June 2010

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

A very enthusiastic and nice master student who is interested in my topic and who is planning to do smg. on waste in his own PhD asks me: ‘Don’t you think people who work on recycling and waste should have a common agenda such as material sociology of waste and organize as a community?’ While thinking of my reply, in approximately less then one minute, I thought of myself organizing workshops on waste and capitalist culture, travelling to conferences on recycling and environment, being invited to speak for marginal groups on the philosophy and lifestyle of recycling, filming wastepickers and scavengers by getting some funds from an Environmental Agency probably funded by BP which tries to save its already devastated reputation, wishing to live with Greenpeace activists on top of a mountain, editing a book called ‘Waste of Capital: Towards a Material Sociology’, visiting hundred different scrapyards in developing regions by getting research money, attracting ten different PhD students who will probably write the same thing under my supervision and inflating the field…..and of course I contested. This is not really what I expect my life to be and also this is not what any field of study should be. The material sociology of waste is not so different from a material sociology of any other material thing and if sub-sub specialization continues in a way to generate clearly defined and self-replicating academic activities as I cited above, rather than more dangerous, less secure, more open-ended and productive scientific practice, I am not up for it. I do not deny that conferences, books and traveling are part of scientific activities, but they were not supposed to be ends in themselves.

I am working on recycling and waste originally because of mere coincidence. When my fieldwork in the largest industrial site of Istanbul collapsed due to the impossibility to get access to factories, I was exasperated. I then read an interview in a newspaper with the brilliant organizer of the wastepickers’ movement, I was so curious about their work and wanted to do an interview with him. After four hours of interview, I took my bag and went to the capital city to see what they do there and stayed for months with wastepickers living in warehouses. After one and a half year of PhD my thesis had changed in one day. Life with them changed me as well. I then shaped my thesis several times. I have examined wastepickers who collect scrap metal and waste paper; recycling factory owners who process waste, traders who buy and sell them, finally the London Metal Exchange which determines the global reference price for non-ferrous metals. I did several interviews with traders and brokers. The fieldwork in the City of London opened the world of capital, which I explored. At the end, this whole thesis became a way to understand some aspects of contemporary society in order to change it. I could not complete it on time but I enjoyed every moment I could work on it.

With workers in urban slums, I am an activist, organizer, therapist; with organic intellectuals, I am a student of their wisdom and experience; in British Library, I am the modest student who wants to devour the books; in London and Istanbul cafes I am the dreamer-writer with all the scattered notes I hide amongst the responsibilities of teaching and thesis writing; in classroom I consider myself the mediator who facilitates the potentials of students to come into being; under the stimulation of good teachers and intellectual company, I want my thoughts melt into theirs; in conferences at Royal Society, with those oldand passionate chemists, biologists and physicists, I am no longer the social scientist or development studies scholar, but just ‘scientist’, scientist as anybody who wants to discover mysteries of the world; in small workplaces, I am the apprentice of craftsmen and reverse engineers’ who love innovating. If there is something I am not made for, it is to be an academic (It is unfortunate that academic jobs are the ones, which give some time to do those other things I like. The question then becomes how to manage to act like a scientist within the current academic establishment!).

All those experiences re-invent myself, sometimes for good sometimes for worse, especially when I get too exhausted to meet the expectations or keep promises. But I like being more than one person and I feel so. I am not saying my life is better than anyonelse’s. On the contrary, I have to struggle with a kind of rapid cycling bipolar disorder, which means moments of extreme productivity and happiness are followed by horrible moments of desperation and darkness; one day I am confident, energetic and see the tangible positive outcomes of what I do for others, another day I feel I cause more harm than good for them; I still try to get rid of some kind of self-sacrificial attitude which had serious adverse effects on my own well-being; I hate the feeling of guilt which follows me constantly like a sinister ghost who catches me as soon as I feel good for something; I do envy people who are doing things I wish I could do; I question my choices when my job applications are refused due to the publications I did not do; I wish I chose a more secure PhD funding rather than struggling in London when I can not get a ticket to attend a conference; I feel as if I did not do anything useful at all until now despite all opportunities my family gave to me…

