Precarious Political Scientist in Construction Work
November 2, 2022

The Wild Construction (II): Towards the (un)Cultural Anthropology of the Construction Site and the Metaphysics of the Mixer

Written by: 
Karlo Garma
Unemployed political scientist from Brodarica

“Wild construction” is the term for a construction site with an active heterogeneous group of unregistered workers who perform demanding “physical” field work – which others have given up on for whatever reason. We are paid salary – “on hand” after the day is completed or the work done. The hardened boss would add to us “...and if you don't like the amount, here, take a sledgehammer and feel free to break what you’ve done, you'll just have to collect it yourself.”

The construction site also, on an abstract map of jobs, topographically marks a welcoming space for everyone (in the manner of “give a hand and don't bother!”). Something like the Foreign Legion, only replace the rifles and pistols with drills and spatulas, and France with the Balkans. “Whatever your roots, nationality and religion, whatever your profession, social or business status, whether you are married or single, the Legion of Balkan Builders offers you the chance to start a new life...”

In this territory, a silent don't ask, don't tell policy is in force, just like in the American army. Universal inclusion is not a bad thing. If you are a former prisoner or a patient discharged from a psychiatric hospital, no one asks you what you did, who you are, what you are, where you are from. Who cares, here’s your tool, roll up your sleeves, keep drinking, keep going. In the same group you can see a wide range of diagnoses and crimes. It sounds dangerous, but it’s actually inclusive, in a friendly atmosphere. It should not be forgotten that this kind of safe space for everyone (where you will certainly not be exposed to drastic discrimination and harassment) is not a free-for-all space for illegal behavior. Tolerance has its limits (remember Popper’s paradox). It is known that any excess leads to non-cooperation or procrastination, leading to the replacement of the worker. Today you are at work, tomorrow you won’t be, that’s why you watch what you do and what you say, at least now and here. We are present as far as we are needed and we know the limits that we must not cross. If there is a contract signed by the client and the contractor, it does not bind the workers and does not guarantee their rights, but offers a general framework for the construction, therefore the deadlines for the completion and handover of the building are a key factor that no worker must jeopardize with his actions.

You are theirs, you belong to them as soon as you even act and look like one, which is not difficult at all. Just as Houellebecq remarked in The Elementary Particles “the petty-bourgeois world – made up of workers and lower officials – is more tolerant and accommodating... than the world of young marginals” and hipsters, so in the short term it seemed easier and simpler for me to put on my grandfather’s old blue overall, buy a toolbox and put the office shirt aside. If you have a belt, behind it you must have a screwdriver, a pair of pliers, a hammer, a pencil and a tape measure, and a spirit level is not out of place either. What is always missing, like a lighter for smokers, is a meter. “Where is it, who took it!?!” Above all, as a bonus, I didn't even need to trim my beard regularly because we are not in management or in the hospitality industry.

It's not the suit that makes the man and it’s not all about looks, but I must note that here your work is “transparently” visible on what you wear, from head to toe. If by chance the supervisor comes and asks you what you did today, you say “nothing”, and you are up to your neck in fresh make-up paint and dusty from the ground, the lie is evident. While the wolves carry the scents of their wounds and battles on their fur, the builders wear them on their old T-shirt, pants, overalls and sneakers. And thus it goes the whole year. In contrast, we can say that the years of studying Hegel are probably not visible on the clothes of the philosopher, but perhaps in the appearance of his face which becomes older, grayer, more exhausted and with larger dark circles under the eyes.

From the fashion statement, there is also the indispensable and widely known “construction worker’s sleeve”, which does not need to be presented too much. It is evident by the difference in skin color depending on wearing different shirts with different sleeve lengths. If you work all day in the sun in a short-sleeved T-shirt, when you change into a sleeveless T-shirt, you will see that you have a construction worker’s sleeve.

During brunch (snack), a “builder’s sandwich”, cut with a snap blade, is consumed (ingredients: one half white bread, 20 dekagrams of “Parisian” or winter salami), yogurt and "mason’s beer" (half a liter, in glass packaging or exceptionally in cans, if there is no crate at all). During it, the cult of hunters (mainly fish and women) is nurtured, and the folklore narratives of the traditional men are practiced: who has done what and more than whom, and who failed in humorously intoned stories about famous fiascos. The feats and mistakes of the narratives are blown out of proportion. If you don’t drink beer and don’t socialize enough, you will be thrown out of the company of serious thoroughbred construction workers, unless you are an old experienced craftsman who has been through it a long time ago, or you are a private professional, with your own renowned company, who keeps up reputation.

In the whirlwind of all that, it’s time for macho prodding and initiation. If you wear a work cap with a hard plastic visor to protect against falling solid material, then you are simply (in Srđan Vrcan’s dictionary for the social condemnation of those who do not know how to play football) “defective as a man”. Is it raining or hailing? Raise your shoulders and bow your head, don’t be weak. Grinding dust got into your eyes – “brush” it out. But again, “take care of yourself, don’t run, don’t carry two bags at once, make sure it doesn’t mess you up". Analogously, the one who has never been injured on a construction site is a slacker who spares himself, the anti-hero of the wild construction.

