Suddenly, back to blogging again. Good feeling.

Can There be Superior Forms Better Suited to Capital?

This is a question I have been thinking for a while by combining reflections from evolutionary biology and thoughts on the genetic code of capital coming from my PhD thesis. Genetic code is a fancy term I like but tells little about the complexity of capital relation in the way gene itself tells little about what life is. As Evelyn Fox Keller and Lewis Wolpert show separately, in explaining the complex relations between the gene, cell and their environment, the gene can no longer be thought independent of processes determining the the intra-cell and inter-cell organizations. The question is about how multiple players (perhaps actants in Levi Bryant’s terms) including regulative sequences, products of structural and regulative genes and complex signal network of the cell come together to give way to a reliable and well-functioning whole. The same applies to capital relation. The secret code of capital does not lie in one single causal factor such as ‘profit’ or ‘wage labour’ or ‘exploitation’ or ‘market’. We need to look at how all those elements come together to give way to the specific relation of capital.

But back to this question of ‘superior form’. Again, I am aware of how confusing the term is. On the one hand, we know that capital relation is INDIFFERENT to the variety of forms it may take and use/rely on. It can take the form of what Sharad Chari calls ‘fraternal capitalism’ with the toil of immensely hardworking laborers who accumulate capital; it can make sharecropping, slave labour, bonded labour or salaries as different types of wage-labour relation as Jairus Banaji shows; it can apply to both petty commodity producers and large industrialized enterprises as Henry Bernstein demonstrates. So even in its most advanced period, we can observe slave labour, PCPs…etc. as capitalist forms which survive not simply to reproduce capitalism, but to respond to several contradictory tendencies within capitalism which do not need to be related to the reproduction of capital per se. So, a homogeneous, unified tendency of capitalism does simply not exist.

But then, what are the limits of this indifference when looked from the very long-term, historical perspective? In other words, could some forms emerge in capitalism which would make some others unable to survive? And under which conditions? And more substantially, if this is the case, can those forms tell us something about the specific genetic code of capital? By ‘superior forms’ I do not mean a pre-determined, essentialist form which looks functional retrospectively. It is more like a pattern which took a shape over time, which might have started accidentally, yet evolved in certain way because of certain reasons.

This question came to my mind when I was researching London Metal Exchange. In capitalism, producer pricing systems and exchange pricing systems coexist. To make it simple, for most metals, there is a producer pricing system at the beginning of its marketisation. Large producers come together to determine the price of the metal (not always physically, but .

But I noticed something strange while examining the LME. For each metal traded in the LME, the producer pricing system fails at some point and LME acts almost as a gravitational pull for those metals. Put differently, their prices enter the orbit of the LME. When aluminum is first traded at the LME in 1978, the world’s six large aluminum producers show resistance and continue using their own producer pricing system in setting prices. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, incredibly huge amounts of aluminum invade the world market and traditional producers are no longer able to control prices. The LME price emerges as the global reference price for aluminum.

Tin is traded from the beginning of the time LME started operating in 1877. However, since 1956 International Tin Council, representing major tin producers start determining prices by export controls and via a buffer stock mechanism to buy or sell tin according to the levels of supply and demand. This continues until 1985 when new tin producers outside of the ITC emerge and the global demand for tin declines due to shift to other commodities in production areas where traditionally tin was used. The ITC which relies on huge amounts of bank credit in buying tin from the market runs out of money and became insolvent. This also effects negatively several players at the LME from through which the ITC was doing tin trade. Ironically, even though those players undertook enormous risk and lost money, the result of tin crisis helps the LME to a) issue a tin contract which became a reference contract for the world markets b) gradually introduce the clearing system which allowed a third party guarantee to the exchange transactions in order to avoid the type of insolvency caused by the tin crisis. In other words the collapse of the International Tin Council empowers the tin contract at the LME and facilitates the change of weak institutional rules at the Exchange.

Nickel is another metal set by producer pricing system. It starts being traded at the LME in 1979. Dependence of warfare on nickel pushes the US government to control production. 2 canadian companies account for half of the global nickel production in the 1950s and 1960s but the Canadian labour strike of 1969 reduce nickel supply. The rise of new producers in Australia, Dominican Republic and New Caledonia prevent Canadian producers’ ability to control nickel prices and another major strike in 1978 leads to the LME introducing the nickel contract as a reference point in the industry in 1979.

So in all those three metals, the producer pricing systems (either informally or in stricter institutionalized control of the ITC) cede their place to the exchange based pricing. To break down my questions:

1)Why is there such a shift from producer pricing system to exchange based pricing system?

2)What is the thing that the LME does, but producer pricing system does not do so that there is this convergence?

3)Can this shift/tendency tell anything about the nature of capital relation?

In order to answer those questions, we need to understand how what the LME does and how it does what it does. This is for the next post….



It was the night when I was reading Hegel’s Introduction for the third time to prepare for Matteo’s reading group. My friend looked at me and said: ‘how can one look at Hegel with such a great passion?’ Since then it is a joke, among my friends, that I never look at a man with as much passion as at Hegel… Until now.

Years ago, when I was doing my minor diploma in Sociology together with my major in Political Science, I was taught by one of the most important sociologists of my country. He had done path-breaking fieldwork in rural villages in the 1960s and 1970s and wrote on agrarian change. We were in the late 1990s and rural fieldwork was no longer popular in Turkey. The professor was teaching us Parsons whom I had found very boring and reading sentence by sentence New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time by Ernesto Laclau. And the title of the course was Sociology of Change and Transition! I wish he talked more about fieldwork, comparative studies and some ‘real’ theoretical issues on change…. Anyway, if I myself design a course like this, I would pose problems for my students. For instance, one question from my fieldwork: There are two migrant communities in the city, which rely on wastepicking (the object of my enquiry in the fieldwork). Whereas one community is reproducing itself as a kind of petty commodity producer (small family units which collect waste and sell it to recycling factories), the other one exhibits patterns of differentiation (proleterianisation and accumulation within the community). What kind of questions would you ask in order to understand the root causes of the difference?

This is the way in which I would formulate my question to my students but in the real fieldwork the differences emerged as a result of my investigation and their causes are cited below. I find this discussion relevant to the question formulated by Bhaskar and Levi Bryant I was engaging with in my previous post: Under what conditions are some tendencies/potentialities (of capital in this context) actualized and when are they inhibited?

The first wastepicking community A, started picking waste as family units in 1994 after their village was evacuated and they had to come to Ankara. Many of them set up warehouses in a squatter settlement in Ankara. Some of them were just collecting waste and selling waste to the warehouses in the area. Some of the warehouses started earning money, both thanks to family members who work and poorer wastepickers who sell to those warehouses. The warehouses could be considered as petty commodity production units (PCP), whose class position is ambivalent due to the oscillation between survival and accumulation and due to the fact that the producer is at the same time a worker.

Some members of the community A enjoyed especially significant customary rights in the city center. Thanks to high quality garbage provided by restaurants, cafes, bars and supermarkets they could get access to constant sources of income every day. The daily income was much higher than an individual wastepicker who had walk 8-9 hours in order to earn money. Moreover a recycling factory owner, gave advance money to most of the heads of families to buy their own trucks to transport waste paper, on the condition that they (wastepickers) would sell to his own factory. Ownership of warehouses, access to city center garbage and transport facilities put those family units into an advantageous position and gave accumulation possibilities. However such prospects were not actualised due to a number of reasons.

First of all, the organisation of economic and social life. The tribe is organised as extended family units and even though some families are more powerful than others, forced migration equalised those families in terms of wealth in the city. The income obtained from wastepicking is not low due to the huge amount of waste, but families are extended and daily consumption (food, rent, school for younger children) items are multiple. Moreover some money is saved for buying a house in the future or for the weddings. In the tradition of the community, when there is a marriage, the heads of all families give a high amount of money to the bride and groom so that they have the financial means necessary to set up their lives. In that sense money earnt is spent on consumption for family, rather than on investment for the business. Family in the community A is an important economic and social unit, which needs to be reproduced every day. Since each family works on its own, there is no chance to mobilise labour from within the community.

Second, the warehouses set up by those families were demolished by the local state police forces in 2004. Before this confrontation with the police, community A families had warehouses and some were also buying waste from outsiders, thus could have some chances to grow with additional labour force. But after the demolition of the warehouses, each family had to rely exclusively on the waste collected by family members. Also, they had to transport waste regularly every day with their trucks to the recycling factories, since they did not have any storage space. Had many families not owned means of transport (thanks to the recycling factory owner I mentioned earlier) some of those families could have depended on foreign warehouses, in order to sell their waste. In the recycling industry, one has to store or transport waste. This factory owner had given advance money to many of the families of the community A, on the condition that they would sell the paper to his factory. He created a large number of self-employed wastepicker families dependent on him, able to solve transport problem and provide very regularly waste paper to his factory. The latter’s possibility to accumulate, in turn, was seriously limited by the need to reproduce extended families and a direct intervention of the local state. The local state’s deliberate aim in evacuating the warehouses was to push the wastepickers to sell for a large recycling factory supported by local state officials. The wastepickers had only the trucks they could buy and had to keep it as a daily storage. In the absence of those trucks, they would need to depend on other intermediaries to sell their products (given that they are an established community rather than migrant workers who have better chances to travel to any neighbourhood where they can find a warehouse to rent or a warehouse to work in) or even become proletarians. But their PCP properties were preserved by those circumstances. Therefore the factory owner’s strategy of giving debt for buying trucks, contributed to the reproduction of family units as petty commodity production units.[1] Every day, wastepickers leave their trucks at some strategic parking points before starting to work and then finish their job around 1 or 2 Am in the morning, put all the collected waste in the trucks and go back home. Next day, they go to the recycling factory to sell their waste and then come to work again around 4 or 5 PM. There is no intermediary agency (a warehouse) between wastepickers’ families and the recycling factories, which makes their income higher.[2] 

In community B, on the other hand, the organisation of economic and social life is completely different. Community members live in warehouses they rented in a neighbourhood close to Ulus, the second city center after Kizilay in the city of Ankara. This neighbourhood was very alive when it was occupied by car repair, maintenance and building material shops. Some small warehouses buying scrap metal, paper and plastic were in the periphery of this cluster of car repair and auto spare parts shops. In 2005, those shops were relocated to a different neighbourhood due to the urban regeneration plans of the municipal administration. Some wastepickers who were very poor and did not have transport to bring their waste to the factories and depended on intermediary agencies stayed. Some other small warehouses stayed as well. However, the municipality plans to build a shopping complex for urban regeneration did not materialise. New warehouse owners benefited from this opportunity and started recycling businesses. In 2006, a group of Kurdish migrants originally from Urfa (a south eastern city), who worked in the informal recycling industry in Istanbul came to Ankara. They rented some of the empty warehouses at a relatively cheap price. With the coming of relatives and setting up of new warehouses, by 2008, there were already 30 warehouses in the area, each of which employing, depending of the season and availability, 10-30 wastepickers. The majority of wastepickers came from Urfa and had tribal linkeages, as in the case of community A, which migrated from Hakkari. 

