Polish sociologist, gardener, and immigrant Anna Zawadzka explores the convoluted ties between work and personal life in late capitalism, between the ivory tower of academia and the harsh conditions of groundskeeping, by critically focusing on the idealization and pathologization of labour.

You know there are millions of poor souls out on the street, looking for a toilet somebody will let them use? Kurt Vonnegut*

This is the first text other than an e-mail or a text message that I have written in over two years. For the past two years I haven’t had the energy to do anything besides taking care of my basic needs: food, sleep, warmth, keeping clean, resting, and paying bills. For the past two years I have been a physical labourer.

Throughout this time I have also been, and still am, an immigrant. A privileged immigrant, one that relocated within the European Union, with a European Union passport. Still, an immigrant and not an expat: firstly, because I emigrated for financial and political reasons, not in pursuit of the perfect job, of self-improvement, new life experiences, or mere curiosity. Secondly, because I emigrated from Poland to Germany, and so from an Eastern European country to the so-called West. Both these terms are heavily laden with meaning. I left a poor country with abundant resources of cheap labour and economic frustration, and moved to a wealthy one, which still welcomes immigrants to perform the worst-paid, least coveted jobs. I relocated between two countries that share a long, albeit one-directional tradition of migration, which has been up until quite recently illegal. Finally, I emigrated through the former cold-war border, which is still holding pretty strong in the imaginary layer. I am from over there. From one of the countries of the Wild East, where people are not overly attached to personal hygiene, where they tend to laugh too loudly and show off gaping holes between yellow teeth, drink vodka instead of coffee, steal instead of working, have a gaudy taste in fashion and home decor, are swamped by corruption and long for tough rule, because they don’t know how to deal with the gift of freedom bestowed upon them by the West. I am a Homo Sovieticus.[1] The term Homo Sovieticus refers to the inability of former Eastern Bloc societies to live under capitalist regimes due to the helplessness of their citizens, who are too stuck to unburden themselves from the defects learned during socialism. 

I. Internal Emigration

I had been mulling over the idea of leaving Poland for a few years, during which I was already an internal émigré. In Poland I used to be a sociologist. First a PhD student, assistant, secretary, then a doctor and an assistant professor. In comparison with most of my colleagues doomed to live in the depths of the precariat, I found myself in an enviably comfortable situation: I held a full-time job at a public institution. Still, I have always felt out of place at the Academy, because I never had at my disposal the sufficient cultural and social capital that is habitual between its walls. My habitus is one shaped by my upwardly mobile family of technical intelligentsia, who already understood that “books are important”, but no one yet knew for certain which ones specifically. In my family, the only verdicts that counted were those issued at the school, because there was no one else around who could pass them with authority. They were a matter of life and death to me, and I still suffer from the A-student syndrome. As we all know, A-students lack ease, nerve, sass, and flaireverything necessary to elbow your way through the world of academia, that is if you aspire to anything more than a secretarial position. I don’t know how to seduce and charm so that I’m invited to a research team or given a part-time job under a grant. The only things I do know are conscientiousness, respect for deadlines, punctuality, diligence, and responsibility. If I am to review a book, I will make notes running for more pages than the book itself. I am a useful bore: one that can be counted on, but not one that could ever be called “cool”. I am afraid of losing my job, because I can’t afford it for financial reasons. This fear comes across in my demeanour, posture, micro-gestures. I observe my colleagues who carelessly dodge their responsibilities and face no consequences for doing so. To the contrary: they simply don’t get any new ones, because it is clear they won’t deliver. I don’t allow myself to take such risks. 

And so, despite the specious professional advancement, my social position was reproducing: I had plenty of duties and a meagre salary. The remuneration I received as assistant professor hardly covered for the rent of a single-room apartment in Warsaw. I had to find odd jobs in order to survive. I was living in permanent fear that one day the odd jobs would dry up and I wouldn’t make it to the end of the month. I was also becoming increasingly frustrated by the fact that, at almost 40 years old, I was still anxiously calculating whether or not I could afford to go to the movies. I was exhausted by my fear, by the uncertainty of the future and by the alienation exacerbated by the mass media, which triumphantly announced that there is no crisis and Poland and that the GDP is steadily on the rise.[2] The Polish GDP is rising because labour costs, for example in Germany borne by the state, are shunted onto the employees. In Poland people work long, hard, for petty change, with no insurance and laws to protect them, but this does not show in the statistics. Here’s an example: in my part-time job as a gardener’s assistant in Warsaw, I was making PLN 10 per hour (EUR 2.3); the employer did not pay any insurance, and I only had a contract of mandate, not a job contract, for PLN 300 (71 euro), so that the company owner wouldn’t have to pay high taxes. The rest of my wages were paid to me “under the table”. In Berlin I have been making EUR 8.5 net per hour, the employer paid for my health, retirement, and unemployment insurance. The latter is keeping me afloat right now. It is not a grand life, but still more comfortable than the one I could live with my full-time academic salary in Warsaw. Thanks to this insurance, I can now sit here writing this text instead of frantically searching for a new job.

