In Ontological Problem of the Worker, I discussed the contradictions of the worker whose aspirations and desires were stimulated by bourgeois dreams. I also said how the working class organiser appealed to those contradictions and desires. In this post, I am using Richard Sennett’s beautiful Craftsman as a way to zoom in the specific practice and thinking of the organisers in working class neighbourhoods. I argue that considering organising as craft work can offer some useful insights to better theorise the tacit knowledge and everyday practices of the organisers.

The Emancipatory Pulse in Richard Sennett’s Craftsman:

Working Class Organizer as Craftsman

 Craftsman is a real gem by one of the finest authors of the last decades. It is pleasurable to read for those who enjoy not only being immersed in their reading but also appreciate the beautifully minimalist style: Sennett did apparently work on his book as a craftsman while ordering chapters, choosing the correct words, avoiding any excessive style and making a sophisticated yet still accessible argument. But the book is not written only for the sake of being done well as in a craftswork. In the new century where the pessimism of the past socialist experiences is ceding its place to the optimism of the struggles in the global south and in Europe underlining the possibility of another world once again, Sennett offers the first volume of his trilogy as a tribute to pragmatist philosophy which can be seen as the foundation of a future socialism.

This essay is not an appraisal of the book itself since everybody should read this book, which speaks enough for itself. I rather tend to apply the suggestions and ideas in the book ‘pragmatically’ as Richard Sennett would like it by using what he calls a “domain shift”. I offer to think political organization and mobilization of working class as a type of craftswork.

A note of caution: One can rightly criticize Sennett of not fully exploring the dark power relations in the workshop of the craftsman. Sennett himself acknowledges from the very outset, how the workshop is a place made and reproduced by the authority of the master. But, there is little critical and challenging tone in talking about the organization of the work and the role of craftsman in reproducing the unequal power relations. This position is quite strange for a reader who knows Sennett’s previous work (Hidden Injuries of Class, Authority, Corrosion of Character) where authority and power were examined in their different modalities, from everyday relations to broader structures of class and status. As compared to those books, Craftsman has a strongly affirmative tone about life and offers practical alternatives.

Yet I argue that it is the overemphasis on this affirmative tone, which becomes the strength of the book. Sennett does not talk about “creativity” but about skill as “trained practice”: repetition, hard work, the way in which hand and brain learn working together in harmony. The choice is deliberate: Sennett gives priority and supremacy to training and development of potentials and talents over inherent and mysterious creativity. Even though he does not mention the different reasons which block the exploitation of equal capacities to become a craftsman (e.g., schooling system, psychiatric obstacles to the development of self-confidence, parental authority), there is a definitely radical point about what he is saying, very similar to Jacques Ranciere’s principle of equal intelligence in the Ignorant School Master. Radical enough to challenge the liberal ideas of measuring, classifying, comparing and failing people’s intelligences and to show concretely the processes by which capacities can be transformed into action. In that sense, the book is the proof, par excellence, of the final motto that “everybody can become a craftsman”. It is this crucial political conclusion which would resonate in what the most important leader of the wastepickers community told at the edge of a Turkish urban slum in the summer of 2007: “Everybody can become a working class leader.”[1] 

Organising as craft

The Handbook of Workplace Representatives which was distributed to the reps of one of the biggest public sector unions in Turkey in 2002, was not welcome by the reps themselves. Printed by the central administrative branch of the union, the handbook included a wide range of issues including the behaviours reps should adopt, while approaching the potential members. The reps did not know how to make use of this handbook “without a soul”. Practical knowledge to teach them the guidelines of good radical activism lied somewhere else: The huge university campus with its workshops, departments, drivers’ resting place, small factories, labaratories, cafeteriats were the microcosmic universe of the reps in the same way of the workshop of the craftsman. The regular visits made by the reps to those different units, the way in which senior reps talked to workers and members, the way in which they reflected upon different situations, diverse approaches to different problems, their wisdom in context-specific situations were the resources from which the young reps did feed their minds and developed their skills. If skill is a trained practice as Sennett argues and there requires 10.000 hours to become a good musician or carpenter, the young rep needed equal amount of time to be a good organizer. Joe Hill, James Cannon, Louise Michel must have been all good apprentices in that way.