In the community B, the population is only male, because only men come to the city to work. As opposed to community A, women work and stay in the villages in Urfa. In each warehouse one can see the warehouse tenant, an elder and respected member of a family, his brothers, cousins, nephews and different types of relatives as well as other workers who come from the same village (hemsehri). Here apart from the warehouse tenant and his first-hand relatives (his brothers) all other relatives and hemsehris are working as wage-labourers. Advance money is used, but not in order to make the worker dependent (given that he does not prefer working in another foreign warehouse), but when the worker needs, for instance, to send money to his village, to his parents. The limits of such paternalism, on the other hand, are obvious when the cars of the wage-labourer are taken by the police and when the wastepicker needs to pay the cost of a new car. Even though the warehouse owner is willing to help the wastepicker, he is reluctant to provide a new car all the time and subtract the cost of the car from his daily wage. Some of those workers are seasonal workers. Their dependence on the specific warehouse is due to the fact that they are hired and then protected by the tenant as a whole group of workers coming from the village together. They exhibit the characteristic features of seasonal workers. Therefore in some seasons of the year, there are a lot more labourers working for the warehouses.

Some of those warehouses (but especially a very large one) had important accumulation possibilities and they partly owe this accumulation to their capacity to mobilise labour rather than previous assets or capital. In other words, intensive exploitation of labour (including their own initially) lies behind original accumulation. Kinship networks whose origins are in the tribal relations in Urfa, provide the Iskitler warehouse owners the necessary resources to have this capacity to mobilise. The tribe (asiret), which had a strong “feudal and pre-capitalist” connotation in Turkish society, transforms, in the urban slums of Ankara, a resource to feed capitalist relations, by reproducing the young male wastepickers as wage labourers and by enabling gradually growing accumulation strategies. The moral rues of the tribe apply to the urban life in the same way it does to the community A and wastepickers work very hard without any tendency of escapism. The capitalist relations in community B developed via family and tribal relations, not despite them. In the community A, on the other hand, tribal relations with similar origin had different effects: The need to reproduce the family as a social and economic unit (together with other reasons cited above) blocked the use of money in further investment. Community A members had easier and better access to large quantities of waste in the city center than community B members who worked in other neighbourhoods. But this initial advantage could not transform into a means of accumulation. In community B, the individual wastepickers had to work many hours per day and still would not bring waste whose value would be equal to the waste brought by community A. But by mobilising a huge labour force, by devoting their time to work (with little family responsibility in the city), by reinvesting money into more trucks the Iskitler entrepreneurs transformed the spatial disadvantage into an advantage and their warehouses into accumulation units. Contrary to community A, the money to reproduce families in the villages was sent by the individual wage labourers. The warehouse owners, on the other hand, could use the surplus for re-investment. Some of the warehouse owners, even if they do not collect waste, work in the segregation, storage, package and transport of waste. 

Community B warehouse owners enjoy all the advantages of working in the informal sector: Labour costs, apart from the wage paid, are almost none (wastepickers sleep in the big warehouses, no social security is required); rent of the warehouses is very low (300-400 lira per month); there is no license or legal permission to get (except for some amount of bribe to pat to the zabita who occasionally checks the area). Initial cost of buying a transport (vans or trucks) and its fuel can be considered as important items only. Given that some of the recycling factory owners come from this background, warehouse owners in the informal recycling sector remind the creative entrepreneurs of De Soto (2000) at first glance. However, this is not an opportunity everyone enjoys equally. Some warehouse owners can grow thanks to the labour force he mobilised and thanks to the many other small warehouses, which depend on his networks and transport to sell their waste. Therefore creative entrepreneurs are made possible by the emergence of a set of unequal class relations within the recycling sector.

A final issue, which was a disadvantage for the community A and an advantage for the community B is the relationship with local state authorities. The municipality police forces demolished the warehouses of the community A in 2004, which eliminated storage possibilities and contributed to the reproduction of the families and petty commodity production units. The neighbourhood where community B lives, due to the pending plans of the municipal government, was not intervened by any police while some of the warehouse owners were accumulating. Moreover, even though wastepickers occasionally experienced violence by the police, they were not subject to violence similar to community A, which worked in the city center, close to each other and were publicly visible. Community B workers usually worked in different neighbourhoods and dispersed from each other.

Such differences and their impact on accumulation opportunities do not mean that specific organisations of social and economic life are in general better suited to the development of capitalist relations. But under certain conditions (or better put, when interacted with certain social relations) some forms of social and economic organisation can create the consequence of adapting better to the development of accumulation. Such organisations effect the pace and form taken by capitalist relations. While capitalist relations transform social settings, the latter give to the former their specific color. But this “color” needs to be analysed, each time, historically and specified empirically. 

Abundant labour and lack of necessity to reproduce family units immediately for community B are good resources for accumulation as long as there exist bricoleurs who use available materials for new ends. The story of a successful bricoleur in Community B, Apo, provides important insights about processes of accumulation in the informal recycling sector. His strategies not only invent him as a successful entrepreneur but also shape the specific social and spatial organisation of the wastepicking as an economic activity. Apo is the largest warehouse owner in the community B. He started his work with one warehouse and family labour in 2005. Then, he hired more labour by using his kinship ties (he is the eldest son of one of the major leaders of a tribe in Urfa). Initially, he had just one small truck to carry the waste collected every day to the recycling factories. Over time he developed two strategies: he started using his truck to go other neighbourhoods to work as an intermediary for those small warehouses or wastepickers who do not have sufficient means of transport. Second, he gave money to some of the relatives in the asiret so that they come, set up their own warehouses. Those relatives started bringing migrant labour from their regions. Apo contributed to the formation of many warehouses (in different size) in the region where community B lives and making sure, at least for an initial period, that they do sell their waste directly to him. In that way he made sure that he has a constant source of waste (plastic and paper mainly, but also scrap metal). Such strategy had immediate successful outcomes: The money was reinvested in the buying of two very large trucks for transport and Apo is now planning to open, in the future, his own recycling factory by buying the necessary machinery. The potential proletarians were transformed into petty commodity producers by Apo so that the latter could mobilise labour on behalf of Apo and so that the surplus created can contribute to the ability of Apo to invest and accumulate. Some of those warehouses, which depended initially on him, were also able to accumulate some degree of wealth and they started selling directly to the recycling factories, rather than to Apo himself. Apo was aware of this and constantly sought for other small suppliers in different parts of the city.

Apo’s strategy was similar to the recycling factory owner who helped the community A to buy trucks. In this warehouse-recycling factory relationship such strategy helped the accumulation of the recycling factory owner and helped the reproduction of the Turkozu families as PCP units. In the context of the relation between the warehouse owner and other warehouses, this strategy helped the accumulation by the former and reproduction and growth of the latter. Had the organisation of social life been different in the community A, the strategy of the recycling factory owner could also have helped some accumulation possibilities for some families. One strategy can be adopted to different contexts and generate different effects. It is difficult to weigh the role of the factors I am talking about (given that I am unable to test the outcome of what would have happened in the absence of X or Y) but comparative method still provides some insights in that regard.

The innovative strategy of the accumulators contributed to the perpetuation and increase of the petty commodity production units. One needs to be careful: There is not an inherent logic between PCP and accumulation. Under those historical circumstances, PCP helped the accumulation strategies of some individual entrepreneurs, and helped, some of the PCPs themselves to realise their aspiration for accumulation. The strategies of the accumulators coincided with the readiness of a mass of precarious, informal workers who were ready to work for those warehouses. It is correct that the recycling industry, which has developed in the 1990s and 2000s corresponds to a process of migration, urbanisation. However a large part of the workers interviewed for this study was already part of the proletarian workforce: Rural proletariat (seasonal rural workers), industrial proletariat (such as textile workers or construction workers). Some others were either self-employed or farmers cultivating their own land back in their villages.

In the case of community A, as a result of forced migration, families lost their land and started their urban life as PCP. This was a process of forced dispossession, which did not result in proleterianisation, but rather petty commodity production (involving use of family labour). De-peasantisation occurred as well since no family could continue rural activity due to state intervention. In the case of community B, most migrants were already rural proletarians (having nothing to sell but their labour-power, unemployed in some seasons and working as rural workers in others). Others who were in the same situation became self-employed warehouse owners and only a few could become real accumulators who are expanding their business (such as Apo). Therefore migration generated differentiation in this case: limited accumulation, continuation of PCP and proletarianisation (involving now both the rural and urban spheres). One needs to be cautious about the fact that the reproduction of the PCPs for Iskitler depends on the situation of the recycling industry (e.g. prices of plastic and paper) and on the ability to keep warehouses as places of residence and storage. If the urban regeneration plans are put into practice, the municipal administration will evacuate those warehouses and the warehouse owners wither look for a new place or may end up in becoming workers, because they are not settled in the city as the community A is and some do not have even transport.

