April 2010

In some past life, I attended a french lycee for eight years. I hated some aspects of it (snobism, arrogance, archaism), but I loved others (the seductive French language, the excentric teachers, immersing in literature texts, performing waiting for godot with my best friend in the garden, philosophy club). After my graduation, I never turned there again. I did not identify myself with my school (I do not remember identifying myself with an institution anyway). Still years later I realise so many things from the past shape us deeply without we notice it.

Soeur Vincent, whom I first met in the school library at a period where I condemned myself to perfect solitude at the age of 12, became gradually my friend. Soeur Vincent was one of the nuns at the lycee (which used to be a monastery and then hospital in the past before turning into a boarding school). When my father attended this school 40 years before myself, most of his teachers were priests and some of our teachers were nuns as well. Soeur Vincent was not teaching – she was working in the small clinic associated with the school and doing administrative work at the library. She was so serious and authoritative that it took time for me to become friend with her. But the more I get to know her, the more I was amazed by her personality and life.

Soeur Vincent was assisting old patients in Istanbul (reading books or helping with their medication) but also working on Ottoman/Turkish architecture and art, playing harpsichord at church. I attended the seminar she gave on the famous Iznik tiles and a concert she gave at the church of Saint Marie. She was a passionate reader as well. I like imagining her as a Manon Lescaut who, after a sad love story, decided to become a religious person. Yet, she told me that she would have become a social worker if she had not become a nun, because she liked doing smg related to people. What was interesting, she never showed a fake and exaggerated compassion for others. She had a high sense of duty and respect for people but she did not avoid getting angry with students if they misbehaved. She never showed off what she did for others and it took time for me to fully grasp the rich life she had. 

Trained in church, Soeur Vincent never liked preaching. She even did not talk too much. Her letters she was sending from France after she left Turkey due to her illness, were never wordy or grandiose. They reflected affection and trust for her friend which I was proud to have become. They looked like final conversations giving me strength and hope. 

I now come to see how lives like hers shaped my own way of looking at things more than many academics. Soeur Vincent was not impressive in her outlook or way of talking. Her grandeur came from what she did: Everything she did, she did it with great seriousness and labour of love. She was at the same time historian, musician, nurse and friend. She had no material interest or necessity in any of those things but she had a real pleasure in doing them. 

In some respect, I thought she was too self-enclosed, not aiming at bigger changes and rather underestimating her potentials; in another respect, I think this is what she had chosen to do. And who can make a final judgement about what a good life is after all…A teacher of mine told me that the way I look at and do things in the academia is too old fashioned. When I think of Soeur Vincent, I want to be more old-fashioned. I do not think I would choose the life she had, but still, her character and virtues of a craftsmen as Richard Sennett would call it, is a remedy to the ever competitive, individualistic, uncreative and exhausting atmosphere haunting university corridors…

Cordialement votre, Soeur Vincent.

Mehmet Bey is a businessman who owns a factory which produces machines making all sorts and size of napkin, toilet paper, kitchen rolls, paper towels…etc. I met him by a very nice coincidence in the last fieldwork visit in the summer of 2009. Like several other small businessmen, he warmly welcomed me in his small factory in an industrial cluster in Istanbul, which is very close to one of politically most controversial and interesting neighbourhoods on the Asian side of the city. He showed me his factory and answered generously all my questions in his office with a very large blackboard where he is drawing his sketches for new machines. At his mature age, he is still the designer of his own machines and transmits his artisanal skills to his youngest son.

Mehmet Bey runs his factory with his three sons, all well-educated and continuing the family business. He started his working life as an apprentice of a master of Armenian origin. He was first noticed when he spent all his night in trying to fix a machine he was not responsible for and because of which he neglected his own rather dull job. He was about to lose his job because of his neglect, yet his extraordinary talent to grasp the complexity of mechanics and practical skills were rewarded by a promotion and Mehmet Bey was allowed to design his very first machine at a very young age. A design he made by imitating a Russian machine. But for Mehmet Bey, there is never a pure imitation. You always add something from ‘yourself’.

After a few years, Mehmet Bey set up his small business and started spending his evenings drawing new machines on the floor of his office with a piece of chalk. Without any qualifications or degree in maths, engineering or design, Mehmet Bey still excelled in innovating. Unfortunately Mehmet Bey’s marketing skills were not very good as compared to his engineering skills. Until his commercial and business-minded sons took over responsibilities, Mehmet Bey lost some patent rights and even a brandname he had first developed. But today the machines produced by Mehmet Bey’s factory are exported to world markets. The crisis of 2007-2008 had a negative effect on business and the factories have been working under capacity by the time I visited it (July 2009), but the future prospects are not dark at all. 

