the most was how to hold a glass or a fork, how to put a tablecloth on the table, or how to dress a child. Many even learned how to behave toward the State and its agents, and when and how to claim their rights. They may have imitated even more how to judge certain actions, how to choose among several options, and how to think about certain issues that involved some commitment. But such mimicry did not mean they had internalized the premises upon which the system was based. It was a superficial imitation of attitudes that the borrower had observed and found to be useful and advantageous. Imitation was a typical defense for someone timidly shifting to the offensive. This is how the integration began: in fits and starts, a cautious adaptation to the basic demands of the structure of established society.

However different these two subsocieties were, they still had something in common: both were radically transforming their expectations. The newly arrived migrant and the top executive were alike in that both wanted to cease to be what they were. That was what triggered the crisis: the ultimate triumph of the philosophy of comfort and well-being, ultimate most of all because the disciples of this creed included people who until only recently would never have dared hope to break out of the vicious circle of poverty. Yet once in the city, even at the bottom of the most impoverished sector of society, economic success and social ascendance seemed to be a legitimate aspiration. Someone who had not yet held had his first job wanted a better salary, because he knew that the first money he got his hands on was already spent: a bed, clothing, a ring, and then perhaps a radio, maybe an electric mixer, and even a refrigerator. For his part, the business executive wanted a higher income because he knew all too well how to spend it: an apartment in a higher-class neighborhood, a second car for his wife, a yacht, a weekend home with a swimming pool, two valets with striped vests and impeccable white jackets. There was no limit to one’s plans once expectations had been revolutionized. That was the common ground that the anomic society and the established society shared.

There were certain traits that all sectors of established society shared in common. Regardless of their stratum, they all believed they had a preexisting claim not just to their own possessions but to the structure as a whole. They had made their mark upon that structure and had accustomed themselves to using it according to an accepted system of norms. There was one way to travel along the Seventh Avenue in Bogota, and everyone knew who could stop and chat at Altozano, just as there was one way to stroll along Florida or go to the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires; and there was one way to behave in the Acho bullring in Lima or at the independence festivities in the Zócalo in Mexico City. Each one believed his place was secure and knew what rules he had to follow to enjoy that place and keep it. In the social upheaval that followed the crisis of the 1930s, however, those who considered themselves the proprietors of the structure, regardless of their stratum, found themselves up against an unexpected social group claiming its place within the structure, even though it seemed to have no more rights than the common highwayman or purse-snatcher. Established society’s first reaction, at all strata, was to reject those regarded as intruders. It closed ranks forcefully to defend a traditional lifestyle, producing some odd multi-class political alliances in the process.

The disconcerting impact of the new mass had a variety of contradictory effects, perhaps because it happened in the midst of a crisis in which many other things had to be re-examined. While most rallied to the defense of the old order, others—perhaps from the younger generations—discovered other vital options in the new situation. Whereas before the lifestyle of established society had been questioned by outsiders, it was now being questioned from within as well. The exploration of its lifestyle illuminated what was already outdated beyond retrieving and detracted from the authority and arguments of those who defended it. Within established society, some people—youngsters as a rule—disavowed the ways of life that their parents had worked so hard to preserve. They were the rebels within whom the clamor of the anomic society indirectly resonated.

As some members of the establishment began to regard certain norms as passé and hopelessly outmoded, it was not surprising that they should begin to show tolerance for those who violated those rules or were ignorant of them. These rebels from within the establishment became outside allies of the anomic masses. But some went to more radical extremes. They became internal allies of the “other” society as they were seduced by anomie, which seemed like an escape from a society that had become narrower and more rigid, as its fears and defensiveness increased. Perhaps the sense of anomie, especially in the younger generations, released the more primitive impulses and irrational desires that every society effectively curbs. With the structure called into question, even in jeopardy, some thought the proper course of action was to seek their own personal salvation by giving free rein to feelings previously held in check, to the impulses of a will that was determined not to be constrained.