Both communities A and B are enmeshed in capitalist relations of production and circulation. But the specific positions they hold in those relations, the degree of control they have over means of production differ. The possibility for accumulation was not actualised for community A and only partially actualised for community B (and we still do not know whether it will continue). Tendencies in the world of capital can be accelerated, inhibited or reversed. They have an extremely important temporal dimension. Change in capitalist society is not linear. The vocabulary of change for capital includes gradualisms as much as ruptures, bifurcations as much as reversals. 

[1] The recycling factory owner’s strategy aimed at making families dependent on his factory. However after his death his son-in-low took over the factory, wastepicking families started selling their waste to ITC, a very big company, which is supported by the municipal administration. Part of the violence exercised on wastepickers was to push them to sell their waste to ITC. A respected and wealthy member of the community A was appointed as manager to ITC and a compromise was reached between wastepickers and the municipality to sell part of their waste to the company.

[2] Most Community A families sell their waste to the ITC, one of the largest factories in which some members of the municipality administration hold shares.

One of the themes, which underpin larvalsubjects’ discussion on objects is change ( From his point of view, which I do share, the enactment of positive change requires a fair understanding of the ways in which objects enter into exo-relations and the ways in which their endo-relations give way to specific local manifestations. According to Levi Bryant, we should not be surprised about the heterogenous nature of social reality, but rather how things, which are expected to tend towards greater entropy, come to form relatively homogenous entities or become stable.

Levi introduces the concept of endo-relations of objects and asks how endo-relations are organized to give way to the forms they assume (with the argument that objects can take different forms in different environments or by entering into new exo-relations). He conceptualizes objects as difference engines because objects’ powers of producing differences in the world at the level of qualities or local manifestations. The generative capacities of the objects can be actualized or not, depending on different circumstances and exo-relations.

One of the interesting examples Levi gives is the cane toad, which originates in South and Central America and is then imported to Australia because of its success in fighting pests. However, due to lack of natural predators in Australia, cane toad populations exploded and killed off other indigeneous species. Levi says that Queensland should be considered as a new set of exo-relations which make possible the emergence of new qualities of cane toad population (acting as almost like a plague rather than fighting pests).

Levi calls regime of attractions the exo-relations between objects. He prefers this term to context/setting/environment and argues that regimes of attraction are temporary and shifting networks of relations in which an object finds itself enmeshed. He says that it would not be possible for objects to enter into new relations if those relations were not external to the objects that are related. Local manifestations are the qualities and forms the objects take in a given regime of attraction. Those manifestations are multiple, because of the multiplicity of a powers, capacities and tendencies an object can produce.

How can this way of looking at things inform our understanding of initiating change? If we want to create a perturbation in a given regime of attraction, we need to first understand how objects are related to each other in this regime. In concrete terms, such understanding can be very difficult, because we may not immediately discern in what ways an object is related to another one, how many function(s) an object assumes, which effect(s) it creates…etc. For instance something, which functions as an impediment/constraint can become a facilitator in another sense. If we want to remove this constraint in order to enact change, we may end up creating a negative effect on something else in the broader set of relations. Or the same object can create a completely different effect in another regime of attraction due to its relation to other objects. The case of cane toad that Levi gives is illustrative of this point.

In the series of Dr. House (which I find brilliant in terms of the differential diagnosis method and recommend to all my students, see, the team cures an illness such as worms. After their cure, suddenly and unexpectedly lesions appear in the brain of the patient. The team discovers that the worms were fighting against a potential brain tumor and after their disappearance lesions, which were previously repressed grew very rapidly.

a)    The (wrong) cure of worms creates a new symptom (lesions) and leads the team to think about the causality between worms and tumor. Thus the cure is for the wrong cause but approaches the team to the correct diagnosis.

b)    Most significantly we learn that something, which is relatively harmful in general for the body organism assumed a healing function in treating the real cause of the other symptoms the patient has. (The patient will be given worms again in order to reduce the size of the lesions until the drug treatment becomes effective)

Such thinking is very useful to reflect on the complex relations in social life. However flexible and transient the exo-relations might be or however the generative capacities of objects can produce different local manifestations, as Levi points out but did not yet develop in depth (at least as far as I read the relevant posts in his blog), when objects enter into relations of dependency, they can become resistant to interventions that disrupt those tendencies. Then, asked Levi, how do you introduce entropy-resistant systems to produce change? The question is not only how to overcome resistance. The point is to find out a more or less accurate picture of the nature and multiple roles different objects and actors (or actants in the vocabulary of the actor-network theory in order to cover human and non-human objects) assume.

Let me clarify with a hypothetical example from the social life. Middlemen are petty traders who act as intermediaries between small peasant producers and urban traders. They have a negative connotation in development studies, because of the high profits they make as compared to the peasant who does the real labour of harvesting, soiling…etc. I will examine two hypothetical cases to approach the problem of middlemen in order to reflect on the main question of this post, the enactment of change.

CASE 1: Let us assume that three villages in the region X, village administrators have joined their forces and made the argument that middlemen exist because they exploit an opportunity presented by transaction costs: the peasants do not have means to travel to the city center. Therefore they introduced free trucks picking up peasants during the harvest time, perhaps once a day during a month or so depending on the type of agricultural product, in order to travel to the city. The administrators did also forbid middlemen in the village stating that they buy the agricultural products at extremely unfair prices. Peasants had a chance to travel to the city in order to sell their products at the market price rather than at the price, which was offered by the middlemen. 

However, the anticipation of the village administrators failed to materialize. The peasants were not equipped enough to bargain individually in the market place. They were not prepared to deal confidently with traders in the city who were themselves used to sell higher quantities than the smaller amount offered by individual peasants. Ironically, several peasants who traveled to the city by the free transport provided by the village administrators ended up contacting a middleman in the city and selling their products to him rather than to large traders.

This brought about the following lesson: Middlemen were not solely exploiters of peasants (even though their activity of buying cheap meant extracting a great share of the value produced by the farmer and thus meant exploitation as well). They had built, over the years, a capacity to make reasonable calculations, find good contacts, had good communication skills, develop personal relationships both with peasants and large traders in the city. Yes, they abused their power vis-à-vis peasants by passing on price changes to the individual sellers, but they sometimes acted as buffer mechanisms against price fluctuations or market instability: even if there was a over-supply of goods, the middlemen could afford to buy and stock for a while those goods from the peasants, whereas individual peasants did not have this chance. Therefore middlemen were not only a solution to transaction costs. They responded to major problems in the market: a) information asymmetries, b) unequal distribution of trading and communication skills c) need for a buffer mechanism in times of instability. I am not saying that long-term projects taking into account those problems can not change the need for middlemen, but excluding simply the middleman in the short run was like cutting an important link in a large network and did not change the situation of the peasant for better.

CASE 2: three other villages in the same region took another path. Village administrators became precursors for the establishment of a peasant cooperative. The cooperative bought regularly agricultural products for the peasants. What the administrators did cleverly was to hire middlemen in the village as the managers of the cooperative. By doing this, they relied on the capacity and skills of the middlemen to bargain with the city traders. Since the quantity of the agricultural good was very high, the cooperative had the power to bargain. The multiple functions of middlemen as cited above were maintained, but this time, for a larger benefit of the peasants in a way to make middlemen win as well.

My two cases tell an important story about change, yet they are still very simplistic. Even a small village life and structure can be much more complex then it first seems, depending on tribal relations and tensions, political situation, resistance or propensity to collective action. The Case 2 could also not be successful due to different factors I did not add to the picture or the Case 1 could have been successful because peasants could have obtained an entrepreneurial culture over the years in their engagement with middlemen….etc. However, my aim was to point out to and underline a difference between the two cases in terms of approaching the social reality and offering solutions: in the first case the perception that middlemen exploited the peasants was very strong and they were replaced by free transport. In the second case, the positive effects of middlemen were recognized and used at the advantage of the peasants. The second case does not deny the negative effect of the middlemen in their relation with the peasants, but by putting middlemen into a new context/setting (manager of the cooperative) they shift the effect to something else.

The actual and potential effect of each of the elements in a regime of attraction has to be examined carefully for a new perturbation into the system. More intellectual energies have to be thus channeled to the concrete analysis of the concrete situations in contemporary world in order to accumulate and record thousands of experiences of successful change and failures. This can be one of the most revolutionary tasks of social sciences today and also of the communist laboratory as I imagine it.

Certain types of political writing in the UK give me a deja-vu feeling: New Labour is a refined version of Thatcherism, David Cameron is a synthesis of New Labour and Thatcherism, crisis undermines free market ideology yet the new Keynesianism is a form of neoliberalism, government reforms create new forms of surveillance and construct the financial citizen or self-controlling Foucauldian subject…etc. Well, critique of ideology embellished and refined with a Zizekian rhetoric has become a substitute for proper, well-grounded political analysis. And our mere political responsibility lies in unveiling the fetishism of the market. As if everything around us reflects the unfolding of a neoliberal logic, which perpetuates itself. I am not against critique of ideology, but it is naïve to believe that action will be more revolutionary when ideology is decoded, given that ideology itself is a material production and fetishism of commodities is quite ‘real’.

In Turkey, the situation is not more promising. We try to conceptualise the rise of nationalism with Zizekian psychoanalysis without any need to do some fieldwork in the social base of the nationalist party; the recent attempt to change the Constitution by the governments is described with tragedy and farce metaphors and never ‘explained’.