‘My friends tell me that I do not know how to earn money’ he says. But I do not care. I like inventing and producing. Others prefer speculating and making profit from financial gains. My sons also complain about me, but I am happy like this.’

In the shining eyes of Mehmet Bey, who was flattered to find a researcher genuinely interested in his innovations, I found a resource, which could be exploited by a socialist project: What if we were to transpose this creative mind which is obsessed less with money than innovating, onto a socialist map?

In contemporary society, the driving force which not only benefits from but also feeds the creativity of Mehmet Bey is the competitive force of capital. When Mehmet Bey’s youngest son who continues his father’s innovations look at the machine, he always asks ‘how can I make this machine produce faster and more?’ Otherwise he can not survive in the market or he can not accumulate further. Reverse engineering or new entry into the market can reduce the profit rates of Mehmet Bey very quickly.

Now, if we were to change this capitalist question into a socialist problematique: How can I make those machines work for contributing to, let us say, a fully automated system decreasing the need for labour (thus contributing to more leisure time), an environment-friendly system (thus contributing to decreased exploitation of natural resources), a system to meet the specific needs of the whole population (depending on what the machine is for), for making the machine connected to other sectors (statistical systems which will give signals about the need for the product of this machine in order to avoid any problem of over-supply) and making it disposable to the use of anybody who can play with it to do something different (thus contributing to free dissemination of information and innovation)…..etc.

The challenge is that in the modern world the incentive to create is very much bounded (though not exclusively) to the imperative of capital. While thinking of innovations, design for socialism, we should think of new regulative principles and incentives which will force individuals to think constantly for the reproduction of a socialist project. This means that at some point, even a personal desire to achieve something should create the unintended effect of contributing to the development of an egalitarian, free and emancipatory socialist project….In turn, living in socialist society can push people to fully exploit their potentials. The disciplining power of capital can cede its place to a new gravitational pull of freedom and creativity.

Mehmet Bey made me think how much a communist laboratory needs engineers and artisans…

Soon after I was complaining about social science and praising natural sciences, a brilliant historian showed me how humanities can be done with methodological rigour, empirical richness and a sharp philosophical eye. Joel Kaye’s Economy and Nature in the Fourteenth Century: Money, Market Exchange and the Emergence of Scientific Thought (Cambridge University Press, 1998) is a real gem with so many themes unfolding and bringing to different directions. What made me discover this book rather coincidentally at British Library was some background reading in medieval markets and economic history. I am working on the anthropology of the market in capitalist society. Since market, price, merchant, speculation, competition existed also in pre-capitalist society, I was thinking of what is the qualitative difference between markets in pre-capitalist and capitalist societies. (In fact I am convinced that apart from the extreme complexity of the markets today, the real difference is not a qualitative property inherent in the marketplace, but rather its relation to other things, which I cannot fully develop here at all) In other words, my interest in medieval markets emerged from my desire to better understand the contemporary market.

In this post, I want to explore a significant thread in the book. Kaye argues that the expansion of trade and marketplace had disturbing implications for the medieval scholastic thinking since it was extremely difficult to come to terms with the economic reality of the time by the dominant philosophical and religious vocabulary. For Kaye the texts of the period on price, merchants and markets reflect an attempt to compromise the evolving empirical reality with the existing worldview, which inevitably generated a set of ambiguities and tensions. The Medieval thinkers either tried to find some compromises, making the new findings fit into the existing framework or they started developing new formulations which evolved to challenge slowly and gradually some of the ideas of their period. The result was that people had to start living with increasing contradictions about the reality of their world and the interpretations about it.

Kaye looks into the argument about what a just price is in medieval thinking. He finds out that in certain cases, contrary to the mainstream arguments just price does not reflect the medieval desire to control economic activity in the name of religious ideals and social equilibrium (p. 88). In fact, just price was equated to market price, which was considered to be natural price. With reference to the economic historian Odd Langholm, Kaye explains that economic equality between the interests of the buyer and the seller was, in certain sources, considered as the outcome of a process of common estimation, which occurred in the market place unintentionally ‘through the impersonal workings of the economy’ (p. 93).

How would the dominant scholastic thinking react to such a view? An impersonal, self-equalising, self-ordering model of market place would not fit in the religious and philosophical universe of the thirteenth century based on the intervention of a higher intelligence. For instance a leading intellectual figure such as Thomas Aquinas was not ready to link just price to market price. If he were to do so, he would need to accept equality as ‘an accidental product of competing desires within an impersonal process where value (price) is detached from individual judgement’ (p. 98), which clearly contradicted a value system based on hierarchy and permanence. What would happen if the competing desires governing the marketplace were to change and thus the corresponding common estimation would shift? If the individual judgement under divine guidance is detached from the natural/just/market price, then wouldn’t this, as Kaye notes, remove the ethical individual responsibility in economic activity? (p.98).

