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The Workers: An Essai

Early on Monday, 5 a.m., wintery darkness with December not even underway—electricity, because it’s hard to get enough done, early enough, though those yearning to quit are in the minority—when the front doors burst open and the sidewalks teem with people rushing to the train station, the streetlamps (whip type) already seem to whimper as they suck the last dregs of energy from the wires; as though racked by fits of ague, they spit down bleared brightness on the hats of all the heads borne along beneath them; mindful of the rising per-capita light consumption in each of these premature winters, everyone knows that the power stations are already working at full throttle, the factory halls are about to open their doors wide; energy, the halls, already heated through the night, brightly lit and warm, are awaiting the workers’ imminent arrival, the tool drawers strain to open, the hammer and file handles seem poised to leap into grasping hands; concentrated energy, amid streets still shaking to the drumming feet of all the hurried workers, amid work-bound cars’ paths still intersecting dizzyingly, amid the still-unbroken processions of cyclists nearly shunted into the gutter. Arduously suppressing their morning smoker’s coughs, with briefcases full of sandwiches, with bread bags dangling from their shoulders, with thermoses of coffee in their jacket pockets, the workers, columns of them—tides that barely part before the honking, trundling cars—cross the factory grounds, immediately filling the changing rooms, where the ruckus sets in, the clatter of the locker doors, the voices greeting stragglers with mockery so shrewd even at this early hour—the workers’ irrepressible sense of humor (Friedrich Engels)—and one last time, at 5:25, a disconcerting smell spreads in the changing rooms: bed warmth that the bodies still seem to give off, effortfully ignored by the workers who, at 5:30 sharp, amid the howling of sirens, flood back into the factory halls, whose doors crash shut, and it begins, what the word arduous at last describes truthfully: the unleashed work of all the workers.


That work whose perfectly calculated architecture of activity and rest is acoustically mirrored in a firmament of noise beneath the glass roof . . . so compelling, in the hours before the breakfast break, that the workers soon find a symbolic form for their multifarious actions’ subjugation to a higher power, and head off signs of weariness, by striking up choruses to the rhythm of the hammer blows, so that the engineering teams in their glass observation posts, monitoring the interplay of operations with a visible edge to their gaze, at last relax their furrowed faces, perceiving that their compositions will merge to yield a symphony in which all instrumental phrases complete one another.