Once upon a time, we had less technology, less empirical fieldwork and less access to information. Yet we had better political analysis. Look at, for instance, a fine piece by Sergio Bologna ( on class composition in Italy. Don’t you think we need to popularize political analysis by facts, figures, history, agency, strategy as much as films and jokes?

Here is a modest proposal to left-wing political analysts in the UK (where access to government documents is especially easy as compared to developing countries, development studies scholars would know how good data is a nightmare in the third world!)

Let us read documents such as Parliamentary Trade and Industry Committee Reports, relevant laws, parliamentary debates, reports of independent regulatory agencies (Financial Services authority’s report on financial crisis and new regulations for instance; sectoral reports on water, communication and electricity and gas markets by OFCOM, OFWAT, OFGEM annual reports), Green Papers, White Papers, statistics of Ministry of Health and Education…

One of my former bosses when I was doing part time work to support my PhD was a member of the House of Lords and I should say that he was bloody hard working, reading every single thing especially regarding the housing issues which was his specialty and then lobbying at the parliament. Yes, we need more boring reports to read in order to do good analysis, rather than making simply aesthetised sentences…(having said that, those reports can be more interesting than it seems)

Then let us try to take regular notes on the changes in different sectors, on the way in which the government set problems and developed strategies to tackle them, on how policy proposals were made, enacted, resisted and reversed. Doing this regularly is important given that patterns can be only identified in the long term and intuition can be developed by the accumulation, observation and analysis of facts in a time frame.

Then let us make a list of how the left-wing has reacted to the policies of the last three decades we do call neoliberalism and where it made mistakes, missed opportunities, intervened cleverly or failed catastrophically…I remember that I had made angry a trade unionist organizing NHS workers by asking him whether his union ever sat down and thought about the mistakes it made during the process by which NHS came to its current situation.

Meaningful strategies cannot be developed by pure rhetoric or by lazy last minute campaigns of resisting a specific policy. They can be developed by a dynamic historical analysis of facts and figures, identification of relations of forces in society in a given context and finding out a multiplicity of manoeuvres, bifurcation points, interventions. The knowledge of the empirical accompanied by good analysis and synthesis is a must for this. This is what former student of E. P. Thompson, historian Peter Linebaugh reminded while doing an inspiring reading of what he calls the five gates of Capital in the closing plenary of Historical Materialism Conference in 2008. He pointed out how Marx was waiting for the most recent reports of the Ministries in order to write.

The author of the brilliant Infinite Thought, Nina Power has recently written a comment article in the Guardian on the recent campaign of trade unions in England. There was a facebook debate on the article. I cannot refer to all sides of the debate, because I really do not know how to ‘quote’ facebook (pages I would mention are from my own friends, so you may not see it). But I will refer to positions/arguments and I will quote more openly to Richard Seymour has written a blog post on the issue.

Basically, Nina does not object to the formulation of concrete political demands regarding work, but, by referring to political struggles of Italian workerism in the 1970s, she problematises why work is so much at the center of our political imagination and why we do no longer think of a refusal to work in capitalist society. The critiques suggest that ‘Refusal to Work’ is an untimely slogan given the rising problems of unemployment. This discussion offers an opportunity to elaborate two distinct yet interrelated questions: 1) How to formulate strategically meaningful slogans and campaigns on the left? 2) How to link immediate demands in a given context with a broader critique of capital and future socialist project? Such questions, I argue, can be better tackled if we take the concept of time more seriously.

What defines the time of left wing politics? I will put aside the broader theoretical engagement with Lenin, Bensaid, Benjamin, Osborne…etc. for another post. I will rather do quite a scattered and incoherent intellectual experiment and offer to think about four times of socialist politics, by referring to the example of Right to Work campaign.


A slogan, a campaign or action does not come out of void. As Marx reminds us, ‘the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.’

We do select slogans and offer solutions on the basis of our own past experiences. Our familiarity with specific slogans, discourses and instruments determines our perception of what is strategically more powerful. The effect of past experiences is double-edged: On the one hand they are strategic resources we rely upon, we play with and adapt to new conditions. In that sense they do not lack innovation. As soon as we apply them to a new context, they become something else. On the other hand, as long as they are simply imitated without creative bricolage, they risk being ossified and limiting imaginative solutions. In other words, past can be both a resource and a barrier to present action.

Right to Work might have been a conservative slogan. This is not a reason why a socialist cannot use it. Sign is the arena of class struggle, says Voloshinov-Bakhtin. In Turkey Islamists have become successful in the 1990s by reincorporating the socialist slogan of Just Order of the 1970s. Social justice was enmeshed with religious motives and did no longer remind, in the collective memory, the politics of the left. Lars Lih showed beautifully, how What is to Be Done is a creative translation of Social Democratic Programme in Germany to the conditions of Russian socialism. One possible option of the trade unions, then, would be to make past experiences become strategic resources. But it is not only the unconscious or intended application of past strategic resources, which matters solely. We also have to evaluate seriously past successes and failures, remember which campaigns have become effective in the past and why. We have to pose problems for ourselves: Why has the 1984 strike failed? Could it have been otherwise? Why were does the success of Living Wage Campaigns lie? We have to train our minds to think strategically.


A strategically timely and meaningful slogan and campaign, if it targets a specific and urgent problem within the existing framework, is mostly a component of a common dialogical discursive framework shared by the bourgeois and working classes. Marc Steinberg shows how in nineteenth century textile workers used the language of classical political economy in order to demonstrate the value they create and justify why they expect wage increases and better working conditions. Right to work implies a claim to be inside rather than against capitalism, because in capitalism subjection to wage-labour is the only way of survival for those who do not own means of production. But Richard Seymour offers a militant application of this slogan. For him, right to work should also include ‘working less’ for the same wage in order to reduce the surplus value extracted by the capitalist. One of the contributors of the discussion, for instance, suggested that ‘decent’ work should be underlined in the campaign.

Even though I agree with a more militant application of the slogan, there is something much more serious regarding the issue: What types of work are we talking about? Shall we only adopt a defensive mode and fight against job cuts? Shall we only claim our right to work? Or shall we also push institutions and the government to implement incentives to create more work? In some emerging markets, governments undertake infrastructural investments and literally ‘create jobs’, as in the case of rural India. Are similar possibilities applicable to the British case? Does the structure of the British economy allow for the government to be act as a solution to unemployment? Do socialist economists make sufficient sectoral analysis to make such suggestions?

Some critics found Nina’s emphasis on refusal to work by Italian workerists of the 1970s untimely, because, they say, the most acute problem today is unemployment, the context is crisis, people risk losing their jobs and refusal to work can contribute to the conservative agenda of pushing women back home. I do agree with those critiques to a certain extent, given that the present time is important. We do politics here and now, people are losing their jobs now and we should say something about it now. But my agreement lasts as long as we do not get enslaved within the boundaries of the present. Present time is the most sinister of all times. If present indifferent to history is blind, present indifferent to future can only be short-sighted.

near future

Even at the moment of its formulation, the strategic slogan rings the bells of its future death. All socioeconomic struggles are politically retarded, said Tronti (as referred to by Matteo in his intervention on the political in the HM). As soon as a sector has entered the orbit of law of value irresistibly, all efforts have a defensive side in the world of capital. For the law of value will discipline individual capitalists and will dictate job losses. Therefore, a good organization has to calculate what will happen if it fails or when it loses the battle. It has to anticipate what to do when the restructuring takes place. This is what I argued in the post on Organising as Craftwork ( The organizer in my case study knew that the street wastepickers would be, at some point, transformed into proletarians and the recycling sector would undergo drastic transformation after a process of primitive accumulation. Even though the movement of wastepickers ‘resisted’ this proletarianisation in the present time, the organizers were trying to ‘prepare’ the workers for the future moment. They were aiming at a union, which would defend the rights of wastepickers when they become proletarians. The organizers considered the scavengers as proletarians in their seeds in order to guarantee that the movement continues to grow after change.

Another good example can be seen in the anti-privatisation struggles. In Turkey, there were many local struggles by workers who resisted privatisation of their factories and most of them failed. Most recently, tobacco workers resisted the fact that the state-owned institutions where they work shift their contract from the permanent status to an insecure, precarious status. Their union did not support them and adopted a more compromising attitude. A group of organizers, who foresaw that this resistance would fail at some point, launched a new association to organize workers with precarious contracts. Their aim was to make sure that all those workers who accumulated their experience of resistance and have politically socialized over months of struggle do not get dispersed.

What are the implications of those examples for the Right to Work Campaign? Organisers have to envisage a future in which people lose their jobs, there is more unemployment, migrant workers are blamed…etc. Therefore, right to work, right to decent work, right to less work…campaigns have to foresee a future where our claim to work is denied, where some types of work are moribund and others emerge. Many jobs were lost with privatisation but others emerged (call centres, wastepicking, informal sector work). Unions or other revolutionary organizations have to channel their energies into those areas of new, less secure work in order to gain strength. If I were to work for the campaign in the UK, I would a) commission Marxist economists to prepare an alternative plan for public spending including strategies to create employment and to raise revenues b) find out emerging forms of labour against the declining ones and start organizing people employed in those areas c)l aunch an association to bring together people who are in the process of losing their jobs and enhance legal assistance for individual cases.

Taking time seriously does not mean to find strategies compatible with the present time simply. It means thinking back and forth, being one step forward, in the way capital is. Still, we did not come to the end point. There is another time of socialist politics where Nina’s points make a lot of sense.

another concept of time

In present and near future, we were still in the time of capital. We struggle, but within the boundaries of capitalist time. We accumulate experiences, develop strategies. There is still another time, a time which is not born. Time of socialism. Socialism, which will also transform our very understanding of time, our very understanding of work. It is true that we are not the children of this time. Yet an immanent understanding means that this alternative time will be borne from within this one.