And yet, I did not make a decision to leave until Andrzej Duda, the president of Poland, signed a law that provided for a fine or jail penalty for publicly talking about the participation of Poles in the Holocaust.[3] One could say it affected me as a researcher of Polish anti-Semitism. Did it really? As a researcher I have been seriously struggling for some years with my higher-ranking colleagues, with the prevalent opinion in our milieu, with obtaining research funds, with publishing articles, with finding discussion partners who would not end up calling me a “Red Guard”–because I do not subscribe to the anti-communist consensus, dogmatically held onto across the entire academic, political and activist spectrum in Poland.[4] The entire spectrum with no exceptions.[5] As a researcher of antisemitism, I focused on the deconstruction of the “Judeo-Bolshevism” stereotype, which cannot be done without breaking down the history, functions, and geopolitical effects of the anti-communist ideology, as well as without a critical analysis of the anti-communist discourse which bristles with anti-Semitic clichés. Thus, could Andrzej Duda’s signature below the aforementioned law hurt me any more? Professionally, probably not. But this signature was one step too far in my Jewish identity horizon. 

There isn’t much of this Jewishness. If it exists at all, it is emphatically secular, built upon attempts to understand the aggression, megalomania, catastrophism, and complexes of my father who lived through the Holocaust as a child, upon interest in Jewish revolutionaries, upon the remembrance of anti-Semitic violence perpetrated against members of my family and their Shoah. This is precisely what the president of the country whose citizen I nominally am prohibited me from talking about. To stay there would have been to swallow one humiliation too many. 

The work yard and tool shed

II. External Emigration

First I applied for a scholarship in Germany. The application was a hefty one. It took me over six months to prepare it. I did not get the scholarship. So I fell back on my plan B: find any job at all and then think about the next steps. I took time off from my Polish work and I went to Germany for 10 days to look for something that I already had experience in after having done some odd jobs in Poland. Over 10 days I visited a dozen or so landscaping companies, plant warehouses, green supermarkets, seedling plantations. I felt stupid, knowing I should have sent my application by e-mail or through their webpages. But the webpages bounced me to work agencies, and it’s impossible to register at one without having a registered place of residence in Germany. I decided that I will not move until I find a job there, because my savings would run out within two months. So I implemented the old-fashioned course of action. I went from one door to another. Today I know that it could only work in Germany, as compared to the rest of Europe, this country is much more “analogue”. And it worked: I got a job as a gardener’s assistant at a private landscaping company that hired 33 employees. 

At work

They were mostly men. Gardening and landscaping are very masculine professions. Besides me, there were three other female employees and two female apprentices at the company. Yet, in so far as in Poland I would be able to recognize which behaviours and attitudes toward me stem from my gender, here it was a lot more complicated. Gender factors overlapped with class, racial, and migrant ones, as well as with both the official and the tacit company hierarchy. It was not easy to tell what is what. 

To know the history of the working class, to discuss in university halls whether or not there exists a culture specific to this class, has little to do with deciphering in practice the communication codes employed by your colleagues and with trying not to embarrass yourself in front of them. Should I insist on giving back the 2 euro that a co-worker spent on a tea he bought for me at a convenience store? Did this colleague help me load a lawnmower on the trailer because I am a woman, because he likes me, or because it is a rule to help others move heavy objects? Are they constantly relegating me to weed removal because they are reluctant about doing any work on their knees, which is seen as “unmanly”; because I am new, so I can be given the tasks that nobody likes; or are they just concerned that I should not work with heavy machinery? Perhaps some of the behaviours that I diagnose as hostile in this environment are perceived as neutral, or at worst as something that has to be taken in order to grow “thick skin” and no one sees them as unpleasant, whether they are on the receiving or dispensing end. 

Being an emigrant is also a factor that is difficult to isolate from other variables. What things are daily occurrences in Germany even though they would not be ‘normal’ in Poland? What is chauvinistic prejudice and what is the local colour, since the city I now live in is famous all over Germany for its petulant, snappy, and rude residents? Does the customer who asks my boss not to send me to work in her garden, arguing that “this Pole is lazy and can only do simple tasks”, do this because she feels ill at ease with a woman who works in a traditionally masculine profession, or does she harbour anti-immigrant sentiments? The constant problems and increasingly serious quarrels that my colleagues instigate due to my lack of knowledge of Germanincluding colleagues who speak fluent Englishare they a brusque attempt at motivating me to learn the language, or a sign of their prejudice against immigrants? One day, a higher-ranking colleague “punished” me for a difference of opinions by switching from his fluent English to German and pretending not to understand me when I tried to appease him. When I told my German friends about this, seething, they concluded: “what a racist asshole”. This surprised me, because I am unanimously recognized as white and I enjoy all the attendant privileges.[6] But then I also remembered that one of the more popular anti-Semitic behaviours in pre-war Poland was making fun of the Jewish language, while at the same time accusing Jews of speaking Polish so badly that it was not possible to understand them.[7] Polish officials and merchants would often refuse services to Jews, claiming that they could not understand them. Did this colleague have a go at me because, as cheap labour force from Poland, I am the reason why, according to him, his wages are now lower? 