Are the workers really these flattened monsters of tonality. —

Before the siren sounds for the morning break, all the sounds merge into a ponderous chorus that plumbs the last, still-dark corners of the factory halls and summons the hiddenmost things into the daylight. At this hour, the stokers emerge from the boiler rooms; each with the handle of a wooden crate hooked in the crook of his arm, shuffling, their faces already blackened by coal dust—trickling drops of sweat have cleared just a few streaks from the temples down the cheeks—they head to the tool store with empty milk bottles lined up in their crates to be exchanged for full bottles. Leaning on the ledge outside the service window, patiently awaiting their allotment of milk, they gaze down the halls, interior opening onto interior, and the noise streams into their ear canals as though through layers of cotton wool. Those ears are not responsive to the symphony’s harmonies. As an outsider, the first things to strike the stoker are the musical breakdowns that seem latent in the orchestra’s performance, catastrophic breakdowns that, if they came to pass, would cause entire phrases to collapse; the sudden, over-harsh whine of a grinding machine’s magnetic table swiveling at the end of its trajectory yanks his gaze in that direction; the shriek of a spiral drill, lapsing into an alarming crackle, nearly makes him run for cover lest the shattering tool send shards in all directions; but the coolant emulsion boiling off in stale-smelling vapors seems to hide the origin of the barrage, there’s not much the stoker can see amid the bewildering welter of men and machines, the work-related precautions and safeguards that strike him as superfluous, untenable, mutually exclusive, theses posted on the walls in the most unsuitable places. The crane’s warning horn makes him dodge to the side, he watches as several coffee ladies, pushing an urn on a two-wheeled cart, are brushed aside like chaff before his eyes, and the persistent horn seems bent on chasing him away as well, but then, somewhere else entirely, he sees the gigantic bed of what will become a lathe being set down with a dull, grinding crunch; the workers guarding it yell commands not meant for the stoker, and the dissonant chime with which the retreating crane hook swings one last time against the hollow cast-iron form elicits their loud curses. Once the rust-colored monster is finally at rest and the workers are safe from the crane, once they’re standing around it in silence, their left hands resting on its iron ribs, the stoker perceives the deadly fear that fills them in their speechlessness, in their lack of guidance before the work begins, the work that towers before them with incoherent, frantically manifold demands, that’s required to make the hammer-textured green of a new machine blossom from the rugged bed; that work is still dormant, holed up unchosen and unrecognized in their left hands on whose palms the cold metal seeks to freeze the sweat of resistance; their faces are pale, their gazes turned grimly inward. The stoker beholds the workers in a minute-long state of burnout, impervious to the menacing edge returning to the eyes of the engineers, whose facial furrows, growing sterner, are visible again behind the glass of their observation posts; they’ve raised their heads. Meanwhile the workers’ previous piece of work is boxed in a shell of pale-yellow planks in the dispatch area, where the thunder of the hammers, their stormy echo, is still heard; the workers’ creation that they’d come to love and tenderly care for has become a commodity; somewhere in Morocco, Haiti, or Denmark the machine will perform some unknown, perhaps shameful task, poorly oiled, ruthlessly run into the ground, surrounded by implacable timekeepers with stopwatches, and in the end perhaps even spat on by an exasperated, badly trained, badly paid lathe operator.

The subterranean sun that supplies the tower with warmth has ceased to shine, the flow of steam has died in the upward-shooting pipes.

The stoker could have been one of those workers, but the economy’s mechanical consciousness would have crushed him; now and then he’d have intuited a mental lapse in the language of the economy, but without being able to identify it. If a visitor from Mars had asked him what the people here were doing, he’d have replied that these people, known as workers, were producing machines to manufacture machine parts for assembling machines to manufacture other machines, which in turn, under the workers’ aegis, manufactured machine parts to construct machines for machine parts, finally ending up with machines for manufacturing the oil cans required to oil the machines. — Questioned as to his own position, following a protracted elucidation of his function, he would have explained that stokers aren’t described as workers; their services serve the work of the workers. The workers claim, clearly with good reason, that their work’s existence generates the genuine economic utility, i.e. money, that makes the stokers’ services necessary in the first place. — The stokers object that as contributors toward decent working conditions, which include the maintenance of a certain level of warmth as documentable by energy bills, they are the ones who actually enable the celebrated results of the work of the workers. — Then you’re nothing but contributors, you admit it yourselves, retort the workers, feeling secure in their decent working conditions, and they cite a lesson from labor history that makes the stoker think anachronistic thoughts. If a strike were to transpire in the dead of winter, so the workers claim, the stokers would be exempted to keep the factory buildings in working order for the aftermath of the strike; otherwise the walkout would, as a rule, take place in summer, when temperatures are such that stokers are notable by their absence; and in that situation they’d be redundant, the first ones to get thrown out by the strikes’ warring parties. — But that means, say the stokers, that in a labor struggle, at least in winter, we might be the ones to tip the scales. — No, the workers reply; we’d tolerate the ones who want to contribute, but on condition that they ensure, to the extent possible, the factories’ continued operation in the event, you see, that we should seize control of them.