Thanks to this experience the junior reps not only learnt new things, but also un-learnt others, and this latter was more difficult to achieve: they would learn the vocabulary of workers who use special words to express feelings of exploitation and frustration for instance, that many workers needed to be more recognition and respect than higher wages. They would understand why tea breaks are more important than other demands at the workplace. Of course social history books teach some of those things but they can be understood in full blood only when they are experienced concomitantly. They would also grasp unexpected causalities between different things: Explaining political issues to workers does not automotically generate political consciousness but the building of emotional confidence can be an invaluable vehicle for political support. They could also notice how important the young workers’ emotional and sentimental problems are, since it is where class relations express themselves in their most acute form. Most senior organizers would not tell you those things if you ask him the sources of their success or the ways in which they organize workers. As Sennett tells us, most of craft knowledge is tacit knowledge, smg which even risks losing its power if verbally explained. But close observation and experience can reveal the methods of the organizer. Still, obtaining skills means heavy training. The organizers need to organize, make mistakes, learn from their mistakes, make some systematic analysis, process in their own mind the knowledge they get every day. This is like the routine of the cellist playing the same piece every day, perhaps hundred of times as Sennett tells us.

The leader of the wastepickers’ movement in Turkey did not have a handbook to follow. Neither did he have enough senior organizers to follow in a strong trade union. His resources were his personal talents and qualities and all the bits and pieces he collected from different experiences during twenty years of struggle in left wing groups and also community organization. Yet, he responded to many challenges of the movement he was guiding in certain ways strangely similar to Sennett’s description of craftswork.

His first amazing quality was that he was almost an ethnograph: Brilliant observer, able to grasp complex relations in the neighbourhoods and capable of adapting the knowledge he learns about personal relations to other domains. The first challenge he had in the building of the wastepickers’ movement was the ethnic heterogeneity of the communities he decided to work with, together with his comrades. In the literature on class organization, ethnic diversity is considered to be an obstacle to overcome. However, for the wastepickers’ organizers, ethnicity was not defined as a-priori problem in itself. Implicitly embedded in their practices was a notion of ethnicity to work on, play with and benefit from. In other words they did not start with a generalized assumption about the relationship between class and ethnicity. The position to this relationship was left, rather, ambiguous.

Sennett tells how Amsterdam-origin van der Eyck made the borders in childrens’ park ambiguious and let them discover ways to protect themselves rather than putting them in isolation.  Ambiguity in design, rather than clearly defined rules and borders opened up possibilities for the children to explore and learn themselves. Ambiguity played a similar role for the working class designers/organizers in the wastepickers’ community. The organizers were very clear, from the outset, about defining wastepickers as members of the “proletariat” by calling them “waste paper worker”, but they adopted a more ambigious language about the problem of ethnicity. Rather than telling to the workers that the organization should be above any ethnic differences in advance, they let the workers experience this issue themselves. In certain warehouses, Kurdish and Turkish workers lived and worked together. Some were good friends. In the magazine the articles of different workers were published side by side. Sometimes when a Kurdish worker was telling how he was exerted violence by the police forces, the intervention of someone who witnessed police violence for other ethnic groups served as a useful corrective. Sometimes perceptions and discourses emphasized ethnic differences (“the police is right, kurdish workers are the ones who do not work properly”), but practice showed no sign of reluctance to cooperation. On the contrary, collective action was a general problem also peculiar to the individuals within the same community. Ambiguity allowed the members to discover their own experiences, especially in group meetings, to reinforce or alter their preconceptions about the others. Interestingly enough, the organizers knew to use ethnicity at their advantage by using ethnic ties within certain communities as a means to fasten organizational networks, in a way to remind another motto of Sennett: rather than resisting potential barriers, accept and work with them.

Not always did the organizers practice successful craftswork. Sennett talks about three stages of craftswork: localizing (making the matter concrete), questioning (reflecting on its qualities) and opening up (expanding its sense). One could argue that working class organizers had poblems especially in the third stage. At the beginning, the localizing strategy was successful: Organizers had the successful tactic of getting in touch with some important members of the community in a given neighbourhood and developed their networks through them. Tea breaks, small meetings, regular visits made those people feel worth something. They became hosts of those marginalized spaces. Sometimes organizers did also visit the workers at their “workplaces”, streets and garbage places. From one point of view, the organizers did an important job since they brought the association “to the people”. They did what the critiques of centralized party structures already said: go to neighbourhoods, organize people where they live. Not only in the streets where they work, but also in the warehouses where they live. Yet, the unconscious application of this motto did work only on a short-term basis. The organizers were successful in local demonstrations or in bringing people to large ones in the city center temporarily. But this whole process was not accompanied by the building of horizontal links between different communities, both in social and spatial sense of the term. A parallel construction of some new spaces where workers come and meet, not only with each other, but with others, where they could also learn to be less scared of the public gaze which alienates them so much was not made possible. In the absence of such spaces, organizers could not transform boundaries into borders as Sennett argues in this gigantic living organism which the city is. The organizer should have worked like an alchemist to mix different ingredients (mixing different communities’ members, mixing different localities) and see how they react. Organizers had one-to-one relationships with the workers themselves, by not enabling such an interaction among the latter. They could not test the new possibilities and limits of such an interaction.