The crisis brought about a critical view of society, and nonconformism became widespread. Since social conditions in Latin American replicated those of European countries after World War I, many responses to the new situations were borrowed from Europe before the situations even presented themselves in Latin America. But there were also some original reactions to the crisis. Perhaps the most notorious, in the turbulent Latin America of the 1930s and 1940s, was a growing skepticism among the young generations. Nonconformism would spread later, when the effect of the upheaval was apparent in the cities and the retreat of traditional society became more pronounced. It was then that the lure of a life with no restrictions began to spread among the new generations of established society in the form of an exaggerated version of that traditional nonconformity, the bohemian lifestyle of the artist, writer, and student. In cities, the number of those who practiced the “do as you please” rule increased, and women were liberated from old prejudices. The number of women who pursued university degrees increased, as did those who had jobs or were professionals, those who frequented cafes and restaurants with male and female friends and came home late, those who had dressed with unusual boldness. When pants and mini-skirts were introduced, young girls from every social class followed the new fashion. And in middle- or upper-class families, it began to seem normal for young people of either sex to want to leave the family home and move into an apartment which, they hoped, would have the atmosphere of an artist’s studio. Why sacrifice one’s freedom, one’s vocation, or even one’s natural inclinations for the sake of some rule or standard, when everything was being held up to question, and few seemed to be able to resist the onslaught of mass formation? Then came the hippies. The number of drug addicts congregating in bars, discotheques, and nightclubs began to increase.

Another manifestation of nonconformism was the lack of any concern for what elders and more conservative people might define as a “normal” future. Many young people saw no reason to pursue a degree with which they could eventually earn a living; they chose instead to study psychology or sociology. Many wanted to be in the movies, play the guitar, or do nothing at all except live the life of a minstrel. Many families began to tolerate a mixed life, half domestic and half minstrel, that silenced scruples and encouraged some nonconformity among the more cautious.

The more daring often slipped into dangerous nonconformity. The old structure was doubtless in question; it could not sustain a traditional lifestyle or even the pre-eminence of traditional norms. But it was not altogether dead. As the voices of those who wanted to argue for it became weaker, the defense mechanism for protecting the last vestiges of the system became stronger. A challenge to the system itself automatically triggered that mechanism. The structure tolerated violations of its norms but would not allow its fundamental principles to be attacked. The nonconformist who dared to challenge them usually paid dearly for his boldness: flagrant or silent rejection, which meant becoming an outcast. No less high, perhaps even higher, was the price paid by someone who drifted into radical politics. If the nonconformist adopted the life of a revolutionary activist, the defense mechanism was triggered; he was not only ostracized from established society but also persecuted and harshly punished by the State.

The upper and middle classes were the most ardent defenders of the last bastions of the structure, but not all sectors of the middle and upper classes defended the traditional lifestyle with the same zeal. Perhaps the most conservative were those with the oldest lineage, who regarded themselves as the custodians of a legacy that embodied their aristocratic position. Closed within a circle that became narrower and narrower, they guarded the prestige of their names and preserved what they could of the customs and forms of life that they inherited from their elders. In the old clubs or in the charitable societies, at concerts and parties, a faintly musty odor seemed to linger in the air around those who refused to yield to the pressure of change.

The nontraditional sectors of the upper and middle classes, on the other hand, showed themselves to be more agile, partly because many of their members joined their ranks very recently and therefore tried to assimilate what they could of the forms of life of the more conservative groups. But they were all too anxious to assert and consolidate their control over what seemed to be a new structure, yet was in fact a metamorphosis of the old one. They did ultimately won, and their victory affected the style of life that they adopted, investing it with the prestige that their pre-eminence and, above all, their power gave them. It was a style befitting a cosmopolitan culture, the creation of that layer of society—common to many metropolises in Latin America’s new urban world—whose main ties were with the United States.

