The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2015

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JUL-AUG 2015 Issue
Field Notes

Anti-worker’s Inquiry

Open the door, turn on the light, heat up the water, check the refrigerators, lay out the chairs, clean the tables, light the candles, put out the ashtrays, check the register, count the change, cut the limes, put on music, wash the glasses, turn on the fan, pour the beer, mix the drinks, serve the customers, listen to their stories, comfort their loneliness, make the ice, clean the counter, tell a joke, take the money. The floor is wet, pool table scratched, darts bent, ash on the couch, smoke in the air, glasses broken, wallets stolen, clothing torn. The night is long and full of terrors.

Photos by Jacob Blumenfeld.

Red-eyed zombies shuffle slowly around the room, gurgling liquid nonsense. They require fuel, and my job is to serve. I release kegs of sorrow-drowning forgetting juice to hordes of thirsty animals. The early ones are old, mostly men, alone, talking at me nonstop, like a television you can’t turn off. I nod and try to act busy, pretending to listen, which turns into actually listening. I hear stories of work, family, and loss; of sports, weather, and sex. They speak of the old times before the Wall came down, or before the Wall went up; of living in the East, was it better, was it worse; of the squats, punk, and the autonomen; of all the immigrants, the Greeks, Spanish, and Portuguese; the Jews, Arabs, and Turks; the Russians and Poles, Czechs and Serbs; the refugees from Syria, Somalia, and Sudan; of war and death, parties and politics. I hear about the new Berlin, poor but sexy, with enough cultural capital to compete with Brooklyn: full of street art, start-ups, and stardom. Half-liters of pilsner go down like water to these senior proletarians and punks of the Federal Republic.

Later, when the sun goes down, the young ones rush in like flies to a light bulb: the party kids from England, France, and Australia; the students from Mexico, Canada, and Japan; the IT workers from Switzerland, Sweden, and Denmark. The noise reaches a peak pitch. The air is impenetrable. I sweat, run, fall, take, give, pour, spill, clean, and try to become pure labor-power. But they want the whole human: the ears that listen, the voice that responds, the eyes that look back, and the hand that feels the fingers through the bills. I try not to think, but I’m a trained thinker in my other life, and so my thoughts overpower me, firing out indiscriminately at unsuspecting guests. Snippets of conversation hang in mid-air as I interject with non-sequiturs, hoping for a better tip. A few activists debate the demise of the left; a few soccer fans discuss the decline of their team. Turkish wrestlers, French conspirators, American hustlers are locked in a vicious game of foosball. Cops knocking, neighbors calling, bosses yelling, tables falling—I need a new job.

The bar I work at is in Kreuzberg, Berlin, an old rockers’ bar, existing for twenty years with different names, while only the posters plastered on the ceiling from ’90s rock concerts remain. Pantera, Def Leppard, Guns N’ Roses, fuck-yeah music. It’s a Raucherkneipe, a smoking bar, which closes whenever the bartender gets tired. That’s bartender—singular—a one-worker team that prepares, serves, closes, and supervises itself as both subject and object of the labor-process. The wage is low, but the cost of living and flexibility make it somewhat worthwhile. Teaching introduction to philosophy to undergraduates in New York didn’t pay the rent, so here I am, translating, proofreading, and writing on the side. As a hybrid mental and manual laborer in a foreign country, my class identity mutates with the rest of the surplus population into an indistinct blur.

How is it possible that in the era of the greatest economic inequality of the last 100 years, no one thinks in terms of class anymore? Or if so, class is considered just another oppression to add to the list of isms that plague social behavior. Is that the best we can do? Here’s a thought experiment from Adolph L. Reed, Jr: If 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources, but the 1% is composed of people 12% black, 15% Asian, 30% Latino, 50% women, 10% gay, etc., then would it be just? For most progressives, the answer is probably yes; injustice is understood as the unequal distribution of power along lines of privilege, and so when privilege is shared proportionately at the top, then justice prevails, and the rest of the population are mere losers in the fair game of capitalism. Elided is any account of class, or how the rules of the game already constrain the outcomes for the majority of the population. If class is invoked, it’s reduced to classism: the prejudice against working-class and poor people based on their accent, taste, attitude, vocabulary, and clothing. But such prejudice is a symptom of class relations, not its cause, and eliminating all anti-poor biases would not change an iota of their working conditions or bank accounts. To unravel the secret of class, rather, one needs to open the door and look inside the workplace.

There was a time when thinking about one’s workplace held out the hope for some kind of revolutionary knowledge which could be used as a weapon in the coming struggle over the means of production. Paul Romano’s American Worker and the Johnson-Forest Tendency’s Correspondencein the United States, Socialisme ou Barbarie and Pouvoir Ouvrier in France, Quaderni Rossi and Potere Operaio in Italy, all of them had big dreams of extracting exact and positive knowledge of work from workers so as to abolish work. If only we can collect, analyze, and share the essence of proletarian experience, the universal truth of the exploitation of labor will burst through like a clarion call to unite the working class. No one believes this shit anymore, but we want to believe, or if not, we want to want to believe.