… But what I know is that my chances of being a perhaps failed yet enthusiastic and devoted scientist are less when I make 30 year of regular payment to an academic mortgage, which comes in full package: a house, a pension fund and a recycling and waste expert title. I do not want to lose my curiosity, appetite for learning, extreme desire to change, joy of sharing thoughts and emotions with friends and intellectual company. When everything else seems to collapse, they make me keep hanging on. That is why I want to belong not to the academia, but to the world of Robert Hooke who would visit artisan clockmakers in London pubs to learn their tacit knowledge on measuring and mechanics, write pedagogical books on science and believe that everybody who has a reason and tools could do and understand science, design tools for measuring, struggle to transform Royal Society into a proper scientific institution while having to entertain aristocrats. I know I cannot do the tiniest bit of what such people achieved. But I want to work as if I will do, at least with the same spirit.

 On the third floor of British Library, there is an African-Asian collection. In this sacred treasury of knowledge, the collection is hosted by a very beautiful reading room where the librarians correctly told me off since I read social science rather than books on Africa. One day, I was reading a book, which destroyed one of my main assumptions in my thesis. The devastation came gradually with each page I was turning. Astonishment and fear caused by it lasted only a few minutes and was replaced by a strange pleasure: I realized that I was completely wrong. And it was great to know that. In the next hour, I had already started thinking of how this enlightenment could open a new path for my other findings and arguments. Unless you believe that you are part of a constantly evolving, regressing, changing practice of science, in the broader sense of understanding humans, nature and universe, you can not experience this pleasure. You should also believe in and like the fact you may never complete a project or give an answer to a problem, yet someonelse would come and do it. Otherwise we can all be one of those academics who apply a theory to smg. and teach if for thirty years.

Inwood, S. (2005) The Forgotten Genius: The Biography of Robert Hooke, 1635-1703, Mac Adam/Cage.


Here is a question pointed out to me by a colleague: One kilo of tomatoes is bought from the peasant at 5 Turkish liras in a small village only 70 kilometres away from the capital city and sold for 50 liras in the city by the trader. How do you explain and then solve this problem?

Would you argue that the difference between the village and city price is a socialist question? If you do not expect socialism to come in some future and solve everything by determining the price of everything in one day, then this MUST be a socialist problem.

In my post on Red Star, I argued that instruments of government and market as well as technology can be used for alternative ways of organizing economic life. In Red Star, our problem was a fair allocation of labour, which would concomitantly respond to the needs of the overall economy and individual freedoms. In this post, I am thinking about how we can organize fair exchange relations in a sector by reducing transaction costs and information asymmetries between buyers and sellers. At first glance, this might seem more like an institutionalist question rather than a Marxist one. But some of the problems faced by capitalists regarding the economy will ALSO be the problems of socialists who design the economic life. Therefore, unless you want to stick to the idea of a central government, which buys everything as the monopoly trader in the economy from producers and then sells it to citizens, the following case on a flower auction can be quite interesting to derive some insights. I am not saying that the model as such is a socialist model to be adopted, I am rather saying that some properties of the model can be creatively used for a post-capitalist system.

I am planning to visit the auction this summer in Istanbul, but the person who first talked about it in a Turkish newspaper in 2008 is Koray Çalışkan (http://www.koraycaliskan.net), the author of a highly recommended PhD thesis which examined how the price of cotton is made in the global market, from a small village in Turkey to the Chicago Cotton Exchange in the US. Even though I am critical of some of his theoretical arguments, I find his work high quality, thought-provoking and innovative. The information I give below relies on his short article on the subject where he says that socialists have to take seriously the organization of exchange relations and should not limit themselves to the analysis and change of production relations.