All these metropolises had their cosmopolitan groups, able to speak several languages from which they borrowed words in daily conversation, dressing in the fashion of the great capitals of the world, or engaging in business that gave them more of a presence in world affairs than in the affairs of their particular country or city. It was a culture in which friendship and conversation were being replaced by the conventions of public relations and in which spontaneity seemed as inappropriate and dangerous as it had once been in the baroque court. It was a culture of executive secretaries, of cocktail parties, of high-level meetings held in some room in which an acrylic mobile added to the sterile atmosphere, of crammed appointment books, and of decisions taken with the complicity of the friendly computer. That was the culture of the metropolis, though not specific to any city in particular. It was the creation of all the metropolises, patterned after the model developed in the great cities of the United States. It immersed and entrapped its creators, at once its victims and users: the great entrepreneurs, influential attorneys, scientists racing to complete a paper to present at some congress just in order to be invited to the next one, the manipulative executives of the big multinationals, successful performers, the promoters of advertising paraphernalia, organizers of big events, beauty queens who wanted to be international models, and anyone desperate to be an international personality before they were anyone at all. An entire court of imitators and those who wanted to join their ranks nurtured that culture, spread by the mass media, which embodied the growing prestige of social power. It was, perhaps, the appropriate culture for the industrial world, especially the in the technological era, but it did not attach much value to private life and spontaneity. Typical of a split, baroque society, the elite had consented to offer themselves up as a spectacle for the others to contemplate.

Modern towers—glass and aluminum, if possible—became the bulwarks of this cosmopolitan, multinational culture. Just as the economy had become multinational, so did the peculiar culture created largely by those who manipulated it and by the believers in that new faith, a modern-day but relatively unchanged version of the old nineteenth-century belief in progress. The Sheraton and Hilton international hotel chains stood as symbols of that new culture. Those who lived in these homogenized towers of glass and aluminum moved from one to another, perhaps without even knowing whether they were in Mexico City, São Paulo, or Buenos Aires, because distinctions were blurred in the cosmopolitan and international atmosphere. Only the profile and skin-color of the service personnel might plant some seed of doubt; the traveler might never suspect that the housekeeper who cleaned his room so meticulously returned to some outlying slum settlement at the end of her day.

A style of life so irreconcilably dependent on the demands of society prevented any notion that those chose to be extroverts might one day rediscover their souls; renouncing an interior life was the price that had to be paid for success. A conventional culture was invented to numb the pain of having forsaken one’s inner life. It was the culture of the bestsellers, of the performances one had to see, of the exhibits one had to visit. A conventional way to use leisure time was even invented: golf became a kind of rite, as did travel to “all the right places.” It was an exterior and alienating, but it was basically a culture, perhaps the only one suited to the style of life of an alienated elite. Perhaps its clearest expression was concern for status and for the possession of status symbols. The objects lost intrinsic value; owning them was what mattered. They became symbols, and the thrill of ownership was precisely the satisfaction one got from having things and from savoring the envy of the “have-nots.”

There was only one cloud overshadowing the sense of power that the new elite experienced: their inevitable and unstoppable becoming part of the crowd. Their members were no doubt the privileged of the new society, but there were many such privileged. Someone might have a private airplane, even a private jet enabling him to make intercontinental trips. Yet at some time or another he would still have to concede to the cosmic rigors of the waiting line. Nothing better epitomized the new society for the privileged classes than the waiting line. Even in the most exclusive places, managed by the elite themselves, one saw self-service installed in elegant restaurants with the privileged were seen queuing up to serve themselves from a tempting cold buffet. It was a painful discovery to find that there were many more privileged people than there were seats in the semi-pornographic theatrical reviews or at ringside at a boxing match. It was a sad thing for a big businessman to have to confess to his guest that he had not managed to find seats, despite the intervention of all the officious types that pull the strings of a great city. But his failure would come as no surprise: in the “mass formation” of a big city, there comes a time when there are neither strings to pull nor those to pull them, summoning up the specter of Babel once again.

Thus the upper classes and the upper middle classes—the new elite—introduced a new style of life in Latin American cities, gradually replacing the European influence with that of the United States. For the remainder of the middle class and the working class, on the other hand, traditional ways of life seemed to hold some appeal, perhaps because they reconfirmed membership in established society. These classes were inevitably conservative, not so much in the political sense as in their respect for certain age-old values. One might be liberal, socialist, or communist and still cling to those values: the conservatism was in the preservation of that traditional lifestyle. A fear of slipping into the void or of jeopardizing one’s rise—an ascent made at such cost, or at least a cost high enough not to throw it away for nothing—counseled moderation. The home continued to be what it had always been, although the piano may have been replaced by the record player or stereo. Upward mobility was still an obsession, any risk that could jeopardize what one already had was not worth running. And if the temptation of consumerism increased, rarely did a family’s monthly payments exceed its budget.

