The unattended question of the worker’s ontological identity

Isaac Dumi

Since Covid-19 is something of a question about the future, in relation to labour, can the question be broadened, and ask: is it possible for the post-corona virus world to be in the hands of the worker as an artisan and an artist than as a cog in a machine?

Before the acknowledgement of the pastoral to the social life of persons, the concept of worker was inconceivable, although the process of work precedes agrarian communities. Yet what was important about the concept of the worker, in relation to the pastoral context, is that the worker became an artisan and an artist before anything else. Work was regarded as occurring in relation to the process of creating the individual; the individual had to celebrate nature as a context which allows their individuality to be possible. Work, however, did not mean the formation of the individual only, but it also meant the possibility of friendship. What became the society was due to the consciousness of the possibility of a collective friendship amongst people who occupied the same land mass. However, historians of labour do not usually foreground friendship in labour in their expositions, and the reason for this error is that these historians have failed to position correctly the workers’ role or importance in the creation of the society.

The importance of workers in the formation of the society has been undermined by the common error of seeing civilisation as existing outside of the processes of the formation of the society. It is from this error that the artisanship and the artistry of the worker have been underplayed in the discourse about labour. This error was bound to reach its crisis, which is characterised by the tendency of not documenting the experiences of workers with the purpose of knowing and encouraging their sources of inspiration; and since the question about maximising the inspiration of workers had not been brought forward workers’ were bound to be regarded as cogs in the machine. Instead of refuting this notion of cogs in the machine those who became the patrons of the worker resorted to putting a price on the worker instead of helping the worker to reclaim their true identity of being an artist and an artisan: the result of this has been to understand the work instead of the worker, or to understand the worker through the problem of wage labour.

The result of considering the work before the worker is that the worker becomes someone who has some form of intrinsic lack which comes from within. This lack has always been related to the repressing modes of the working contexts the worker finds themselves in. It could, and it must be admitted that most of the working conditions of the workers are repressive in nature; however, this repressive context must be related back to its impact in the social life of the society at large.

The coronavirus (Covid-19) is showing us that the repressive context of the worker is not only the workplace, but that it is also in the social context the worker is reinstated in. For even when the worker is in the lockdown the worker is a reference point for statistics purposes as much as in the plant or factory the worker is a reference point in relation to production. The habit of understanding the worker in relation to something else or through using the worker as a reference point undermines and hides the fact that the worker first and foremost is an artist and an artisan.

To encourage a new way of looking at the worker as opposed to the old way of viewing the worker in relation to something that purports to formalise him or her by standardising both their work and role, does not mean the encouragement of fragmentations in the labour structures. At the same time no form of standardisation is absolute since after some time what was known as being standardised must also suffer from the influence of reforms. This appeal for the renaissance way of looking at a worker does not concern itself with standardisations, but rather it seeks to reform the perpetual manner of viewing the worker as someone outside of their culture. For the culture of the worker is the source of their productivity whether they are in the plant or a factory, or the retail; yet characteristically, the worker is always treated as though when they are producing goods and services they are not using their culture, which as an artist and artisan: is inspiration.

Workers do not conceptualise culture as something that is outside their daily operations, instead they tend to structure everything around the meanings they have within their cultures, which by the time they are workers they have already internalised, and this process of internalisation does not make these cultures dormant even though the bureaucratisation of the worker’s life may be achieved by the modern apparatuses that regulates their productivity. Bureaucratisation paved the way for the technics and mechanics central to industrialisation, not to devalue the worker but to try and influence them in a visceral manner so that the worker does not use what is immanent to them as a source of inspiration but uses the workplace as the source of his or her inspiration. It was the bureaucratisation of the worker’s productivity, way before the technics and mechanics were introduced in the life of the worker, which subordinated the worker’s culture and individuality under the demands of industrialism: and the result of this was the success of making the worker to use industrialism as their source of inspiration.

Ironically, Covid-19 is showing us that the worker is at this moment without a workplace, a bureaucracy or an industry to use as a source of inspiration. We are beginning to understand that the workplace, bureaucracy and industrialism all this time have been teaching the worker to oppose their identity or to repress their individuality. If we are to understand that part of the problem regarding understanding the issues of the worker is that the alienation of the worker from what they have produced has always been tied together with their alienation from their individuality; how, then, are we going to use this hiatus enforced upon us by the corona virus to better understand the worker and his or her concerns? If we will take this issue of alienation seriously we will come to understand that the matter of the alienation of the worker from what the worker has produced is unsatisfactorily understood if it leaves unattended the question of the identity of the workers to themselves, before they are identified by their productivity, as a way of operationalising them. This unattended question of the workers ontological identity as opposed to the identity given to them for the purpose of operationalising them does not encourage an anti-union atmosphere, instead it encourages a state of expressivity from the side of the worker which can strengthen the trade union in ways which are unprecedented.

The prevailing theme of Covid-19 is the weakening of the labour relations between the trade unions, the state and the workers, and yet one could argue, that it is useful for us to refer back to issues of representation; issues of categorisation, particularly in relation to the worker; to recognise that the worker is not work but something more; to seek to discover this something more. What is important from this exercise is that the discovery cannot be gained from without but it has to be led by the worker. In Covid-19 having already become the symbol of weakening of entities, the moment can also be made a symbol for a search for equilibrium: an epiphany of recognising that in these eroding entities some identities used to be repressed, and that such repressions may have been performed wittingly or unwittingly, but that this moment has forced us to recognise the importance of equilibrium in all walks of life. If we are honest in our self-awareness programs we will recognise that self-definition is something which the worker found it hard to exercise and maintain, and that this issue of self-definition cannot simply be the outcome of the mechanisation of the working context of the worker, but rather, the technics and the mechanics have been continuing what had already been going on in the workplace.

Labour relations even before the introduction of modern techniques in labour were always moving towards centralising decision-making instead of decentralising it. This centralised decision-making set-up has created an elite group in decision-making and made trade unions to become lobbying groups instead of the unions to be part of the decision-making. This centralisation of decision-making has meant that the trade unions (as the voice of the majority) is structurally incapacitated from foregrounding the interests of the workers before policy changes. In many ways Covid-19 is the continuation of this set-up, because Covid-19 has become a mechanism of silencing the majority in order for the minority to speak more powerfully, it also reveals something which had been hidden all along, which is: we can all know how it feels to be a worker, we can know the feeling of not having enough scope to exercise consummately our individualities or identities. This moment is teaching us that the worker’s life is perpetually under a Covid-19 claustrophobic state which is repressive to one’s individuality. We are only now learning the pain of being everyone and no one at the same time; the pain of not being what we are in the world and then influencing the world to become what we want it to be. At this point we ought to recognise that when an individual lacks enough scope to fully express his or her individuality this means that they are already in a repressive context. We have to recognise that throughout all this time the worker’s identity has, in fact, been a series of policies, which have been used to repress their identity. And since Covid-19 is something of a question about the future, can in relation to labour the question be broadened, and ask: is it possible for the post-corona virus world to be in the hands of the worker as an artisan and an artist than as a cog in a machine?

Isaac Dumi is a literary writer, he holds a Masters degree in Translation from Wits and was a 2019 intern for SALB.