Nina says, in her article in the Guardian, ‘The Right to Work campaign, although vital, plays into this attitude that work is the ultimate mark of a man or, in more recent decades, a woman too.’ Later on in one of the discussions about her article, she reinforces her earlier point: ‘I do not think that it’s incompatible to argue for better working conditions, higher wages reform and at the same time wonder what we’re doing when we value work so highly.’ (emphasis is mine). I think Nina is definitely right and the immediacy and presentist attitude of campaigns should not miss this point. In this statement we do hear the distinct voice of the philosopher whose mind is trained to be ‘surprised’ at things which we take so much for granted. Yes, why do we value work so much in this society? The question can not be simply answered by the British moral attitude to work as Nina mentions in her article (an attitude which is also existent, for example, for the American working class as revealed by Richard Sennett, Michele Lamont..etc.). But taking the question one step further, perhaps we can formulate: ‘What is so strange in capitalist society which makes human labour so central?’ (so central that, as Nicole Pepperell and Sam Knafo argue, despite all technological advances and labour redundancies, new forms of work emerge in every historical period of capitalism)

It is because I take Nina’s question very seriously that I wrote the post on the Red Star. In Red Star Alexander Bogdanov offered a new concept of work and a new organization of labour in a post-capitalist society. (See previous post for details: In this new society, statistical agencies collect data, which are translated as shortage and supply of labour in each sector. Individuals can follow those live data in front of each factory and can ‘choose’ their work. They have different talents in their previous education in order to shift between different sectors. Their choices about where to work are added to the data regarding supply and demand of labour. Division of labour is the aggregate effect of free individuals’ choices. I also offered in other posts that automation of labour in certain areas should be used so that individuals have more time to philosophizing, hunting and painting as the famous Marxian utopia suggests.

Capitalist society constructs us as workers who sell their labour power, who can do other things only in ‘leisure time’. But socialist thinking requires a new understanding of work, a new understanding of time, where perhaps the very division between work time and leisure time will no longer apply. If Nina’s intervention is very important to remind us this post-capitalist vision, Red Star is a very important intellectual exercise to help us to concretize it.

I suggest past, present, near future and a new concept of time as four times of socialist politics informing our imagination and radical action and making redundant the dichotomy between the formulation of immediate political demands and questioning of the nature of capitalist work.

One of the arguments which underpin the previous posts on Red Star, Cybersyn and Flower Market, yet are not explicitly stated is that socialist reconfigurations should be free enough to use state and market instruments alike. In this post I will try to better formulate this argument in this post by deriving insights from Rough Theory and Hack the State ( and

 While neoliberalism praises free markets, the contrasting memory of real socialism points out to central planning as the main driving force to organise an otherwise anarchic economic life. Historical insight and multiplicity of communist possibilities rectify this over-simplification: Planning has become an important component of different periods and contexts of capitalist development; whereas socialism does not inherently require centralised state planning, especially with the availability of complex information technologies. Yet, even in the aftermath of the most recent financial crises, the options the left is promoting is limited to a democratic planning and public control of resources, none of which really addressing the specifics of the organisation of economic life in a communist society.

Take, for example, the recent Declaration of Leftist Parties on Europe about crisis. (, 3 May 2010). Even though it can be read as a strategic, timely and pragmatic document, it is still poor in imagination. For instance the document reads: ‘We need a programme of measures that can lift the economy out of crisis on the basis of giving priority to people’s needs rather than profits and imposing democratic control over the market. We need to stand for an anti capitalist answer: our life, our health, our jobs before profits.’ But we do not know how market control will be achieved, how jobs will be created, how people’s needs will be met.

Projects which claim to be alternative to capitalism promote direct control of production, command of economy by the communities at local levels. Bu if different instruments in history (including capitalism) are available to be ‘hacked’ in the language of Hack the State and ‘reconfigured’ in the language of Rough Theory, for a communist society, then it is becoming more difficult to sustain a genuine alternative based on free associated producers who make collective decisions on every aspect of the economy. It may be misleading to romanticize collective decision-making and communal values (Peterson, 2007, shows how communities can be source of inequalities as much as markets). Rather, advanced technology, impersonal rules of the market, automated production systems in capitalist society can be used so that individuals have more time to channel energies towards other activities which would maximize potentials promised yet repressed by capitalism (fishing, hunting, philosophizing and other things which we can only imagine and not fully predict). Organisation of production is a means rather than an end for the communist ideal this book is defending.

I defend neither a form of welfare state/social democratic capitalism nor a romanticized ideal of communal life. I try to mine the insightful experiences, ideas and instruments available in contemporary world and I already gave three examples in previous posts. In this post, I do show why and how such an exercise is possible and feasible with the help of an engagement with the debates on the role of planning and market instruments for the organization of economic life.

Planning has been an important instrument for capitalist development in the history of modern society. Not only in the Foucauldian sense of serving the needs to govern a ‘population’, which is a modern invention. It has been cherished by urban designers; defended by left wing structralists as a way to alter the structure of international trade at the advantage of late comers (Prebisch, 1970); transmuted into a government instrument to neutralize class conflicts, yet generating new contradictions due to the putting into motion of the productive forces of capital (Chatterjee, 1998). The IMF and the World Bank themselves supported the establishment of planning agencies in developing countries whose politicians were using undisciplined inflationary spending to strengthen their political support while achieving economic growth. More radical use of planning in socialist countries took the name of command economy and it was subject to heavy criticism by neoclassical and Austrian economists, but overall, planning did not necessarily have an inherently negative connotation in the trajectory of capitalist development until the rise of neoliberalism.

It is in the 1980s that the correlation between efficiency and planning lost complete legitimacy. What was the motive of capitalist development suddenly became an impediment to it. And one did not even have to be right-wing neoliberal or Hayekian in order to attack planning as the source of bureaucratic inefficiencies or economic crises (see Hayek, 1944 for a hostile critique of Soviet planning). Through a delightful analysis of eight different cases including Europe, Africa and Soviet Russia, James Scott (1998) showed that top-down and centrally planned state projects are condemned to fail both in socialist and capitalist systems alike. On the other hand, despite declining credibility, state-led planning received a positive endorsement by institutionalist economists who praised the developmental bureaucrats of the East Asian countries as the major driving force behind the competitive performance of the region (Amsden, 1989; Chang, 2002). According to this view, planning enhances, rather than distorts development and should be adopted with infant industry protection in developing countries as the only viable path out of poverty. Other studies indicated the historically contingent outcomes of state intervention (Evans, 1992): Planning could be a perfect tool for developmental state, a source of corruption and rent-seeking in predatory states.

Those critical voices were important, but they did not manage to challenge the pro-market believers. One could even argue that the recent financial crises were unable to create a seismic effect on the reversal of supply and demand mechanisms as the best possible means to give signals for price and wage setting and re-introduce state’s pro-active intervention in the economy. Better regulation of the market seems to be the only game in town. The main question is how to minimize transaction costs, information asymmetries, manipulations and greed, which distort the market but a belief in the spontaneity of the market is kept intact.

What does this cursory glimpse at the history of planning and market tell us? Which view of the use of market and planning is more valuable? Is planning a facilitator or obstacle of development? Does it create bureaucratic inefficiency or contribute to rapid accumulation? Are markets really able to act as spontaneous price signal mechanisms or are they inefficient and imperfect? Are market and planning instruments mutually exclusive or can they coexist? From our perspective all the statements in those questions are equally socially plausible yet none of them reflect universal and totalising truth. Their reality is partial, one-sided and historically contingent. But it is exactly this apparent paradox, which a genuine alternative can take its cue from. If both state and market tools can assume different forms, generate different consequences, be used for different purposes, then there is not one single inherent meaning and function of those tools.

State and market are real abstractions fetishised in capitalist society. But let us think, one moment, that we can disaggregate state and market instruments, de-contextualise and re-assemble them for new purposes, for a communist society. Let us meditate upon what other potentials are hidden in those tools. The fact that they have functioned or failed for different purposes is an opportunity for us. For instance, state-led planning might have served a capitalist elite, rationalized the economy, wasted resources or speeded up capital accumulation in different contexts, by interacting with diverse actors and institutions. In the same way, markets might have produced failures, inefficiencies on the one hand, contributed to discipline of its participants and more transparency on the other hand. Bourgeois theoreticians naturalise and essentialise the properties of markets, yet they pre-dated capitalism and can be equally destructive and constructive. Why wouldn’t one use innovative and technologically advanced models of market place (as an arena for buyers and sellers to meet to trade goods and services) for a communist society? (Here I do not promote a kind of market socialism, even though this is an important debate, which requires more serious attention, see Andreani, 2008).

Historically specific outcomes state and market generated in different contexts suggest they can produce other outcomes. Nicole Pepperell’s pathbreaking work theorised this possibility with a very original reading of Capital. Hence the possibility for a communist bricolage. That is why it is not impossible to derive some ideas from the history of neoclassical economics or use an instrument, which was originally produced for reinforcing the power of capitalist class (An interesting work, which is useful for the type of analysis we make here is the rather eclectic approach defended by Amartya Sen in developing solutions of development. Even though I am very critical of Sen’s own position, some of his insights can be productively used. For instance Sen argues that the popular ‘return to Keynes’ argument fails to be imaginative and does not engage with some of the innovative suggestions of neoclassical economists on the question of how to achieve ‘welfare’ in a market economy, a problem Keynes never addressed directly).