Faced with the grand illusions of the upper classes and the upper middle classes, faced with the humble conditions of the recently established popular classes and with the unchanneled force of the new masses, the middle middle classes became the most stable social group. They renewed the bourgeois style of life, combining the old and the new with a certain common sense that did not entirely stifle a certain display of audacity. Because they were bourgeois in origin, they looked solid and stable. Their conduct was premised on the fact that work and leisure were not incompatible in any society—neither the old mercantile society, nor the new industrial and technological one. With neither any possibility nor any tendency to disdain work, their philosophy was still intended to achieve a culture of leisure or, even better, a private, interior life as a redoubt against being overwhelmed by the mass. In that style of life arouse a new system of rules, flexible yet firm, and above all a set of norms for individual lives that restored some old values: moral, aesthetic, and intellectual ones. Consumers like everyone else, the middle middle classes made consumption of cultural products, and concern for the quality of life, a central part of their lives.

To be sure, the working classes were conservative in their own fashion. They followed the rules of established society and thus clung to their traditional ways of life. Apart from becoming members of the consumer society, little changed in their attitudes, indicative of the influence of the middle class to which they aspired and which they tried to emulate with a precipitate haste to adopt their behavior and mentality. Everyone expected his own ascent to materialize in his income level, enabling him to transform his dreams into reality. Yet these working classes were the most vulnerable and defenseless in new situations, and they rapidly experienced the process of mass formation. Accepting it was for them a matter of survival—apart from the fact that they really had no choice. They swelled the ranks of the labor unions and, with that support, were able to satisfy at least some of their needs. They had little to lose and much to gain by giving in to mass formation.

The middle middle classes, however, were another story. For them, the process was a painful experience because it attacked that desire for an interior life that characterized those who jealously guarded their individuality and their personal diversity. It was difficult for the petit bourgeois that had carefully cultivated their private world to adjust to the new and bitter collective living conditions. To be just one of many, or at the end of a line, seemed an insult to one’s dignity.

United by the process of change they were all experiencing, the various strata of established society maintained a certain homogeneity, evident from the many ways their lifestyles were alike. The anomic society that took shape in the presence of established society did not have those mutual understandings or shared values—in other words, all those things that could pull various groups together. It was, therefore, unlikely that the anomic groups would ever display a defined style of life. Each group had its own ways, but in every city the distinctive feature of mass society as a whole was its mosaic quality and, lastly, its anomie.

Indeed, the very combination of these subsocieties had an anomic quality, because of their haphazard juxtaposition in urban space that they happen to share. Each group had a definite culture, the product of old traditions, including the long-standing urban working classes that quickly succumbed to the pressure exerted by immigrants. The new atmosphere in the cities and the difficult conditions created as more and more groups arrived, rapidly dissolved those cultures, homogenizing them and destroying their internal harmony. Within each group a set of their traditional habits and beliefs, norms and attitudes survived. But the basic precepts were broken by the adoption of other, very different principles, which those who faced the difficulty of moving and were forced to adapt to new situations could not do without.

At a deeper level the migrant might secretly or unconsciously have preferred the ways of the society he had decided to join. When he abandoned the countryside for the city, he was also abandoning his traditional style of life to seize the opportunities that the city could offer him. But that choice was not a conscious one, since the reasons for his departure were very practical, in most cases related to the harsh reality of survival. He therefore preserved what he could of his cultural baggage, dropped what he could not carry, and picked up what he needed to survive. Still, there was a decision and an inclination to become part of the urban world.