Another important strategy which was exploited only to a certain exten was the use of public places in the city center. For some workers the visiting of those spaces in their day off was a perfect means to re-own a space where public gaze humiliated them six days a week. Most of them would not dare to do that.  Yet, the ones who did meet the organizers sometimes in the city center (parks, streets, unions to visit) they started questioning, perceiving another reality, rethinking about his/her position both in negative and positive ways. Moreover organisers brought a group of workers to different cities wher they travelled to disseminate their ideas, sell their magazines and build new organisational networks.

What happens if the craftsman is no longer able to evolve in his/her work? The leader of the movement felt stuck at some point in the evolution of the movement. Yes, there was greater interest from other unions, NGOs, the wastepickers of other cities. Yet, the internal organization was getting weaker, the organizational resources scarce and the energy limited. The daily life problems were still solved but a new direction and possible leaps were missing. Faced with this problem, the leaders introduced what Sennett called “complexity” (with reference to F. Gehry employing a new material (titanium) as a challenge to help solving a design problem. The complex element added to the matrix was a new task for the movement: setting up a trade union rather than staying as a movement and association. The association had mostly Kurdish members since the most radical elements of the movement had started in the Kurdish area where police had used violent forces. The movement had informal members too but a strong organizational network was definitely missing.

Offering a trade union, a very traditional form of working class organization may seem odd and even contradictory at first glance, given that almost none of the objective conditions of the trade union existed properly in the context of wastepickers. The proposal could appear rather anachronistic in the context of an appraisal of more indigenous social movements. Since the Labour Law did not allow unions in the informal sector, this could have been even a dead attempt from the very outset. The point is that the leaders were aware of those possible objections as they told me openly, upon my curious questions. Yet, they were not looking for “a correct form” to suit the situation of their struggle. Introducing the possibility of a trade union had a completely different objective. This puzzle would allow them to open up new debates about existing problems. The leaders were inviting their fellow workers to think together about the next step in a movement which, they foresaw, was consuming its potential. The discussion of union would enable the workers to reflect upon, in more pragmatic means, some theoretical problems which could not be addressed as such within the community: How is it possible to be a union member if there is no proper employer? What happens if there is no formal job contract for many of them? What happens to the warehouse owners and the workers since there is no clear-cut differentiation between them? If the sector of the union is the recycling sector as a whole, shouldn’t the recycling factory workers become members in the same way as the wastepickers? How to organize the former? What role could wastepickers assume in their organization? What kind of demands should the workers have? Should they ask for better prices, social security, health services? From whom, the state, factory owners? The answers to those questions needed to put down on paper, need to be agreed on and this required a serious discussion, more serious and demanding than the previous ones which had been carried out on the basis of immediate needs and reflexes towards violent action by the police forces.

A previous proposal was a cooperative to centralize the collection of garbage and selling as a company to factories to have a better bargaining power and increase the economic share of the wastepickers. This was rejected by some organizers on the grounds that this would be another form of capitalist enterprise aiming at profit, perhaps reinforcing and creating new power relations and adding little to the critical position of the movement itself. The trade union proposal, on the other hand, was about organization, fight, resistance, formulation of new demands. It required subjective will, decision-making and more challenge. Cooperative was to alleviate, if not fully solve, immediate economic problems; the union was to set new problems to reflect upon the present and the future. It was an invitation to the worker to think about the present and the future, to take initiative.[2] It was also a challenge for the leaders themselves, to try the new, the untested, to use those communities as labaratories where failures as much as successes were still affordable. The leaders’ imagination should be open to configure new situations, recast problems, use old tools for new ends.