In a given moment, it might be difficult to sustain this claim or instrument politically, since instruments I do offer may be overloaded with meanings. For instance ‘market’ has been associated so much with neoliberalism, our encounter with the market has so much negative connotation that it may be difficult to politically sustain a solution including a market component. But the organization of Flower Market and the combination of planning instruments with market signals in Red Star suggest, in a very promising way, that we can imagine markets, which contribute to a socialist project rather than reproducing the value form. Therefore, to be imaginative, I do offer to suspend the ‘political moment’ for a moment. Not that not it is unimportant, on the contrary, implementation of projects such as Cybersyn is a political issue par excellence (remember also how fascist Pinochet regime destroyed the system), but rather because only by postponing this question, one can fully exploit the existing potentials of the objects in their de-contextualised form. This can help us to investigate what is possible rather than looking at what is given. This can help us to go beyond what is familiar to us in our political context, our ideological commitments, our preconceptions.

After a disjunction with the actual temporality to free our thinking, we should come back to the contemporary moment once again to ask how the possible will become actual. By then it will be the time of doing political analysis, calculating configuration and positioning of existing forces, devising strategies of action. At that new moment, we will travel, from the universe of science fiction, history of planning and economic theories to the world of Vladimir I. Lenin, Antonio Gramsci, Daniel Bensaid. Our vocabulary will now be more about incentives, constraints, opportunities, alliances, negotiations and struggles. It will guide us in breaking and re-building in a completely new form, the kind of Deleuzian assemblage which capitalism is.

Back to Istanbul, I attended a very interesting political meeting to organise the precarious, insecure, contract, part-time workers.  I had already attended (and sometimes organized) several of those meetings before going to England for the Msc/PhD and I am usually extremely bored with their length, inefficiency, lack of joy and energy… so I did not have high expectations. Indeed, I had a deja-vu feeling first. Very similar meeting roles were performed once again, after five years: Some left wing people who determine a ‘need’ (to organise a union) on behalf of millions of workers, representatives of workers’ movements who are cautious about those people, yet want to cooperate, people who offer to use the traditional methods of organising meetings, people who offer to do proper research about workers’ lives before any action, people who have good rhetorical skills yet whose talk reflects little proper content, people who ask brilliant questions, yet unable to have a leadership position, people who talk non sense… etc. Yet, the meeting differed from old ones in many ways: It lasted only two and a half hours, everybody listened to each other carefully, accepted their insufficiencies against criticisms, a kind of realistic plan was set forward at the end.

A general contradiction which underpinned the whole meeting and I observed clearly was between those who came from the tough practice of organisation, from localities and those who have a more generalised view about class. This brought me to my notes about the tension between what I call the deductive reasoning of the devoted partisan and the inductive logic of the organiser.

In the monumental and amazing biography of James Cannon, the leader of the working class and Trotskyst movement in the US at the beginning of the 20th century, Brian Palmer tells how, after the Russian Revolution, Cannon felt that he needs to read ‘more theory’ since the Russians knew the theory of revolution. Cannon came from a working class background, started organising workers at a very young age, and traveled constantly. He knew how to talk to people, how to agitate, how to network and how to build class solidarity despite extreme problems of unification given the extreme diversity of working class (e.g. migrants). Yet he felt that he needed a kind of what we can call ‘revolutionary epistemology’. When I was reading Cannon’s words, I remembered the words of the leader of a grassroots working class movement. He was criticised by his master for being a ‘narrow practitioner’. He would later accept that his movement did also need a ‘theoretician of revolution’, someone who would see things from a different perspective, someone who would show things he is unable to see. 

While the organiser complain about lack of theory, the devoted partisan is criticised for being ‘too theoretical’, ‘book-based’ since he tries to apply his general theoretical knowledge about revolution and strategy to reality, without doing a context-specific analysis of the situation. 

Why does the local organiser envy and aspire to a theory of revolution? And why does the source of the organiser’s envy make the dogmatic partisan ridiculous? Why does the former suffer from little theory and the latter from too much of it? Does the problem reside in the absence/presence of theory itself or its very usage? Isn’t the organiser already a theoretician, already, something he is unaware of? The tacit intuitive knowledge he has about what to do is based, in fact, on observations, talks with others (similar to interviews of an ethnographer), trial and error (testing hypotheses for a scientist), deriving conclusions. Those are all components of an inductive type of reasoning, which does not accept easily the over-generalised statements of a deductive type of thinking. The organiser relies on great resources of research and can see, with his eagle eye, what external eyes cannot. He has the capacity to respond to the immediacy of the situation, act with his intuitions, the by-product of experience rather than expertise. He knows what to do in a given context, but he is unable to pick up the best long-term strategy. He can respond quickly to changing circumstances, yet would find it more difficult to adapt to a new context. In a new context, his previous knowledge can be a good resource to begin with, but he may rely on it too much so that former experience can be a barrier rather than a facilitator. Even in his own context, he can get stuck after a while because he may not design a long-term strategy, which can be judged to be successful for this or that reason. He has no chance to compare his experience with others. He has immense material, which can be used creatively, but he is unable to sytematise properly. He can develop immediate tactics in a given situation but is unable to make long-term plans. There is a kind of order in his chaotic behaviour, but he does not reflect enough on this. His behaviour and strategies can be of use to many, but may be self-replicating and unproductive in the long term.

The partisan, on the other hand, has absorbed the didactic teaching of of his master, of the party, of the classic books of revolution and Marxism. He has general statements from which other statements can be derived and which are, from his perspective, applicable to all situations. He has assumptions about what a proletariat, a revolution, an objective condition is. He has the potential to see the forest rather than the trees, in contrast to the local organizer. Yet, his conceptual tools are frozen rather than alive. He wants to apply the same framework to every situation and is unaware that, some of the general formulations of great theoreticians were the outcome of context-specific knowledge and experience. He even cannot see that some of the statements of the theoreticians he cites are contradictory, because they were stated in different contexts. When he observes an empirical fact, which contradicts his own view, he tends to disregard it as an exception or abnormality. He has clear opinions of what is wrong and what is right. His strategy can be successful occasionally, when people he appeals to start fitting his assumptions or even performing his theory. For nowhere can one find a pure social setting which fits his assumptions. He makes coherent plans, yet does not think about tactics. He may find ideological supporters proponents in different milieus, but finds it very difficult to have a mass base.

The local organizer and the revolutionary partisan do not like each other very much. But one day they need each other: The local organizer realizes that he has to go beyond the immediacy of the situation in order to make progress. His perception about what he lacks is a revolutionary epistemology for which he turns his face to the revolutionary partisan he humiliated once. The partisan, on the other hand, realizes that he lacks local knowledge and empirical data to make his theory more efficient. He is more prepared to test his assumptions, for which he decides to listen to the organizer. Neither of them is ready to give up arrogance. What comes out of their reluctant yet much obliged encounter?

to be continued…

In Ontological Problem of the Worker, I discussed the contradictions of the worker whose aspirations and desires were stimulated by bourgeois dreams. I also said how the working class organiser appealed to those contradictions and desires. In this post, I am using Richard Sennett’s beautiful Craftsman as a way to zoom in the specific practice and thinking of the organisers in working class neighbourhoods. I argue that considering organising as craft work can offer some useful insights to better theorise the tacit knowledge and everyday practices of the organisers.

The Emancipatory Pulse in Richard Sennett’s Craftsman:

Working Class Organizer as Craftsman

 Craftsman is a real gem by one of the finest authors of the last decades. It is pleasurable to read for those who enjoy not only being immersed in their reading but also appreciate the beautifully minimalist style: Sennett did apparently work on his book as a craftsman while ordering chapters, choosing the correct words, avoiding any excessive style and making a sophisticated yet still accessible argument. But the book is not written only for the sake of being done well as in a craftswork. In the new century where the pessimism of the past socialist experiences is ceding its place to the optimism of the struggles in the global south and in Europe underlining the possibility of another world once again, Sennett offers the first volume of his trilogy as a tribute to pragmatist philosophy which can be seen as the foundation of a future socialism.

This essay is not an appraisal of the book itself since everybody should read this book, which speaks enough for itself. I rather tend to apply the suggestions and ideas in the book ‘pragmatically’ as Richard Sennett would like it by using what he calls a “domain shift”. I offer to think political organization and mobilization of working class as a type of craftswork.

A note of caution: One can rightly criticize Sennett of not fully exploring the dark power relations in the workshop of the craftsman. Sennett himself acknowledges from the very outset, how the workshop is a place made and reproduced by the authority of the master. But, there is little critical and challenging tone in talking about the organization of the work and the role of craftsman in reproducing the unequal power relations. This position is quite strange for a reader who knows Sennett’s previous work (Hidden Injuries of Class, Authority, Corrosion of Character) where authority and power were examined in their different modalities, from everyday relations to broader structures of class and status. As compared to those books, Craftsman has a strongly affirmative tone about life and offers practical alternatives.

Yet I argue that it is the overemphasis on this affirmative tone, which becomes the strength of the book. Sennett does not talk about “creativity” but about skill as “trained practice”: repetition, hard work, the way in which hand and brain learn working together in harmony. The choice is deliberate: Sennett gives priority and supremacy to training and development of potentials and talents over inherent and mysterious creativity. Even though he does not mention the different reasons which block the exploitation of equal capacities to become a craftsman (e.g., schooling system, psychiatric obstacles to the development of self-confidence, parental authority), there is a definitely radical point about what he is saying, very similar to Jacques Ranciere’s principle of equal intelligence in the Ignorant School Master. Radical enough to challenge the liberal ideas of measuring, classifying, comparing and failing people’s intelligences and to show concretely the processes by which capacities can be transformed into action. In that sense, the book is the proof, par excellence, of the final motto that “everybody can become a craftsman”. It is this crucial political conclusion which would resonate in what the most important leader of the wastepickers community told at the edge of a Turkish urban slum in the summer of 2007: “Everybody can become a working class leader.”[1] 

Organising as craft

The Handbook of Workplace Representatives which was distributed to the reps of one of the biggest public sector unions in Turkey in 2002, was not welcome by the reps themselves. Printed by the central administrative branch of the union, the handbook included a wide range of issues including the behaviours reps should adopt, while approaching the potential members. The reps did not know how to make use of this handbook “without a soul”. Practical knowledge to teach them the guidelines of good radical activism lied somewhere else: The huge university campus with its workshops, departments, drivers’ resting place, small factories, labaratories, cafeteriats were the microcosmic universe of the reps in the same way of the workshop of the craftsman. The regular visits made by the reps to those different units, the way in which senior reps talked to workers and members, the way in which they reflected upon different situations, diverse approaches to different problems, their wisdom in context-specific situations were the resources from which the young reps did feed their minds and developed their skills. If skill is a trained practice as Sennett argues and there requires 10.000 hours to become a good musician or carpenter, the young rep needed equal amount of time to be a good organizer. Joe Hill, James Cannon, Louise Michel must have been all good apprentices in that way.