FLORA is a cooperative for the flower market with 5000 members. The cooperative became more significant since the recent agricultural reforms, which pushed families from traditional crops to flower cultivation. The cooperative establishes auctions in 15 different places via an electronic network between producers and buyers. In 2009 the largest exchange of the cooperative has been opened in Istanbul and enabled 400 buyers to buy flowers.

According to the article of Çalışkan (2008), the cooperative trucks are collecting flowers from farmers and allocating them in a fair way to fourteen different auction places. The registered buyers are allowed to join the auctions and have to mention in advance how much money they are willing to spend. They can spend less, but not more. In other words, the farmers have a rough idea of how many flowers the traders will buy. The flowers are put on a walking band. The representative of the cooperative, which governs the auction predicts the average price of each flower which is reflected on an electronic board as soon as the flower appears and is read by the microphone. If traders like the flower, which passes on the walking band, they press the button, which is in front of them. Dozens of them can press the button at the same time and the price starts rising up. The last bidder wins the flower. If nobody likes the flower, then the price starts falling down and when it falls sufficiently, more traders are willing to but then. The price suddenly rises again and sometimes even more than the initial price. A flower, which has not been bought at a low price can later on be sold for a higher price. Eventually, all flowers are sold out.

I think that the simple mechanisms established by the FLORA cooperative make more sense if the problems and inequalities in contemporary markets are taken into account. FLORA solves the problem of information asymmetries in the market, because farmers do not depend on middlemen. Thanks to the cooperative, they can make sure that traders are all subject to the same system of auction and same rules of competition. Every trader has the right to press the button at the same time with others. No single trader can control the market in principle. The cooperative distributes flowers to different auctions so that florists can benefit from the auction system equally.

The cooperative trucks do solve the problem of transaction costs. The florist families do not need to go literally to the market place and encounter the buyers themselves. Transport costs are already met efficiently by the cooperative, which is an institutionalised form of collective action. Moreover, since average price is announced by the cooperative, the florists do not depend on the middlemen’s discretionary power to keep prices down. Yet, this does not mean that prices cannot fall or rise. What is guaranteed in this system is that all flowers finish the same day. This helps the reproduction of all florist families’ daily income.

The average price in the Flower Market is not like a government set minimum price to protect farmers. It gives a reference for both traders and florist families in the market from which the final price is gradually derived. The final price of the flower is the aggregate effect of individuals’ interventions (pressing the buttons at the same time) so that no single individual can control it (in that sense there are some similarities with the labour allocation system in Red Star). In other words, price is found out as the impersonal result of individuals who compete with each other on an equal basis. There is a degree of competition, but it has an enabling function for traders and florist farmers rather than devastating them.

The fact that traders have to announce the money they will spend in a transparent way give signals about the demand side. Yet, what happens if the supply of flowers exceeds too much the demand, given that flower is becoming an alternative to traditional crops (a problem of capitalist economy)? This question remains unclear for the moment. Following the principles of Red Star, one could argue that there should be a mechanism which prevents over-supply of production in a given sector, which reminds once again how production and exchange relations have to be thought together. There might be other problems in the market, which I ignore due to limited information. I have to do more research on possible power relations, distribution of profit among cooperative members, the legal status of the cooperative, entry/exit conditions, the decision-making processes, the gender dimension of the allocation of income within the family…etc. Yet, electronic boards of the auction, which can transmit transparent information as did telex networks of Cybersyn or statistical agencies of Red Star, the mediation function of the cooperative and the reproduction of florist families can be still seen good starting point for designing a fair exchange system.

Çalışkan, K. (2008) ‘Köylü, Piyasa, Çiçek Mezatı ve Devrimciler’, Birgün Gazetesi, 15 Nisan.