Why not? In 2002 the Kolinko collective in Germany embedded themselves in call-centers so as to learn and agitate, but, unfortunately, they learned that no one wants to agitate. More recently, the Invisible Committee wagered that the technical knowledge of workers in key industries will be indispensible for the coming revolutions, since they will have the know-how for sustaining collective forms of life in the midst of struggle. Yeah, right. If only such knowledge existed in the minds of workers, and was not distributed amongst the millions of opaque machines themselves. The logistics of work, from the service industry to IT, from retail to manufacturing, offers nothing but a blueprint of coercion.

So what is to be learned from thinking about work today? Strategies of refusal are a luxury, collective solidarity is nostalgia, and expropriating the expropriators seems like a pipe dream. Yet classes struggle, outside of work and unions, without strikes or sit-ins, sans organization and unity. Some see this as a failure of the class to get organized, others take it as a spur to rethink what it means to organize. But what if this is how class struggle expresses itself today—fragmented, defensive, chaotic?

Sure, there are some movements for minimum wage, health care, and collective bargaining, but these are streamlined by professional NGOs looking to influence major political parties for gain, not accomplishments of pissed-off proletarians looking to upset the basic class hierarchy. In Germany, where employment is the highest in Europe, there have been some mildly successful strikes by postal workers, train operators, and logistics employees, seemingly evincing a return to a classical workers’ movement of bargaining for more of the national pie. But on a closer look, these are preemptive actions against coming laws aimed at reducing the possibility of strikes, bargaining, and labor unrest. Even the best offense is still just a defense.

To break the mold of defeat, a self-inquiry into the actual conditions of work seems ideal. But the more I think about work, the more alienated I feel. Knowledge brings no power here, only shame. The gap between what is and what ought to be grows from a small crack to an unbridgeable chasm. Every technical detail of the organization of production confirms my irrelevance within the chain of supply and demand. The more I resist, the more customers there are; the more I express myself, the more sales I earn. The more I struggle, the more I profit.

Friends visit often, to talk between moments of money-handshakes with other customers, but having a real conversation is like trying to ride a wave that keeps on crashing. They disalienate me as much as they can, but still, they order, I serve, and coins spiral through our conversation. I can’t focus, but I can’t turn off, and so I see, smell, hear everything at once: one big synesthesia, yet organized into a system of accounting. When the shift is over, I wander outside into the twilight of dawn. Birds are yapping, couples kissing, workers beer-in-hand catching a train home, passed-out vampires stuffed with earphones, broken glass and stamped cigarettes on the ground, old ladies collecting bottles for a few pennies, lone newspaper vendors, samosa salesmen, and flower peddlers walking dead past the graffiti-stained, wheat-pasted posters crusted on top of posters advertising the latest “we are the crisis” demo against austerity, a demo they will never go to. Rallying the troops against the financial state cheers up the sign-holders and banner-wavers, but does little for the living dead who guard the gates of consumption with their labor-time.

Another night, another shift. A con woman sleeps in the corner, a dadaist drinks without talking, an escapee from the mental ward pisses on the floor, an Irishman starts a fight, a taxi driver drinks wine and discusses politics, a feminist guy hits on a racist girl, the grandchildren of Nazis and their victims play pool, the Russian girls swig schnapps, the street musicians play oldies, the drug dealers use the bathroom, and the Greeks order another round. Noisy, smoky, sweaty bodies and souls released from their work shells, savoring every micro-moment of joy before the morrow. Some whisper, some shout, I can’t not listen: Does Germany have the right to exist? Who gives a fuck? What’s the latest with Bayern Munich? What’s your take on Kant? Where’s the bathroom? Are you Jewish? Can you make change out of this? Are you circumcised? You’re late, again. How did an American end up in this shit hole? At least we all had jobs back then. It’s my birthday, can you bring me twenty-five tequilas please? I’m sorry, but I don’t like the music. You don’t like Kraftwerk? Do we tip here? Two Club-Mates. Do we tip here? I’m also a student! Where’s Brandenburg? I’m great at table tennis. Can you hurry up? No, that’s what they want you to think. So, do you like working here? On and on and on it goes, the word-salad of bar dialogue is like Beckett mixed with Duck Dynasty, but in German it all sounds so serious. Friends figuring out where to eat dinner become generals planning an attack, strangers sharing cigarettes become ex’s having another fight, and customers asking for beer become cops sentencing me to jail.

The last stragglers clutch their drinks like gold before giving in, but I prevail, as always, to rid them from the saloon. Cleaning, counting, closing, the end is the worst, when after ten to twelve hours of work, I need to think again, can’t mess up, nothing left unlocked or turned on. Once, the bar was robbed after my shift. Did I lock the door? Why were there no signs of forcible entry? Did a co-worker do it? If so, they never told me. So much for solidarity.

If the universal experience of work can no longer be the basis for the emancipation of the working class, then a worker’s inquiry is no longer necessary to prepare the epistemic grounds for revolution. What unites workers today is not the invariant essence of exploitation or the subjective straightjacket of alienation, nor is it some hidden potential to be realized or secret truth to be revealed—rather, it’s just a negative relation to themselves as both dependent on, and external to, their own class belonging. Working out what this means is nothing else than an anti-worker’s inquiry. 


Jacob Blumenfeld

JACOB BLUMENFELD lives in Berlin, at home in diaspora, serving proletarian beer and bourgeois philosophy for a living.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUL-AUG 2015

All Issues