Thanks to this experience the junior reps not only learnt new things, but also un-learnt others, and this latter was more difficult to achieve: they would learn the vocabulary of workers who use special words to express feelings of exploitation and frustration for instance, that many workers needed to be more recognition and respect than higher wages. They would understand why tea breaks are more important than other demands at the workplace. Of course social history books teach some of those things but they can be understood in full blood only when they are experienced concomitantly. They would also grasp unexpected causalities between different things: Explaining political issues to workers does not automotically generate political consciousness but the building of emotional confidence can be an invaluable vehicle for political support. They could also notice how important the young workers’ emotional and sentimental problems are, since it is where class relations express themselves in their most acute form. Most senior organizers would not tell you those things if you ask him the sources of their success or the ways in which they organize workers. As Sennett tells us, most of craft knowledge is tacit knowledge, smg which even risks losing its power if verbally explained. But close observation and experience can reveal the methods of the organizer. Still, obtaining skills means heavy training. The organizers need to organize, make mistakes, learn from their mistakes, make some systematic analysis, process in their own mind the knowledge they get every day. This is like the routine of the cellist playing the same piece every day, perhaps hundred of times as Sennett tells us.

The leader of the wastepickers’ movement in Turkey did not have a handbook to follow. Neither did he have enough senior organizers to follow in a strong trade union. His resources were his personal talents and qualities and all the bits and pieces he collected from different experiences during twenty years of struggle in left wing groups and also community organization. Yet, he responded to many challenges of the movement he was guiding in certain ways strangely similar to Sennett’s description of craftswork.

His first amazing quality was that he was almost an ethnograph: Brilliant observer, able to grasp complex relations in the neighbourhoods and capable of adapting the knowledge he learns about personal relations to other domains. The first challenge he had in the building of the wastepickers’ movement was the ethnic heterogeneity of the communities he decided to work with, together with his comrades. In the literature on class organization, ethnic diversity is considered to be an obstacle to overcome. However, for the wastepickers’ organizers, ethnicity was not defined as a-priori problem in itself. Implicitly embedded in their practices was a notion of ethnicity to work on, play with and benefit from. In other words they did not start with a generalized assumption about the relationship between class and ethnicity. The position to this relationship was left, rather, ambiguous.

Sennett tells how Amsterdam-origin van der Eyck made the borders in childrens’ park ambiguious and let them discover ways to protect themselves rather than putting them in isolation.  Ambiguity in design, rather than clearly defined rules and borders opened up possibilities for the children to explore and learn themselves. Ambiguity played a similar role for the working class designers/organizers in the wastepickers’ community. The organizers were very clear, from the outset, about defining wastepickers as members of the “proletariat” by calling them “waste paper worker”, but they adopted a more ambigious language about the problem of ethnicity. Rather than telling to the workers that the organization should be above any ethnic differences in advance, they let the workers experience this issue themselves. In certain warehouses, Kurdish and Turkish workers lived and worked together. Some were good friends. In the magazine the articles of different workers were published side by side. Sometimes when a Kurdish worker was telling how he was exerted violence by the police forces, the intervention of someone who witnessed police violence for other ethnic groups served as a useful corrective. Sometimes perceptions and discourses emphasized ethnic differences (“the police is right, kurdish workers are the ones who do not work properly”), but practice showed no sign of reluctance to cooperation. On the contrary, collective action was a general problem also peculiar to the individuals within the same community. Ambiguity allowed the members to discover their own experiences, especially in group meetings, to reinforce or alter their preconceptions about the others. Interestingly enough, the organizers knew to use ethnicity at their advantage by using ethnic ties within certain communities as a means to fasten organizational networks, in a way to remind another motto of Sennett: rather than resisting potential barriers, accept and work with them.

Not always did the organizers practice successful craftswork. Sennett talks about three stages of craftswork: localizing (making the matter concrete), questioning (reflecting on its qualities) and opening up (expanding its sense). One could argue that working class organizers had poblems especially in the third stage. At the beginning, the localizing strategy was successful: Organizers had the successful tactic of getting in touch with some important members of the community in a given neighbourhood and developed their networks through them. Tea breaks, small meetings, regular visits made those people feel worth something. They became hosts of those marginalized spaces. Sometimes organizers did also visit the workers at their “workplaces”, streets and garbage places. From one point of view, the organizers did an important job since they brought the association “to the people”. They did what the critiques of centralized party structures already said: go to neighbourhoods, organize people where they live. Not only in the streets where they work, but also in the warehouses where they live. Yet, the unconscious application of this motto did work only on a short-term basis. The organizers were successful in local demonstrations or in bringing people to large ones in the city center temporarily. But this whole process was not accompanied by the building of horizontal links between different communities, both in social and spatial sense of the term. A parallel construction of some new spaces where workers come and meet, not only with each other, but with others, where they could also learn to be less scared of the public gaze which alienates them so much was not made possible. In the absence of such spaces, organizers could not transform boundaries into borders as Sennett argues in this gigantic living organism which the city is. The organizer should have worked like an alchemist to mix different ingredients (mixing different communities’ members, mixing different localities) and see how they react. Organizers had one-to-one relationships with the workers themselves, by not enabling such an interaction among the latter. They could not test the new possibilities and limits of such an interaction.

Another important strategy which was exploited only to a certain exten was the use of public places in the city center. For some workers the visiting of those spaces in their day off was a perfect means to re-own a space where public gaze humiliated them six days a week. Most of them would not dare to do that.  Yet, the ones who did meet the organizers sometimes in the city center (parks, streets, unions to visit) they started questioning, perceiving another reality, rethinking about his/her position both in negative and positive ways. Moreover organisers brought a group of workers to different cities wher they travelled to disseminate their ideas, sell their magazines and build new organisational networks.

What happens if the craftsman is no longer able to evolve in his/her work? The leader of the movement felt stuck at some point in the evolution of the movement. Yes, there was greater interest from other unions, NGOs, the wastepickers of other cities. Yet, the internal organization was getting weaker, the organizational resources scarce and the energy limited. The daily life problems were still solved but a new direction and possible leaps were missing. Faced with this problem, the leaders introduced what Sennett called “complexity” (with reference to F. Gehry employing a new material (titanium) as a challenge to help solving a design problem. The complex element added to the matrix was a new task for the movement: setting up a trade union rather than staying as a movement and association. The association had mostly Kurdish members since the most radical elements of the movement had started in the Kurdish area where police had used violent forces. The movement had informal members too but a strong organizational network was definitely missing.

Offering a trade union, a very traditional form of working class organization may seem odd and even contradictory at first glance, given that almost none of the objective conditions of the trade union existed properly in the context of wastepickers. The proposal could appear rather anachronistic in the context of an appraisal of more indigenous social movements. Since the Labour Law did not allow unions in the informal sector, this could have been even a dead attempt from the very outset. The point is that the leaders were aware of those possible objections as they told me openly, upon my curious questions. Yet, they were not looking for “a correct form” to suit the situation of their struggle. Introducing the possibility of a trade union had a completely different objective. This puzzle would allow them to open up new debates about existing problems. The leaders were inviting their fellow workers to think together about the next step in a movement which, they foresaw, was consuming its potential. The discussion of union would enable the workers to reflect upon, in more pragmatic means, some theoretical problems which could not be addressed as such within the community: How is it possible to be a union member if there is no proper employer? What happens if there is no formal job contract for many of them? What happens to the warehouse owners and the workers since there is no clear-cut differentiation between them? If the sector of the union is the recycling sector as a whole, shouldn’t the recycling factory workers become members in the same way as the wastepickers? How to organize the former? What role could wastepickers assume in their organization? What kind of demands should the workers have? Should they ask for better prices, social security, health services? From whom, the state, factory owners? The answers to those questions needed to put down on paper, need to be agreed on and this required a serious discussion, more serious and demanding than the previous ones which had been carried out on the basis of immediate needs and reflexes towards violent action by the police forces.

A previous proposal was a cooperative to centralize the collection of garbage and selling as a company to factories to have a better bargaining power and increase the economic share of the wastepickers. This was rejected by some organizers on the grounds that this would be another form of capitalist enterprise aiming at profit, perhaps reinforcing and creating new power relations and adding little to the critical position of the movement itself. The trade union proposal, on the other hand, was about organization, fight, resistance, formulation of new demands. It required subjective will, decision-making and more challenge. Cooperative was to alleviate, if not fully solve, immediate economic problems; the union was to set new problems to reflect upon the present and the future. It was an invitation to the worker to think about the present and the future, to take initiative.[2] It was also a challenge for the leaders themselves, to try the new, the untested, to use those communities as labaratories where failures as much as successes were still affordable. The leaders’ imagination should be open to configure new situations, recast problems, use old tools for new ends.

