The promise and limitations of the politics of exposure

Once again the citizens of Turkey are invited to come to terms with a certain truth.

This time around, however, they are invited to face the truth in the presence of a global public. Yet, what matters is not so much the content of the truth, but rather its political meaning and weight; and the latter is a terrain of ideological and rhetorical struggle.

As columnist Etyen Mahçupyan (erstwhile advisor to ex-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu) once argued, Erdoğan’s supporters (vacillating between 35 to 51 percent of the electoral body) do not necessarily deny that there is an element of truth in the accusations. Some may indeed want to believe that these accusations are fabricated. But many probably would not contest the accusations even though they remain unconvinced that these deeds (mainly pertaining to corruption) warrant pulling their support from Erdoğan.

Among those who remain unconvinced, many may be so because they are worried that if Erdoğan loses power, they will be losing the pecuniary and symbolic privileges that they have gained since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.

Others may be so because they do not trust the bearers of the news; Gülen and his company in 2013, the United States and, to a certain extent, main opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu today.  

Let us begin with Gülen and his company. Even though on the surface they did enjoy the accolades of many mainstream public figures (from liberal intellectuals to AKP politicians), commentators today note that they were never much liked by other Islamic communities.

This was, in part, due to their elitist stance towards the rest of political Islam in Turkey: they used to refer to the students at Gülen schools as “the Golden Generation”. By branding themselves as the moderate (“Protestant”) Islamists who are well versed in the symbolic languages of the global public sphere and marketplace, they tried to distinguish themselves from other Islamists who they cast as fundamentalist, reactionary and parochial.  In doing so, they have introduced to the body politic of political Islam a certain modality of class difference, coded along the lines of mental vs. manual labour.

So, towards the end of 2013, when the prosecutors and police officers affiliated with Gülen made their move, Erdoğan’s Islamist supporters reacted defensively and coalesced around their leader. Even if they thought there was more than a grain of truth in the accusations, the fact that they were made by those who treated them with disdain was enough to discount them. Arguably, it was this class-hatred and class-resentment that limited the impact of the politics of exposure and saved the day for Erdoğan.

Today, the bearer of the bad news is the United States, the quintessential imperial power if there ever was one. And once more Erdoğan is as prepared as he can be for the next discursive-rhetorical battle on the political meaning of the truth. Since the beginning of the decade, there has been a gradual shift in Erdoğan’s political discourse from a neoliberal globalism in the 2000s, first to a regional sub-imperialism and then more recently, once this neo-Ottomanist adventure miserably failed, to an anti-imperialist nationalism.

These two consecutive shifts roughly correspond to the different phases of the civil war in Syria, but the overall drift is the product of a complex process the origins of which stretch back to the 2008 global credit crisis and it is a topic that deserves a more in-depth engagement elsewhere.

Regardless of its causes, Erdoğan’s current faux anti-imperialist rhetoric comes in handy. But does it have the intensity of the class resentment that Erdoğan’s core Islamist supporters had towards the Gülenists? In other words, is anti-Americanism in Turkey as strong a sentiment as anti-Gülenism?

Erdoğan seems to take the Islamists for granted and assume that, when push comes to shove, they will, for fear of losing their privileges, toe the line. In this regard, his anti-imperialist and anti-American rhetoric of independence and economic nationalism is intended to secure the votes of the nationalist right and, if possible, why not, the nationalist left.

There is no guarantee that these political calculations will help Erdoğan weather the coming storm. Most importantly, the international nature of the exposure and its economic and diplomatic consequences will compel everyone to revisit their own political and economic calculations with respect to Erdoğan.

Islamists will soon be reconsidering the costs and benefits of remaining with Erdoğan. Similarly, right-wing nationalists will ask themselves whether they should stay with Devlet Bahçeli’s outfit or go along with Meral Akşener’s new party. Or, the army and the bureaucracy, to the extent that they still have relative autonomy from Erdoğan’s rule, will need to ask whether it is worthwhile to continue with him as the avatar of the state.

At the end of the day, the biggest asset Erdoğan has is the absence of an opposition that has the rhetorical capacity and political wherewithal to offer a new language to the disenchanted and depressed masses to break from the grip of the culture wars, the securitisation of the Kurdish question, and the political economy of hostages.

The politics of exposure, even though it may change the pay-offs of the game and may increase the risks of failure for Erdoğan, is no substitute for the construction of a counter-populist front that will articulate a new, hegemonic language. And in the absence of such a constitutive (rather than reactive) political project, Erdoğan’s possible survival beyond this next round of politics of exposure, will further demoralise and deplete the political energy and enthusiasm of the oppositional forces.

This new counter-populist hegemonic language, if it is going to have any chance, must cut across the internal borders (between Kurd and Turk, Sunni and Alevi, secular and devout, rural and urban, etc.) that Erdoğan is so capable of manipulating for the benefit of his own political survival. Given the fact that the crisis that Turkey is sliding into is mainly an economic one, this new language must have concerns of class injustice at its centre and must propose a robust agenda for economic renewal that liberates the country from the double bind of the neoliberal financialisation (and its promise of further indebtedness) and the economic nationalist construction-infrastructure-energy-armament complex (and its promise of deepening the extractionist regime of accumulation).