After I wrote the post on Red Star, the first Bolshevik Utopia,https://nightsoflabour.wordpress.com/2010/03/06/mining-potentials-in-capitalism-thought-experiments-in-the-communist-laboratory/

brilliant Owen Hatherley, the author of Militant Modernism, pointed out to me a project called Cybersyn, from the former socialist government in Chile in the early 1970s. I regret that I did not know before this project (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Cybersyn), which was a real-time, computer controlled planning system, coordinating 500 nationalised factories in Chile. I then read the PhD thesis of Eden Miller submitted to MIT in 2005, which follows the traces of the project, the engineers who set it up, Chilean history in the 1970s. The thesis is a history of technology thesis, yet gives brilliant insights regarding possible models and designs which can be put at the service of a socialist practice…which is exactly what the communist laboratory is for. In this post I want to summarise the findings of Dr. Miller, which is the unique authoritative source on the subject and interpret them in my own way, by also offering some comparative outlook with Red Star’s statistical system of labour allocation.

Cybersyn originates in the work of a British professor called Stafford Beer who developed cybernetic ideas during the 1960s. A group of engineers was influenced by those ideas and when they took a position in Allende’s government invited Beer to set up a computerized system to coordinate 500 factories in Chile with the aims to increase worker participation and achieve efficiency at the shop floor. When Beer came to Chile, there was only one computer, which would be the main government computer at the center. The Cybersyn team used a telex network, which had been used to track satellites. Even though telex networks were only able to transmit ASCII characters, they were based on a high speed of information exchange similar to the Internet.

The first component of the system, Cybernet used the existing telex network in order to make every factory communicate with the main computer. Production information was sent from the factories to a telex control room where employees transferred the data onto punch cards and fed them into the mainframe computer for processing. The system was designed as a real-time economic control, similar to the Red Star’s statistical agencies, but in practice data was transmitted once a day. Telex networks are a brilliant bricoleur’s solution to the lack of available technology in the context of a developing country, which is subject to political hostility by imperialist powers. It shows how available resources can be creatively used for new purposes by change-driven individuals in a change-inducing environment.

The second component of the Cybersyn system, Cyberstride produced quantitative flow charts of activities within each factory. It did ‘statistical filtration on the numbers output from the factory models, discarding the data that fell within the acceptable system parameters and directing the information deemed important upward to the next level of management’ (Miller, 2005). The software developed certain methods to identify production trends and if a variable fell outside of the range determined by the system, the system made a warning, which was called an ‘algedonic signal’. The relevant person from the factory emitting the signal was given time and freedom to solve the problem. In case he was unsuccessful, the central management had the right to interfere. This principle was to preserve the autonomy of the lower-levels managers.

According to Miller, Cyberstride could be seen as an instrument to predict and map the behaviour of Chilean factories. The algorithm was based on Bayesian probability theory to foresee industrial performance. Since the government could rely on possible trends, it could intervene in advance. Beer wanted to keep the problem signals as simple as possible: sources of energy, raw materials, worker satisfaction present on a given day.

In the case of Red Star, information coming from the factories was geared to send signals about shortage and supply of labour. As long as the labour needs of factories were determined as a result of changes of technology…etc. the individual workers could make their own choices accordingly. Individual choices would be both the cause and consequence of the relationship between demand and supply. However in the case of Cybersyn, the objective is far more ambitious: One needs to determine variables to control, detect anomalies (whose degree has to be determined as well). However, similar to Red Star’s statistical agencies collecting data, Cyberstride was performative. Moreover, Cyberstride is much clearer about how this data will be collected and interpreted: algorithms transform the data into inputs, which are supposed to send signals regarding production decisions.

The third part of the Cybersyn project, CHECO (Chilean Economy) aimed at providing simulations of future economic behaviour. CHECO was designed to create the tools for planning and flexibility. But it was not really put into practice.