Behind the idea of the union and the holistic approach to organization lied another strong motivation which made the main leader of the movement a man of vision. He did not limit his perception about his craft not only something which belongs to the present, but also to the future. The leader had a high historical sense to understand that the whole process of restructuring was a proces of change and the thousands of wastepickers would be effected by this “irreversible” process as he calls. He did predict a process of proletarianization which would deeply effect and change the situation. Therefore he not only fought for the daily life problems, everyday form of violence in the streets and health conditions, but wanted to prepare his fellow workers for this approaching future. That is why he wanted to set his task as “gaining enough strength for keeping everybody together and with well defined demands” when this moment of proleterianization would arrive. If he had considered himself as the protector of the customary rights as in the Moral Economy of English workers documented by E.P.Thompson, his existence would be ended by the restructuring of the industry. Yet, his task was to transform his own time into a world-historical time. By projecting both future problems and future possibilities into the present, the organizer had a new approach to time and made sure that his workers do not become “delayed proletarians”. Rather, he accepted them as “proletarians in their seeds” and imagined tasks and possibilities in advance for them. He tried to prepare them for this future. The sectoral approach of organization was also the outcome of such thinking. This is almost the power of the futuristic craftsman, of his ability for “being into the material”: “anticipating what the material should become in its next, as yet-non-existent stage of evolution… process of corporeal anticipation always one step ahead of the material” (Sennett, 2008). The leader thus imagined the non-existent and a vision for the future: A future utopia which might not come in his life time but whose existence depended on how he acts in today’s time. A more realistic long term project of sectoral mobilization for potential proletarians whose possibility depended on his own actions and its unintended consequences. Thinking in terms of potentialities and capacities, in terms of what “can become” rather than simply “what already is”. 

The craftsmen described in Sennett’s book do all work with different material: The potter with crockery and soil, the urban designer with space, the cook with food ingredients. The working class organizer worked with real living individuals. That is why it was more difficult to calculate the consequences of their actions and their strategies. But apparently they did also follow some similar rules and logic about their own practice: observing, investigating, localizing, expanding the sense of the material, working with resistance, temporary suspension of closure. Time and space were even more important dimensions of this type of craftswork too.

Is it possible that type of tacit knowledge embedded in the everyday practices of the working class leaders into generalized conclusions and more theoretical formulations? Can one make it visible and accessible to all? Sennett already warned us that when such knowledge is put into words, it always loses some of its power. Yet, it was his book, which depicted so beautifully the craft of music which inspired the writing of this piece itself. So, the failure of the Handbook of Workplace Representatives does not need to discourage one from writing context-specific principles of good organizational craftswork. Perhaps the book should not be one but multiple, to be developed over centuries as the good food or medical recepies have been developed over centuries. There are still so many things which need to be learnt from history and present, from the biographies, stories and strategies developed by wise organizers who not only learnt by doing as apprentices but also developed a vision for the future.

Making is thinking, Sennett argues, very correctly. The rule does also apply to the “making” of the wastepickers’ community as an organization. Good organization means a constant process of thinking, of revisiting earlier analysis, of re-orienting strategy if necessary, re-directing existing resources, of speculating as much as looking at evidence.  Perhaps that is why the working class leader was talking about his workers as potential but hidden “philosophers”. There must be less abyss than is usually thought, between theory and practice.


Bourgeois thinkers love severing left-wing ideas from their potentially or actually radical content. So some of the ideas of Sennett could serve well some communitarians or even pre-modern romanticism even though Sennett is strict in his emphasis on the high-tech character of today’s craftsmen. But one does not need to be on the defensive side: We have enough instruments in Sennett’s book to respond with an offense and radicalize those tools in our struggle for emancipatory politics. Perhaps we need to reverse the lesson taught by Sennett: The good craftsman does not become automatically good citizen as Sennett want us to believe, but good radical activist should definitely practice good craftswork.

[1] The data used for this review essay draw on my fieldwork on working class communities in the summers of 2007 and 2008 and on my experience as a trade union activist from 2001 to 2003 in one of the largest public sector unions in Turkey. Names are kept anonymous.

[2] Another dimension of the idea of trade union was, for the leaders, the possibility to create a commitment and self-regulation among the workers on the basis of membership. Different communities had their own internal rules and customs, but the leader of the movement imagined a membership model which would tie the workers to certain rules (such as respect of the wife, not beating children, developing collective resistance to drug dealers and police at the same time) so that a new form of morality could emerge. He thought that it was high time the worker did question himself as well and took his autonomous position against all the degrading forms also characterizing his own actions (violence, theft…etc.)