Behind the idea of the union and the holistic approach to organization lied another strong motivation which made the main leader of the movement a man of vision. He did not limit his perception about his craft not only something which belongs to the present, but also to the future. The leader had a high historical sense to understand that the whole process of restructuring was a proces of change and the thousands of wastepickers would be effected by this “irreversible” process as he calls. He did predict a process of proletarianization which would deeply effect and change the situation. Therefore he not only fought for the daily life problems, everyday form of violence in the streets and health conditions, but wanted to prepare his fellow workers for this approaching future. That is why he wanted to set his task as “gaining enough strength for keeping everybody together and with well defined demands” when this moment of proleterianization would arrive. If he had considered himself as the protector of the customary rights as in the Moral Economy of English workers documented by E.P.Thompson, his existence would be ended by the restructuring of the industry. Yet, his task was to transform his own time into a world-historical time. By projecting both future problems and future possibilities into the present, the organizer had a new approach to time and made sure that his workers do not become “delayed proletarians”. Rather, he accepted them as “proletarians in their seeds” and imagined tasks and possibilities in advance for them. He tried to prepare them for this future. The sectoral approach of organization was also the outcome of such thinking. This is almost the power of the futuristic craftsman, of his ability for “being into the material”: “anticipating what the material should become in its next, as yet-non-existent stage of evolution… process of corporeal anticipation always one step ahead of the material” (Sennett, 2008). The leader thus imagined the non-existent and a vision for the future: A future utopia which might not come in his life time but whose existence depended on how he acts in today’s time. A more realistic long term project of sectoral mobilization for potential proletarians whose possibility depended on his own actions and its unintended consequences. Thinking in terms of potentialities and capacities, in terms of what “can become” rather than simply “what already is”. 

The craftsmen described in Sennett’s book do all work with different material: The potter with crockery and soil, the urban designer with space, the cook with food ingredients. The working class organizer worked with real living individuals. That is why it was more difficult to calculate the consequences of their actions and their strategies. But apparently they did also follow some similar rules and logic about their own practice: observing, investigating, localizing, expanding the sense of the material, working with resistance, temporary suspension of closure. Time and space were even more important dimensions of this type of craftswork too.

Is it possible that type of tacit knowledge embedded in the everyday practices of the working class leaders into generalized conclusions and more theoretical formulations? Can one make it visible and accessible to all? Sennett already warned us that when such knowledge is put into words, it always loses some of its power. Yet, it was his book, which depicted so beautifully the craft of music which inspired the writing of this piece itself. So, the failure of the Handbook of Workplace Representatives does not need to discourage one from writing context-specific principles of good organizational craftswork. Perhaps the book should not be one but multiple, to be developed over centuries as the good food or medical recepies have been developed over centuries. There are still so many things which need to be learnt from history and present, from the biographies, stories and strategies developed by wise organizers who not only learnt by doing as apprentices but also developed a vision for the future.

Making is thinking, Sennett argues, very correctly. The rule does also apply to the “making” of the wastepickers’ community as an organization. Good organization means a constant process of thinking, of revisiting earlier analysis, of re-orienting strategy if necessary, re-directing existing resources, of speculating as much as looking at evidence.  Perhaps that is why the working class leader was talking about his workers as potential but hidden “philosophers”. There must be less abyss than is usually thought, between theory and practice.


Bourgeois thinkers love severing left-wing ideas from their potentially or actually radical content. So some of the ideas of Sennett could serve well some communitarians or even pre-modern romanticism even though Sennett is strict in his emphasis on the high-tech character of today’s craftsmen. But one does not need to be on the defensive side: We have enough instruments in Sennett’s book to respond with an offense and radicalize those tools in our struggle for emancipatory politics. Perhaps we need to reverse the lesson taught by Sennett: The good craftsman does not become automatically good citizen as Sennett want us to believe, but good radical activist should definitely practice good craftswork.

[1] The data used for this review essay draw on my fieldwork on working class communities in the summers of 2007 and 2008 and on my experience as a trade union activist from 2001 to 2003 in one of the largest public sector unions in Turkey. Names are kept anonymous.

[2] Another dimension of the idea of trade union was, for the leaders, the possibility to create a commitment and self-regulation among the workers on the basis of membership. Different communities had their own internal rules and customs, but the leader of the movement imagined a membership model which would tie the workers to certain rules (such as respect of the wife, not beating children, developing collective resistance to drug dealers and police at the same time) so that a new form of morality could emerge. He thought that it was high time the worker did question himself as well and took his autonomous position against all the degrading forms also characterizing his own actions (violence, theft…etc.)

Following the spirit of the ideas and practical experiences for a communist laboratory, I wanted to post the introduction and the conclusion of a piece I have been writing for a while (and I could not complete, surprise surprise). I have taught great students in development studies for three years in London and we shared a common concern for the necessity to imagine/build/think of alternatives. This was one of many impulses which pushed me to create a communist lab. When I finish the piece, it will be for my students. 

Marxism and Developmental Imagination


An intellectual exercise I do with my students at the beginning of the course Theory and Evidence in Contemporary Development dealing with the problems of social, agricultural and industrial development in the context of neoliberalism starts as follows: We build a hypothetical village in a rural setting in Africa and depict its possible social and political structure. Then I specify the exact terms and conditions of some tentative development projects such as a project of credit for agricultural development guided by banks or an anti-poverty scheme conducted by village administration. I expect my students to develop a critical eye and think about how those projects would fail or, put differently, what would be the obstacles impeding the generation of positive outcomes. To give a concrete example, they are likely to find out how a bank credit scheme would fail to reach small peasants unable to meet the collateral criteria or how the village administration could distribute anti-poverty aid to those households with which it has clientelistic linkeages. We discuss the complexity of class and land structure in order to reach together the first important lesson about the very rationale of the course:  Without proper analysis of actors and social structures in a given setting prior to action, development projects are unlikely to succeed. 

It is a good introduction to the course because students discover the latent knowledge about the strict relation between theory and policy, how a misled picture of reality can indeed lead to the failure of development projects. Yet, while we proceed with our readings and discussions throughout the term, initial excitement cedes its place to increasing frustration. For students realise how much they are expected to criticise and how little they are invited to reflect on and imagine alternatives. This frustration is most intense with the acquintance of Marxist scholars who, especially since the dissolution of Soviet Socialism, avoid providing tangible alternatives. But if Marx did not only want to interpret but also to change the world, why is that paradox?

This paper is about this paradox and its implications for development. The paradox is not inherent to development studies per se, but since the very discipline started as a policy-oriented discipline and remains as such still today, it is important to recognise the necessity to face a problem whose discussion is much delayed for Marxists who stay on the defensive side. The main question is to ask how development studies can be rethought, with the still important Leninist question of what is to be done.

In the first part I give a brief outline of the origin and history of the discipline from the 1950s in order to show the significance of Marxists’ interventions as well as their limits. I try to point out to the importance of ‘critique’ as such. I also underline the meaning of development for the socialist experiences and how the imaginative projects of early socialist experience were repressed and all objectives were tied to the economic and technical rationality of development. Then I discuss the current status of the discipline with a critical eye on the post-developmental discourse which I argue is unable to offer an alternative, not only in terms of engaging with subalterns, poor and working class but also in terms of offering concrete developmental outcomes. In that section I derive from the insights offered by Marxist and critical scholars of development. Finally I focus on politics of development and argue, on the basis of some concrete cases, that successful political mobilisation is a prerequisite for development. Yet, I extend further this argument and endorse the idea that new socialist utopias and struggles should use development projects as organisational tools for political mobilisation as well and should benefit from the metis translated and re-invented by organic intellectuals.


I started this essay with the intellectual exercise I did with my students. While finishing I want to reflect on it again, in the light of the discussion I carried out. My students were right in their complaints and even though providing students with a general critical map and approach to look at things and apply it for policy suggestions as one of my very bright students put it, is a still important, it is far from sufficient. I could, of course tell them that there are never ready made alternatives and questions are sometimes more important than the answers. I already showed, hopefully persuasively, the importance of critique. But if what I discussed in that paper makes some sense, then there is the possibility that we can do better: What if I pose the question of the exercise regarding the rural setting in Africa, this time at the end of the course as follows?: Rather then asking about what can lead to the failure of this project, we could perhaps ask what would be the conditions for its success. Put differently, we could change the negative question into an affirmative challenge and could invite them to think like an architect rather than a social scientist. The good architect is the one who not only imagines a project in the void but works on his project with the existing conditions and material rather than against them. Richard Sennett beautifully makes this point for the practice of craftsman: Not resisting, but working with difficulties might be sometimes the best way to overcome them (Sennett, 2008).

Passionate students could notice that in fact conditions imply a term too static to think about. They would be well-equipped, during the course, with the importance of agency and could re-formulate the question by translating the mathematical equation into another one: What strategies should we develop to make our project successful? If they did have any grasp of class, they could write another question and say: What counter-strategies should we develop, vis-a-vis other actors who can impede our project? Now the question of structure is further problematised as a question of ‘agency’, a term which does not explain everything in the last instance, but which points out to ‘men making their own history under certain conditions’. Students could also remember the simple Gramscian lesson about how successful strategy requires good analysis and could recognise the merit of all the theoretical readings they had to make while enjoying the intellectual satisfaction of reflecting on the question: Now the students are taking the challenge to think complex relations of forces, strategies, counter-strategies, past historical conditions, to evaluate possibilities and limits, used and missed opportunities for future projects. Only now they are invited to use a developmental imagination, to take part in the so much separated worlds of examining social reality and acting upon it. Only now they are invited to take an ethical responsibility of offering a concrete alternative by showing the bravery to face all potential outcomes: A simple but important lesson about politics of development as well as about one’s own life. Perhaps it is high time development scholars became curious and passionate students once again.

Sennett, R. (2008) The Craftsman, Yale University Press