The workers’ implacable thoughts drive the stoker away, he takes his milk bottles back to his workplace; the fires in the boilers have sunk alarmingly low but the siren has summoned the workers to their break, and for now he sits down at the dust-covered table. Sensing that he hasn’t been able to conclude his thoughts yet. — When the break is over and the workers return, they’ll feel the warmth fading, nearly dissipated; the stoker can’t guess whether they’ll complain to the engineers or whether the engineers themselves are monitoring the temperature in the halls; ultimately the stoker can’t believe that the workers would complain about him, ultimately they ought to feel closer to the stokers than the engineers. Should the engineers happen to inspect the boiler room, they’d find the stoker working away, the second siren that ends the break having punctured the lull in the boiler room and made him jump to his feet; they’d behold the stoker sweating and irate, hurling coal into the furnaces, his face displaying outrage, as though he can’t explain how the loss of heat occurred. Wordless but grim-faced, the engineers depart, visibly incredulous, declining to concede the innocence that shines upon the stoker’s sweat-covered brow, perhaps already devising punishments should another such incident occur, and upstairs they tell the workers: the stoker’s firing the boilers again, in just a few minutes the heat will come through. — By then the stoker is back at his table, damp brow propped on black fist; it’s true, he hasn’t been able to conclude his thoughts yet, no doubt about that, it’s as though he sent the missing phrases into the flames along with the coal, there’s a void behind his brow, above him is the grinding weight of things thought long ago, the sense of the economy’s towering edifice bearing down upon him.

And, all alone in the basement of this tower, he can’t visualize the motion of the two classes above him interacting . . . or should he say, the motion of the workers and engineers interlocking . . . is this motion a battle, or is it mutual understanding. — The engineers are his enemies, that seems indisputable, proven each time they poke their heads into his boiler room . . . if it were a battle, then, that moves those two classes, it would be manifest that only a misunderstanding, an accident of language, makes the stoker appear not to belong to the workers. — If it’s a battle, as certain things suggest, then, however monstrous the thought, the workers and the engineers must have a mutual understanding that this battle exists . . . but that it never really gets underway, for it’s a battle between the engineers’ speech and the workers’ speechlessness. The battle lies in the reluctance with which the silence of the workers fills up with the engineers’ language material; that is all there is to it. The work of the workers is a thing absolutely dominated, actually brought into existence by the language of the engineers; the abolishment of that language, the development of an autonomous language, would simultaneously abolish the status of the workers. — But the work of the stoker is mental work, harboring in all its steps the germ of an autonomous language . . . should the speechlessness of the workers seize control of the factory, he, the stoker, could not be dealt with other than in the language of the engineers; the lacunae in his thoughts would once more go unfilled.

Mental lapses persist in the stoker’s appraisal, terrible lapses; perhaps the reason lies in the existence of the factory management. That practically anonymous group whose heads he can barely name. Whose physical appearance seems unimaginable, as none of them ever descends from the glass suites at the very top of the tower, and certainly not all the way to the squalid boiler rooms. There lies the lapse in the ruminations that he can’t conclude . . . of course his fires have long since subsided. The subterranean sun that supplies the tower with warmth has ceased to shine, the flow of steam has died in the upward-shooting pipes. Heads are raised on all the tower’s levels, listening warily as the water drains from the radiators’ ribs, windows are slammed shut when the iron starts to radiate cold, even the lighting seems to darken. The stoker sits motionless, his gaze aimed upward as though he could see through the basement ceiling, through all the tower’s floors and corridors; up there above him is where guilt sits enthroned, the guilt for his exhaustion, his mental lapses, his cursed fate as a non-worker, the guilt for the dying of the sun in his furnaces. It’s only fair that the coldest place right now should be up there, amid the flicker of a frosty winter sky, the chief, upward-tapering office is one he can but dimly imagine, the walls of glass, double glazed, as though with water flowing through them, the barely discernible wire filigree of the electric security system in the glass. All the offices below are visibly chilly, hands are reaching for the phones to declare war on the stoker, and he waits in his musty basement with its sheen of frost and damp, back turned to the fire whose remains have fed his wrath, angrily he sits where he is, a dusting of ash on his half-closed lids; as the last light strikes his brow he watches his shadow collapsing on the wall. His shadow moves and multiplies as though he wished to rise up in polymorphous form, but the tower’s weight holds him down on the chair, the thoughts in his head resemble the darkly glowing, caving coal, sparks fly up, ah, right beneath the tower of authority, in the basement is where the insurgents forge their plans, twisting and turning words that sound menacing and symbolic as political slogans. —