The fourth component of the system, Opsroom, created a new environment for decision making, which modeled after a British World War II War room. It consisted of seven chairs in an inward facing circle and a series of projection screens, each of them displaying the data collected from the nationalized (Miller, 2005). To enable individuals with minimal scientific training to understand the information, all industries were standardized with a uniform system of iconic representation. One of the walls in the room contained four screens, which represented structural information. The large screen contained instructions for changing the images displayed below, a mix of flow diagrams, factory photographs and unitless mappings of actual and potential production capacities. Two screens recorded algedonic signals on another wall, which represented overall production trends and listed urgent problems which required government intervention. This was based on Beer’s metaphor of the economy as a biological organism: Brain (government) intervening from the Opsroom in case problems in the lungs (factories) are not solved.

Miller shows, in her thesis, how ideas similar to Cybersyn were implemented in Soviet Union after several years of the publication of Red Star, when the utopia of Bolshevik Revolution became a reality. For instance, a complex three-tiered computer network that would use thousands of local computer centers collecting primary information was built. Those local centers would be linked to 30 to 50 computer centers in major cities and then all information would travel to one central government in Moscow. It was realized that this scheme would require the manipulation of fifty million variables more than the three thousand variables required to manage the Chilean economy with Cybersyn. Soviet economists tries to simplify this problem by using indirect centralization in which the state was responsible for determining optimal prices and efficiency levels and companies were allowed to make their own decisions. According to Miller, this solution seems very similar to Cybersyn, but there were important differences. In its infancy, the Chilean planning was more receptive to new ideas and challenges. The state development agency CORFO underwent a series of changes that allowed it to grow in different areas (public and mixed property) and to increase new management capabilities (such as adding of new layers of bureaucracy to pre-existing administrative hierarchy) In the Soviet context, factory autonomy contradicted the Soviet economic theory and threatened the centralised power of the State. Rather than being instruments of change, computer technology strengthened centralised control in Soviet Union. In other words, I would argue, it was not simply the combination of creative ideas of a crazy British professor and the dedication of a socialist team, which was behind the transformative capacity and efficiency of Cybersyn. Soviet Union had much more capacity to enact those. Rather, it was being open to new things, a critique of centralized planning of already existing socialist experiences and a very strict emphasis on worker participation which pushed individuals to think differently while playing with similar instruments. A different mind set made a difference in Chile as compared to Soviet Union.

Chilean system aimed to improve the efficacy of human interventions in the factory system. Automated functions were aimed to increase participation and intervention. The emphasis on worker control and participation was a recurrent theme in the debates on and implementation of Cybersyn. In the words of the socialist engineer Flores working for Allende:

‘For me what socialism meant is how do you combine autonomy of individuals with community? The classical Marxist idea, they call democratic centralism. But my impression at the beginning was that this was pure lip service and nothing concrete. That’s what brought Beer to me. He found this relationship between autonomy of the unit with the intelligence of the whole. And in that sense there was a connection. I never found anything like it in any other place’ (Miller, 2005).

Overcoming of the labour alienation was a major concern for both Beer and the Chilean socialists. Beer aimed at increasing the worker’s capacity to contribute both physically and mentally to production process. The form of worker participation was a hotly debated issue in Chile. The Christian Democrats advocated the creation of “worker’s enterprises” (empresas de trabajadores) inspired by the Yugoslavia experience: workers would share ownership of their firms and split the profits-an approach that provoked disdain from Allende. According to the president, making the workers “shareholders would be to convert them into pseudo-capitalists’ (Miller, 2005).

Beer envisaged simplified versions of the Operations Room within nationalized industries by forming a space for workers to meet, monitor production and contribute to the decision-making process. Those rooms used chalk on a blackboard and the methods of collecting and presenting information developed by the Cybersyn team. Beer wanted workers to contribute their tacit practical knowledge of production activities to the process of modeling their factories  (Medina, 2005). In this plan workers would assist operations research scientists and engineers in order to choose the key indicators and thresholds of production. Beer later invited workers to take a greater role in this process. ‘There is no-one better qualified to model a plant, than the man whose life is spent working in it.’ Beer had confidence in workers’a ability to master the tools designed by the team (software, simulators, flowcharts and production indices associated with the system) (Miller, 2005).