The observations of the economic order contradicted the older conceptions of natural order, argues Kaye and this can be further traced in the thought of another thinker, Henry of Ghent. Henry de Ghent wanted to keep the identity of the value of a good with the price at which it is sold. But he was also aware of the complexities of the process before which goods are sold. For instance a merchant might have special expertise in knowing when and where goods were short in supply, he might show special care in carrying out his affairs, he might have special reputation as compared to others (p. 101). It was then legitimate that such qualities are translated into an increase of price. While finding ways to explain the price determination mechanism of the market, de Ghent was not ready to sacrifice the intelligent order and the individual judgement. The (arithmetic) solution lied in the merchant’s subjective judgement to add (or subtract) to the initial price on the basis of those additional qualities. De Ghent did also accept that out of ignorance of the current price and out of the urgent need to buy a product a price, which is not just could be accepted (p. 106).

For both Aquinas and de Ghent equality could be achieved by the conscious efforts of the individual exchangers who seek for it (p. 114). In contrast, Godfrey did not consider just price as something one could approach to by conscious efforts. Common estimation itself was the just price. Equality was achieved thanks to the estimation by individual exchangers. In other words as long as a price finds buyers to accept it, it was simply the just price (p. 111)

Kaye argues that in the context of the growing significance of a monetised market place within society, Godfrey tried to address the question of how something which is so central to the good of the community could be unnatural, thus he tried to overcome the traditional theological distinction between natural equality and market equality. According to Kaye, Godfrey did not try to force economic realities to conform to ideal definitions of natural order; he expanded ‘the very definition of natural order to comprehend the dynamic of market exchange’. He argued that equilibrium achieved in market exchange is natural. In that sense he started developing a new concept of nature, defined ‘more by the expanding and contracting line than by the point, better described by geometry than arithmetic estimation, approximation and probability’ (p. 115)

In order to elaborate this new avenue, Kaye then turns to a very interesting thinker Olivi and the way in which he deals with the problem of usury. In the classical Medieval thinking, the money lender who charges interest rate is selling a probable future profit which does not exist, thus irrational and unacceptable. One could argue that by agreeing to pay back more than the sum, the merchant borrowing the money has bought the right to whatever profit he can make from the money, which is lent. ‘But since the profit is in the future, he has no way of making a rational decision of how much he will make, but both equality and rationality are essential to proper non-usurious economic transactions’ (p. 119). Scholastic thinking would then say that such future uncertainties would make the transaction usurious. Olivi would accept this in the first place. But then he would continue and argue that ‘the probability of profit has a certain real existence and value in itself’. According to Kaye, following the merchants of his own day, Olivi recognised that ‘merchants had learned how to rationally discount the probable’. It is also telling to see how Olivi thought natural workings of the market as contributing to the communal good, rather than harming it. To the question of whether it was legitimate to change high prices for grain in times of scarcity, Olivi would answer ‘yes’ since ‘greater damage to the common good would be caused if prices did not rise during famine. It was precisely the rise in price, pegged to the rise in scarcity, that induced the possessors of the rain to sell to the community rather than hoard for their own use’ (p. 126-7).

Here we see a gradual transition from the criteria of subjective judgement to achieve equality to the market mechanism for equalisation of exchange. There is no longer a point of equality to be known and reached in exchange as thinkers such as Ghent would expect. Rather we can talk about latitude, which will contain diverse judgements differing in estimation, latitude of ‘equivalence between the amounts of utility attached to things in exchange’ (p. 126). The discomfort with static and arithmetical formulations leads to the gradual rise of a geometric solution allowing multiplicity of and variety of individual estimations and calculations.

In Before Darwin, Keith Stewart Thomson (2007, Yale University Press) tells a similar story with respect to the development of the ideas of evolution and natural selection before Darwin. He investigates how natural scientists in seventeenth and eighteenth century came to terms with new empirical findings (such as fossils) and interpreted them within the confines of Biblical text (flood and Noah’s ark) or how, although their conclusions contradicted the existing ideas, they could not use those conclusions to radically challenge the scientific paradigm of the day. However in the light of new evidence, it became extremely difficult to explain those findings with religious references. In certain cases, thinkers did not refute religious narratives themselves, but the way in which they presented their findings threatened the coherence of the theological narrative. Look at the words of Hutton on geological movements, which challenge the Biblical story about the age and formation of the earth:

‘Here are three distinct successive periods of existence, and each of these is, in our measurement of time, a thing of indefinite duration… in nature there is wisdom, system and consistency. For having, in the natural history of the earth, seen a succession of worlds, we may from this conclude that there is a system in nature; in like manner from seeing revolutions of the planets it is concluded that there is a system by which they are intended to continue those revolutions. But if the successions of worlds is established in the system of nature, it is in vain to look for anything higher in the origin of the earth. The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning – no prospect of an end.’