The attitude of the migrant groups toward established society and the structure that they were joining was a contradiction. Objectively, that structure was the chosen system, the best of all possible options, a goal so important that one would uproot oneself from one’s ancestral home to achieve it. Migrant groups embraced that system much more easily when they shared its social, political, and religious principles. They did not come to destroy or even to change the system, but simply to become part of it and partake of the benefits that it had to offer, sharing them with the others who were part of the structure. That kind of sharing, however, was not so easy to achieve. Those who were part of the structure were distrustful and aloof, and the new arrivals sensed the rebuff and discovered the strength of the resistance mounted against them. Their response was hatred, but not of the structure itself. When the resistance seemed insurmountable, there were sudden outbursts of uncontainable destructive rage that seemed to be acts of deep hostility. But perhaps they were acts of frustration and despair, and for that reason of secret attachment. The tactic that migrant groups and the sectors they initially joined used toward the established society and the system was one of asking and waiting: it was the fruitless waiting that triggered their irritation and outbursts.

Doubtless the anomie so characteristic of the mass permitted temperamental outbursts by its most violent elements. People became accustomed to violence, stimulated perhaps by the feeling that violence was the only way to persuade the stubborn custodians of the system to accede to their demands. But the public violence was unpremeditated, and the private violence was no more than one might expect of an urban society that was quickly turning into a mass. In day-to-day life, the new mass worked quietly to win a place in the structure; each one competed with his equals to find a job and a roof, and to put food on the table everyday.

In that day-to-day existence, the new mass developed a way of life amid the most grinding poverty. Theirs was the worst of all poverty, since it occurred in the midst of cities controlled by a powerful plutocracy whose weltanschauung included a showy and determined display of wealth. Certainly, without that wealth there would have been no culture of poverty, since poverty existed because of the excesses of an opulent society. It was awesome to see everything that could be created with the worthless debris of an industrial society, everything that could be obtained with even a modicum of acquisitiveness, everything that could be snatched from these consumer societies by wisely exploiting the guilt complexes that pervaded them. Living on almost nothing in a society that measured everything in terms of monetary value was one of the extraordinary talents of this new mass. A material culture was virtually invented from castoffs. Houses, furniture, utensils: everything came from other people’s refuse. In that scenario, families were established, children were raised, and adolescents grew up, always comparing what they lacked with what others had left over or, worse still, with that undefined world of industrial products that filled trash cans with plastic bags, pieces of wood, useless scraps of metal, assorted cans, rags or clothing, and succulent leftovers that might come from the tables of the finest restaurants.

There was a way of material life, derived from the waste of the industrial world. But there was also a way of moral life derived from of the consumer society. Everywhere there was an army of beggars, like Mexico City’s “Marías,” who specialized in appealing to the rich; doubtless there were many other beggars, too. These were the unmistakable manifestation of a divided society. Desperation produced a morality of poverty whose golden rule was that necessity justified anything: refined methods of deception; that deft, exquisite cleverness for sorting out problems that seemed insurmountable; stealing one’s neighbor’s property; selling oneself if need be.

At times, the system itself struck out at the victims of poverty in the form of sordid blackmail by public officials or police who took advantage of their victims’ sense of insecurity to force them into a life of crime or to keep them there. A growing skepticism about one’s chances of escaping poverty forced the unwilling victim into a life of crime: it drove young girls into prostitution, young men into juvenile delinquency, and disillusioned men and women to drink. All this became part of the anomic society’s way of life.

But crime was not everything. As the integration process took hold, some individuals and groups succeeded in escaping the vicious circle of utter poverty. Rather than being destitute, they were now simply poor. Even with low wages, they managed to improve their housing and their living conditions. Some began to be conscious of their situation and to form opinions. Those who had embarked upon a new life slowly began to establish their personal identity and, in the process, divorced themselves from the mass.

Some even came to have political opinions and, in their own way, became activists of a sort. Rarely did they have autonomy and clarity about their own objectives; usually they became the political clients of those who saw in them a potential force that could be cast against a society that was questioning the traditional systems of representative government. In that role, they took one more step into the existing structure, entering by way of one of its cracks and led by those who were actually jarring the cracks open.

The anomic society never developed its own style of life. But along the tortuous path to integration, it began to glimpse the set of notions endorsed by its protectors, by those who adulated the mass or those who promoting new attitudes. In its muddled commonalties with the system—as happens with all beginnings—some obscure tendencies began to take shape, and with them a new style of life began to be elaborated. That new style seems to concur with attitudes that had acquired some currency in established society.