Binaries hardly capture the complexities of real life, particularly of the world of work in which human labour using brains and brawns creatively engage with nature, change its surroundings and realise their existence in the course of changing themselves. Indeed, it is necessary sometimes to break down and categorise a complex whole to understand the relationship between the simple categories conceptually created and the way they constitute the complex totality. However, the progress of conceptual categories rarely follows the time sequence of history; instead, it may indicate opposite movements. The way we understand informal–formal relationship is a case in point. Informality is an empirical category representing heterogeneous forms of unprotected labour. Petty-producers, street vendors, construction workers, home-based workers, domestic workers, contract labourers, sex-workers, delivery boys, ragpickers and a range of other activities that provide earnings to a majority of the workforce in urban space come under the rubric of informality. The category of informality is predicated on the notion of formal, but according to the sequence of history, ‘informality’ predates the ‘formal’. Just as people were unemployed before being employed. It is only since a particular juncture of history, one could find that a human being is being employed by the other or a class of few propertied people who engage the large number of property-less in the services of the few. But informal is defined as a negation of formal and unemployed as the state of not being employed. Similarly, life had been wageless for the larger part of human civilisation. It is only in capitalism that wage labour emerges to be the predominant form of work relation and non-wage labour appears to be pre-modern or pre-capitalist. Paradoxically, what came later in the course of history, defined earlier forms according to its own image. Centring of capital relations reign our conceptual space and a false boundary, implicitly identifying capital relations with the ‘formal’, imparts violence to the informal in the realm of thought.
The politics of conceptualising categories, therefore, sometimes reverses the order of history. The primacy of the ‘formal’ in defining the informal in itself makes the informal seem as if it is something abnormal, weak, cannot stand on its own feet, a deviation from the norm, an unwanted appendage continuing from the pre-capitalist past that capitalism wants to get rid of.