The workers are in full agreement with the engineers; it’s cold; though the doors of the factory have long since closed, winter is seeping into their uniforms. —

The engineers’ secretary came down to the boiler room. The woman’s appearance in the doorway—she was about forty-five, stoutly feminine, even the youngest workers described her as quite good-looking; though she’d pulled on a white cardigan, her arms were crossed and she seemed to be shivering—made the stoker start up in alarm; he had no idea how long she’d been standing there, observing his frozen crouch, the no-doubt hideous mental movements in the mirror of his face; in his surprise he rose and approached her, brow furrowed in exaggerated attentiveness, unsure how to ask what she wanted—later his expression struck him as exaggerated, his movement toward her pointless, since she was already heading for his table—he knew the workers called the secretary by her first name, but he’d never tried to find out if the same right applied to him; on the other hand, it would have seemed outlandish to use formal language with a woman whom everyone in the factory addressed familiarly. He stopped a step away from her, and she was an inch or two taller; to ease the tension in his face, he feigned a yawn while pressing the back of his hand to his open mouth, and she looked down at him with slightly protruding eyes, the fine creases of the lids daubed with a touch of mild green eyeshadow, an earnest look, but he felt it was marred by a glimmer of revulsion; revulsion, he felt, that might portend a sudden transformation into love; if the basement’s crumbling ceiling had suddenly let a shower gush down on the stoker, instantly washing the stinking clothes from his body, the woman would have grasped the extraordinary ease with which water and fragrant soap washed the crusts of filth from his skin, that turnaround to love could have happened in the blink of an eye. — I brought you your money, sir, the woman said, brushing past him and marching to the table. As he knew, women never set foot in the boiler room; it wasn’t just that the stokers were likely seen as cranky and menacing, it was more due to the huge, bulging scabs of plaster that seemed about to crash down any moment. The secretary, known as a spirited person who could defend herself if necessary, was the only woman who strictly disregarded the taboo, yet she showed up in the basement just twice a month, on payday. The stoker, still inhibited but reassured that she’d come for mundane reasons, followed her to the table; the woman waited, bravely ignoring the dust on the table until the stoker had taken the money and signed the pay envelope; grasping the envelope by one corner, but still catching some dust from the tabletop on the painted nail of her index finger, she said as she turned to go: What a day we’re having up there again, do you have any idea . . . — Yes, I do, said the stoker, which was a complete falsehood, he didn’t know, because she didn’t necessarily mean the poor heating; with one simple question he could have kept the woman there with him for the time it took her to explain. She left and, as she climbed up the stairs and out of view, he asked himself, as always, whether she’d looked back at him before vanishing. — In any event, the secretary was one of the phenomena that united the workers with the engineers. The secretary knew what kind of a day they were having, in utter contrast to him, the stoker. In the disputes that broke out afresh each payday at the long tables set up expressly for the purpose beneath the glass windows of the hall manager’s office, where the workers sat smashing their fists down in the spaces between the coffee cups and the crimson-faced engineers stood—never availing themselves of the chairs provided for the meeting—and tried to talk above the workers’ complaints with a muffled edge to their voices, it was the secretary who assumed the role of arbiter between the workers’ speechless raging and the engineers’ argot. Several times, when those meetings led to arguments over the inadequate heat in the factory halls and accusations were voiced against the stoker, it had been the secretary who defended him, albeit from an apparent misconception of the true situation; her case rested on what she regarded as the lack of decent working conditions in the boiler room, which silenced the accusers. Working conditions was one of the phrases that united the workers and the engineers, so the secretary met with no objections; these conditions were something for which the engineers were responsible, and simultaneously the status quo in which the workers operated, but since this factory’s workers enjoyed good conditions, they were ones on which no agreement could be reached with the stokers. —

This, perhaps, was where the missing conclusion of his thoughts lay, the lapse in the sense of a gap: because the stokers’ working conditions were known to be poor, probably even unacceptable, they were not referred to as workers.