The emphasis of worker participation has to be taken with caution, however, for at least two reasons. First, tools and instruments we are discussing here are powerful for emancipatory purposes since they have no inherent relation to capitalist society. Yet, this strength, to reiterate, is also their weakness. If they can be used for emancipation, they can also be used for oppression. That is why there emerged several warnings about the possibility to use Cybersyn as a mechanism to oppress workers, by imposing repressive controls and exerting pressure and sanctions. There were even talks about to what extent Cybersyn was a version of Big Brother.

Second and more importantly, while criticizing alienated labour, Marx did not necessarily envisage a new society where workers will take part in every stage of production, management and marketing of goods and services. The ultimate goal was to reduce working hours so that workers can have more time for other activities including fishing, philosophizing, painting and hunting (see also Paul Lafargue’s work). In other words having control over production is not the opposite of alienation. It is a first step of a broader process where increased automation of several human functions can decrease factory time.

From a very positive yet still critical glance, what do Cybersyn and Red Star tell us in common? First, both of them have the common feature of creating a system, a network, which transmits signals, like a neuron system. The channels are very well connected so that in each specific locality individuals can make their decisions (workers’ decisions to choose their own jobs for the Red Star, factory management and workers to make decisions for production for Cybersyn), but not independent of the central brain (supply and demand functions for Red Star, central government computer for Cybersyn).

Second, for both systems to work for communist goals, there needs a set of conditions, which are discernible from the building of the system. In other words design of communist objects at each stage makes us ask a number of questions. For instance, in the case of allocation of labour, it is apparent that the ability of individuals to have diverse skills is a must for this system to work properly. So a system of education is a pre-requisite to enable individuals to be equipped with necessary skills so that they can transfer their labour between different sectors.

Third, both systems use government and market instruments for their own purposes. In the case of Red Star, statistical agencies work both like a government and market institution. The supply and demand functions emerge from the actions of individuals, so one can talk about a labour market, but which does not behave as a capitalist market. In the case of Cybersyn, a form of decentralized planning for the nationalized industries is implemented, in a way to give government the control of last resort, yet trying to solve the Hayekian problem of knowledge dispersion.

Fourth, in both systems information technologies are put at the service of solving the problems of freedom, autonomy and control. In the case of the Cybersyn, the factory is allowed to solve the problem in a given amount of time. Only after this time period elapses, the government has the right to interfere. In the case of Red Star, the system is more impersonal. Individuals, by simply making choices contribute to the emergence of a supply and demand function, which then gives signals regarding shortage and supply of labour. Individuals meet collective needs by acting according to their wishes. Algedonic signals in the case of Cybersyn and the changing numbers on factory tables sent by the statistical agency in the case of Red Star make those solutions possible.

Yet, technology was almost absent in the period of Red Star and still limited in the time of Cybersyn. Today we have amazing software programmes used by the big corporations and governments. Think that, for one moment, those programmes are aimed at doing what Cybersyn and Red Star aim at doing. Computerised systems and softwares are not simple technological tools to speed up or to replace human labour. They are important to amplify and make more efficient parallel thinking processes to develop solutions to complex problems. 

Eden Miller (2005) Politics, Ideology and Computation in Chile, 1964-1973, Unpublished PhD Thesis, MIT.

Sam Knafo’s piece ‘Political Marxism and Value Theory’, published in Historical Materialism, in 2007 has struck me the first time I read it. Sam takes seriously the ‘historical’ in the historical materialism and his work challenges economistic and formalist understandings of Marxism. I want to reflect on this piece today, on the basis of my own evolving thoughts, trying to depict insights and limits of his approach to value by using other readings – especially the path-breaking interventions by Jim Kincaid and Nicole Pepperell. Such cross-readings are quite important to bring together some research agendas, which evolve independent from each other.

