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…