Gender, class, raced emigration (the ‘Ossi’), being a rookie, aggravated by the Polish-German differences in the culture of work, ways of communicating, building inter-human relations, negotiating positions—I am at a loss in all this. I can’t tell what is what. This confusion is, in and of itself, a tremendous burden. It generates additional emotional and intellectual work, because my way of dealing with it is to try to untangle all these threads. The reason I even try to deal with it is to at least partially regain control over my own life in the face of a radical change generated by emigration. But this situation has its bizarre reverse. I don’t speak German, so I am unable to catch certain nuances. Communication with me is by necessity simplified. I have to be spoken to loud and clear, or else I won’t understand. People use simple sentences when addressing me. Sentences that would never be uttered to anyone else, because they would reveal too clearly the unwritten rules, the obvious things that thrive on not being expressed explicitly, the environmental doxas. This is an unexpected bonus to my confusion brought about by too many new contexts. One day we are working in excruciating heat. We are drinking litres of water, but before we can pee it out, it all evaporates as sweat. When I ask a colleague whether he thinks there’s a chance of finishing early, first he falls silent for a long moment, and then says quietly in a mix of German and English: “We never know what time we will finish. It depends on Robert [the shift manager]. But Robert is OK, he usually doesn’t make us stay longer.” I ask: “Can’t we ask him?” “He won’t answer,” says my colleague. “This is what being a manager is about. About making others wait.” He says this with no irony or anger. He’s just surprised at having to explain this to me. 

At work

III. The Privilege of Ignorance

It was just like the wise books say: I recognized my privileges only when I lost them. Privileges such as going to work in clothes that you like and in which you like yourself; being able to wear light shoes and to make yourself tea at work; warm, dry, and nice interiors; availability of chairs, tables, and toilets; running errands such as grocery shopping, going to the post office or calling a plumber outside of rush hours; using city transportation at hours when it’s possible to find a seat. But above all, time. Time when you have the energy to do anything besides staring at the TV and fighting off sleepiness.

When people hear the word “gardener”, they usually react enthusiastically: “that’s my dream job!”, “it is great you get to spend so much time outdoors!”, “I would love that, I’m fed up with sitting in front of the computer”, “I’m sure you never get sick!” I am certain that after a single day of working as a gardener—a day, not a week or a month—they would never repeat such drivel again. They probably say this because the word “gardener” invokes for them the image of a woman, dressed in a light blouse and a straw hat, who strolls around her rose garden, pruning the flowers for a bouquet with a dreamy smile on her face.[8] Indeed, once every few months I did work in a rose garden. They were mini roses, so I worked in a bent-over position for 8 hours. Already after two it was hard to straighten my back. The roses grew close together, so sitting between the shrubs meant thorns in knees, calves, and butt. My job was usually weeding, which means I had to reach all the way to the roots. Afterwards, I would emerge from the rose garden with bleeding scratch marks. I looked as if I had been attacked by a pack of wild cats. The alternative was to wear a thick full-body gardening suit, which in late spring, in the summer or in early fall is tantamount to a heat stroke within twenty minutes, because rose gardens are usually set up in sunny spots. 

People with no experience of physical labour react very naively to this notion, because they probably assume that it is something like going to the gym: you get tired and sweat, but afterwards you take a shower, change, grab something to eat and feel fantastic. They forget that hardly anyone goes to the gym every day, and even in that case, a workout lasts an hour, maybe two. If you happen to be hungover, on your period, didn’t get a good night’s sleep, or would prefer to do something else for fun, you skip the gym and that’s it. But this is work. You can’t skip, or you will lose it. You can’t go back home or sit down in a cafe when you get tired. You are entitled to two half-hour breaks over the 8 hours, regardless of whether the day’s job consisted in carrying bags filled with dry leaves up and down the stairs or pushing wheelbarrows with moist compost, whether you planted 100 geranium plants or broke up old foundations with a pickaxe to make room for the geraniums. 

When you wake up in the morning, your entire body is in pain. Not just sometimes, not just at first. Every day. One of the harmful myths about manual labor is that over time you get used to the constant physical effort, thus you are no longer so sore and tired. Yes, you get used to, but just to sore and tiredness. You fill the long hours at work with making plans for the evening. Mostly these plans involve food, because your appetite is insatiable, but also because you need the adequate amount of minerals and calories to keep you going through the day. So you focus on finding the time to go shopping so you can make yourself a healthy meal. After dinner, you think, I will rest a bit and then go to the movies, I’ll clean the balcony, I’ll go to IKEA, see an exhibition, wash the fridge. After work you are first of all dirty. So dirty that fellow commuters discretely move away from you. Often you are so sweaty that you stink. Often your shoes and clothes are wet, because even the best work outfits eventually give in to the whims of the weather. You are hungry and tired, sometimes really cold, so you are particularly irked by a long line-up at the supermarket, a traffic jam that your bus is stuck in or by a drunk commuter next to you. When you finally reach home, which can take over an hour in a big city, an hour that your employer does not pay for, when you finally take the shower you’ve been dreaming of, cook something and eat, it’s already early evening. Your stomach is full, your knees are weak, your face is flushed. You can muster the energy to watch a few episodes of a show and that’s it. Sometimes you have to take care of something: a visit to the dentist’s, minor home repairs. It takes superhuman effort to mobilize to do it. Frankly, even a Skype date with your best friend, one you have waited for with impatience, seems like nothing but effort at this point. You want to call everything off. You often do. You want to take a nap. This nap will either go on until the next morning, or, if you go to bed too late after, in the morning you’ll be exhausted and lose your energy twice as quickly at work. 