Thanks to his ability to explain complex ideas with great clarity, Sam poses his problem as follows:

‘When products are compared on the market through a single quantitative scale (prices), then labour is considered in abstract and quantitative terms, in terms of labour time. But it is not clear why and how labour is equalised in its products… Capitalists never establish prices for their commodities directly according to labour time. Consumers do not judge the value of a product according to labour time they think is required for producing these commodities. Without any institution responsible for such valuation, what concrete mechanisms can value commodities according to labour time? (Knafo 2007, p. 82)’.

Here, Sam, the good historian, asks a pertinent question to the political economist. Interestingly enough, his concern resonates the post-Keynesian economist, Joan Robinson in her Economic Philosophy. Robinson argues that value is a relationship between people and there never will be a unit for measuring (p. 34). She argues that value is a metaphysical concept and like all metaphysical concepts, “when you try to pin down, it turns out to be just a word” (Robinson, 1962, p.29). She says: where shall we find it? (p.29) But interestingly, Marx himself asks the same question: “The objectivity of commodities as values differs from Dame Quickly in the sense that a man knows not where to have it.” (Capital, Volume 1). In his critique of Fine and Saad Filho, Jim Kincaid (2009) makes a similar argument:

‘but known to whom? Not to capitalists as agents – they operate at levels very far from the abstractions of Marxist logic and base their decisions on accountancies which compare costs of production with the flow of monetary returns and commodities are sold. So it must be known theoretically? But how can there be a theoretical knowledge of quantified value without the category of measuring value and therefore of money?’ 

Sam, then, criticises the Marxist political economists who argue that value is generated in the process of production. Marx himself would agree with this (even though some other things he says in Capital and those political economists refer to might appear to contradict this claim). He argues that value does not derive from the use-value of commodities. Then does it come from being the product of labour? But no, even the product of labour undergoes change in our hands. Marx says: “If we make abstraction from its use value, we make abstraction at the same time from material elements and shapes that make those products a use value we see it no longer as a table, house, yarn…. Neither can they be regarded as the product of the labour of joiner, mason, spinner.” Here Marx wants to say that labouring activities embodied in the products do not explain value in themselves. But the subjective valuations of producers themselves cannot determine value neither, because individuals have different preferences.

He continues:

Valuation is not a process by which we abstract socially from concrete labour some kind of quantitative value. In comparing prices, they unwittingly choose among norms of production and circulation, social norms, which are validated through market dynamics. But this imperative on the capitalist to produce more cheaply does not determine how it is met.

This is an important insight. Look at the word ‘unwittingly’. I think Sam grasps here a critical dimension of what Marx was set to mean and what Nicole has grasped with the concept of ‘unintentional’ in her own work. When we choose goods in the market, we unintentionally pick up which labouring activities’ value will be realised. As Kincaid (2009: 217) argues ‘in circulation there is a selection from the total value produced of what is to count and what is not count as realised value…. This delayed and retrospective assessment does effect the ontological status of value produced which remains provisional-virtual until the circulation and realisation processes are complete.’ Sam does reach the conclusion that examining value is to ‘problematise how social norms are sanctioned by commodity-exchange’ (emphasis is mine) (Knafo, 2007: 92-3). Again, what Sam says is very similar to what Nicole says when she talks about abstract labour acting as a coercive force and to what Jim says ‘What counts as socially necessary labour time has to be established as a norm, separately in each branch of production…Imperatives of law of value are implemented at a micro-level of capitalist agency, and help determine broader patterns of capital allocation, pressures to increase productivity’ (2009: 218, emphasis is mine). But Sam reminds, as Jim would agree, that law of value does not determine the specific strategies implemented by capitalists.