Today, because the money came, I realize how money is a surrogate for language, a dull, worn coin for each gleaming word.

And my pockets are filled with money, despite my poor work under poor conditions; money compensates me for the conditions of work and silence.

In the stokers’ silence about their working conditions, the workers sense a language far below the level of their speechlessness, the infinitely wretched, standpoint-free language of machines that have already been discharged from their love.

These people, known as workers, were producing machines to manufacture machine parts for assembling machines to manufacture other machines.

Money created the logic of these relationships, and there has been no attempt to break out from that language, to break out from the conditions of the language of that thinking, from the basement of that language, to blow the basement of that thinking sky-high. In that basement of exhausted symbols. In which those exhausted, pinned-down words writhed. In which those clichés, like revolting body segments, joined to form endless slithering pythons . . . but no, if only they were snakes, instead they’re heaps of wretched, branded words, gigantic heaps of verbal stock that’s bought and paid for, machine words, spare parts of words from which machine words, word machines are assembled . . . to produce yet more words, old words that distort thinking, seemingly new words that are stale metamorphoses of old words . . . the attrition proceeds inexorably, and these are all the words there are. — All the same, the secretary, that language’s secretary, had pointed the way to a fresh start over which the word dignity resounded; but no one had followed her lead. — Climbing the stairs, the stoker poked his head out of the boiler room and saw that the tired words of the meeting, kneaded to bits, had quashed the arguments; it was quiet, and the victors, the engineers, were back behind the glass of their offices. Amid the scattered papers on the tables, pay envelopes, diagrams, plans, the workers sat hunched over their cold coffee dregs, their voices muted, reduced to an incomprehensible rasp, and scraps of symbols, briefly whirled up from their desolate, disorderly heaps, sank wearily back into place. The workers had plainly been told to go back to work, and in a moment they would, clearly lacking any choice in the matter . . . the stoker on the stairs, his head just above the hall’s cement floor, felt the cold, the real cold that he himself had caused, the cold of the winter that had seeped into the factory. That was the sole subject that his language was supposed to address, the winter that loomed in the red midday light outside the factory doors, the winter that he had to cope with, because that was his work. Silenced, he went downstairs to the basement: whether I’m just a contributor or, like any other worker, a fighter of this factory, it makes no difference, pondering the question has no point, it just whirls up those old words again. The standpoint of the engineers, my superiors, is that I’m supposed to cope with the winter; that’s the language that’s been forced on me, and in keeping with that language I will return to the operation of work . . . like all the workers up there. With or without mental lapses: if the only option left is to operate from the standpoint of the engineers, that either means that we, the workers, are utterly without rights, without the right even to our own standpoint, one belonging to us, the workers; or, as seems sufficiently proven by the fate of our thinking, it means that the standpoint of the engineers, that is, the standpoint of the operation, is also our standpoint, the only standpoint possible for us, and that would mean that we, the workers, are nothing other than this operation . . . which we could understand, even accept, if only our brains were capable of converting this entirety, which appears as such a vivid fact before our eyes, into the standpoint of our, the workers’, success, allowing us to stand as free men, upright at last, in the midst of all the work.

And to finish, an attempt to describe the end of the day, the way home. But the way home is no good for anything but the reuse of those old, worn thoughts. Anyway, it’s the mirror image of the path taken in the morning, and that morning path—assuming you already inhabit the language of those final reflections—is the real way home. — The way back remains an irresolute path on which you’re crushed by exhaustion, a treacherous path beneath the winter sun that you don’t see, but in whose light you yearn to escape from everything, from the exhaustion of logic, from the operation, from your thoughts. From your clothing and at last, like Judas, from your own skin, against which your filled pockets burn.


“The Workers: An Essai” is from Under the Neomoon, published by Two Lines Press, June 2024.