After work

At first I thought I was more tired than my male colleagues because they had already become accustomed to physical labour. But it hit me with time that this difference in tiredness is a consequence of gender. Those thinking that men’s greater resilience is the reason are wrong. Quite the contrary. My colleagues came to work refreshed because before and after they were being taken care of. Taken care of by their mothers, wives, daughters, and friends who provided domestic, care-taking, and emotional services. At home they had full fridges, ready dinners, washed linens, watered flowers, clean shelves, and sympathetic ears. I was racing against the clock each day to find the time for all these things. Their families saved time for them. The same time I did not have enough of. Men I met at work, usually landlords of the tenement houses by which we worked, often asked me where my husband was. Not: if I had a husband, but where on Earth he was. Whenever I said I wasn’t married they were shocked. “A husband is too much work”—I always wanted to say. But I bit my tongue out of tact, because they were on the receiving end of the work I meant. “It’s boring without a husband”—they argued. I wasn’t bored. I didn’t want any extra work at home. I didn’t want to be anyone’s maid. It was quite enough that I had to work for customers and dodge doing additional work for my colleagues. Because my co-workers expected me to worry about their moods, ask about their matters, soothe them on their bad days, and console them after failures. Above all, they expected me to listen patiently and with attention. Even though I had a “masculine” job, the standard package of expectations held of females was still handed to me. 

Coming back from work

IV. Sleep as Force Majeure; Sleep as Privilege

I am acutely aware that flexible working time opens up the way for many forms of exploitation. I functioned in this system for years, complaining about my work never ending and never starting, that I get work emails at 8 p.m. and that I am scared not to pick up a phone call from my boss even though it’s a Saturday. But planning my own days, weeks, and vacations was also a great privilege. Not being able to negotiate your working hours means there is no time left for anything else and that you are not its master any longer. I remember the rhythm of my life when I worked at the Academy: I spent many hours a day at the library, but I could come and go as I pleased, go to my favourite open-air market at the time of my choice, see a doctor or go to yoga, go to the movies. I could work on a Sunday and take Monday off instead. I could change plans flexibly if I didn’t feel well, for example. I managed my day-to-day with no rush, in accordance with my needs, avoiding line-ups, crowds, and nerves. It also allowed me to save money. I had the time and the energy to go to a store two streets farther away just because it sold cheaper olive oil or better bread. In the face of exhaustion caused by physical labour, the obligatory 8 hours of work and getting stuck in rush-hour traffic, all this now seemed like paradise lost. 

This paradise lost turned out to be not the academic work itself, but the conditions it came with: peace, quiet, space in my head, the rhythm marked by the clock at the archive or library. Without them, it is impossible to read academic texts, write, prepare papers for conferences, participate in seminars. Struggle against exhaustion, sleepiness, sore muscles, and time needed to take care of everyday matters is at odds with academic musings. It had been my plan to spend evenings and weekends working on my research project that I drafted before emigrating with a view of the scholarship in Germany. I parted with this plan after the first month of gardening work. Same with the plan to keep up with my yoga classes or to get to know my new city by strolling around. Physical labour forced me to adopt a new lifestyle, new habits, and new pleasures.

Thanks to physical labour I slept really well. I slept a lot, I slept in any conditions, not bothered by noise or light. I loved sleeping. I waited for sleep as one waits for their favourite cake. Besides sleep, the new job also regulated my bowel movements. The constant constipations caused by a sedentary lifestyle were now a distant memory. Same with indigestion after eating too late, too quickly or too much on an empty stomach. Now I had a healthy appetite and digested everything. Things were not looking this bright when it came to peeing, however. In fact, peeing is a nightmare for female gardeners. Since we work in a different place every day, we always have to look for new toilets. Some customers let us use theirs, but not all. Some complain that we’ll bring dirt into the house. Others flat out refuse to let us in. Sometimes, when we work in parks, public gardens, or around pools closed for the season, there simply aren’t any toilets, or anyone with a key around. Landscaping work means peeing in the bushes on a daily basis, and if the bushes are not thick enough, traipsing around the nearby cafes and buying the cheapest tea to go, because the washrooms are “for customers only”. Landscaping also means having to use port-a-potties brought for other, more stationary workers, most often at construction sites. Such port-a-potties used to be “no go” zones for me, mainly because of the horrid stench. But in my landscaping work they turned out to be a blessing. The construction workers never said I couldn’t use them. Often, when asked, they would warn me with embarrassment that “it’s dirty”. I don’t think they would do this if I was a man. All in all, after the first six months, I had the sensation of having peed around the entire city, like a dog that marks its territory. Thus, the motto of this text is to be taken literally. Availability of a toilet is still a privilege. 

And yet, I wouldn’t be honest if I said that physical labour only stripped me of privileges. It also gave me one: for the first time in my life I didn’t feel like a freeloader. After eight hours of regular toil I did not feel guilty about lying on the couch, snacking on nachos, and watching the fifth episode of Shameless in a row. This is how the capitalism I had internalized came to reveal itself: in order to give myself the right to rest, I first have to do backbreaking work. This belief made my life at the Academy difficult. It gave rise to a paranoia that others are surely doing more, that I am not productive enough, that time is slipping through my fingers. Abroad, my work became increasingly quantifiable: today I have to rake leaves from two gardens, tomorrow I have to remove an old hedge, the day after I have to plant a new one and lay out grass from a roll. There is no space here for wondering whether I’m meeting the requirements, because they are clearly set. If I don’t meet them, sooner or later they will fire me. If I exceed the expectations, on the other hand, my colleagues with more seniority will take me to task, because this kind of attitude only generates more work, and not more money. 