 ‘We find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’. Such a brilliant and brave sentence! Much later, Laplace would say to Napoleon who criticised him of not mentioning the name of the Creator in a large book in the system of universe, that he did not need such a hypothesis.

I do not think attempts to reconcilie market place with theological thinking or geological discoveries with Biblical texts are backward or regressive. On the contrary such thinking creates perturbations in the existing paradigm and gradually undermine the well-established positions and prepare the breakthrough. A really conservative attitude (or an attitude with conservative implications) would be to refuse engaging with the new realities and stick to the existing paradigm. Attempts to accommodate the new in the old are more likely to change the old. They imply that people take changes seriously and do not remain indifferent. Unfortunately in some of the current debates by Marxists, when people say something really new and challenge others, the response remains rather conservative. Rather than taking seriously those novelties, scholars tend to ignore them or argue that the new voice is simply ‘wrong’ or the person is not loyal to the ‘Marxist roots’. Then the whole debate turns into a race for who is more marxist than the other. I am planning to explore a couple of recent polemics which illustrate such a problem. But what the debate on pre-Darwinian period and medieval thinking teach me is that we should not be scared of new findings which we find hard to accommodate in our framework. If something looks strange or unusual, we should take the challenge.

Apart from this theme, Kaye’s narrative tells also important points regarding how we should re-think the market in capitalist society. But this is for another post since my reading was interrupted by what is now known in friends’ circles as the Demetitis disease. Each time I passed by British Library the book whispered to my ears and invited me with such a seducing voice, I had to reject the invitation. I wonder when scientific passion will eventually defeat my stubborn and painful disease. Or when I will be really a good scientist.

Universities such as SOAS are used to occupations, protests by students and radical academics. But at Kings things have been rather different in the past years. Until now. The King’s UCU branch, headed by its energetic and sharp president Jim Wolfreys voted, with a great majority, for industrial action against a 27 cuts programme that has put 205 jobs at risk of redundancy with more to follow. Departments which were set to close include engineering, American studies, equality and diversity with other areas under threat, palaeography, logic, linguistics, Institute of Psychiatry, Biomedical and Health Sciences.

The strike on Tuesday, the 30th of March was very lively. Students were enthusiastic with stalls they established, musical instruments they played, and lecturers were equally excited. The strike spokesperson who presented all speakers animating the public was Stathis Kouvelakis, reader in philosophy at King’s and one of my favourite authors (I will definitely write another post on his work). He was amazing in this role, finishing the rally with the words ‘we will win!’ which, I think, all of us truly believed in at that moment. Other unions (NUT, PCS, Unite, Unison) and colleges supported the strike; local workplaces such as National Gallery and National theatre showed solidarity. Students from other colleges where there were amazing protests such as Sussex brought lots of energy. The whole thing was so colourful and enjoyable, dominating even the traffic and noise on the Strand. It transformed the usual lunch-time into an unexpectedly memorable event. 

Go and support demonstrations at universities even if you may not be a student or academic. Not simply out of citizenship responsibility, left wing sensitivity, or revolutionary solidarity. But for a truly joyful experience. For natural extacy and adrenaline. Durkheim showed how collective practice and rituals gave communities common and shared beliefs (rather than vice versa). The ritual of strike and demonstration is important because it may create new bonds, may remind everyone that things can be different. For people who passed the Strand hundreds of times, for students and academics who entered the School building via Strand, their memory will never be the same after this experience, which will be transmitted via several networks. In my fieldwork, I saw several times how one worker who had a previous experience of collective action and strike in one factory made THE big difference in a new workplace. And the news of success from Leeds bears evidence that we can really win a case here.

Jim Wolfreys correctly says, without exaggeration, for the event: ‘the verve, humour, creativity, imagination of yesterday’s picketing offered us all a glimpse of the potential that exists within this institution for staff and students to make education at King’s more rewarding and enjoyable. All for often this potential is either stifled or bypassed by the dead-end of senior management.’ Now, it is necessary to exploit fully the potential Wolfreys is talking about. This is not simply about resisting job cuts. This is an opportunity to discuss what kind of education we want, to bring together lecturers, students and academic support officers, to get angry, discuss, intervene, alter the coordinates of the given situation by our action.  

See the photos of the colorful strike here: