The first post of this blog is my presentation at Historical Materialism Conference (November 2009, London). It is more a reflection than a proper paper, needs to be developed theoretically and is somehow incomplete (I especially want to develop the concept of alien, with reference to historical figures in working class history and literature), but I still wanted to put it, because it is directly relevant to the title of the blog: Nights of Labour (English Translation of La Nuit des Proletaires). In the book with the same title, Jacques Ranciere tells the story of the workers who spent their evenings with Saint-Simonians to publish L’Atelier in nineteenth century. Nights of labour refers to the time which is the worker’s own time, as compared to the day time of work, which belongs to someonelse.

For building a world in which everybody will enjoy free time or there won’t be a category called free time outside of working time, most of us still need to spend many nights awake, to keep writing and dreaming, apart from the struggles in the streets. Thanks to all bloggers who spent long nights on the computer to stimulate our own intellectual desires…

The Ontological Problem of the Worker

Paper presented to the 6th annual Conference of the Journal Historical Materialism, 27-29 November 2009, London

In the eloquently written Nights of Labour, Jacques Ranciere says how metaphysical questions about meaning of life are not luxuries, but vital for the worker whose immediate desires and needs are to be stimulated by bourgeois dreams. Ranciere follows the dreams of the worker who spends his nights in writing for and publishing the magazine L’Atelier, together with Saint-Simonians. For Ranciere, intellectual activity by the worker is the most dangerous for the bourgeois, because it is exactly there that the lines between the worker and the bourgeois are blurred. This is exactly what I follow in this paper: the worker who dares to think not only about bread and butter issues and discover his/her interest, but about the nature of his own existence and of reality, which surrounds him, which I call the ontological problem of the worker.

The opening scene of the Nights of Labour quotes the artisan-worker who says how he is not born to be a worker and he did not find the meaning of his life in his trade. At first glance, one can feel an implicit arrogance and sense of individualism in this statement: Rather than talking about exploitation and collective salvation, the worker is talking about the possibility of his own life being different. Such tendencies can be observed in my own ethnographic research as well with workers: The more one is provoked by higher aspirations and desires, the less he/she may be away from identifying oneself from his/her fellow workers. In this paper, I am hoping to show that this is not always a paradox. On the contrary, I argue, this very contradiction carries potentialities for the building of emancipatory politics and strong working class movement. In the paper, I focus on three stories selected from extensive ethnographic data collected in a research on wastepickers (scavengers in the recycling industry) living in urban slums of the capital city of Turkey. I then connect those stories to reflect on why we should take the ontological problem of the worker seriously (All names are kept anonymous).

Out first scenery is an inner city slum in Ankara. We are in a warehouse frequented by the wastepickers, thieves, gangs, socially excluded, children who escape domestic violence just to be subject to new forms of street violence and end up exerting violence themselves. Mustafa is a migrant worker who earns his life by collecting (and stealing from factories and public places in the evenings) scrap metal and selling it to the warehouse owner. He lives in one of the rooms of the warehouse and sends regularly money to his family in his village in the Eastern Turkey. Mustafa is a very entertaining figure, he likes talking with his fellow workers who live in the warehouse, telling lived or made up stories. But in our face-to-face encounters, his attitude changes abruptly. Not only does he express his discomfort and hatred for his environment, but, more importantly, he is very unhappy with himself: He does not have a regular job, steals frequently and has to live with poor and criminals. He asks to me, several times: “why am I like this?” Interestingly he has different answers to this question different times. One day he believes his father who forced him to work amongst gamblers when he was child, was responsible for his destiny. Another day the reason is either his nature (for which he blames himself) or religious (he must have committed a sin to be punished that way). Yet another day he looks at his surroundings and put the blame on environmental factors: He is bad because people around him are bad. Whenever I contest some of his arguments, he then finishes the conversation by criticizing the whole social order: “this order is corrupt”. It is not the answers (individualistic, structural or environmental), but a constant need and desire to find a cause to his situation, which is remarkable in the case of Mustafa. Not able to find the exact answer and coping with such contradictory causalities, Mustafa still wants to give a meaning to his life: He has responsibilities as the father of two daughters who will be hopefully nurses and teachers one day and will not reproduce the destiny of their fathers. But sometimes fatherhood does not satisfy him. He is curious to know what would happen if he had not had an arranged marriage and had married the first woman he loved. He envies the couples walking in the park close to the warehouse and says that one day he would kidnap his first love (who was forced to marry someonelse) and would walk in the park with her, proud and confident. He is not happy in his warehouse since fellow workers keep talking about daily life problems of family and money. Mustafa does not like talking about those problems, which he experiences as well. He wants to talk about different things and to different people, people who are different, who can make a difference in Mustafa’s mind. That is why he likes very much one of the working class organizers who visits regularly the warehouse and, according to Mustafa, “understands” him in a way no other worker in the warehouse can.

Mustafa gets very excited when I offer him to come with me to do some informal interviews in recycling factories. He starts performing the role of a research assistant and tells me off because I do not fit the image of researcher in his mind: I do not ask structured questions and I do not use a tape recorder. His mental maps are so rich and diverse that he surprises me with new performances in different contexts: joker and story teller at the dinner table with the fellow workers to get some attention; brownnoser with the traders to get some free drink, metaphysician when he starts thinking about nature, god and reality; local economist reflecting on supply and demand when he ascribes the falling metal prices to high imports or shrinking building industry. One could tell that he makes the boundaries between scientific and indigeneous knowledge blurred: He observes while walking for several hours in the streets while looking for scrap metal (ports, ships, builders), relates facts and makes conclusions. Partial, one-sided, but still innovative thinking. Even small stimulations in Mustafa’s mind (me offering to work as an assistant, an organiser’s talk) can create very large perturbations, something that the working class organizer notices and works on. Mustafa’s case clearly shows that the worker does not need to be told that he is exploited. This, he knows very well. He needs his broader questions about life to be taken seriously by the organizers.

We are now at a dinner table outside of a small squatter settlement, where a working class organizer talks to the workers at 2 AM in the morning. This is a small urban slum on the top of a hill, just opposite to the newly built residential houses for middle and upper class people, as part of an urban regeneration project. An active, highly politicised, bright and self-reflective worker, Ibrahim looks angrily at one of the high buildings and tells how a woman on the tenth floor got angry with him that morning, while he was looking into the garbage of the building in order to find some plastic or paper to sell: “How come that woman living on the tenth floor can shout at me from her window and tell me what I should do? What is the problem? What should I do? Why can’t I be there?” The organiser says: “The problem is not the woman but you.” “Is it me?” responds Ibrahim, half surprised. “So should I eliminate myself?” The organiser responds: “Yes, you should.” In this very simple dialogue, which is the culmination of many previous dialogues and confrontations between the two, is beautifully hidden a lesson for the young wastepicker: By envying the tenth floor, he reproduces capitalist relations, because what he offers is to change his position which would put him at the tenth floor, a continuation of the existing class hierarchies. Ibrahim was the obstacle behind himself not in a psychological sense but in the very material sense of adopting and reproducing the norms, which characterise capitalist society. He is critical of the woman herself, not of the very existence of the tenth floor itself, by challenging holders of positions, not positions themselves, which leaves class hierarchies intact. But there is more than that. If Ibrahim reproduces capitalist relations by envying them, then, in order to eliminate the ‘problem’ he tries to understand, he has to eliminate this reproducing subject, which is himself. This is a powerful lesson about the dialectics of class struggle in capitalist society: the issue is not about an attack of bourgeois class or the victory of the working class but the elimination of reified capitalist social relations of which the worker himself is part. Here the leader does not correct the so-called ‘false consciousness of the worker’, he invites him to make a critical reflection, which is not made from an outside vantage point, but immanently, showing that he is the very part of the social relations he needs to criticize. Therefore, Ibrahim needs to think not about the illusion but the truth his own thinking, a thinking, which is made possible by the everyday practices of capitalist relations.

The organiser intervenes again when Ibrahim says that they desperately need but are unable to see some light in order to continue their struggle. He says: “We want to see a light all the time but the light is us, we are the ones who can disseminate light to our outside, but we can not see it since we think it should be somewhere outside.” This time the worker becomes not an obstacle against, but a possibility to change his own conditions, since he is the one who has the light, not the woman on the tenth floor. Being both the main obstacle behind and the possibility of one’s emancipation constitutes a tension for the worker.

Our final stop is an urban slum house. It is very late evening after wastpickers come back from work. The working class organiser is the night guest to the house where a group of young workers live together. The workers know well the organizer who talks to them as much about love and pain as politics and literature. But that specific night, the working class leader has an invitation to make. He asks them to write for the magazine published by the association of wastepickers and read by thousands of people. But what can a wastepicker write? This is not important. The main objective is to invite the worker to a new experience. This is not a process in which the worker has to act with his/her anger vis-à-vis an external actor (employer or state official) or in which the worker needs to immediately formulate needs and demands. This is first and foremost an act of self-reflection, attention and meditation. The organizer asks the worker to sit down, take his time and concentrate. The timid but curious acceptance of this invitation generates sentimental poems and short essays of shame, pride, anger and hopes, all emotions reflecting the brutal reality of class experience: “In all the roads I take, I see you. In all the dust bins I open, I see you” is written to the girl who will never accept to be with a wastepicker. A piece by the young Deniz tells the origin of wastepicking: “That day, when I went to collect paper from the street in order to help my family…that day when the police was beating me up…. you stole my dreams.” The proud tone of a worker (“We save millions of trees by recycking this paper every day, we do something useful society”) is complemented with a call for equality on the basis of morality (“They humiliate us because we look dirty in the garbage, but our hearts are cleaner than everyone else’s”). There is also a constant search for legitimizing one’s existence: They do not steal but work, contribute to the environmental safety. But if the words they write reflect frustration and claim for recognition and legitimation in a society, which constantly excludes them, the very process of writing gives them the chance to become not only a wastepicker, but also an author during those times which are only theirs.

That the worker has dreams about a life, which detaches him/her temporarily from his own immediate conditions, where his life can be the life of an author, a scientist, a poet, an ethnographer (and not simply devoted father or mother, exploited worker) creates a contradictory implication for the organization of the workers. The working class leader has to be someone who is close enough to the workers in order to understand their personal, emotional and economic problems, but also, at the same time, alien to them. In the image of the organic intellectual, the worker needs to see a possibility to go beyond the conditions of his own existence for himself/herself. That is why the organizer has to be accepted by the workers’ community, yet different and envied, always reminding the possibility of other forms of thinking and living, not only in the far future but here and now. That is why the organizers who are trained or self-taught in bourgeois novels and science, Marxist philosophy and popular culture are attractive. Organisers are not only brokers who solve their daily life problems and teach to fight. They are the ones to stimulate the worker’ curiosity and desires, to pick up strategically workers such as Mustafa and Ibrahim by appealing to their dreams, and in case dreams are stolen as in the case of Deniz, they are the ones to help build new ones. 

Ranciere, J. (1991) Nights of Labour, The Workers’ Dream in Nineteenth Century France, Temple University Press.