V. Visibility, Recognition, Acknowledgement

The primary thing that physical labour deprives one of is visibility. First off, it does so in the most literal meaning of the word. It creates another time zone and another circuit in the city. I leave for work at 6.30. The subway is full of people like me, dressed in work outfits, overalls, jackets with construction or security company names printed on them, with coffees in their hands and tools in their backpacks. The middle class are not out at this time yet, with the exception of lost party-goers zig-zagging their way home. The middle class are not in the convenience stores where we buy our tea or coffee, nor in the bakeries where we sit down for a quick croissant. These are cheap convenience stores with unattractive decor, selling unrefined assortments of products in non-ecological packaging. These are convenience stores and bakeries where no one frowns upon our dirty clothes and sandwiches pulled out of backpacks. These are convenience stores and bakeries where my colleagues will not yell out: “What? 3.5 euro for a slice of pizza?!” These are convenience stores and bakeries usually run by immigrants from Turkey or Lebanon. 

The second level of invisibility is the effect of the lack of symbolic representation of physical labourers in cultural products of capitalism. I binge on series. Right after I started working in gardens, I realized that practically all shows available on Netflix, HBO, and Amazon Prime show characters whose income, problems, and lifestyles have absolutely nothing to do with mine. If we were to recreate the social map based on cultural texts, 60% of the population would belong to the middle class, 35% to the upper class, and the remaining 5% would be aliens from outer space. Just the same, representations of blue collar workers, even if just in the visual layer, are absent from contemporary newspapers, magazines, fiction and non-fiction literature. The latter sometimes deals with precarity, but without transcending the subject of the young pauperized middle class, whose representatives were promised more than they got, and instead of making decent money as professionals, they are toiling away at call centers. I know how it feels, because I’ve been there. I am aware of the frustration borne by precarity. Nevertheless, asserting that the precariat has replaced the proletariat in modern-day capitalism is detrimental[9], as it pushes the contemporary proletariat even deeper into the shadows: their problems, their interests, their structural position and, above all, their very existence. The criterion of physical labour shines with its absence in the recent considerations of sociologists and economists from the Marxist current concerning the definition, status, and role of the precariat within the class structure. Overlooking this variable leads to denial of fundamental differences in the conditions, safety, and costs of work.[10]

Here starts the third type of invisibility: not only in the universum of the elites, but also in the ranks of the left of our time. I was eligible to vote for candidates from German lists in the European Parliament elections of 2018. I visited the webpages of German left-wing parties in search for my possible candidates. Even die Linke party offered no separate section devoted to labour in their “topics” tag. It did, however, offer a “feminist policies” section. Some time ago I probably would have been delighted by this change. Now it saddened me that the fight against one exploitation is replaced by the fight against another one, which is currently more ‘en vogue’. 

The invisibility I write about finally means lack of recognition and acknowledgement of work that is of pivotal importance for the functioning of the city and of capitalism. Ever since I started landscaping work, I thought about this every day, because while functioning in this new spatial and temporal dimension, I began to notice workers who picked up garbage, delivered groceries, cleaned streets and courtyards, maintained the sewers and public amenities, and renovated buildings. Suffice it to imagine that all of them went on a week-long strike to understand the significance of their work. Just one day of working along them would be enough to understand how hard this work is. Picking up just one pay slip would be enough to understand that the wages of blue collar workers are utterly inadequate to their effort and health consequences that they bear. 

All of my colleagues had problems with knees, from kneeling so much; or with their backs, from carrying heavy loads; or with arthritis pains from sitting on wet ground or cold concrete. Each one of them was at some point injured badly enough to take 3 weeks off. One was waiting for a hip surgery and it wasn’t clear whether he could still perform any physical work afterwards. Physical labour is damaging. In the most literal meaning of the word. It makes people handicapped. It shortens their lives. Maybe this is why the lack of its recognition scandalizes me so much. Meanwhile, as Vonnegut wrote: “Labour history was pornography of a sort in those days, even more so in these days. In public schools and in the homes of nice people it was and remains pretty much taboo to tell tales of labour’s sufferings and derring-do.”[11]

Boots after one season of working and my new pair of boots

VI. Hierarchies 

I panic when someone asks me what I do in Germany, what my job is. I juggle answers. Sometimes I say I’m a gardener, other times that I have two jobs: in landscaping and in academia. In reality, I don’t really know who I am. It gives me a sensation of ecstatic freedom, which sometimes turns into frantic search for something to hold on to. I am constantly haunted by the question of whether there exists anything besides social status that makes me cling to the thread that connects me with the Academy, an example of which is this article. I don’t know the answer. I do, however, know when I grab onto this thread, although I am embarrassed to admit it. It happens whenever I feel humiliated: when I am treated rudely by an official, when a colleague from work is arrogant to me, when an helpline employee hangs up on me because I don’t speak fluent German. At times like this I automatically reach for whatever in my identity resources can pick me up. My lifeline in those moments is my identity of a sociologist, my Ph.D., my work for an academic journal.[12] These are my identity tranquilizer pills. 

I take them with shame; after all, I reject the values that render them effective. I don’t want people to be judged and treated according to their level of education, which is a mere effect of privilege. I see the professional prestige hierarchy as yet another element of the capitalist ideology which differentiates people based on unjust categories, in order to facilitate their exploitation. Shame is followed by an even worse question: how do people who don’t have such effective ego boosters in their biographical and identity resources handle situations of social humiliation? At work I learned that people do this by building hierarchies with whatever is available. At this company, seniority comes most handy.