Speaking of initiation and ordeals, there is a mixer. You know a worker by the mixer. As they would say in the USA, it will break you or make you. Everything about her is important. What materials and ratios do you put in, what speed do you adjust, what slope, how many buckets can you carry and how and where do you throw in or out. And for us, serious amateurs, there were some promising words of advice from the more experienced: “It’s better to make a thinner mixture and apply it slowly, so that you have more air before it dries and hardens, this is like art, you need to have a hand for that, and everyone chooses what suits them best.” This “more air” and “art” will remind a political scientist of “political action” as a matter of “current creative element” from the logic of which, according to Mannheim, the notion of the political as “irrational maneuver space” is derived. The less you limit yourself, the greater your room for maneuver is, which is why both politicians and builders reduce their promises and extend deadlines. By the way, long-term observation of the repetitive rotation of the mixer has its own esoteric moment. The image of the past lazily overlaps with the present and the future. Eye fatigue changes the rotation in one direction to the other, so it seems as if it is rotating uniformly in both directions, towards the past and the future, and yet it is happening now and “is equally real”.

However, there is no shortage of more down-to-earth stimuli on the construction site. Honestly, I reluctantly admit that I used to condemn the workers who drink during the working day. As a client to have contact with them in an intoxicated state was, in a word, tiring. The mentor (more about him a bit later) would add his elaboration: “Me and the construction site, we've been drinking for as long as we've known each other. Forty years. My prize is, always, red wine with sparkling water, with a shot of grappa in-between. Have you ever tried it?... You must.” I realized, however, that such “irresponsible” alcohol consumption in the workplace is not only part of the toxic-masculine socialization, status and proof, but also a means for keeping the reality bearable. While you wait for the concrete, paint or tar to dry, what else will you do but sit in the shade and drink an iced one? Hot coffees at 40°, next to radiating dark and gray slurries, are out of the question – not under any circumstances. Of course, one should be moderate. You don’t want to make life difficult for yourself and others. But when an accident happens in the morning, for example a fall from a scaffolding, a shoulder dislocating from a joint, or a hornet sting – and all this happens – then the worker who has drunk the least (the “shortest beer” is drawn) is selected in panic to take the injured person away to the hospital. The workers quickly learn that beers, sun and toil do not go hand in hand and that in the sun the beers are much stronger and knock you out more easily, in a ratio of 1 = 3. That’s at least an obscure beer math under the torching sun.

Instead of a ship cook who marked my later fateful naval episodes with his wisdom, the benevolent paternal figure of the construction site was, logically, a master mason. One such person approached me looking for an apprentice. “Okay, what are you, kid? – A handyman, not a master. – Better for you. Are you ours? – Yes I am. – Even if you weren’t, you would be. Come on, everything is fine as long as they don’t beat us and we are not in forced labor. Let’s move on, for the same money—to the facade!” We’ve been good ever since. He became my mentor, so to speak. Later, that mentor of top-notch construction site credibility who kindly took me under his wing – developed a principle with a safety net for my failures: “We will not put anything in your hands with which you can do more damage than half an hour of our repair. If you paint it wrong, I’ll cover it with the right color, if you break a pipe, I’ll patch it with PVC, if you cut too much, I’ll put on the concrete and smooth it over. You are not to be afraid of anything.” I breathed a sigh of relief, became relaxed, and only after that I started working better. For example, the SPSS program for statistical data processing may have an undo button, but in real life you have to work hard to correct mistakes, and sometimes it helps when someone has your back covered.

The mentor also had something to say about certain Machiavellian entrepreneurs: “When I don't make a good insulation of the outer wall, and a person already enters the house and it starts raining from heaven and earth – I can't sleep because of remorse. And the commissioner and the boss couldn’t care less. To be an entrepreneur you need to be shameless.” The investor himself knew what he was getting into, he could have known that it was hardly possible, he got what he asked for – they say, but the mentor points out that “the work should be done honestly and thoroughly, without stretching it too long and muddling” and that in that lies all the wisdom, the same one that you get with the injuries received throughout the years, “year-old scars”. Thus, the mentor turned out to be an almost Weberian teacher of ethics.

However, I will leave the final wisdom to a plumber: “So, you’re a political scientist and you don’t work in the profession? Hmm, if you were up in Germany, after ten years out of your profession, they wouldn’t let you work anymore in that field without retaking some subjects. Otherwise, they wouldn’t admit it as a completed degree to you anymore, you would have to go for skills orientation and retraining. I’m telling you, it’s an organized country.” I won't go into how accurate this information is or not, nor how much Germany is a model of orderliness today, but it seems that a well-tuned system of educational quotas and the labor market would make the optimistic and pessimistic currents of thought at the social science faculties where I started this story devoid of sense.

According to Max Weber’s words, the world would thus fall apart a little more, and even the uncertainty of political scientist’s existence and the wild construction are part of the magic of the world whose “beauty” should not be completely “unmasked”.

Annals of the Croatian Political Science Association

Croatian Political Science Association
Faculty of Political Science
Lepušićeva 6, 10 000 Zagreb
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