Sam is trying to show that the meaning of labour is not that labour is the source of value. Again, as the good historian, Sam asks why labour became such an important category in the 18th century political economy. ‘How can we understand for example why political economists started talking about the centrality of labour time at a time precisely when machines were becoming more important and made it more difficult to attribute value to its supposed true source?’ This is a paradox pointed also by Nicole in her own work. But their responses have a slight difference.

For Sam, it is qualitative differences in the labour process that surprised classical political economists. It is the newly found ability to systematically transform the labour process, which makes capitalism specific (p. 89). ‘The concept of value represented a conceptual solution for apprehending an increasingly complex reality by positing a common denominator that could level this diversity. Development of value theory was a means to abstract from important qualitative differences and to render commensurable the increasingly unequal development that accompanies capitalism.’

Abstracting complex qualitative differences and making commensurable unequal development in capitalism can be what political economists have done in order to come to terms with the reality of their own world. However, this alone does not explain everything what Marx himself tried to do. Sam is correct in arguing that ‘labour does not produce value in itself’. But he misses a strategic opportunity when he continues that labour ‘constitutes a central factor in determining the capacity of some capitalists to be more productive than others and what strategies they pursue. That is why valuation ultimately becomes intricately linked to the question of labour, because it is the struggle over production which becomes central determinant in the way capitalists fix prices.’ I say missing a strategic opportunity, because his analysis now treats labour solely in empirical and historical terms, as a way for the capitalist to make a difference in competition. Organisation of labour process, the ways in which labour is hired, controlled, supervised, fired…etc. are undoubtedly important components of capitalist production and I agree that such norms around labour process became more significant within capitalism.  But, then, why do we need a concept such as abstract labour at all? Just to solve a conceptual problem to grasp a complex reality?

Value, abstract labour and social labour are not simply conceptual tools to understand the new reality of capital. They are, to use Nicole’s vocabulary, emergent properties of our actions in capitalist society. They are real, enacted abstractions, which arise as a result of our actions. The process of valuation, the way in which capitalists fix prices….etc. do come together to produce value. We do act as if all labouring activities in the market can be equalised. 

Through the lenses of Political Marxism, Sam looks at the market imperative of competition as a structural condition; however in order to avoid structuralism, he offers to look at the way in which individuals relate to those structures. Thus, market imperative is not an abstract, formal thing, the unwitting choices of consumers put pressures on merchants and producers to reduce prices and re-organise labour. Elsewhere, he would also talk about how strategies of some capitalists would put pressure on other capitalists to imitate similar norms or invent new ones. But while trying to historicise categories of political economy and thus escaping from Scylla of determinism and economism, he risks falling into the Charybdis of historicism. 

Sam is right to criticise Marxist political economists who try to build a general economic theory of capital. His text grasps rightly the historically specific aspect of the categories used in Capital. He focuses on how some categories became significant with the rise of capitalism, but his analysis remains insufficient to grasp the practical genesis of those categories, as Nicole does in her work.

If the problem about labour were only its significance (in terms of production norms, class struggle..etc.) for the capitalist to survive in the market, then why would we really need a category such as abstract labour? Wouldn’t we only talk about labourers and capitalists, their actions and their unintended effects rather than referring to a category such as ‘Capital’? We need an analysis which goes beyond the dichotomy historical vs. abstract.

Sam’s work had started with the intriguing question of why classical political economists saw labour as source of value in a period characterised by technological revolutions; Nicole’s work problematises the even more intriguing question of why, despite centuries of technological advances, despite all new political economy which no longer sees labour as the main source of value, despite the fact that many skills and types of labour are made redundant, capitalism is still producing and reproducing new forms of labour, new types of sectors and new forms of skills.

To go back to the initial question of this post: Despite tensions, the texts I mention here are correctly diverging from the dominant Marxist political economy, because they reject correctly the fact that value is produced by someone or is somewhere. I wish they were wrong: Having a concrete target and a concrete locus of struggle would have made the job of socialists so much easier…

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