In late autumn, a week before quitting this job, I was working with Chris, Toni, and Matt. It was a sunny day, the atmosphere was nice, we were joking a lot. Chris (shift manager) and Toni (9 years at the company, specialist) asked about my plans for the future and complained about me leaving, a clear sign of fondness, so rare at this company. No wonder that when we finished the day, I was in an excellent mood. I walked to the subway with Matt. He has only been at the company for a month. His mood was starkly different from mine. He was shaken, angry, and sad. It turned out that Chris snubs him, he speaks to him rudely, makes fun of him. I hadn’t noticed, because Matt hid his reactions and put on a brave face, just like I did at the beginning. And yet, while going over this day in my head, I realized that indeed Matt had worked more, harder and longer than the rest of us. Chris kept giving him new tasks while we took extra breaks to chat. 

I remembered this from my own early days at the company. I was tense, scared of doing something wrong, of looking incompetent, so I strove to do my best. This striving, being an aspirant, made everyone treat me just as they treated Matt now: worse, differently than those with more seniority. Talking to Matt made me realize that I stopped noticing discrimination as soon as I was afforded the privilege of companionship. All this even though I still remember how awful it felt to think that everyone can see the humiliation I’m subjected to and does not react. Now the costs of my privilege are borne by those with less seniority. Now they ask me if I need a lift on our way home. They don’t ask Matt. Now there is enough space for me in the car. There is no space for Matt. Now they ask me what time I’d like to take a break. Matt is simply informed. Now I get to choose whether I want to remove wild shrubs or rake leaves. Matt doesn’t have a choice. 

In order to deal with the humiliation, Matt availed himself of gender. Over five subway stations on our way back, Matt clarified to me that what Chris was doing was a natural male behaviour: men fight each other for position and subordinate themselves to the rule of the strongest, because this works in... hunting. In this geographic zone hunting has been obsolete for hundreds of years, save for ritual cruelty, and meanwhile Matt is lecturing me about social structures from the days of hunters-gatherers in order to overcome his humiliation. He is so worked up I don’t even try to argue. Instead, I wonder whether I should talk to Chris. I’m afraid, however, that this would only make matters worse for Chris, because it would make him look like a tattle-tale, so either Chris would take revenge on him, or treat him even less seriously. If I am correct, then Matt is condemned to loneliness. He must fight for the respect of our colleagues, and pay many ransoms for it, too. It took me two years, maybe because of my awkwardness, maybe because of my gender. 

Besides the hierarchy between employees, there’s also the more obvious one: between workers and bosses. The bosses, however, put a lot of effort into covering up this hierarchy with camaraderie. It makes it harder to reveal the true work relations, that is the conflict of interests and the exploitation, understood not as acts of hostility or abuse, but as the very essence of work in capitalism: our bosses multiply their private assets with the work of our hands. And yet, it is difficult to ask for a raise or demand less customers per day, when the bosses have fun with us at the bowling lane, organize out of town trips for us, drink beer with us after work, or chat with us about their holiday plans. During one of such conversations the obvious differences between us come to the fore: my boss is planning a three-week trip to Nepal for himself and his family. I am going to the Baltic coast. Listening about Nepal, I feel irritation build up inside me, but I feel the burden of expectation not to let it show. What does my boss feel when he listens about the Baltic Sea? He probably used to go there as a student with his buddies. I sincerely doubt he can even notice the gaping abyss between our class registers. Lack of imagination is a privilege of the wealthy. 

I find out just how wealthy our bosses are shortly before quitting. My colleagues tell me that the company owners had bought a palace with apple orchards outside of the city. “They bought it with our sweat”—clarifies the shift manager. This is why most of my colleagues give the bosses a wide berth. They complain about them, poke fun at them, or get angry at them: for the chaotic work organization, for the gradually decreasing wages, for the excessive churn, for not consulting changes in schedules with shift managers, for squeezing too many customers into the day. But only behind their backs. The one and only time when the bosses call the entire gardening department for a meeting and ask us for our remarks and ideas on how to make work more effective, my colleagues are as silent as the grave. 

VII. The Inarticulate, The Unnamed, The Taboo

I will never forget that day. I came to the meeting armed with a notebook with 4 items jotted down. I decided to wait until the end, because I was new at the company. I assumed that someone else would bring up my points, because we went on and on about certain issues while sitting by the flower beds. Meanwhile, after the boss’ segue, no one spoke up. So I said what I had to say. My colleagues did not support me. One hushed the boss when he tried to interrupt me. That’s it. When I finished, the awkward silence returned. The boss took my suggestions as an attack against him. With thinly veiled resentment, he spelled out to me that everything works perfectly at the company. Then he announced he had to go. After the meeting I asked my colleagues why they didn’t say anything. One of them answered, through gritted teeth: “you took too long and there was no time left for us.” 

This was a cold shower for me. A confrontation with my academic idealization of the working class. My dream of finding in this new country a gutsy community of people who would share the daily grind with me melted away. I stepped out of the line and I got a slap on my hand. I did this out of naïveté. Out of not knowing the rules of the game. I thought my colleagues were just waiting for an opportunity to fight, but instead I broke the tacit rule, according to which incessant, surreptitious complaining was OK, but not the effort to change anything. By this act of silence, my colleagues sided with the boss in defence of the status quo. Why? Maybe out of the need to maintain a good atmosphere? To cover up the structural conflict instead of exposing it, because that would generate constant tension? Because fighting is simply tiresome, and all our energy goes into work? Or maybe they did this out of fear of being slated, called into the boss’ office, losing their job? I never managed to speak to them about this openly. 

An honest conversation about these topics turned out impossible. Not calling certain things by their name was my colleagues’ way of putting a spin on reality. Of not facing up to whatever was difficult, painful, and inconvenient to them. To what was incoherent in them. To whatever makes a dent in their self-image: my colleagues see themselves above all as feisty non-conformists. I suppose we all do. That’s why fear of your boss is humiliating. This fear not only reveals the essence of work, which is exploitation, and in order to commit to work, we must forget about it at least to a certain degree. We need this commitment in order to be able to get out of bed each morning. Fear also violates our identity and our dignity. 

When work becomes a stake in the dignity of an employer and it forms part of his identity, the category of interest is denied. This works to the benefit of employers no less than the performance of camaraderie. I am not writing about this because I read it somewhere. I am writing about this because I saw it with my own eyes. At first I was stunned. There were two things that my colleagues never, ever talked about: how much money they were making and belonging to trade unions. We could be bored to tears raking leaves for 8 hours, we could moan about having to bring more soil just when the wheelbarrow broke, we could put up with fickle customers who treated us as a worse kind of human beings, we could shiver with cold, get drenched down to our underwear, sweat profusely while performing pointless tasks, and yet we still pretended we did all this for some reason other than the money. That we did it out of passion, for the idea, out of commitment to the cause. What cause? Whose cause? It didn’t matter. What mattered was that it wasn’t our own cause, because then we would turn out to be greedy, acquisitive, too materialistic. What is worse, this is how we would see ourselves. 

The ethos of working for the idea itself, and along with it the new forms of exploitation, has democratized so much that it now reaches down to the worst-paid and least prestigious professions. In practice it is rather absurd. Last March I spent three days in a row digging through frozen soil in someone’s private garden. There weren’t even any visual distractions, as the customer was just starting this garden. I shovelled for 21 hours. Could anyone do this with fascination, passion, commitment? Despite this, to say openly to a customer or to my co-workers that the only thing keeping me glued to this shovel is the promise of a payslip would be an unimaginable faux pas

Tabooization of money results in the fact that we don’t know how much money others make, so we don’t know the scale of inequality at the company. With time I have realized that to tell the new employees about the history of my hourly wages is a radical gesture, because knowing them, they can demand more from the bosses without risking that they will be seen as too greedy and then fired. With the use of this gesture, I learn how to recognize my political allies. Tabooization of the topic of trade unions, in turn, results in the fact that I don’t know who at the company belongs to one, and I can’t ask for advice on which one I should join. This bothers me all the more since I am an emigrant from a country where the first trade unions are now feeble, and also because the trade union system is different there than the one in Germany, so I simply don’t know how it works. I quickly realize that I won’t find this out at work. 

Working in order to maintain oneself—working for money—is pathologized in the dominant discourse of contemporary capitalism. Work should be performed for self-fulfilment, success, development. Money should be a side effect of work, and not its end. This model, transplanted from the so-called creative professions, typical for the middle class, has been universalized and now employees of industries where no self-fulfilment or development can ever exist are judged according to it. Meanwhile, as a blue collar worker, you usually do what you do to survive. It doesn’t mean that you hate everything about this job, that you don’t create its ethos, that you don’t form a part of a community, that you don’t get any satisfaction from it or that you don’t build your identity around it. You do all this but it’s precisely this duality, the double truth of work, that constitutes the essence of this unique, extreme form of exploitation that is physical labour.[13] Yet, there is no language to talk about it, no identity models that could accommodate it. I am taking a German language course. Each subsequent level starts with the same ritual: we work in couples, introduce ourselves to the other person, and then we introduce each other to the rest of the class. I had the same thing happen to me twice: I said I was a gardener, but want to change jobs because I work too hard for too little money. My words were presented as follows: “Anna is a gardener, but she wants to change jobs in order to do something more creative.” With time I understood that “creativity” is a euphemism that denotes the need for money, because the original word has been removed from the dictionary of work. 

Found in gardens

VIII. Freedom, or an Identity Crisis

All of a sudden I am in a new class, in a new country, surrounded by a new language, in a new job, and with the status of an economic migrant. It sparks chaos in my head. I don’t know which coordinates I should use to define myself. I don’t even know how to answer when someone asks how I’m doing. I took the leap I was very scared of. Ever since, my life has been much easier. It has shrunk to the dimension of surviving. Paradoxically, the hardest part was to make the decision to emigrate. Since I have made it, things are getting better. The fact that I am going through this process, that I can handle it, that I am dealing with the troubles of reskilling, makes me feel strong. If I did it once, I can do it again. I can move to another country, I can get another job. I already know how it tastes. Maybe next time I will be less scared, maybe I will have a bit more self-confidence. 

I had planned to write this text a long time ago, but I couldn’t get myself to start. Back in the day I wrote all the time. It was my way of making myself heard, because I thought I had something to say, and that my message would gain legitimacy only with the aid of a sufficiently renowned publication. So I trained myself in writing like others train their muscles at the gym, while my real muscles were weakening. Today I keep wondering how much of my writing is about the need for recognition. Recognition coming from the very same universum that I criticize. Why is the legitimate culture—the Academy, intellectuals, dispensers of senses, and reproducers of cultural capital—still my horizon, even though I write against it? Why is it still my point of reference?

I made a lot of notes for this text, mainly voice notes. I recorded them in the subway on my way from gardens, because at home I was too languid to put thoughts into sentences. For whom am I writing, though? When I do it, in my mind’s eye I see the faces of my colleagues from work. They wouldn’t read it, even if I wrote it in their language. Not because they already know all of this (they do), but because finding the right words for phenomena, pinning them down to appropriate senses, is not a value to them. Their life is elsewhere. Their longing, perhaps also for recognition, has a different vector. I am still unable to change this vector, even though I know that at the end there is a sky-high wall built of everything I despise. In an attempt not to crash into this wall, I decided to write this text my way. To write it with no fear that it won’t be published by an American journal, so I won’t have anything to put down in my academic CV. This is how it works in semi-peripheral Poland. And I left Poland precisely not to be afraid anymore. Fear is still a part of my life; I am most scared of homelessness, of slipping down a financial cliff. But this fear is a lot smaller than back in Poland. After 18 months since emigrating, I stopped taking antidepressants. I did this when I got my unemployment benefits. 


* Vonnegut, K. (1990). Jailbird (transl. into Polish by J. Kozak). Warsaw: Czytelnik, p.197.

[1] Tischner, J. (1992). Etyka solidarności oraz Homo sovieticus [The Ethics of Solidarity and the Homo Sovieticus]. Krakow: Znak. 

[2] In the years 2009-2014 the representatives of the Polish government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk (PO, Civic Platform party), who later was elected president of the European Council, repeatedly asserted that Poland is a “green island” on the map of the erstwhile economic crisis („Tusk na zarzuty PiS: Polska była i jest zieloną wyspą”, 2010; pw., 2012). [“Tusk Counters PIS Accusations: Poland Was and Still Is a Green Island”, 2010; 2012).

[3] This was the amendment of the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, passed on 26 January 2018, a day before the 73rd anniversary of liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and celebrations of the International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The amendment introduced Art.55a, which reads: “Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich... shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to 3 years.” Following heated discussions, concerning among others who would be responsible for evaluating whether such an attribution has taken place “contrary to the facts”, scientific and artistic endeavours were excluded from this penalization. The law took effect on 1 March 2018. Its draft had been circulating around the Parliament for two years. The first reading was held on 16 October 2016. On 27 June 2018 the Sejm repealed the amendment, likely as a result of pressure from the government of the United States (Sommer, Sławiński & Zubel, 2018; jp, now., 2018; ph., 2018).

[4] Zawadzka, A. (2009). "Żydokomuna". Szkic do socjologicznej analizy źródeł historycznych ["Jewish Bolshevism". An Outline of a Sociological Analysis of Historical Sources]. Societas/Communitas, 2009(8), 199–244.

→ Korycki, K. (2017). Memory as Politics: Narratives of Communism and the Shape of a Community. Toronto: TSpace Repository, University of Toronto. 

→ Korycki, K. (2019). Politicized memory in Poland: anti-communism and the Holocaust. Holocaust Studies, 2019(25), 351376. 

→ Zysiak, A. (2019). Stalinism and Revolution at Universities – Democratization of Higher Education From Above 1947-1956. Studia Litteraria et Historica, 2019(8).

[5] A fitting illustration of just how canonical the anti-communist paradigm is in Poland is the Razem (Together) party, perceived as extremely left-wing by the centre-liberal media. The party is constantly filing lawsuits against its political opponents who refer to it as communist. In 2017 a member of the party Łukasz Moll published a text in which he referred to himself as “communizing”. The party reacted immediately by removing him from their ranks and by publicly condemning him (pn., 2017).

[6] Brodkin, K. (1998). How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America. New Brunswick: Rudgers University Press. 

→ Goldstein, E.L. (2006). The Price of Whiteness. Jews, Race, and American Identity. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. 

→ Ward, E. (2018, April 4). The Evolution of Identity Politics: An Interview with Eric Ward. Tikkun. Retrieved January, 22, 2020, from

[7] Rudnicki, Sz. (2008). Równi, ale niezupełnie [Equal, But Not Quite]. Warsaw: Biblioteka Midrasza. 

→ Ogonowski, J. (2012). Sytuacja prawna Żydów w Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej 1918-1939 [The Legal Situation of Jews in the Republic of Poland 1918-1939]. Warsaw: Jewish Historical Institute, 65-75. 

[8] See, e.g. Maryl Streep in the 2009 movie It’s complicated.

[9] Hardt M., Negri A. (2009). Commonwealth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[10] Standing, G. (2011). The Precariat. The New Dangerous Class. London: Bloomsbury.

→ Wright, E. (2016). Is the Precariat a Class? Global Labour Journal, 2016[7(2)], 123–135. 

→ Hardy, J. (2017). Reconceptualizing Precarity: Structure, Institutions and Agency. Employee Relations, 2017[39(3)], 263–273. 

→ Polkowska, D. (2018). Od proletariatu do prekariatu. Ciągłość czy zmiana? Próba analizy [From the Proletariat to the Precariat. Continuity or Change? An Attempt at an Analysis]. Prakseologia, 2018(160), 41–67. 

[11] Vonnegut, K. (1990). Jailbird (transl. into Polish by J. Kozak). Warsaw: Czytelnik, p.18. 

[12] I have been a part of the Studia Litteraria et Historica journal editing team since 2011. Currently, I am its editor-in-chief. See:

[13] Bourdieu, P. (2006). Pascalian Meditations (transl. into Polish by K. Wakar). Warsaw: Oficyna Naukowa, 268–293. 

Anna Zawadzka is a gardener’s helper in Berlin and a sociologist, working in the Polish Academy of Sciences, Institute of Slavic Studies (Warsaw). Her current research focuses on correlations of anti-Semitism and anti-Communism within the framework of historical politics in Poland.

All images were taken by the author.